By Craig Scott
“This was a time when men would travel across oceans for opportunities.” Dan Marner, 2022
THERE are an estimated three million bodies interred in Calvary Cemetery, New York. There, you’ll find burial plots belonging to: mayors of New York, senators, notable organised crime figures, famous entertainers, multiple Hall of Fame baseball players and Olympic gold medallists. It’s the largest cemetery in all of the United States, and with headstones of all shapes and sizes swamping patches of grass as far as the eye can see, it is bleak and overwhelming.
Buried in Plot J, Grave 3, lies Charles ‘Charley’ Marner (born 1870), under the grave paid for by a James Curran. You probably haven’t heard much of Marner – mistakenly called Miner for periods of his life in the United States – but his journey through professional boxing was one of chance and risk, experiencing moments at the very pinnacle of the sport before meeting his violent, untimely demise on the streets on Manhattan.
Although now entombed in Queens, it was thousands of miles away in Greenock, a Scottish port town in Inverclyde famed for its shipbuilding, where Marner had been born. His family’s story was permeated with extreme poverty, as were many local families of that time, sometimes housing up to 20 relatives under one leaky roof. Children scurried from garden-to-garden like hungry foxes sneaking out after dark, scavenging what they could, embracing their concrete hunting ground. And Charley was no different. A fighter from the very start, he fell in love with boxing, along with the idea that fame and fortune awaited him at the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.
“He was driven by poverty,” explained Marner’s great-niece, Margaret Auton. “He wanted to get away from that to make something of himself – he did that all by himself. At first, I wondered if there were relatives out there [in the United States], but there wasn’t. He must have been quite a determined person, quite stubborn. I believe with the Marner side of the family, that’s a trait. They basically try and get what they want all the time,” Auton laughed, hinting at an in-joke between current family members.
Margaret and a small band of distant relatives have devoted a number of years searching for further information on Charley Marner. But it isn’t knowing more about him that appears most pertinent; it’s knowing anything at all. This was a man who lived and travelled with some of boxing’s most influential names, winning amateur titles, and eventually training the sport’s first-ever black world champion, ‘Little Chocolate’ George Dixon. What’s happened to Charley Marner’s legacy? Or has he become a victim of the black and white age?
At the age of just 17, Marner decided to up and leave his large family, with six siblings, behind and set sail for New York in May 1888, with only his unrealised boxing potential in his back pocket. Knowledge of the Scot’s boxing pedigree on Scottish shores before his big move is a mystery. But he must have had enough talent to convince those supporting him that his huge leap of faith in moving to the Big Apple would pay dividends. It was there he’d aim to put the Marner name on the map; instead, it ended up misspelt on some smaller boxing posters pasted to the walls of gyms and grimy bars, and eventually, for the wrong reasons, on the front pages of New York’s tabloids.
Things did start positively, though, with Marner first competing as an amateur after settling into his new surroundings, making a mark on the country’s vast, highly competitive unpaid scene. Margaret Auton spoke of his amateur achievements in as much detail as she held, showing off a small, ragged bit of paper which pronounced him: Am. 125lbs Champion of America.
The one thing that jumps out from the tiny paper certificate (dated 1895) isn’t a fancy gold font or a statement of financial reward. Those are noticeably absent. It’s his name. Charles Miner. From here, confusion with surname(s) truly begins, with Marner’s accent potentially causing confusion. His BoxRec, storing details of his professional bouts and his personal information, states that those fights belong to a Charles Miner, too. A man split in half, spread between two continents and duelling identities.
Matthew Marner, who is the great-grandson of Charley’s brother, gave a different, colourful version of events: “My dad [Charley’s brother’s grandson] didn’t know if this was true or not, but Charley’s patter was supposed to be good, he was a bit of a lad; so, when he got to Ellis Island apparently they’ve told him he’s not getting in ‘because he’s a minor.’ The story was that Charley piped up and said, ‘How did you know that was my name?’ And he’s supposed to have charmed his way in…”
Between touching down on the east coast and commencing his own professional boxing journey, Marner put roots down in Brooklyn, working a ‘normal job’ to pay his way, meeting his future wife, and climbing the amateur ladder nationally. He made his professional debut in February 1895 – peculiarly some two months before his aforementioned amateur crowning; the clash in dates remains unexplained. He faced Mike Kelly in the New Manhattan Athletic Club and beat his opponent over six rounds, as reported by the local newspaper, the Elmira Star Gazette. Then, the Scot would lose his next two contests (two of only three career losses), with his second professional fight reportedly being stopped after the police intervened, records say.
Undeterred, Marner would soon rack up four wins on the bounce, two by way of stoppage. These fights had all been on American soil, but for his eighth contest, he returned to the United Kingdom and challenged Charlie Tilley in the Olympic Club, in Birmingham. Marner stopped his man on British turf, but it’s unclear whether he visited Greenock – or Scotland – during this trip – or at all before his murder.
Over the next two years, the prospect would fight another eight times in-and-around New York, dropping just one defeat and splitting a draw. He had ability, clearly, but couldn’t quite get a grasp of any significant titles. There are reports that his final professional contest on record was won by way of knockout in the 20th round – unthinkable for the modern-day boxing fan. That fight saw Marner battle Percy McIntyre, who in his very next fight was chased out of the ring by an angry crowd for “faking.” One extreme to another, you could say. But perhaps Charley’s defining achievement and his lasting stamp on boxing’s history books, is his short spell as George Dixon’s trainer, as he was employed as ‘Little Chocolate’s’ voice in the corner for his bout with ‘Terrible’ Terry McGovern in 1900.
