There’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.
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.
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.