Wrestling, even today, has a problem with nomenclature. When one mentions the sport of wrestling to another, the former, depending on his or her experience, may immediately think of Rulon Gardner or Triple H, Randy Miller or Sasha Banks. The dual implication of the signifier can be amusing or annoying, depending on one’s relationship with wrestling, but an examination of the history of the sport reveals that the division between sport and entertainment wrestling was never terribly clear. And in that history, similarly to boxing, women played an important part in the development of the sport.
The history of wrestling is interesting, because in the twentieth century, the sport 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 ‘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.
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.
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.
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.
Two days previously, during the event at which she co-headlined with Ernest Fenby, Cora wrestled two women. The rules dictated that Cora “dispose of them in the allotted time or forfeit $25.” It is unclear whether her opponents were under the same conditions; if not, then the agreement obviously recognized Cora’s superior skill. Her first bout against Bertha Stark was over in a mere three minutes. The paper suggests that Cora went easy on Bertha, and laid her down gently on the mat rather than the usual hard toss or throw. The fight against Florence Hilton was supposedly more difficult, since Florence was somewhat knowledgeable about the sport of wrestling. However, Cora managed to defeat Florence in a swift five minutes. The story also announced that Cora was to meet against an unknown lady, who previously managed to avoid her take-downs in the allotted time, and thus won the $25 forfeit. The format of these bouts demonstrates that Cora Livingston was the true athlete. Even though the ‘unknown lady’ managed to avoid Cora’s throws in three fifteen minute matches, the woman never threw Cora herself. A wrestler is more vulnerable when she attempts a take-down; thus, if the ‘unknown lady’ tried a take down, Cora may have been able to successfully achieve a throw. The purpose of these fights, then, was not to pit two equally skilled fighters against each other, but rather, to test just how good Cora’s offense was. Later that same year, however, Cora fought a real wrestling match against Miss A. Smith. After fourteen minutes of the reportedly brutal battle, Cora was disqualified due to “foul tactics.” The Cincinnati Enquirer reported that Livingston was “cautioned by the referee for using “Maud” tactics, and lost through using the strangle hold after being warned.” Although it is unclear what the paper means by “’maud’ tactics,” this was Cora’s first clear defeat in a legitimate wrestling engagement.
In an article titled, “Cora Livingston is Deep in Love with Wrestling Game,” 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 1910, Cora and her opponent, Miss Lou 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.
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 had a long and very busy career as a wrestler, fighting for over fifteen years in venues across the country. 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.”
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.
Check out these related stories:
The Mixed Martial Arts of Victorian London
Before BJJ, there was Bartitsu.
Jonathan Maicelo: The Last Inca
Peru's up-and-coming boxing star.
Kron Gracie on Jiu-Jitsu, Skateboarding, Older Brothers, and Famous Fathers
The ties that bind are strong.
Joel Tudor on the Art of Surfing, Fighting, and Style
A surf icon helps MMA keep its sense of tradition.
Japan's Karate Kid: Kyoji Horiguchi
Japan's brightest MMA prospect.