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 Two
This week we will be continuing our journey through the early years of Women’s Wrestling, focusing on the early 20th century, looking at a variety of women who were very important and influential to Women’s wrestling. Not much is known about them but the things we do know are interesting to say the least. Conflicting stories and dates make finding these women and their accomplishments very difficult but I have tried my best to do this and make sure their stories are told.
Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?
Laura Bennett (19th January 1889 – 12th February 1968)
Laura Bennett was born on 19th January 1889 in Fort Scott, Kansas. Her mother Rosienelle was an accomplished women’s boxer and a vaudeville performer known as Nellie, who would retire in 1907 due to a late in life pregnancy. Laura had two sisters, Crystal and Alla, and two brothers, Clyde and Lorimer.
Laura was one of the Bennett sisters who would box, fence and wrestle each other as a vaudeville act, she would tour with her sister Crystal and her mother Nellie until her retirement.
It’s been recorded that Laura Bennett would win the Women’s World Championship title off of Alice Williams in 1901, at just age 12. Josie Wahlford would challenge for the title during this time in a losing effort, Laura Bennett retained the title on both occasions.
Sometime in the mid to late 1900s Laura Bennett would help train fellow women’s wrestler Cora Livingston.
Bennett would lose the title to Hazel Parker in Chicago, Illinois during 1906. On 30th October 1907 Laura Bennett would win back the Women’s World Championship. During this time she would also tour as part of “Miner’s Americas” and their advertisements would have a challenge stating a “$25 forfeit to all opponents she fails to throw in 15 minutes.”
Sometime in 1908 Mary Harris would defeat Laura Bennett for the Women’s World Championship. Bennett would defeat Mary Harris in 1909 to win back the Women’s World Championship. It was recorded that “She maintained her supremacy for two years and then had the ill luck to accept the challenge of Laura Bennett who pinned Mary in a long and vehement battle. Laura, who stood 5 feet 9 in height and weighed 190 pounds, was all muscle and all fight.” This would be her third and final title reign.
On 28th October 1910 *, Bennett would challenge Cora Livingston at the Century Theatre, Kansas City, MO. H.M. Donegan was the promoter at the time and had a belt made, possibly one of the first belts of its kind for a women wrestler. This belt would go on to be sold on eBay for $1,677.00 USD in March of 2004. The match was billed as a champion vs champion match. World vs Women. The winner would go on to be known as the Undisputed Women’s World champion.
If Bennett won she would receive $1,000 USD and the belt, she would go on to lose to Livingston in a best two-of-three match, one report stated “The Livingstone girl tore into the Bennett girl right from the start and pinned her in 12 minutes. Miss Bennett’s morale was shot to pieces by that fall. The second part of the match was no contest. Cora threw Laura in three minutes. When I say ‘threw’ I mean it. A half Nelson and crotch hold proved to be the Livingstone media for victory. Cora was recognized everywhere as the greatest female wrestler in the world.”
In 1912 Alla would join Laura and Crystal and begin to tour as the Three Bennett Sisters. She would lose a match to Cora Livingston for the Women’s World Championship belt that very same year.
In 1913 the Bennett Sisters would add two women, who where twins, who they trained and would act as honorary sisters and began being billed as the Five Bennett Sisters. That same year Laura would yet again challenge Cora Livingston, in a losing effort, for her Women’s World Championship belt on 25th November. She would also yet again challenge and lose a match to Cora Livingston for the Women’s World Championship belt in 1914.
On 10th October 1928 Laura would yet again lose a match to Cora Livingston, during this time she would continue to train women in wrestling and boxing until her retirement at the age of 44 in 1933.
In 1939 Laura would lose her sister Alla in a car accident, she was just 39 when she passed and was buried in Kansas. Laura Bennett married twice during her life but didn’t have any children; she did break the Guinness World record for parachuting from the highest altitude and most jumps by a woman later in life. She passed away at the age of 79 in 1968 and was survived by her sister Crystal. Crystal would have her own touring company called the Crystal Bennett’s Athletic Girls; she passed away at the age of 80 in 1973.
*dates here are contradictory depending on the source you read, some claim this match took place in 1912, 1913 and 1914.
Other Women of note:
Hazel Parker (Dates Unknown)
In 1906 Hazel Parker would win theWomen’s World Championship off of Laura Bennett during a match in Chicago, Illinois. Later that year she would lose the title to Cora Livingston, it was originally billed as the Featherweight Championship; this would be the first time the title would be referred to as the Women’s Champion of the World.
Mary Harris (Dates Unknown)
Mary Harris would win theWomen’s World Championship in 1907 from Lou Harris; she would lose the title to Laura Bennett on 30th October that same year. By 1908 she would yet again win back the belt from Bennett and would defend her title all over the North East of America including New York, Philadelphia, and Massachusetts before losing the belt again to Laura Bennett in 1909.
It is unknown what happened to Mary Harris after her defeat at the hands of Laura Bennett.
Masha Poddubnaya (days Unknown)
Masha Poddubnaya was born in Russia and is the wife of weightlifter and fellow wrestler Ivan Poddubny, who was born on 9th October 1871.
Poddubnaya is the first recorded European Women’s World Champion; she would win the title in 1889, going on to hold the belt six times between then and 1910. She was part of a circus troupe and was also billed as the Women’s World Heavyweight Wrestling Champion, inviting anyone to fight her for the title.
Masha would lose the title to Anette Verona, billed as the champion in Teplice, in modern day Czech Republic on 19th September 1908. At this point Teplice would have been a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
It is believed that the European Women’s World Champion is the same title that was held by Laura Bennett, but dates and information are hard to find.
Lou Harris (Dates Unknown)
She won the American Women’s title in Upstate New York on 15th August 1906. She would lose the belt to Mary Harris at some point in 1907.
Harris also challenged Cora Livingston for the title on the 18th and 20th January 1909 and 12th and 16th September 1911.