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They made the history

Women in competitive sport of wrestling

First women in the sport of wrestling which transformed to professional wrestling

Cora Livingston

Cora Livingstone
Cora Livingston
Photo from Cora Livingston and the Spectacular Sport of Wrestling

Русская версия


Unlike female circus wrestling in Europe which was on rise in 1900s – 1910s and declined after WWI, female wrestling in North America had been developed in 1920s into an entertainment show which now is known as "professional" wrestling. But in America in 1900s – 1920s it was mostly a competitive sport for men and women which as other sports was also an entertainment show. While female circus wrestling in Europe declined after the WWI, American female competitive sport of wrestling being on the rise during the first two decades of the 20th century gradually evolved into the women division of a peculiar American grappling show, later called 'professional wrestling' which engendered such famous figures as Mildred Burke and Fabulous Moolah. At the same time, in Europe women's enthusiasm in Jiu-Jitsu inspired by Emily Watts and Edit Garrud didn't fade away and gradually transformed into various female sports and martial arts such as Jiu-Jitsu, BJJ, Judo, grappling, MMA. In contrast with them, American female (and male) wrestling from the competitive sport show had developed into a theatrical athletic spectacle in which well trained 'wrestlers' pretended fiercely fighting delivering sophisticated techniques and expressing frantic emotions and likes and dislikes toward each other and the referee.

In other words, the sport of wrestling becomes bifurcated into “professional” wrestling, exemplified today by the WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) enterprise, and the actual sport of wrestling, primarily seen in the Olympics and in high-school and collegiate sport programs, which was sometimes referred to as amateur or 'school wrestling.’ During the early part of the twentieth century, these two typologies, entertainment and sport, were indistinguishable, because the sport was presented as a spectacle amongst other forms of popular entertainment. Even when wrestling returned the Olympic Games after a fifteen hundred year gap (Free-Style wrestling became an Olympic sport in 1904, with Greco-Roman following in 1912), wrestling continued to be part of the touring entertainment culture in the twentieth century. Wrestlers, boxers, strongmen and women toured with troupes across the United States and in England, performing their athletic feats alongside of jugglers and acrobats. Traveling athletes were part of the cultural climate in the early twentieth century, and certain styles, such as catch-as-catch-can wrestling, flourished. Before the ubiquity of the television in the home, and even before the cinema, circuses and traveling shows were primary forms of entertainment.


Female wrestlers of various styles at the turn of the 19th century


In America, female fighting began in the back tents of carnivals and circuses and spread to burlesque houses via the back rooms of taverns. Later, female wrestlers competed in the best city theaters and halls before several thousands spectators. At the turn of the century, female wrestling shot up in popularity, which, in turn, necessitated the need for as champion of some sort to defend a championship of some other sort.

Wrestling
Practicing throw techniques

Actually, there had been female wrestling champions in the nineteenth century, the most famous of which were Alice Williams and Mary (Sadie) Morgan. Their match seemed to be the first 'reported' female wrestling match and misremembered in many sources. In late April 1891 at the 'Kernan Theater' in Maryland Alice Williams and Mary Morgan cut their hair short and wearing athletic costumes demonstrated excellent skill and strength in their wrestling match. Two days later the Post reported that during their bout, which was the 'most exciting thus far', Williams came off the victor which three throws to Morgan's one.

In 1900s Josie Wahlford, who put her title on the line against both women and men (the men were limited to carny visitors and could outweigh Josie by no more than twenty pounds). Josie was defeated in about 1901 by Laura Bennett, who dominated the championship in that first decade.

Laura temporarily gave up the title for two years to Mary Harris in 1907. From 1907 to 1909, Mary Harris laid claim to the women's title. She maintained her supremacy for two years and then had the ill luck to accept another challenge of Laura Bennett who pinned Mary in a long and vehement battle. Laura, who stood 5 feet 9 in height and weighed 190 pounds, was all muscle and all fight. Her second title run lasted until 1912, when she was bested by a challenger many consider to be the finest woman athlete ever to step between the ropes.

