Copyright © EJMAS 2005. All rights reserved.
In September 1903, the Canadian athlete Osborne Taylor died as the result of injuries received during a wrestling match in Hamilton, Ontario. Was the match a prearranged contest for a side bet, or was it merely training session gone terribly wrong?
Over a century later, the truth of the matter, like many things in wrestling, remains a mystery.
On the evening of Monday, September 7, 1903, Osborne Taylor, a black Canadian athlete with experience as a boxer and wrestler, arrived at Hamilton, Ontario's Belmont Hotel for a private match with a lanky newcomer to the city.
Taylor's opponent had arrived in Hamilton three months earlier from the United States. Since then, he had been working as a toolmaker for the Westinghouse Air Brake Manufacturing Company. During the evenings, the newcomer would commonly work out in the gym located inside the Belmont Hotel, under the keen eye of its proprietor, William Condon.
Little did Taylor know that the lanky American toolmaker he was going to meet that night was no raw recruit to the wrestling game. Instead, the opponent he knew as Harry Mays was none other than Charles Olson, a man who would come to be considered the most dangerous wrestler on North American soil. For Taylor, stepping on the mat that September night was a mistake that would cost him his life.
Shortly after 8 o'clock in the evening, both Mays and Taylor shook hands for what was subsequently described by witnesses as a "friendly" bout. To the small crowd of perhaps a dozen onlookers, the contest probably appeared to be a physical mismatch: Taylor was a full 30 pounds heavier than Mays and far more muscular.
During the initial minutes of the match, both appeared to be fairly evenly matched. Following a short break, the two men stepped onto the mat for a second go. This time, Mays controlled the match, and he began to work for the pin. Applying a hammerlock and crotch hold combination, Mays proceeded to stand Taylor on his head. After a moment of intense struggle, a "click" was heard. Taylor yelled that Mays was hurting him and demanded to be let go. Mays immediately complied, whereupon Taylor slumped to the mat.
Although released, Taylor did not move, and after a few moments of immobility, a number of the spectators began to make fun of Taylor, accusing him of faking injury. None present immediately realised the gravity of the situation. Then, Taylor, still unmoving, called out to the observers, "Haven't I a friend in the house?"
Seeing that the man was indeed in a desperate state, several men came to his aid. Taylor was hurried to a bed in the hotel, while wrestler Charles Conkle tried to rub him down and restore some feeling to his limbs.
At 9 o'clock, a doctor was called. Arriving on the scene shortly thereafter, Doctor McNichol performed a cursory examination of Taylor and concluded that he was paralysed from the neck down, likely the result of a fractured vertebra. The wrestler was spirited away to the hospital.
The next morning an X-ray was taken that showed that the sixth vertebrae had indeed been fractured, and the spinal cord crushed. The only hope to save Taylor from certain death was emergency surgery. Late that night, little more than 24 hours after the incident, Taylor was removed to the operating theatre. The surgery was of no use, and Taylor died of his injuries at midnight.
On the morning of the 9th, a warrant was made out for the arrest of Mays. Before it could be served, Mays turned himself in to the police. From the outset, Mays emphatically denied any wrongdoing. In very matter-of-fact terms, he claimed that the incident was an unfortunate accident.
A jury consisting of 15 individuals was quickly called together, and the jurists were immediately taken to the hospital for the purpose of examining Taylor's remains.
The inquest date was set for the Friday, September 11th. In the meantime, it was decided that Mays was to be held without bail, pending completion of the coroner's investigation. The charge was aggravated assault.
On the day of the trial, the courtroom at No. 3 Police Station was packed with spectators. Over 100 boys and men crowded into the courtroom to witness the proceedings. Many had to stand, while others were forced to sit in the prisoner's pen just to get a glimpse of what had become a front-page story in the Canadian steel capital. Approximately fifteen witnesses were called, including two doctors, several wrestlers, and the hotel owner, William Condon.
Condon was the first to appear on the stand. Under examination from Crown Attorney John Crerar, Condon reiterated the view that Mays was espousing; a view that had generally been accepted by the press as well: the death of Taylor had been a freak accident. As far as he knew, no money had been bet on the outcome, and the match had not been pre-arranged. Further, he stated that there was no referee and that Mays had not directly slammed Taylor on his head when applying the hammerlock and crotch hold. Condon, himself a practitioner of the wrestling game, stated that the holds used were common ones, and that he had no knowledge of any similar events occurring.
Both Crown Attorney Crerar and Taylor's representative J. W. Nesbitt professed no knowledge of the wrestling game, and were frequently at a loss with the terminology being used by the witnesses. To oblige them, Charles Conkle and Butch Saur gave a brief exhibition in front of the jury. Later, former heavyweight champion Dan McLeod took the stand as an expert witness. He testified that, unless Mays was far stronger than Taylor, the holds in question should not have resulted in a broken neck. Nesbitt objected to the admissibility of McLeod's testimony on the grounds that he wasn't present at the match, but the Crown allowed the wrestler's comments.
