(To see Cal Grondahl’s cartoon that goes with this post, click here.) A lot of Mormon lore has surrounded Willard Bean, a professional boxer (at right in a Salt Lake Tribune 1902 photo boxing Fireman Jim Flynn, Bean is at right) around the turn of the 20th century who, in 1915, was called with his new wife, Rebecca, and his two children by a previous marriage, Paul and Phyllis, to a mission to Palmyra, N.Y. Although the area, which includes the Hill Cumorah, is prominent in Mormon history, it was accurately described in 1915 as very hostile to the Mormons. Bean and his family lived in the Joseph Smith Sr. farm, which had been purchased by the church.
As an article by David F. Boone, in the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, notes, it was a tough but ultimately successful mission that lasted 24 years. Bean was no stranger to missions. He had served a southern states mission, another area hostile, and at times dangerous, for LDS missionaries of that era. One major success was Bean’s purchase, for the church, of the Hill Cumorah.
Bean was known as the Fighting Parson,” as well as the “Mormon Cyclone,” and much lore has been related about his success as a professional boxer. In a 1985 Ensign article, “Willard Bean: Palmyra’s Fighting Parson,” author Vicki Bean Zimmerman claims that Bean was the U.S. middleweight boxing champion. I cannot verify that information, and it seems very unlikely, as Bean, in his late 40s, was long retired when he and his family accepted the Palmyra mission call.
That Bean may have used his fists occasionally to get respect in Palmyra is plausible. Boone, in his JBMS article, records an incident where Bean, after being drenched with a neighbor’s hose, beat up the man. According to Boone, who cites Bean’s wife as a second-hand source, the two men later became friends. Bean Zimmerman, in the Ensign article, claims that Bean arranged a boxing exhibition in Palmyra and fought seven men in one day, knocking out all seven opponents. Because the author is a granddaughter of Bean, one has to assume that at least elements of it are accurate, as it likely has been passed down through the family. (There is also a biography of Bean, written by another granddaughter, that is allegedly available for sale at the website http://www.willardbean.com. I am making efforts to locate and read the biography.)
I’m a huge boxing fan, and I needed to find out if the Willard Bean of LDS boxing lore was accurate. Was he a top fighter, or just one of many middling pugilists who traveled the West 110-plus years ago fighting? The answer is favorable to Bean. He was not a top contender, but he was a better-than-average fighter for his era. The boxing record site, www.boxrec.com, provides Bean a record of 5 wins, 5 losses, 1 draw, 1 no decision and 1 no contest (here). The time frame covers 1897 to 1902. While a 5-5 “record” may seem mediocre, boxrec only gathers the fights it has recorded. Like silent films, the results of many old fights are “lost.” Bean was born in 1872. Based on the caliber of his opposition, it’s clear that he must have had at least another 20-plus fights, of which he likely won most. Perhaps some day an energetic researcher (myself?) will spend weeks scanning through 19th century Utah newspapers to locate the lost fights.
Two opponents of Bean’s provide evidence that he was a well-regarded above-average boxer. On April 17, 1899, Bean fought a 10-round “no decision” bout with Joe Choynski, who is regarded as one of the elite fighters of that era. Choynski was a former world light heavyweight champion before he fought Bean and later won the U.S. 170-pound championship. He fought a draw with future heavyweight champ, James J. Jeffries. In short, to fight Choynski, as Bean did, proved he was a good pro boxer.
The April 18, 1899 Salt Lake Tribune provides a long account of the Choynski, Bean fight. The article regards the match as relatively one-sided — in Choynski’s favor — but also compliments Bean. “In part, it reads above the small type: “Utah Man Gets Experience: Choynski Allows the Local Fighter a Number of Liberties, and Apologizes When He Gives Him an Unexpectedly Hard Knock. Bean was in Good Form, and the Faith of His Admirers Has Been Strengthened — Gives a Giddy Whirl at the Close.”
In the article, Choynski, who clearly dominated the bout, calls Bean a good prospect, but adds that he’ll need to leave Utah to become a world-class boxer. Given Bean’s devotion to Mormonism, that was not to occur, although a year later he fought in San Francisco, Choynski’s home, against Phil Green on March 30, 1900. In the scheduled 20-round bout, Green stopped Bean in round 7.
The second most notable opponent on Bean’s record is Fireman Jim Flynn, a heavyweight contender during the first two decades of the 20th century. Flynn would fight heavyweight champ Jack Johnson for the world title on July 4, 2012, losing by a 9th round knockout. The “Fireman” is best known for scoring a first round KO over future heavyweight champ Jack Dempsey in Murray, on Feb. 13, 1917. The Salt Lake Telegram’s Feb. 14 headline on the bout was a laconic “J. Dempsey forgets to duck,” and noted that the fight lasted about 25 seconds. (A year and day later, Dempsey would get his revenge, destroying Flynn in the first round.)
However, when Bean met Flynn on April 7, 1902, in Salt Lake City, the “Fireman” was a highly regarded prospect who outpointed the “Fighting Parson” over 20 rounds. The April 8, 1902 Salt Lake Tribune provided a long article, with a photo of both fighters. The above-the-type recap makes it clear that Flynn was the better fighter. It reads in part: “Bean puts up a game battle, but is outclassed by heavier opponent. Flynn proves himself a “Comer.” The reporter notes that the fight was even for four rounds but after that, Flynn dominated with “Only Bean’s excellent boxing, clever head and footwork, his ability to stand punishment and wonderful recuperative powers prevented a knockout.“Boxrec tabs the Flynn loss as Bean’s final fight. Again, that may not be true.
Although I can’t prove this, it’s my hunch that the Choynski fight spurred Bean to try to make it to a higher echelon of boxing. He appeared on higher-level cards that were saved for history books, and fought tougher opponents with varying success. He may have retired after losing to Flynn, at the age of 30. Or he may have picked up some more wins against lesser opposition in “lost” fights.
As I mentioned earlier, there’s no evidence that Bean was U.S. middleweight champ, as the Ensign magazine claims. However, he did fight Jack Christy on March 21, 1902 (18 days prior to Flynn) for the Utah middleweight boxing championship, in Provo. However Bean lost that bout via a disqualification in the 12th round for hitting Christy on the break. It must have been a frustrating loss for Bean, as news reports say he was on the verge of knocking out his opponent when the bout ended. From the March 22, 1902 Deseret News: “In all probability the blow that lost the fight was the result of carelessness on the part of Bean, in his anxiety to finish Christie, (sic) who was helpless from the head blows …” Here’s a newspaper reports of one of Bean’s wins. On May 6, 1897, the Tribune reported on Bean’s win in Provo over Salt Lake City boxer Sam Clark. In “Provo Glove Contest,” the Tribune, noting that Bean was a Brigham Young Academy athlete, wrote that “Bean demonstrated his superiority” over Clark, adding that “in the ninth round Bean floored Clark with a stiff punch with his right …” (It’s worth noting that Bean, according to boxrec, was also a frequent boxing referee in the first 15 years of the 2oth century. He refereed three fights involving Flynn, by the way. He also refereed a fight with Battling Nelson, a world lightweight champion (here).)
So that’s a part of the pugilistic history of Mormon boxer Willard Bean. There’s likely much more to be unearthed. He was certainly a colorful character, and the perfect man to restore the LDS Church to respect in Palmyra, with his preaching skills backed up by a good left hook and fair straight right hand.
A final note: The newspaper accounts are located at Utah Digital Newspapers, (here), a valuable tool for historians.