Boxing, Murder, and Firefighting, Oh My!
The story of Norman Selby, also known as Charles "Kid" McCoy.
Researched and written by William "Bill" Lellis, Chief Larkspur Fire Department, retired.
There have been many outstanding fire chiefs in the history of the Marin County Fire Service whose stories could fill volumns of print. Their names are often etched on brass plates that adorn wooden plaques on our fire station walls. These include Chiefs Dan Schneider of San Rafael, Nello Marcucci of San Anselmo, Charles Reilley of Marin County FD, and Leslie Armager of Mill Valley, just to name a few.
This is the story of the most famous and notorious fire chief to ever serve in Marin County. World Champion and Hall of Fame boxer Norman Selby became better known as “Charles ‘Kid’ McCoy.” Selby was born in 1872 in the small town of Moscow, Indiana, one of five children. At the age of thirteen, Norman ran away from the farm and began to ride the freight trains of middle America. Some say he developed his pugilistic skills by beating up hobos he met riding the rails.
At the age of eighteen, Norman Selby became a professional fighter, and changed his name to Charles McCoy, which he allegedly acquired from a burlesque number featuring exploits of safecrackers, ‘Kid’ McCoy and Spike Hennessey. His first boxing fight was in 1891, when he was only nineteen years old. Six years later in London, England, he would win the world championship in the middleweight divison by knocking out a South African by the name of Dan Creedon.
McCoy never defended the title, choosing to abandon the crown to pursue the world heavyweight championship. Despite his handicap in size, McCoy battled the best heavyweights of his era, and defeated Joe Choynski, Gus Ruhlin, and Peter Maher. Later Tom Sharkey and “Gentleman Jim" Corbett defeated him. The Corbett ﬁght was the subject of controversy, as the ending was suspect and Corbett's estranged wife claimed the bout was ﬁxed.
McCoy had become famous for his cork-screw punch, in those days the normal boxing position was the hands up in the puglistic position. As he threw his punch he would twist his wrist just on impact to the opponents jaw to form the cork screw blow (see Figure 2). According to McCoy, he learned the punch one evening while resting in someone's barn after a day of riding the rails. He noticed a cat strike at a ball of string and imitated its actions (see Figure 2A). Whether true or not, McCoy was known as a fast, "scientiﬁc" ﬁghter who would cut his opponents with sharp blows.
Some writers of the day referred to McCoy as the “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” of the boxing ring. For a bare-knuckles fight, he once wrapped his hands in friction tape to better cut his opponent’s face. Another time he rubbed his gloves with ammonia, which soon ended up in his rival’s eyes. Before he fought “Sailor” Tom Sharkey, he kidnapped the heavyweight’s sparring partner and pressured him for a scouting report. And then there was the time he fought a deaf boxer, the Kid mouthed the words that the bell had just rung and pointed him to his corner. When the guy turned, McCoy knocked him out.
While McCoy was on a tour of Australia and some Paciﬁc Isles, he took on ‘all comers’ to supplement his income.
In one fight, McCoy, who weighed 160 pounds, agreed to box a huge native weighing more than 250 pounds.
He had watched the native practice and noted he fought in his bare feet. When the ﬁght began, McCoy's manager threw handfuls of tacks into the ring, causing the bare-footed challenger to drop his guard and raise up one foot. As soon as he did so, McCoy punched out his distracted adversary.
In the late 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, the only way the public learned about events of the day was through their daily newspapers. On many newspapers he would appear on the front pages talking about his fists and fights. Having his image on a card issued by a cigarette company back then was 100 percent free publicity (see Figure 3).
His nine marriages included a pair of well-known actresses and more than one rich widow. “I could always fight the men,” he once said, “but not the women.” While in Europe on a fight tour, McCoy and a group of boxing friends got too close to the fighting at the German front lines during WW I. One boxer was killed and four were injured. While on his way back to America after two successful defenses of his title, he was arrested on charges of grand larceny by the Belgium goverment.
