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The Real Queen of the Ring the WWE Won’t Tell You About

The WWE loves to rewrite history in its own image. They want you to believe that Bruno Sammartino was a greater champion than Lou Thesz. They want you to believe Andre the Giant never lost a match until Wrestlemania III. They want you to forget that Chris Benoit ever existed.

You get the idea.

The WWE is about to present its first all-women’s tournament, the Mae Young Classic. While there’s no question that Mae is a legend and a beloved figure within the WWE, naming the tournament after Mae is another subtle step to covering up the true history of women’s wrestling in favor of the WWE line.

I won’t disagree with those who say Mae Young is one of the greatest stars in women’s wrestling history. Mae was already a Hall of Fame- worthy star when Vince, Jr., was just in diapers, a gorgeous but violent gal who smoked cigars and picked fights with men in bars just to blow off steam. My issue is with the larger narrative the WWE has sold for years about women’s wrestling. It’s not about Mae; it’s about the lady the WWE sells as the “greatest” of all time.

You see the WWE wants you to believe that in the history of women’s wrestling, only one women stands above Mae’s legacy: the Fabulous Moolah. The WWE line is that Moolah was the greatest women’s champion of all time, reigning for 28 years straight. Moolah was the pride of Vince McMahon, Sr., and the gatekeeper for women’s wrestling for more than three decades. If you wanted to get into the business, you better get in good with Moolah, but don’t dare cross her.

Here’s what the WWE won’t tell you: Moolah was never a main event star. Moolah didn’t work two out of three falls matches multiple nights every week. Moolah did not pack auditoriums and stadiums from coast to coast based on her name alone.

Long story short: the Fabulous Moolah was no Mildred Burke!

For the better part of three decades, Mildred Burke was not only the top star in women’s wrestling but one of the biggest names in professional wrestling, period. Burke was a single mother living in Kansas when she met former wrestler turned promoter Billy Wolfe. Burke knew Wolfe was in the business promoting women’s wrestlers, and she saw an opportunity to give herself and her son a better life. Wolfe thought Burke was too small, and when she came in for a tryout, he handpicked a group of men to rough her up and send her packing. Burke took the beating and impressed Wolfe in the process, so Wolfe took her under his wing and trained her.

Burke began her career in the ring working the carnival circuit taking on all comers, including men. She allegedly wrestled more than 200 men in those early days, losing only once. She defeated Clara Mortenson to claim the women’s world champion, and her rise to the top began.

Wolfe knew he had a star in Burke, and he began to build a company of women’s wrestlers around her, including Ida Mae Martinez, Mae Weston, Gloria Barratini, June Byers, Gladys “Kill ‘Em” Gillam, and of course, Mae Young. Burke was a powerful and dynamic athlete who impressed the fans with her skill but could still dazzle them with her beauty and fashion sense.

Wolfe and Burke dominated the women’s wrestling scene from the late 1930s into the 1950s. They were married, but their marriage was more of a business arrangement than a vow of love. Burke had her affairs, including Billy’s son. Billy slept with numerous members of his troupe, anyone willing to trade sex for an advancement in their career.

The names at the top of the cards changed over the years, and most of the ladies had their shot working the big matches, including Mae Young. The one constant, however, was Burke, who proved without a doubt she was the top draw and the top talent in the group.

Burke’s run at the top ended shortly after her marriage to Wolfe, a bitter war culminating in a shoot match between Burke and Wolfe’s specially trained successor, June Byers. The match ended in a no-contest, with only one fall out of two decided against Burke. Burke and Wolfe both lobbied the NWA to be recognized that the go-to for women’s wrestling, but the NWA chose to wash its hands of both of them. Burke was blackballed by most of the promoters. Byers retired as champion, never becoming the money draw Burke had been.

The door of opportunity opened, and Moolah and her supporters seized the moment.

There are many reasons the WWE chose to push the Moolah’s revisionist history. Moolah had an axe to grind with Wolfe, who refused to let her take time off for her father’s funeral. Mae had her own axe to grind with Burke, whom she never got along with. Moolah and Mae pushed their version of women’s wrestling history in the documentary “Lipstick and Dynamite,” and the WWE furthered that story in their own programming and publications. To hear Moolah and Mae tell it, Mildred Burke was protected by Wolfe. Burke was no better a shooter than anyone else in the troupe. Both Moolah and Mae could have taken the great Mildred Burke down – had they only been given the chance.

History is written by the victors, and in some cases, by the survivors who live the longest. Burke’s star faded long before he death. She passed away in 1989, leaving no one to defend her legacy. Mae and Moolah were given a platform, and they rewrote the history of women’s wrestling in their own image.

Here’s the truth: without Mildred Burke, there is no Mae Young. Without Mildred Burke, there is no Moolah. Recent years have seen a great surge in the popularity of women’s wrestling, first in the independents and now in the WWE. But make no mistake: Burke reigned as Queen of the Ring in an era that to this day has not been surpassed.

I don’t want to diminish anyone’s enjoyment of the Mae Young Classic. Despite a few serious omissions (LuFisto, Mickie Knuckles, Kelly Klein), I am looking forward to the tournament as much as any women’s wrestling fan. I just want fans to be mindful of the WWE line and find out for themselves the true history of this sport.

Moolah is a Hall of Famer. Mae Young is a legend. But Mildred Burke is still the Queen of the Ring.

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.