Determined to overcome crushing poverty and risk everything with a man she hardly knew, Mildred Burke achieved her dream in a field where men carried all the power. At merely 5’2″ and under 130 lbs, she would become one of the most dominant champions in wrestling history, reigning supreme from 1937 to ’54. She legitimately beat men and women alike, forging a path for future generations of women in the sport.
Women’s Wrestling in its Infancy
In an America hungry for diversion, the railroads made possible for P.T. Barnum and his Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan, and Hippodrome to entertain the masses in the 1870s, thus providing them the only form of mass entertainment of the era. Sports like baseball were in its infancy. Football and basketball were at least half a century away from becoming popular. Boxing, more accurately pugilism, was primarily banned and deemed as too brutal. Radio, movies, and television were only impossible dreams and not even science fiction yet. Pastimes in the bigger cities consisted of walking contests, bicycle races, the local horse track, or “the freak show with its midgets, giants, armless and legless wonders, bearded ladies, tattooed marvels, fat, and thin men and women,” according to the highly recommended book The Queen of the Ring: Sex, Muscles, Diamonds, and the Making of an American Legend by Jeff Leen.
Thus, small traveling carnivals became the primary source of live entertainment for the people, and soon wrestling emerged as a professional sport. For Barnum, with his American Museum of freaks and oddities, catch wrestling was the newfound novelty he was eager to showcase.
In wrestling, George Hackenschmidt had “a body of alabaster beauty, the broadest shoulders, the deepest chest ever seen in the wrestling ring.” Strong female wrestlers weren’t too far behind and soon applied their trade in Russian circuses, Parisian nightclubs, and American saloons.
In circus athletic shows (AT shows), a woman wrestler challenging men in the audience became a regular act. In 1891, the National Police Gazette sponsored the first U.S. Women’s Wrestling Championship in a Bowery tavern with the title passing through several hands until the 138-pound Cora Livingston won it in Kansas City in 1914. Like Burke after her, she was relatively small and managed by a male wrestler who was also her husband. The couple toured the country in carnivals and vaudeville theaters, offering $25 to any man or woman who could last ten minutes with Cora.
“I beheld this vicious-countenanced woman wrestle and tussle in the most ungodly manner,” a female correspondent for the Galveston, Texas, Daily News wrote after seeing Livingston wrestle in New York City. “My heart sank, and I felt weak and sick that a woman could stoop to such performances.” There were other women like 155-pound Virginia Mercereau, but mainly confined to wrestling in carnivals and vaudeville houses, and none broke through to achieve sustained success.
Tough Beginnings For Mildred Burke
Coffeyville, Kansas, 1915 saw the birth of the future queen of women’s professional wrestling. Born Mildred “Millie” Bliss, she was the youngest of six children- five girls and one boy. From an early age, Millie was physically small but fierce. A natural athlete with strong legs, she excelled in soccer and track, was strong-willed, and not easily intimidated by boys. Her living conditions were less than optimal, with everyone having to live in a millworker’s house next to the railroad tracks and down the street from a cemetery. The small square structure had one bedroom, a dining room, and a kitchen. When Millie was eleven, their father left them, and he would not see his daughter again until seventeen years later when he joined thousands of fans to watch her wrestle already as champion.
Millie and her mother, constantly on the move, continued scratching and clawing, trying to gain some semblance of normality and maybe social advancement in the process. Unfortunately, the stock market crashed on October 29th, 1929, with both doing a variety of jobs just trying to scrape by. They found themselves in a government-owned restaurant in Black Rock, New Mexico, on a Native American reservation. Desperate for a better life, Millie married at age seventeen. Now back in Kansas City, all three tried to make a go as proprietors of a thirty-seat diner they called B&S Café. Millie worked twelve hours a day, seven days a week, to make $4 when the average rent was $20 a month, and the average income was $1,600 a year.
When it seemed like hope was lost, her husband introduced her to the one thing that kept her alive: wrestling. “Watching these bouts fascinated, absorbed, and excited me in a way that I had never known before,” she would later recall. “Something deep in my core had been tapped awake.”
Millie wasn’t content to just watch for a couple of hours and enjoy the escapism of it all. She wanted to be an active participant. “Immediately I began fantasizing myself in that ring, applying those grips, holds, and throws. A desire and a drive to fill in those fantasies with flesh and blood came surging to life.”
She loved the drama, the action, and the conflict, the rapid changes of fortune that were said possible. But when she commented on her dream to her husband, he simply laughed it off. In mainstream America during the 1930s, women were still considered to be far too delicate for something like or resembling wrestling. The elegant figure skater Sonje Henie was the epitome of women’s sports, which were limited to the ice rink, swimming pools, golfing, and the tennis courts.