McCoy was alleged to have stolen $250,000 worth of jewelry belonging to the Belgian princess. His friends maintained he was innocent and that it was a case of mistaken identity. He was later released, and returned to the United States. Following his boxing career, McCoy entered the service of his country. Some accounts say he served with the National Guard along the Mexican border and as a recruiter, while other accounts have him in the Army as a boxing instructor.
He had an outstanding boxing record of 81 wins (55 by knockout, with six losses, nine no decisions, and six disqualiﬁcations.) He was knocked out only four times, once by “Gentleman Jim” Corbet. His last fight was in 1916, after a 25-year boxing career. McCoy was listed # 1 Light Heavyweight of all time in Fifty Years At Ringside, published in 1958. Also known as a formidable puncher, he was included in Ring Magazine's list of the 100 greatest punchers of all time. Many years later a young boxer named Cassius Clay from Louisville, Kentucky, would use the corkscrew punch to win the world heavyweight boxing championship in 1964.
Trying to make a living after boxing, McCoy tried his hand in numerous professions - opening and quickly closing a jewelry store on Broadway, owning a saloon, being a private detective, and selling cars. He then worked his way to Southern California and Hollywood, and the Hollywood crowd adored him. He appeared in nineteen films, mostly playing bit roles as the bad guy in silent movies. He helped coach Charley Chaplin on how to box for a movie in 1924 (see Figure 4).
He was charged with fraud when he was associated with a oil stock scandal when he allowed his name to be used. Like all celebrities he liked fast cars - he was brought into court for speeding on Wiltshire Boulevard, where he was clocked going 33 mph! When his star began to fade in the 1920's, the Kid fell on hard times. His fortune gone after eight divorces, McCoy, then 51, filed for bankruptcy, and real trouble started when he had an affair with an attractive married woman in her late 30's who was filing for divorce.
Her name was Mrs. Theresa Mors, and her husband Albert was a wealthy antiques dealer in Hollywood. She moved in with McCoy. Her friends Sam and Ann Schapp, who owned a dress shop next to the Mors antique store, apparently told her that McCoy was a bum. On Aug. 12th, 1924, McCoy came home drunk. When Theresa told him what her friends thought of him and that she was going back to her husband, the Kid knocked her teeth out, stabbed her and shot her in the head. McCoy drank all night and, by the next morning, wanted to kill Albert Mors too.
Mors wasn't at his shop when McCoy got there, so he kept eleven people hostage while he waited. He ordered three men to take off their pants to discourage escape. One tried to escape, and McCoy shot him in the leg. Another hostage was a nineteen-year-old named Frances, soon to be married. McCoy gathered up the hostages' money, giving $300 to Frances as a wedding gift. She later returned the money to its owners.
Albert Mors never arrived at the shop, reportedly he was getting a haircut and afterwards his new Cadillac wouldn't start, effectively saving his life. Frustrated by the wait, McCoy went in search of the Schnapps who had called him a bum. He shot and wounded them before driving off at high speed, but the police caught him.
Upon questioning, McCoy claimed Therese Mors had committed suicide. He was tried and convicted by a very aggressive District Attorney named Asa Keys. McCoy was convicted of several charges - manslaughter with a sentence of ten years, assault to commit murder for seven years, robbery for seven years, and assault with a deadly weapon for six years. The first three sentences were to run consecutively for a total of twenty-four years.
So on April 11th, 1925, the former champion entered the gates of the State penitentiary at San Quentin as an inmate. He was assigned to work in the infamous Jute Mill. The Mill was a large building filled with weaving machines to make burlap bags for the farmers of the San Joaquin Valley. Each inmate was required to produce 100 yards of material every day. The mill ran around the clock, and the work was known as a terrible job – very noisy and dusty.
In January of 1909, a fire in the Jute Mill took the life of prisoner and fireman S.J. Frooman, Marin’s first firefighter fatality in the line of duty. Frooman was buried with honors in San Rafael, California by the prison guards, who took up a collection to make it happen. See the line of duty death section on our history site for more on this story.
