The Legend of Cousin Elvira

Snodgrass 1There’s a story that’s been printed in more than one wrestling publication about a show that took place in Louisville. The main event involved two women, the world champion Mildred Burke, and a hillbilly rassler who called herself Elvira Snodgrass. According to Sid Feder’s Wrestling Fan’s Book, the two women once drew a crowd of over 18,000 in the River City.

The story is a fabrication, the kind of humbug that typified pro wrestling in it’s golden age. Not only is there no record of such an event taking place, the Allen Athletic Club didn’t have access to a venue large enough to accommodate such a crowd. Nevertheless, tall tales like these survive because they have a ring of truth. Mildred Burke was the queen of wrestling for nearly twenty years, and for at least a dozen of those years, Elvira Snodgrass was one of Mildred’s toughest opponents. And while the crowd of 18,000 may be only a myth, there is one kernel of truth to the story: Burke and Snodgrass headlined the weekly Allen Athletic Club during World War II.

Legitimate biographical information is hard to come by for Miss Snodgrass. Wrestlingdata.com gives her real name as Katherine Duvall, and most accounts seem to agree she was born in Tennessee. Depending on where she was booked, promoters billed as a native of Tennessee, Kentucky, Arkansas, or Ohio. She was also briefly billed as a resident of Hollywood, thanks to her appearance in a short film made in Tinseltown during the early 1940s.

In a 1953 interview, Elvira claimed that her wrestling career began in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Her ex-husband was a wrestler, and he taught her some of the tricks of the trade. Elvira saw women wrestling women for the first time on a trip to Toledo, Ohio, and she decided to give it a try.

“She really worked me over,” said Elvira of her first opponent, “My friends thought I would quit. I went against the grain, however, and I kept on until I had beaten her. I’ve been at it ever since.”

Elvira would later divorce her husband and hit the road alone. She worked for Billy Wolfe, Mildred Burke’s husband, and she often found herself in the ring with some of Wolfe’s toughest competitors, including Burke, Gladys “Kill ‘Em” Gillam, and Mae Weston. Elvira loved to get airborne, using a flying mare and a drop kick as part of her arsenal, but true to her backwoods roots, Elvira could brawl and get dirty when necessary.

In the early days, Elvira played the hillbilly role for all it was worth. Dressed in a bonnet and high top shoes, she looked like a character straight out of Lil Abner. In time she would lose the hillbilly fashion and replace them with a collection of capes she made herself. One cape, covered in sequins, was reportedly valued at $850.

At the height of her fame, Elvira was making $8000 a year. Like most of the lady wrestlers, Elvira kept herself well-groomed, but she did not have the same love of furs and jewels that Burke possessed. A wrist watch, earrings, and a ring with three small diamonds were her only indulgences outside the ring, as she kept her dress casual but elegant. She also had a heart tattooed on her arm with the nickname “Red” written in the center. She owned her own car and drove from one town to another, usually by herself.

Elvira stood at 5’7” and weighed 150-160 pounds throughout her career. She didn’t drink, didn’t smoke, and she avoided sweets. Healthy habits served her well, allowing her to work 5-6 nights a week for more than a decade. “I have only taken [time off] twice; once, for about a month, when my father died, and another time when I was thrown from the ropes and got my jaw broken on the side of the ring.
Elvira took great pride in her longevity. Pro wrestling has always been a hard business, and women especially did not last more than a few years. Elvira saw many competitors come and go, and she was proud to have worked so hard for so long, appearing in close to three thousand matches by her own count.

Elvira trained a few young women in her final years as a wrestler. When she retired in the mid 1950s she did so quietly. Elvira owned a home and property on Ohio at the time, and she’d expressed interest in opening a restaurant or filling station.

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Elvira is one of many names nearly lost to history and a promotion that continues to rewrite that history. She was every bit the road warrior and battle-hardened veteran as her more famous contemporary Mae Young, and her main event pedigree speaks for itself. Elvira might have been born a simple country girl, but she was a genuine star who worked every state in the union – including Illinois, where women’s wrestling was illegal.

“I was bootlegged onto a card in East St. Louis under a boy’s name,” she bragged.

Elvira Snodgrass loved being in the ring. She loved defying sexual stereotypes, and she loved being an hero for women.

“I don’t say that every woman can be a wrestler,” she said, “but if more women would engage in sports… they would be a lot better off.”