Magazine articles of the day stressed that physical sports were too strenuous for women. “Under prolonged and intense physical strain a girl goes to pieces nervously,” Ethel Perrin, a noted instructor of physical education, wrote in the Saturday Evening Post in 1928. “She is ‘through’ mentally before she is completely depleted physically … The fact that a girl’s nervous resistance cannot hold out under intense physical strain is nature’s warning.”
Well, they hadn’t met anyone like Mildred Burke!
Things continued to look bleak for Millie as a drought went through the Great Plains, and in the spring, an epic thirty-six-hour dust storm blanketed a third of the country, stretching 1,500 miles from Montana to New York City and carrying 350 million tons of sand and grit. In under a mile, the sun was practically unseen in Kansas City. With unemployment at more than 20 percent, business dropped off severely at the diner. Millie now seemed to be in an impossible spot because she was soon to give birth. Her dream of becoming a wrestler seemed as elusive as the happiness in her life.
“Urgent need for money and constantly thinking about how to get it caused my wrestling fantasies to come boiling up again,” she later recalled. “If only I could get to be a lady wrestler, it would be such a novelty that people would crowd into the arenas to see me. The money would be mine in bundles, and I would be able to take good care of my baby.”
Meeting Billy Wolfe
By the time Millie Bliss met Billy Wolfe, he had reached his apex in the mat game and was retired. Wolf had been an outstanding grappler but never rose above the light heavyweight ranks at 175 pounds or so. This meant that he hadn’t enough size to compete for big money and was never going to get the big push larger men were more prone to receive. Lacking the brute strength of a Strangler Lewis or the dashing sex appeal of a Jim Londos, Wolfe’s territory was limited to a small area around Kansas City, and by 1932 when he met Millie at 37 years old, he more than doubled her age.
Millie’s eyes lit up after she found out that Wolfe was a wrestler who owned a nearby gym, and she began seeing the light at the end of the almost pitch-black tunnel that had been her life so far. “My wrestling fantasies and my imagination now began breaking into a gallop. He could have looked like a gargoyle, and I would have been interested.”
He became a regular at the now renamed Mom’s Diner and always arrived with lady wrestler Barbara Ware, his main girl at the time. Doctors recommended Wolfe to eat healthy, concentrating on the intake of lots of raw foods, especially vegetables and salads for the betterment of his injured spine due to many years of punishment in the ring. Mille gladly prepared him oversized salads and tried to woo him into opening that door to her dream.
“I want you to teach me to wrestle,” she finally told him.
Wolfe stared at her, then threw his head back and laughed. “You?” he said, looking her up and down. “Why, you ain’t no bigger than a pint of piss.” He shoved a cigar into his mouth, and Ware lit it for him.
“What in the hell makes you think that you’d make a wrestler?” he continued. “I mean, Christ, look at you. What makes you think you could do it and not get busted to bits?”
“I can’t really tell you why,” Mildred said, “but I have this feeling inside that I can do it. I want to do it more than anything else in the world. I’ve been to the matches and I know I can do it.”
“Aw, bullshit,” he said, waving her away with his cigar and turning back to Barbara Ware.
Now that her dream was out in the open, Mildred was relentless. She kept it up, pestering Wolfe to let her wrestle.
Wolfe was equally adamant. “You’re too small, girlie, for this racket,” he said. “Even if you were good, who’d pay to see you?”
“Well, give me a chance anyway,” she would counter. “Teach me to wrestle.” She threatened to stop making his favorite salad. He was unmoved.
But on August 9th, 1934, Millie went into labor at the diner. The birth had complications; Joe developed problems with a gland in his neck, and Mildred had to take him by streetcar to see a specialist in a nearby town. Not able to afford a babysitter, the baby was kept at the diner’s kitchen in a crib so she and Bertha could watch him. With bills mounting and business failing at the restaurant, Millie’s desperation deepened, and with renewed ardor, she persisted with Wolfe. He finally consented but had a plan for the bothersome young lady.
Millie’s first taste of wrestling inside of Wolfe’s dingy, smelly gym, saw her sporting a pair of boy’s black sneakers and a modest black one-piece bathing suit, which was a far cry from the slimming white outfits and matching boots she would later be known to use. “I could not have been more embarrassed had I been stark naked, so alien was this whole scene,” she later recalled.
Expecting to see another woman, she was surprisingly going to wrestle a man instead. At the gym, Wolfe had given the youngster “Gypsy Joe“ Snyder a crash course in basic wrestling, with particular emphasis on the body slam. Wolfe told him to “slam her so hard that she’ll quit bothering me.” He was paying the boy $2, plus another $2, after he wiped up the ring with her.
