Channel Surfing – Did he or didn’t he swim the English Channel in 1908?

By Seth Daniel

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There was no greater, larger-than-life character in the character-rich history of Revere than that of Samuel Mahoney – an extraordinary swimmer and lifeguard on Revere Beach that has left the city with one of its most enduring, but forgotten, mysteries.

Mahoney was an Irish immigrant who emerged on Revere Beach at the turn of the last century, making a name for himself locally and nationally as the captain of the Beach’s private, volunteer life-saving service. An engineer at his day job and a resident of Garfield Avenue, the man was a marvel – blending the perfect amount of vaudeville-style showmanship with raw physical ability.

He was, however, one part athlete and two parts showman.

Mahoney was known internationally for many exploits, including a popular exercise fad that called for bathing in extremely cold seawater – a regimen he introduced to a capacity crowd at Madison Square Garden in New York City in 1909. Of all of those exploits, the one that remains mysterious is his claim to have swum across the English Channel in September 1908, just a hair over 100 years ago.

If he really did swim the Channel – a feat that was the ultimate test of human endurance at the time – Mahoney would have been only the second person in history to do so. The first was Capt. Matthew Webb of England in 1875.

Nevertheless, modern Channel swimming historians in Dover, England told the Journal recently that Mahoney was a total fraud.

“I think I can safely say that your Mr. Mahoney was a fraud, I’m afraid,” said Mark Frost, assistant curator of the Dover Museum – the foremost authority on Channel swimming. “Captain Webb swam the Channel in 1875, after which there were numerous attempts, none of which succeeded for more than 36 years…We have extracted every reference to Channel Swimming from local and national papers, including all failed attempts and even references to people who announced their intention but never even made an attempt. I have checked and there is no mention of anyone called Mahoney and no one named Mahoney ever tried to claim any of the prizes, cash or cups available for a successful swim (some people did try to claim the money fraudulently). No pilot boat, captain or crew ever claimed to have supervised a successful swim prior to 1911…There are 14 recorded attempts in 1908, one French and 13 British swimmers.”

Original sources, though, indicate that Mahoney did not get a lot of fanfare because he took a non-traditional route after carefully studying the course. Later, his manager said that the swim had been kept under wraps in Europe to give Boston papers an exclusive story. A misunderstanding, he said, prevented the story from breaking.

A Perfect Specimen

Sometime in 1907, Dr. Dudley Sargent of Harvard University’s acclaimed human physical development research team took a close look at Mahoney.

He measured him.

He calculated his muscle mass.

And then he proclaimed him the only perfectly developed man he had ever examined.

Was that fact or fiction?

Well, as with anything involving Mahoney, it was probably a little of both.

Revere Journal writers and editors seemed to love his exploits – following his every move and chronicling every swimming challenge that he made. Though living in Revere for most of his life and working in the engineering and steam fitting industry, Mahoney came to prominence in the early 1900s after a wealthy benefactor donated money to start a life-saving corps on Revere Beach.

That led to the formation of the Volunteer Life Saving Service, Corps 35 – which was the predecessor of today’s Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) lifeguard program.

Mahoney quickly became the captain of the corps, and many marveled at his size, strength and athletic ability in the water. He also quickly became known as one of the best swimmers on the East Coast.

Crippled By the Rheumatism

As he explained it to the Boston and Revere press, Mahoney came to swimming as a way of recovering from an awful illness – one which he simply called Rheumatism.

“Seven years ago I was a little old man with a bald head and gray whiskers,” he said in the Aug. 8, 1908 Revere Journal. “What was the reason? Rheumatism and doctors. For 10 months I lay in bed with rheumatic fever and took medicine, and my friends prepared for my funeral. I finally decided to be my own doctor.

“The first thing I did was fall out of bed and crawl over to [Revere] Beach, about a quarter mile from my house, and take a sun bath,” he continued. “That was the longest journey I ever took. From then on, I improved.”

He dedicated himself to perfect health and, not being able to walk, he took to swimming to improve his strength and keep the weight off his “sick legs.”

Channel or Bust

In a whacky and eccentric press conference on Revere Beach Aug. 1, 1908, Mahoney announced his intention to swim the English Channel – being very confident of his ability and his strategy. He said he had trained for one year and had studied the reasons for every failed attempt.

“You see what a tan I have?” he told reporters. “Well, it is really tan. I have tanned my hide until it is tough as leather. Water won’t get through very easily. Of course, I shall use grease to fill up the pores and keep the water out, and right there is where I shall gain a point, for I shall use a combination of vegetable oils that will absorb the waste matter of the body and not clog the pores.”

