Walking in a winter wonderland: The Christmas that almost killed Gene Tunney

Gary Lucken
24/12/2018 8:10pm

As Christmas 2018 looms, Gary Lucken takes us back to a long forgotten event on Christmas Day 1926 when heavyweight champion of the world Gene Tunney almost died...

GENE TUNNEY BRUSH WITH DEATH 1 WITH BERT FOWLER Daily News NY December 27 1926 P26

Camp guide Bert Fowler examining Tunney's footwear

As the year 1926 drew to a close Gene Tunney stood astride the boxing world, king of all he surveyed after capturing the heavyweight crown by dethroning the great Jack Dempsey.

Success, however, came with a price tag – the downside of his lofty perch at the pinnacle of pugilism was the intense media spotlight that engulfed him.

As a throng of people crowded around Tunney in a Philadelphia hotel following his famous victory at Sesquicentennial Stadium in September, the newly-minted champion had an inkling of what was to come. He would later recall: “I knew then and there that Gene Tunney no longer belonged to himself but to the public.”

His foreboding rapidly proved correct with his every move coming under scrutiny, every cough and spit of his life being lapped up by a voracious press.

GENE TUNNEY BRUSH WITH DEATH 3 L TO R BERT FOWLER + GENE TUNNEY + JACK FARRELL + BILL CALDER Daily News NY December 27 1926 P28

Left to right Bert Fowler, Tunney, Jack Farrell, Bill Calder.

'The Fighting Marine' was not someone who embraced celebrity in the same way as some of his predecessors. One newspaper memorably remarked that “he abhors crowds”, exhibited a genuine “antipathy toward fuss, furore and feathers” and that he was a man who “hates the glamour and the glitter that follows in the wake of the idolatry showered upon the world’s heavyweight champion.”

GENE TUNNEY BRUSH WITH DEATH 4 L TO R BILL CALDER + JACK FARRELL + GENE TUNNEY + BERT FOWLER + WILLIAM POWELL Chicago Tribune Illinois December 29 1926

Left to right Bill Calder, Jack Farrell, Tunney, Bert Fowler, William Powell.

So it perhaps comes as no surprise that Tunney, prompted by a desire for solitude, decided to spend Christmas far from prying eyes – he jumped on a train and left the festive masses in his native New York behind to seek refuge at a sporting retreat in the snowy wilderness of Maine.

It was a decision that almost cost him his life.

Tunney’s chosen sanctuary, where he hoped to enjoy a relaxing week of reading, forest hikes and maybe a spot of fox and rabbit hunting, was King’s Camp near Tomhegan Point, a picturesque location on the north-west side of Moosehead Lake opposite Mount Kineo.

Accompanied by friends Jack Farrell, of the New York Daily News, and William Powell, a pal from Cleveland, he arrived on December 22 and the trio seem to have enjoyed a pleasant but relatively uneventful first couple of days under the watchful eyes of camp guides Bert Fowler and Bill Calder, even finding time to pose for photographs.

But on Christmas Day matters took a dramatic turn when Tunney decided to attend a church mass in the village of Rockwood, situated several miles away, and opted to take the shortest route - a trek across the frozen Moosehead.

Tunney, Fowler, Farrell and Powell left camp shortly after breakfast and around halfway to their destination they encountered a string of potentially lethal “wrinkles”, essentially gaps or unstable deformities in the ice. The overconfident champion tried to leap across one but misjudged the distance or slipped, plunging into the water at a spot where the lake was around 100ft deep.

In the blink of an eye a bracing walk had turned into a life or death struggle. Tunney, hampered by heavy clothing and the freezing conditions, floundered around in vain as he tried to scramble his way to safety. An icy tomb beckoned.

Fortunately for the champion, his quick-thinking companions kept their heads. They sprang into action, forming a human chain and spreading their weight, allowing Fowler to grab his hand and drag him free before he vanished under the water.

The incident made newspaper headlines across the world, often on the front page - an irony that would no doubt not have been lost on Tunney.

