The 1920s were a heady time for the United States. The economic windfall of booming industry seemed to have made every corner of the country flush, the radio carried popular entertainment into every home, and professional athletics were becoming the pastime of rich and poor alike. It was a time when anyone with a bit of pluck, perseverance, and lots of spare cash could make the extraordinary happen in the most unlikely of places.

Nowhere was that more evident than in the town of Shelby, Montana, a sleepy railroad junction and herding station just 40 miles south of the Canadian border. A newly rich town with a wide-open future and a blossoming population, Shelby was home to one James “Body” Johnson Jr., an ambitious, if whimsical, local real estate operator and son of Mayor Jim Johnson Sr. The junior Johnson had visions of Shelby as a destination for out-of-state tourists, cross-border travelers from Alberta, and oil-rich locals alike. The way he saw it, Shelby had the oil, the railroad, and the money needed to transform the town into the glittering gem on the northern plains. All he needed was a way to make the world take notice⁠—and for a moment, the world did.

A view of Shelby, Montana ca. 1920
A view of Shelby, Montana ca. 1920

Crouched along the Great Northern Railroad’s Hi-Line leg between Minnesota and Washington, Shelby had only popped up in the late 1890s as a meeting place for cowboys and shepherds. Prized out of what had been the Blackfeet Nation, the spot was where two major railways crossed paths: the Great Northern Railroad; and the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad. As herdsmen and railroad employees continued to meet at the crossing, a few enterprising settlers built a hotel, a saloon, and various other small businesses to capture the trickle of potential trade.

Montana had already established a pattern of boom and bust punctuated by drought, dust storms, and sudden exoduses of settlers to more stable territory. Even at the height of the Roaring ’20s, thousands of farmers went into insolvency, making Montana’s bankruptcy rates the highest in the nation. Half of the state’s banks failed between 1920 and 1926, all before the appearance of the faintest hint of the Great Depression.

But Shelby’s fortunes seemed to suddenly blossom when, in March 1922, a local oil wildcatter struck the first gusher of the mighty Kevin Sunburst oil field. Beneath the little frontier town lurked millions upon millions of gallons of the finest sweet crude, needing practically no refinement to be made ready for sale. Shelby had struck it rich, and oil prospectors descended upon the town in droves. Johnson began to picture his dusty little town as the “Tulsa of the West.” For a man of large ambition in a little town, it was only natural to dream. Besides, Johnson’s real estate business had tapered off after the initial excitement of the oil boom.

One morning in February 1923, Johnson saw his answer on the front page of the Great Falls Tribune. The lead story described how a group of Montreal notables had been in negotiation with renowned boxing promoter Tex Rickard to stage a fight between Jack Dempsey, the white world heavyweight boxing champion, and the African-American Harry “Black Panther” Wills. Organizers offered the princely sum of $100,000 (worth about $1,515,000 in 2020) as a prize.

Unfortunately for Rickard, the match had fallen apart at the eleventh hour. Behind the scenes, the British government worried that allowing the mostly-Irish Dempsey to fight the Black boxer Wills would stir up trouble in its colonial territories. Fearing a victorious Wills would “ignite Negro uprisings from South Africa to the West Indies,” the order came down to bring the whole thing to a halt.

To Johnson’s eyes, this left Dempsey up for grabs. “If these fellows can make the headlines,” he reasoned, “so should we.” Shelby even had minor boxing bona fides, having staged a fight a year prior that had drawn a crowd of several hundred. All Johnson had to do was make the news. The publicity alone would be enough to juice his dwindling business again. Gathering together a gang of trusted cowboy-booted swells, he hatched an outlandish plan to offer $200,000 to lure Dempsey, and the world on his coattails, to a boxing extravaganza in the frontier outpost of Shelby.

However out of their depth they may have been in the city-building game, Johnson and his cohorts got it right in their choice of sport to turn the world’s eyes onto their town. It’s difficult to overstate just how huge boxing was in the 1920s. The popularity of boxing had peaked through a combination of clever marketing, thrilling radio presentation, widespread betting, and the standardization of the sport through various international bodies. Superstars like Billy Miske, Senegalese war hero Louis “Battling Siki” Mbarick Fal, and rapid-fire heavyweight Georges Carpentier thrilled audiences across the globe during brutal yet studied matches in the biggest venues of the day. But above them all towered Jack Dempsey, the Manassa Mauler⁠—or more simply, the Champ.