Dr. Jekyll emerges
The Kid was just another inmate, but the others all knew who he was and they gave him all the space he needed. Almost every day Norman would receive packages of sweets and letters, some with money, from around the world. The “who’s who” of Hollywood would come to the prison by ferry to visit him, including celebrities such as Al Jolson, Sophy Tucker, and Lionel Barrymore.
The Kid took his assignment at the Mill and never complained, producing his daily quantity of burlap every day. By all reports he was an ideal prisoner, with a spotless record according to prison officials. Due to the hard conditions at the Mill, inmates would take any other job at the prison if the opportunity presented itself. San Quentin was about to create chain gangs to work the highways and roads of California, and when asked if he wanted to work on one McCoy jumped at the chance to get out of the Jute Mill.
The chain gang that he served on was working on the roads near San Simeon in central California when a single engine plane crashed into the hillside nearby. Without hesitation, the Kid ran to the crash site and rescued the pilot from the plane, saving his life. When the gang returned to the confines of San Quentin the warden and his staff recognized his heroic action by offering him the job of being the Information Officer (tour guide) for all new inmates.
This included showing new inmates how things worked in general at the prison, where to go and not to go, and to not be late for chow. On December 18th, 1930 Asa Keys, the Los Angeles District Attorney who had prosecuted him, was brought in as an inmate in San Quentin after a conviction of bribery. The Kid was his tour guide and introduced Keys to the prison.
If citizens wished a tour of the prison, who better to show them but the world famous Kid McCoy? But at the end of his day he was still a prisoner, returning to his small concrete cell measuring four feet wide, ten feet deep, and seven feet high.
The parole of a prisoner named Thomas Ryan would open up one of the most cherished jobs at the institution, that of being a prison fireman. As such the Kid would live just outside the maximum security walls, in the basement of the administration building. His duties would be taking care of the boilers, and maintaining the prison fire hydrants and extinguishers.
He would not be locked in a cell and would sleep on a regular bed, and was free to walk about the grounds. McCoy would not have to eat his meals with the “Main Line”, with food instead brought to him by a fellow convict. He would dine alone, but was a semi-free man.
On November 10th, 1928 it was reported that Kid McCoy was appointed Fire Chief by Warden James B. Holohan (1927-1936) of the State prison at San Quentin. His new fire helmet read in gold letters “Chief S.Q.F.D.” The warden was very proud to have Kid McCoy in his prison; it was a good subject to talk about at any civic meeting. For example, on Oct. 18, 1929 the following article appeared in the Sausalito News:
Sausalito News, Number 42, 18 October 1929
“FIREMEN MEET TONIGHT
The Marin County Association of Fire Departments will hold its regular monthly meeting at California Park tonight at 8 o’clock. Special features have been arranged with the mayors of the various towns as invited guests. Warden Holohan of San Quentin will talk on the prison fire fighting organization of which "Kid” McCoy is the chief.”
As the San Quentin Fire Chief, McCoy had some large fire protection challenges. He was basically in charge of fire protection for a small town at the edges of San Francisco Bay. This included the protection of over 4,000 prisoners, and the nearby housing that the prison staff and their families lived in along with a school.
Under the leadership of Warden Holohan, Chief Selby took over control of the very modern prison fire department. There was a new two-story double bay firehouse (see Figure 5), along with a REO fire truck. The San Quentin REO was a combination pumper and chemical wagon. The large brass tank that sat behind the seat was a 44-gallon soda and acid tank. The driver upon arrival would turn a large handle, which in turn broke an acid bottle mixing with the soda water, creating pressure for a stream. Underneath the seat was a positive pressure 300gpm rotary gear pump. The truck had over 1,000 feet of fire hose.
Ransom Eli Olds founded what would later become the Oldsmobile Company. However, Olds left the company and form a new one, using his first initials to form REO (see Figure 6). His trucks were called "SpeedWagons", first introduced in 1915.
REO was one of the best-known manufacturers of commercial vehicles prior to World War II. The SpeedWagon was manufactured in a variety of configurations to serve as delivery, tow, dump, and fire trucks, as well as hearses and ambulances. Decades later, the rock and roll band REO Speedwagon took its name from this vehicle.
