Discover more from Dirtbags Through the Ages
wake me up before you dojo
Or, the unhinged Midwestern karate wars of John Keehan.
There is no possible way I can do a normal introduction for today’s dirtbag. If I tried he would leap from the grave to kick me in the throat. So I’m just gonna go for it. Today, we’re talking about…
John Keehan AKA Count Dante, the Karate King of Chicago!
My primary source for this newsletter is an absolutely fucking incredible article that Joe DeCeault wrote for WBEZ a couple weeks ago, which I have to shout out because hot damn. I was just minding my business, reading my weekly news roundup from my local public radio station, when this story showed up and punched me in the face. Thanks, Joe. This is why I pledge $5 a month.
In Which The Initial Plot Is Surprisingly Similar To Kung-Fu Panda Really
John Keehan was born in 1939 in Beverly, a predominately Irish neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. When Keehan was a teenager, he tried to stop a home intruder from robbing his family home and got his ass handed to him. So his dad did what any responsible parent would do: he signed his teenage son up for boxing lessons.
I don’t know why this is so funny. The idea of your dad being like “who needs SimpliSafe? My 14-year-old son’s fists are lethal weapons” is sending me.
Keehan trained at the gym of Johnny Coulon, a famous Chicago-area boxer and the proud owner of the most Wild West-ass name I’ve read in a long time. Keehan took to fighting like a fish to water, and as he got older, he got obsessed with martial arts of all kinds, karate included.
Keehan enlisted in the army in the 1950s, but immediately set about getting himself discharged so he could follow his true passion: being a kung-fu-obsessed weirdo. Once he successfully got kicked out in 1960, he moved to Arizona to train with the “Father of American Karate,” a guy named Robert Trias who literally wrote the book on karate:
I have been sitting here laughing at this book for probably 10 straight minutes. Everything about it is perfect. If you have a used copy please send it to me c/o my agent.
By 1962, when Keehan was 23, he decided he’d learned everything he needed to about karate from Trias and moved back to Chicago. There, he established his own dojo, the Imperial Academy of Fighting Arts. What empire this name was referring to is anyone’s fucking guess.
Longtime readers of this newsletter will probably know what’s going to happen next.
You guessed it: John Keehan went off the fucking deep end.
Not satisfied with being a karate expert, he also decided to become the most whimsically threatening man in 1960s Chicago. He dressed like a cartoon gangster. He sank obscene amounts of money into fast cars. In the long and storied tradition of historical dirtbags with weird pets, this son of a bitch found a lion cub named Aurelia and took it for walks through Gold Coast on a leash.
I have lived in Chicago for nigh on 10 years and the closest I’ve ever gotten to seeing something this fucking cool is the guy at Lady Gregory’s in Andersonville who I watched drink three beers with a literal red-and-green macaw on his shoulder. If I ever saw a lion cub strolling down the street I would shit myself.
But was this sufficiently whimsical for my man Keehan? You bet your bottom dollar it was not! It gets so much weirder!
What The (Kung) Fu Is Even Happening
Competitive karate, as you may know, is sorta like fencing or wrestling. By that, I mean the goal is to score a certain number of points by pulling off cool moves with good technique rather than, idk, literally killing a man.
John Keehan was fundamentally misinformed on this point. Pissed off that competitive karate didn’t let him whip people’s asses the way he wanted, Keehan broke off from the mainstream scene and started the World Karate Federation. The single and sole purpose of this organization was to make karate into a The Purge-like situation where you could break people’s bones without consequences.
In order to become a certified member of the World Karate Federation, each karate hopeful would have to go through an initiation ritual in which they were basically locked in a room with four other guys armed with sticks and rocks and knives and whatever and ordered to fight to the death. If they lived, they were admitted as members.
Somehow Keehan amassed a following of WKF members and karate-obsessed weirdos who called themselves the Black Dragons. They wandered the streets of Chicago in the 1960s and 1970s, picking fights with members of other dojos and literally killing people to prove their karate mastery. History recalls this time as the Dojo Wars.
