Mildred Burke was tough. She was a legitimate shooter trained by Billy Wolfe who could take on men as well as women. She held the women’s world championship for more than twenty years. She went two out of three falls most nights in the semi-main event or main most nights, and in the eyes of many fans, including me, she never lost it.
Mae Young was undeniably tough. She wrestled many of those main events against Mildred Burke and afterwards, went down to the bar to smoke cigars, drink beer, and pick fights with the men. She took bumps well into her eighties that made everyone cringe, and she never backed down from anyone.
Mildred was tough. Mae was tough. I’m here to tell you, Elvira Snodgrass was tougher than either of them.
Elvira has been a fascination of mine for a few years now. It started with the now debunked story that she and Mildred Burke once drew over 15,000 fans in Louisville, Kentucky for a main event, and grew from there. She’s the forgotten woman in the story of the golden age of female grapplers, largely due to her early exit and untimely death. The only clue as to what happened to her came from a scrapbook kept by Wild Bill Zim. Zim noted next to a photo of the two of them that she had lost an arm and died around 1957.
Now the truth can be told.
Just a few months ago, I received an email from Elvira’s nephew Aubrey Fuller, who read a previous story I posted about Elvira. He was able to fill in some amazing gaps in Elvira’s story – starting with the very beginning.
Elvira’s birth name was Gutherine Fuller and she was from Varnado, Louisiana. Her mother was a half-blooded Cherokee, and Elvira was proud of the fact she had “Indian blood” in her veins. Her first marriage was at an early age when she married Johnny Smith. Her only child was named Mae Bell Smith. She is listed on the 1930 US Census as living in the house of her father, John Willie Fuller of Varnado. She would make annual trips to Louisiana to visit with her mother.
Elvira was married three times, Johnny Smith, Bob Snodgrass, and lastly Paul Hazelbaker. Aubrey’s father said Bob Snodgrass, who wrestled under the name Elmer Snodgrass, was the strongest person he ever met. “My dad was a very strong man whom no one would pick a fight with, but he said Elmer Snodgrass was the strongest person he had ever seen. Dad said he could pick up a bale of cotton on his back and walk off with it. MY dad was not prone to tell lies, so I always believed him.”
According to the 1930 US Census, Guthrine and her first husband Johnny were living with Guthrine’s parents with their daughter in 1930, along with all her younger siblings, including Aubrey’s father. By 1940 she had moved out, but daughter Mae Bell was still living with her grandparents. It’s believed she moved to Columbus, Ohio, where Billy Wolfe’s core group of lady wrestlers were based.
“Life was tough in rural Louisiana in the early part of the 1900s,” says Aubrey Fuller. “In 1940, my dad reported approximately 450 dollars for a full year of work. Aunt Gutherine didn’t like the hardships of the area and moved to greener pastures.”
After she gained fame as a wrestler, Elvira would make trips back to Bogalusa, Louisiana to see her family. She would let everyone know in advance when she would be home so that all of the nieces and nephews could be together when she came for her visit. “When she arrived, she would enter the building, throws handfuls of pennies, nickels, and dimes on the floor and holler ‘Razoo!’ She loved to see the children scrambling for the money.”
“When Aunt Gutherine visited Bogalusa, my mother would bake her a 4-5 pound fish called a buffalo. They are members of the carp family. They are not very tasty and smelled even worse as it was cooking in the oven. I never understood why she liked that fish.”
Much has been said in latter years of the division between the lady wrestlers working for Wolfe, especially between Burke and the rest of the group. The story has been largely put forward by Mae Young and the Fabulous Moolah, both of whom had their issues with Burke and Wolfe. Fuller recalls getting a much different impression from his aunt during these brief visits home.
“At one time, we had pictures of Aunt Gutherine eating dinner with Mildred Burke and other lady wrestlers of the era. She told us that most of the ladies got along well.”
Elvira was a fiercely independent woman who usually traveled alone on the long car rides from one show to the next. “When she traveled alone around the country in her car, match or no match, she would place a man’s hat upon the rear window sill of the car. The theory was that other men seeing the hat would think a man was sleeping on the back seat and not bother or attempt to molest her. I think this was mostly done after she lost her arm in the accident.”
Yes, just as Wild Bill Zim recorded in his scrapbook, Elvira lost an arm in a single car crash near Florence, Kentucky. It’s the story of how she lost the arm that makes her arguably the toughest woman ever to lace up a pair of boots.
Elvira rolled her car into an embankment, just out of sight from the road. Her arm was badly mangled and pinned, and she was unable to get her arm free. She waited a long time for help to come, but when help never arrived, she did what she had to do. She cut the arm off just above the elbow herself. Once free of the vehicle, she crawled back up to the road and sought medical help.
Update: It should be noted that story in Daily Times from June 26, 1952, the lists Elvira’s injuries as a compound fracture of the left arm and a scalp laceration. I have two sources that claim Elvira did indeed lose the arm, but I can’t verify for certain how or when that might have been lost. Given the nature of her chosen profession, it’s possible there might have been some kayfabe involved in the newspaper story to keep her injury a secret at the time. I will be digging deeper on this story to find out what really happened.
Incredible as the story was, family lore has it that Elvira kept wrestling for a time with one arm. I have yet to confirm this story as well, but I will be going back into the newspapers.com archives in the future to find out.
One other rumor I had come across said that Elvira had died of a suicide. That story didn’t sit right after hearing how she had survived the car crash, and I can confirm the rumor is false. Elvira died at an early age from the same cause that Aubrey’s father and a few of his uncles: cardiac arrest. She died in Columbus, Ohio, and was buried in Glen Rest Memorial Estate on East Main Street in Reynoldsburg, Ohio.
No doubt there is more to this incredible woman’s story to be told, and I’ll be sure to pass it on as I learn more. If nothing else, these new stories about Elvira’s toughness prove she deserves to take her place along side Mildred Burke and Mae Young as one of the strongest women ever to grace the squared circle.
You can read more of Elvira’s story in the book Louisville’s Greatest Show: The Story of the Allen Athletic Club.
Photo of Elvira and Wild Bill Zim courtesy of Mike Zim.