Not all wrestling events occurred through the moderately regulated form of the traveling show match. In Cumberland, Maryland, in 1900, a wrestling match occurred between Miss Ada Taylor and a Miss Grass at the hotel where Ada worked. Ada boasted that she was strongest the woman in the room, which was immediately denied by other women at the hotel. She challenged any one of them to a wrestling match, and Miss Grass took up the charge. Rather graciously, the many spectators in the hotel prepared the room, pushing back the furniture and setting up an appropriate arena for the match. The women were evenly matched and fought lively for some time before Ada slipped and hit her head on the edge of a large table. She was unconscious for several hours, but despite her injury, the fight was considered a draw. The women tenderly cared for Ada and resumed being friends again in the aftermath of the fight. In the United States, the beginning of the twentieth century saw increased interest in the “new girl,” a flapper prototype, who boxed or wrestled as part of a physical fitness program. And the sport of wrestling became increasingly popular in twentieth century, in part due to the prominence of the traveling circus, but also the rise of a few very exciting female wrestlers.

Wrestling
Practicing pin techniques

Acts where women would box or wrestle other women, or men, could be seen in burlesque theaters across the country. According to Nat Fleischer from Ring Magazine dated 1966: "Going over a list of old-timers I find Nellie Reville, Sis Howard, Kitty Ammerman, May Edwards, Texas Mamie, the Cleve sisters, Lyde Sheeron, Babe Kelly, Cora Williams, Elsie Burns and Helen Hildreth standing out."

Many acts featured both wrestling and boxing. Helen Hildreth and her partner Jack Atkinson had an act where Hildreth mainly boxed while Texas Mamie's act included both wrestling and boxing. The first really capable wrestler to emerge from the burlesque circuit was Josie Wahlford from Elizabeth New Jersey (stage name Josephine Schauer Blatt), according to Fleischer. Wahlford stood 5 feet 8 inches and weighed 165. "Josie was powerful. She placed herself in the hands of Charley Blatt, who came from Hoboken and was a strong-man more than a wrestler. The Professor taught Josie all the tricks and she became invincible. I would say that Josie Wahlford was the first generally accepted champion among the fair wrestlers of the USA." Wahlford soon carved her way through the limited opposition available in those days and at age 24 began touring the vaudeville circuit as a strong-woman act. She called herself Minerva and would lift 700 pounds a foot off the floor and toy with 100 pound dumb bells.


Cora Livingston
Cora Livingston

Cora Livingston is considered America’s first great female wrestler. She had an extensive career, and in the early twentieth century, she was recognized as the world champion female wrestler. Numerous women took up the challenge to face Cora in battle, some of whom simply fought to withstand Cora’s throws, while others competed with her in the typical Greco-Roman style. At the time that Cora earned the right to declare herself the female champion wrestler of the world, the American press was displeased with female wrestlers because, up until the early 1900s, there had never been a particularly skilled one. Perhaps that was because most of the women billed as wrestlers were either actresses pretending to be competent fighters, or untrained women looking to fill a particular niche. Cora may have been one of the first well-trained wrestlers of the day, which undoubtedly stemmed from her marriage, although it was unclear exactly to whom she was married. Several sources claim that Cora was married to light-weight wrestler Carl Livingston; however, she is also listed as the wife of Mr. Paul Bowser, another wrestler who became a promoter. Most likely, Cora was indeed married to Carl Livingston, and either by death or divorce, later married the prominent Paul Bowser. The Livingston’s often listed as performers in the same event; so undoubtedly, their relationship was grounded in the sport of wrestling.

