The motion picture of Jack Johnson in training

The boxer Jack Johnson,1 who was Heavyweight Champion of the World from 26 December 1908 until 5 April 1915, appears in many motion pictures. At least two of these show him doing training exercises, and title number 20297 in the collection of the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia (NFSA) is one such. In it there are four scenes, all taken at the same place on bare ground outside an unidentified building:

  1. Johnson and two young African-Americans run towards camera. Johnson is wearing a cap and jumper, probably indicating that it is cold. There are a few people behind them. (Duration: about 3 seconds.)
  2. Johnson is seen doing shadow sparring, ungloved and holding small weights, in front of several tens of people, including several African-Americans and a few women. The 2 other runners from the first scene are nearby. (Duration: about 39 seconds.)
  3. Johnson, ungloved, is shown with another man who is holding him around the neck, apparently trying to pull his head down. (Duration: about 22 seconds.)
  4. Johnson, wearing boxing gloves, spars with the man (also gloved) from the previous scene. (Duration: about 20 seconds.)
The australian screen Website (ASO) has a video of this film but with the first scene missing. There is also a copy of the film on YouTube2: this has all four scenes and is of much better image quality than the ASO version, though slightly cropped along the top and bottom.

It is claimed that this film was shot at Rushcutters Bay, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia on 16 December 1908 (and thus a week and a half before Johnson won the championship from Tommy Burns). However, a prominent character seen through most of the film is George Little, who was Johnson's manager from mid-March 1909 to early June 1910, during which time Johnson was in the USA and (briefly) in south-eastern Canada.3 So where and when were the film photographed?

To begin with, both the NFSA and the australian screen copies of the film are laterally inverted (i.e. mirror imaged) (though the YouTube version is correct). Compare the two images below: in the one on the left, which is correctly oriented, George Little's hair parting is to the left of centre of his head; in the right-hand view, which is a detail of a mirror-image of a framegrab from the ASO video, Little - in the pale suit on the right - has his parting again on his left, and he has a thumb hooked in the outside top pocket of his jacket, which is on his left side. (He is seen in the film to remove and replace a watch from this pocket.) Furthermore, close examination of the (correctly oriented) YouTube copy shows that the men's jackets and vests are buttoned left over right.

Jack Johnson and George Little (and others)

Jack Johnson, Sam Berger, Alfred L. Meyerstein, and George Little
on 3 May 1910 at San Francisco4

Image courtesy of California Digital Newspaper Collection
Jack Johnson and George Little (and others)

Jack Johnson, shadow sparring; George Little on the right
(Framegrab, laterally inverted, from about 5 seconds into
the australian screen video)

Image courtesy of National Film and Sound Archive of Australia

The location of filming was between Ocean Beach Pavilion and Seal Rock House at Ocean Beach on the Pacific coast west of San Francisco, California, where Johnson set up his training quarters both prior to his fight with Stanley Ketchel (on 16 October 1909) and prior to his fight with James J. Jeffries (on 4 July 1910). In the image on the left below the building on the left is Ocean Beach Pavilion and the (foreground) centre and right buildings are parts of Seal Rock House. A set of steps is visible leading to a landing with two bench seats outside the nearest wall of Seal Rock House. The steps and landing, wall and windows, paling fence, and landform visible here are seen in the framegrab on the right below from the first scene in the YouTube video, as well as during the film as the camera pans over the scene.

There are also differences between the photograph and the film: the L-shaped windowed partition seen throughout the film is not seen in the photo; and in the film the middle window is bricked in. It is reasonable to assume that the photo (the date of which is not known) predates the film and that these were later changes to the building.

Rear view of Johnson's training quarters

Ocean Beach Pavilion. Back of Pavilion from Balboa St5

Image courtesy of Western Neighborhoods Project, San Francisco
Jack Johnson and companions

At start of training film: Jack Johnson and companions
(Johnson is on the right)

Image courtesy of Boxing Hall of Fame Las Vegas

While under the management of George Little, Jack Johnson's two stays at Seal Rock House were from 17 September 1909 through 20 October 1909 while training for his match with Stanley Ketchel6; and from 30 April 1910 through 23 June 1910 in preparation for his fight with James Jeffries,7 although as Little was dismissed as manager on 5 June,8 after this date he would almost certainly not have watched over Johnson as he is seen to do in the film.

The clue to the date of filming is the identity of Johnson's wrestling and sparring partner in the third and fourth scenes, because Johnson had different white partners for the two training periods. This person appears to have been Ed "Gunboat" Smith, who "made his reputation principally by acting as sparring partner to Jack Johnson when the latter was training for his fight with Ketchel two months ago,"9 and of whom a contemporary photograph is shown on the left below; compare this with a detail from a framegrab from the YouTube video on the right.

