Facts within a Myth

by Steve Yohe


1919 and the Battle For The Title

In January of 1919, Lewis went to Chicago for a few matches and to train for his comeback. In February he wrestled in Boston and Norfolk (beating John Olin on the 12th).

Jack Curley then got busy booking his three available stars to a series of matches. Over the next year, Curley would book the three in a number of match, exchanging wins and loses, which were designed to keep all of them strong and give meaning to every match.

Lewis signed to meet Stecher in Chicago on March 3, 1919. He completed his training for the match in Chicago.

Before he met Lewis, Stecher was matched with Wladek Zbyszko on February 25 at Sioux City. The two had wrestled a draw on November 26, in Madison Square Garden for the United War Campaign, that was so bad that fans were throwing fruit at the wrestlers. The result at Sioux City was worst. The match was billed for the World's Wrestling Championship and the PR promised the match would not end in a draw. So… the match ended in a two hour draw. At one point, Zbyszko laid flat on his stomach and Stecher was unable to turn him as Wladek winked at ringsiders. Fans were yelling "fake" by the hour mark. The end saw the fans rioted and chased Stecher, Wladek and Jack Curley back to the dressing room where they could be protected by an army of police. They were later escorted from the arena under police protection. The next day, Zbyszko was awarded a decision, but no one in Sioux City cared. They wanted wrestling matches with over 175 pound performers banned in the city.[73]

Curley's ideas of making pro wrestling like boxing with decisions, ended that day. The fans had spoken and they wanted clean finishes with winners and losers. The decision rule remained on the books, but it was rarely used. Jack Curley and pro wrestling had learned a lesson.

The conditions for the March 3 Stecher/Lewis match called for a two out of three fall match, but if no falls were recorded in a hour and a half the match would became a one fall affair. The public also was promised a winner or the admission price would be returned.

The match that took place was faster and more entertaining than anticipated by the 7,000 fans (close to a sellout) that paid $16,000 to see the match. The contest was mostly stand up for the first 30 minutes, with Lewis back on the defense. Stecher then applied a grapevine and took Ed to the mat. Ed got to his feet but two minutes later was taken down again. At 47 minutes, Stecher turned a grapevine into a double wristlock and got behind Lewis, but Ed regained his feet with the two pulling on each other standing until the hour mark. They stayed standing for most of the next 30 minute but Lewis was more willing to mix than in past matches. At one point Ed was taken down again but managed to get behind Stecher. But nothing happened. They were on the mat as the timekeeper announced the hour and a half mark. Lewis broke a Stecher half nelson and bobbed to his feet. The match then speeded up with Lewis at times taking the offense. At two hours, Stecher went for the scissor but Ed got his arm between Joe's legs and broke the hold. What followed was the highlight of Lewis' career. Lewis backheeled Joe and as the two fell backward, Ed put Joe into a flying headlock. Stecher struck the mat with a loud thump. Lewis twisted the headlock and put his legs around Joe moving for the pin. Stecher attempted to squirm and bridge out but he was locked in, and Lewis had his shoulders on the mat. The referee counted the pined.[74]

This was the first clean loss in Stecher's career and one of Lewis's biggest victories. The win put him on the same level as Stecher and proved he could beat anyone in the sport.

The result also shows Jack Curley's booking power, and it showed a promoter taking control of storylines from the egos of wrestlers and managers. It was a good match and booked for the benefit of everyone. Stecher's willingness to put over Lewis just gave him an opponent he could make big money with for the rest of his career.[75]

In January Earl Caddock had been admitted to a hospital in France with what was called influenza. His health was failing him and he had lost weight. He had been in officer school, but on graduation he refused his commission and was order home. His orders were cancelled on January 20, and he was sent back to France to train the Second Army Athletic Team for competition in the A.E.F. championships.

On February 21, word reach the States that Caddock was going to retire from pro wrestling and take up farming when he did return from Europe. On March 3, Jack Curley claimed the world title for Wladek Zbyszko, who was coming off a win over Stecher and would soon defeat Lewis. On April 1, Caddock's manager Gene Malady denied the reports of any retirement and said Earl planed to defend his title on his return, but by then Zbyszko was being billed as champion.

