SI Vault
Robert Coughlan
January 10, 1955
Everybody has heard the legend of Dempsey's youth. Only part of it is true. The real story—assembled for the first time by a distinguished biographer—is surprisingly different and many times more interesting
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January 10, 1955

The Unknown Story Of Young Jack Dempsey

Everybody has heard the legend of Dempsey's youth. Only part of it is true. The real story—assembled for the first time by a distinguished biographer—is surprisingly different and many times more interesting

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Hiram, too, was a hard worker, but he was an improvident, impractical man. Somehow, even when other farmers were doing well, he never quite made out. He cut wood as a sideline, hauled and spread manure, and sometimes dabbled in horse trading. He was sociable, played the fiddle, drank when he could afford it, and maintained a Micawberlike optimism which years of failure could not alter. He and his wife disagreed about many things, and their arguments grew so furious that the town once appointed a committee to visit them. Celia bristled at this intrusion, so the local story goes, and ordered them away with the indignant comment that she could handle her own troubles.


Little Harry—"just another patch-pants kid," a contemporary remembers—was undistinguished among his teeming family except in one respect: whereas all of them, parents and children as well, were considered rather hotheaded, he was a friendly child who disliked quarreling and argument and disliked listening to it; he still does. The trace of sadism that one expects to find in great fighters seems to have been entirely absent in him. Whereas his oldest brother Bernie sometimes amused himself by pegging rocks at chickens, small Harry loved birds and animals and liked to take care of them. He was devoted to his mother and helped her with the dishes and other household work. He worried about her, for although she seldom failed to "keep a'going," she was perpetually tired and often ill. When Harry was about six, a traveling dentist pulled all her teeth. She walked home afterward, her gums bleeding heavily. That night hemorrhaging set in, and her family had to be up all night helping with cold compresses. Harry was horrified. From that time on the sight of blood and human injury made him feel ill. To this day he turns his head from the sight of a cut finger, and avoids looking at accidents or even reading about them: "They make me feel bad."

Cheerful, affectionate and obedient, Harry nevertheless was far from being a namby-pamby boy. He got into his share of juvenile mischief; and although he was no bigger than other boys of his age he was a natural athlete and, moreover, a natural leader to whom other boys deferred by instinct. He could run faster, hit a ball harder, and ride a balky horse better than anyone his size, and at the free-style schoolyard and back alley fighting that went on constantly he was a champion from the beginning. He was not a bully. Even now he says, "If there's anything I hate, it's a bully." But he liked to fight; and, as oldtimer Troy Sowards remembers, "He was tough as a pine knot. He was really tough. They wasn't any of 'em that run it over that boy."


In Harry's eighth year he was baptized into the Mormon Church. Religion was a pervading element in the Dempsey household, with grace before meals and evening prayers and much Bible reading, and the baptism made a solemn impression on the boy. Later on during his whole career as a boxer he prayed before every important fight, and he remains a professing Mormon still, believes in the power of prayer, and, he says, sometimes prays "three or four times a day."

Hiram's old wanderlust broke loose in the same year and he decided to strike out farther west. He sold what little he had, bought two covered wagons and a light rig, and loaded his family in for a trek that was to cover 600 miles and last a year. Working wherever he could, hauling with his teams, sometimes living off the land, he at last brought his caravan to rest in a section called Uncompahgre, near Montrose, Colo., where he took an 80-acre ranch to work on shares.

There, during the next two years, Harry lived the typical, strenuous life of a ranch boy. He remembers raiding bee trees, roping bobcats, and catching the wild burros that roamed the hills and breaking them to the saddle. He had a good time; but Hiram's ambitions as usual fell through. Old neighbor John Jutten recalls, "He couldn't make out on the farm. The boys didn't know nothing. They had a little old buggy and a few old milk cows and a couple old horses."

Near Montrose the Denver and Rio Grande was boring a big tunnel and the town was filled with construction workers. Celia Dempsey saw an opportunity to make some money by opening a restaurant, so the family moved to Montrose and lived in the back of what Celia chastely named "The Rio Grande Eating House." There Harry, with the others, helped out in all sorts of work, even doing occasional cooking. This lasted a year, then the tunnel was finished and Hiram's westering instincts took the family to a farm on the outskirts of Provo, Utah, not far from Salt Lake City. Harry was 13, and the rest of his boyhood was passed here.

He had already made up his mind that he wanted to become a professional fighter. His oldest brother Bernie, who had graduated from street fights and backroom brawls into a fairly good professional middleweight, had appropriated the name "Jack" from the old Nonpareil Jack Dempsey (no relation) and was an object of awe to young Harry. His own schoolyard triumphs made him think that he might do as well. He was acutely and sometimes bitterly aware of the family's poverty; maybe, as a boxer, he could make them rich. Hiram approved of "physical culture" in principle. As for Celia, if that was what Harry wanted then she wanted him to be the champion, like the admirable John L.

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