Yes, you read that right. Dueling West Side Story-style karate gangs doing elaborate kung fu battles in Gold Coast. There was a thing called the “Dojo Wars” in my home city within my parents’ lifetimes and I had literally never heard of it until two weeks ago. What the hell is wrong with US public schools?? I’m so pissed off. Presumably Ronald Reagan is to blame.
Thanks for reading Dirtbags Through the Ages! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
Spain Is Weakness Leaving The Body
Throughout all this, Keehan also continued cultivating his own personal mystique. He legally changed his name to Count Juan Raphael Dante and made up an elaborate story that he was descended from Spanish royalty. If I had a nickel for every time someone on Dirtbags Through the Ages has done this, I would have two nickels.
He began dating a woman history recalls as “The Dragon Lady,” a Playboy Bunny with a black belt who kept a mountain lion as a pet and joined Keehan on local TV doing magic tricks. I don’t feel the need to editorialize on this sentence. It’s doing the job on its own, I think.
Keehan also started promoting himself as the “Deadliest Man Alive,” making up wild stories about the time he murdered men with his bare hands in Thailand. (This son of a bitch had never been to Thailand.)
To attract more followers, Keehan took out multiple full-page ads in comic books promoting his hand-to-hand combat skills. Just look at this:
Incredible. No notes. I am a better person for having seen this with my human eyeballs.
AND MY AXE!
Presumably this story could have continued getting more and more insane with each passing year. But the tale of Count Dante would come to an abrupt and truly unhinged end, starting with an event in 1972 I literally cannot wait to tell you about.
At this time, Keehan and his Black Dragons were engaged in a heated turf war with the Green Dragons, a rival dojo that really leaves something to be desired in the whole “creative naming” department. Keehan and the Black Dragons decided they were going to teach the Green Dragons a lesson, so they all trekked over to the dojo in Logan Square and stormed the front door. Some stories report that Keehan pretended to be a cop to get the Green Dragons to open up, which tracks with everything I know about him.
The Green Dragons may have lacked creative naming skills, but they made up for it in sheer unhinged balls. They decided to defend themselves from Keehan and his Black Dragons by grabbing whatever weaponry they had lying around and fighting back with their whole chest. Eyewitnesses claim this involved samurai swords and battleaxes. One of the Black Dragons got stabbed with a foot-long knife and died immediately.
What in the Crouching Tiger Hidden Dickhead is going on here. I repeat, the year is NINETEEN SEVENTY-TWO. The location is FULLERTON AVENUE IN LOGAN SQUARE. No one should be getting stabbed with a katana in the year ABBA was founded in the area where I go to get good vegan milkshakes sometimes.
Keehan was—somehow—not arrested for turning the intersection of Fullerton and Kimball into a battleaxe-fueled bloodbath. However, the local karate community finally decided that this guy was more trouble than he was worth. The Black Dragons more or less disbanded, and Keehan was blackballed out of the Chicago karate scene.
Stripped of the ability to wield his hands as swords, Keehan had to find another way to support himself. To his credit, he tried a bunch of ways. He sold porn. He sold used cars. He ran a hot dog stand. He tried robbing banks. I’m honestly surprised he didn’t try to pull a Tiger King and run a personal zoo with his lion cub and mountain lion.
John Keehan AKA Count Juan Raphael Dante died unexpectedly at home in 1974 at the age of 34. The cause of death is reported as an ulcer, which seems like a wildly uninteresting way for this guy to die, so I choose to believe some asshole from a dojo in Wicker Park climbed through the window and stabbed him with a pair of sais, Ninja Turtle-style.
Not for a single second while I was reading this story did I know where it was going to go next. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did.
That’s all for now! Until next time, be well, and if you find yourself in a tight spot pretend to be Spanish royalty because apparently that’s what all the historical cool kids are doing,