Boxer Jack Johnson Is Imprisoned for Abetting Prostitution Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The first black boxer to become world heavyweight champion, Jack Johnson led an extravagant lifestyle that included romantic liaisons with white women. These scandalous relationships eventually led authorities to charge him with helping a prostitute cross state lines, a violation of the Mann Act. After the act was broadly interpreted to convict Johnson, he fled the United States and spent years in exile before surrendering to authorities. U.S. lawmakers and other supporters sought a presidential pardon of Johnson, beginning in 2004.

Summary of Event

Professional boxer Jack Johnson’s relationships with white women led to his conviction on May 13, 1913, for violating the White-Slave Traffic Act of 1910, better known as the Mann Act. Although the primary purpose of the Mann Act Mann Act of 1910 was to regulate prostitution and debauchery (specifically, the interstate transportation of girls and women for “immoral purposes”) and human trafficking ( White slavery white slavery), the wording of the law was vague and broadly interpreted. Johnson was the first person prosecuted under this law. [kw]Johnson Is Imprisoned for Abetting Prostitution, Boxer Jack (May 13, 1913) [kw]Boxer Jack Johnson Is Imprisoned for Abetting Prostitution (May 13, 1913) [kw]Prostitution, Boxer Jack Johnson Is Imprisoned for Abetting (May 13, 1913) Johnson, Jack Mann Act of 1910 Boxing Johnson, Jack Mann Act of 1910 Boxing [g]United States;May 13, 1913: Boxer Jack Johnson Is Imprisoned for Abetting Prostitution[00180] [c]Racism;May 13, 1913: Boxer Jack Johnson Is Imprisoned for Abetting Prostitution[00180] [c]Prostitution;May 13, 1913: Boxer Jack Johnson Is Imprisoned for Abetting Prostitution[00180] [c]Law and the courts;May 13, 1913: Boxer Jack Johnson Is Imprisoned for Abetting Prostitution[00180] [c]Public morals;May 13, 1913: Boxer Jack Johnson Is Imprisoned for Abetting Prostitution[00180] [c]Social issues and reform;May 13, 1913: Boxer Jack Johnson Is Imprisoned for Abetting Prostitution[00180] [c]Sports;May 13, 1913: Boxer Jack Johnson Is Imprisoned for Abetting Prostitution[00180] Cameron, Lucille Schreiber, Belle

Jack Johnson.

(Library of Congress)

Johnson was born to former slaves in Galveston, Texas, on March 31, 1878. One of nine children, he completed five years of formal schooling before he began working at the Galveston shipping docks as a stevedore. He fought his first bout at the age of fifteen and in 1897 turned professional. In turn of the century America opportunities for black competitors in sports were few. Johnson was relegated to fighting in small private clubs against other black boxers for very little money.

Johnson’s swagger, outspoken demeanor, intelligence, and good looks would soon raise the ire of the white boxing world. In 1901, a Polish-born Jewish heavyweight boxer from San Francisco, California— Choynski, Joe Joe Choynski, nicknamed Chrysanthemum Joe—was recruited to take on the immodest Johnson in a match in Galveston. Choynski knocked Johnson out in the third round. Because boxing was illegal in Texas, both fighters were jailed for twenty-three days for engaging in an illegal contest. Johnson’s skills in the ring, however, convinced Choynski to remain in Texas after his release from jail and to hone Johnson’s boxing skills.

Johnson had a love of fast cars, expensive jewelry, and white women, which gave him a reputation as a flamboyant and flaunting black man in the white boxing world. His traveling companions, too, included many women, most of them white. Serious trouble came when Johnson won the title of world heavyweight champion after knocking out Canadian world champion Tommy Burns in Sydney, Australia, on December 26, 1908. Johnson’s victory was followed by racial turmoil and animosity. Whites began to call for a so-called Great White Hope to defeat the black pugilist and regain both the heavyweight title and racial superiority. In 1909, Johnson emerged victorious in bouts against Victor McLaglen, Frank Moran, Tony Ross, Al Kaufman, and middleweight champion Stanley Ketchel.

Finally, in 1910, former heavyweight champion James J. Jeffries came out of retirement to fight Johnson and reclaim the title for whites. On July 4 in Reno, Nevada, in front of about twenty-two thousand fans, Johnson and Jeffries engaged in pugilistic combat in a match hailed as the Fight of the Century. In the fifteenth round, and after his second knockdown, Jeffries’ corner stopped the fight to keep Johnson from knocking out their fighter.

Race riots ensued through much of the nation after the fight. Two dozen people, twenty-two of them black, were killed during the disturbances. Later, states began to pass laws banning the transportation of films of the Johnson-Jeffries match for fear of circulating images of a black fighter’s victory over a white fighter and, thereby, inciting more violence.

