Dementia Puglistica

When the amiable good looking French-Canadian middleweight boxer Del Fontaine, was charged with the murder of his 21 year old English girlfriend, Hilda Meeks, his lawyers entered a surprising plea of not guilty on the grounds of diminished responsibility due to his dementia pugilistica (which is a medical term meaning the punch drunk syndrome.) It was the first and last time that such a remarkably unusual plea was made in an English court and not surprisingly it made headlines throughout the world. But were these claims genuine? Was he really as punch drunk as he claimed he was; and even if this was true could he, and should he still be held responsible for his heinous crime? Or was he just a no good drunken woman beating bully attempting to avoid justice and blame our beloved boxing for his own murderous ways? I personally don’t believe it feasible that boxing can turn a normal civilised human being into a cold blooded killer.

Unhappily for the charismatic Fontaine, his outrageous claims of not being responsible for his actions failed miserably; and despite burgeoning pleas for clemency, on the 29th of October 1935, in Wandsworth prison, he was summarily executed (hanged) he was only 31 years old.

A one time middleweight champion of Canada, he was already a veteran of well over 50 professional fights when he stepped off the newly arrived cattle boat to England in 1931/32. After a reasonably success tour of his native Canada and the United States he had come over here to try and make a name for himself. He was successful at first with only 4 losses out of 30 contests; and he fought some of the best boys going around at the time: Tommy Farr, Gypsy Daniels, and Jack Casey, to name but a few. But times were hard, and as a good time Charlie who liked to throw his money about he took fights as and when they came just to keep his pockets lined. He was a well respected and exciting fighter to watch. Unfortunately; although he may have been exciting to watch he was no Fancy Dan and his defensive skills left a lot to be desired, and it was once cruelly said in jest that he was the only boxer who used his head to protect his arms.

Like a lot of other boxers of the day not all of his fights are properly recorded, but it is reckoned that he had over 200 contests in all. His last officially recorded fight in the ring was against Scottish heavyweight, Manuel (Kid) Abrew in Newcastle on the 17/6/1935, he was kayoed in the first round, which wasn’t surprising because he had lost 12 of his previous 14 contests, although some people claim his last fight was actually against one time welterweight champion of Wales, Danny Evans, either way this unfortunate man was still on a collision course with disaster.

Even though he already had a loving wife and children back at home in Canada, he thought nothing of starting up a relationship with 19 year old waitress, Hilda Meeks, unfortunately the romance doomed from the start and it was to lead to both of their downfalls. Two years into the torrid affair and fed up with his drunken antics the young Hilda sought solace elsewhere, but he overheard her making a date on the telephone with another man. It was more than his massive pride could stand, and in a jealous rage he chased her out of the house and into the street where he coldbloodely shot her dead (I’d like to know what he was doing with a gun in the first place!) And just for good measure he turned the gun on her mother and shot her too. Poor Hilda died instantly, but luckily her mother survived.

His defence lawyers claimed he wasn’t responsible for his actions because he was suffering from a bout of depression at the time brought on by his debilitating dementia pugilistica, and as such he should be spared the death penalty. Many prominent boxers of the day (including the legendary Ted (Kid) Lewis) gave evidence on his behalf; but this was probably through a misguided sense of loyalty. They all claimed that in their opinion Del Fontaine, had soaked up more punishment and taken more head shots than any other boxer they had ever seen, and in reference to his last fight Lewis, added, he was that bad he shouldn’t even have been allowed into the ring. But determined prosecutors claimed Fontaine was a dishonest man and had deliberately thrown the fight for money and that it was perfectly feasible that he had thrown fights in the past too, so with money as his main aim he knew exactly what he was doing. The judge chose to believe the latter, and Fontaine was found guilty and sentenced to death.

Even before the date for his execution had been decided the protests had already started. They grew louder in volume as friends of Fontaine tirelessly pleaded for his reprieve, surprisingly considering the seriousness of his crime there were long lists of eminent names on these petitions asking for his life to be spared. But; just like the anti-capital punishment speeches made in the House of Commons by many of the up and coming politicians of the day - they fell on deaf ears.

On the morning of the execution large crowds gathered outside of the prison; most from the world of boxing. One of his warders was quoted as saying, “He was the bravest man to ever go to the scaffold.” That may well be, but he certainly wasn’t the most repentant man to go to the scaffold. I don’t want to rhapsodize about it or speak ill of the dead but I think he was drowning in a sea of denial because he left a note blaming the girl herself! It said, Hilda Meek broke my heart I spent my last cent on her. She turned me against my wife.

So according to him it was her fault that he shot her!

As a lover of boxing I am always sympathetic with, and my heart goes out to anyone who is injured in the sport. But taking into account Fontaine’s wild hedonistic behavior and his come day go day lifestyle, there is and always will be more than a shadow of a doubt in this man’s claims of innocence.

I am not an advocate of the death penalty and I am truly sorry the man was hanged, but as the father of 3 girls and the grandfather of one, my real sympathies lie with the Meek family.