Handsome Harry Hooper

Harry Hooper beside his car in 1911. City of Vancouver Archives #371-397

Harry Hooper beside his car in 1911. City of Vancouver Archives #371-397

Harry Hooper, a.k.a. “Handsome Harry” or “Lightning Harry,” was born in Napanee, Ontario, around 1883 and moved to Vancouver with his family when he was three. By the early 20th century, he had become a well-known man-about-town through his various pursuits as a dog breeder, thespian, steamboat operator, taxi driver, and competitive cyclist, but was best known as a race car driver.

Harry Hooper with his bicycle training machine, 1901. Photo by Richard H Trueman, CVA #Trans P51

Harry Hooper with his bicycle training machine, 1901. Photo by Richard H Trueman, CVA #Trans P51

Harry Hooper’s notoriety in Vancouver began when he was just fourteen years old. He and a gang of other boys committed a string of burglaries in the East End in 1897, beginning with the theft of around $40 worth of cigars and cigarettes from Braid & Co. on Water Street, along with some cash they managed to liberate from the safe. Hooper and his six accomplices stashed the loot beneath the wooden sidewalk on Pender Street between Seymour and Richards. Police retrieved the booty after they caught the boys and Harry was given a suspended sentence on the condition that he leave town. He didn’t, and was pinched again a month later after he and his gang broke into Mrs Pierce’s house and stole money and jewelry. Young Harry was in court again in October for stealing 185 empty sacks from the Evans, Coleman & Evans wharf.

By the turn of the century, Hooper had gone legit, but his love of speed landed him back in court on more than one occasion. In 1900 he received a $10 fine for “scorching,” riding a bicycle at excessive speeds off the track. Hooper spent some time working as a professional cyclist, including a tour across Canada with a dog named Dirty Face.

Harry Hooper chauffeuring John Hendry at the Hollow Tree, 1906. CVA #Trans P29

Harry Hooper chauffeuring John Hendry at the Hollow Tree, 1906. CVA #Trans P29

Hooper found his true calling behind the wheel of a car, and by 1906 was the chauffeur for John Hendry, a lumber baron and the head of VW & Y Railway Company. He was again fined for speeding as Hendry’s driver. There were very few cars on Vancouver streets in 1907, but two other speed demons appeared in court the same day as Harry: BT Rogers, founder of the BC Sugar Refinery, and William Stark, who worked in his father’s dry goods store, Stark’s Glasgow House, now the Cambie Hotel. (Cars were still a rich man’s toy in 1907). Stark and Rogers were fined for driving 16 mph, but Lightning Harry licked them both by topping 20 mph. The next month Hooper accompanied his boss to New York, leading the World newspaper to remark that “if he starts autoing in Father Knickerbocker’s staid old town and strikes the same speed as the police clocked him on here, he is liable to put the traffic of that ancient village into inextricable confusion.”

Handsome Harry worked various other driving jobs, such as demonstrating cars and operating a sightseeing tour car. In 1909, Hooper received a $75,000 inheritance, which, he said, he would use to “get into the automobile business on an extensive scale.” He started the Hooper Taxicab Co., but sold out his share shortly after, and of course raced cars whenever the opportunity arose, becoming known as the “Barney Oldfield of Vancouver” in reference to a famous American driver.

Harry Hooper racing at the Brighouse in Richmond, 1911. CVA #Park P8.1

Harry Hooper racing at the Brighouse in Richmond, 1911. CVA #Park P8.1

In 1910, Hooper set a speed record for driving from Seattle to Vancouver in nine hours and thirty-two minutes. In 1916 and 1919, Hooper put his driving skills to the test by racing biplanes. He didn’t win either time, but put on a good show for the crowd. The first time, the World reported that Hooper’s “mechanician perform[ed] some hair-raising stunts” during the race, and in 1919, that the contest was “neck-and-neck.”

Harry Hooper racing a biplane at Minoru Park. Vancouver Daily World, 3 July1919

Harry Hooper racing a biplane at Minoru Park. Vancouver Daily World, 3 July 1919

When the Great Depression hit, Hooper didn’t want to be one of the many unemployed men clogging Vancouver’s streets, and so took up placer mining on the Fraser River. City archivist Major Matthews interviewed Hooper in 1937 for his Early Vancouver oral history project. This is how Matthews described Hooper:

Harry Hooper on his boat, "The Lady Van," in the 1920s. CVA #371-380

Harry Hooper on his boat, “The Lady Van,” in the 1920s. CVA #371-380

Pioneer of “Gastown,” associate of prince and pauper, who is in Vancouver, at the Regent Hotel, from his placer mine on the banks of the Fraser River, two miles from Chimney Creek, twenty-two miles from Williams Lake, twelve miles from the nearest store, two miles from his mail box, where he lives with his three dogs and four cats, but no one else, surrounded by his garden full of vegetables; with his radio; gets six newspapers at a time at the end of the week; hangs beef, pork, and mutton in the shed in winter time, and when he wants some, cuts it off; catches the finest of salmon in the river, and salts it down; says that money is worthless; that there is no need for a solitary individual in British Columbia to be “on relief,” and says he has washed fifteen hundred dollars of gold out of the hill side since last May—about four months. He wants a road into his place—about two miles of road; he also needs teeth.

Harry Hooper in 1930s. CVA #371-379

Harry Hooper in the 1930s. CVA #371-379

After WWII, Harry Hooper worked as a metal worker for West Coast Shipbuilders in North Vancouver. He was back in Vancouver, living in an office in the old Stock Exchange building across from Woodward’s on West Hastings Street, when he died in 1956. The dearth of information on his death certificate suggests that this once well-known Vancouver character had mostly been forgotten by that time.

