Manitoba History: Thrashing Seasons: The Origins of Prairie Wrestling
by C. Nathan Hatton
Apair of electric lamplights, strung pendulously from the board ceiling, cast their glow on the scene unfolding below in Winnipeg’s Industrial Exhibition Board of Trade) Building on 3 April 1923. Below the lights, approximately 2,000 people were gathered in the convention hall, one of several facilities housed in the impressive-looking (though rather shoddily constructed) edifice located at the corner of Main and Water Streets in the city’s downtown centre. Most of those present were seated on wooden folding chairs. Some, almost exclusively located in the back rows of the two separate balconies situated one above the other, stood for a better view. A small number also perched in the hall’s wide wooden rafters, accessible from the walls in the upper balcony, seeking to obtain the highest spot from which to see the show. At seventy degrees Fahrenheit, the room was a comfortable temperature, far removed from the sweltering heat experienced in the same facility, at a similar event, eight months earlier. Since it was still too warm to wear an overcoat for an extended period, many in attendance also used the rafters as makeshift coat racks. A sign reading “No Smoking” affixed to the top balcony was as much a precautionary measure against setting the wooden interior ablaze and ensuring orderly behaviour as it was an effort to preserve public health. Directly below, those without the benefit of rafters draped their jackets over the plank railing in front of the bottom balcony. Several rows of seating also filled the convention hall floor, and most of them, but by no means all, were occupied. In particular, chairs located in the back-most row remained vacated since people exercised their option to be as close to the action as possible. The crowd ranged considerably in age, from the adolescent to the elderly. Overwhelmingly, however, they were men clad in suit and tie. Still, conspicuous by their presence, were perhaps no more than a dozen women, who, in their rolled-brim hats, had decided to partake in the predominantly masculine spectacle.
Anyone who listened closely enough would have noted that the hum of voices, even if similar in tenor, were not singing the same song. Native-born English, though loudest that evening, mixed with a pastiche of other accents, and in some sections different languages altogether could be heard through the din. Winnipeg was a multicultural city, and what was about to transpire was a multicultural spectacle. It had been this way for nearly a quarter century. Most of the men in attendance had dressed well for their public outing, but not all of them had the finest of clothes available to them. Some came from the city’s North End, and the occasional frayed sleeve and collar betrayed their working class roots. Others, seated farther in front of them, with shirts starched and pressed, came from more prosperous areas to the south, close to the Assiniboine River. Many in attendance, however, wore more than their clothing that night. They wore their identities. The combative spectacle that they were about to witness was symbolic of greater conflicts being waged on the factory floors and in the streets, community halls, immigrant sheds, and boarding rooms throughout a city where ethnic and class divisions shaped the fabric of daily existence. When the show began, there were no clear-cut lines between good and bad, hero and villain, even if certain members of the public wished it to be that way. For a moment, all eyes turned forward, and a hush settled in.
Near the room’s centre stood a raised rectangular wooden platform. An apron, frayed in places, shielded its underside from public view. On the apron were hung handwritten placards, one saying “Tribune” and the other “Athletic Commission,” indicating the privileged positions allocated for the press and civic authorities at the event. A square ring had been constructed on the platform, equidistant from the rectangular structure’s shortest sides. Four unpainted wooden posts and three horizontal ropes held in place by metal eye bolts demarcated the periphery of the ring. Stains mottled the middle rope, which, wrapped in white tape, hinted at contact with sweat and skin. A single canvas sheet layered the inside of the ring, under which only a thin veneer of padding shielded those above from the unyielding boards below. If the ring ropes hinted at the source of their discoloration, the strikingly irregular pattern of blotches on the mat spoke unequivocally of contact with dirt, sweat, and blood. Some of the blotches were by-products of the three boxing matches staged earlier in the evening, though reminders of past contests certainly accented the uneven hue.
Inside the ring in one corner was Alex Stewart, a Scottish immigrant of diminutive stature, whose tailored suit hid an athletic physique. As the referee, Stewart was to ensure that the participants in the night’s performance did not extend themselves too far beyond his already liberal enforcement of the written rules. Behind the next post, located to Stewart’s left, a second man, his hair parted in the middle, stood with a thick robe draped over his right arm. In a moment, he would pull the wooden folding chair in front of him out of the ring. To Stewart’s right, in the third corner, a second robe and a clean white towel were flopped casually over the top rope, left there by a burly figure with a shaved head and columnar neck.