Cora Livingston (the “e” at the end of her last name may have been added by husband Paul Bowser as a flourish) was born in Buffalo, New York in 1889 (other sources claim 1893 which is less likely). Livingstone, who exhibited considerable abilities as a teenager, was a natural athlete. She stood 5 feet 5 inches and weighed 138 pounds. Cora graduated from Buffalo High at 16. According to a Boston newspaper, she "could run, put up her hands and wrestle as well as many of the boys of that age and a whole lot better than the average. There was talk of a convent for Cora, but she preferred the sawdust and the stage and after seven months of training she made her debut as a girl wrestler in a tournament held in the Lafayette Theatre, Buffalo." There were said to be 16 contestants in the 1905 tournament, Livingston defeating Hazel Parker, straight falls, in the finale. In 1907 at the large ladies tournament in the Garden Theater, Cora defeated in the final Celia Pontos. "Before the match Cora Livingston was claiming the female lightweight championship of America, which she won from Hazel Parker in March 1906. Celia Pontos from Canada was claiming the lightweight female championship of the world. This gave Cora a better claim to the world’s women’s title."

In 1907 – 1909 Livingston toured the U.S. and Canada, wrestling against other female wrestlers and local volunteers. Hazel Parker was one of her main opponents who she met several times at various venues.

In 1908, Miss Cora Livingston shared the headlines with male wrestling champion Ernest Fenby when she entered a week’s long engagement at the Avenue Theater. Cora was billed as the championess wrestler of the world, willing to take on all female comers. Somewhat surprisingly in 1908, young women lined up to meet the champion. The previous week, Cora issued a similar challenge in Cleveland, and managed to defeat all of her opponents. After the first two nights of her stay in Detroit, the Detroit Free Press published an article praising the skill of both Cora Livingston and Ernest Fenby. Cora’s easy defeat of Florence Hilton was approached with the same simple reverence as her male counterpart. This was a clear departure, as we have seen, from many of the previous approaches the media took towards female wrestlers. Cora Livingston was respected as a fighter, and as a woman. The Detroit Free Press wrote an extensive article on the lady, complete with a photo of Miss Livingston in a dashing, if rather massive, hat. Cora anticipated all critiques of her sport as unwomanly, arguing that plenty of women in 1908 played basketball or bowled, but that wrestling was the best exercise of them all. She insisted that she would “keep on wrestling and won’t be satisfied until I have beaten everybody who has a chance to dispute my title.” Much like Elizabeth Stokes, Cora Livingston’s fame grew from her self-aggrandizing challenges in the media along with regular demonstrations of her skill and prowess on the mat. At the age of 20 she marrying ring promoter Paul Bowser and settling in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Laura Bennett challenged Livingston in 1910 at the Century Theatre, Kansas City MO, for a $1,000 side purse and a belt emblematic of the world's title. Smaller and outweighed by 50 pounds but professionally trained, Livingston won in straight falls, eight minutes and four minutes, respectively. Since then she has never lost a best two-of-three bout. A report says: "The Livingstone girl tore into the Bennett girl right from the start and pinned her in 12 minutes. Miss Bennett's morale was shot to pieces by that fall. The second part of the match was no contest. Cora threw Laura in three minutes. When I say 'threw' I mean it. A half Nelson and crotch hold proved to be the Livingstone media for victory. Cora was recognized everywhere as the greatest female wrestler in the world." In fact, Cora Livingston met Laura Bennett several times.

Wrestling belt of Cora Livingston
American championship women's wrestling belt made in 1910 - presented to Cora Livingston
Photo from Pinterest

