Never heard of Elvira Snodgrass? Neither had I. She passed away in 1956, and most of the ladies who survived her seem to have simply forgotten her. In her prime she was the number two woman in professional wrestling, second only to Mildred Burke. She was beloved as the hillbilly babyface and hated as the nasty, rule breaking, ref abusing heel.
Elvira Snodgrass has been a fascination of mine for a long time. Her story will inspire you. More than that, it will entertain the heck out of you!
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.
It’s fitting that I am packing up a copy of Bluegrass Brawlers just purchased from my website tonight. Fitting because the first wrestling book I ever wrote has been the gift that keeps on giving. Not only did Bluegrass Brawlers lead to opportunities to work with Kenny “Starmaker” Bolin, “Dr. D” David Schultz, Mad Man Pondo, Hurricane JJ Maguire, and Tracy Smothers, it inspired three more books on its own.
By the time I finished Bluegrass Brawlers, I knew I wanted to write at last three more books: one on Heywood Allen, one on Jim Mitchell, and one about the wrestlers of the 1880s. I wrote a thorough history of Heywood Allen’s promotion in the book Louisville’s Greatest Show, and I released Jim Mitchell’s biography The Original Black Panther earlier this year. Now, finally, there’s a book about the circus wrestlers and barnstormers of the 19th century on the way.
Grappling by Gaslight is not a history, but historical fiction based on the real life stories from the time. It’s a collection of five short stories inspired by the exploits of Ida Alb and her sister Mademoiselle Marcia; former slave Viro Small; strongman Robert Pennell and his rival Charles Flynn; and many more. I wanted to capture the spirit of the times, allowing readers to see these legendary wrestlers through the eyes of the fans, and early reviews have been very positive.
Grappling by Gaslight will be available by Christmas through this website and Amazon. It’s a short book, less than 110 pages of actual story, but it’s laced with romance, humor, and even a dash of murder. It’s going to be a treat for anyone who loves a good rasslin’ tale.
A few years ago I started work on what was going to be a history of women’s wrestling. I did some research, bought a few magazines, reached out to a few ladies about interviews, but ended up setting the project aside for another, and then another. I’m glad I did. Pat Laprade and Dan Murphy have delivered one of the most enjoyable and educational wrestling books I’ve read in a while, and it’s 100 times better than the book I envisioned writing.
Sisterhood of the Squared Circle is both a history and a “who’s who.” They tell the story of women’s wrestling by introducing the reader to the ladies who wrote that history. Every era, from the dawn of the 20th century up until 2017, is thoroughly covered. You’ll meet the pioneers of women’s wrestling, Mildred Burke and Billy Wolfe’s troupe, the women who trained under the Fabulous Moolah, the ladies of GLOW, the legends of Japan, the Divas, the Knockouts, the Shimmer Girls, and the current stars of the WWE.
As much as I enjoyed Pat’s previous collaboration with Bertrand Herbert, Mad Dogs, Midgets, and Screwjobs, he and and Dan have outdone themselves. They cut through the kayfabe storylines and give you the real story behind the fight to legalize wrestling, the battle to legalize intergender wrestling, the checkered legacy of the Fabulous Moolah. They capture the struggle women have faced to be treated as equals, to receive equal pay, and to be taken seriously as wrestlers.
If I have one complaint about the book, it’s a minor one. There simply wasn’t the room to cover every influential woman in wrestling history, and my favorite golden age grappler Elvira Snodgrass is sadly missing. Nevertheless, Sisterhood of the Squared Circle is a solid book and a must read for fans who love the history of this business. It’s enough of a page turner that when my long-awaited copy of Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn arrived, Thrawn had to wait his turn until the ladies had their due.
Friday I had the chance to talk about the new book Louisville’s Greatest Show with George Bueller, host of the WBKI FANatic on Facebook Live. George is a walking encyclopedia of all things comic books and – as it turns out – pro wrestling. If you’re into the comic book shows on the WB, this is worth liking and following every week. And if our conversation about the book intrigues you, please head over to Amazon.com to pick it up for yourself.
Just passing on a quick plug for my friends at Crowbar Press. They currently have 25 wrestling titles available with four new ones on the way. Hooker and Whatever Happened to Gorgeous George? are two of my personal favorites, books I highly recommend to any wrestling fan. Visit them at www.crowbarpress.com to see what else they have to offer.
Heywood Allen ran his first show under his own banner in Swiss Park on June 4, 1935. They drew 1000 people that night, 822 of them paid, for a gate of $485. Allen was already there established face of Louisville wrestling, having been part of the city’s fight tradition for nearly 30 years, but at history first show, Allen chose a man whose pro wrestling legend has largely been overshadowed by his accomplishments in traditional wrestling.
Billy Thom was billed as the Junior Welterweight Championship that night, and he successfully defended his title against Alexander “Cyclone” Burns. Thom, who also wrestled in Indianapolis and other towns across the Midwest, was a fixture for the Allen Club from 1935 to 1940. He wrestled Louisville stalwart Blacksmith Pedigo, the groundbreaking Lord Patrick Lansdowne, and University of Kentucky legend Billy Love.