Near the ring’s centre, two large men, shirtless, their right hands grasped in salutary embrace, eyed one another with steely glares. The first of the pair, Paul Martinson, was an American of Danish descent and recently arrived in the city. At five feet ten inches in height, and weighing 237 pounds, Martinson was bulky, with dark hair, short neck, broad chest, and thick waist. On his left elbow, a white bandage provided tentative shielding for an abrasion incurred when skin made swift and pressured contact with coarse canvas. Left uncared for, the wound could become infected and lead to serious complications. Nonetheless, a day earlier, Winnipeg physician William Black had declared him medically fit to wrestle. It was certainly not the first time that Martinson had sustained such an injury, and, necessity overriding caution, it was possible that he would sustain another that night. Wearing only dark shorts, his bare knees bore testimony to similar scrapes, incurred under similar circumstances, throughout his adult life. Sparing the arches of his feet as well as his toe knuckles from similar abuse were a pair of tightly fitting, ankle-high, black leather shoes. With thin soles, they granted the skin a measure of protection while simultaneously ensuring that the foot itself retained its tactile sensitivity to the external environment.
At the other end of Martinson’s grasp stood Jack Taylor, a Canadian by birth and well known to the Winnipeg public. Physically, the Canadian bore little resemblance to the Dane. At six feet one inch in height and 216 pounds, Taylor sported a freshly shaven head atop a lean muscular torso that, several years prior to the rise of Charles Atlas to fame, had earned the Canuck grappler the title of World’s Most Perfectly Developed Man. Still impressive, his physique was not, if one looked closely, as striking as it once had been. At thirty-six, Taylor was not a young man for his chosen vocation, nor was Martinson. Although not as thickly built as his counterpart, Taylor possessed rounder shoulders, larger biceps, and enormous forearms that testified to his ability to perform various feats of grip strength for the amazement of onlookers. On any given day, he could be seen walking about the city’s streets, squeezing a pair of racket balls that he carried continually in his pockets, ensuring that the tendons in his hands remained like steel.
Clothing also differentiated the Canadian from the Dane. Covering Taylor’s legs were wool tights, onto which were sewn padding to protect his knees. The tights, however, like his leather shoes, served a double purpose, allowing for sweat absorption and an unyielding grip once his legs were secured around their selected target. In spite of the marked differences in their appearances, the men shared one physical trait: a pronounced deformation of the external ear caused by repeated hard blows. Whether fully clothed or in their present state, this condition, medically termed traumatic auricular hematoma, more colloquially termed cauliflower ear, identified them as professional wrestlers. Over the course of sixty minutes and thirty seconds following the handshake, they would showcase their skills to the enthusiastic crowd that surrounded them in the convention hall.
When Paul Martinson and Jack Taylor met in Winnipeg’s Industrial Exhibition Building, they were participating in a form of cultural expression beloved, for a host of reasons, by thousands of people living in Manitoba. On a grander scale, it was an activity whose basic origins extended beyond the sparse veneer of time deemed fruitful by historians for study. Born deep in humankind’s paleolithic prehistory, wrestling has survived, in innumerable forms and in virtually all cultures, to the present day. That it has done so speaks to the widespread propensity for human beings to attach meaning to expressions of physicality that, at their core, necessitate the struggle of one person to gain mastery over another.3 This study, far more limited in both temporal and geographic scope, examines wrestling in Manitoba up to the early years of the Great Depression, with particular emphasis on the years after 1896. Although wrestling is my focus throughout, my aim is to illuminate the larger social context in which the activity took place. The study is therefore not merely an analysis of the sport itself but also an attempt, using wrestling as a lens, to garner a greater understanding of the values and attitudes held by people living in Manitoba, especially after 1896, when western Canada became a major destination for immigrants. The historical significance of a match in 1923 between a Dane and an Anglo-Canadian, refereed by a Scot, and staged in the west’s biggest and wildest city in front of a multicultural and multi-occupational crowd can be understood only by interrogating the deeper meanings attached to wrestling in the Prairies.
Two central factors make Manitoba a valuable and compelling place to situate a regional examination of wrestling. First, Manitoba was the first province in western Canada to enter into Confederation, receive a large number of settlers, and experience significant urbanization. As I will show, extensive settlement in the province occurred contemporaneously with a rising and widespread interest in sport in Canada. As the province grew from a sparsely populated region, whose financial base was largely linked to the dwindling fur and hide trade, into a bustling agricultural powerhouse with an increasingly diversified economy, so did sport, in multiple forms, emerge from the social margins to become relevant in many people’s lives. Accordingly, it is possible to trace the growth of both wrestling and Manitoba from their mutual infancy along parallel courses. Second, Manitoba is an ideal site for examining ideas related to wrestling and ethnicity because, more than central and eastern Canada, it saw the influx of settlers from many nations outside the Englishspeaking world. Concomitantly, in wrestling, because of its one-onone nature, ethnicity and race were far more apparent than they were in team sports, allowing for acute examination of the subject.
