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Wednesday, 14 February 2007 00:00

A chip off the ole mauler block

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Just after Christmas, my wife, Elizabeth, and I were driving south in the San Luis Valley of Colorado headed for Arizona. Situated on the border with New Mexico and bounded to the east by the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the valley is one of the more beautiful settings in North America. It is also one of the more remote settings in North America.

 

As we were passing the small mining town of Manassa Colo., a large sign suddenly loomed into view proudly announcing that we had arrived at the birthplace of Jack Dempsey, “The Manassa Mauler.” Being a sports nut, I knew that the famed sports writer Damon Runyon had given Dempsey that nickname, but I hadn’t ever known why.

One of America’s first sports heroes and a true icon in the first half of the 20th century, Jack Dempsey was born in Manassa in 1895 to a poor mining family, the ninth of 11 children. The town held little appeal for the youngster, so he left it behind at the age of 16 and became a fighter. Smaller than many heavyweight champions at 6’1” and 185 to190 pounds, he is remembered as “one of the hardest hitters of all time,” in addition to being “utterly ruthless.” His entry in the online “American National Biography” notes that, “He is arguably the best-known fighter of all time.” That accolade probably belongs to Muhammad Ali, but Dempsey probably ranks in the top three in that regard.

I mentioned to Elizabeth that there was a Western North Carolina connection since Dempsey had trained for his 1926 fight with Gene Tunney in Hendersonville. After arriving back home, I set aside a few minutes on the Internet to find out more about Dempsey’s sojourn here in the Blue Ridge. What I discovered is that Dempsey had closer ties with the region than I had supposed. And as we shall see, they were blood ties that perhaps influenced his genetic disposition as a fighter.

In an online entry from Time magazine for Nov. 1, 1926, Dempsey was quoted as follows: “While I was training at Hendersonville, N. C., for my recent bout with Gene Tunney, I remarked that I believed my grandfather, Nathan Dempsey, had once lived in the neighborhood. Last week that fact was verified. Western North Carolina folk recall him. He fought everyone who would, choked a bear to death with his bare hands, and injured many an opponent with a fence rail. He was so potent as a bruiser that the local law forbade him to strike with his right fist, ordered him to use only his open right palm. He never killed a man nor beat his wife.”

That got me interested in finding out more about Nathan Dempsey, if I could. The Internet turned up a few bits and pieces, but in John Parris’ Roaming the Mountains (1955), I located an essay titled “Nathan Dempsey, Fightin’ Man.” Therein, Parris chronicled in a picturesque fashion the sporting life of Jack Dempsey’s grandfather:

“You can have Paul Bunyan and John Henry, but we’ll take Nathan Dempsey. He was the fightingest man who ever threw a punch in the Blue Ridge Mountains. He was a living legend, and his grandson became a pretty good man with his fists, too.

“Nathan Dempsey lived in the Cane Creek section of Yancey County prior to the Civil War. He was a giant of a man, small-waisted, raw-boned and tree-top tall. He tipped the scales at better than 250 pounds and he stood six feet six. He could swing a ten-pound hammer in each hand. He could pick up a mule and he could throw a horse to the ground.

“He was a blacksmith. But come Saturday and he laid aside his leather apron, his hammer and iron and joined in for the only known sports of the frontier times — wrestling and cuffing matches, running and jumping. He was unbeatable. No man was his superior in these sports. He could clear a seventeen-hand horse in a running jump, take on any two mountain men in a wrestling match, and cuff men equally as big as if they were strawmen. But there was one certain Saturday that Nathan Dempsey lost his calmness and really went on a tear.”

Nathan Dempsey had defeated six men in a row wrestling, when as a grand finale he defeated two opponents in the championship match, “adding injury to insult by bumping his victim’s heads together before throwing them to the ground.”

While Dempsey’s back was turned, “Eight of his victim’s went into a huddle [and decided] they would charge him in groups of fours and slam him to the ground. They would pound him until he yelled for quarter, until he screamed ‘calf rope!’

“From the left and the right they charged Nathan. He turned, let out a roar and braced himself. His long, stout arms shot out. He grabbed the first man nearest, spun and hurled him through the air. One after the other he tossed like sticks of kindling wood. And each went flying into the chicken coops. They lay where they fell ....

“Nathan Dempsey was not arrested, but pressure was brought to bear on the town fathers and a special ordinance was passed. It was stipulated that it was unlawful for him to strike a man with his closed fist. Which was classified as an ‘unlawful weapon.’

“But the measure was quite unnecessary. For legend has it that from that time onward in Yancey County no one ever came within striking distance of that unlawful weapon. With all the fun gone for him, Nathan soon moved away to West Virginia.

“Some folks say his grandson inherited old Nathan’s punch. Some who met Jack Dempsey in the ring and left it battered and broken were ever afterward of the opinion that his fists, too, should have been classified unlawful.”

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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