Jim Benjaminson is a local historian from Pembina County, North Dakota. This year is the sesquicentennial of Pembina County, and in celebration of that, Jim has been writing a column for the Pembina New Era entitled, "Pembina County at 150". The column has been running a few months now, and recently I invited Jim to serialize his fascinating history columns here on the blog. He graciously agreed. This is the first one...
The Painter & the Pugilist: Two Former County Residents You've Probably Never Heard Of
Simply put, Birdeen Gibson was an artist. Born in Oregon in 1913 but growing up in Neche, the daughter of Augusta “Gussie” (Hughes) Gibson graduated in a class of 21 from Neche High School in the spring of 1931. Times were tough and jobs were scarce but Birdeen managed to make a little money by making sketches using India ink on white paper. Her favorite subjects – Lincoln and sailing ships. A March 1934 family letter told of her selling “the largest size (4x5) for 35 cents” , with smaller drawings selling for 25 or 30 cents. It was mentioned “she's sold 18 now.”
Unable to afford to go to college, her art work came to the attention of Dr. Ernie Coon of the University of North Dakota. In a February 28, 1934 letter Birdeen wrote Dr. Coon's wife, Jennie, stating “I want to let you know how greatly I appreciate your taking an interest in me”. Dr. Coon had spoken with a UND art professor who said he felt there was a possibility of getting her “a CWA job”. Skilled as a typist and in shorthand, Birdeen owned a typewriter (which had been purchased for her by her mother), skills that would soon prove to come in handy. She continued “I have entered two different art contests conducted by the Federal Art School in Minneapolis. Both times I received a part scholarship but the entire course is too expensive for me, so I have been unable to take advantage of it.” Another portion of her letter mentioned the ink drawings she had been selling and thanked the Coons for their interest in her.
Birdeen's sister Sally wrote the Coons that “Birdeen is certainly a nice girl in every way. She's quiet, but once you get to know her, she's very likeable”.
|Sorority Girl - Delta Phi Delta|
Birdeen Gibson's school portrait
A photograph—and picture she painted of herself—graced the front page of the Dakota Student (UND) newspaper of April 28, 1939. The caption read “Birdeen Gibson saw herself as others see her when in eight hours before a mirror she made this self-portrait. Produced in her home in Neche, N.D., this painting is but one of a series of her works, some of which have been on exhibition in London and Paris. A senior, majoring in art, Miss Gibson has studied under the famed Count Odon de Szaak of Des Moines, Iowa.” The 1940 census records that she was working as a secretary in Neche. When her brother left for the West Coast to work for Boeing, she apparently moved west as well. Little is known of her activities except that she married a man named Donald Cisney on July 22, 1950. Birdeen had no children and passed away at the age of 66 August 30, 1979.
How many other similar paintings exist is unknown. Do any of her sketches still exist? And what other works of art did she produce during her lifetime? Truly a woman of mystery!
Our second subject is also a man of mystery – much more so than Birdeen Gibson. James Barry claimed to have been born in St. Vincent, Minnesota but called Drayton home. Or was he born in Culbertson, Montana – or did he live in Chicago, East Grand Forks or Petaluma, California? Perhaps we should mention that Jim Barry wasn't his real name. At various times in his life he claimed his real name was Louis Edgar Rogers; at other times it was Hugh Edgar Rogers. And his birth date – was it August 12, 1886 – or August 7, 1887 or August 10, 1887? At one point in an interview that appeared in the Bismarck Tribune May 28, 1916, he claimed “Jim Barry isn't my name at all, and I'm not Italian as everyone believes. My real name is Hugh Edgar Rogers. My father was Jarvis A. Rogers, from County Antrim, Belfast. My mother was a full-blooded Sioux Indian (there are claims she was French-Canadian Metis). They've always said I was from Chicago, when, as a matter of fact, I've hardly ever been there over night. I lived at Drayton, N.D., with my folks, including six other brothers. I'm the youngest and the smallest of them all.”
One thing we know for sure, his father's name was Rogers although he was known simply as “Rog” to most people. And he had been a mail carrier between Grand Forks and Pembina from 1868-71, carrying the mail by sleigh, dogs or on foot during the dead of winter.
|Louis Edgar Rogers, aka Jim Barry (1910)|
Weighing in at 192 pounds and standing 5 feet 10 3/4” tall, Jim Barry had a 42 inch chest and a reach of 73 1/2”. Making his professional debut April 4, 1904, Barry won 25 matches, 18 by knock outs, lost 24 matches, 10 by being knocked out and fought to a draw in 5 matches. A formidable opponent, the Los Angeles Herald in its November 6, 1908 issue reported Barry was scheduled to go 10 rounds with Joe Flynn. Barry, who outweighed Flynn by 20 pounds, placed a $200 bet against Flynn's $160 that he would win the match. The Tonopah, Nevada Daily Bonanza reported “Jim Barry of Chicago had the better of a 10 round bout with Jim Flynn of Pueblo before the Pacific Athletic Club tonight. Barry showed fine form and landed terrible blows to Flynn's body and jaw throughout but was unable to stop the fireman.”