Following testimony from physicians McNichol and Cummings and several other witnesses, Mays took the stand. Taylor's representative J. W. Nesbitt attacked the wrestler severely, stating that he forced Taylor to the mat. When he concluded his cross-examination with "You killed him," Crown Attorney Crerar, as well as many in the jury, raised open protest. "That remark is unfair," decried Crerar, "Mr. Coroner, if I were coroner here I wouldn't allow remarks like that. Mays is a foreigner, and this is not a criminal court. As a foreigner, I feel it is my duty to protect him." Crerar's remarks were met with voluminous applause.
The case was carried over until Monday, September 15, when the deathbed statements of Taylor would be entered as evidence. Seeing no reason to hold him, Mays was released on his own recognisance.
Following Mays' release, a strange wrinkle in the case was revealed. That same day, a separate case was being heard concerning one Edward Malcomson, who was accused of pulling a betting ruse against local farmer R. A. Tunis. Tunis claimed that two men entered a local hotel and began playing around with a folding knife. They then claimed that nobody present could open the knife, to which Tunis responded with a $5 wager. One of the men held the knife, while another took the bet. Shortly thereafter, both men disappeared, taking with them the farmer's share of the stake. Although Tunis could not positively affirm that Malcomson was one of the con men, he was certain that Mays, whom he had seen being held in the lock-up earlier that day, was the other. Being that Mays had already been released, the case was remanded until Monday as well.
On Monday, September 14, a day after the deceased wrestler's funeral and burial, court was re-convened. After statements by witness Charles Conkle, Osborne Taylor's mother took the stand. Arriving at the hospital at 11:30 PM on the night of the incident, Mrs. Taylor made her way to her son's bedside to console him. Mrs. Taylor testified that Osborne had said to her, "Never mind, mother: it was a cruel put-up job." The dying man told her that while the match was not planned, the spectators had berated him into taking to the mat. With John Hudson as witness, Mrs. Taylor next asked her son, "Are you sure there was foul play, Osborne?" to which he replied, "Sure, mother."
After 10 minutes deliberation, the jury delivered the following verdict:
"That the deceased came to his death as the result of an injury in a wrestling bout with one Harry Mays: and that no blame can be attached to the said Harry Mays for the accident."
Mays was exonerated of all blame. Shortly thereafter, the case of the knife con was heard. While Tunis swore that Mays was one of the two culprits, the wrestler denied the charges, claiming to be at a ball game when the event occurred. Again, charges were dismissed.
While Mays was acquitted of any wrongdoing by the Hamilton court, mysteries remain. Were Mrs. Taylor's claims of a put-up job merely the frustrated words of a mother who wanted to see somebody pay for her son's death, or was there more to it?
The Hamilton Evening Times reported on September 9 that, after his fateful match, a witness had heard Taylor said to Mays, "Well, you have got me here and did it, eh?" The Evening Times also reported that Charles Page, a friend of Taylor, had earlier gotten into a heated argument with Mays at a hotel on York Street. Page had told Mays that he had a friend, meaning Taylor, who would wrestle him for a side bet of $50. It was this argument that led to the deadly encounter at the Belmont Hotel.
During the entire proceedings, there was also considerable frustration being voiced within the local black community that Taylor wasn't given a fair chance during the match. When police Constable Hay went to Taylor's parent's home for information, he was met with a tirade of insults from his father, directed at the coroner, doctors, and investigators. That the jury only took ten minutes to deliberate on the case may also hint at the possibility of racism.
Before the trial, it was reported to the papers that the match between Mays and Taylor was a fairly tame affair. However, during the trial, witness John Hudson reported that Taylor had described the match as a fierce affair and that "A dog would not have been treated like he was."
Eight years later, after killing a second man in the ring (EN1), Mays, by then wrestling under the name Charles Olson, recalled the incident with Taylor in the Seattle Daily Times:
"Five years ago, I tackled a big negro up in Montreal. He was twenty-five pounds heavier than me and was about the most brutal grappler I ever met. He didn't know much about the game, but his strength was something terrible and he resorted to the most brutal tricks to punish me. Finally I got a good grip on him and tossed him off the stage. That ended his wrestling career and there was a job for the undertaker."
While the recollection of specific details is inaccurate, the underlying tone of the statement is clear: Years later, he felt little remorse for the death of Osborne Taylor, accidental or not.
So, was the match between Taylor and Mays a set up? Was it a prearranged contest for a side bet, or was it merely training session gone terribly wrong? Over a century later, the truth of the matter, like many things in wrestling, remains a mystery.
EN1. This match took place in Amarillo, Texas, on January 28, 1911. The deceased was Joe McCray, of Longmont, California. During this match, Olson was also wrestling under the pseudonym Harry Mays.
Research in the Hamilton Evening Times and Hamilton Spectator by Charles Nathan Hatton. Research in the Seattle Daily Times by Mark S. Hewitt.For photographs of Charles Olson ca. 1906, see http://lcweb2.loc.gov/ammem/ndlpcoop/ichihtml/cdnhome.html. The keyword is "wrestler Olson."