"Kid Blackie: Jack Dempsey's Colorado Days" by Toby Smith

Toby Smith. Wayfinder Press, 1987

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Before William Harrison Dempsey was The Manassa Mauler - or even Jack Dempsey - the 1920s heavyweight who ushered in boxing’s first million-dollar gates was William Harrison Dempsey, a nomadic, self-defined hobo working all manner of jobs in search of his next meal. They called him Kid Blackie, and Toby Smith’s slim history-cum-travel log chronicles the fighter’s rise as he scoured the dustbowl in search of work. Unsurprisingly, his favorite form of employ was in the ring where, legal or no, he could walk away with more cash than he would from a month picking peaches.

An almost perfectly-shaped square mile deep in Southern Colorado, Manassa was settled by Mormons in 1878. When Dempsey’s Scotch-Irish parents arrived two years later, they readily joined the Church of the Latter Day Saints. Jack’s father Hirum was something of a lazy dreamer who dragged the family from one Southern/Central Colorado mining town to another, chasing a fortune that never materialized. While it would be charitable to ascribe his misfortunes to bad luck, he proved inept in every and any endeavor he pursued. The only area in which he excelled was playing the fiddle - never an especially lucrative gig.

“Boxing was about the only amusement we had as kids,” recalls a Manassa resident from these early years, and Dempsey’s older brothers (themselves boxers) began giving Jack instruction while he was still in knee-pants. Jack was eleven when Hirum moved the family through seemingly endless Colorado mining towns looking to strike (literal) gold. Their first stop, the lawless town of Creede, had a population posting forty percent fugitives. Rife with smallpox and a high-altitude that was a regular cause of pneumonia for its resisdents, Jack ostensibly credited the thin air with building his superior lung-power. A caravan of misery, the Depseys moved on, occupying three towns over the course of a singe year, and continued their meanderings over the next three.

Jack began boxing for cash by the time he was fourteen (possibly sooner as gin-mill bouts were not recorded), though he’d been preparing for years. At twelve he was chewing pine resin straight from the bark to strengthen his jaw and soaking his face and hands in beef brine to toughen the skin, habits he maintained throughout his career. As illegal saloon bouts began bringing in money, the 16 year-old set out on his own across the Colorado boom towns, commencing Dempsey’s “boxcar years” that Smith defines as lasting from 1911-1916.

Riding the rails, Jack learned to discern a town’s prosperity by the cigarette butts laying on station floors. Short stubs indicated conservation of tobacco among residents, while longer butts revealed less concern with tossing out a little extra, boding well as place to stop and hopefully pick up a fight or two.

In 1912, the town of Telluride had 26 saloons, over 100 “sporting ladies,” and a lot of fights. While Jack could and did obtained bouts, his power proved a disadvantage. Given boxing’s dubious legality, fights were often held under the auspices of “exhibitions.” This meant no knockouts, and sometimes Jack got carried away. His TKOs cost him more than one purse.

But there were always other angles, and Smith describes a typical exchange in which Dempsey would approach saloon owners with a proposition. “I bet you got some guy in here that annoys you and your customers. And I’ll bet nobody’s ever had the guts to take him on.” The barkeep would consider for a moment, and frequently reply, “As a matter of fact, we do have one fella…” A ring was summarily constructed, and after that “one fella” had a laugh at his young, skinny-legged challenger, Jack would move in for the kill and split the take with the proprietor. There were no shortage of barroom blowhards, and Dempsey - still in the middleweight range - took all comers, no matter their size.

Taking the name Jack after “The Nonpariel” middleweight, Dempsey made a name for himself fighting as “Kid Blackie.” His itinerancy meant training in solitude, and he constructed a four-foot tall shadowboxing cage that forced him to duck roughly eighteen inches (he had not yet grown to his full height of 6’ 1”), developing his so-called “Montrose Crouch,” so named for the town in which he was parked when he built the contraption. The crouch made him both difficult to hit and honed his ability to work an opponent’s body, putting equal force behind both hands.

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A young Dempsey perfecting the“Montrose Crouch.”

Drifting into Cripple Creek, Jack looked on as prospectors either struck it rich or lost their shirts. The neighboring town of Victor was home to most of the miners and several of the area’s fighters. Its residents welcomed bouts as much for the spectacle as for the well-heeled high-rollers they brought in. A plangent tune laced with irreverent fantasy was a favorite at the local watering-holes, to which Jack would add his unusually high-pitched voice as patrons crooned in unison:

“If I was a millionaire and had a lot of coin,

I would plant a row of coke plantations and grow heroyn.