Another fire truck, a Ford, was also centrally located near the water front, manned by a fireman at night, and in the day time, by men from the garage. In 1930 Chief Selby took possession of a new American La France, Type 199 (see Figure 7).
Throughout the prison there were forty-five fire ‘plugs’, or hydrants, half of them outside the walls, and the rest within. Located at strategic points, as in each room, and upon each floor of the Shops Buildings, was a firehose reel attached to the plugs, ready for action. In such a manner over fifty-seven hundred feet of firehose was distributed around and above the insititution.
The greatest fire hazards then were the Shops Building, the Hospital, and the Jute Mill. By law every building had to be inspected yearly. The Mill alone had experienced two major structure fires before Chief Selby took office, including the one where S.J. Frooman was killed.
On November 10th, 1929 Chief Selby’s fire skills would be tested when the historic Red Mill Inn, located just 300 feet outside the prison main gate, was ablaze. The chief had twenty convict firefighters under his command, along with help from the San Rafael FD. Armed guards stood by to assure no one attemped to escape. The fire started on the second floor of the Inn. Barrels of oil used for the service station exploded, nearly taking out a number of firefighters.
The construction of the Inn was heavy timber, which were at risk of collapsing on the firefighters. A drafting operation was set up, and hose was laid from the edge of the bay waters across the highway to the fireground, but they could not save the Inn. A number of private boats tied up under the Inn were also destroyed. A primary exposure was the terminus of the San Rafael to Richmond ferry system, back before the Richmond San Rafael Bridge existed.
Small grass fires that started around the hillside were quickly brought under control by the prison firefighters. The mill was once part of the original Baltimore Saw Mill that cut lumber up in the Baltimore Canyon in Larkspur, providing lumber that helped build San Francisco.
During his entire time in prison, world famous people would petition the Wardens and the Governor to pardon the Kid, including celebrities such as Vice President of the United States Charles Curtis, General Douglas MacArthur, Henry Ford, and World Champion boxer Gentleman Jim Corbet to name a few.
Selby went before the parole board but did not get approved because he had no job to go to once released. Henry Ford, upon learning of this situation, stepped up and told the board The Kid had a job waiting as Athletic Director at the Ford plants in Detroit (see Figure 8).
So on July 20th, 1932, Prisoner and Fire Chief Norman Selby was paroled after serving six years. Fame would once more touch the Kid. Three years later he witnessed a boat overturned on Lake Michigan with seven family members aboard. The Kid rushed into the water, like he had years ago on the grounds of San Simeon, and rescued five children, repeatedly diving to pull each child to safety. The parents did not survive. For his action, the state of Michigan wanted to bestow on him a medal of bravery, but he refused the honor.
McCoy had remarried former wife Sue Cowley on August 3rd, 1937. They lived a low-key life, until he rented a room at the Hotel Tuller on August 18th, 1940. The next morning the desk clerk found him dead in the room, an empty bottle of sleeping pills next to him, $17.78 in his pockets and a suicide note nearby.
McCoy ended the note with the line: “To all my dear friends … sorry I could not endure this world’s madness.” He went out as he had come in, signing it Norman Selby. Later it was discovered the 66-year old had been working on an autobiography titled “Life Jabs Back.”
He left the world as he came into it - as Norman Selby, but in between he lived his life as boxer Charles "Kid" McCoy. In the boxing ring, he was clever, devious, a notorious cheater and his flamboyance that could rival the best in professional wrestling. His challenges, however, were out of the ring – mainly with women. Between his eight and ninth wife, he had murdered his girlfriend.
In 1991 the World Boxing Council elected him in to Boxing Hall of Fame. I would like to remember him as Dr. Jekyll, the man who saved a pilot and pulled five kids out of Lake Michigan, and also fought many fires without regard for his own safety.
So as the “Kid”, Norman Selby has passed into Marin County’s fire history (Figure 9). In probably his most comfortable role, that of prison mentor and elder confidante, he had once warned a young convict: "Remember that the bright lights go out the quickest. Kid McCoy knows."