Two tragic tales of national celebrities who met their demise in the Fox Cities
A Hawaiian musical sensation and an Australian boxing champion – what could they have in common? They both met their untimely fates in the Fox Cities and are buried at local cemeteries. These are their stories.
The Guitar King
In an unmarked grave at St. Joseph Cemetery in Appleton lies the body of William Henry Kai, a profoundly gifted musician and entertainer. He was born in the Kingdom of Hawaii in 1880. From 1899 to 1907 he toured in bands and orchestras of varying sizes across the United States. By 1908 he was elevated to the rarified air of being a featured solo performer on the American Vaudeville circuit. Kai was a guitar hero before there was such a thing. Already a well known multi-instrumentalist, he was among the first musicians to introduce the ukulele to mainland audiences and was the first virtuoso of that instrument. He also pioneered the use of multimedia in musical performance.
Kai arrived in Appleton in early October 1908. He rented a room at the house of Mr. and Mrs. George Hamilton on Atlantic Street, then walked downtown to check in at the Bijou Theater where he was booked for a week of shows. His solo act was brilliant. Surrounded by a wide array of stringed instruments, he would sing, tell stories about and perform the music of his homeland in front of a giant screen upon which a changing series of hand-tinted glass slides were projected. Appleton fell in love with the handsome young man who onstage wore a signature white suit with several colorful leis draped about his neck. After a successful run at the Bijou, Kai decided to remain in town in order to rehearse a modified version of his show for upcoming dates in Marinette, Milwaukee and Chicago.
On Friday, October 23, he finished afternoon rehearsals at the Bijou and was returning to his rented room on Atlantic Street. Kai, impatient at a stopped freight train blocking his path at the corner of Bates and Appleton Streets, attempted a shortcut between two boxcars. As he set his foot atop the couplers, the train lurched forward. Kai’s foot slipped into a gap between the couplers and was crushed by the recoil of a sudden stop. Nearby pedestrians rushed to his aid. He was conveyed to St. Elizabeth Hospital where four toes were amputated from his injured foot. The surgery went well and Kai was upbeat.
“His room was filled with flowers and fruit. I went to visit him three times,” wrote Appleton’s Chief of Police Fred Hoefer. However, early on the morning of October 27, Kai began to cough blood. By 4:30 a.m. he was dead. He was 28 years old.
The cause of death was described as “internal hemorrhages.” His grave was not marked with a headstone as his burial was thought to be temporary. Surely some family member would claim his body, but little was known about Kai’s past. In November, Kai’s brother George Sea (Kai is the Hawaiian word for Sea), the High Deputy Sheriff of the Territory of Hawaii, sent a letter of inquiry to the Appleton Police Department. He expressed interest in claiming his brother’s body. Tom K. Hennessey, a Hawaiian musician and Kai’s closest friend, turned up in Appleton to claim Kai’s belongings on behalf of his wife, a cousin of Mr. Kai. Hennessey revealed Kai’s parents died when he was a small boy and he was raised by his grandmother. His grandfather, rumored to be a millionaire, would soon claim the young musician’s body. A month went by, but there was no communication from the mysterious grandfather and in early 1909, George Sea unexpectedly passed away. In the years that followed, the gravesite of William H. Kai was forgotten.
In 1912, the Hawaiian music and culture that William Kai worked so hard to promote became a national craze. Hawaiian musicians now flooded the mainland and filled every theater circuit across the United States. Just years earlier Kai had been one among a few dozen Hawaiian entertainers working full-time in America. The Hawaiian influence on two emerging styles of American music, blues and country, was profound and two unique Hawaiian instruments, the ukulele and the steel guitar attracted mass followings and spawned a number of popular hybrid instruments. I think William Kai would enjoy the fact that Appleton has transformed into a musical town and that so many talented musicians pass through The Refuge at the end of Ballard Road, so close to his grave. William Henry Kai can be found in section J Row 20 Plot E at St. Joseph Cemetery. P.S. He needs a headstone.
Acknowledgement: Many thanks to Frank Groh and Tara Oberg-DuPont at the St. Joseph Cemetery office for kind help, prompt replies and a plot location walk.
