Tagged in: elvira snodgrass

The Jim Cornette Experience

If you’re a fan of wrestling history, be sure to catch today’s episode of the Jim Cornette Experience. I’m on the show today talking about a few of my favorite things: The Allen Athletic Club, Elvira Snodgrass, and The Black Panther Jim Mitchell.

If you’ve already listened to today’s show, you can follow the links below to read more about the books and stories I’ve been working on.

The Black Panther Jim Mitchell

Elvira Snodgrass Part 1 and Part 2

Bluegrass Brawlers: The Story of Professional Wrestling in Louisville

Louisville’s Greatest Show: The Story of the Allen Athletic Club

Herb Welch’s How to Become a Champion

“Dr. D” David Schultz (autobiography coming soon!)

Elvira Snodgrass: The Toughest “Girl” Wrestler of Them All

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.

Louisville Wrestling Talk on the 6:05 Superpodcast!

Episode 67 of the 6:05 Superpodcast is now available for download. It was my pleasure to do an interview with The Great Brian Last this week about the lost history of Louisville wrestling covered in the new book, Louisville’s Greatest Show: The Story of the Allen Athletic Club. Brian and I cover everything from promoters Heywood Allen and Francis McDonogh to Lou Thesz, Gorgeous George, Buddy Rogers, Bill Longson, Elvira Snodgrass, and more. We cover tag teams, midgets, masked men, bears, alligators, and even weddings.

The 6:05 Superpodcast is a must-listen for die hards, and Brian Last does a phenomenal job bringing the stories of yesteryear to life through a variety of guests and regular segments. Download the 6:05 Superpodcast on iTunes or visit 605pod.com and listen today.

Louisville’s Greatest Show is now available on Amazon.com

On Sale Tomorrow!

Louisville’s Greatest show is a labor of love that is truly four years in the making. When I started digging deep into Louisville’s rich wrestling history for Bluegrass Brawlers, I had no trouble finding stories about the OVW and Memphis years, but it was the “golden age” from 1935-1957 that fascinated me most. While I barely scratched the surface when I wrote Bluegrass Brawlers, Louisville’s Greatest Show will give you a year by year account of the Allen Athletic Club – the wrestlers, the shows, and the city that hosted them both.

In addition to the year by year account of the promotion and owners Heywood Allen and Francis S. McDonogh, Louisville’s Greatest Show also features more than twenty profiles of local and national wrestling stars, including:

Indiana University wrestling coach Billy Thom

Lord Patrick Lansdowne

Blacksmith Pedigo

Hall of Fame Hydroplane racer Wild Bill Cantrell

Kid Scotty Williams

Hans Schnabel

Kentucky Athletic Commissioner Johnson S. Mattingly

The legendary Wild Bill Longson

“Cousin Alviry” Elvira Snodgrass

Fred Blassie, before he was “classy”

Promoter’s wife Betty McDonogh

Chicago Bears star Fred Davis

Sgt. Buck Moore of the Louisville Police

Colonel Stu Gibson

WHAS sports director Jimmy Finegan

Ed “Strangler” Lewis

Mel Meiners

“The Black Panther” Jim Mitchell

Louisville police detective and ref Ellis Joseph

Ring announcer George Lewis

Wee Willie Davis

Louisville’s Greatest Show is the story of a city that loved wrestling and the men and women who made wrestling a Tuesday night tradition. The book is filled with never-before-published photos and stories you won’t find anywhere else.

Louisville’s Greatest Show will be available on Amazon.com and other online retailers this weekend!

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.

Snodgrass 2

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.

elvira-wild bill

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.