Cool to wake up this morning and see OVW and The Black Panther Jim Mitchell mentioned in the weekly email newsletter from the Frazier History Museum.
A few years ago, I donated some items from my personal Jim Mitchell collection to the Frazier. They’ve got programs, photos, posters, and even a pair of Mitchell’s boots, as shown in the video below.
Brian West, a teaching artist at the Frazier, does a wonderful job recapping the history of wrestling in Louisville before delving into the Netflix series, Wrestlers. If you haven’t watched it already, The seven-part doc us available to watch on Netflix, and if ratings are high enough, a second season is a distinct possibility.
Wrestlers has made Haley J, Cash Flo, Amazing Maria, Mahabali Shera, and more bigger stars in the wrestling world and the reality TV world. It’s exciting to see so many long-time friends getting screen time, seen by millions of Netflix subscribers around the world.
The Frazier History Museum is a wonderful place to visit if you love history. Some highlights of their collection include a pair of pistols that belonged to General Custer and Teddy Roosevelt’s “big stick” hunting rifle. Visit Frazier’s website for more information.
You can read Brian West’s write up in the newsletter by clicking here.
Two things I learned early on after I started writing about pro wrestling:
No one ever retires, so don’t bother writing about it when someone says they are retiring.
People you love are going to die young, and unexpectedly.
It’s an unfortunate fact about pro wrestling: many wrestlers die long before their time. Sometimes it’s the abuse they put on their bodies, physically and chemically. Sometimes it’s self-inflicted. Sometimes it’s just plain and simple misfortune.
Not a day goes by I don’t think about two men I knew well who have passed: Tracy Smothers and JJ Maguire. Tracy and JJ both kept in regular contact with me. I’d get a call from JJ every few weeks, just to catch up. Tracy texted and called all the time, and Tracy was never hesitant to say, “I love you.”
For some time now, I’ve been wanting to write about a man who has been gone since 1955. He’s not a name most if you will know, but he was known to “The Black Panther” Jim Mitchell.
John Madison LaRue was born in Venus, Texas on August 25, 1906. He started wrestling professionally in the early 1930s, and WrestlingData.com records his last match taking place in 1947.
LaRue was in Tucson, Arizona during the summer of 1955 when Jim Mitchell and his protege Ricky Waldo were working the desert circuit. While passing through Tucson, the news of a recent incident reached Mitchell, who recorded the following in his ledger book:
As Tracy Smothers used to put it, “Tell a friend, telephone, tell a wrestler.”
LaRue’s troubles started a few days before Mitchell and Waldo hit Tucson on the 26th. On Saturday the 23rd, police were called to the scene of a man on a roof creating a disturbance. LaRue had been drinking and destroyed a mirror and some telephone wires in his rented apartment. LaRue told police that “Everything is wired,” as they carted him off to the hospital.
An hour later, police received a second call about a disturbance. It was LaRue again, tearing up street signs, ordering drinks in a bar without paying for them, and harassing guests at a local motel. LaRue earned a trip to jail this time, and the following morning, he was placed in a straight jacket after tearing up his cell.
Mitchell’s written account indicates there was more to the story, or at least a second version of events that didn’t make it into the papers.
LaRue had previously been treated for mental illness at a veteran’s hospital in Texas. After ten days in Arizona, LaRue boarded a train with two hospital attendants, bound for a facility in Texas.
LaRue would never make it to the hospital. He was found dead on the train on Thursday, August 4, 1955, just a few miles from his destination.
Authorities delivered John LaRue’s body to a Fort Worth, Texas funeral home. A local coroner examined the body and confirmed the death was by natural causes. LaRue was three weeks short of his 49th birthday when he passed away.
Reading between the lines, we can make some educated guesses as to what took the life of John LaRue. Perhaps his mental health issues stemmed from his time in the service. He might have suffered head trauma during his years in the ring. Maybe it’s a bit of both.
Regardless of what issues John LaRue had, he gave his time and his talents to entertain wrestling fans. He died at a young age under mysterious circumstances like many wrestlers before and after him. He had a story. A tragic tale, yes, but one all his own.
Not every story is a big one. Not every story is worthy of a book or even a blog post. But every life matters to someone, be it family, friends, or fans.
Wrestlers feel every loss, no matter how big or small the name. Mitchell felt the loss of LaRue the same way Jimmy Hart felt the passing of JJ Maguire. You never know when someone’s time is up, and often, you never know the underlying issues that might lead to their passing.
Cherish the moments you have, as fans and as wrestlers. As Tracy always said, “Love each other.” And as my friend Aaron Grider and many others say, “Take the damn pictures.”
I have an oddball story about a wrestler who worked with The Black Panther Jim Mitchell that I was planning to share today. Instead, I’m going to share some documents found in Mitchell’s home long after he passed away: his 1952 tax return.
Jim Mitchell lived in Toledo at the time he and his wife Julia filed the following documents with the IRS. It appears the couple declared income from both his wrestling career and some rental property they owned at the time.
The street address, 948 Pinewood Ave, is not the address of the Lincoln Street home where these documents were found, but it is relatively close to Dorr Street, where Mitchell would open and operate a liquor store for many years.
The first edition of Bluegrass Brawlers shined a spotlight on The Black Panther Jim Mitchell. An African American born in Louisville, Mitchell became a superstar and main event draw first in the Midwest and then around the world. His feud with Gorgeous George in 1949 led to a riot that sent three fans to the hospital and spawned a few lawsuits. Mitchell blazed a trail for future stars like Bobo Brazil and left an incredible legacy I later chronicled in full in The Original Black Panther.
The newest edition of Bluegrass Brawlers sheds a light on more African American grapplers in Louisville, including a local folk hero whose time came and went before The Black Panther was born.
