Massachusetts Memento Mori: Jack Sharkey and Ernie Schaaf



Massachusetts Memento Mori: Jack Sharkey and Ernie Schaaf

Massachusetts has been the home of many world champions. But continuing to look for gravesites to visit, I was learning the Bay State was not always the final resting place of its champions.

Take Joe Walcott, for example.

No, not Jersey Joe Walcott, whose real name was Arnold Cream, but the original Joe Walcott, aka “the Barbados Demon.”

He was born in British Guiana (now Guyana), grew up in Barbados, and lived much of his adult life in Boston. He fought from 1892 through 1911.

Although Walcott stood only 5’2” and often gave up weight, Walcott shared the ring with greats like Joe Gans, Sam Langford, Joe Grim, Joe Choynksi, Mysterious Billy Smith, and Kid Lavigne.

Boston was his adopted hometown, but Walcott isn’t buried in Massachusetts.

He rests in Ohio, along the edge of Amish country in a Dalton cemetery.

Walcott had lost whatever money he’d earned prizefighting, and had been working as a custodian at Madison Square Garden.

In 1935, he was heading towards California, believing there was work in Hollywood for him. Reportedly hitchhiking outside of Massillon, Ohio, Walcott was struck by a vehicle and killed.

Without friends or family in Ohio to claim the body, Walcott was buried anonymously by the city.

NYF salutes Ernie Schaaf

Joe Walcott Gets Love Later

Decades later, a boxing fan figured out the mystery of Walcott’s unlikely end.

A new headstone was erected in 1955, proclaiming his “Ex Worlds Champion.”

Then there was Marvelous Marvin Hagler, the middleweight king of the 1980s, who passed away in 2021.

Though born in Newark, NJ, Hagler spent most of his adult years in Massachusetts, famously training on the winter beaches of Cape Cod, running through the frozen sand in heavy boots.

After retiring from boxing, he lived for some time in Italy.

After his death, Hagler’s adopted hometown of Brockton, MA held a large, public memorial. But there is no Massachusetts gravesite for Hagler, who was cremated rather than buried.

The Marvelous One was not Brockton’s only champion, of course.

Marvin Hagler changed his name to Marvelous Marvin Hagler

Marvin made NJ, Mass, even Italy home.

Before him, there was the “Brockton Blockbuster,” Rocky Marciano.

The Rock won his title from Jersey Joe Walcott and retired undefeated after 49 bouts.

Marciano died in 1969, the day before his 46th birthday, in a small plane crash.

Despite his strong familial ties to Massachusetts, Marciano was buried in Florida, where he had been living.

The high school in Brockton features a statue of The Rock, an astounding 24 feet tall, donated to the city by the WBC.

As far as visiting gravesites went, Walcott, Hagler, and Marciano were out.

Jack Sharkey Lay Down For No Man, Rests in New Hampshire

But Jack Sharkey, who briefly held the heavyweight title in the 1930s and was known as “the Boston Gob,” must certainly remain in Massachusetts, I assumed.

Well, no. But close.

Sharkey is buried in Epping, New Hampshire, a few miles north of the Massachusetts state line.

It was there in Epping, a small, remote town, that Jack Sharkey spent his golden years.

Epping was his wife Dorothy’s hometown.

The couple had already raised a family in Chestnut Hill, and when he stopped fighting, Jack had run Jack Sharkey’s Ringside Cafe, featuring the world’s longest bar, until 1943.

Rihn and galpal paid respect to Jack Sharkey

The couple eventually retired to her hometown, where they spent Sunday mornings in church.

The rest of the week, Jack could be found flycasting knee-deep in the rivers of New Hampshire.

Born Juozas Povilas Žukauskas to Lithuanian parents, he adapted the portmanteau “Jack Sharkey” by combining the names of his two favorite fighters, Jack Dempsey and Tom Sharkey.

Although his championship reign was short, he had an interesting career.

He has the distinction of being the only fighter to face both Jack Dempsey and Joe Louis, losing to both.

But wins over Johnny Risko, Harry Willis, Mike McTigue, Young Stribling, Tommy Laughran, Max Schmeling, and Primo Carnera – plus a draw with Mickey Walker – guaranteed Sharkey’s place in the history books.

Sharkey was one of a string of heavyweight title holders in those years between Jack Dempsey and Joe Louis, a time when the bright lights of boxing’s marquee division had dimmed a little.

Sharkey beat Max Schmeling for the heavyweight championship in a close decision in 1932 and then didn’t fight for a year.

He eventually defended his title, facing the Italian Primo Carnera. The defense was unsuccessful.

Jack Sharkey had been champion for a year and eight days.

