Facts within a Myth

by Steve Yohe


Birth, Family and Nekoosa

Robert Herman Julius Friedrich, who later took the famous alias of Ed "Strangler" Lewis, was born on June 30, 1890 in the Wisconsin town of Sheboygan Falls.[1] Lewis, during his lifetime, always claim that he weight 12 pounds at birth.

His parents were Jacob Friedrich (b. December 28, 1858) and Mary (Molly or Molla Gueldenzopf or perhaps Amelia Gueldenzopf) Friedrich (b. March 22, 1866). Jacob was born in Deinheim Hessen, Germany and came to the United State when he was 23 years old to make central Wisconsin his home. He had worked as a farmer, woodcutter, and butcher but, by the time of Robert's birth, was working in the finishing room of the Nekoosa-Edwards Paper Company. On February 1, 1912, at age 53, Jacob took a job on the Nekoosa police force and stayed employed for 28 years. He weight 200 pounds and had a reputation as a strong man, but it seems that Robert resembled his Mother Molly more than his dad. Molly weight almost as much as Jacob and was well proportioned. At church picnics, she would enter and win the young woman's races. She was a hard worker and the backbone of the family.[2] The two had married on September 26, 1888 in the town of Port Edwards.

Robert, who went by the name Bob, was the third of five children: Fredrich (b Oct. 1887), Minnie (b July 1889), Hattie (b Jan. 1893) and Mary/Emily (b Oct, 1994). Seems the family left Sheboygan Falls, possible to Nekoosa, Wisconsin, but returned in 1894. In 1895, they returned to Nekoosa, where Bob spent most of his childhood. The actual home may have been four miles north/east of Nekoosa in the small town of Port Edwards.

Nekoosa was a village of about 1,000 people but it had a large paper mill where the father had found work. It was in Nekoosa that Bob attended public school. He grew big and active, doing all the things young boys do. As time passed, he started coming home with his clothes torn and dirty. This was a problem because it was costing money that family had very little of to waste. One day, Jacob was walking by the schoolyard and found his son wrestling just about every boy in the school. His patience was thin by that time, so he grabbed Bob and beat him in front of all his classmates. Bob was so embarrassed he refused to return to the public school, so he was sent to a German Lutheran school. He later was confirmed in that faith.

Bob played basketball, track and wrestled, but his favorite sport was baseball and during the summers he played on the town's team. One Saturday they played a game in Pittsfield, Wisconsin. They won the game but were short on money for the trip home (now that's the story, but I think Pittsfield is only 19 miles from Nekoosa and it seems like a plan that needed time to execute.). In the area was a local wrestler named George Brown, who had trained with the great Fred Beell. The baseball manager arranged for young Friedrich to wrestle Brown at the local opera house with admission being 50 cents.

Bob claimed to know only one hold, the bear hug, but Brown fainted, giving Friedrich his first pro win. The gate was $60 and Bob's cut was $15.

Around that time, Lewis claimed that the local barber, a Carson Burke, gave him a book on human physiology and this studying the human body, would later give him an advantage in the wrestling ring. (He was the Gorilla Monsoon of his time.) Burke also gave Bob the Spaulding guide to wrestling. He used this knowledge to twist the bodies of every boy in the neighborhood. This brought a line of complaining parents to the door of the Friedrich home and Robert was once again in trouble.

At around 11 years old, Bob got a job as a water boy for a construction gang working on widening the road from the power plant to the paper mill. Near where the men rested was a narrow bridge or log going over a large stream or river. The men would get exercise by throwing each other off the bridge into the water. Their fun was ruined when the water boy started throwing all the grown ups in to the pond. The boy's reputation grew with the locals and many times farmers would stop their work to watch him throw large men around. When he wasn't wrestling the crew, Bob played watchdog, looking out for the boss, as the crew napped the afternoons away under shade trees.

When not toiling for the construction crew, Bob worked in a store for a Mrs. Gutheil making deliveries and lifting heavy loads on to farm wagons. Stories were told of Bob picking up 280 pound barrels of salt and carrying three bag of flower at a time. This Mrs. Gutheil had two or three other young girls working in the store, so Bob took to exercising in the back yard near a window in the hope of impressing them.

During this period, stories have Bob being trained by his Nekoosa neighbor, Fred Bentz. I think, with no proof, that he also had made contact with famed Wisconsin wrestler Fred Beell.

Every Saturday, Bob would work out with a 220 pound farmer named Albert Coon. Friedrich pined Coon over and over, but the big guy never stopped coming back for more. Then came a lucky day when Albert got a pin over Bob. After that Coon stopped training and wouldn't wrestle his friend. After Lewis became a great star, he would beg his pal for a rematch but Coon refused…. happy with his one victory over a champion wrestler.

Wrestling was the sport of farmland America. Roads were hard to run on, gyms were rare and baseball took too many people, but Farmers could always find someone to wrestle. A whole cultural ritual surrounded shoot "catch as catch can" wrestling in the mid-west and other areas of the country. Sundays were usually days off and local picnics were places for young men to gather and prove themselves. Bob was always a star at these events.

A major challenger to Friedrich was an older and larger boy named Art Crowns. They were friends, but a great rivalry formed between the two. A professor for a local school set up an official style match between the two, which Bob won after a throw almost cause Art to bit off his tongue. A few days later, Bob had to fight Art's brother, George. Bob won that encounter too. The two Crown boys grew up to become attorneys in Wisconsin.

