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.
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!”
It’s Black History Month, and every day I’ve been posting photos, documents, and other memorabilia from the life of The Black Panther Jim Mitchell. If you’re not following me on social media right now, you’re missing out.
The truly amazing part about almost all of this material is that it all came from the Black Panther himself. I have over 900 scans of photos, newspaper articles, magazine articles, wrestling programs, wrestling posters, and legal documents that Jim Mitchell collected and saved. These items were found in the early 2000s when a man named Dave Marciniak bought Mitchell’s house from the bank as a flip after the death of Mitchell’s step-daughter. It’s a miracle that this stuff survived the years, and it’s incredibly fortunate Dave saw potential value in these items. Rather than throwing it all away, he salvaged what he could, thinking it might be worth something one day. After all the time I spent chasing the Black Panther’s story, it was worth more than gold to me.
I’m sharing a few items every day, so if you want to catch up and follow along, here’s where you can find me:
The 2020 CAC James Melby Award Winner Greg Oliver just posted a terrific editorial on Slam! Wrestling about the quest to chronicle pro wrestling history. After reading an advance copy of the Andre the Giant biography, Oliver was struck by the incredible depth of research in the spook, especially when compared to an infamous earlier bio on the Eighth Wonder of the World. Oliver suggests we’re living in a golden era for wrestling historians and research, thanks to the resources that are not only now available but being utilized by writers and researchers everywhere.
I share this because I absolutely could not agree more. I have only been at this game for seven years, having taken my first dive into the newspaper microfilms at the Louisville Free Public Library in January of 2013. The access to such archives has improved tremendously in that short time, thanks in large part to archives such as newpapers.com. In 2013 I was hunting and rooting, scrolling through film after film and then scanning the weekly Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and occasionally Friday and Saturday sports pages. Just a few short years later I was finding results much faster from my home office, scanning the same Courier-Journal newspapers but using the advanced search features available online. In less than four months, I had a complete 22 year record of the Allen Athletic Club. Between my work schedule and family life, it would have taken me years to compile the same data at the library.
Every year it seems more wrestling fans and history buffs are jumping in the waters. As a community, we are uncovering, recording, and preserving the history of professional wrestling faster than ever thought possible. This is a golden age for the wrestling historian. It’s also a golden opportunity for fans and especially workers to learn that history for themselves.
This past weekend, when a wrestler at PPW told me about the stack of wrestling books he was reading, I added to it and gave him a copy of the Black Panther book. I always love hearing that a wrestler wants to know the history of the business because that tells me, this is someone who wants to learn from the past. This is someone who appreciates those who came before. This is someone who might just discover something that hasn’t been done in decades and use it (making what is old new again) to become a star.
Whether you’re a wrestler, a referee, a manager, a student, or just a fan, I encourage you to do the same. Read the Andre book. Read Have a Nice Day. Read Lou Thesz’s incredible autobiography Hooker. Read Queen of the Ring. Read Adnan Al-Kaissie’s hard to find/ harder to put down memoir. Your favorite past time has an incredible past. More and more, it’s there waiting for you to discover.
Someone on Facebook recently posed an interesting question: if you had a wrestling time machine and could go back to see any wrestling match, what would you go back to see?
I didn’t have to think about my answer. As a hug fan of the Black Panther, I’d want to go back to the night he is most famous for: the night he and Gorgeous George incited a riot at the Olympic Auditorium. Then I got to thinking, what other matches would I want to see if I could return to any night in wrestling history?
Here are my top five, in order:
August 24, 1949, Los Angeles. Gorgeous George vs. The Black Panther Jim Mitchell at the Olympic. George was one of the biggest heels of his day, and the Panther was a beloved star. On a hot summer night, George went too far. He tossed Mitchell from the ring and refused to let him back in. One fan jumped in the ring to give George some payback, and George leveled him. In an instant the entire crowd was on its feet, and a riot raged on for hours. Mitchell and George escaped to the back, but several people had to be hospitalized. One woman even sued George and Mitchell for her injuries. I have the program from that night and a letter summoning Mitchell to answer for his part in the riot that evening. They are the prizes of my wrestling memorabilia collection.
February 1, 1944, Louisville. Mildred Burke vs. Elvira Snodgrass at the Columbia Gym. If Mitchell is my all time favorite grappler, Elvira is a close second. I’d love to see the greatest women’s champion of all time against the toughest, meanest, scrappiest heel she ever faced in front of a hot Louisville crowd. This wasn’t the only time they faced one another in Louisville or the biggest crowd in Louisville to see them do battle, but it was the night they were the main event attraction. How incredible would it be to see Heywood Allen chomping on his cigar, overseeing the action in the Columbia Gym?
Jerry Lawler vs. Andy Kaufman in Memphis. The Kaufman/Lawler feud is one of the most fascinating stories in wrestling history, both for the in-ring action and the behind the scenes machinations. It’s the greatest work of the modern era and a blueprint for how to do kayfabe in an era when kayfabe is supposedly dead. Some how, some way, I’d have to have a ringside seat so I could see the back and forth after the match with Danny Davis telling Jerry that Andy will pay for the ambulance.
The Road Warriors vs. The Midnight Express, Night of the Skywalkers. Cornette has been a friend and a great asset in my research of Louisville wrestling history. The scaffold match was far from the best work either of these legendary tag teams did, but just to see it all unfold and watch poor Jimmy slip through the arms of Big Bubba (RIP) would be priceless.
When Hero Met Punk, IWA Mid-South, Clarksville, Indiana 2003. Before Punk made it to WWE or even Ring of Honor, he had some of the greatest battles in the modern indy era with Chris Hero, now NXT’s Kassius Ohno, in front of one of the most passionate crowds in wrestling today. Matches like these are the reason CM Punk said his ideal place for Wrestlemania would be the old warehouse in Charlestown, Indiana, where many of their brawls took place. This particular match went almost 93 minutes, and for the last 15-20 minutes, the entire crowd was on their feet. Watch this, their Tables and Ladders duel, or their 60 minute brawl, and join me in hoping that when Kassius Ohio reaches the main roster, WWE will make amends with CM Punk and give these two one last battle – at Wrestlemania.
Honorable Mention: The 1951 Derby Eve Show, Jefferson County Armory, Louisville. I’m going to cheat here, but this has to be one of the greatest cards ever presented in Louisville. Francis McDonogh, who took over the Allen Club from Heywood Allen in 1947, made the annual Derby Eve Show and the Police Benefit Show that took its place a monster even every year. Have a look at the card and tell me you wouldn’t want to be one of the 8000 in attendance that night:
Wild Bill Longson vs. Dutch Heffner
Bill Longson, Fred Davis (of the Chicago Bears), and Freddie Blassie vs. Ivan Rasputin, Stu Gibson, and Dutch Heffner
Mildred Burke vs. Mae Young
Lou Thesz vs. Green Dragon
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.
If you heard the Jim Cornette Experience released on Thursday, November 2, you heard him make mention of two letters he picked up from me: one from Morris Siegel and one from Sam Muchnick. Both letters are posted below for those who want to take a peek.
Mitchell was on the tail end of his amazing career. He was ready to step away but hoping to help launch the career of his protege Ricky Waldo. Waldo never took off like he hoped, most likely due to the fact that everyone wanted to book someone else in his place: Bobo Brazil.
There are still a few letters like this available, along with wrestling boots, licenses from across the US and Canada, and a number of photos and programs, mostly from the West Coast. The pipe collection is also for sale. If you’re interested in any of these items, please email me!