According to Steve Yohe, in 2004, Anthony DeBlasi discovered an antique American championship women's wrestling belt made in 1910 on eBay. The blurb said: "The belt is made from thick leather with chrome or nickel plated metal badges and center medallion with legend 'Worlds Champion Female Wrestler' and engraved image of 2 wrestlers. The belt is 30.5" long (6" wide in center) and in surprisingly fine shape. The only defects are the 2 small straps on one side that are missing. The leather is still pliable with some minor cracking on the back. A great piece of Americana/memorabilia for the wrestling fan or collector of the unusual!! I have no idea of value but have placed a low opener with no reserve. There are total of 10 badges (5 on each side) with match details." So, nine Cora Livingstone's victories including the one over Laura Bennett on October 28, 2010 were engraved on the belt badges.
The left medallion next to the badge said: "Presented to Cora Livingston - Fri. Oct. 28 – 1910"
The right medallions next to the badge said: "Defeated Laura Bennett for Championship, Century Theatre, Kansas City, MO"
The details of the rest of the badges are:
- Defeated Grace Brady, Lafayette Theatre, Buffalo, NY
- Defeated Louise Harris, Standard Theatre, St. Louis MO
- Defeated May Nelson, Folly Theatre, Chicago, ILL
- Defeated Margaret Dunn, Academy of Music, Pittsburg, PA
- Defeated Bothner Twins, Century Theatre, Kansas City, MO
- Defeated Nellie Ludrig, Howard Theater, Boston, MA
- Defeated May Kelley, Miner, S. Bowery Theatre, NY City
- Defeated Hazel Parker, People's Theatre, Cincinnati, OH

Cora had a long and very busy career as a wrestler, fighting for over fifteen years in venues across the country. During her 20 year wrestling career between 1906 and 1925 she participated in about 270 matches and tournaments reported by newspapers. And in the vast majority of them she won.

These are examples of numerous ads and reports by local newspapers in USA and Canada about women's wrestling in American theaters.

The Milwaukee Sentinel – September 25, 1910:
Miss Cora Livingston, the Female Hercules and champion wrestler whose sensational work has been attracting general attention lately, will open an engagement at the New Star theater today. During her engagement Miss Livingston will be open to meet any woman in a wrestling match and will forfeit $25 to any one she fails to throw in fifteen minutes.

The Gazette Times – December 8, 1911:
Sallie O’Connor, a girl wrestler from Cleveland, was thrown by Cora Livingston, champion of the world, at Harry Williams’ Academy last night, in a 10-minute bout. Miss Livingston is to engage in a match at the Academy tonight with Miss Margaret Dunn of the North Side.

Article in The Detroit Free Press
Article in The Detroit Free Press, 1908

In 1908, The Detroit Free Press wrote an extensive article “Cora Livingston is Deep in Love with Wrestling Game,” complete with a photo of Miss Livingston in a dashing, if rather massive, hat. Cora anticipated all critiques of her sport as unwomanly, arguing that plenty of women in 1908 played basketball or bowled, but that wrestling was the best exercise of them all. She insisted that she would “keep on wrestling and won’t be satisfied until I have beaten everybody who has a chance to dispute my title.” Much like Elizabeth Stokes, Cora Livingston’s fame grew from her self-aggrandizing challenges in the media along with regular demonstrations of her skill and prowess on the mat. In the article, the female wrestling champion explained to the Detroit Free Press how she became involved in wrestling and why she chose it over other types of sports. Cora Livingston, a native of Montreal, is described as “a woman of remarkable beauty, of both of face and physique, added to which she takes herself and her work with a quiet seriousness and dignity.” Cora explained that she had always enjoyed exercise such as gymnastics. At sixteen, Cora joined the circus and began her career as a wrestler. She worked diligently for the first three years to learn the art of wrestling, and continued to carefully train her body. She claimed that “bathing is weakening” to the body, so she turned to Turkish baths instead, although she only relied on this method once a week. Cora also followed a strict diet, eating light meals and consuming meat only at noon. While Cora may have been a little on the smelly side, athletic clubs around the country appealed to her to teach athletics at their facilities, but she was not ready to quit wrestling at that point in time. Instead, she traveled the United States, challenging any woman to take her on in wrestling, whether as an equal opponent, or as a mere defendant.


In fact, in those days no strict wrestling rules were established and some matches went wild - probably on purpose - in order to create public excitement. The following extracts from newspaper articles reporting of 1910 Cora's misbehaviors illustrate how tough women's matches counld go, how large the audience would be and how disorderedly ladies might fight. (Mentioning of 300 previous matches of Cora sounds impressive, even though seemed to be exaggerated.)