Calling Barry and Al (the California Hercules) Kaufman the “mastodons of pugilism” the L.A. Herald commented in its December 27, 1908 issue that “no human being can stand up under the best punch (that) Barry or Kaufmann is capable of handing out.” In a run-up match as contenders for the world's heavyweight title Kaufman knocked out Barry in the 39th round of a scheduled 45-round fight.
Eyeing the world championship, Denver's Franklin's Paper of October 9, 1909 reported “Jack Johnson the world's champion pugilist, intends to make a grand cleanup of the heavyweights before he meets Jim Jeffries, Stanley Ketchel in October, Al Kaufman (the California Hercules) and “Philadelphia Jack” O'Brien in a return engagement.” The article continued “Jim Barry, the Chicago Slugger, who has been hurling challenges right and left, may also be taken on by the champion”. The same paper in its November 27th edition, reported Johnson defeated Tommy Burns in 12 rounds for the world title. He fought Kaufmann, O'Brien, Barry and Ketchel and “a few others” for the world's title which he now holds. Among that list of fighters was Sam Langford, a Negro many white fighters refused to go up against because of the “color barrier”. Langford held the middleweight crown after defeating all other middleweights when Papke refused to fight him before moving into the heavyweight ranks.
Sam Langford and Jim Barry had a longtime relationship, Barry not being stopped by the color of a man's skin. The two first paired off in September of 1907, fighting each other 16 times, their last match taking place in March of 1913 in Australia, with Langford defeating Barry each time although two matches were called as a draw. Both the Tacoma, Washington Times and Chicago's Day Book reported on the March 1913 fight, the Times terse two sentence article reading “Sam Langford won from Jim Barry in one round. We should worry.” The Day Book's article gave a few more details - “Sam Langford, the Negro heavyweight, knocked out Jim Barry of Chicago in the first round at Brisbane, Australia.”
Traveling to Australia for a series of five fights in 1912 for promoter Hugh McIntosh of Sydney, Jim Barry defeated Bill Lang, former heavyweight champion of Australia in one round; it would be his only Australian win. On the return trip home, Barry was arrested when the S.S. Zealandia docked in Vancouver, British Columbia. Charged with assault it was reported Barry had “lost at cards and then started a rough house.”
The March 15, 1913 fight with Sam Langford brought a temporary halt to Barry's boxing career – he wouldn't return to the ring again until June 30, 1916. Little is known of his activities during that time period except for discovery of an “emergency passport” issued by the U.S. Embassy in London. In it Barry claimed to have left the United States in December of 1912—the December 10th Tacoma Times reported him “visiting in Tacoma” having recently returned from “the Antipodes and is now ready to meet anybody in the ring.” His “visit” to Tacoma was to act as referee at a “smoker”. Three months later he would fight Langford in Australia. How or why he ended up in England is unknown. It is known Barry entered a New York hospital upon his return to the U.S. for treatment for cocaine addiction —at the time cocaine and other hard drugs were legal to possess and use.
The Ogden, Utah Standard of May 8, 1916 revealed “Jim Barry, who was a worry to all the heavyweights 5 or 6 years ago, is now planning a return to the fight game. Barry has the reputation of having fought Sam Langford with varying results, 16 different times. He is now in training earnestly and thinks he will soon be in trim to cross bats with Coffey, Al Weinert or Moran.”. On June 6th Barry stepped into the ring against “Battling” Lavinsky – and lost. He would go up against “Sailor Jack” Carroll in July, Jim Smith in August and Billy Miske in September. All with the same dreadful results.
His final fight came in March of 1917, against another black fighter, Sam McVea. Only this fight would take place in Colon, Panama. Stepping into the ring with McVea March 11th, he was “floored for the count” in the sixth round. The next days Panama Star & Herald had a different story to reveal about Jim Barry. Barry had been shot and killed in the Lobby Hotel in Colon by a gambler known as C. Jerrett, aka “Tex” Martin.
According to news reports “Martin accosted Barry in the Lobby Hotel bar and Barry pushed him back, saying he didn't want anything to do with him. (There had been an altercation between them in Panama City the previous day, stemming from a disagreement over a gambling debt.) Martin then pulled a Colt 44 and shot Barry three times. Barry staggered out of the bar and fell dead. Martin was quickly arrested after the shooting and later stood trial for murder. Apparently it was found that Martin had been threatened by Barry, was acting in self-defense, and was released”. Martin was later reported to have been killed in San Antonio, Texas.
Thus ended the career of Jim Barry, aka Louis Rogers, aka Hugh Rogers. Find-a-Grave lists him being buried in the Drayton Cemetery. Cemetery records compiled by the Red River Valley Historical Society do not list any Rogers or Jim Barry as being buried anywhere in Pembina County. Even in death, Jim Barry is still a man of mystery.
Pembina County Trivia
- Who was the first recorded farmer in what is now Pembina County?
- Where was this farm located?
- What year was the O’Brien Hotel in Neche built?
- The first known farmer in what is now Pembina County was Charles Bottineau.
- Bottineau's farm was located on land now farmed by the Horsley Family of Neche.
- The O'Brien Hotel in Neche was built in 1895 at a cost of $14,000. It’s known today as the L&M Bar.