Dempsey and Kearns
Dempsey and Kearns

Hailing from the little Colorado mining town of Manassa, Dempsey had appeared out of nowhere in the autumn of 1914, in the gold mining burg of Cripple Creek, Colorado. His elder brother Bernie, who’d built up a minor career for himself also as “Jack Dempsey,” wanted to back out of a fight with seasoned bruiser George Copelin, a boxer tough enough to have sparred with a heavyweight champion. The younger Dempsey, until then known in backroom bars and tent cities as “Kid Blackie,” adopted his brother’s pseudonym, knocked Copelin down in the seventh round, and soon embarked on a wildly successful tour of the West coast.

On 4 July 1919, Dempsey met heavyweight champion Jess Willard in the ring at Toledo, Ohio. In a short but vicious fight, Dempsey hammered the mountainous Willard, with Dempsey called as the winner when Willard refused to re-enter the ring for round four. Jack Dempsey had won the heavyweight boxing champion title exactly four years before he would appear in Shelby, and the world was at his feet.

Dempsey, the self-made frontier boxer who once crossed a desert to fight for a $20 purse, was the perfect champion of a booming sport in an age when big figures held captive the popular imagination. Dempsey was the natural counterpart to the bootleggers, radio superstars, and smooth-talking politicians of the day.

The most important draw to professional boxing, however, wasn’t entertainment or glamor. It was money, in almost unheard-of amounts. In 1921, Dempsey faced off with Georges Carpentier in Jersey City to defend the heavyweight title. Carpentier was a media darling, having earned the French military decorations the Croix de Guerre and Médaille Militaire in World War I as a pilot. Dempsey, meanwhile, had just emerged with a ‘not guilty’ verdict in a trial for draft evasion. He would face accusations of draft dodging for the rest of his life.

This heady brew drew record numbers to the Jersey City fight, resulting in record-setting ticket sales of nearly $2 million, more than double any other previous match. Whereas previously the prize money in boxing was made up solely of a purse to which both boxers contributed, boxing agents now began to see the potential to sell the entertainment value of the match, punctuated by the colorful personalities of the boxers themselves, as the key to real money.

Behind these big-dollar matches were the promoters. Part manager, part PR agent, part con artist, promoters occupied a shadowy world out of the spotlights in which palms were greased, problems disappeared, and the hunt was always on for the next big fight.

The two most important promoters in Dempsey’s career were his manager Doc Kearns and boxing promoter Tex Rickard, each of whom was a unique combination of brilliant businessman and shifty backroom dealer, and each of whom hated the other virulently. These two had arranged the fight with Carpentier, and Rickard hoped to replicate that success with a match in Montreal between Dempsey and Harry Wills. It would be a boxing extravaganza, both a display of athleticism as well as a gimmick⁠—it would have been the first high-profile public match between a white boxer and a Black boxer in modern history. But not only did the racial politics prevent the possibility of a Black champion, Rickard’s own alleged appetites got in the way. In 1922, he was put on trial for drugging and sexually assaulting several young girls in New York. Although he was eventually acquitted, his name was tainted, ruining his reputation, his most precious resource.

Kearns was hardly any better. An accomplished hustler from Seattle, he’d bounced from job to job in his 40-odd years, running the gamut from welterweight boxer to faro dealer. Once called a “wily trickster” with a face of “roguish rascality” by the editors of Sports Illustrated, he had Dempsey in his pocket from the moment they met in San Francisco in 1917. He stopped at nothing to boost his fighter’s image, including booking rooms at expensive hotels they couldn’t afford in order to present an illusion of prosperity, to misrepresenting Dempsey’s trace of Jewish ancestry as being “mostly Jewish” to an audience of Yiddish-speaking Manhattanites. Neither would he allow anything to prevent him filling his own pockets: throughout much of their association, Kearns regularly pocketed half of Dempsey’s fight purses, plus expenses. Doc Kearns was constantly looking out for Jack Dempsey⁠—almost as much as he was looking out for Doc Kearns.

By 1923, Rickard was out, Dempsey hadn’t had a fight in two years, and Kearns was itching for a chance to earn serious money while rubbing it in his old rival’s face. It didn’t help matters that he wanted to charge as much as $60 per ticket (equal to about $900 in 2020 dollars), a move publicly attacked by the New York state boxing commissioner, who wanted prices capped at $2 in order to make them affordable to working New Yorkers. As manager of the Champ, Kearns was sitting on a guaranteed earner, but he had no way to make it pay. That’s when he got a call from Loy J. Molumby.

