Women’s Wrestling in the 1950s …
Wrestling stars such as Mary “The Fabulous Moolah” Ellison, June Byers, Millie Stafford, Mildred Burke, Ella Waldek, Mae Young and former boxer Bonnie Bartlett were wrestling stalwarts in the later 1940s and on through 1950s. A strong sponsoring group, the National Wrestling Association (NWA) offered a system of championship belts that helped these fighters along. Wrestling also enjoyed a network of wrestling promoters that kept the sport in the spotlight—some of whom also promoted boxing and vice versus, as well as small regional and local promoters who ran fight nights. Such publications as Boxing and Wrestling magazine also published weekly “Gal Grappler Ratings” and along with the NWA Official Wrestling magazine, and Boxing-Illustrated Boxing and Wrestling, published articles about female practitioners of both sports including such notables as South Bend, Indiana boxer Phyllis Kugler.
The public’s appetite for professional wrestling was enormous and had been gaining since the 1930s. The price of admission was cheap. The post-war years, however, saw a tremendous gain with new and innovative tricks and flourishes in the ring including tag-team wrestling (featuring pairs of wrestlers, with one of each pair on the apron and the other partner fighting each other in the ring), mix-gender wrestling (featuring large women and small men), exaggerated movements giving rise to abject clowning and grandiose body slams, and costuming and masks. This emphasis on entertainment developed to compete for the shrinking pool of dollars available against the rise of the movie going culture—and as the 1950s wore on, against television.
The presence of bathing-suit clad women, some in two-piece outfits only seemed to enhance the circus-like atmosphere of the wrestling ring and certainly pushed the boundaries of women’s participation in combat sports in general. While women as well as men participated in the system that dictated who would win and who would lose on any given card, the physical prowess and skill necessary to put on a wrestling show was enormous. The risks were also great and led to the death of an 18-year-old wrestler named Janet Boyer Wolfe on July 28, 1951 at a tag-team wrestling benefit held in honor of the Shrine Club in Easter Liverpool, Ohio.
In this period, wrestling shows often featured fighters participating in more than one bout on a card. On the evening of her death, Wolfe had fought a bout against Ella Waldek, a wrestler renowned for her technical skills. After losing the match, Wolfe apparently complained of a mind-numbing headache, but insisted on coming out for the second match—a tag-team bout. Wolfe was partnered with wrestling star Eva Lee to fight against Waldek and another well-known fighter, Mae Young.
At the start of the match Wolfe was in the ring against Young, but after a short period of time she caught her teammate Lee’s attention and tagged out. Standing on the lip outside the ring, Wolfe held onto the ropes and then visibly collapsed onto the edge, startling the crowd, before sliding down onto the ground. By the time the doctor came to her side she had already lost consciousness—and though taken to the hospital quickly, she died in the early morning hours having slipped into a coma. An autopsy revealed a subdural hematoma, as well as a rupture in her stomach. Much attention was paid to Waldek who had body slammed Wolfe in the first match—and all three women who fought in the tag-team match were initially held for possible manslaughter charges. Much later, it came out that Wolfe had been complaining about headaches for weeks, but they were never attended to. Despite this, the fans felt that it was all Waldek’s fault and she bore the moniker of “murderer” for the rest of her career as a wrestler.
Jeff Leen. Queen of the Ring: Sex, Muscles, Diamonds and the Making of an American Legend. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press. 2009. Page 164.