In January 1910, Cora and her opponent, Miss Louise Harris, were fighting at the Empire Theater in New York City in front of a crowd of at least 1,200 when they were interrupted by the police. Lou was in the process of trying to gouge out Cora’s left eye while the champion administered her “famous strangle hold.” The crowd, which consisted of over a dozen women and over a thousand men, cheered excitedly, while the referee urged the women to abandon these illegal maneuvers and be “more ladylike.” At this point, according to the newspaper report, three detectives viewed the fight from a theater box and when Detective Charles O’Donnell, who acted as official censor for the police department, decided the bout reached his threshold of decency, the two women were arrested. Cora, Lou, and another female wrestler, Miss Daisy Johnston, were charged with disorderly conduct.

Minneapolis MN Tribune, Sunday, January 9, 1910:
One of the roughest wrestling matches that has been seen in Minneapolis for some time resulted last night in the disqualification of Cora Livingston, the woman champion, in the contest with Louise Harris. The women were to wrestle to a finish, but after 11 minutes of fast work Miss Livingston was disqualified by the referee for using the strangle hold. She had been warned previously. The referee was chosen from the audience at the Dewey Theater where the match was held.

The Chicago Tribune declared the fight between Cora Livingston and Lou Harris to be “the most disgraceful thing of the kind ever seen in Chicago.” As always, the costume of the women was part of the critique: the women wore tights, showing off their legs to shocking degree. Additionally, the Tribune was disturbed by the animosity between the women; their obviously strained relationship was not drama for the sake of entertainment. Yet again, Cora’s challenge was to throw Lou within ten minutes, or forfeit the $25 prize. According to the report, Lou Harris was the crowd favorite because Cora displayed some rather unsportsmanlike conduct, including biting, clawing, and eye-gouging. The arresting officer Charles O’Donnell explained, “The show was offensive and the women, especially Miss Livingston, roughed it considerably.” The police stepped in, and the fight was effectively over, and both women were charged with disorderly conduct, which, in this case, it sounds like the feisty Cora Livingston deserved.

Cora works with the sparring partner
Cora works with the sparring partner

The Pittsburg Press – Thursday, September 8, 1910:
Miss Livingston had offered to throw any woman wrestler in the city… Two thousand men and boys tried to stop a wrestling match at the Academy of Music last night between Cora Livingston, champion woman wrestler of the world, and May Nelson, of the South Side. Kicking and gouging in the match enraged the spectators and their shouts could be heard for a square… Excitement in the audience reached fever heat. While hundreds of men yelled themselves hoarse, the women fought viciously. Hair pulling was included with other rough tactics. When the match had been on 13 minutes the theater management ordered the wrestlers off the stage and tried to pacify the mob. Eight policemen under Captain John Dean, were called to prevent a riot.

Pittsburgh Press, Saturday, September 10, 1910:
Academy of Music
"Cora Livingston was thrown by Mat Nelson"
May Nelson, of Pittsburgh, threw Cora Livingston, the champion wrestler of the world, in 11 ? minutes at the Academy of Music last night, in a special match arranged after Miss Livingston had failed to drop the local girl in the time allotted her for that purpose last Wednesday night. Last night's affair, it was announced, was for a special purse of $100. According to the dope, this is actually the first time the champion has had her shoulders placed on the mat. Prior to her appearance last night she had wrestled over 300 matches, winning them all, having defeated the ex-American champion, the French champion and the English champion.

The ugly episodes of the matches Cora Livingston with May Nelson and Louise Harris in 1910 help understand why the staged wrestling show which nowadays is called the "professional wrestling" (WWE) has been so popular for almost 100 years. As the newspaper reports stated, the excited crowd of male wrestling fans especially appreciated passionate hostility between the female wrestlers and cheered illegal and brutal techniques used by them.


