The Phantom of the Ring
Lipstick, Dynamite and Glowworms — Part 1
Part 1 of an in-depth look at the growth of women’s wrestling, from noted ring historian, The Phantom of the Ring.
If professional wrestling is the redheaded stepchild of sport, then, surely, women’s wrestling is the redheaded stepchild to professional wrestling.
It is well noted that men’s pro wrestling had its beginnings in the murky depths of the carnival, where it was advertised as an “AT” show; supposedly one where the better man won, but in reality a variation of the short grift in which the sucker is relieved of as much cash as he wants to lose.
Women’s wrestling did not suffer from that stigma. It emerged from the lower depths of the carnival, past the AT tent, to another venue, where tattooed women named Little Egypt shimmied in a pseudo belly dance and enticed men to buy a ticket and see what was really behind the tent curtain they fronted. Upon entering the patron was sure to see a sideshow of bearded women and legless men enticing him still further to the darkest secrets of the exhibit. And there, a makeshift ring consisting of ropes surrounding a sawdust floor promised him something he would later spend hours discussing at the Masonic Lodge.
If he was bold enough, he could enter through the ropes and become a kind of Theseus and Perseus rolled into one as he battled the mythic monster of the carnival: the wrestling woman. If not, he could take pleasure as a spectator in what passed for extreme naughtiness in Nineteenth Century America.
Of course, there were also woman versus woman encounters in the carnival, and these were no less popular than the battles of the sexes between the ropes. Lest the reader think this was a phenomenon that began in post-Civil War America, the truth of the situation was that women were wrestling each other and men since the dawn of organized sports. Fairs in Elizabethan times often advertised women combatants, either facing each other in boxing or wrestling matches, or taking on all comers. Female fighting spectacles were considered de rigeur in circuses and fairs in Czarist Russia. In France, women wrestlers were also the rage in fairs and carnivals, as well as being popular features on postcards.
In America, female fighting began in the back tents of carnivals and circuses and spread to burlesque houses via the back rooms of taverns. At the turn of the century, female wrestling shot up in popularity, which, in turn, necessitated the need for as champion of some sort to defend a championship of some other sort. Actually, there had been female wrestling champions in the nineteenth century, the most famous of which was Josie Wahlford, who put her title on the line against both women and men (the men were limited to carny visitors and could outweigh Josie by no more than twenty pounds). Josie was defeated in about 1901 by Laura Bennett, who dominated the championship in that first decade.
Laura temporarily gave up the title for two years to Mary Harris in 1907 and reclaimed it in 1909. At the height of her career she stood 5’9” and weighed in the neighborhood of 190 pounds, all of it muscle. Her second title run lasted until 1912, when she was bested by a challenger many consider to be the finest woman athlete ever to step between the ropes.
Cora Livingstone (the “e” at the end of her last name may have been added by husband Paul Bowser as a flourish) was born in Buffalo, New York in 1893. A natural athlete who exhibited her abilities in track and field when still a teenager, she stood 5 feet 5 inches and weighed 138 pounds. Livingstone turned to wrestling at the urging of her husband, wrestling impresario Paul Bowser. Operating from the family mansion in Cambridge, Massachusetts, she was trained in the wrestling arts not only by her husband, known as one of the best middleweight wrestlers of his time, but also by the great Dr. Benjamin Roller. With all this under her belt, Livingstone met up with Laura Bennett in St. Louis in 1912. Though smaller and outweighed by 50 pounds, Livingstone took the match to Bennett right from the start, pinning her in 12 minutes to take the first fall. The second fall was shorter, with Cora using a half nelson and crotch hold (body slam) to throw Laura in less than three minutes.
Her victory won Cora recognition everywhere as the greatest female wrestler in the world; and with the rise of Cora Livingstone, women’s wrestling went into a more lucrative, dignified successful phase. Cora defended her belt at legitimate theaters, athletic clubs and small arenas, often on the same card with men’s matches – a first in that time. She retired in 1925 to a life of luxury and a second career as an equestrian of the first rank.
While women’s wrestling in America was seen as a rarity, in England and France it was more established, with troupes of women wrestlers touring from town to town and doing spectacular business. These shows featured the sort of outrageous showmanship and promotion that would later take hold in the US during the depression years.