UPDATE: Sadly, it appears Elvira’s dream of owning a restaurant and a filling station never came to be. A few weeks after posting this story, I heard from a man named Mike Zim, son of Wild Bill Zim, who knew Elvira. Her real name was Catherine Hazelbaker, and in the summer of 1952, she rolled her car off the road near Covington, Kentucky.

Elvira suffered severe head and arm injuries in the single car accident. Wild Bill’s scrapbook notes that she lost an arm and passed away around 1957.

Newspapers.com has several accounts of the accident from 1952, but I have been unable to find an obituary or any evidence the car accident led to the loss of her arm.

Wild Bill also had a photo of Elvira from 1944, when he visited her on leave from the service during World War II.

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While her fate is tragic, it’s clear Elvira was a tough woman who did things her way. She followed her dream, and she didn’t need a man to help her make that dream happen. I dare say she would be proud to see the women’s wrestler’s of today carrying on the legacy she helped to forge.

Elvira’s bio can be found in the book Louisville’s Greatest Show, along with 20 other stars of the 1930s-1950s who frequented the River City.

One year later… top ten posts

It’s been a year since I started this blog experiment, and it’s been exciting to see it grow. Here are the top ten posts from the past year:

The Black Panther Jim Mitchell1. The Black Panther Jim Mitchell – Still working on this book, though it’s taking longer than anticipated. Other opportunities and the difficulty of finding solid info on this forgotten trail blazer have made it difficult, but it’s still in the works. Happy to see this was the top post from year one.

2. Help Kenny Bolin Tell His Story – The story is now out and available from Amazon.com, with some help from fans who responded.

3. Everybody Loves Blue Pants – Interview with NXT’s most electric unsigned star. Thanks again to Mad Man Pondo for the hook up.

4. Who is Dean Hill? – Profile on OVW’s legendary announcer.

5. Khloe Belle Turns Hero – “Sista don’t care” in the ring, but outside the ring is another matter.

6. The Outlaw Returns – Profile on wrestler turned actor Ben Wood.

7. Is Shane Goode Enough? – Shane Mercer’s had a tough month, but he got some well deserved attention during the lead up to Tough Enough.

8. Meet the New Owner of HWA – A second life for a beloved promotion in Ohio promotion.

9. A New Hoosier Promotion EMERGEs – Profile on central Indiana’s EMERGE wrestling, available to watch on Roku’s Indie Wrestling Channel.

10. Meet Mary Elizabeth Monroe – She’s now going by Kelly Klein in Ring of Honor, and she’s one to watch in 2016.

Given that independent wrestling dominates the top ten, you can expect more of the same in 2016 from this blog. I also have several book projects in the works in addition to the Black Panther. I’ve been working with the daughter of Lord Leslie Carlton on his biography. I just started a book on women’s wrestling. And research continues on a new Louisville book focused on the Allen Athletic Club of the 1930s-1950s.

Thanks for reading.

The Return of Sami Callihan

Let’s get one thing straight, WWE marks: Solomon Crowe did not leave NXT. Sami Callihan went home.

I don’t know Sami personally, nor do I know the details of his leaving NXT. I can however assure you that NXT’s loss is the independent scene’s gain.

Sami brings name value to the indy shows he will wrestle in the near future thanks to his recent run with NXT, and that’s great. But for every guy like Sami who gets a shot at the WWE Performance Center, there are dozens putting their bodies on the line in warehouses and gymnasiums and arenas who keep being overlooked.

I don’t say that to demean Sami or anything he has accomplished. That’s a testament to the strength of the current indy wrestling scene.

Not every promotion is equal, but there are more than enough good promotions and good wrestlers out there that you can find one near you that will give you far more bang for your buck than a WWE live event.

If you enjoyed Sami in NXT, go support him when he comes to your town. Be on the look out for other hard working guys like Tim Donst (who beat cancer this year) and Chris Hero (who wrestled over 3 house straight for charity). Check out the Indy Card Mafia, Aaron Williams, Tyson Dux, Mitchell Huff, Marc Hauss, Dash Sullivan, and Daniel Eads.

If you’re a fan of the NXT ladies, annoyed that Sasha Banks has hardly set foot in a ring since her call up, you’re really in luck. The indy women’s scene is booming. Leva Bates, aka Blue Pants, is out there, but she’s only the tip of the iceberg. Mary Elizabeth Monroe, Tessa Blanchard, Havok, LuFisto, Crazy Mary Dobson, and Heidi Lovelace are just a handful of the women who are a threat to steal the show any time they are booked.