Wrestling on the ring
Cora's followers demonstrate
sophisticated wresting skills on the ring. 1932
From British Pathe videoclip

'The Richmond Times Dispatch' notes that in 1919, Cora wrestled Miss May Wilson in an unprecedented bout for the town of Richmond, which had never seen two women meet in combat before. The paper poured complements on the two women, declaring that “both women have been in the wrestling game for a number of years, and have just as good a knowledge of the game as the men.” The women came back to Richmond for a highly anticipated rematch in 1920. The newspaper explained that while many wrestling fans believe that women do not understand the game of wrestling, these particular women, Cora and May, were “as handy in the art of catch-as-catch-can as any of the masculine mat artists ever seen in action in this city.” The article promised “their match will be one of the most hard fought contests ever witnessed and will be full of pep from the tap of the gong.” At the last minute, however, May dropped out, and Cora met Grace Brady on the mat instead. The two fought at a previous event, in which Grace almost took the championship belt away from Cora. Grace told the Charlotte Observer, “the last time we wrestled here I came within a hair’s breadth of beating Miss Livingston, and this time I mean to finish the job.” Cora dominated the mat during her bout with Grace Brady, although the challenger apparently gave her some trouble. Cora started off the first round by throwing Grace to the mat so hard that it took the woman several minutes to get off the floor. When she returned to standing, Grace was shaky, but managed to get at least one fall using “a crotch hold and deadlock.” Cora, however, still came off with a decisive victory, using several hard throws and pins. Two years later, Cora was still considered the champion. Several papers published the following line about her in 1922: “Notwithstanding many strenuous years spent in the wrestling game, Cora Livingston is still the cleverest of female grapplers.”

On November 29, 1923 in Boston Grand Opera House Cora Livingston defeated Virginia Mercereau (aka Marie Diderrich of Appleton WI) who gained the privilege to wrestle Livingston winning an elimination series against Hazel Kinnard, May Kelly and 'Bobbie' Miller before facing Cora Livingston. Despite her defeat (reported by Boston Globe) Virginia Mercereau went around the country, boasting that she was the world's female wrestling champion. Later Cora Livingston again defeated Virginia Mercereau to reclaim the world title and remain champion until retiring in 1935.

One of the most interesting aspects of researching Cora Livingston and other female wrestlers during the early twentieth century is the divergent attitudes towards women fighters across the country. The Chicago Tribune spat vitriolic condemnation of the women in 1910, but by 1920, the Richmond Times Dispatch, a southern newspaper, praised the women as skilled fighters. Newspapers are, of course, the product of publishers, as well as the location and moment in time in which they were published. But the varying attitudes towards female grapplers, especially the popularity of the sport in the conservative South, demonstrate the growing acceptance of women in fighting sports in the 1920s.

Cora Livingston passed away in 1957, but not before imparting much of her wrestling knowledge to future generations of female fighters, including the famous Mildred Burke. Some wrestling histories claim that Cora Livingston retired from the sport with an undefeated record, but the actual source material seems to reject that idea. Her wrestling career was certainly long and worthy of celebration, but it is unclear exactly how many bouts she won, especially since sometimes, two papers claimed a different outcome for the same fight. Regardless, Cora Livingston forged a path in the early twentieth century for wrestling as not just a form of entertainment and spectacle, but as a legitimate sport. There is only one American woman in the 'Wrestling Observer Newsletter Hall of Fame' - Cora Livingston.

Being a real competitive wrestler, Cora Livingstone happened to become the founder of the professional wrestling, a peculiar theatric show which became extremely popular in the North America. The cohort of famous female professional wrestlers comes to the scene inspired by her achievements. Cora was a great mentor to the great Mildred Burke appearing at several cards in support.


References

Cora Livingston & the PWHF & the WON HOF plus the history of women's wrestling
Cora Livingston and the Spectacular Sport of Wrestling
How the Demands of Style Brought Women's Boxing in Vogue at the Turn of the Century
Pioneers of Professional Wrestling: 1860–1899
Female pioneers of the sport of wrestling and the professional wrestling. Cora Livingstone
Classic Wrestig Articles
Cora Livingston



Skillful wrestlers in a 1905 demonstrational wrestling match
From British Pathe Videoclip


Stars of the Professional wresling in 1930s-1950s


Vintage wrestling. Videoclips


June 2017


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