During the depression, wrestling at first held the crowds. But as the economy worsened the crowds thinned and new gimmicks were considered to bring the crowds back. One of these was to promote a woman’s match on the card. Promoters who, during the 1920s wouldn’t be caught dead with a couple of dames on the card were now amenable to booking a woman’s match or two on his circuit. For the most part, however, the carnival remained as both the main source of revenue and the training ground for woman wrestlers. Grapplers who graduated to the auditorium from the carnival during the 1930s included the likes of Connie Landis, Kay O’Connor, Nell Donald, May Stein, Mae Weston, Lillian Bitters (who also took on male comers during the course of the card), Mars Bennett (who was also a noted trapeze artist) and Ada Ash.
Women’s wrestling in the 1930s was dominated by two exceptional athletes. Clara Mortensen started wrestling in the early 30’s performing with “Crafts Big Shows,” a traveling carnival based in California. By 1934 she was recognized as ladies champion by those promoters presenting women’s matches, either as World’s Lightweight Champion or as World’s Women’s Champion. With women’s professional wrestling established in pro rings, Mortensen could be considered the first champion of the modern era. However, the most popular female wrestler of the 30s, and well into the 50s, was Mildred Burke (nee Bliss, 1915-1989). The amazing thing about Burke was that she had no prior experience as either a wrestler or an athlete. The story was that she became a fan of pro graps by attending the Kansas City cards. Wanting to get into the game herself, she pestered promoter and ex-middleweight wrestler Billy Wolfe to train her. Wolfe turned her down numerous times before finally submitting and inviting her to the gym. He matched her with one of the ring boys, in deference to her small stature (5’2”, 115 lbs.). The ring boy was instructed to slam her as hard as possible, but when he did, Mildred not only held on, but she flipped him into a pinning position. He tried again, but this time she picked him up and slammed him. Wolfe, sensing he had something here, took her on a tour of carnivals, offering $25 to any man within 20 pounds of her weight who could pin her within 15 minutes. She also booked herself on a Gust Karras card in St. Joseph, Missouri, wrestling a man.
It was while traveling through the South in a carnival that Wolfe had a brainstorm. At the time they were working a staged woman vs. woman match. Her opponent was managed by her father, so Wolfe talked the father into accompanying him to the offices of Birmingham promoter Chris Jordan to discuss Jordan booking Mildred and her opponent on his circuit. Jordan demurred at first because he didn’t think the ladies were capable of much. But when Wolfe pointed out to him that his business was sloughing off and that this couldn’t possibly hurt, Jordan agreed to schedule the match in one of his smaller venues, figuring that if the match stunk, who would notice. The match was a sellout and subsequent rematches also sold out everywhere they were presented. Jordan put a belt around Mildred’s waist and proclaimed her the “Southern Champion.” What Mildred and Billy wanted, though, was the World’s Championship, and to get that she had to defeat Mortensen. Mortensen, however, was not in a giving mood, so Wolfe challenged her to a mixed match in Atlanta in 1937, which he won on a disqualification. Supposedly he now had the goods to demand a title match for Burke, and as legend has it, Burke defeated Mortensen for the belt on January 28, 1937 in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Later that year, Burke won a tournament held by the Midwest Wrestling Association in Columbus, Ohio to determine a women’s champion. (Later, when the National Wrestling Association was formed, it simply declared Burke to be NWA Women’s Champion.) During the course of the tournament Burke defeated names such as Mae Weston, Gladys Gillam and Rose Evans. At any rate, Mortensen claimed the world’s belt well into the 50s, usually defending against Rita Martinez, who was billed as “The Champion of Mexico,” but whose voice was so American that producer George Weiss told her to speak in a Mexican accent for the movie Pin-Down Girls. (Burke’s favorite opponent, by the way, was Juanita Coffman, who lost to Burke more than 25 times in her career.)
Wolfe was emboldened by Burke’s MWA victory to create a central booking office and training center for young women aspiring to enter the field. What emboldened the usually timid Wolfe was the backing he received from promoter Al Haft. With Wolfe supplying the girls for booking and Haft supplying the juice to get them bookings, Wolfe’s business took off like a supersonic jet. The Postwar boom also helped to the point where, by 1949, Wolfe and Haft had almost 200 women working for them. They signed all the leading carnival veterans and used them as teachers for the new blood when they weren’t on the road. Burke, of course, was exempted from most of this workload. She mainly supervised the training, though she was said to have trained a young lady by the name of Lillian Ellison for the ring. Her main function was to travel to different towns and defend her belt. Haft ran a tough deal with other promoters: Burke was to be either in the main event, a double main event, or billed as a special attraction. In the end she was worth it, as her appearances filled the night’s coffers to overflowing .
