On July 28th, 1951, tragedy struck when 18-year-old Janet Boyer Wolfe, the adopted daughter of women’s wrestling mogul Billy Wolfe, suddenly collapsed during only her third professional wrestling match. The fans cried murder and feared there might have been foul play. The police agreed and wanted to press charges on the other wrestlers involved: Mae Young, Ella Waldek, and Eva Lee.
The following is the story of the promising career that was quickly extinguished, an unscrupulous promoter trying to put his spin on the tragedy and the aftermath of it all.
Tragedy in the Ring – The Janet Boyer Wolfe Story
To the astonishment of Ella Waldek, Mae Young, and Eva Lee, the county sheriff took them to a Travelers’ Hotel in East Liverpool, Ohio, for questioning. They were later locked up in a hotel room because, according to Waldek, "They had no prison facilities for women."
"We were going to be accused of manslaughter in the first degree,” Waldek recalled. The women said they "just couldn’t understand what had happened" because no unusual holds or twists were used.
Adoption of Janet Boyer Wolfe
Minnesota promoter Tony Stecher, brother of former world champion wrestler Joe Stecher, recommended a very promising but undersized Janet Boyer to promoter Billy Wolfe when he found himself in Minneapolis with his troupe of women wrestlers.
At a mere 5’3" and 120lbs, at age sixteen, Janet asked Wolfe for a tryout, but he turned her down. He believed she was too small even though she was similar in dimensions to Mildred Burke when she began wrestling.
One year later, now aged seventeen, she again insisted on proving herself against any of Wolfe’s 43 women wrestlers, proclaiming, "I can throw any girl I’ve ever seen, up to 180lbs, and a lot of men."
After Janet put on some weight, Billy Wolfe found her more acceptable and gave her a shot.
According to newspapers, he told her, "You need a daddy, and I need a daughter."
To train her, Wolfe needed to become her legal guardian because she was under eighteen. Hoping for a brighter future for her daughter and herself, Janet’s widowed mother gladly signed the papers allowing Billy Wolfe to raise her further.
Under the tutelage of Billy Wolfe, he described Janet as his "adopted daughter." From then on, she was referred to as Janet Boyer Wolfe. It is unclear if Billy Wolfe’s wife, women’s champion Mildred Burke, approved of this arrangement, but it certainly didn’t help their rocky relationship.
Sadly, things quickly took a tragic turn, and the wrestling career of Janet Boyer Wolfe would last only six weeks.
Tragedy In The Ring
On Friday, July 27th, 1951, in a benefit for the Shrine Club at Patterson Field Stadium in East Liverpool, Ohio, the muscular Ella Waldek quickly disposed of the lesser experienced Janet Boyer Wolfe in seven minutes. This match was only Janet’s third professional appearance.
Afterward, a defeated Janet Boyer Wolfe complained of a "bursting headache" in the dressing room even though no blow to the head had been evident.
Waldek recalls Janet complaining about a terrible pain in her head and remembers advising her, "You need to tell your future father that you’re having trouble and that you may have a brain concussion." According to Waldek, Janet decided against it as she was afraid to tell Billy Wolfe she was hurt.
Despite being in pain, at 10:30 PM, Janet Boyer Wolfe went out for her second match of the evening, teaming with Eva Lee against Ella Waldek. The latter routinely kept the other women in line.
Waldek’s partner that night was the scrappy Johnnie Mae Young.
In the contest, Janet worked a few minutes with Mae Young then quickly tagged Eva Lee to relieve her. Once on the outside, Janet collapsed on the ring apron.
An onlooker would say, "She put her hand to her head as if in pain, and her knees seemed to buckle. She then slid down, grasping for the ropes."
A doctor from the crowd went to check on the collapsed youngster and said, "This girl’s in bad shape. Get her to the dressing room right away."
Paramedics administered oxygen in the dressing room and inside the ambulance that rushed Janet Boyer Wolfe to East Liverpool Osteopathic Hospital. But she never regained consciousness and was pronounced dead at 4 AM.
In the book, Queen of the Ring: Sex, Muscles, Diamonds, and the Making of an American Legend by Jeff Leen, he describes the stories of what happened to Janet Boyer Wolfe as "numerous, backlit by conspiracy theories and speculations, all obscured by the fog of memory."
Involvement of the County Sheriff
To the surprise of Ella Waldek, Mae Young, and Eva Lee, the county sheriff took them to a Travelers’ Hotel in East Liverpool, Ohio, for questioning. They were later locked up in a hotel room because "they had no prison facilities for women."
They were on their way to being accused of manslaughter in the first degree.
The women said they "just couldn’t understand what had happened." No unusual holds or twists had been used in the match.
After authorities were unable to find conclusive proof of foul play, they ruled the death of Janet Boyer Wolfe as accidental and decided not to press charges.
When speaking to the Columbus, Ohio, Citizen, a grief-stricken Billy Wolfe said that he loved Janet very much. Although he had barely brought her out to the public, his aspirations for her had been of eventually replacing Mildred Burke as champion when "The Cyclone" dropped out of the wrestling game.
The official autopsy performed by Dr. Roy Costello revealed that Janet had a traumatic rupture of the stomach and a subdural hematoma (when a blood vessel near the brain bursts and blood builds between the brain and the brain’s outer lining; a hemorrhage). When not treated immediately, either condition has a high probability of killing someone. Janet Boyer Wolfe is probably the first in-ring death of a woman wrestler.
"Everyone wanted to see this stupid blonde that killed Janet Wolfe!"