I would have Camel cigarettes growin’ on my trees.

I’d build a castle of morphine and live there at my ease.

…Down at the fighters’ jubilee.”

Riding the rails meant constant vigilance: fleeing the bulls that ejected trains-hoppers, strapping oneself to boxcar roofs so as not to fall off while sleeping al fresco, and fighting off marauding rapists. Jack’s professional debut in Colorado Springs in August of 1914 - wherein he fought Young Herman to a draw - overlapped with these so-called boxcar years. Upon going pro, he dropped the Blackie moniker to fight under Jack Dempsey.

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The Future Manassa Mauler, still in the middleweight range.

circa 1918

Jack Kearns, Dempsy’s manager during the ‘20s, liked playing up the “hobo” facet, so evocative of the American frontier. But in boxing parlance, “hobo” suggested a “bum,” and its invocation of the latter was not to Jack’s liking. Besides, in the nomenclature of his teenage years, a hobo was a non-migratory worker while “bum” denoted migratory. Following his 1921 defeat of George Carpentier, he told Kearns, “Let’s forget the hobo business now.”

Jack’s boxcar days ended with an ill-fated trip to New York in 1916 where he fought three bouts in twenty days. Screwed by the unscrupulous manager/promoter John “The Barber” Reisler, he returned to Colorado without a dime. Working as a janitor in a brothel, he met his first wife, a dance-hall prostitute named Maxine Cates. Fifteen years his senior, their tumultuous marriage lasted two. Most unfortunate is that while this relationship is integral to the young Dempsey’s story, Smith gives it no attention.

In his most significant bout to date, Jack fought Fireman Jim Flynn in February of 1917. Fifteen years his senior, Flynn kayoed Jack 25 seconds into the first round. It was the only time in his career that Dempsey was knocked out, and in a rematch exactly a year and a day later, he returned the favor.

By the time Dempsey came under the management of Kearns, his Wild West years had ended, and a 1918 win over Gunboat Smith poised him as contender for the Heavyweight Championship. The rest (i.e. his slaughter of Jess Willard on the fourth of July in 1919) is, as they say, history

This is not a book for the completest, and there’s little covered in Smith’s Kid Blackie that is not addressed in Roger Kahn’s towering 1999 biography A Flame of Pure Fire: Jack Dempsey and the Roaring Twenties. Smith eschews Dempsey’s personal life (especially his first marraige) and development as a fighter to share a personal pilgrimage through the dusty roads and disused train lines through which the young Blackie wended throughout his youth. Smith visits hotels, restaurants, and government institutions to view paintings and murals (reproduced in poor photos taken in situ from skewed angles) of the fighter in his early days. Dempsey’s childhood home, now a museum, has been refashioned as a log-cabin to recall Abe Lincoln’s cabin and the American frontier. The place is lucky to clear $100 each year, and months pass without a visitor. As he bemoans the lack of signage directing visitors to Dempsey landmarks, Smith’s interviewees (the only people he could find who knew Dempsey, if only peripherally, all dead by now) offer only the thinnest memories of the fighter.

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Dempsey’s first home in Manassa, now the Jack Dempsey Museum

When Smith does make the attempt at insight into Jack’s development as a boxer, he falls into wishful biographical projection and dreamy speculation recalling Jackson Pollock biographers’ conjectures of the painter’s early years pissing on boulders as having influenced his later painting style. Smith posits that the fighter’s early days hauling bales of wheat across stones in a river honed his footwork, that his boxcar years fighting off would-be rapists and cops taught him to remain alert in the ring, and even that his endless hours working in fields watching tears of water drip slowly from a leaf helped him later in anticipating opponents’ attacks. Cute, but quite a stretch. Still, for all the biographic insight eschewed by the author, this slim slice of a tremendous (and long - Dempsey lived to be 87) life still entertains. Call it armchair-travel to places most of us don’t really want to visit, but integral to Dempsey’s background and the circumstances that pushed him to lace up the gloves just short of his twelfth birthday.

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KID BLACKIE: JACK DEMPSEY'S COLORADO DAYS

by Toby Smith. Wayfinder Press, 1987

David Curcio