What’s unclear is the exact birth of Marner’s relationship with ‘Little Chocolate’ George Dixon. According to reports, the pair were originally matched as sparring and training partners. It was testament to the Scot’s boxing ability or, perhaps more honestly, his silver tongue. In remastered pictures of Dixon’s team, Marner can be seen sporting a bowler hat, and looking every inch the distinguished American gentleman. Terry McGovern, a famed champion of his time, emerged victorious when he met Dixon that summer, and it’s thought that the Canadian trailblazer’s training relationship with Marner ceased in the bout’s immediate aftermath.
Both McGovern and Dixon would die at 37, a dark coincidence. Still, the young dreamer from Greenock stood arm-in-arm with an integral part of boxing history, and it’s thought their relationship had probably been forged in one of New York’s multi-disciplined theatres, the Bowery, in New York City. Auton pondered Dixon’s credited creation of shadow boxing. Could Marner have been involved in that? Records show it’s unlikely, but it’s a story that gathers pace for obvious reasons.
Patrick Connor from the highly respected Boxing History brand, spoke of the Vaudeville scene and boxing’s link to theatre, where it seemed the ideal safe haven for New York’s gamblers and heavy drinkers. “At this point in the 1800s, most fighters would have a profession or a job unless they were extremely famous or already rich. But the ones who got really famous, like the aforementioned Terry McGovern, would sometimes be hired to do a series of Vaudeville shows, like how singers have a ‘residency’ in Las Vegas nowadays,” Connor explained.
“The Bowery Theater would have been one of many meeting places in the Bowery Neighbourhood, and George Dixon had a history of training and fighting in the area. The theatre itself has a bunch of history behind it; it burned down a handful of times, had to be rebuilt, etc. Another [drinking hole] from the same place and time that is famous is Harry Hill’s gambling hall. Fighters often hung out and impromptu fights happened.” A keen drinker himself, you have to wonder how often Marner would have frequented Harry Hill’s, and how many of his finest performances occurred at the bar or in the courtyard.
After fighting for the last time as a professional in 1899, Charley Marner and boxing started parting ways, as things started to unravel. “He ends up getting married to a lassie named Jane Curran, in 1901. She fell pregnant in 1904 and by this time, there seems to be a bit of a gap after the Dixon versus McGovern fight,” Margaret Auton explains, “I couldn’t find anything about Charley’s boxing, even in the old newspapers, the New York papers that would have been circulating at the time. He ended up working as a printer – not boxing – and this is in 1904. They must have ended up with a bit of money, but unfortunately, Charley didn’t come to a good end…”
Back then, alcohol was the vice that frequently stole the lives of men far too young, and it certainly played its part in Marner’s story. Though he never perished directly from battles with alcoholism – the way his former charge, and friend, Dixon had lost his life at just 37 – the bottle had warmed up the Reaper. Matthew Marner described Charley as “too game for his own good,” a trait that most Glaswegians proudly wear across their shoulders like world titles. His death was widely covered by the New York press, and a career that offered so much was consigned to a few paragraphs, the retelling of a murder in grave detail, but nothing of the journey and the life that came before it.
“Charles Miner [sic], brought his friend, Edward J. Hendry, home with him at 2’o’clock yesterday morning. They had been drinking and kept it up as Mrs Miner slept. About daylight, a row started up and the pressman ordered his friend out. Miner had pulled off most of his clothes, getting ready for bed, when Hendry came back and renewed the quarrel…
“Hendry kicked in the window sash. Miner dashed out and up the steps. He was met by a bullet in his right arm, but in spite of the wound, he landed a blow on his assailant’s jaw. Another bullet in the chin knocked Miner down and as he lay at the head of the steps, Hendry fired two more shots, both of which hit Miner in the head. The shooting had awakened Mrs Miner, and she ran out to her husband’s side. Hendry put the pistol back in his pocket and sprinted around the corner.” Unnamed New York newspaper.
Landing clean blows at the very last. And so it was, aged 34, Greenock’s Charles ‘Charley’ Marner (or Miner) lay bleeding out on the concrete, a father-to-be, a husband, a former fighter. Dying on the floor he’d fought to buy. A drunken disagreement after a late-night session on the ale, and a body laid across its own front steps – senseless, as violence outside of the boxing ring often is. But what of his murderer, Edward Hendry? His family had managed to uncover articles from the resulting court case and sentencing, detailing the punishment handed out. Initially, Hendry had claimed the shooting was in self-defence; that weird type of self-defence that involves leaving a property for a period of time, returning with a loaded gun, and firing it on a man in his pyjamas, shooting him in the head.
Fortunately, that excuse didn’t wash with the American judge. A life for a lifer.
The tale of the boy from Greenock, who emerged from the tenement in Shaw Street leaving behind a life of poverty, is strong enough. He talked his way onto a boat bound for Ellis Island and he made his way in the world; he made his way in boxing. Marner finished with a record of 12 wins, three losses, and one draw. He trained one of the most significant champions of the sports’ early history – that is a fact. And sadly, while his body is captured in permanence at Calvary Cemetery, there isn’t much more to report. He lived enough for three men and died at half the decent age of one. But sometimes that’s what makes people great. Charles Marner, Charley Miner, did his bit. And his bit should be remembered.