As the sun rose over the dust bowl of Conway, Missouri on the morning of October 15, 1910, not many of its sleepy residents could possibly have imagined it was about to play host to a Shakespearean tragedy.
The events of that day were shaped by three players, the handsome prizefighter, the nefarious seductress and scorned lover, with a thirst for blood. The death of Stanley Ketchel is a tale of; jealousy, greed, and vile bloodlust.
Ketchel raced in society. Only twenty four years old he’d emerged from homelessness and fighting in saloons to be one of the fistic worlds biggest stars. Middleweight champion and heavyweight title challenger he’d made a name as one of boxing’s biggest ever punchers. "A rushing, tearing, demon of the ring," Stanley was an equally engaging and frantic individual outside, as well as inside, the ropes.
"[Stanley was] wild and untamed one second," according to a friend, "lovable the next, treacherous at times, and most amiable on other occasions." He was a kid from a poor immigrant family who’s bouts with heavyweight king Jack Johnson as well as top middleweights Billy Papke and Philadelphia Jack O'Brian had afforded him wealth he couldn’t have dreamed of as a street kid.
Those riches had afforded Ketchel indulgences into his greatest pleasures; Women, Gambling, drinking and most importantly, fast cars. Long before the hedonism of 70’s rock and roll it was libertines like Ketchel who ruled the world of excess. He himself was heard to say he didn’t think he would live until thirty, the epitome of ‘Live fast, Die young’
He himself predicted he wouldn’t live past 30, driving cars at speed in the early 20th century was a dangerous game. However it wasn’t a car, but a bullet that would end the young champion's life.
He had headed out to Conway at the behest of Colonel RP Dickinson. Concerned that the champion was squandering his talents in the gin houses and whore houses of the west he paid him to come and recuperate, hoping to become involved in some more of Ketchels bouts.
In anticipation of Ketchels arrival at his ranch Dickerson had just hired a cook, Goldie Smith, and a ranch hand, whom Smith said was her husband, Walter Kurtz. Kurtz was actually Walter Dipley and the pair were not married, simply lovers and criminals, looking for their next big score.
Ketchel arrived in Conway dressed as a cowboy, in high boots and Stetson with a rifle over his shoulder. Dressed as his gunslinging heroes this was to be the Michigan Assassin's last rodeo.
The events after Stanley’s arrival at the ranch become ever so slightly more blurred, as so often in boxing and in life there are conflicting stories. However as John Ford wisely observed; “When you have to choose between history and legend, print the legend” so here goes.
One version tells of Ketchel the womaniser, unable to switch off from his sultry life on the west coast, who attempted to seduce Goldie, some claim he even succeeded. This version cites this affair as the reason Stanley drew Walter’s ire was his jealousy, the anger that Ketchel would have the gall to try and bed his wife.
The more accepted explanation for Kurz’s anger is that on the night before the murder, Stanley saw Dipley beating a horse that wouldn’t do as he said. Stanley jumped to the horse's aid and chastised Dipley, possibly using his fistic skills to enforce his opinion.
The final, and possibly most clear motivation for the crime was sheer greed. Ketchel was a superstar, he’d earned massive purses and was known to carry lots of cash to fund his escapades. Dipley and Smith were petty criminals who stole for a living, and Stanley was to be their next victim.
These stories converge into an indisputable set of facts on the morning of October 15th 1910.
Goldie Smith led Stanley down from his room to where she had prepared breakfast and sat him facing away from the door. Walter Dipley grabbed Stanley’s 22. caliber rifle and turned the door shouting "Get your hands up!"
Ketchel stood up, and as he turned around, Dipley Pulled the trigger. The bullet traveled from his shoulder into his lung and Ketchel fell to the floor. Desperately injured Ketchel tried to reach for his handgun concealed in his belt line.
The murderer reached it first pulling it from him and striking Stanley across the face with it. Smith then searched Stanley’s pockets for cash and jewellery, robbing him blind before they both ran.
As he lay dying, spluttering between breaths, he told ranch foreman, C.E. Bailey, who’d shot and robbed him.
The crime scene, victim and murderers
The police were called and Smith was caught first. She told police officers that Ketchel had raped her and that that was the reason why Dipley had shot him. Her story fell apart almost immediately and she admitted her complicity in the robbery, but still denied she knew he would shoot.
Word quickly spread to the benefactor of the ranch, RP Dickinson who immediately began to charter a train to the nearest city to try and save Stanley’s life.
Stanley, ever the fighter, clung to life as the locomotive dragged him to Springfield. As he was hauled into the hospital at 7pm he uttered his final words, "I'm so tired. Take me home to mother."
Here we see Stanley as he was, a scared kid, barley into his twenties, the victim of a heinous crime. One of the most exciting stars in world sport, snuffed out, a candle extinguished before it ever burned brightest.
Dickerson offered a $5,000 reward for Dipley’s capture,dead or alive, although he loudly professed “preferably dead”, as he issued the bounty. Luckily though, Dipley was caught hiding in a nearby farm house only the next day.
Dipley and Smith were both tried and convicted. The judge ruled that Dipley was "a vile creature," and Smith "devoid of all principles of pure womanhood.". They were both convicted of murder and given a life sentence.
Smith later had her murder conviction overturned and only served 17 months for robbery. Dipley however served 23 long years as a cold blooded murderer.
Giving a bohemian like Ketchel an epitaph is a daunting task for any. The bronze statue of him in Grand Rapids is a fitting tribute. As is his large headstone in the Polish cemetery. Countless books and essays too try and capture the man and do an admirable job. Non however quite fit his fighting spirit as what his manager, Wilson Mizner, said upon finding out Stanley had been shot;
"Tell them to start counting ten over him. He'll get up."
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