Tommy Gibbons
Tommy Gibbons

The oddly-named Molumby was the statewide commander of the Montana branch of the American Legion, an ex-fighter pilot on the Western Front, and a lawyer who represented the interests of one James “Body” Johnson, et al. He wanted to bring the Champ to his dusty western railroad town to fight Tommy Gibbons, a rangy, dependable light heavyweight six years older than Dempsey. Kearns, sensing a soft target in the earnest Western lawyer, agreed so long as Molumby brought the money to prove he was serious.

The two men met up in the Hotel Claridge in Manhattan, where it was soon clear that Molumby was out of his depth. Molumby’s first mistake was to agree to pay an extra $100,000 on top of the $200,000 that the town of Shelby already couldn’t afford. Then he agreed to pay the titanic fee in three installments of $100,000. The first was in a satchel at Molumby’s feet. The second was to be paid 60 days before the fight, and the third in the week preceding the event. If, Kearns stipulated, the citizens of Shelby were to miss either the second or third payments, he and Dempsey would keep whatever had been paid so far and they would be free to walk away from their commitment to appear in the ring. Unaccustomed to the seediness and grift endemic to boxing at the time, and eager to return to Shelby with good news, Molumby agreed to these jaw-droppingly unreasonable terms.

But no matter. Loy Molumby bounded home on the first train he could find, and Kearns had a plum of a situation on his hands. Jack Dempsey was going west.

In many ways, the fighters chosen for the match couldn’t have been more apt. Dempsey was a true son of the West, the handsome, self-made man who had scrapped and mauled his way through mining camp saloons to Paris and the very pinnacle of celebrity. Gibbons was the clean-cut, hopeful dark horse who had a Rocky-like shot at the title. Their meeting in a Western boomtown flush with oil was an American melodrama writ large.

Back in Shelby, Johnson was suddenly aware of how far in over his head he was. His gamble had paid off, but how would they scrape together the gargantuan fee for Dempsey? Where would they get Gibbons’ fee of $150,000? Who would manage the construction of the proposed 40,000-seat stadium from the bottom up when there were plenty of empty lots to hold it, but not a penny to fund it?

A ticket to the fight
A ticket to the fight

Rather than despair, Johnson’s gang decided to bluff their way through, arranging lines of credit through the town’s three banks: the First State Bank of Shelby; the Stanton Trust & Savings Bank; and the First State Bank of Joplin. Lumber was bought with promissory notes to the tune of $82,000, agents launched a haphazard promotional campaign on the East and West coasts, and hundreds of locals began to swirl around the town in the excitement of the run-up. To accommodate the expected 40,000 attendees, makeshift hotels were hastily thrown up by enterprising locals sure of a healthy profit. The match was scheduled for 4 July 1923, in the hopes of capitalizing on patriotic fervor and the promise of a fight to remember. This was to be a boxing match for the ages.

Doc Kearns was now in his element, with hayseeds to bribe and bully, facts to twist, and fantastic amounts of cash to be squeezed out of his new patsies. He arrived with Dempsey in tow in May 1923 to a vitriolic welcome from Shelby’s American Legion men, liquored up on bootleg hooch, who shouted the same old accusations of draft-dodging at the Champ. After dusting off the veterans, Dempsey took a tour of the town flanked by what Kearns called his “Chicago hard guys” for protection. The one-time Kid Blackie found Shelby uncomfortably similar to the sooty, smutty mining towns of his youth, taking an instant, intense dislike to the place. Of the town’s prospecting citizens, he said that there were “a few honest slobs, but mostly oil-stock hustlers. I was a working guy. I couldn’t stand those bastards.”

The feeling was mutual. Shelbyites decided that they were far more sympathetic to the well-mannered Tommy Gibbons, who had quietly arrived on the Great Northern with his wife and children and took up residence in town. He walked his baby daughter through the town’s dirt main street, chatting easily with the locals and modestly avoiding any of the colorful boasting characteristic of Dempsey. His ambition wasn’t to win, but to “go the distance”⁠—that is, to last a full 15 rounds with the heavyweight title-holder. He might not have been the most thrilling people’s champion, they thought, but he sure was nice, and they’d be pleased to pull for him over that bum Dempsey.

Dempsey, unlike Gibbons, took the first chance to get the hell out of Shelby, and stayed out. He rented a house outside of the comparatively cosmopolitan city of Great Falls, nearly 100 miles to the south. There, he knocked off the rust of two idle years with a selection of sparring partners.