The Prizefighter and the Body Snatcher
On March 8, 1913, an employee of the Northwestern Railroad in Neenah was sent to investigate a one room shack adjacent to railroad property behind a boarding house. Loud, violent coughing could be heard inside the structure. The railroad man opened the wooden latch door. Inside, he found a man, slight of figure, lying in a small bed. The man was in the final stages of consumption. In his right hand and close to his face, he clutched a bloody rag. There were numerous scars on his hands and face. A thin wool blanket covered his body. The railroad man kept his distance and asked his name.
Jim Hall was an Irish-born Australian and the most gifted prize fighter of his generation. He fought at the very end of the bare knuckle era and at the beginning of the gloved era. His was a household name at a time when boxing was the number one sport in America. He also was a world class drinker with an explosive temper who delighted in the pure physicality of fighting both in and out of the ring.
In the end, the great Jim Hall would be secretly buried in an unmarked grave in Neenah in order to protect his bones. Twenty years earlier in 1893, Jim Hall fought his rival, Bob Fitzsimmons – a former blacksmith who had once killed an opponent in the ring – for the world middleweight title. To call it the fight of the century would be an injustice. To those who were there, the high level of drama and pageantry surrounding the fight would never be seen again in their lifetimes.
Hall prepared for the fight at the finest training gym in America – John Kline’s Manly Art Institute in Beloit, Wisconsin. Kline, one of the most respected trainers of his time, believed he had in Jim Hall the single finest athlete the fight world had ever seen. But, as always happens in the Jim Hall story, Jim Hall got the best of Jim Hall. He fell off of his training regimen, got lazy and took to women, whiskey and song.
On fight day in New Orleans, the money was on Hall. All across the United States, in cities big and small, millions gathered near telegraph offices to receive blow by blow accounts of the fight. Jim Hall was drunk and confident when he entered the ring. Fitzsimmons was nervous. Hall owned the first three rounds. But in the fourth round, Fitzsimmons caught Hall on the underside of his chin with the entire weight of his considerable body. Hall flew upwards into the air and and landed in a heap. “He was raised off his feet by the power of the blow and was out cold before his body hit the ground,” noted an observer. “For a moment, we thought he was dead.”
Jim Hall never recovered. The years that followed were a downward spiral of won and lost fights, bar brawls, arrests for assault and battery and frequent theft. No one, not even Jim Hall, could keep up with the Jim Hall lifestyle. By 1912, he was bedridden, dying of TB at a charity ward in Chicago, reduced to sneaking into an adjacent morgue at night to steal valuables from the pockets of the recently deceased in order to buy liquor. One day, a Chicago surgeon named Dr. Rahde offered Hall a deal: $150 – half payment up front – for ownership of the prizefighters bones upon death. Rahde planned to exhibit the skeleton of Jim Hall in sideshows across the country. Jim Hall took the money and embarked on a final bender.
When the doctor arrived the next day with final payment, Hall came to his senses. He floored Dr. Rahde with a hard punch and fled north to the last friendly refuge he could think of – Neenah, Wisconsin. A businessman and several Jim Hall fans from the Fox Cities provided the Australian with a room and some pocket money. Hall’s rapidly deteriorating condition forced a series of moves and he ended up in the shack near the railroad tracks where he was found on the morning of March 8, almost 20 years to the day of his title bout with Fitzsimmons.
Hall’s friends arranged for him to be taken to the River Pines TB sanitarium in Stevens Point, an hour train ride to the west. Jim Hall quietly passed away in Stevens Point on March 12, 1913 and was buried in Neenah. When an attempt to raise money for a headstone caught the attention of the ever-watchful Dr. Rahde, the friends of Jim Hall made a pact that there would be no headstone and Hall’s burial site would never be revealed.
Eighty years later in 2006, Bill Schutte, a historian of boxing’s early era, bought the Australian a headstone which reads “Jim Hall, Prizefighter.” Hall is buried, plot 283 at Oak Hill Cemetery in Neenah. He prefers whiskey.
Frank L. Anderson is a musician, animator, director and writer living in Appleton. In 2006 he co-directed the critically acclaimed feature film, “The Life of Reilly,” based on the life of comedian Charles Nelson Reilly. He is the author of Wisconsinology.com and wrote the book “Wicked Fox Cities” for History Press.