Each week we will look at either a specific time period or woman who changed the game and allowed female stars to shine. We also can’t shy away from some of the more uncomfortable aspects of the industry and the struggles these women went through so the women of today can shine as bright as they do.
The Early Years: Part Three
This week we will be focusing on Cora Livingston, a Women’s wrestler who became one of the most dominant and skilled performers in the industry. She would dominate all her competition for over fifteen years during the early 20th century.
Cora Livingston (1887/1889 – 22nd April 1957)
Cora Livingston is recognised as the first-ever Women’s World Champion in professional wrestling history. Other sources do disagree with this statement, but for right now that’s the line we are going with.
Cora Livingston was born sometime between 1887 and 1889. Like many children of that time period, Cora’s parents died while she was still young. She would be raised by nuns after being placed in a convent school. Livingston’s wrestling career began at the age of sixteen after joining the circus. It is believed that her debut was in 1905.
Livingston’s billed height was 5ft 5in while her billed weight was 138lb. She was trained by Dan McLeod, a Scottish Catch Wrestler who gave Frank Gotch his very first professional wrestling match. Dr Benjamin Roller, an American physician, football player and professional wrestler who’s first match was against Jack Carkeek, Laura Bennett (who she trained under in 1912) and Paul Bowser.
In 1908 Livingston would share headlining status with male wrestling champion Ernest Fenby at the Avenue Theatre in Detroit, Michigan and would be billed as Championess Wrestler of the World and was willing to take on all challengers which resulted in young women lining up to face her. She would defeat Florence Hilton, in around five minutes, during this time and become highly respected, not just as a woman, but a legitimate fighter and would have an extensive article written about her by the Detroit Free Press. Cora 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” and would make the point that “women in 1908 played basketball or bowled, but that wrestling was the best exercise of them all.” Livingston refused to hear anything bad about her sport or that it was unwomanly.
During this year she would face Bertha Stark and defeat her in around three minutes and a female wrestler by the name of Miss A Smith would take Cora to the limit in a fourteen-minute bout that was described as brutal and resulted in Cora being disqualified due to foul tactics. It was reported in the Cincinnati Enquirer that Livingston was “cautioned by the referee for using “Maud” tactics, and lost through using the stranglehold after being warned.”
Also in 1910, the police would interrupt a match between Cora and Lou Harris who were fighting at the Empire Theatre in New York City in front of 1,200 excited fans. When the police showed up Harris was in the process of trying to gorge out Livingston’s left eye to the cheers of and approval of the crowd. Cora, Lou and another female wrestler by the name of Daisy Johnston were arrested on the orders of Detective Charles O’Donnell and charged with disorderly conduct he later explained: “The show was offensive and the women, especially Miss Livingston, roughed it considerably.” The Chicago Tribune declared the fight to be “the most disgraceful thing of the kind ever seen in Chicago” and also stated that Harris “was the crowd favourite because Cora displayed some rather unsportsmanlike conduct, including biting, clawing, and eye-gouging.”
An extract from the Pittsburgh Press dated 8th September 1910.
“Two thousand men and boys tried to stop a wrestling match at the Academy of Music last night between Cora Livingston, Champion Woman Wrestler of the World, and May Nelson, of the South Side. Kicking and gouging in the match enraged the spectators and their shouts could be heard for a square. Eight policemen under Captain John Dean were called to prevent a riot.”
“Soon after the match began Cora Livingston began kicking her adversary and groups in the audience shouted to Referee Archie Parker to stop the contest. When Miss Nelson was prostrate on the mat the champion struck her several hard blows. Excitement in the audience reached fever heat. While hundreds of men yelled themselves hoarse, the women fought viciously. Hair pulling was included with other rough tactics. Those in the front row attempted to climb onto the stage, but were pulled back. When the match had been on 13 minutes the theater management ordered the wrestlers off the stage and tried to pacify the mob. This did not suffice, for Miss Livingston had offered to throw any woman wrestler in the city. Frank Serry, a referee taken to the theater by Miss Nelson, was substituted for Parker and the match went on.”
On 28th October 1910, Cora Livingston defeated Laura Bennett in a champion vs champion match. World vs Women championship match, the best two-of-three falls at the Century Theatre in Kansas City, Missouri. Cora became the first official Women’s Champion of the World also known as the Undisputed Women’s World champion. She would go on to defend and defeat Laura Bennett in 1912, on 25th November 1913 and again in 1914.
In 1913 she married fellow wrestler/wrestling promoter Paul Bowser, she also worked many shows with a Carl Livingston and it is believed she may have actually been married to him. It is still to this day unclear if she married one or both of them, but she would go on, after retirement, to help Paul Bowser as the promoter of his territories and help to train other women.
In 1919 Livingston wrestled May Wilson in Richmond, Virginia, a place that had never seen two women do battle in the squared circle at this point. The Richmond Times Dispatch reported, “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.”
On their return to Richmond for their highly anticipated rematch in 1920, the Richmond Times Dispatch described Cora and May “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 match was hyped as “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, Wilson would have to drop out and be replaced by Grace Brady. They had previously fought each other with Brady almost taking the belt from Livingston. 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.” This time Cora beat Grace, but it wasn’t an easy fight.
Cora was still the champion in 1922 and it was stated in several newspapers at the time that “Notwithstanding many strenuous years spent in the wrestling game, Cora Livingston is still the cleverest of female grapplers.”
It is unclear of when she retired but it is believed to have been between 1925 and 1935. Cora Livingston retired as Women’s World Champion with a 22-year reign, having never lost the belt; this fact is contradicted by other sources who claim she lost the belt to Virginia Mercereau in 1923 and won it back the same year.
Grace Brady, Lou Harris, May Nelson, Margaret Dunn, Nellie Ludrig, May Kelley and Hazel Parker were other notable names Livingston wrestled over her almost 30 year career.
Other influential women in the industry would go on to hold the Women’s World Championship belt, including June Byers and Mildred Burke, someone Cora imparted knowledge on and supported by being in attendance at her matches.
Cora Livingston died on 22nd April 1957. In March of 2004 her Women’s World title belt from 1910 was sold on eBay for $1,677.00 USD.