Put to Sleep: Freddie Mills and Randy Turpin (1965 & 1966)

nite spot

On the night of July 24, 1965, a car was found parked behind the Freddie Mills Nite Spot in London’s Soho neighborhood. Inside, the nightclub’s owner slumped at the steering wheel, shot in the right eye. “Fearless Freddie,” once the light heavyweight champion of the world, was pronounced dead the next morning at Middlesex Hospital. He was 46 years old.

Ten months later and a hundred miles away, Randy Turpin was found shot in his bedroom in Leamington Spa on May 17, 1966. His four year old daughter had been shot as well, but while she recovered, her father never would. He was only 38.

In 1975, two books were published by London presses: The Strange Death of Freddie Mills by Bill Bavin, and The Tragedy of Randolph Turpin by Jack Birtley. These books, both written by former friends and acquaintances of their subjects, capture the confusion that followed the premature deaths of two of England’s greatest pugilists. Both deaths looked, at first glance, very much like suicide—but for many, that solution was unsatisfying. Theories and speculation rose thick around the bodies, spinning a web of possibilities that threw the deaths of Mills and Turpin into new relief. Nobody could agree on why the two men died. Crime was the true culprit—or sex—or money—or boxing itself, the sport that eats its own.

The unnaturally short lives of Freddie Mills and Randy Turpin tell an unusually similar story. Brought up in working-class families, both Freddie and Randy started boxing young—Mills in fairgrounds around his hometown of Bournemouth; Turpin at the Leamington Boys’ Club. By age 18, both boys had gone professional, to great acclaim. In 1948, Mills fought Gus Lesnevich to become the light-heavyweight champion of the world. In 1951, Turpin defeated world middleweight champion Sugar Ray Robinson at Earls Court Arena in London. From nowhere in particular, Freddie and Randy had both risen in the ranks of professional boxing to stand, quite literally, on top of the world.

And then—just as quickly—both fell from greatness. Mills had held the world light-heavyweight title for only two years when American boxer Joey Maxim knocked him out at Earls Court. The fight ended in the tenth round, and it would be Fearless Freddie’s last. Within the month, he announced his retirement.

Three months after his defeat of Sugar Ray Robinson in the summer of 1951, Randy Turpin again faced the formidable American, this time on his own turf: the Polo Grounds in New York’s Washington Heights. Like Mills, Turpin lasted only ten rounds before a right-hand punch from Robinson left him so dazed that referee Ruby Goldstein announced the end of the fight and Robinson’s victory.

 

turpin robinson fight

1951: Turpin and Robinson face off. (L: Robinson; R: Turpin.)

Unlike Mills, Turpin did not retire right away after his momentous defeat, but those around him noticed a change. “[I]t was difficult to believe he had been world champion only a short time before,” commentators noted as they watched Turpin battle on.[1] “He will never be the Randy of 1951,” Turpin’s manager Ted Broadribb told the Sunday Pictorial two years after the Robinson fight. “He has become a man of moods…He will not be able to accomplish what we know he can do because of the uncertainty of his inner mind. This state of affairs must affect a fighter who, when he is all out, can lick anybody.”[2]

“Moods” and “uncertainty” were not the only things weighing on Turpin in his decline. Only a day before his scheduled return to England in 1951, he was accused of rape by a Harlem resident named Adele Daniels, a legal entanglement which would drag on for two years and throw Turpin’s name into the shadow of scandal. He began to take regular damage in the ring from opponents more confident and more physically fit than him. And on top of all this, the tax man was constantly at the door, hounding Turpin for money he was rapidly losing as his career sank into nothingness. He retired officially in 1958, never having recovered from his second encounter with Sugar Ray Robinson.

Mills, outside the ring, faced similar problems: a shaky acting career and the purchase of a Chinese restaurant-turned-nightclub had not staved off the financial difficulties brought on by the lost of his best source of income. His years in the ring haunted him in the form of persistent headaches. And sometime between his retirement and his death, Freddie Mills made the acquaintance of the notorious Kray twins, and according to rumors racked up a hefty debt to London’s greatest organized crime syndicate.

1965 found both men in similar circumstances: fallen from glory, plagued by health problems, and struggling to make a living for themselves and their families. In short, they both represented the quintessential ex-boxer. They were fighters who had survived past their prime; men without a purpose.

What Killed Freddie Mills?