Burke was living la vida, and she showed it with self-designed outfits that would have made Ric Flair jealous. Her fingers were loaded with expensive baubles custom designed by jewelers and even her Packards and Cadillacs (she bought a new one every year) were custom designed. Besides the $75 – $100 grand she made each year wrestling, she was also a partner in the booking office, and as such entitled to a taste of the booking fees charged to both promoters and wrestlers in the Wolfe-Burke stable. (Those working for the stable were charged 50% of their nightly earnings.)
Then the roof fell in. Wolfe, who had married Burke shortly after turning her pro, treated the training complex as his own private harem, fathering several illegitimate daughters by women wrestlers. Mildred was also managed on her road tours by Wolfe’s alcoholic son from a previous marriage. The son could be overlooked, but the illegitimate daughters could not be passed off as easily, and so Mildred and Billy separated and later divorced. Ironically, that was when her problems really began. The IRS audited Wolfe over expenses and discovered Wolfe wasn’t exactly honest in reporting his income; for instance, the booking kickbacks by the girls were never reported, and they came to quite a pretty penny. Mildred, as a partner of the Office, found herself saddled for a tax bill that, quite frankly, she didn’t have the funds to pay. While she looked and acted rich, the truth was that she had hardly a penny to her name. Her earnings were all made out to the booking office and the cash was held by Wolfe. She had to hock her jewelry to satisfy the tax bill and then went out on her own to earn her own way with the only asset she was allowed to keep – her Women’s World Championship. But she wouldn’t even keep that for long.
Mildred and Billy started promoting in opposition to each other. As they still had stakes in the booking office, the ensuing mess came to the attention of the National Wrestling Alliance, which directed them to settle the matter once and for all. Burke claims she borrowed money to pay Wolfe in order to have him withdraw from the business, but if she did, he certainly double-crossed her. He married wrestler Nell Stewart and alcoholic son Bill Junior married June Byers. With Al Haft still supplying the necessary pressure, bookers favored the Byers-Stewart main events to anything Mildred was selling. Though Byers was put over in a 1953 tournament in Baltimore to determine the champion, Haft knew that in order to gain any sort of legitimacy, Burke had to drop the belt. It just wouldn’t do to name Stewart or Byers as champion while Burke could still make a legitimate claim. It was decided to challenge Burke in Atlanta, one of the few cities that continued to book her retinue. Byers was chosen to make the challenge, and to sharpen her skills in the ring, Haft imported Ruffy Silverstein to teach June the gentle art of hooking.
Burke, for her part, claimed she shattered her knee in Birmingham, Alabama and was still hobbling when she accepted the challenge. The date was set for June 20, 1954. Byers won the first fall when Burke tapped out. It turned out to be the only fall of the match, which was scheduled for an hour. Burke had won the match. When her leg healed she toured Japan (making connections that eventually paid off), the first American woman wrestler of any note to do so. But when she returned to the states she discovered that the Georgia Athletic Commission determined that, despite the fact that only one fall was won, Byers was the new champion because she won that fall. Burke protested the decision to no avail and she continued to serve as the WWWA World Champion (an organization she created in the 50s) keeping her claim as the world’s undefeated women’s champion alive until her injuries caught up with her and forced her to retire in 1956.
Burke would spend her retirement working with her son at a water-softening company in California. But the wrestling bug was still biting, so she opened up a training school. Among her more well-known pupils were Lita Marez, Jackie West, Princess War Star, Susan Sexton and Rhonda “Monster Ripper” “Bertha Faye” Singh. She was able to book her charges in Western Canada and Japan, where her contacts with what would become All Japan Women’s Pro Wrestling (AJW) would pay off big. She also built a very successful mail order business, selling classic women’s bouts and AJW bouts. In addition, Mildred also had a featured role in the depressing independent film, Below the Belt (1980). Based on Roslyn Drexler’s novel, To Smithereens, it’s the story of a waitress who wants to be a pro wrestler. Guess who trains her? The next year found Burke working on the Peter Falk cult comedy All the Marbles as a technical adviser, presumably helping those girls practice their sunset flips. Mildred Burke left our world on February 14, 1989 from the effects of a stroke.
Next: Byers reigns, but Moolah and Pfeffer Rule.
- – The Phantom of the Ring
You can write to the Phantom care of Karen Belcher