STEAMFUNK FIGHTERS: Black Warriors in the Age of Steam!
In this installment of The League of Extraordinary Black People Series, we take an in-depth look at Steamfunk fighters – incomparable warriors, who fought for glory, freedom and honor upon blood-soaked battlefields and in sweat-stained rings.
While I have a ball sharing these extraordinary people with you, I have an affinity for this archetype, as I am a warrior myself, as is my Steamfunk persona – Ogunlana – a war chief of the Oyo Empire, who brought down an invading British dirigible with the sonic vibrations from his drum. Ogunlana wears the trappings of the invaders with his traditional clothing as a warning to all that anyone who invades Oyo will suffer the same fate.
So grab a cup o’ Joe, a glass of whiskey – or a coconut smoothie, for those health-conscious warriors – sit back and enjoy, as we open a can of Steamfunk whoop-ass.
“Black” Mary Fields, aka Stagecoach Mary (1832 – 1914)
She was six feet tall and weighed two-hundred pounds of muscle. “Black Mary”, as she was called, was tough, short-tempered, two-fisted and powerful and packed a pair of six-shooters and a ten-gauge shotgun that she would not hesitate to use.
Mary had a driving ambition, and loved to fight, drink whiskey and smoke homemade cigars on a regular basis.
Time and again, however, her rough-and-tumble antics were outshone by a heart of gold.
To escape slavery, Black Mary fled west, eventually making her way to Cascade County Montana as a free woman in 1884. In search of improved sustenance and adventure, she took a job with the Ursuline nuns at St. Peter’s Mission in the city of Cascade.
The nuns’ simple frontier facility was well-funded and the nuns had a thriving business converting “heathen savages”, and other “disgusting customers”, to the true path of salvation.
Mary was hired to do ‘heavy work’ and to haul freight and supplies to keep the nuns’ operation functional and well-fed. She chopped wood, did stone work and rough carpentry, dug certain necessary holes, washed laundry, managed the kitchen, and grew and maintained the garden and grounds and when reserves were low, she did one of her customary supply runs to the train stop, in Great Falls, or the city of Helena.
On one such night run, Mary’s wagon was attacked by wolves. The terrified horses bolted uncontrollably and overturned the wagon, thereby unceremoniously dumping Mary and all her supplies onto the dark prairie. Mary kept the wolves at bay for the entire night with her revolvers and rifle and, when dawn broke, got the freight delivered. Of course, the nuns docked Mary’s pay for the molasses that leaked from a keg which cracked on a rock in the overturn.
Since Mary did not pay particular attention to her fashion and otherwise failed to look and act the part of expected of a woman in the Victorian age, certain ruffian men would occasionally attempt to trample on her rights and hard won privileges. Woe to all of them.
Mary is reported by the newspaper, the Great Falls Examiner, to have broken more noses than any other person in central Montana.
Once, a hired hand at the mission, by the name of Yu Lum Duk, confronted Mary at a local saloon, where Black Mary was a regular customer, complaining that she earned two dollars a month more than he did – $9 vs. $7 – and demanded to know why she – a “colored woman” – thought that she was worth so much money anyway. He then followed that complaint up with a direct one to Filbus N.E. Berwanger, Bishop of the region, to no avail.
This infuriated Mary, who went looking for Yu Lum Duk to beat him to a pulp for the disrespect.
Fearing Black Mary’s size, strength and fighting skills, Duk drew his revolver and fired a volley of gunfire at her. Mary evaded the bullets, took cover and drew her twin revolvers.
Bullets flew in every direction until the trio of six-guns was empty, and Yu Lum Duk’s blood flowed profusely from a smoking hole in his left buttocks.
That was enough for Bishop Berwanger – he fired Mary…and gave the injured Yu Lum Duk a raise.
Out of work and needing money, Mary opened a restaurant in Cascade. Unfortunately, her cooking was horrible and the restaurant closed in short order.
In 1895, Mary landed a job carrying the United States Mail, becoming the second woman in history to have a U.S. postal route, delivering mail by stagecoach from the town of Cascade to the surrounding countryside.
Since she had always been so independent and determined, this work was perfect for her and she soon developed a reputation for delivering letters and parcels, no matter the weather, or how rugged the terrain.
Now known to all as ‘Stagecoach Mary’, she continued in this capacity until she reached well into her sixties.
Mary retired from the Postal service, but, still in need of an income at the age of seventy, she opened a laundry service, also in Cascade.
Mary didn’t do a lot of laundry, however, spending a considerable portion of her time in the local saloon, drinking whiskey and smoking her cheap cigars with the sundry assortment of men who were attracted to the place.