It’s almost December. It’s dark outside before 6 pm, and it’s too cold to be outside. This is a great month to go out and see some live wrestling. Support the indy stars by buying a ticket. Get a DVD or a T-shirt for someone on you Christmas list, and buy direct from one of the wrestlers. That way you’re putting some Christmas money in their pocket as well.

Sami Callihan’s best days are not behind him. The indy scene is the future, and the men and women of the indies need our support.

Black Friday for Wrestling Fans Part 1: LuFisto!

LuFisto’s one of my favorite wrestlers, and she’s one of the most talented workers in wrestling today. Period. I repost the announcement about her Black Friday on Facebook, but Facebook wouldn’t let me. I hope this gets her even more attention than Facebook would have given her.

If you love indy wrestling or know someone who does, please visit her site this week and show her a little love. And if you have a friend who is enjoying the so-called women’s revolution on WWE, get him or her a DVD and show them just how late to the party the WWE is on women’s wrestling.

Visit LuFisto at www.lufisto.com

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Joelle Hunter: Hero in the Making

10407414_942319322477997_5475356699477839001_nJoelle Hunter’s story sounds like many other stories you’ll hear from the women in pro wrestling. “I was introduced to wrestling in my early teen age years by some of my friends. I mainly watched the WWE, and I would say my hero’s were definitely the Undertaker and Sheamus.”

Hunter decided she wanted to follow in Sheamus’s footsteps, so like many ambitious teens, she found a wrestling school that would admit her at the tender age of 16. Most wrestling schools in the States won’t take someone so young, of course, but Hunter isn’t from the States. She was born in Lebanon, and she was raised in Saudi Arabia. She now lives, trains, and wrestles in Dubai at the Dubai Pro Wrestling Academy, and she is the first female wrestler in the Middle East.

A year into her training, Hunter (whose real name is Gheeda Chamasaddine) is already working shows with more than twenty fellow wrestlers in Dubai, all of them men. She describes herself as a technical/submission wrestler, and though only 5’4″, she can body slam men twice her size. Trainer Caleb Hall was as tough and demanding with her as he is with any man who walks through the doors of his school, and that toughness has helped her earn the respect of the Dubai locker room. “My wrestling mates are all very supportive. They never treated me differently or made me feel less cause am a woman.”

Hunter has enjoyed the support of family and friends, and the wrestling fans in Dubai have accepted her as well. But Hunter knows that her dream – to see a women’s wrestling division established in the Middle East – will meet with a great deal of opposition in a region where women struggle for equal rights. “I have a lot of haters. There are lots of people who don’t accept what I do, but I can really say there is no overcoming that hate. You just need to not care about it at all.”

Hunter aspires to travel the world, to learn from other wrestlers and trainers, and pursue her dream as far as it will take her. She even has a dream opponent in mind. “I would love to wrestle Kharma some day, the woman who was in the Royal Rumble.”

Facing the legendary Kharma/ Awesome Kong would be a great accomplishment, but Hunter hopes to do more than win a few dream matches. She wants to inspire other women to pursue their dreams, even as she fights for her own. “I wanna show girls that it’s okay to wrestle and be who they wanna be. It’s a very hard task, but I will keep doing what I do and hopefully in time people will become more accepting of it.”

Joelle Hunter is a humble and gracious spirit, the kind of young woman who can be a positive role model for girls and women worldwide. She’s got an uphill fight on her hands, but fighting is her chosen profession. She’s already winning fans and friends in Dubai, and I have a feeling she’s going to make more friends all around the world.

You can follow Joelle’s pursuit of wrestling glory by following her on Facebook and on Instagram. The photo of her with Sheamus on her Instagram will bring a big smile to your face.

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Mad Man Pondo goes to the library?

My friends at the Daviess County Library in Owensboro, Kentucky have been looking for a professional wrestler to come in and talk about what it’s like to work in the business. They have not one, but two guests coming on December 7, and they couldn’t have found a better choice.

Mad Man Pondo has been wrestling all over the world for two decades. He’s been cut, broken, split open, and electrocuted all in the name of entertaining the fans. He hosted his own controversial public access talk show and used to work for the king of controversial talk shows, Jerry Springer. He’s been a guide and mentor to many of the young stars now working the indies, though he’s too humble to admit it. He’s also the last guy you want in the car on a road trip, according to those same young men who have ridden with him over the last few years.

