Ringside seat - June 27, 1999

Virginia Schwietz, growing up in the famous Gibbons boxing family and working in law enforcement for years, had a unique perspective on St. Paul's raucous, romantic past.


Virginia Gibbons Schwietz's father was a middleweight boxer. Her uncle was a heavyweight boxer. Her brother was a light heavyweight boxer.

``We went strictly by weights in our family,'' recalls Schwietz, 82, with a laugh. ``We weren't ages, we were weights.

``I remember my Uncle Tom telling me once that a liver punch would immobilize your opponent for 10 seconds. This is the kind of thing all young girls learn at the dinner table, isn't it?''

Schwietz's unusual and prominent St. Paul family has produced a lifetime of exceptional experiences. Her father and uncle were the two most noted and accomplished prizefighters in Minnesota history. Later, her uncle's long tenure as Ramsey County sheriff led to Schwietz's own three-decade law-enforcement career, beginning in St. Paul's raucous gangland era of the 1930s.

Now the eldest member of her clan, Schwietz preserves memories of a colorful era in St. Paul's past -- a time that was simpler, more gracious and, in other ways, more troubled than our own.

The Phantom

The Gibbons family arrived in St. Paul in the 1880s, having traveled directly from County Mayo, Ireland, to join a growing community of Irish immigrants in Minnesota's fast-growing, ethnically diverse capital city. In 1887, Mike Gibbons became the first of the family's children to be born in America.

In those days -- and for many decades to come -- Irish-Americans were uniquely famed for their prowess in sports, not least in boxing. Like the athletic prominence in later years of African-Americans, the early Irish zeal for sports may have had something to do with Irish immigrants being a disadvantaged minority to whom many career paths were closed.

The way Schwietz heard the story, Mike Gibbons' boxing career grew from a simple self-preservation instinct. ``Some kids chased my dad one day,'' Schwietz says. ``They had gangs in those days, too. He was afraid they were going to beat him up. He went down to the YMCA the next day and started taking boxing lessons.''

Gibbons' teachers immediately noticed his lightning reflexes and disciplined ``cleverness'' as a boxer. He began fighting professionally in 1908.

To box professionally in Minnesota at that time meant to box secretly. Prizefighting had been outlawed in the state in 1892 -- one of many widely disobeyed prohibitions in that reforming era.

Mike Gibbons' early clandestine fights were staged by night in barns and warehouses. One took place in a deserted meeting room at City Hall. The fines he had to pay when caught were sometimes larger than the prizes he received for winning.

But Gibbons also traveled frequently to fight in other states, where boxing was legal and the prize money was good. He soon became prosperous and famous nationwide as the ``St. Paul Phantom.'' Through him, the city earned a reputation as a boxing capital even while the sport was illegal here.

Gibbons' renown helped persuade the Minnesota Legislature to repeal the prizefighting ban in 1915.

By that time, Mike Gibbons had married, started a family and built a lovely home on Lake Como that still stands. His daughter, Virginia, was born in 1916.

Fancy footwork

``I don't remember my dad fighting,'' Schwietz says. She does remember growing up with five robust brothers in a home preoccupied with sports. Beyond discussions of liver punches, dinner was often interrupted for impromptu demonstrations of the finer points of left hooks and uppercuts, she says.

She remembers her father's cauliflower ears, a common disfigurement for even skilled fighters. Since her uncle had them, too, Schwietz ``thought they were perfectly normal.''

When other children asked about his ears, Schwietz says her father would explain: ``In my day, they had just come out with revolving doors, and we weren't used to them.''

Schwietz remembers being the favorite of her ``kindhearted'' father, a ``cheerful but quiet'' man, while her mother doted on her often mischievous brothers. ``It was a fun house,'' she says, remembering how their walkout basement served as a warming house for neighborhood ice skaters. She recalls hiding her younger brothers' toys and balls and suffering the retaliation of finding her Sunday hat with its brim cut off.

Every Sunday morning, Schwietz remembers, the Gibbons children would dress for Mass and rush off to the neighborhood Irish Catholic church in no particular order.

Their father ``always came late,'' she says. ``I don't think he ever knew how Mass started. He'd stand in the back of the church and cough, and every Gibbons kid would sit up straight. He hated rounded shoulders.''

