There used to be a particularly dangerous and crime-ridden alley located in what is now the SoHo district of New York City; it ran between ramshackle tenements in a black neighborhood known as Darktown in the early 19th century. “Murderers’ Row” was no place for the decent or the delicate. By the 1870s, the term was used in direct reference to the second tier of the Tombs prison, which loomed a half mile from the alley. In 1918, New York was cheering six sluggers in the Yankees batting order who were bringing fans to their feet; “murderers’ row” they called them.
Boxing is to baseball what a film noir is to a musical. It’s the bad neighborhood of sports. It’s no place for the decent or the delicate. It too has a murderers’ row: eight elite and notorious fighters from the 1940s who evoke the shadowy origins of the name. One of them was mobbed-up to his eyebrows, another was an unsolved mystery until Springs Toledo exhumed and escorted him into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. The oldest, an ex-con, ended his prime in a San Francisco jail after shooting a rival in an all-night restaurant; that rival stood five feet five and fought light heavyweights—while drunk. Two of them were killers.
They were the best of boxing’s underclass, barred from title shots because of the danger surrounding them and the color of their skin. No less than Sugar Ray Robinson and Henry Armstrong steered clear of them. Their remarkable stories before, during, and after their bloody ring careers are quintessential Americana—after hours.