It may not have had the population base of a Boston or New York, but Tamaqua had its own Super Bowl-like atmosphere for a prime-time sporting event during the winter of 1912.
On Monday, Feb. 3, the town hosted a middleweight boxing match between Summit Hill's Jim Bonner and Al Dewey, an up and coming young fighter based in Wilkes-Barre who earlier lived in Eckley.
"It was without a doubt the best fight ever pulled off in town and one of the best 20-round fights between lightweights ever witnessed," a Tamaqua Courier reporter boasted in his post-fight analysis of the epic struggle.
Dewey arrived in town the Monday afternoon of the fight, which was set for 9 p.m. in Walker Hall.
"Dewey is a rugged little chap and so is Bonner and they're both there with the nerve and willingness to mix it up, so it's going to be one big fight," the Courier said in a pre-fight teaser.
A special train carrying fight fans from Wilkes-Barre did not arrive until 9 p.m. so the fight was delayed an hour.
"Over 500 sports fans from Luzerne County were on board and they made a rush for the hall which was already crowded," a writer noted.
One group of crowd watchers took a special interest in the throng of people jostling to get inside Walker Hall for a seat.
"Pickpockets worked their nefarious trade to the limit in the mob at the fight and in the crowds on the cars," a writer noted. "They were well rewarded with some choice pickings. The crush in the hall was such that the slick-fingered gentry had little or no trouble relieving many local men and visiting sports fans of well-filled pocketbooks."
Two victims, Patrick Canon and Samuel Oppenheimer of Wilkes-Barre, reported being robbed of more than $300 as they were part of the crowd pushing to get inside Walker Hall. Both discovered their cash was missing after the bout ended. As fight fans made their way home, train detectives suspected that four young men, who exited at Mauch Chunk, may have been connected with the robberies.
Before the fight started, an announcement was made from the ring for fans to be wary since there were thieves lurking about.
"After that, the spectators were more careful of their belongings and no losses were reported until after the fight when a number were robbed on trolley cars and in the jam going out," a reporter noted.
One fan, a salesman named Henry Druckenmiller of Allentown, lost $69 – all his earnings for that day – when someone lifted his wallet while he was boarding a train for Mauch Chunk after the fight.
Other pickpocket victims included Samuel Lutz, a local butcher who lost "a large sum" and a Pottsville man who reported losing $50 and his gold watch.
Newspaper workers were not immune from the thievery.
"Just to show that they were no respecter of persons, they separated a wallet and $14 from a representative of the Courier," a writer quipped.
At 9:45 p.m., both fighters weighed in under the agreed-on weight of 142 pounds. Minutes later, after entering the ring, they had their hands wrapped and at 10 p.m., were called to the center of the ring for instructions from referee Billy Recap, sports editor of the Philadelphia Ledger.
"Both men were in the peak of condition, as fast as lightning on their feet and could fight like tigers," one Courier reporter stated. "Regardless of the fact that the bout was scheduled for 20 rounds, the men started right in to score a knockout."
Many fans thought the fight would not last six rounds and at the outset Bonner seemed the crisper puncher, opening a gash under Dewey's left eye in the second round. As the fight wore on, however, it looked more and more like it could go the distance and that the best conditioned fighter would win out.
A turning point came in the 16th round when Dewey doubled up and dropped Bonner with a body punch followed by a left to the jaw. Bonner was up at the count of seven and tried to cover up but it was evident that he was becoming an easy target. Dewey reportedly "hit him at will" and "kept the Hill boy groggy until the bell rang."
Dewey continued his late-round charge, staggering Bonner again in the 18th and 19th rounds. With the crowd on its feet and roaring their approval, Bonner rallied in the final round to finish strong. After the bell, however, fans realized that Dewey had piled up too many points for Bonner to overcome, a belief soon confirmed by the referee. Right after the two boxers shook hands, he raised Dewey's hand, pronouncing him winner of the grueling match.
"Dewey's backers were elated," a writer noted, "and raising their man to their shoulders, carried him from the ring."
George Heffernan, a boxing expert from Wilkes-Barre, called Bonner's endurance "remarkable," considering the amount of punishment he took.
"Bonner is to be congratulated on his fine showing," Heffernan wrote. "Being an older man than Dewey and having seen hundreds of hard battles, it is only natural that he is going back. No one can say that Bonner didn't fight and fight hard."
Beside the pickpockets, betters who had money down on Dewey also had a good night.
"Much money from the Panther Creek Valley floated to Wilkes-Barre today," one writer joked.