Besides wrestling, Bob's next interest was young girls and he dated a Sioux woman named Maude Brooks for a period of time. It seems she also taught Bob a few holds.

Bob was good natured and likeable, with his reputation as a local champion growing by the week. In the winter, another such champion, Fred Abel of Madison Wisconsin, challenged Robert. The match was set up at the local opera house. The hospitable Bob met Abel at the train station and introduced him to the locals. This helped the gate. Bob won the match, but most thought the match looked like a "friendly" affair.[2a]

A few months later, another wrestler named "Lindsey", from Neelsville, challenged Bob. Lindsey had a cauliflower ear and wasn't nearly as friendly as the first wrestler. Lewis claimed the match was a two-hour draw that had Lindsey riding him the whole time rubbing his face into the mat. My feelings are that Lindsey was a pro working under an alias, trying to take advantage of the local gamblers. The people in Nekoosa formed the opinion that Bob had "worked" a least one of the two matches and felt betrayed.

His friends' reaction hurt and offended Friedrich, so he decided to leave Nekoosa. Bob's Uncle Emil was a superintendent at a paper mill in Rhinelander, Wisconsin and offered Robert a job and it was accepted.

>> Continue to CHAPTER 2


  • 1 The story of Ed Lewis, as reported in Newspapers, books and article, is a myth created by Lewis himself, his long time manager Billy Sandow, wrestling promoters and uninformed sports writers thru the years. In the very first sentence we can already find three controversial statements. The first is the spelling of Lewis's true name. The second is the place of birth and the third is the birth date.

    It is my plan to use newspaper reports of matches to form my base for this paper. I feel that reports of matches, written on the day of the event, have more credibility than stories of events told by the wrestlers themselves years later or stories that have been told and passed on by people who were not present.

    In the late 1940's, Lewis attempted to write his biography using a writer/collaborator going by the name Steve McPherson. We don't actually know the identity of this Steve McPherson. During Lewis's life, he was in contact with at least two men using that name. One was a sports editor of a newspaper in Bellingham…the other was a minor promoter of wrestling in Phoenix. McPherson may have been one of these men, we don't know.

    The godfather of all wrestling historians, J Michael Kenyon, gave me a photocopy of THE UNFINISHED LEWIS BIOGRAPHY years ago. The paper is basically just of bunch of unfinished notes and stories. Some of it is out of chronological order. In my view, it's a mess, but it is the closest thing we had to Lewis's own words and it tells stories about parts of his early life we can find in no other place. In forming the early portion of the personal live of Lewis in this paper, I'll be trying to organize and make sense out of this biography. Someone else, who is better with word and can spell, may have better equipped to the job, but I work cheap.

    So back to the three controversial statements:

    Ed Lewis true name has been misspelled in number of ways. Fredericks, Friedrick, Fredrich, etc. On legal and family documents it's spelled Robert Friedrich or Robert Herman Julius Friedrich.

    In many reports, most of them from a late date, you'll find Nekoosa Wisconsin listed as being the place of birth of Robert Friedrich. In reports from the actual town of Nekoosa, you'll find them saying he was born at Sheboygan Falls. I can't prove anything but it's my feeling that the family lived in Nekoosa, but the birth took place in Sheboygan Falls because mother Molly Friedrich's family lived in that city and she might have been looking for support. There also was a medical hospital or clinic located there. Later in Bob's life, his father and brother would both travel to Sheboygan Falls for medical treatment. After the birth, Molly returned to Nekoosa. In 1894, the family lived in Sheboygan Fall for a period before they returned to Nekoosa in 1887, where Friedrich (Lewis) spent most of his childhood. I would consider this statement a theory and not taken as fact. It also may be true that the Friedrich family actually lived four and half miles north/east of Nekoosa in Port Edwards. On Lewis' passport application of June 15, 1923, he listed Port Edwards as his place of birth. The best information on this topic can be found in NATIONAL WRESTLING ALLIANCE: THE UNTOLD STORY OF THE MONOPOLY THAT STRANGLED PRO WRESTLING by Tim Hornbaker (page 62).

    By the time Bob Friedrich got to Chicago in 1913, he was billing himself as being born in 1891. He was being pushed as a young man and I think they dropped a year to fit. For the rest of his career it remained mostly 1891, but legal papers all seem to agree on 1890. Reports from Nekoosa also say 1890.
  • 2 NATIONAL WRESTLING ALLIANCE: THE UNTOLD STORY OF THE MONOPOLY THAT STRANGLED PRO WRESTLING by Tim Hornbaker states that Jacob Friedrich was born on December 28, 1858 at Deinheim Hessen, Germany and immigrated to America. Molly (Molla) Gueldenzopf was born in Saxon-Wiemer, Germany on March 23, 1866 and traveled with her family to Sheboygan Falls in 1882. The two were married on September 26, 1887 under the Lutheran faith.
  • 2a Fred Abel is the name used in Lewis' UNPUBLISHED BIOGRAPHY. Historian Dan Anderson thinks this person is Albert "Babe" Abel, who was born in 1889 in Madison and died in the same city in 1967. He rarely wrestled outside of Madison, and didn't seem to have much success.