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May 18, 2017

Early Fishers – The Johnson-Evans Prize Fight

Early Fishers – The Johnson-Evans Prize Fight

By: David Heighway, Hamilton County Historian

The rough nature of early Fishers sort of served a purpose in 19th century Hamilton County.  It was a place where things could happen to blow off steam.  If you couldn’t get away with something anywhere else in Hamilton County – go to Fishers.  A good illustration of this is the 1893 Johnson-Evans prize fight.  While boxing was considered a manly art, Indiana Governor Claude Matthews had made it a campaign issue to ban prize fights.  Indiana law said anyone involved in such a fight could be fined between $50 and $500, with possibility of six months in jail.  Despite this, the fights still went on.

The two fighters were middleweights touring the Midwest.  Charles Johnson (1871-1902) was from St. Paul, Minnesota, and had made his fight debut in 1889.  Wiley Evans (?-?) was an African American from California.  He had begun boxing in 1885, and was a Pacific Coast middleweight champion in 1886.

The two men had fought on September 18 in Indianapolis with Johnson beating Evans in nine rounds.  The follow-up Hamilton County match was scheduled for October 23.  It was to be a grudge match where fouls would not be called.  While they would use two-ounce gloves as they had before, Evans wanted to have a wooden floor instead of a dirt floor.  The newspaper accounts differ on the prize money – $500 or $250 and part of the gate receipts.  They also differ on the name of the referee, (probably on purpose).

The match had been arranged by the Indianapolis “sporting crowd” and was first planned to take place in Noblesville.  It was a secret, but the word got to an estimated 100 people who paid $5.00 each for a ticket.  A tent borrowed from a fairgrounds show was erected in Horseshoe Prairie south of town and a special train of two coaches and a baggage car carried the fighters and attendees to the site.  It stopped near the Stony Creek bridge around midnight, (the modern trestle can be seen from 10th street), and the crowd was ferried across the river.  However, waiting at the tent was Hamilton County Sheriff Philip Rhoades with Noblesville City Marshal Frank Barnett and 20 deputies.  The sheriff had been tipped off by a telegram and he made it clear that there was to be no fight.

The evening then turned farcical as the promoters looked elsewhere, particularly in Delaware Township.  They tried an old camp meeting ground, (the stage was too small), and a veterans’ hall, (declared inappropriate).  They asked to use several barns and were turned down.  One farmer jokingly asked if they were “white cappers” (frontier vigilantes) and said pointedly that there were definite criminal types around that needed to be straightened out.  It was about 4:00 on Tuesday morning when they found what they thought was an old warehouse about twenty feet from the Fishers railroad station.  (It was actually an Odd’s Fellows lodge hall.)  The promoters roped off a ring, set up some gas burners for light, and started the fight at 5:00 AM.

It went for seven brutal rounds, and both fighters became bloody.  Evans knocked Johnson to the floor a couple of times, but in the seventh round, Johnson knocked out Evans.  This was all eagerly reported by the Indianapolis News, and later picked up by the Chicago Tribune.  The Noblesville papers said that they would prefer not have this illegal activity in our county and pointed out that reporters were among those that the law said could be fined. Governor Matthews issued a statement that he would stop all future prize fights in the state, even if that meant banning athletic clubs.  This statement was picked up by the New York Times.  Fishers was once again in the national news.

The Noblesville papers reported that no one could be found in town who admitted to being at the fight.  This may have been true since it was organized by people from Indianapolis.  Of course, someone must have suggested Horseshoe Prairie and the Fishers area as places to hold the event.  If there was any local involvement, they were smart to keep it hidden.  In March of 1894, a Hamilton County grand jury returned indictments against the two fighters.  This was evidently never followed up as they continued their boxing careers outside of the state.