Tagged in: mae young

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.

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.

Louisville’s Greatest Show – Coming Soon!

Coming Soon!!

For 22 years, the Allen Athletic Club’s weekly wrestling show at the Columbia Gym was the place to be on Tuesday night. Promoters Heywood Allen and his successors Francis and Betty McDonogh overcame the Great Depression, the 1937 flood, a World War, and a “crooked” athletic commissioner to bring the best of the golden age of wrestling to Louisville.

Now for the first time, author John Cosper (Bluegrass Brawlers) presents the full story of “That Gang of Allen’s,” the wrestlers, referees, announcers, and others who made Tuesday Louisville’s favorite night of the week. This is the story of the true golden age of wrestling, when men and women wore their Sunday best to see hometown heroes like Blacksmith Pedigo, Kid Scotty Williams, Stu Gibson, Mel Meiners, Sgt. Buck Moore, and “The Black Panther” Jim Mitchell mix it up with Lou Thesz, Gorgeous George, the French Angel, Buddy Rogers, Freddie Blassie, Johnny Valentine, Mildred Burke, Mae Young, Bobo Brazil, and Ginger the Wrestling Bear.

From mud matches to masked men; from Wild Bill Cantrell to Wild Bill Longson; from live TV to live alligators, the Allen Athletic Club was Louisville’s Greatest Show. This is the story of Louisville’s first great wrestling promotion and the families that made wrestling a vital part of the city they loved.

Louisville’s Greatest Show will be released in March!

The Derby Eve Rasslin’ Show

Last week, Ohio Valley Wrestling presented their second Run for the Ropes program as part of the Kentucky Derby Fest-a-Ville. The riverfront wrestling program is a welcome addition to the Kentucky Derby tradition. Not only is OVW a proud Louisville institution 20 years running, but wrestling was one of the earliest Derby traditions, going back 102 years.

The_Courier_Journal_Sun__May_2__1915_In 1915 promoter George Beuchel put on the first Derby Eve wrestling program, featuring a title bout between Charley Cutler and Louisville fan favorite Yusiff Hussane. The match lasted three hours and thirty-seven minutes, nearly half an hour longer than an episode of Monday Night Raw. Derby Eve proved to be a very profitable evening for the fights, with sports fans from around the country arriving in town for the horse race, and a new tradition began.

The 1935 edition proved to be a turning point in Louisville’s wrestling history. The Savoy Athletic Club ran a Friday night show at the Jefferson County Armory featuring Jack Reynolds, Lord Patrick Lansdowne, Leroy McGurk, High Nichols, Billy Thom, Cyclone Burns, Billy Love, and Roy Welch. The show grossed $1400, but Club owner C.J. Blake thought the expenses were too high. This led to a split between Blake and his booker, Heywood Allen, Sr., and Allen broke away to form his own promotion, the Allen Athletic Club.

The_Courier_Journal_Sun__Apr_28__1935_

Allen took a number of the Savoy’s signature faces with him, including timekeeper Charley Schullman and the colorful ring announcer Georgie Lewis. The new promotion, based mostly out of the Columbia Gym on 4th Street, would become Louisville’s top wrestling promotion for the next 22 years.

Only a few years after Beuchel started the Derby Eve tradition, the local boxing promoters began jockeying for the Friday night spot. The Kentucky Athletic Commission held final say on who got the Armory and the coveted Friday night slot, based on whomever could present the best card of action, but when Allen took center stage in the wrestling game, he became very vocal about suspected under the table deals between the boxing promotions and Commissioner Johnson S. Mattingly.

In the spring of 1941 Allen became so incensed about losing out the boxers, he cut a promo in the ring at the Columbia Gym one night. Allen railed against Commissioner Mattingly and swore he had proof that the boxers were paying off the Athletic Commission to steal a place he believed was rightfully his. It wasn’t the first time Allen had let his thoughts fly on the matter. Allen and Mattingly had had a similar confrontation in 1938. This time, Mattingly responded to the comments by revoking Allen’s license, and Allen was forced to retract his claims in order to open the doors once more.

Allen and his successor Francis S. McDonough always made the best of Derby season, whether they had the Friday night show or not. In the coming years the Derby show would feature top stars like Lou Thesz, Mildred Burke, Wild Bill Longson, Baron Michele Leone, Johnny Valentine, Freddie Blassie, and Mae Young. The star-studded card below from 1951 featured two world title matches (Burke and Thesz) and a special appearance by a man with a special connection to Louisville, Ed “Strangler” Lewis.

It’s exciting to see OVW carry on the Derby wrestling tradition with a new tradition of their own. Louisville fans have always loved their wrestling, and Danny Davis’s boys are carrying on a heritage now more than a century old.

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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.

Cora and Buddy

We seem to lose wrestling stars in waves. What began two weeks ago with Dusty Rhodes has sadly taken two more from us.

Cora Combs is not as well known to today’s wrestling fans, but the ladies who work the squared circle today owe her as much a debt as Mildred Burke and the Fabulous Moolah. Combs entered the business in 1949 after Nick Gulas introduced her to Burke’s husband, manager, and trainer, Billy Wolfe. When Wolfe and Burke split, Combs went with Burke and saw her career take off. She had notable feuds with Burke, Moolah, Mae Young, June Byers, Nell Stewart, Ida May Martinez, and Gladys Gillman among others and was inducted into the Wrestling Hall of Fame. Combs died at age 92.

“Nature Boy” Buddy Landel was only 53 years old. The Knoxville, Tennessee native had runs with WCW and Mid-Atlantic but is best known for his time with Jim Cornette’s Smokey Mountain Wrestling. Landel was an outspoken figure in there locker room, never one to hide his feelings or mince words. Colt Cabana did a wonderful interview with him a few months back on the Art of Wrestling Podcast.