It’s unfortunate that his final day always takes up the story… one day of his life. SUZY MILLS, DAUGHTER OF FREDDIE MILLS
IT was July 1965 when former world light-heavyweight champion Freddie Mills was found dead in his car, rifle by his side and blood oozing from his eye. The coroner’s verdict of suicide soon followed but the case was far from closed. His family vehemently rejected the notion that Mills had taken his own life. It was murder, they said.
Fifty-four years later, the mystery surrounding Mills’ death, which occurred behind his popular Soho nightspot in London, continues to transcend the considerable achievements that came before. Conspiracy theories run amok, numerous underworld gangsters remain implicated, and several books have been published that claim to, but fail to, unveil the truth. Four years ago, burgeoning filmmaker and boxing fan Simon Dales was drawn into the seemingly never-ending story and moved to investigate. What he produced is quite simply exceptional.
Murder in Soho: Who Killed Freddie Mills, a 90-minute documentary aired last month by BBC Four, tracks the life and career of Mills in detail before exploring the circumstances of his final day: The day that continues to cruelly define Freddie Mills.
The film draws on a cast of boxing historians, journalists, associates, doctors, gangsters, scientists and police officers of the time to create a real-life whodunnit, one that engrosses and educates while paying a glowing tribute to a fighter and father. Dales knew he would need to involve Mills’ surviving family too. A family haunted by Freddie’s death and tormented by the seemingly eternal innuendo it left behind.
“I had to work hard to earn their trust, because they have had some bad experiences with the press in the past,” Dales tells Boxing News about how he persuaded Mills’ daughters Suzy Mills, Amanda Mills Burke and stepson Don McCorkindale, who discovered his dad’s body, to join him on his journey.
“After sitting down and talking to Simon I realised he was genuine and his intentions were sincere. I’m a man of the world and I recognise bulls**t straight away,” McCorkindale informs BN.
“I put my total and utter trust in him. I mentioned any reservations that I had during the questions he put to me. It was the same with my two sisters, Suzy and Manda. Any concerns we had were aired and Simon acquiesced them all.”
Those concerns were natural given the wild speculation surrounding Freddie’s life and death. Factually incorrect reports in newspapers, books written purely for the sake of sensationalism, and strangers claiming to know more than they possibly could had all soiled the family name.
“I had no interest in breeding more conspiracy theories,” Lane continues. “One of the things that drew me to it was all these crazy theories that came with no facts. Problem was, all these theories were overshadowing his accomplishments.”
Those accomplishments were vast. A career that began in 1936 as a 16-year-old with a one-round victory over Jim Riley in “Fearless Freddie’s” hometown of Bournemouth, gathered pace during the second world war. In 1942, at a packed White Hart Lane, Mills signalled his arrival with a savage two-round thrashing of the decorated Len Harvey, a hellacious left hook plummeting the favoured British champion into darkness.
“He tucked his chin down and all hell broke loose,” says London EBA’s Bob Cheeseman to BN when reflecting on Mills’ free-swinging style. A style so fearless and exciting, it soon seduced a country bogged down by the misery of war.
“He epitomised the bulldog spirit that Britain yearned for,” said veteran fight writer Alan Hubbard during the film. “He was almost Churchillian in his attitude, he would have fought them on the beaches. Britain needed to be uplifted and the sort of spirit that Freddie showed put heart into the nation.”
After returning from service at the conclusion of the war, Freddie Mills – out of action for 15 months and with very little training – was served up to world champion, Gus Lesnevich, at the Harringay Arena by his manager, Ted Broadribb. Mills was given just one week to prepare for the shellacking that followed. He rose from four heavy knockdowns in round two – shown in shocking detail in the film – to take the fight to the American before being pummelled to defeat in the 10th.
Murder in Soho reveals it was after that bout that Mills suspected something was wrong. The battering had been so severe that the fighter started to suffer from headaches. Headaches that accompanied bouts of depression. Headaches and depression that would, 19 years later, be attributed to Freddie taking his own life. The film tells us that Mills privately admitted that he was never the same fighter again after that brutal reverse.
That he gained revenge over Lesnevich to become champion two years later says more about Freddie Mills than any coroner’s verdict or conspiracy theory ever could. In an era where world titles were scarce, and British rulers even more so, Mills captured the public’s affection with a heroic display to take the ‘Yank’s’ championship via 15-round decision at the White City Stadium. He had achieved his lifelong dream. He truly ruled the world.
“To beat an American for the world title, at one of the heavier weights, was unusual,” remarked BN’s own Miles Templeton. “Not many British fighters had done that. It transcended the sport of boxing.”
By 1950, after a failed bid for the British, Commonwealth and European heavyweight titles against Bruce Woodcock and surrendering his world 175lbs championship to Joey Maxim, Mills had retired with a record of 77-18-6 (55).
“Boxing is a very funny game,” Mills can be heard saying after his career was over. “It’s a game where two strangers shake hands, belt the life out of each other and then shake hands again and they become pals for the rest of their lives. Nothing has thrilled me quite so much before I took up boxing or since.”
And so Mills boarded the post-boxing rollercoaster that would come to a tragic halt on a summer’s night in 1965. Through the fifties and early sixties, the ride was largely triumphant. He transitioned from sporting hero to national hero and became an early embodiment of the word ‘celebrity’ we know today.
Freddie was adored everywhere he went. Traffic would stop. Crowds would swarm. Audiences would swoon. As he became a regular staple on television and film his popularity was so great it would have been unthinkable back then to imagine the lack of appreciation he has received since his departure.
“He beat everyone in the world, he was loved by the whole country and the subsequent knighthoods given to lesser people,” says McCorkindale as his voice cracks, “well, you know what I think about that.”