Sharkey had lived a long life. He died in 1994 at the age of 91.

In Epping, Jack Sharkey now rests buried next to his wife Dorothy in Prospect Hill Cemetery, a simple cemetery ringed by pine trees and bordering the Lamprey river.

Their stone is small and humble and makes no mention of Sharkey’s heavyweight campaign.

In learning more about the career of Jack Sharkey, I also began to read up on some of his stablemates, such as Andy Callahan, and in particular, a heavyweight named Ernie Schaaf.


Although his name isn’t well-known today, Schaaf’s story is fascinating.

Ernie Schaaf was born and raised in New Jersey. He had admired Sharkey’s career from afar, and moved up to Boston when he signed with Sharkey’s manager, Johnny Buckley, in 1929.

Sharkey and Schaaf were both heavyweights and they shared a Navy background. In photos together, the two appear convivial and friendly.

Sharkey helped guide Schaaf’s career, and even bought a share of his management. With Schaaf, he had his work cut out for him.

Kid Had Looks, Ernie Schaaf Had Skills Too

Ernie was handsome, with a kind smile and broad shoulders. He had a pleasant disposition and planned on entering the priesthood after boxing.

In the ring, he could give as well as he got, and he wasn’t afraid of serious action.

In less than six years, Schaaf fought 25 fights against past, current, or future Top Ten ranked fighters.

This includes wins over Johnny Risko, Tommy Loughran, Young Stribling, Jimmy Braddock, Max Baer, and Tony Galento.

The Ring magazine ranked him in the Top Ten three years running, and featured him on the cover twice.

Schaaf seemed poised for stardom.

In February of 1932, Schaaf was scheduled to face the Ambling Alp, Primo Carnera.

The Italian was promised a title shot if he beat Schaaf. What a dilemma this posed for Sharkey.

It is unclear what would have happened if Schaaf won, as the conflict of interest in a Sharkey-Schaaf bout may have been insurmountable.

On that night in Madison Square Garden, Jack Sharkey acted as chief second for his friend.

But something in Schaaf’s performance looked off.

His feet weren’t as fast and his punches weren’t as clean.

Carnera was having his way with him.

In the 13th round, a stiff jab snapped Schaaf’s head back. He careened into the ropes. Schaaf clung to the bottom rope in vain but his body gave out. He slumped forward, face-down onto the canvas.

Schaaf was taken to the nearby Polyclinic Hospital, where he slipped into a coma.

Surgery was performed to try to reduce the swelling in his skull as friends and family held vigil.

A concerned Carnera, barred from visiting, called every few hours for updates. Schaaf slipped in and out of consciousness.

Four days after the fight, on Valentine’s Day, Ernie Schaaf died.

His last words were reportedly “I’m OK, Mom.” He was only 24 years old.

A funeral was held in Foxboro, not far from his home in Wrentham.

3500 people were reported in attendance, snaking a solemn parade down the suburban streets.

Numerous boxing champions and notables were in attendance.

A Navy escort fired three volleys in the air and a bugler performed Taps.

Tributes and flowers were flown in from all over the country, overwhelming the cemetery.

Primo Carnera sent a magnificent cross made of roses, orchids, and lilies.

Most assumed the punishment from mountainous Carnera was too much for Schaaf.

Some looked to blame damage accumulated in earlier fights, particularly tough bouts with Max Baer and Two Ton Tony Galento.

The New York State Athletic Commission demanded a new “dreadnaught” weight class for Carnera, to protect smaller heavyweights.

However, autopsy reports showed meningitis. It was known he’d suffered a recent bout of influenza, a typical precursor to meningitis.

Though it went unnoticed in his physical, it caused inflammation of the brain, likely impacting his performance against Carnera and multiplying the effects of Carnera’s blows.

Boxing is the most tragic of sports, wrote Joyce Carol Oates, “because more than any human activity it consumes the very excellence it displays.”

Ernie Schaaf did not die that Valentine’s Day because Primo Carnera bore him any ill will, nor did Carnera attack with any superhuman strength of force.

Schaaf was simply a game fighter, young and proud and eager, so willing to fight that he entered the ring when he should have postponed.

It is easy to look back now and make that sort of armchair call, of course. It’s easy to be the one who’s not at risk.

See Schaaf here.

The Toll Taken On Carnera

After Schaaf’s death, Carnera was picked up by the police on a perfunctory charge of manslaughter, which was quickly changed at the police station to a simple interrogation.

The medical report on Schaaf soon cleared Carnera of any wrongdoing and the charges were dropped, but Schaaf’s death, and his own level of culpability in that death, tortured the gentle giant.