“Slipping across the ring, he immediately picked me up, spun me, and proceeded to body slam me—except it didn’t quite turn out that way,” Burke wrote in her unpublished autobiography. Instead of allowing the boy to slam her into the mat, she held on and brought him down with her. “By some deep instinct, some quirk of talent or flash of intuition, when I hit the mat, I pulled him down and instantly took the top of him. The gypsy was flat on his back with me on top of him!” She managed to pin the boy, then looked up to see Billy Wolfe “slack-jawed and pop-eyed.”
A very surprised Wolfe now huddled with the boy figuring out another strategy. For the second fall, Millie instantly appropriated the boy’s body slam technique. It was as if his touch had transmitted the knowledge of the hold to her. “I saw how he had picked me up,” she would later admit. “I picked up the gypsy boy. Up in the air, he went, and then I slammed him down hard. Dust rose in a parching cloud from the impact.”
The stunned youngster was easy prey for her, and she had defeated him twice in less than a minute. It was as surprising as a cobra falling victim to a seemingly harmless mongoose.
In the weeks following, “Gypsy Joe” Snyder and Wolfe put Millie into serious training. Weights, calisthenics, and other exercises. Wolfe also arranged matches against larger women to make sure that her win over the youngster wasn’t a fluke. She bested them all.
“This sense of balance, combined with eerie confidence that I could not be knocked off my feet, enabled me to deal with much larger women throughout my career. Whatever move used against me, I learned it immediately. Never did I forget such a move. These gifts were simply there, ready and available for use in the career I had chosen seemingly out of a clear sky,” recalls Burke.
Hitting the Carnivals and Embarrassing The Men
For most small and even medium-sized towns of the Midwest in the 1930s, carnivals and circuses drew large crowds and became the must-see attraction. Frank Gotch, Strangler Lewis, the “Nebraska Tigerman” John Pesek began in AT shows. The experts of the troupe were known as “hookers,” and the civilians in the audience who challenged them were the “marks.”
The Landes Shows had traversed the Midwest for decades and advertised itself as the “Largest Motorized Carnival in the Middle West.” In her drab black bathing suit and black boxing shoes, Millie Bliss waited while Wolfe barked on the bally trying to attract customers. “Twenty-five dollars to anyone who can beat the little lady in ten minutes—pin or submission!” The challengers had to be within twenty pounds of her weight. They had to pin her or force her into submission; if she survived the full ten minutes, no money was exchanged. The matches were supposed to be for real, and if there was money to be made, Wolfe didn’t care about weight classes.
One night out of the blue, Wolfe changed Millie’s last name from Bliss to Burke. “He never told me he was going to give me that name. Why he chose that name, I don’t know. He just told me he didn’t think Bliss was a good name. He said there was an old saying, ‘Ignorance is bliss.’ He was right.” The name stuck: Mildred Burke. And during her career, she’d be nicknamed Mildred “Muscles” or “Cyclone” Burke.
In the carnival, Burke struggled to survive and learn her craft. “There wasn’t a week went by that I wasn’t bruised and battered anew by hometown toughies seeking an easy $25. My elbows and knees were never without abrasions. Rope and canvas burns came almost daily.”
Fortunately, she turned out to be a natural at catch wrestling with its emphasis on speed and wrestling holds where a skilled woman could compete with bigger and more potent male opponents. The secret to beating many men, she found, was to get them off their feet and down on the mat, where she could use her strong legs to counter their upper-body strength. By wrestling defensively, she was able to block their moves, and avoid being pinned.
Over the years, about 150 men would accept the challenge. Millie later said she lost only one of these matches when a collegiate wrestler accidentally kneed her in the stomach and knocked her breath out; in another interview, she said she remained undefeated.
“I wrestled farmers, mechanics, carpenters, and blacksmiths in a bewildering array of body types and wrestling styles,” she would later write. “There was the string bean type, the squat guy who was built like a packing case, and there was the occasional roly-poly. They were pushers, rushers, headlock artists, scissor men, butters, and sluggers. Every single one of them was driven by his own macho thing, and it was vital to all not to be beaten by a young girl in front of their hometown people. Whether they knew anything about wrestling or not, I learned from them all.”
Since deception was always part of the carnival, it’s sometimes impossible to differentiate between the worked and shoot matches Mildred Burke had.
