Eben Byers: U.S. Amateur Champ Who Had Horrific Death

Amateur golf champion Eben Byers
Eben Byers was a winner of the U.S. Amateur Championship in 1906, and he was a finalist in the championship match on two other occasions. But he is better-known to history for the gruesome death he suffered, and its impact on safety regulations in the United States.

Full name: Ebenezer McBurney Byers

Date of birth: April 12, 1880

Place of birth: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Date and place of death: March 31, 1932 in New York City

Also known as: "Eben" was what everyone called him, short for "Ebenezer." In contemporary news coverage, he was usually referred to as Eben M. Byers.

His U.S. Amateur Victory

Eben Byers was the champion of the 1906 U.S. Amateur Championship, the 12th time the tournament was played. A total of 32 golfers advanced into the match-play bracket.

After getting through the first three rounds, Byers met Walter Travis in the semifinals. Travis was the tournament champion in 1900, 1901 and 1903 and, in fact, beat Byers in the championship match in 1903. Travis also was the medalist in stroke play qualifying with a 152, 10 strokes better than Byers. But this time, Byers got the better of Travis, winning by a 4-and-3 score.

That sent Byers into the championship match against Canadian George Lyon. Lyon was the Olympic golf gold medal winner in 1904; he had won the Canadian Amateur four times and would win it another four times. Byers was 26 years old, Lyon was 48.

The Canadian took a slim lead in the morning 18, ahead 1-up when they broke for lunch. Byers squared the match on the first hole of the afternoon 18, and took a lead after the 29th hole. Lyon squared it again on the next, but Byers went 1-up on the 33rd. He held that margin for the next two holes, than sank a 12-foot putt on the final hole to produce a 2-up victory.

Following speeches by USGA officials during the trophy presentation, the New York Times reported, "a speech was called for from Byers, but at the sound of that fateful word he fled from sight."

More About Eben Byers

Like many of the top amateur golfers of his day, Eben Byers came from wealth. His father was industrialist Alexander Byers. A Wall Street Journal article once described Eben Byers as the "chairman of A.M. Byers Steel Co. and a director of Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing," and "also a U.S. amateur golf champion, a horse racing enthusiast and, by reputation, an ardent ladies man."

He attended tony prep schools and played golf during his college days at Yale.

Byers' first appearance in the U.S. Amateur was in 1900, when he won his first-round match but lost to Findlay Douglas in the second round. Byers went out in the second round again in 1901, but in 1902 made the first of consecutive appearance in the championship match.

In the 1902 U.S. Amateur, Byers had wins over two major foes in the third round and quarterfinals, Walter Travis (1-up) and Chandler Egan (3 and 2), respectively, on the same day. He beat Travis in the morning and Egan in the afternoon. He won his semifinal match on the 19th hole, but lost in the 36-hole final to Louis James, 4 and 2.

In the 1903 U.S. Amateur, Byers raced through his side of the bracket to find "The Old Man of Golf," Travis, waiting in the championship match. Travis, then 41, took revenge for his loss to Byers the previous year, winning the final, 5 and 4. It was the third and last U.S. Amateur trophy for Travis.

Byers lost in the second round in 1904 and third round in 1905 before winning the trophy in 1906. In his title defense at the 1907 U.S. Amateur, Byers reached the semifinals before losing, 6 and 5, to Jerry Travers. Travers went on to win the first of his four U.S. Amateur titles that year.

Byers went out in the quarterfinals in 1908, then never again made it past the U.S. Amateur's Round of 16. The 1916 tournament was the last time he reached the match play bracket (he lost to 14-year-old Bobby Jones); he tried three more times (last in 1926), but failed to qualify.

The same year Byers won the U.S. Amateur, he also reached the championship match at the Metropolitan Amateur. He lost that final to Travers, 3 and 1. Byers also twice reached the championship match of the Pennsylvania State Amateur, losing both times. In 1910, he fell to William C. Fownes Jr.; in 1915, Byers lost to Frank Dyer.

Aside from the 1906 U.S. Amateur, Byers' tournament wins included the 1902 Rhode Island State Amateur and 1912 Western Pennsylvania Open.

His brother, J. Frederick Byers, was president of the United States Golf Association (USGA) in 1922-23.

Byers was an erratic driver of the golf ball, but a good putter with a strong iron game. But he had a temper. In his 1954 book, The Tumult and the Shouting: My Life in Sport (affiliate link), famous sportwriter Grantland Rice described Byers as "hot tempered," writing that he "wasn't averse to wrapping his own hickory shafts around the neck of the nearest tree."

Off the course, Byers was frequently in the news due to his business interests and his status, as one contemporary publication put it, as a "millionaire socialite." He liked women and he like parties and he liked taking women to (and from) parties.

Byers' Horrific Death

Byers' downfall may have started with too much partying. In 1927, he was taking his private train home from the Harvard-Yale football game. En route, he tumbled out of the top berth of his sleeping quarters.

Byers was 47 years old at the time, and after the fall was afflicted with chronic pain in the arm on which he had landed. He saw a doctor in Pittsburgh, and that doctor suggested a "patent medicine" named Radithor to Byers.

Byers began buying the small bottles of Radithor and immediately felt a boost. He recommended it to others and drank 2-3 bottles a day for about the next two years.

Radithor, its maker promised, could cure just about anything. In Los Alamos Science No. 23, a publication from the Los Alamos National Labratory in 1995, Radithor, it was written, was promoted as a cure for "dyspepsia, high blood pressure, impotence, and more than 150 other 'endocrinologic' maladies."

But none of it was true and, in fact, "Radithor in large quanties proved lethal." Radithor was, as was written on its label, "radioactive water." It was isotopes of radioactive radium suspended in distilled water.

The "doctor" who got rich selling it was a total quack. But there were many such products and services sold at the time, when government regulations for product safety were virtually non-existent, and when some people believed that exposure to (supposedly) tiny amounts of radiation would have an invigorating effect on the human body.

Byers didn't quit taking Radithor until October of 1930, by which time he was experiencing headaches and losing weight. Soon, his teeth began falling out.

It wasn't radiation poison that was killing him, but systemic, aggressive cancers caused by the radiation — cancers that were attacking his bones, tissues, organs, marrow.

Because of Byers' fame, what was happening to him became well-known. When the U.S. government began looking into Radithor and similar radiation "therapies," it asked Byers to testify before Congress at hearings in 1931. Byers was too ill to attend, but said he would see an investigator if the investigator came to him.

The investigator, a laywer, visited Byers at his Long Island mansion, and reported back to the committee that Byers' "whole upper jaw, excepting two front teeth, and most of his lower jaw had been removed. All the remaining bone tissue of his body was disintegrating, and holes were actually forming in his skull."

The radium-caused cancers were, in effect, causing Byers' body to disintegrate from the inside-out. (There is a photo on the web of Byers after his jaw was gone; we have chosen not to include it in this article because it is most definitely not for the squeamish. If you want to find it, be advised: You can't unsee it.)

He was in excruciating pain, and death did not finally come until March of 1932, when Byers was 51. According to the Los Alamos history of the event, the official causes of Byers' death — the effects of the radium product Radithor — were "severe anemia and weight loss, massive destruction of the bone in his jaw, skull and entire skeleton, and finally kidney and bone marrow failure."

Byers' death was gruesome, but his fame helped publicize the dangers of radiation "therapies" and "medicines." Combined with the so-called "Radium Girls" incidents that had happened a few years earlier, Byers' death helped the U.S. government finally launch efforts, through the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and Food and Drug Administration (FDA), to stamp out the quack "patent medicines" industry and initiate product safety regulations.

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