Although Manitoba’s sporting culture owed much to central Canada, it was also shaped by the peculiarities of western Canadian life, which included a larger proportion of non-English immigrants than in Ontario. This diversity, coupled with the fact that many immigrants were familiar with wrestling before arriving in Canada, makes Manitoba, through the lens of wrestling, an ideal location for investigating themes related to ethnic rivalry, nativism, racism, and assimilation. Since Winnipeg quickly emerged as the dominant metropolitan centre of the Prairies and the unchallenged economic, social, cultural, and transportation centre of Manitoba, it looms large in my study. I also examine wrestling in the province’s smaller population centres, but as in other matters Winnipeg was where the most events occurred and with the greatest frequency.[…]
Before the bell rings, let me show you around the canvas. The story of wrestling in Manitoba begins by exploring the nature of and cultural meanings associated with the wrestling and wrestling-related activities undertaken, first, by the Indigenous people who occupied the regions that would later constitute the province of Manitoba and, second, by the mixed-blood and European fur-trading cultures. Confederation, representing a distinct break from the past, saw the regrafting of an Anglo-Protestant culture with strong ties to Ontario onto the Prairies. The new settlers brought with them not only their own wrestling practices but also, more importantly, competing ideas (frequently class based but never universal to any one class) about the sport’s “appropriate” purpose in the new province. I also place wrestling’s growth within the framework of advances in transportation and communication technologies that, in addition to facilitating ties to culture in Ontario and Britain, initiated the development of links to American sporting culture. Building on these themes, I then tackle professional wrestling’s growth in Manitoba between 1896 and 1914, situating it within a public discourse that both extolled wrestling as a worthwhile physical, moral, and civic enterprise and condemned it for encouraging and showcasing inappropriate (and at times unscrupulous) behaviour. Next I consider wrestling in light of the remarkable demographic changes that occurred in the Prairies after 1896. Far more than in the past, ethnicity took on heightened significance in the sport as various groups, already acquainted with wrestling in their homelands, attached their own meanings to it. Although wrestling, as a commercial enterprise, often capitalized on ethnic divisiveness in the increasingly multicultural province, the chapter also illustrates its role in fostering community cohesion within particular ethnic groups in the province. I then shift the discussion from professional wrestling to amateur wrestling, which developed considerably in the seven years prior to 1914. Placed within the context of an expanding nation-wide amateur sporting movement and guided by the philosophical tenets outlined by the Young Men’s Christian Association, the chapter investigates amateur wrestling’s frequently ambiguous relationship with professional wrestling as well as its geographic, class, and ethnic composition during its formative years. Having covered the decade and a half bookending the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, I then tighten my hold to focus on wrestling during the Great War, neglected until relatively recently as a period for studying Canadian sport. I examine wrestling’s function in reinforcing masculine, militarist, and imperialist values as well as its position as a forum for challenging specific class-based stereotypes of professionalism. The decade after the First World War, coming as it did in the wake of unprecedented carnage and loss of life on European battlefields, marked an important new era for sport. Turning to the 1920s, I therefore tangle with professional wrestling and its adaptation to the changing values witnessed during the decade. I pay particular attention to professional wrestling as a site for capitalizing on mounting anti-“foreigner” sentiment, expanding consumer-based values, and the sport’s growing connection to the U.S. professional heavyweight wrestling market. Next I explore amateur wrestling’s continued growth during the 1920s, its expansion beyond its previously narrow class, ethnic, and geographic confines, and the continuities that persisted from the pre-Great War period because of ongoing adherence to a rigid amateur code. With the footlights ready to dim, I conclude by looking at professional wrestling’s final transformation into a form of melodramatic athletic entertainment within the context of emergent social and technological forces driving that change.
Wrestling has a long though largely unexplored history in Manitoba. It was a sport enjoyed by thousands of people from a variety of ethnic and occupational backgrounds who attached meaning to participating in matches, organizing clubs and tournaments, attending events, or otherwise keeping abreast of the latest developments in the mat game both in the province and in the larger world. [Thrashing Seasons] is a matside people’s history of the sport’s many hues and contours in western Canada’s oldest province.
We thank Clara Bachmann for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.
We thank S. Goldsborough for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.
Page revised: 15 September 2020