Everyone who knew Frank Slavin--the heavy-weight boxing champion of Australia, and who fought some desperate battles for the world title, notably against Peter Jackson--either personally or by repute may be interested to hear of some of his experiences during the early days of the Klondike Gold Rush.
As a youth I had always taken a very keen interest in boxing, but I certainly never expected to meet one of the Old Guard, such as Frank Slavin, in an Arctic wilderness. In his prime Slavin must have been a splendid specimen of a man and a great fighter. What stamina they had in his day when contests lasted for hours!
I came across him in a saloon bar in Dawson City in '98. He was dressed in the ordinary rough mining- clothes, overalls, shirt and slouch hat. He was still a splendidly made man--tall, back as straight as an arrow, long loose arms and legs, broad across the shoulders, neck straight and head well balanced, agile-looking in every way.
What arrested my attention most of all were his small half-closed eyes, as if he were for ever trying to prevent flies or dust from getting into them. He had always a pleasant smile, and was a great favourite among his many friends.
Frank, in partnership with the late Lieutenant-Colonel Boyle (Canadian Forces), who during the Great War became more or less of a romantic figure owing to his close friendship with the Roumanian Royal Family and his work in connection with the dismantling of the Roumanian Oil Wells, had been prospecting all over the Klondike goldfields. They had staked out valuable areas for dredging and hydraulic mining. These concessions at a later date became enormously valuable, but poor Frank made little or nothing out of them, and in '98 found himself very hard up.
One night about this time Frank was drinking in the Monte Carlo saloon with a lot of miners, and got fairly well "oiled"-- an unusual experience for him. How or why, or what the argument was about, no one seemed to know, but suddenly a few rough words were heard and the next moment a big, burly-looking chap was hammering Frank all round the saloon, finally knocking him down. This seemed to sober him, but he made no attempt to retaliate.
"My man," was all he said, "you can knock me about in a saloon when I'm drunk, but I'll show you what I can do to you in a ring when I'm sober."
There and then two or three spectators, well-known men in Dawson, arranged for a fight to take place between Frank and his assailant.
Up to this time, Frank had never engaged in any match in the Yukon, and probably 90 per cent of the miners were unaware of his identity. Anyway, the news spread like wild-fire all over the Klondike that Frank Slavin, the famous heavy-weight, was in Dawson and he would fight a man named Archie Hoffman who styled himself heavy-weight champion of the Pacific Coast, the contest to take place on the stage in the Monte Carlo saloon on December 15th, at 8 p.m., price of admission $15 and $25.
The great day arrived. Men collected in the various drinking-places; some had come a long journey from outlying creeks several days before the fight in order to make a real spree of the event.
There was much discussion as to the outcome. Many said Frank was too old and would get badly beaten; that his opponent had fought and defeated so and so, and that the show would be a farce.
About 7.15 the Monte Carlo saloon commenced to fill with all sorts and descriptions of men, in all sorts and descriptions of clothes-- furs, mackinaws, moccasins, fur caps, etc., men unshaven and unwashed, with long beards and long hair. The stage was quite small and just accommodated a 12-foot ring. There was barely room for the seconds at each corner as the rope almost touched the wings of the stage.
The theatre was-- well, looking back it is difficult to think it was all true-- just a cheap wooden building, big plate-glass windows in front, with the name of the saloon painted across each window at each side of the front entrance. Immediately on entering to the left was the long bar. Behind this could be seen the usual collection of long mirrors decorated with tinsel or coloured paper and reflecting rows of bottles and glasses. On the bar were the scales for weighing the gold dust, in payment of drinks and cigars. Men always acted as bar-tenders and attired themselves in immaculate white linen aprons, white waistcoats, white shirts and cuffs, usually with a large diamond tiepin and diamond ring.
Passing through the bar one entered a small room which was devoted entirely to gambling; roulette, poker, faro, poker-dice, keno, etc. Most of the games were crooked.
Beyond this, one entered the tawdry theatre. The seats on the ground floor or stalls consisted of movable forms which could be readily pushed out of the way, leaving space for dancing, which took place every night after the usual vaudeville show was over. Above was a narrow balcony with three rows of seats. At the end of this, on each side of the stage, were six boxes. Here the Klondike Kings would sit with the dancing-girls and expose champagne bottles to every one's view. It required a Klondike King to buy champagne in those days. Each quart cost about £12. When the "Kings" became incapable, empty champagne bottles were often filled with soda-water and sugar-- and resold to them at £12 again !
The place was packed that night. At eight o'clock Hoffman stepped through the ropes amid much applause and took his seat in a corner of the ring, where his seconds bandaged his hands. He was a well set-up man about 5 feet 10 inches in height and weighed twelve or thirteen stone. At 8.5 Slavin was still missing and the audience became impatient, stamping, clapping, whistling, etc.
After this had died down, Slavin jumped briskly through the ropes. He was wearing a pair of white flannel trousers and a long white sweater with rolled-up collar, in contrast to which his opponent was in shorts and bare to the waist. They were then both introduced to the crowd in the usual way, after which the gloves were adjusted.
To my astonishment I saw Slavin's gloves being put on over his sweater and there he stood, the old war horse, with long white trousers, heavy white sweater, waiting to lick, or be licked by, the man who had handled him so roughly in the saloon bar.
Finally came the signal: Time-- first round. The "Pacific Coast Champion" walked slowly towards the centre of the ring with his arms low and his gloves about on a level with the pit of his stomach. Slavin came out with his big stride, held up his left hand and moved it backwards and forwards, his right in the "ready" position. For the fraction of a second he stepped around his opponent, trying to size up the situation, and then-- Bang! A terrific right swing to the jaw. The "Pacific Coast Champion" dropped like a log and was carried out of the ring! He had made no effort whatever to strike a single blow, and had the appearance of being paralysed with fear, and muscle-bound. Slavin received £200 for this exhibition-- and the next morning sent a draft to his wife in Victoria for £100.
Shortly after this, Slavin was matched against a young Australian from Gippsland, named Perkins. If anything, Perkins was a better proportioned man and heavier than Slavin, and twenty-five years of age. For fourteen rounds Perkins most courageously battled with Slavin, during which time he received terrific punishment, including a broken rib. At the end of the fourteenth round his seconds threw up the sponge. Poor Perkins was so badly hurt internally that he never really recovered and died about eighteen months afterwards.
Yukon Yesterdays. Thirty years of adventure in the Klondike
by Nevill A. D. Armstrong.
John Long, Ltd., London, England, 1936.