Mary remained a fighter in her old age. Once, a lout failed to pay his laundry bill; hearing him out in the street, she left the saloon and knocked the man flat with one blow. She was 72 years old at the time. After the man regained consciousness, she told him that the satisfaction she got from knocking him out was worth more than the bill he owed, so the score was settled.
In 1914, Mary died of liver failure. Neighbors buried her in the Hillside Cemetery in Cascade, marking the spot with a simple wooden cross which still exists today.
Manoel Henrique Pereira, aka Besouro Mangangá (1895 – 1924)
Manoel Henrique Pereira was born in 1895, in Bahia, Brazil, to João Matos Pereira, nicknamed Joao Grosso (Big John) and Maria Haifa. When Manoel Henrique was still a young boy, he began training in a combative system of Capoeira under the tutelage Of Tio Alípio, a formerly enslaved African. These lessons took place in Trapiche de Baixo, the poorest neighborhood of Santo Amaro.
Since the practice of capoeira was forbidden by Portuguese law, this training had to be done in secret. As time went by, Manoel Henrique grew, in his skills as a Capoeirista (a practitioner of Capoeira), and was soon given the nickname “Besouro Mangangá” Besouro means “beetle”; Manganga means “Devil’s Horse” – an aggressive wasp native to Brazil. He was so nicknamed because, when adversities were heavy in his life, or when the advantage of a fight was with his opponent, Besouro would simply disappear; “flying away” without a trace. So skilled was Besouro at this disappearing act, the belief that he had supernatural powers began to grow.
By train, by horse or on foot, depending on the circumstances, Besouro traveled from Santo Amaro to Maracangalha or vice versa, working on plantations, farms or mills.
As a young man in his late teens, Besouro traveled to Colonia Mill – now called Santa Elizia – in Santa Amaro, to look for work. He was authorized and became an employee there. One week later, on payday, the boss told all of the employees that no one was going to get paid. Those who dared to challenge the boss were tied to a trunk of a tree, whipped and left there for twenty-four hours. With Besouro, however, things were quite different. When the boss told Besouro he would not pay him, Besouro grabbed him by the shirt and violently forced the man to pay the money he owed.
Besouro was also notorious for getting involved in confrontations with brutal and unjust police officers. On more than one occasion, he used physical force to disarm policemen. Once armed with their guns, he would lock the policemen up in the jail cells meant for criminals.
Trouble with the police escalated until Capitan José Costa, the local police commander, assigned 10 men to catch Besouro dead or alive. While hanging out in a local bar one night, Besouro had a vision of the police coming for him. He left the bar and went to the main square. When the police arrived, he walked up to the Christian cross that was in the square, where he proceeded to spread his arms out as if he was crucified and shouted to the police that he would never surrender to them. The night air was torn asunder by the thunderous din of gunshots. A moment later, Besouro collapsed. Capitan Costa walked up to Besouro and probed him with his gun.
“Besouro is dead,” the commander bellowed.
Besouro, however, was very much alive and to the great surprise of everyone, snatched the Capitan’s rifle from his fingers. He then ordered all the police officers to put down their guns and leave the square. Besouro sang a cheerful song as the cops left the square unarmed.
Capitan Costa grew even more determined to see Besouro dead and one morning, Besouro found himself surrounded by a group of about 40 police officers. The cops shot at him with a hail of gunfire. The Capoeirista was unscathed, however, dodging the bullets by moving his body to the rhythm of the guns.
A man soon arrived, whom history remembers as Eusebio de Quisaba. This mysterious man charged Besouro and brutally stabbed him with a knife made of ticum, a type of hardwood significant to practitioners of the Afro-Brazilian spiritual tradition of Candomblé. Candomblé folklore says that this wood is the only way to kill a man whose body and spirit are “closed”, or impervious, to death. Besouro was believed to be just such a man, in possession of a “corpo fechado” – which literally means: “closed body” – a body that, through special rituals, has become impenetrable by knives or bullets.
A day later, Besouro Mangangá died of his wounds. The year was 1924.
Today Besouro is a symbol of heroism and of Capoeira throughout all of Brazil. His bravery and loyalty and the support he gave to the persecuted and oppressed has not been forgotten.
Joe Gans (1874 – 1910)
Rated as the greatest lightweight boxer of all time, the “Old Master” – as he was called by friends, fans and foes, alike – fought professionally from 1891 to 1909.
Gans was the first African-American World Boxing Champion, reigning continuously as World Lightweight Champion from 1902 to 1908.
Gans’ first fight, however, was against poverty; a formidable opponent indeed. Gans eventually prevailed and with his earnings from the fight dubbed the ‘Greatest Fight of the Century’ – a brutal, grueling 42-round fight that remains the longest title fight in history and the longest fight ever caught on film – he built the Goldfield Hotel in Baltimore. The Goldfield was home to the Goldfield Hotel Jazz Club, which was a precursor to the Cotton Club and the place where Gans gave musician Eubie Blake his first big opportunity.