Small Arenas and Stealing the Show
At the end of 1935, with their first carnival season behind them, they took the next step: Matching Mildred Burke against men in small arenas. From wrestling in carnivals to then wrestling a man in an arena, would be a big step for her, and further women’s wrestling into the mainstream. Mixed wrestling between men and women, considered the last taboo in the sport, was mostly banned. Fortunately for them, regulation of wrestling was so haphazard and poorly enforced that promoters in individual towns, generally small ones in the rural Midwest and west far from the big Eastern cities, were able to organize sporadic mixed bouts.
Barbara Ware and Virginia Mercereau had both wrestled men, but neither had been able to make a living out of it because of the difficulty of getting matches. In Burke’s account, the wrestling business was in bad shape, but she convinced Gust Karras to book her. They bought ads in papers and wrote letters, issuing a challenge to any man her weight, 121 pounds.
On February 13th, 1936, she debuted in an arena match against a man in the small town of Bethany in northwestern Missouri. The bout was part of a card promoted by Karras at the K.P. castle, a brick structure in a castle design that was initially built for the Knights of Pythias. The Bethany Republican-Clipper misspelled her name, but the show would go on. Throughout her career, newspapers and magazines wrote thousands of articles about her.
Two hundred reserved ringside seats at seventy-five cents apiece awaited the anxious fans, but only about half that number braved the cold weather to watch the spectacle. Billy Wolfe opened the evening by wrestling on the card to an unexciting draw. Mildred Burke made her mark, and this time the newspaper spelled her name correctly. “Miss Mildred Burke of Kansas City proved that women could ‘wrestle’ as well as men,” the paper noted. “She displayed actual ability in outclassing Cliff Johnson, applying real holds and showing knowledge of how to break holds placed upon her. She dumped Johnson in seven minutes, using a head hold and reverse hammerlock.”
Women had occasionally wrestled in arenas, but the act had never taken off as anything more than a one-off novelty, to relieve the tedium on a dull card of male wrestlers. Burke and Wolfe aspired to establish women as permanent and popular arena performers, right up there with Strangler Lewis and Jim Londos.
Getting Burke into a match against another woman in a large arena required that Billy Wolfe convince a significant promoter that women could wrestle well enough to win over a large crowd. But women could not wrestle unless they proved they could draw, but they could not prove they could draw unless they got the opportunity to wrestle: it was a catch-22. But they had to start somewhere, and they needed an opponent for Burke, who would generate more excitement than any had so far.
The Controversial Clashes of Mildred Burke Versus Clara Mortenson
Clara Mortensen (commonly misspelled Mortenson) was a blonde who went by the nickname “The Eternal Woman.” At just sixteen, she had been the feature attraction of a show in California. If Wolfe was looking for the perfect opponent to help him and Mildred Burke’s breakthrough, Mortensen, an accomplished wrestler with national attention, now aged twenty-one, was their answer. Mortensen described herself as the reigning female lightweight champion, although the claim was confusing and unreliable because others had declared the same.
Watch: 1937 silent footage of Clara Mortensen winning a version of the women’s championship
Mortensen quickly became one of the few people Burke would detest. Mortensen was the more prominent name, so Burke had to agree to lose in their matches, derisively described by Burke in her autobiography as “worked exhibitions.” She decided to do the job because she understood it was good for business, but crestfallen with the revelation of wrestling’s worked nature in the championship level had little difference with the carnival circuit she had left.
Burke claimed that Mortensen’s triumphs in all of those early worked matches made her arrogant and high-hatted. One night, to show the crowd who was the better woman, Burke said, she bounced Mortensen around the ring, repeatedly pinning her only to bring her shoulders off the mat at the count of two before the fall was final. Only then did Burke allow Mortensen to pin her. She resolved that she would one day put herself in a position where she would never have to lay down for another match.
“The only way to avoid these managed matches and managed decisions—as far as I was concerned personally—was to be unbeatable legitimately,” wrote Burke.
On January 28th, 1937, a cold and rainy night, before 6,157 in the Memorial Auditorium in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Mildred Burke, at twenty-one years of age, realized her dream. She beat Mortensen and won a claim to the women’s championship title. It was Burke’s first victory against Mortensen after at least a dozen defeats and reportedly Mortensen’s first loss in five years. The question remains as to why? The nature of professional wrestling is to deceive, with its carny origins and its worked matches, so the truthful answer to this question is unknown. Perhaps Burke broke script and beat Mortensen in a double-cross. Or maybe Mortensen finally agreed to let Burke win one to pump the gate for upcoming matches.
To the fans, it didn’t matter. Either way, they loved the match. “These two otherwise demure misses pulled hair, gouged eyes, tied each other in complicated knots, slugged and yanked arms and legs in the most approved wrestling manner,” wrote one male fan. “Grand opera and popular stage plays have never drawn near the crowd.”