  1. Suicide. In light of their last days, the suicide theory taken by the police in both cases seems fully plausible. Financial troubles plus a rapid fall from fame plus physical decline at an early age equal, in any reasonable equation, potential motivation to end one’s life.
    1. Sub-theory A: Homosexuality. Many suspected that Mills was gay or bisexual, even going so far as speculating a relationship between him and the crooner Michael Holliday, who died in 1963 following a mental breakdown. If true, this theory might well contribute to the list of stressors leading to Mills’s suicide.
    2. Sub-theory B: Pressure from organized crime. Debt is one thing; debt to a crime syndicate is another. Financial stress multiplied by threats from London’s toughest gangsters adds up to a compelling argument for a sudden departure from the earth.
  2. An organized crime hit. Perhaps Mills didn’t buckle under pressure—maybe, instead, whoever was waiting for his money simply got tired of waiting and wanted to prove a point. The nature of the death—a single gunshot wound to the head in a parked car—fits the picture of a mob hit as well as it does the suicide narrative. Much effort has gone into analyzing the precise angle of the shot and Mills’s position relative to the gun, but such calculations cannot prove definitively whether or not Mills himself held the gun as it fired the fatal shot. This is the theory that Bill Bavin and Mills’s wife Chrissie both favored, believing that despite all the pressure weighing on him, suicide was simply not in Freddie’s playbook.
  3. Jack the Stripper? In 2002, Michael Litchfield, formerly of the UK Sun, published The Secret Life of Freddie Mills: National Hero, Boxing Champion, Serial Killer. The title says it all, really: Litchfield’s argument is that Mills’s darkest secret was not his alleged sexual affairs, his bisexuality, or his links with the Kray twins, but the brutal murder of seven sex workers in 1964 and 1965. The case, which remains unsolved, is alternately known by the titles “The Hammersmith nude murders” and “Jack the Stripper,” both allusions to the naked state of the bodies upon discovery. Mills is only one of a handful of suspects, but his name was linked to the killings as early as 1975—his friend Bill Bavin alludes scornfully to the theory in his book.

What Killed Randy Turpin?

  1. Suicide. As with Mills, suicide was the official verdict of the coroner and police—in fact, suicide combined with the attempted murder of four-year-old Carmen Turpin. The story is familiar enough: a father under pressure and out of money kills himself and his family to save them from the misery of their present life. Jack Birtley puts it this way:

“[I]t does seem that Turpin was a victim of a combination of circumstances. And, chiefly, these could be: (1) victim of a humble upbringing which left him totally ill-equipped to face fame and untold wealth; (2) mismanagement of money; (3) the ‘spongers’ and so-called friends who helped him spend his money and gave bad advice; and (4) the unrelenting persecution by the Inland Revenue.” – Birtley, The Tragedy of Randolph Turpin, pp. 151-152.

In fact, Birtley concludes, “If one had to point a final damning finger in one direction, the temptation would be to accuse the Inland Revenue of being an accomplice to Turpin pulling the trigger on that fateful day.”

2. Boxing. Turpin’s family doctor disagreed with Birtley’s conclusion: “In my opinion, boxing was responsible for his death.” His theory was that years of injuries in the ring had left Turpin with permanent brain damage—and though the autopsy reported no such damage, the circumstantial evidence for the doctor’s theory was considerable. Turpin certainly had received violent blows to the head over the course of his career, from an unlucky encounter with a brick in his early days to the right-hand punch that knocked him out in the tenth round of his second match with Robinson. By the end of his life, friends had noticed changes in mood and behavior, misalignment of his eyes, and an ongoing lack of energy, all suggesting the presence of traumatic brain injury—the kind impossible to detect in a standard autopsy. Unfortunately, nobody ever bothered to do the microscopic testing necessary to confirm such damage, and Turpin’s brain remains a mystery.

Coda

mills headstone

Closeup of Freddie Mills’s headstone. Photo courtesy of findagrave.com. 

On the final page of The Strange Death of Randolph Turpin, Jack Birtley suggests the following quotation from Sir Walter Scott as a “fitting epitaph” for his friend:

“To all the sensual world proclaim

One crowded hour of glorious life

Is worth an age without a name.”

In fact, his epitaph reads as follows: “To the dear memory of Randolph Adolphus Turpin, devoted husband of Gwyneth and father of Gwyneth Annette Charmaine and Carmen who passed away 17th May 1966 – Aged 38.” Then, in smaller print beneath this inscription: “World Middleweight Boxing Champion 1951.”

Freddie Mills’s headstone sports a picture of him in fighting stance, with a carved marble boxing glove set over the grave. The inscription reads, “In loving memory of Freddie, a husband and father who was loved and adored.”

[1] Jack Birtley, The Tragedy of Randolph Turpin, 58.

[2] Birtley, 79.

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