Johnson continued to flout many social conventions, appearing before the American public as a proud and wealthy black man. On January 18, 1911, he married Etta Duryea, a white woman and daughter of a well-to-do businessman from Long Island. Johnson did not know that Duryea was prone to nervousness and emotional upheavals. She killed herself on September 11, 1912, and within weeks Johnson remarried. His second wife was Lucille Cameron, a white woman and former prostitute from Minneapolis, Minnesota. They had a tempestuous relationship, and Cameron’s mother sought to end the Marriage;Jack Johnson[Johnson] marriage by asserting that Johnson had kidnapped Kidnapping;by Jack Jackson[Jackson] her daughter and engaged in lewd and lascivious behavior with her. Cameron refused to cooperate with authorities and the case was dropped.

Johnson’s legal troubles continued, however. In perhaps the most notorious of cases against a black athlete in the United States, Johnson was charged with wiring money to a former prostitute, Belle Schreiber, for a train ticket to travel from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to Chicago, Illinois. He was found guilty of abetting prostitution—transporting Schreiber across state lines—a violation of the Mann Act. He was sentenced to one year and one day in jail and fined one thousand dollars.

During his appeal, Johnson and Cameron fled the United States and lived in exile in Europe for seven years before surrendering to authorities on July 20, 1920. Five days after his initial voluntary surrender to federal authorities, government agents escorted him to Leavenworth, Kansas, to begin his sentence. At the Leavenworth depot, Johnson and his escorts were met by a black cab driver who offered to drive the party to the penitentiary. Johnson refused the service of the cabman, preferring instead to drive himself. Sunday morning, September 19, Johnson became federal prisoner no. 15461.

Johnson was a model prisoner. He developed a patent for a modified wrench designed to assist in loosening fastening devices. Former acting governor of Nevada, Denver S. Dickerson, the person who had made the 1910 fight between Johnson and Jeffries in Reno possible, and who made a good sum of money from the outcome, acted as a powerful ally to help ensure Johnson’s safety while incarcerated.

Cameron and Johnson divorced in 1924. Johnson then married Irene Pineau in August, 1925. They remained married until his death in a vehicle accident in Raleigh, North Carolina, in 1946, at the age of sixty-eight. Johnson was inducted into the Boxing Hall of Fame in 1954 and is part of the International Boxing Hall of Fame and the World Boxing Hall of Fame. His legacy influenced Cassius Clay, better known as Muhammad Ali. Johnson’s life and career are documented in the 1970 biopic The Great White Hope as well as in many books and magazines. In 2005, Ken Burns produced a two-part, Emmy Award-winning documentary about Johnson’s life, Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson.


Johnson’s career as a champion boxer, and more specifically his conviction based on an overbroad interpretation and application of the Mann Act, helped to bring about changes in how the law was interpreted. The changes were slow in coming, but a rising awareness of the act’s ambiguity, coupled with changing social views regarding race and racism, led to calls for the law to be properly and fairly implemented.

In 2004 federal legislators unanimously passed a bill supporting a posthumous presidential pardon of Johnson because his conviction was won on weak grounds and because it was racially motivated. The committee seeking the pardon included senators McCain, John John McCain, Edward Kennedy, and Orrin Hatch; Johnson biographers Geoffrey C. Ward and Randy Roberts; columnists Pete Hamill and Jack Newfield; boxers Sugar Ray Robinson, Bernard Hopkins, John Ruiz, and Vernon Forrest; and filmmaker Burns. If pardoned, Johnson would be the second person in American history to receive such an honor. Johnson, Jack Mann Act of 1910 Boxing

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bederman, Gail. Manliness and Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1800-1917. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996. Explores the threat to racial superiority sparked by Johnson’s dominance over his white opponent during the heavyweight championship bout. Also includes a discussion of the ramifications for gender dominance in boxing as ethnic minorities and women began to participate in the sport.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Greenwood, Robert. The Prize Fight of the Century: Jack Johnson vs. James Jeffries. Reno, Nev.: Jack Bacon, 2004. Detailed depiction of the events surrounding the heavyweight boxing title fight in which Johnson defeated a white opponent who was expected to beat Johnson and become the Great White Hope.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Healy, Nick. Jack Johnson. Chicago: Raintree, 2003. Intended for younger readers, this book depicts Johnson’s boxing career during a time of intense racial segregation and strife during the early years of the twentieth century. Color photographs, glossary, time line.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Johnson, Jack. My Life and Battles. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2007. A reprint of the original autobiography by Johnson. Follows the life and career of the heavyweight boxer in addition to highlighting the careers of many famous pugilists of the era.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kent, Graeme. The Great White Hopes: The Quest to Defeat Jack Johnson. Stroud, England: Sutton, 2007. Examination of the civil unrest following Johnson’s winning the heavyweight championship title.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Roberts, Randy. Papa Jack: Jack Johnson and the Era of White Hopes. New York: Free Press, 1983. Parallels Johnson’s life and career alongside the racial climate existing in early twentieth century America.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ward, Geoffrey C. Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson. New York: Knopf, 2004. A detailed biography spanning the life of Johnson from his parents’ emancipation to his boxing career and his death in 1946. The Ken Burns documentary of the same name is based on this book.

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