1797971_699268903502709_2186941647616043393_nPondo will be sharing his stories along side Crazy Mary Dobson. Dobson has only been in the business for four years but is well on her way to becoming a top star. She too is a world traveler, and in the last year, she’s wrestled for Shimmer, Ring of Honor, and NXT and was a main event attraction for Resistance Pro Wrestling in Chicago. She is currently a Tag Team Champion for Juggalo Championship Wrestling alongside Mad Man Pondo.

Both Pondo and Mary were featured in my independent wrestling book, Eat Sleep Wrestle. You can get the book from Amazon in paperback or on Kindle, but just like wrestling, nothing compares to hearing the stories from the people who lived them.

If you’re in the Owensboro or Evansville area, do not miss Mad Man Pondo and Crazy Mary Dobson at the Daviess County Library, December 7 at 6 pm.

Save the Revolution

I hope this is all a work.

Monday night the WWE gave us a great video recap of the Sasha Banks-Bayley classic from NXT: Takeover. They put the camera on Sasha so she could get a nice ovation. And then… we got Nikki vs Naomi.

Maybe they’re working us, but it sure felt like a big step back in this so-called “revolution.”

Until the WWE fully commits to this revolution, women’s wrestling fans need to put their money where their mouths are. Support women’s wrestling locally. Support it online. Support Shimmer, SHINE, Girl Fight, Femme Fatale, WSUEmpress, and other women’s only shows.

Imagine if one of those promotions really took off and filled the void the WWE refuses to fill. Now that would be a revolution!

The Main Event

Being in the main event is nothing new for Crazy Mary Dobson. She’s done it in Southern Indiana, near her hometown of Charlestown. She’s done it in the tradition-rich wrestling city of Chicago. Tonight, she did it on the WWE Network against NXT Women’s Champion, Bayley.

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Sarah Dobson, as she’s known at NXT, looked fantastic tonight. She got a lot of offense in her second match at Full Sail, and she looked like she belonged. The announcers even said she looked a little “crazy.”

Louisville and Southern Indiana fans, this is your girl taking the wrestling world by storm. Congratulations, Crazy Mary/ Sarah Dobson. We are so proud of you!

Women’s Wrestling Records

A record may or may not be broken next week. A WWE Diva may break another WWE Diva’s record for most consecutive days as champion.

Here are a few records that remain safe.

Most consecutive years (not days, years) as NWA Women’s World Champion: Mildred Burke, 19.

Most consecutive years as WWE Women’s Champion: The Fabulous Moolah, 28.

It should also be noted that both women were not only main event draws, wrestling 2 out of 3 falls every night, but frequently defended their titles more often in a month than the current WWE Diva’s Champion has in her entire reign. She currently stands at 9 title defenses.

About this Diva Revolution

1797971_699268903502709_2186941647616043393_nI write about wrestling. I do not aspire to write for a wrestling show or promotion or work for one in any way. I do not pretend to know how to book things better than the people who are booking for any promotion, big or small, national or local.

That said, I think it’s obvious to just about everyone watching that something is not right with this Diva’s Revolution.

The WWE held three shows in a row in the same building. On Saturday night, Sasha Banks and Bayley stole the show. They tore the house down, they held the crowd in the palm of their hands, they put on the match of the night.

Before that even happened, 15,000 plus chanted for a young woman named Blue Pants. When Big Cass’s voice started singing “The Price is Right” theme over the sound system, the fans blew the roof off the building for a woman who isn’t even signed to the company!

And then, Monday night happened. Same building. A lot of the same fans. Completely different reaction.

Something is wrong.

No, Greg “The Hammer” Valentine, I do not believe it’s because no one wants to see women wrestle.

I’m not going to offer suggestions and fixes. Again, I write about wrestling, and I’m not going to pretend I know how to fix it. I am going to say that if the WWE blows this, that doesn’t mean women’s wrestling is dead. I’ve seen first hand that it’s alive and well. Women are main eventing with each other, competing one on one with men, and selling out arenas even when no men are on the card.

Women even have whole promotions and shows dedicated to them. Shimmer. Shine. WSU. Femme Fatale. Girl Fight. That’s just for starters.

Let’s hope someone at WWE who knows how to book wrestling gives the women on the main roster the booking they have EARNED and deserve. Meantime, don’t wait for Vince and Co. to get it right. Go see an indy show and see for yourself how things should be.