The match was a milestone for women’s professional wrestling and the most significant boost yet for Burke. The match is largely considered the start of the modern-day women’s professional title. The name Mildred Burke was on sports pages across the country. Never before had a women’s match received such widespread publicity, and it was her great fortune that the attention came from a match that she had won rather than one of her many losses to Mortensen.
But Clara Mortensen wasn’t about to wilt like a flower and disappear. In a controversial rematch on February 11th, 1937, again in Chattanooga, Mortensen took the title back, only after a quick count in the final fall from an allegedly bribed official. Burke claimed she was so angry after the quick count that she stormed into Clara’s dressing room and beat the blonde woman bloody. “Soon she was blubbering pitifully and begging me to stop, a sorry picture of a would-be champion.”
A few weeks before their final match in Charleston, West Virginia, Mortensen wrestled and beat a “Molly Burke” in Norfolk. At the time, Mildred Burke was wrestling in Texas, so the match could have been a ploy by Mortensen to cloud the title picture with a victory over a wrestler named Burke. The Charleston paper even reported the wrong result for the match in that town! It said that Mortensen had won two out of three falls in forty-five minutes. Two days later, the paper issued a correction: “Miss Burke should have been credited with the victory, having beaten Miss Mortensen in two of three falls.”
By this point, Mildred Burke and Clara Mortensen were the two most prominent and accomplished female wrestlers in the nation. No longer trusting each other, they took separate paths to defend a title that both would continue to claim to the end of their days. Mortensen said that even though she lost the title to Burke in Chattanooga, she won it back in the subsequent match. Burke just as determinedly maintained that she had won their last match. Official records are spotty, only adding to the drama.
Did you know? Although there was a National Wrestling Association, they didn’t police the women’s championship titles, thus anyone could claim to be the champion. The Chattanooga match won by Mildred Burke had been advertised as the Women’s Lightweight Championship, even though no organized body was making that claim other than the promoters, Wolfe, Burke, and Mortenson. The title that “mattered” was the one that received the most widespread recognition from the press and the public. Burke and Wolfe achieved a national consensus on one person’s claim above all others. But in April 1937, Mildred Burke won a recognized title from Al Haft’s Midwest Wrestling Association, which was an established promotion that years later would be absorbed by the still nonexistent National Wrestling Alliance. Wolfe said that the belt cost $525, nearly the price of a car in 1937.
Watch: Mildred Burke defends her title against Mae Weston in 1951
For a while, Clara Mortensen continued to draw capacity crowds in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere, from California to Montana to Florida. Time magazine did a piece on her at the end of 1937 under the headline “Strong Sister.” But she never became Mildred Burke, who went on to increasing crowds, wealth, and fame. Mortensen’s career in turn slowly petered out. She suffered a considerable setback when the state of California banned women’s wrestling in 1939. Wolfe and Burke also outmaneuvered her. They combined Burke’s wrestling skill and her singular ring style with Wolfe’s drive and business acumen to build an unmatched moneymaking, publicity-generating machine. One of the critical factors of their success was their constant travel, so as many people as possible could witness Burke defending her title.
Several times, and as late as 1945, Mortensen demanded a rematch, but it always fell through. She retired in Eureka, California, in 1952, still maintaining that she had avenged her only loss to Burke, not before appearing in the movie Racket Girls AKA Pin-Down Girl that some fans may recognize as episode 616 of Mystery Science Theater 3000.
The enmity between the two was lasting. More than forty years after their final match, the Cauliflower Alley Club, the leading organization of retired pro wrestlers, tried to honor both women at their annual function. But neither wanted to appear with the other.
Through her twenty years in wrestling, Mildred Burke introduced women’s wrestling across the world, including almost every state of the United States, Canada, Cuba, Mexico, and some parts of the Orient including Japan, Hong Kong, Macao, and the Philippines.
In her later years, Burke ran a women’s wrestling school in Encino, California. Among her students was Canadian Rhonda Sing, who went on to fame as WWWA World Champion, “Monster Ripper,” and later WWF Women’s Champion, Bertha Faye.
The Death of Mildred Burke
Mildred Burke died from a stroke on February 18, 1989, in Northridge, California. She was 73.
In 2002, Mildred Burke was posthumously inducted in the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame, and in 2016, she was inducted into the “Legacy” wing of the WWE Hall of Fame.
What you read is only the beginning of Mildred Burke’s story in women’s wrestling. If you’d like to learn more about her almost two-decade dominance of the sport, and her tremendous hardships with Billy Wolfe, you can purchase the highly recommended book, The Queen of the Ring: Sex, Muscles, Diamonds, and the Making of an American Legend.
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