– Ella Waldek
Ella Waldek Gains Notoriety After the Death of Janet Boyer Wolfe
Billy Wolfe seemed to relish in the controversy and maybe even had an extrinsic reason when he inexplicably told the press that he believed that the body slam had caused the brain hemorrhage, instead of just accepting that accidents in the ring often occur. Even though his wrestlers told him that Janet had been complaining about headaches days before the match, he tried his best to put a spin on the situation and put Janet over.
"Janet was so intent upon becoming the top woman wrestler in the country," Wolfe told the press the day after Janet’s death, "that she refused to let anyone tell me about her headaches. She feared that I would cancel her bookings, and it might take a few months longer for her to realize her ambition." He further added, "Had I only known, I might have saved her life."
The local paper also stated that Billy Wolfe planned to make her debut official the following week in Columbus at a tournament for a new junior championship he had created. To mark the event, Wolfe purchased a diamond ring for Janet. Now, he’d have to give it to her mother, who didn’t blame Wolfe for her daughter’s death in the ring.
"My daughter’s death was an accident that could have happened in any sport," said Selma Boyer of Orr, Minnesota. "She was doing what she wanted, and what happened was God’s will. Janet was always a strong, healthy girl, so I didn’t stand in her way. If a girl wants to do something and really has her heart set on it, there is no sense in standing in her way. It will only make her bitter."
Many fans faulted Ella Waldek for Janet’s death and believed it happened when the sinewy Waldek bodyslammed the lighter wrestler.
Granted, Waldek was probably Wolfe’s most potent wrestler on the circuit, but you might be asking yourself, "How could they accuse Waldek of killing Boyer with a simple body slam?" We must remember that in the early ‘50s, a body slam was considered not a standard move like today, but instead a powerful maneuver that habitually finished the match. Like a dropkick, a suplex, or a backdrop, a bodyslam often served as the match’s high spot or signaled the end.
Kayfabe aside, it is also possible that with Janet’s limited training, she hadn’t mastered how to fall correctly by tucking in her chin to protect the back of her head and may have injured herself on the mat upon landing.
In the documentary Lipstick & Dynamite: The First Ladies of Wrestling, Mae Young recalls how hard Billy Wolfe pushed Janet in her few weeks of training. He would have her "up in the gym all the time wrestling different people and getting hurt."
Although the police didn’t charge Ella Waldek, fans stamped her as a woman killer. She became one of Wolfe’s premier heels thanks in part to his statement to the press, which blamed her for his beloved adopted daughter’s death.
Decades later, Waldek still lamented what happened and seemed emotionally hollowed out by the incident.
"We were exonerated, but by then it was too late," Ella remembered. "I already had publicity all over the United States and maybe further that I had caused Janet Wolfe’s death. I went into the ring, and everyone was calling me a murderer. I had to have guards sometimes. But, boy, was I doing some houses. Everyone wanted to see this stupid blonde that killed Janet Wolfe!"
Watch Ella Waldek in Rough and Tumble Ring Action:
Despite the press describing Mildred Burke as the dead girl’s adopted or foster mother, she gave no newspaper interviews after Janet’s death. She neither mentioned anything in her unpublished autobiography, pointing to the possibility that she didn’t approve of this adoption.
Joe Wolfe, the biological son of Billy Wolfe and Mildred Burke, claims Burke never acted as a mother to Billy Wolfe’s "adopted" daughter. It was "just something Billy Wolfe did," he says. There is no record in Columbus, Ohio, that Wolfe formally adopted Janet. So, what papers did Janet Boyer’s mother sign? As of now, it is unknown.
Many years after the death of Janet Boyer Wolfe, Wrestling Revue magazine practiced irresponsible journalism and, without citing any medical authority, claimed Janet died solely from the stomach rupture and discarding the possibility of the brain hemorrhage as the cause of death. "Janet’s stomach, bloated with beans, mashed potatoes, and gassy Cokes, had apparently burst under the impact of a punishing kick to the body received during the bout. The stomach contents had spilled out, choking her insides," claimed the magazine.
Calling For The Ban of Women’s Wrestling
With women’s wrestling still banned in several states and cities across the United States, the death of Janet Boyer Wolfe didn’t help the cause.
Cleveland councilman Harry T. Marshall asked the city’s safety director to ban women’s wrestling, saying Janet’s death "proves that the sport is much too hazardous for women."
The Post-Standard in Syracuse published an editorial that furthered the backlash against the women.
"Perhaps we are just old fashioned and will think of all women as ideally on something of at least a little pedestal," stated the editorial. "But old fashioned or not, we still find something deeply revolting about the spectacle of women slugging each other, just as we hated James Cagney squash a grapefruit in a lady’s face years ago. With women mauling each other on the television screens and gangsters slapping glamorous blondes around in the movies, it’s been several years since we’ve seen anyone hold open a door for a lady."
Whether the death of Janet Boyer Wolfe was an accident, by negligence, or even a combination of both, it is just another controversial chapter in the life of Billy Wolfe. He helped further women’s wrestling and gave us stars like Mildred Burke, Clara Mortensen, June Byers, Nell Stewart, Johnnie Mae Young, Elvira Snodgrass, Anne Laverne, Penny Banner, Ella Waldek, and Glady’s "Kill ’em" Gillem. But many believe that the unsympathetic promoter did a lot of damage to the sport’s image, mistreating many of his performers to have his way.
Janet Boyer, as "Janet Boyer Wolfe," is buried in Park Hill Cemetery located in Duluth, St. Louis County, Minnesota.
Ella "Waldek" Schevchenko passed away on April 17th, 2013. She held several titles during her career, including the NWA Southern Women’s Championship with Mae Young.
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