By the time Schwietz turned 6, her father's professional fighting career had ended. While he had never had a championship bout, Mike Gibbons had earned the undisputed title as Minnesota's greatest boxer, suffering only a handful of defeats in some 200 fights.

Ranked among the greatest 100 American boxers of all time, Gibbons was known as a defensive, ``scientific'' fighter, a master of feinting, ducking and dancing his way out of the path of opponents' blows.

One exasperated challenger is said to have told his manager after a bout with Gibbons, ``From now on, match me with one guy at a time.'' Gibbons himself said he always tried to remember ``what feet are for -- to carry you where you'd really like to be.''

During World War I, the U.S. Army employed Gibbons' expertise to teach bayonet tactics to recruits, employing many of his boxing techniques. He taught the skills for many years at a gymnasium he ran with his brother in downtown St. Paul and wrote a widely circulated book on scientific boxing. In the 1930s, Gibbons even taught fighting techniques to St. Paul police officers. But for the cops, he emphasized more aggressive methods.

``When one of our boys meets a thug in an alley,'' Gibbons allowed, ``he doesn't want to box an hour to win a decision.''

Schwietz says prizefighting in her father's day was more ``honorable'' and ``gentlemanly'' than people today, in the era of Mike Tyson, can probably imagine.

``They'd shake hands, and they meant it,'' she said, adding that there was then little boastfulness or belligerence among fighters outside the ring. When her father came home from an out-of-town fight, she says, ``he'd get off the train and go over to his mother's to give her some money. Then, he'd go to church and give the priest some money. Then, he'd come home.''

More than just respectable, a boxer's family enjoyed considerable status, Schwietz says. ``People would recognize the name'' and be ``totally impressed.''

Tough times

The Gibbons name was immortalized in boxing lore even more by Schwietz's uncle than by her father, thanks largely to a single, legendary bout with Jack Dempsey.

Tommy Gibbons had long been his elder brother's sparring partner and protege. He adapted Mike's evasive, dancing style to the heavyweight ring, and by 1923 he had earned a championship match with Dempsey, one of the most awesome punchers in boxing history.

The fight was arranged by businessmen and land speculators in Shelby, Mont., a remote mining town. The promoters guaranteed Dempsey the eyepopping sum of $300,000. They hoped the sensational event would boost their town's fortunes and, not coincidentally, make them rich.

Instead, the celebrated Dempsey-Gibbons fight bankrupted Shelby. Tommy Gibbons earned nothing beyond his expenses for his part in the bout. But he became the first challenger to last 15 rounds with Dempsey, who commonly made short, bloody work of his opponents.

Round after round, Dempsey chased Gibbons around the ring, only to be tied up by the challenger whenever he closed in. Dempsey won the decision, but Gibbons became a celebrity on the vaudeville circuit as the man who had gone the distance with the great champion.

Together with handsome earnings from subsequent fights, the fame Gibbons won in Shelby made him a wealthy man.

This same reputation for toughness and decency was the main qualification that helped Tom Gibbons win election in 1934 as Ramsey County sheriff. He sought public office, family members say, out of a desire to serve the community. He had held onto his wealth through the stock market crash of 1929 and early years of the Great Depression.

Mike Gibbons hadn't been so lucky. ``It taught you something,'' Schwietz says of the Depression. ``Before then, we had money. I never thought of money; we just had it. You could have anything you wanted. Then, all of a sudden, we didn't have any.''

In those years, ``we'd watch for Dad to get off the streetcar at night,'' Schwietz remembers. ``If he had a package in his hand, it meant we weren't going to have macaroni and cheese for supper.''

A package meant Schwietz's father had received payment for something and had stopped to buy a piece of meat or some other treat. Sometimes, the package he carried would contain only bones for the dogs, and the family would have only its disappointment to swallow.

Schwietz's mother eventually took over control of the family finances, complaining that her husband was giving too much money away to destitute street beggars. `` `Pretty soon,' she'd say, `We're going to be begging on the street,' '' Schwietz remembers.

Years later, Schwietz says, her father's funeral was well attended by ``bums and bag ladies'' he had aided.