While the boxers trained and alternately charmed or alienated the citizens of Shelby, the cantankerous Kearns began threatening to pull out of the event over minor points of contention. Meanwhile, the personal side of his scheme was falling apart: he had hoped to make his old rival Tex Rickard jealous, however Rickard was far from it. He was sure that the Shelby fight would be a colossal flop. Instead of wasting his time in envy, he was sweet-talking Luis Ángel Firpo, an Argentine bulldozer of a boxer, into a match later that year to give the Champ a run for his money.

Aerial view of the arena
Aerial view of the arena

In New York’s bars and sports newsrooms, Rickard was also spreading rumors that the Shelby debacle was a sham from the start. It wasn’t unheard of in those days for a promoter to arrange a match, sell tickets, and clear out before any fight ever took place. This was exactly the story that Rickard started spreading about Kearns’ efforts. After all, who would honestly stage a title fight in some dumpy backwater in a state that was only 30 years old?

The rumors began to stick, which was bad for Kearns in more ways than one: free from New York’s populist price controls, Kearns was set to make a fortune on hair-raisingly expensive tickets, with ringside seats costing as much as $50 ($758 in 2020 dollars). Johnson would have been happy just to break even, but the way things looked, they were more likely to break apart.

These tickets had to be pre-sold to make the fight financially sound, so Johnson and Molumby set to work printing up thousands of tickets and distributing them to ticket brokers in every surrounding state. What they didn’t know was that unless they took an earnest payment from these brokers to ensure that the tickets actually got sold, there was much more incentive to simply sit on the tickets⁠—which they’d received for free⁠—and allow them to appreciate in value as the day of the fight drew near. This low, but perfectly legal, practice only strengthened the rumors that the Shelby fight was a con, and sportswriters all over the country began to print the whispers loudly in their columns.

With their wispy filaments of credit and their all-but-gone tickets, it was hardly surprising that Johnson’s men came up short on their second installment of Dempsey’s fee by a staggering $98,200. Shelby was in danger of losing everything in a matter of hours. Adding to the pressure were Kearns’ persistent threats to cancel the event altogether. Mayor Jim Johnson, desperate to stop the town’s treasure from slipping away, offered 50,000 sheep in lieu of cash. An icy Kearns wouldn’t budge: “What the hell would I do with fifty thousand sheep in a New York apartment?”

Shelby’s neighbors must have loved them, or at least had some idea of the grade of desperation they’d be left in if Kearns hauled Dempsey out of town, because that very night, a statewide fundraising effort gathered the desperately needed cash. Shelby hung on for a few more weeks.

With so much uncertainty surrounding the occasion, once-hopeful spectators began canceling trips and demanding refunds. Lines of credit were yanked from under local business owners. Even the Great Northern Railway canceled the special express trains they’d set aside to bring attendees into the writhing little junction town. Almost overnight, $500,000 in ticket sales dried up.

With the collapse in confidence came Shelby’s second failure to make their payment, and this time Kearns wouldn’t be placated. He announced that the fight was off for good. What he hadn’t counted on was his fighter. Cantankerous about the time spent in the hinterland, eager to get the fight over with, and irked by rumors that the Champ had gone soft and turned coward, Dempsey laid it out plain for his long-time manager: “I wanted to get back into the ring. I owed that to boxing. I owed that to the fans. I owed that to myself. I told Kearns that whether he liked it or not, I was going to fight Tommy Gibbons.” Kearns buckled, and agreed to take the proceeds from ticket sales in lieu of the final payment.

Many of the spectators were camped on the hills around town, relying on binoculars to enjoy the fight rather than pay a minimum of $20 (about $305 in 2020 dollars) for a 15-minute fight. They’d seen the fruit of the oil field disappear into the pockets of the New York huckster and his hulking draft-dodger, and the many weeks of panicked fundraising had driven home just how horribly broke they now were. Gathering at the gates of the still-green wooden stadium, they rioted over the ticket prices for hours, eventually forcing even the hide-bound Kearns to give in and mark all the tickets down to $10. After half an hour, 5,000 fuming spectators bowled past the gatekeepers and took up seats regardless of tickets. As Dempsey rather dryly put it later, “the cowboys tossed lariats over the posts and pulled the gates down. Thus many people got in free.”