He went on to answer questions, explaining that he was not fat, but rather he had put on weight so that the fat would act as a blanket against the cold water. He also took reporters out onto the water and showed them that he could not sink – that he had a natural buoyancy.

He finally informed them that he would use the sidestroke mostly for the swim, alternating with the breast and backstrokes when tired.

He set out hastily on Aug. 8 with fellow Revere resident, Henry Hamblin, on the Republic Steamer bound for Liverpool.

A Questionable Return

Mahoney was gone for weeks and weeks.

Many didn’t hear from him and the Journal wondered aloud about him several times during September.

In October, the Boston press ran a confusing story that indicated Mahoney had set out to accomplish the feat, but did not conclude whether or not he had been successful. It seemed to suggest he failed.

Finally, on Oct. 10, he arrived back in Boston – greeted with a crew of his friends at North Station, some who were not convinced he had made the swim.

“Although some of the committee were somewhat skeptical as to whether Mahoney had really made the swim or not, none of them were in the least doubt after they had heard Mahoney’s story,” read the Oct. 17, 1908 Revere Journal.

Mahoney told the crowds that he had set out on Sept. 11 after several weeks of measuring his course and checking the tides and water conditions.

Finally, he decided that he would leave from the French side, rather than the English side. This, he said, produced a lot of confusion in the end.

“I lost 19 pounds during the swim and during the last five hours I used the breast stroke,” he said, noting that he swam 17.5 miles in 20 hours. “My legs were gone and I could not use them. The first part of the swim I used the side stroke.”

He provided a detailed account of his feat, giving very specific strategies and landmarks, and even producing affidavits from a ship’s crew.

“While none of the papers in England or France had anything about the swim, still I have the affidavits of the captain and crew of the tug in my trunk to show that I did accomplish it and I am satisfied I can do it in a quicker time.”

Just a Few Problems

Modern Channel historians, though, told the Journal that Mahoney was almost certainly unsuccessful – and probably never even made a true attempt, as it would have been a huge news event despite the outcome.

As it is, they have no mention at all of Mahoney.

“In the early 1900s swimming the Channel was huge news,” said Frost. “Every attempt was recorded by national and local press. The local papers recorded every arrival of a potential swimmer, every practice swim they made, what they were seen eating in local restaurants, stroke-by-stroke accounts of their attempt, etc. Every time they appeared on the beach to practice they were watched by crowds of hundreds and swamped by autograph hunters.”

Likewise, Frost said that the late summer conditions of the Channel probably don’t match up with Mahoney’s supposed success in September.

“I think there may also be a problem with his timing,” said Frost. “If he set out in August, I wonder when he got to England? August is already very late in the season and there are never any attempts after mid-September

– the Channel is too rough and too cold by then.”

Celebrating Mahoney

Mahoney and Hamblin – his manager – had seemingly thought of all the reasons why the attempt was stymied in the press.

In November 2008, a huge banquet was held in Mahoney’s honor at the Cherry Island Yacht Club on Revere Beach. More than 200 prominent people from Boston and Revere attended and there were congratulations from many different people – including former Boston Mayor John ‘Honey Fitz’ Fitzgerald, among others.

There was much talk about the negativity surrounding the attempt.

“Englishmen talk much about fair play, but they are very niggardly in giving fair play to any except the English people,” said Thomas Mullin of South Boston at the banquet.

Hamblin explained that he had made a deal with a Boston newspaper to run the exclusive story, and the paper had misunderstood the telegram saying Mahoney was successful – mostly because the team had chosen to go from France to England instead of the other way around.

He told the crowd that he had been with Mahoney all the way, and had nearly used force once to prevent Mahoney from giving up.

“About midnight, Mahoney discovered the real facts [that we were off course] and was ready to give up in despair,” Hamblin told the crowd. “I was almost obliged to use force to prevent him from swimming for the boat and giving up the attempt.”

Mahoney didn’t say much at the banquet – accepting a silver loving cup trophy from the assembly. However, he did, in fitting character, make one more outrageous proclamation.

“He had almost nothing to say regarding the swim itself, except at the close when he again aroused the wild enthusiasm of his audience by saying, ‘I swam the Channel fair and square, and I will do it again next summer,’” read the Journal.

There was never another record of Mahoney trying a second Channel swim – that is – if he ever really tried the first time.

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