Steve Callaway resided at 421 Conrad Street, and in the spring of 1904, he developed a reputation as a grappler who could not be beat.For three months, Callaway took on challengers and vanquished every one. By midsummer, there were few men left in the city willing to challenge him.
On July 15, a man named Silas Adams walked into Jones at Williams Saloon at 102 East Green Street. He spotted Callaway, and he observed that the “champ” looked somewhat worn out and haggard. Sensing an opportunity, Adams challenged Callaway to a match. Callaway accepted, and the two men wrestled on the saloon floor until Callaway had once again been proved unbeatable. He was receiving back slaps and congratulations from friends and onlookers when suddenly, Callaway collapsed to the floor.
Callaway passed away within a matter of minutes. After a quick examination, the coroner determined that the champ, Louisville’s first black wrestling hero, had died from “a stroke of apoplexy due to overexertion.”
I wish I could tell you more about Callaway, but the story of his last match is the only time his name even appeared in the Courier-Journal. His rose to prominence took place nearly a decade before wrestling would become a regular attraction at one of the downtown theaters. His bouts were never scheduled, and no tickets were ever sold. He took on all comers, wrestling challengers any time and anywhere while bystanders placed their bets.
Whatever your feelings are on this promotion and that, this weekend is Super Bowl weekend for pro wrestling. So hey, let’s celebrate!
Right now, you can get 20% off your entire order using the coupon code “mania” at checkout. And right now the store is loaded down with copies of Wahoo, Princess Victoria, Chris Candido, Tracy Smothers, Mike Rodgers, Chris Michaels, Hurricane JJ Maguire, The Black Panther Jim Mitchell, and more.
It’s been almost 10 years since I started writing about pro wrestling in December 2012. Okay, so that’s eleven months out, but what’s pro wrestling without a little exaggeration?
The book that started it all, Bluegrass Brawlers (2014), is no longer available on Amazon or Kindle. That’s because I’ve gone back to the beginning to create a new edition, a 10th anniversary edition, if you will.
Bluegrass Brawlers is getting a major overhaul. I spent the last several months compiling every wrestling result from 1880 through 1966, when Louisville went dark before the Memphis era. I also conducted more than a dozen new interviews including Jeff Van Camp, Al Snow, Billie Starkz, Bryan Kennison, Charlene McKenzie, Hy Zaya, Cash Flo, Josh Ashcraft, Judi-Rae Hendrix, Maria James, Haley J, Ryan Howe, and Doug Basham. And I still have a few more to go.
The original book covered four distinct eras: The Pioneers (1880-1920), The Allen Athletic Club (1935-1957), the Memphis era (1970-1997), and the OVW era (1996-2014). All four of those sections have been expanded, some by a little, some by a lot. I also expanded on the Dick the Bruiser era (touched only briefly in the 2014 edition), filled in the time gap between 1920-1935, and told the story of Louisville since 2014.
New stories covered in the new edition include:
Steve Callaway, a long forgotten African American wrestling hero from the turn of the 20th century.
Promoter Abe Finberg, who booked wrestling at the Gayety Theater and later created a heavyweight promotion.
C.B. Blake and the Savoy Theater.
The feud between Blake, booker Heywood Allen, and the Kentucky State Board of Athletic Control, the first state institution that attempted to regulate wrestling.
Louisville fan favorite Jack Reynolds.
Gorgeous George comes to Louisville – and to dinner.
Wahoo McDaniel in Louisville in the early 1960s.
Phil Golden’s All Star Wrestling.
New Albany native Jeff Van Camp, better known in the ring as Lord Humongous.
A hilarious fan story about Flex Kavana, aka Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.
Tales from the first students at OVW including Doug Basham and Nick Dinsmore.
The sale of OVW to Al Snow.
The rise of the Legacy of Brutality.
The growth of the indie scene in Southern Indiana.
Crazy Mary Dobson becomes Sarah Logan in the WWE.
And the rise of women’s wrestling in Louisville and beyond.
The new book includes a lot more photos and 50% (and counting) more written content. Thanks to a more professional layout, it’ll still be around 330 pages.
Chris Bergstrom at Facebooks’ Fabulous Ladies of Wrestling page recently started colorizing photos from his vintage wrestling collection and posting them online. I sent him a few to do for me, and they look amazing.
We’ll start today with the Black Panther Jim Mitchell. I sent him two of my favorite promo photos of Mitchell, and they are both posted below. Pretty cool to see these folks in living color for once.
You can purchase The Original Black Panther, my biography about Jim Mitchell, if you click here!
I’ve had a few people read The Original Black Panther reach out to me asking about purchasing memorabilia. I’ve parted with a few items as of late, but what I have in hand right now is being saved in the hopes that (a) I can put it on short term display in the Louisville area at some point, and (b) it can go on permanent display in a wrestling hall of fame or African American museum.
That said, there is ONE major piece of Black Panther memorabilia that has yet to be purchased from the original owner. Actually, it’s not one piece. It’s thousands. It’s Jim Mitchell’s pipe collection.
Mitchell loved his pipes. He collected them from all over the world. Some he purchased, some were gifted by friends, and some were gifted by fans. In the personal photos he saved, he is rarely seen without a pipe in hand or in his mouth. Even the art work he saved depicted him with his ever-present smoking pipe.
The gentleman who bought Jim Mitchell’s estate still has the whole collection in storage. He’s waiting on the right price. (No, he won’t even speculate on a figure.) If anyone wants to reach out to him and discuss, please email me at [email protected]. I’ll be happy to share the photos I have with you and relay any offers to the owner.
This is history that needs to be saved and displayed. Spread the word. Let’s do this for “Mitch!”