A view of the fight
A view of the fight

The stage was set, with the diminished crowd tightly hugging the ring, leaving vast swathes of the upper bleachers bare. Dempsey arrived at half past 3 in the afternoon to a torrent of hisses, boos, and curses. Gibbons stepped up to the ring ten minutes later to a standing ovation. At the ring of the bell began what may generously be called the most lackluster championship fight in boxing history. Gibbons held his own, ducking many of Dempsey’s vicious swings at his head, but eventually Dempsey’s short, sharp, close-in jabs to the body wore his opponent down. After 15 rounds, Gibbons achieved his modest goal of lasting a full fight, and a unanimous committee decision resulted in Dempsey retaining the title.

Dempsey must have known how to read a crowd, because within 20 minutes, he’d hustled out of the stadium, down the street to the station, and onto his private train, leaving town in a trail of steam and dust as thousands of grumbling Montanans started drowning their sorrows in bathtub gin and raw whiskey. By 5 July, he was safely across two state lines in Salt Lake City.

Doc Kearns, meanwhile, somehow managed to keep his head down long enough to count the proceeds: roughly $80,000. Not quite the promised $100,000, but not bad. He promptly handed over the government’s 10 percent to several waiting Internal Revenue Service agents and asked the armed men to escort him to the station. Kearns had a brief moment of panic when the stationmaster informed him that there would be no service until the following day. Not fancying his chances among the drunk, cheated oilmen of Shelby, he offered $500 plus a $50 tip to the crew of an idle train to carry him out of town. In his bags were, save $550, the last physical and financial dollars in the now-bust frontier town.

Shelby didn’t fare well in the aftermath of the shambolic match. Unpaid credit turned to bankruptcy for the hotels, restaurants, and local enterprises whose owners thought they’d had a sure thing. On 9 July, the Stanton Trust & Savings Bank, its vault empty, closed for good, taking with it the fortune of Johnson’s friend George Stanton. The First State Bank of Shelby, owned by Mayor Johson, followed it the day after, then the day after that by the First State Bank of Joplin. Without the federal insurance of later years, depositors found their money had vanished, sinking them along with the town’s financial assets. The involvement of people across the state even threatened to bankrupt all of Montana for a time. In town, the empty lots that Johnson had envisioned bearing clean new casinos, hotels, and saloons, all courtesy of his real estate venture, were suddenly worthless.

The cover of the official program
The cover of the official program

After an initial mass exodus of brief residents, each month saw more and more departures. The Kevin Sunburst oil field gave out in 1924, leaving the town without even the means to rebuild its evaporated wealth. Life settled back down into a sleepy pattern of herding and farming, and the town that had brushed up against the specter of glory and riches lapsed into silence once more.

Dempsey and Kearns couldn’t have been happier. The Champ went on to fight Luis Firpo in 1924, who dramatically knocked him clean out of the ring before Dempsey clawed his way back to victory. He would hold onto the title until 1926, cementing his place in history as an icon of the sport. Eventually tiring of Kearns’ domineering behavior, the two began a series of lawsuits and countersuits against one another over money, although they rebuilt their friendship in the 1960s.

Despite the collapse of Shelby’s fortunes, the town persisted through the 20th century. Mayor Jim Johnson was miraculously not run out of town, if only because most of those who might have done so had already left. Residents largely kept quiet about the match out of shame, and older citizens were even mocked by younger generations for their folly. But for the most part, the town seemed happy enough to pretend nothing had ever happened. As late as 1971, the “Comprehensive Plan for Shelby, Montana”⁠—another ambitious, but more realistic, vision for the town⁠—made only one mention of the fight, rather coyly describing the event as bringing Shelby “national recognition.” Body Johnson stuck with the town, but he eventually grew to regret everything about his youthful exuberance in arranging the fight. In later years, he even published a desultory book about the event, tellingly titled The Fight That Won’t Stay Dead. In it, he admitted that the fight was “intended to be nothing but a publicity stunt.” He explained, “Had I said anything to indicate that this was a publicity stunt, you can readily see the effect that it would have had on our publicity.”

Today, the stadium, clapboard buildings, and ambitions of one small town have all faded. In recent years, the city embraced what was once a source of shame, designating the once-empty lot where the wooden stadium stood as “Champion’s Park” and erecting a trio of rust-colored statues representing Dempsey, Gibbons, and referee Jim Dougherty. Apart from this commemoration, Shelby’s most visible link to the maddening events of 1923 is the station, bearing the briefly notorious name of the town which might have been. It’s served by two trains daily.