It was quickly decided best to remove Carnera from the country.

He flew back to his home in Italy before the funeral, shadowed by guilt.

He requested a funeral mass be held in Sequals for his fallen opponent. He wired Schaaf’s mother, begging her forgiveness.

Her response is at once both heartbreaking and life-affirming.

Kindly be assured that I do not consider you in any way responsible for the death of my boy. I feel toward you like I would have wished your mother to have felt toward my Ernie if you had met with some misfortune during your bout with him. I thank you for your offers of sympathy and for your kind expressions of admiration for Ernie.”

Carnera wept.

Although Schaaf’s death weighed heavily on him, the Italian heavyweight was eventually able to step through the ropes and enter the prize ring again.

His trainer recognized, however, that with every fight, Carnera would have to “face two opponents: the boxer and Schaaf's ghost.”

Carnera’s next fight would be against Jack Sharkey, the deceased’s former mentor and friend.

The New York Commision had dropped their opposition to the bout and the fight was held at Madison Square Garden, the same venue from which Jack Sharkey had helped carry Schaaf out of only months before.

This was the second time the two men faced each other.

They’d fought in 1931, with Sharkey winning on points after knocking down the bigger man in the fourth.

Their rematch seemed to be heading in the same direction. Sharkey was handling Carnera with relative ease, until the sixth round.

But Carnera was not the only fighter haunted by the loss of Ernie Schaaf.

Carnera muscled Sharkey back into a corner and landed a stiff right uppercut flush on Sharkey’s chin. The champion dropped like a sack of potatoes. Face down on the canvas, there was no way Sharkey was going to make the count of ten.

Years later, Sharkey told Peter Heller this version of events.

“All of a sudden — and I can't convince anybody of this, even my own wife has her doubts I think — I see Schaaf in front of me, the next thing I know, I'd lost the championship of the world. During the process of the fight I visualized Schaaf there. I saw him, and I stayed there long enough just to get knocked out. I saw Schaaf, a vision.”

In those years, the Garden had acquired the ominous nickname “The Graveyard of Champions,” as no title defense had ever been successful there.

Whether it really was the ghost of Schaaf or simply the Garden’s bad luck, Sharkey did not break the streak, and Carnera walked away with the title.

On Boxrec, the location of Ernie Schaaf’s grave is listed as unknown.

This is attributed to an excellent 2003 Sun Chronicle article by James A. Merolla.

He notes Schaaf’s body was exhumed from its Foxboro, MA grave and moved, but he did not know where.

I located Schaaf’s whereabouts using the site Find A Grave.

Schaaf, who never married, is now buried in Mount Olivet Cemetery in Newark, NJ, alongside his mother and sister.

My guess is after either the mother or sister passed, the family wanted everyone together and they had Ernie’s body moved from Mass to NJ.

We stopped by Mt. Olivet on the same day we visited the graves of Joe Jennette and Tony Galento.

All three are within short drives of one another, but it was Schaaf, with his Massachusetts connection, that initially drew us there.

Mount Olivet is a small, simple Roman Catholic cemetery.

The Schaaf grave is marked with a large, beautiful stone, smooth with simple lines. With stone urns on either side, the headstone rests on a natural stone plinth.

These graveside visits have become a sort of memento mori for me, the Catholic admonition to “remember your death.”

They are a glance towards the shared inheritance of our inevitable end, a reminder that we are not invincible, but mortal.

To remember your death is more than crude morbidity.

It is also an admonition to remember your life, to remember that you are alive.

Meaningful confrontation with life is our refuge against despair, an antidote to cynicism.

Remembering your death means counting the wagers we are willing to risk in pursuit of that which we cherish.

I make these road trips with my girlfriend.

We spend the day together enjoying each other’s company, playing music in the car, eating in new restaurants.

We search for the headstones together. She’s a boxing fan, too. It’s a big part of how we met in the first place.

Together, we’re learning the history of the sport we love, and exploring the state that has become our adopted home.

Boxing has the capacity to reveal human greatness, but reminds us that greatness does not come without cost.

Anyone who has stepped through those ropes will tell you: boxing humbles us.

In that “luminous cube,” as Nabokov called the well-lighted ring, every breath counts and every second is counted.

“Death, clean and bare as a bone, is present in the boxing match,” observed the philosopher Jean Paul Sartre.

We are our best selves when we are called to be more than we are.

Such moments are rare. Rarer still the times we are able to respond to those calls.

We extend ourselves into the vulnerability of forgiveness, or intimacy, or any good thing we’ve been conditioned to fear.

Biting down on the proverbial mouth guard, we remember our death, and together we risk that greatness.