A Tale of Two Fists: The Life of Jack Dempsey

Damon Runyon

News-Scimitar/April 24, 1919

V: The Son of the San Luis

 Now for a little of the autobiographical stuff. Candidates for public office, poets and the like tell where they were born, and how, though infrequently why, so a pugilistic who’s who would scarcely sound orthodoxy without that valuable data.

Jack Dempsey was born in Colorado June 24, 1895. I have said heretofore that I am not disposed to believe him only 23 years of age, but for the purposes of my story I accept that date. He recites it with a patness which commands respect, anyway.

He has behind him such eons of experience that perhaps he has given me the impression that he might have forgotten a couple of years. However, I haven’t the Dempsey family Bible at hand, and it makes no difference anyway. A pugilist is as old as he feels.

Jack Dempsey was not Jack in the beginning, nor yet John. His parents gave him the noble handle of William Harrison Dempsey. His parents must have been politically pretty lonesome in Colorado in those days, for that was the general period of the Populists out there. And old man Dempsey was obviously no Pop.

Good Place to be Born In

The old man’s first name was, and is, Hiram. He was originally a school teacher and was from the town of Logan, W. Va. but some 30 or 35 years ago he moved to Colorado and settled in the San Luis valley, off toward the southerly part of the Centennial state. He had a farm, or ranch, between the little towns of Antonito and Manassa, in the San Luis, generally pronounced “Looey” by the inhabitants. It was on this farm William Harrison Dempsey was born.

I know of no better spot in all the world in which to have been born than the San Luis valley of Colorado. Along the side of it marches the always snow-speckled ranks of the Sangre de Christo mountain range, Sangre de Christo meaning “blood of Christ.” These hills are Titans of their kind and climb right up out of the valley without any preamble, pushing their hoary heads skyward so far that it looks as if they are supporting the blue ceiling of God’s home.

And the San Luis valley stretches out at the foot of the range like a great green laprobe, sprinkled here and there with little towns and farm houses. Say, that’s a pretty spot—the San Luis!

For years Hiram Dempsey farmed it in the valley, and the valley did pretty well by him. IN return Hiram Dempsey and his wife did pretty well by the valley. They had a family of six boys and five girls. Three boys and four girls are living. William Harrison Dempsey is the youngest of the living boys.

A couple of girls married men in the valley, and are still living there. They make their homes in the prosperous town of Antonito, where their husbands are in business. The San Luis has a considerable Mexican population, and names of places there are generally all of a Spanish origin, Antonito being a case in point.

Related to Senator?

The Dempseys, as I gather, were good, sturdy people, born of the soil. Old man Dempsey was industrious and rather thrifty, but with a streak of wanderlust in him which he passed on to William Harrison. Mrs. Dempsey’s family name was Smoot. She is probably a distant relative of the Smoots, of Utah, the family made prominent chiefly by the United States senator of that name. Both Mr. and Mrs. Dempsey now live in Salt Lake City.

A fellow bobbed up in New York not long after Dempsey had commenced to create stir in fistic circles and said the fighter’s real name was Demsshinski, or Shinski, or something to that general effect, and that Jack’s nationality was something that would naturally wind up a name in “ski.” Dempsey says the fellow was a chap he once befriended, but who later got sore at him and circulated the yarn about his name, thinking it would be a “knock” to the fighter. He must have been good and sore, at that, to think up such a diabolical form of vengeance.

The “ski,” is, I am reasonably certain, untrueski. Dempsey it was, and Dempsey it is. Certainly Dempsey does not look as if there might be any “ski” about him.

The Jack in William Harrison’s life traces back, of course, to the good old “Nonpareil.” It is the only name a Dempsey of fistic proclivity could possibly have. It traces back, however, not by way of William Harrison directly, but through his brother Bernard.

Bernard Dempsey became a fighter long before William Harrison. He took the name of Jack because the shade of the “Nonpareil” would have been mighty uneasy had a Dempsey crawled through the ropes and been introduced as Bernard.

Still Another Jack

There was another Jack Dempsey around Colorado in those days. He is still there, for that matter, being the night fireman of one of the most imposing buildings in the city of Pueblo. He was a tough old lightweight, contemporaneous more or less with his fellow townsman, the redoubtable Jim Flynn, and plenty old, even then. He knocked Young Corbett for a goal in two rounds, when Corbett was a coming youngster, and he outboxed Abe Attell, then fresh from the preliminary ranks, in a 20-round bout.

It figures in Attell’s record as a draw. The referee was a tall, gangling fellow, known as “Hi Henry,” and at the close of what had been a slashing battle—this was in Pueblo—he gave the decision to Dempsey. Which was fair enough.

Into the ring rushed Jack McKenna, who had just picked up Attell and was getting Abraham started on the career that was to make him featherweight champion of the world. Jack’s been dead some years now, and he wasn’t any too hale and hearty then, but all of the older set of fistic followers will recall what a rude and ruthless gentleman he was.

He was of New York’s east side, and had gone west for his health. The White Death had marked him for its own. But weazened and worn to a sinister-looking shadow, and hawking and spitting, and gasping for every other breath, McKenna remained a formidable character all the days of his life.

He grabbed “Hi Henry” with a ferocious clutch, and burbled angry words in the startled Puebloan’s ear. “Hi” reversed his decision, scarcely realizing what he was doing, but probably figuring this furious New Yorker knew more about it than he, so Abraham got a draw.

“That Reminds Me”

All this is digression from William Harrison Dempsey, of course, but I cannot resist telling you another yarn about Jack McKenna, which was told to me by Abe Attell himself not so very long ago. It shows you what mention of a name will do to a raconteur. “That reminds me,” etc.

Jack ruled his fighters with what you might call an iron hand, and Abraham doesn’t mind saying that the fear of the hereafter was in his heart as long as he was under Jack’s management. McKenna did not believe that any match was too tough for Abe, and he had the spidery San Francisco boy fighting some mighty rough parties in his early days.

“And after a fight,” says Abe, “Jack would get our money and bring it up to the room and divide it into two piles on the bed. There would be one pretty good-sized pile and one not so big. Then he would say to me: ‘Abe, which pile do you want?’

“Well, something always told me to take the little pile, but one night when there was more money than usual and he says to me: ‘Abe, which pile do you want?’ I reached out toward the big pile and says, kind of offhand like: ‘Well, I guess I’ll take this pile here’

“You remember that old cane Jack used to carry? That loaded thing with the steel rod run through it? Well, Jack swings this cane around my head sort of careless as I reached and he says to me: ‘Jew, WHICH pile do you want?’

“So of course I took the little pile,” says Abraham Attell.

(Source: Chronicling America, http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn98069867/1919-04-24/ed-1/seq-1/)

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