Ed 'Gunboat' Smith

Ed "Gunboat" Smith, c. December 190910

Image courtesy of California Digital Newspaper Collection
Jack Johnson's sparring partner

Jack Johnson's sparring partner

Image courtesy of Boxing Hall of Fame Las Vegas

Unfortunately, there are very few times in the film when Johnson's partner's full face is seen, and the two images above can't be called a decisive match. Smith's left ear protruded more than his right ear, and this is noticeable with the person in the film. Also, Smith was about 4 cm taller than Johnson11, and such a difference in height is evident at the start of the sparring scene.

Motion pictures were taken at Seal Rock House on 14 October 1909, when Smith was present:

    Ketchel and Johnson spent most of their time yesterday posing for the moving picture men. They each boxed a bit for the benefit of the camera men, did road work and gym stunts and smiled and looked pleasant.
    [...] Johnson went seven rounds, four with Gunboat Smith, two each with Jack O'Keefe and Joe Lanum and one with Comedian Dave Anslinger which furnished the fun of the afternoon.[sic] [...]12

At the time there was a boxer and wrestler named Charles (or Charley or Charlie) Anslinger, but no Dave Anslinger has otherwise been found, so it appears that the "Dave" is an error. The left and centre pictures below are of Charley Anslinger, while the image on the right, taken from the video, shows a person with the physique of a fighter who is seen in the background throughout most of the film. This person in the film bears a strong resemblance to Charley Anslinger, especially with regard to his hairstyle, but, as with Gunboat Smith above, the confirmation of identity is not certain.

Charley Anslinger, 1912

Charley Anslinger,

Charley Anslinger, 1909

Charley Anslinger,

Possibly Anslinger and George Little

Possibly Anslinger and George Little

Image courtesy of Boxing Hall of Fame Las Vegas

No other mention has been found of films being taken at Seal Rock House in the time Johnson and company were there before his match with Ketchel. So, although the identifications of Smith and Anslinger are not 100 %, there is nonetheless a high probability that both of them are seen in the film, and that it was shot on 14 October 1909. (And on this date the weather in the San Francisco area was cool: there was fog along the coast and the temperature range was 11.1 C – 14.4 C (52 F – 58 F)15: this would account for the runners seen at the start of the film wearing warm clothing.)

References and notes

[1] Two of the several biographies of Jack Johnson are:
Geoffrey C. Ward, Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson, Pimlico, 2006; and
Randy Roberts, Papa Jack: Jack Johnson And The Era Of White Hopes, 1983.

[2] There are other copies of the film elsewhere on YouTube.

[3] Geoffrey C. Ward, Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson, Chapters 6 and 7 (pp.137–221), photograph pp.10–11, 14–15.

[4] Detail from 4 May 1910, The San Francisco Call, p.12cde, Tex Rickard Stacks Up 1,500 Glittering $20 Gold Pieces
Berger was James J. Jeffries' manager; Meyerstein was vice-president of the Metropolis Bank, where the photograph was taken.

[5] Original at

[6] 18 September 1909, The San Francisco Call, p.14fg, KETCHEL DEPARTS FROM THE BIG TOWN
19 October 1909, The San Francisco Call, p.12a, Johnson Will Leave for New York Tomorrow

24 June 1910, The Sacramento Union, p.10cde, Johnson's Farewell to Old Frisco.

[8] 6 June 1910, The San Francisco Call, p.7ef, LITTLE FIRED AND BILLY NOLAN HIRED

[9] 26 December 1909, The San Francisco Call, p.35ab, NELSON-WOLGAST FIGHT IN SOUTH PRACTICALLY OFF

[10] Detail from 26 December 1909, The San Francisco Call, p.35bc, Gunboat Smith vs. Jack Burns Next on the Pugilistic Card


[12] 15 October 1909, The San Francisco Call, p.12abcde, BIG FIGHT IS NOW BELIEVED TO BE IN AIR

[13] Detail from a poster advertising an evening of boxing presented by the Penn Athletic Club at the Mishler Theatre, Altoona, Pennsylvania, USA in February 1912.

[14] Detail from Arne K. Lang, The Nelson-Wolgast Fight and the San Francisco Boxing Scene, 1900-1914, p.10.
The photo was taken before the fight on 13 July 1909, when Anslinger was one of Ad Wolgast's seconds.

[15] 15 October 1909, The San Francisco Call, p.17c, Weather Report

Copyright © 2015 Tony Martin-Jones Edition 1  (2015-11-25)