John L Sullivan, Champion of Champions

John L Sullivan at Hollow Tree

John L Sullivan and his wife at the Hollow Tree in Stanley Park. Source: Yale University, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, #WA MSS S-2513

John L Sullivan, aka the “Boston Strong Boy,” was the first sports superstar. After winning the heavyweight boxing title in 1882, he went on to become the first athlete to earn over a million dollars, although he spent money faster than it came in. With his robust paunch and the stiff, upright boxing pose popular in early boxing pics, he doesn’t appear very menacing to the modern eye, but before the introduction of the Queensberry Rules, boxing was a bloody, brutal, bare-knuckle affair that was outlawed in many jurisdictions.

The last bare-knuckle title fight was between Sullivan and Jake Kilrain in 1889. The bout drew a few thousand fight fans from all over to Richburg, Mississippi, even though the location and and exact time were kept secret as long as possible because boxing was illegal in that state. The time-keeper was Bat Masterson, the gunslinging lawman most famous for cleaning up Dodge City, Kansas. Sullivan won, successfully defending his title after 75 rounds in the 106° F heat, making him the last bare-knuckle champion and cementing his status as one of the most famous people in the world.

John L Sullivan Jake Kilrain fight

The seventh round of the John L Sullivan and Jake Kilrain bare-knuckle fight, Mississippi, 8 July 1889. Photo from WikiMedia Commons.

When John L first came to Vancouver on 8 January 1892, it wasn’t for a boxing match, but to star in a play at the Vancouver Opera House on Granville Street. He was the biggest draw the venue had to date, though the papers felt compelled to manage readers’ expectations around John L’s acting skills, comparing him to the trained animal acts that graced vaudeville stages. Aware of Sullivan’s notorious heavy drinking, the theatre assured audiences that the show would not offend; Sullivan was “keeping perfectly sober,” they said, and “no ‘scenes’ are expected to occur here.”

The show went off without a hitch and Sullivan received a three minute standing ovation, but declined to make a speech as he did in San Francisco when he told the crowd, “I know I ain’t no actor, but I gets the money just the same, see!” People flocked to see the great John L, the pugilist, not a seasoned thespian, but they did get a kick out of his performance, especially when he spoke of “me dear old mudder.” Later that year, Sullivan’s reign as heavyweight champ ended when “Gentleman” Jim Corbett famously knocked him out in New Orleans. His prizefighting career was winding down but his stage career had only begun.

John L Sullivan

John L Sullivan. Photo from Afflictor.com.

When he returned to the Opera House in 1899, John L had been “cured of the idea that he can act.” In a show called “A Trip Across the Ocean,” Sullivan was joined by his old bare-knuckle nemesis, Jake Kilrain. The pair showed off their boxing prowess “without their somewhat painful attempts to do what they used to do,” leaving the acting to the professionals in the cast.

John L Sullivan was fond of Vancouver and returned many times, along with Kilrain and various other boxers. Unlike other athletes past their prime, John L remained extremely popular and consistently drew large crowds. When he and Kilrain performed at the Pantages in 1909, hundreds were turned away each night and police were needed to clear the sidewalks. He was still considered the “Champion of Champions” and widely admired for his role in turning boxing from a barbaric, underground pastime to a legitimate sport. Even Jack Johnson, who had criticized Sullivan for refusing to take on black challengers for the heavyweight title, praised him for always being “on the level” and accepted John L’s offer to referee his 1910 Reno match with Jim Jeffries for no money.

John L and Kilrain World 10Sept1910

John L Sullivan and Jack Kilrain demonstrating boxing techniques, Vancouver Daily World, 10 September 1910.

Sullivan deepened his relationship with Vancouver with each visit. In addition to his stage appearances, John L spent time with aspiring young pugilists at the Vancouver Athletic Club, refereeing one of their boxing matches and giving them advice; guest-edited the sports section of the Vancouver Daily World; arranged for local cinemas to show rare boxing films and slides from his personal collection; and umpired a baseball game.

John L editing the sports page of the Vancouver Daily World, 26 February 1909.

John L editing the sports page of the Vancouver Daily World, 26 February 1909.

John L’s second career as a vaudeville attraction proved almost as lucrative as his boxing career, and he was finally able to settle down on a farm he bought outside his hometown of Boston with his new wife. He also spent $10,000 on property in Vancouver’s Point Grey and considered building a house and spending part of the year here in his retirement, but it looks like it remained just an investment property. He explained to a reporter in 1913 that he regretted not investing in Vancouver real estate much earlier:

I have lots of friends in Vancouver. It’s thirty years since I was first here, and my last visit was three years ago. I could kick myself in forty different places at once when I think of the lost opportunities in life. I always had a notion Vancouver would be a great town some day. I was right enthusiastic for its future and more than once had a notion of investing a thousand or so here when the place was little more than a fish camp. I am more than ever enthusiastic now. But money was ‘easy-come’ those days and it looked like the stream would never stop flowing, so it was just as ‘easy-go.’ Think what a thousand invested then would mean now.

John L Sullivan in Vancouver, from the Vancouver Daily World, 5 Jan. 1892, 18 Apr. 1899, 20 Feb. 1909, 16 Sep. 1910, and 3 Mar. 1913.

John L Sullivan in Vancouver, from the Vancouver Daily World, 5 Jan. 1892, 18 Apr. 1899, 20 Feb. 1909, 16 Sep. 1910, and 3 Mar. 1913.

John L Sullivan died on his Massachusetts farm on 2 Februrary 1918. Jake Kilrain was an usher at his funeral.