Gans was a master of defensive fighting, as well as a devastating puncher. He attacked the vital points on his opponents’ bodies with pinpoint accuracy and threw perfect combinations with bewildering speed. He was a master of counter-punching, of the art of feinting, and the art of body-punching. He was a complete fighter, with great speed, power, punching ability and a killer instinct.
Gans had a remarkable ability to stop his opponent’s punches and he is considered, by many, as perhaps the best fighter ever at blocking and evading blows.
John L. Sullivan, former heavyweight champion of the world, said, in the St. Louis Post Dispatch, Sep. 2 1906, “I never liked a Negro as a fighting man…but Gans is the greatest lightweight the ring ever saw. He could lick them all on their best day. Gans is easily the fastest and cleverest man of his weight in the world. He can hit like a mule kicking with either hand.”
On December 8, 1903, Gans fought the great welterweight, Sam Langford, the most avoided fighter in boxing history.
The fight took place in Boston the day after Gans fought a no decision bout against Black welterweight Dave Holly in Philadelphia (Gans won the newspaper decision). This means that Gans had to travel by train up the eastern seaboard from Philly to Boston for a fight the very next day. Gans admitted that fighting two days in a row and making the trip had sapped his stamina. Nevertheless, he dominated Langford early in the fight before fading from lag in the later rounds and losing a close decision.
This fight is the only one Gans lost in a period of more than ten years. Considering it was his second fight within 24 hours in cities 300 miles apart and the quality of his opposition, Gans did very well indeed.
When Joe Gans got his shot at champion Frank Erne, on May 12, 1902, he wasted no time in gaining the title with a sensational first round knockout at 1:40 of the round.
After winning the lightweight title, Joe Gans successfully defended it 17 times.
The Joe Gans-Battling Nelson fight in Goldfield, Nev. on Sep. 3, 1906 rates as the greatest lightweight championship bout ever contested. For 42 hard-fought rounds – the longest gloved championship match recorded under The Marquis of Queensbury’s rules – the two lightweights engaged in a titanic struggle.
Joe Gans was forced to fight at unnaturally low weights for much of his career. Even though he was champion, he often had to succumb to the dictates of his white opponents. Gans had trouble making 133 pounds ringside several times. If he were fighting today he would be a natural 140-pound fighter, though since he would not have to make weight ringside, he could easily make the 135-pound limit. In the first Nelson fight he was forced to make 133 ringside in full gear, this combined with the dehydrating Nevada sun and the grueling 42 round fight may have contributed to Gans contracting tuberculosis – an infectious disease that attacks the lungs, causing difficulty in breathing, weakness, fatigue, chills, chest pain, and sometimes coughing blood – which was one of the leading causes of death in that day.
Gans was suffering the ravaging affects of tuberculosis when he lost the title, in a rematch, to Battling Nelson on July 4, 1908. The San Francisco Chronicle described Gans as “weakened and dull in the eyes” and said, “It was clear that it was a different Gans than the one who had fought at Goldfield.” Even more revealing was the report that “After the twelfth round Gans was suffering terribly. His skin turned a dull gray and he was shivering as though from ague (fever). It seemed as though his vitality had been stolen from him.”
Despite his devastating illness, the first five rounds were Gans’ by a wide margin. In the second round an uppercut staggered Nelson; and in the third, Gans drew blood. However, he was so weakened by the disease that was killing him that he began to fade. Despite being desperately sick, Gans fought on before succumbing, as he said “to exhaustion” in the 17th round.
Gans and Nelson fought again two months later. Gans made it 21 rounds this time – a feat of will and strength that defies logic and reason. He again dominated the early rounds with well-timed and accurate punches. For the first few rounds Gans looked like the master of old, using elusive ducking and sidestepping movements and cutting Nelson open with lightning quick jabs and devastating crosses. But eventually the Dane’s fierce body punching wore down Gans’ emaciated body.
In both fights, under modern 12-round rules, Gans would have gone the distance and probably even won.
Gans fought one more time against former British champion Jabez White. Even though his body was a mere shell of its former self, Gans still displayed some of his famous punching power and speed, dropping White several times and even knocking the Brit out twice in the match, but both times, the Bell saved him from a loss. The fight was officially named a no decision bout but Gans easily won the newspaper verdict.
The following year, Gans died in his mother’s arms. When he died, he only weighed 84 pounds.
Joe Gans is hailed by many fight experts as the greatest fighter of all time, regardless of weight and by the majority as the greatest lightweight in history.
These mighty warriors of the Age of Steam battled adversity, fought hardship and struggled against overwhelming odds to emerge as champions. These men and women of indomitable spirit are shining examples of The League of Extraordinary Black People!