Thom’s rivalry with Love was fitting because outside the squared circle, Thom was the head wrestling coach at Indiana University. He began his coaching career at Wabash High School before moving up to IU in 1927. Thom built the IU wrestling program into a powerhouse, winning eight Big Ten titles and the 1932 NCAA championship during his tenure.
Thom’s proudest moment came in 1936, when he traveled to Berlin to coach the United States wrestling team in the Olympics. Three of Thom’s Indiana students made the squad that summer Charley McDaniel and Willard Duffy were named alternates, while Dick Voliva competed against the world’s best.
Voliva was a native of Bloomington, a two-time state champion, and a member of Thom’s 1932 national championship team. He won an NCAA title of his own in 1934, and after graduating with his bachelor’s degree, he continued to train with Thom while working on his Master’s degree.
Voliva made it all the way to the gold medal round, where he finally tasted defeat. He took home the silver, becoming the only Indiana University grad to medal in wrestling.
Thom was thrilled for his student, a young man he had watched over for nearly a decade. “A boy I had seen grow up in Bloomington, had coached to a Big Ten Championship, an NCAA championship, a National AAU championship, and then the Olympic team… if I were to pick one incident as my greatest thrill, that would be it.”
Thom’s success at the Olympics enabled him to continue recruiting the top wrestlers from across the state, including a state champion from Hammond, Indiana known best to today’s fans as Dory Funk, Sr. He left Indiana University in 1945 but returned to work for the Allen Club in both 1945 and 1946 as a wrestler. He made one final appearance for the club in 1951, when he acted as special guest referee for a match between Lou Thesz and a masked menace named Green Dragon. Ed “Strangler” Lewis was also at ringside for the event in Thesz’s corner.
Thom is a member of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame, the Indiana University Athletics Hall of Fame, and the Indiana Wrestling Hall of Fame. Voliva became an outstanding coach in his own right and joined his mentor in the IU and Indiana Hall of Fame. The Indiana Hall continues to honor Thom today, presenting the Billy Thom award annually to an individual who has made significant contributions to amateur wrestling in Indiana.
One of the wrestlers I discovered while researching Bluegrass Brawlers was a man named Jim Mitchell. Born in Louisville, Kentucky, Mitchell was one of the early African American pioneers in professional wrestling. He wasn’t the first; that distinction goes to a former slave named Viro Small, who became a star wrestling in New York back in 1874. But Mitchell was one of the first African Americans in the modern era to break the color barrier, wrestling against white opponents for major promotions.
Early in his career, Mitchell wore a hood to the ring. He called himself “The Black Panther,” and he did battle with other non-white wrestlers. He was in good company, frequently doing battle with fellow African American stars Seelie Samara and Gentleman Jack Claybourne.
Mitchell was an athletic and gifted wrestler who proved he could be a draw. After a successful European tour and stops all around the US and Canada, he ended up in Los Angeles and became a regular at the Olympic Auditorium. Mitchell soon found the confidence to lose the mask and even wrestle under his real name.
In the late 1940s the LA promoters took a chance and put Mitchell in the ring against white opponents. Mitchell had to work these matches as a babyface for fear of what might happen outside the ring if he were a heel. It was still a risk, but Mitchell’s battles with white opponents proved to be a hit, opening the doors for others to follow.
His most famous battle took place in 1949 against one of pro wrestling’s greatest heels, Gorgeous George. After George tossed Mitchell from the ring, an angry fan rushed into the ring to take a swing at George. George dispatched the fan quickly, but when he did, the fans rose up and rushed the ring. George and Mitchell slipped through a hidden tunnel to the locker room while a riot, divided largely along racial lines, raged inside the Olympic.
Mitchell and George would meet many times in the coming years. Their in-ring rivalry was fierce, but in the locker room, there was no real rivalry. What’s more, the racism that divided the cities where Mitchell wrestled was non-existent in the pro wrestling locker room. The wrestlers, black and white, were bonded together by the sport they loved and a common adversary: the promoters who paid them. A 1954 account of an appearance Mitchell made in his hometown of Louisville describes a scene where white wrestlers rose to embrace and shake hands with the returning hero.
Mitchell worked a little as a referee in his later years in the business, and he also traveled with future Hall of Famer Bobo Brazil. After retiring from the ring, Mitchell opened a store in the Toledo area called Black Panther Carryout. The walls of the store featured photos and memorabilia from Mitchell’s career, and locals would come in to talk wrestling in addition to shopping. He passed away in 1996 at the age of 87.
Mitchell is an unsung pioneer in the history of pro wrestling. He deserves to be in the Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame as well as the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame.
Jim’s story is told in part in Louisville’s Greatest Show. I’m continuing my research on Jim Mitchells, and my hope is that I can eventually tell his full story. I’m looking for photos, programs, videos, stories, anything I can get my hands on. I’m also hoping to find some folks with first or second hand stories about the man, whether they come from relatives or the relatives of other wrestlers who worked with him.
If you’ve stumbled on this page and you have information about The Black Panther Jim Mitchell, please contact me at email@example.com. I would love to hear from you!