The most tragic thing in all of it, perhaps, is that Mills was not around to defend the myriad accusations that were aimed at him. The first was that ruling of suicide.
“I think there’s a lack of evidence to point to suicide,” Dales says. “From all the police files I’ve read and interviews I conducted I always felt it was more likely to be murder. I tried to remain detached from it while making it and keep an open mind, which is why the film spends so much time addressing suicide. But during filming I realised it pointed more towards murder.”
So why was suicide ruled? Aside from the depression, the headaches and a suggestion that Mills may have been suffering from the early stages of brain damage, his television career had dwindled. In turn, his finances took a hit. He struggled to keep afloat as the bills piled up. It all became too much, it was ruled, and he put the rifle he had borrowed to his eye and pulled the trigger.
His nightclub, anchored in the centre of gangland crime, almost certainly became a target for high-flying racketeers. Protection money would have been ordered. That too could have been a factor in suicide, true, but it’s also why murder becomes just as likely. Mills, perhaps inadvertently, had got himself deeply embroiled in a world he did not belong. Furthermore, a stray bullet hole was also in the car, it’s believed his eyes were open when the final shot was fired, and the act of neatly placing the gun beside him was surely impossible for a man who had just sent a bullet through his face.
“It is hard to make head or tail of what happened in terms of suicide,” observed Professor Brian J Ford, a scientific and forensic investigator who was invited to look at the case one week after Mills’ death.
“It is much easier to work it out in terms of murder. Freddie Mills, as we know, was close to the underworld, he knew a lot of criminals, he associated with a lot of them. We don’t know if he was being blackmailed, we know that he was heavily in debt over his club. It has been suggested that he owed an awful lot of money. The police statements suggest that he had borrowed the gun to commit suicide but might he not have borrowed it to protect himself?
“Freddie sits in his car, somebody approaches, taps on the window, there’s a struggle. The guy grabs Freddie’s gun, the gun goes off and makes a hole in the door of the car. The guy then points the gun at his eye. Bang, he shoots. The eye is blown out and the guy puts the gun down strategically to give the impression of suicide. That makes sense.”
It’s at this point of the story where Dales’ film excels. We are privy to reports that highlight lazy policing, evidence to strongly counter suicide that was bodged out of shape, and – most pertinently of all – we discover that testimony from family and friends of Mills was swatted away like flies.
On the night of his death, his daughters recall a happy man. A man who allowed them to stay up late to watch The Beatles on the Morecambe and Wise Show, a man who danced with them, who kissed them goodnight before he went to his club. A man, a loving father, who told his girls he would see them in the morning. A man who by almost all accounts had no intention whatsoever of ending his life.
And it was the police force’s failure to exhaust all accounts and all avenues, seemingly making their mind up that it was suicide from the moment they saw his body, that opened the gates for a crowd of imposters to lift their feet and stamp all over Mills’ memory.
Perhaps the most troubling was writer Michael Litchfield, whose book The Secret Life of Freddie Mills pins the crimes of ‘Jack The Stripper’ on Mills. The murders of several prostitutes, from 1959-1965 remains unsolved and Mills was never a suspect for good reason. Even so, Litchfield’s book garnered plenty of attention when it was published. Dales felt such notoriety was important to reference and in turn dismiss. Indeed, Litchfield is given just enough rope as he struggles to justify his outrageous claim.
“It was important to talk to Michael Litchfield at least, but I wasn’t sure if I was going to use it at all,” Dales explains. “Meeting him and talking to him you could tell he didn’t have any facts to back it up. So it was worth letting him try and explain it for himself because he couldn’t explain anything at all.”
But there were other theories that carried significantly greater weight. One came from Roger Huntman, the son of shady boxing agent Lenny Huntman, who claimed his father colluded with US Mafia boss, Mayer Lansky, and ordered the death of Mills after the former fighter – needing £2,500 to pay off his debts – threatened to go to “Fleet Street” with incriminating information if they didn’t get him the money.
The film concludes with Roger meeting Don McCorkindale and confessing the sins of his father.
“Roger Huntman’s theory at the end is not proven,” explains Dales. “But a lot of it makes sense and there was no reason for him to come forward if it wasn’t true. Roger’s story is quite convincing and – from all the many stories and theories I came across – his is the only one that made sense. [But] it’s yet another story relating to Freddie Mills, it fit the film and sums up the whole mystery around Freddie.”
McCorkindale, now he’s had time to digest the tale, does not believe that Huntman was responsible for his dad’s death.
“To quote Andy Warhol,” says Don, “Roger was looking for his 15 minutes of fame. I believe he was sincere, I believe he believed what his father told him. But he was nervous, and it was a difficult meeting for Roger. His body language and facial expressions told it all.”
McCorkindale has his own theory on his stepfather’s death after he was told who killed Mills during a meeting with underworld enforcer Johnny Bradbury in a South African prison. Bradbury is now dead and the truth unlikely to ever emerge. As Dales and McCorkindale accept, 54 years is long enough for memories to warp, and too long for a case to be made against anyone.
“The terrible thing is that we’ll never know for sure,” says Bob Cheeseman, who now runs the Freddie Mills Club for disadvantaged children. Cheeseman idolised Freddie. He was 18 at the time of his death and fondly recalls his last meeting with him in Hove.
“He was always so alive! He was always laughing and joking and he was a very likeable guy. I’m over the moon that Simon Dales looked into as much as he did. Freddie’s death was handled like a car crash, but Simon does a brilliant job of highlighting that chaos. At the end of the day you’re left to form your own opinion.”
Indeed. And therein lies the beauty of Simon Dales’ film. You form your own opinion on the great career of Freddie Mills. On the great man he was. And the great father he remains.