To contribute to the family finances, in 1932, Schwietz's brother Jack became a third boxing Gibbons. He won more than 100 middleweight and light heavyweight bouts, and may have been ``the best athlete of the bunch,'' according to Schwietz. He stayed involved in boxing for many decades, becoming secretary of the state boxing commission.

Jack was also, like his father, softhearted. He often would phone defeated opponents the day after a bout to make sure they weren't seriously hurt, Schwietz says. ``Jack would have been a priest if he hadn't been afraid of dealing with the dying. My whole family is criers, happy or sad, but Jack and I got most of it.''

``Those were tough times,'' Schwietz says of the early Depression years. ``When Uncle Tom got elected sheriff -- there was no civil service then -- I can remember him and my dad sitting in the kitchen talking.'' The topic was whether there might be jobs for other family members on the new sheriff's staff.

``Uncle Tom said, `I can only have one of the same last name, politically.'

``Then I heard my dad say, `I think Gina deserves it.' ''

An education

It was, to say the least, an interesting time for Schwietz to enter the law-enforcement profession in Ramsey County. As documented in Paul Maccabbee's 1995 book, ``John Dillinger Slept Here,'' St. Paul had, by the early 1930s, become an infamous haven for gangsters.

Decades of cooperative and corrupt law-enforcement leadership had produced ``a vicious underworld'' in the city ``that is notorious before the world,'' as the Pioneer Press put it in 1934.

Two sensational kidnappings -- of brewing executive William Hamm and banker Edward Bremer -- and a flurry of violent robberies and shootouts shook the city between 1933 and 1936, as did revelations of widespread corruption and criminal involvement on the St. Paul police force.

Meanwhile, the FBI's all-out offensive against the gangsters reached its crescendo with the killings of Dillinger, Babyface Nelson, Ma Barker and others, and the capture of many other infamous criminals, dozens of whom were tried in St. Paul.

Into those climactic gangland battles stepped Tom Gibbons and his niece, Virginia, who became the new sheriff's secretary. ``I got an education, believe me,'' Schwietz says.

Schwietz recorded statements from prisoners being interrogated. ``It was a romantic time,'' she told Maccabbee, as the well-known public enemies ``were like celebrities. Every time they came down the jail steps to go to federal court . . . shackled with FBI guys -- oh, God, newsmen all over.''

More than a dozen gangsters, including Doc Barker, were convicted in the kidnapping cases in a St. Paul courtroom in 1935.

As the gangster era came rapidly to a close, Tom Gibbons got credit for helping to clean up St. Paul. Active in the community and a generous benefactor of the Catholic church, he became a well-liked public figure, holding the sheriff's office for 24 years and often running unopposed.

Schwietz served the sheriff's office even longer -- 31 years in all. She took much of the 1940s off while her two children were young, then returned and served as sheriff's secretary long after her uncle's retirement.

``I loved working,'' Schwietz says. Taking statements and recording interrogations always remained a central function for her. She frequently testified at trials, but says she was ``horrible at it'' because she would become nervous. ``I testified at lots of trials,'' she says, ``but I always shook.''

In later years, the most famous criminal Schwietz recalls working with was Dennis Linehan, a rapist and killer, first convicted in 1965, who in recent years has unsuccessfully fought his commitment as a sexual predator at the end of his long prison term.

Schwietz recalls Linehan as ``a nice-looking boy, but not very bright. I think it's good they've still got him locked up. I don't think he knows what he's doing.''

Schwietz had married in 1941, wedding a police officer, Robert Schwietz, who later left law enforcement and became St. Paul's supervisor of floraculture, running the Como Park Conservatory. Now suffering from Alzheimer's disease, Robert only recently moved into a nursing facility.

``It's tough getting used to being alone,'' Schwietz says. The aloneness grew even tougher this spring with the death of her brother Jack. ``He was a sweetheart,'' she says, ''and now I'm the oldest in the family. Oh, great.''

It helps to have ``lots of relatives,'' including three great grandchildren. One of them, an 8-year-old, has even developed an interest in boxing. ``He's going to be like great-great grandpa,'' Schwietz says.

She smiles at the thought. ``A fun life is what we had,'' she says. ``We were all so proud of being a Gibbons.''

D.J. Tice, author of the Century of Stories series, can be reached at dtice@pioneerpress.com or (651) 228-5542.


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