“Human Chain Saves Tunney – Companions Rescue Gene From Drowning,” the banner in Iowa’s Des Moines Register, was typical of the coverage, as was “Tunney Near To His Death In Icy Waters” in Montana’s Great Falls Tribune and “Gene Tunney Near Death in Icy Lake” in the San Francisco Examiner.

The Philadelphia Inquirer carried one of the most detailed reports under the headline of “Tunney Saved From Icy Lake By Human Chain” and regaled readers with its account of how he had “flirted with death.”

It said: “They found tramping over the ice excellent until they had covered about half the distance, and then, at a point opposite Moose River, they encountered an array of ice wrinkles ranging all the way from two feet in width to ten or fifteen feet.

“Tunney spied one before him which he felt sure he could hurdle and when he ‘got set’ he leaped.

“But he lost his footing, came down with a crash and before his companions could reach him he was struggling in the waters of the mighty Moosehead.

“Dashing to the edge of the hole where Tunney was immersed, with his hands grasping at the ice, one of the men reached out and seized the champion’s clothing, the other two links of the chain were joined and with a mighty tug Jack Dempsey’s conqueror was hauled to safety.”

The paper added: “Had Tunney been alone, or even with but one companion, the adventure might have had a tragic ending.”
Jack Farrell gave his own eyewitness account in the NY Daily News in which he confirmed that the champion had “narrowly escaped death in the icy waters” after he “ran afoul” of “treacherous wrinkles.”

He wrote: “Cautioned by Fowler to watch his step, Tunney decided to hurdle the wrinkle. As he took the leap both feet flew from under him and before his guide and companions could reach his side he was struggling to extricate himself from the frigid water, at that point an unfathomable depth.

“A human lifeline was formed with Fowler clutching the outstretched hand of the champion in a vice-like grip. When hauled onto the ice Tunney was drenched to the skin, more embarrassed than frightened.

“There was a chilly north-west wind blowing from the head of the lake, so Tunney, with his teeth chattering, headed for shore at a rapid gait with Fowler at his side.

“The champion rushed to the Rockwood hotel for a change of apparel and spent several hours in bed while his heavy water-soaked clothes were spread out on radiators to dry.”

Tunney suffered no lasting ill effects from his impromptu ducking but appears to have realised the gravity of what had happened, commenting: “That is the closest call I ever had. I shall never forget this Christmas.”

He and his group subsequently borrowed a car and returned to their camp via a 10-mile drive followed by a four-mile walk. The following day he enjoyed a six-mile snowshoe hike before heading home to New York shortly afterwards to welcome in the New Year.

GENE TUNNEY BRUSH WITH DEATH 5 Albuquerque Journal New Mexico December 26 1926Over time the incident gradually faded from public consciousness, replaced by speculation about future title fights, although Farrell occasionally joked about it in print - dubbing Tunney “the most famous bathing beauty that ever landed on the shores of Moosehead Lake” and accusing him of “testing the bathing qualities of the Maine waters.”

If Tunney had died that cold Christmas Day it would have changed the course of boxing history. Most obviously there would have been no rematch with Dempsey and the famous “Long Count” controversy would never have occurred.

An immediate issue would have been the need to address the vacancy at the top of the sport - one columnist in the Philadelphia Inquirer remarked that Tunney’s brush with death “almost gave rise to a problem without precedent in the history of the manly art of biff and biceps… the heavyweight throne would be vacant under unprecedented conditions, for one cannot recall when a heavyweight ruler ever died ‘in office.’”

Maybe Dempsey would have fought and beaten Jack Sharkey in a fight for the title and become the first man to reclaim the heavyweight throne. Or perhaps Dempsey would have retired, viewing any such achievement as somehow hollow in the circumstances.

Whatever transpired, first and foremost Tunney’s death would have been a human tragedy. As it was, his Yuletide narrow escape was a reminder that nobody, not even the heavyweight champion of the world, is immune to the fickle hand of fate.