Sunday, November 6, 2016

Cannonballs, Boxers, and Music Halls: Robert E. Howard's Stay in San Antonio by Todd B. Vick

Robert E. Howard certainly loved San Antonio, Texas. On several occasions he declared it was not only his favorite city in Texas, but boasted that it was probably the greatest city in the country. Back in early 1931, Robert E. Howard and his parents stayed in San Antonio for several months. While there, Howard worked on genealogy research, took in the city, enjoyed a few prize fights, frequented a number of bookstores, and visited a few pubs. Periodically he would write his friend, Tevis Clyde Smith, to give him an account of the goings on in the city.

These letters are some of the most interesting Howard wrote during this small stretch of time. In one of the letters, circa March 1931, he told Smith that George Godfrey was in town for a heavyweight prize fight. That particular evening Godfrey was apparently at one of the local music halls publicly taunting carnival and vaudeville performer, Frank "Cannonball" Richards. Godfrey was a mountainous figure for the time, standing six-three and weighing around 250 lbs of pure muscle.
Jack Dempsey & George Godfrey
Publicity Photo

Godfrey had a reputation, due to his enormous size, of being not only a braggart, but sometimes a pompous wind-bag. On several occasions this got Godfrey in hot water. A prime example, the Langford/Godrefy fights. Sam Langford was dwarfed (standing only five-eight) and substantially out-sized by Godfrey, and because of this Godfrey taunted Langford before their first bout. Langford, a legend in the sport of boxing, didn't much care for the attitude and preceded to hammer Godfrey in their first of three bouts, knocking him out. Godfrey would later win the World Colored Heavyweight Championship twice and would eventually fight heavy weight champion Primo Carnera.

Frank "Cannonball" Richards had spent years traveling with carnivals and vaudeville shows demonstrating his enormous abdominal strength, letting people punch, kick and swing sledgehammers at his belly. He also had a special twelve-foot cannon rigged to shoot a 104 lbs cannonball into his stomach. This feat would toss him back about 6 feet into a safety net. He then would stand up, unscathed, causing the onlooking crowds to burst into applause and awe.

Frank "Cannonball" Richards
"Well, pretty soon I'm going down to a music hall, I think, and watch the big smoke George Godfrey do his stuff." wrote Howard. Godfrey was challenging onlookers to punch him in the stomach and Howard declared, "they have a 212 pound smoke for the job." Word had apparently got around that Godfrey was not only taunting Richards, but challenging onlookers to punch his stomach. Someone had found a 212 pound man who was up to the challenge, and Howard didn't want to miss the hoopla. In response, Howard writes, "Frank Richards, the man with the iron belly is in town and raging. He says George is trying to steal his stuff and will probably raise some kind of hell at the fights tonight."

There is surviving film footage of Frank Richards performing his feats in various locales which has circulated widely and been used in various television shows and documentaries, it has become somewhat of a pop sensation. The Simpsons even parodied Richards on one of their episodes. Homer Simpson, on a stage in front of thousands of people, humorously performs the exact cannonball stunt Richards did so many decades ago.

It's not known whether Howard went to the music hall, he never writes a follow-up letter to Smith. It is also not known whether Frank Richards showed up at George Godfrey's fight, as Howard had heard that he might. Even so, Howard's letter gives us a nice peek into the pop culture of his time.

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