March 7 saw Wladek and Lewis wrestle a two and a half draw in Norfolk, VA with the title on the line.

Three days later on March 10, Zbyszko cheapen Lewis's win over Stecher by defending his title against Joe and beating him in a 2/3 falls match. Stecher won the first fall in 22:25 with a scissor and armhold pin. Wladek won the second fall in 2:14:25 with a reverse body hold and then pined Stecher in 14:03 to win the third fall.[76]

On March 21, Lewis was booked in another title match with Zbyszko in Madison Square Garden, NYC. Once again, the promoter announced that the gate would be returned to the fans if there wasn't a clean finish, and the Garden was jammed with the biggest crowd sense the beginning of the war. The claim was that 5,000 people were turned away.

Lewis was the aggressor throughout and was the favorite with the crowd until a groggy Wladek picked up Ed and threw him to the mat so violently that the Strangler laid in a heap, exhausted and defeated. Zbyszko pined him with a simple body hold in 1:34:36.[77] With this win, Zbyszko took away Lewis's Olin world title, which Sandow had always claimed for Ed. Everyone thought it was a great match.

Lewis then beat old rivals from his Lexington days, Gus "Americus" Schoenlin (March 26, Norfolk) and Dr Ben Roller (April 1, Harrisburg),[78] the only difference was the wins were routine and in two straight falls.

After beating John Olin on April 4, 1919 in Kansas City[79], Lewis announced his engagement with Dr. Ada Scott Morton. He said the wedding would take place following a rematch with Zbyszko on April 28 in Chicago.

The windy city saw Lewis lose another match to Olin line champion Wladek Zbyszko, only this time it was reported that Zbyszko had out classed The Strangler with superior strength and conditioning, pinning Lewis with a body scissors in 2:14:09. The match was held under AWA rules which meant that the match was 2/3 falls but reverted to a one fall match if no pin took place in the first two hours. Zbyszko out worked Lewis from the bell and there was no fluke or luck to the win.[80]

May 1 saw negotiations start for a late May rematch, in Omaha, with Joe Stecher. Lewis pulled out of the match when promoter Gene Melady demanded that Lewis and Stecher both post a $1,500 bond which would be forfeited if the match didn't go to a finish, two falls out of three. The people of Omaha still remembered the July 4, 1916 disaster and want some insurance that Lewis would be willing to wrestle this time. Billy Sandow blocked the arrangements, after the Stechers agreed. The plan seemed to be to have the match take place on the anniversary of the mess, July 4.

Lewis had his own plans. On May 8, 1919 he married long time girlfriend, Dr Ada Scott Morton, at Mercer, Pennsylvania. The event took place the same day as the divorce from Dr. Andrew W. Morton became official. The new Mrs. Friedrich was a well know surgeon with practices in San Francisco and San Jose. She had studied under the famous Mayo brothers and took graduate studies at the Royal Collage of Physicians and Surgeons at London, England. She still attended clinics annually in the East, England and France. She owned a large estate a few miles from San Jose and land in Southern California. By the time of the marriage she had already built a large gym on the property for Lewis. It had weights, a ring and a swimming pool, all enclosed by glass. She seemed to enjoy the idea that she was Lewis's trainer and there was an electric piano next to the ring because she believe training should be done with music. Billy Sandow didn't seem to like her much. Stories are that Billy later put a cause in Ed'd contract forbidding any more marriages. Both Ed and Ada were dedicated to their professions and both continued working.

Joe Stecher re-won his world title on May 9, beating Wladek Zbyszko in one hour and forty-eight minute using his famous body scissors at Louisville. The match took place the day before the forty-fifth running of the Kentucky Derby, with 50,000 sports fans in town. He took whatever claim Wladek had, including the Olin line world title.

The real world champion, Earl Caddock, sailed into New York harbor on May 23. His wife was sick and he used the situation to persuade the army to allow his return. The Army had plans for him, one idea was to have him serve in President Wilson's personal guard, but he refused everything. The pre-war patriot had been turned into a post-war cynic. He told reporters that he would only fight again if the U.S. was invaded and never again on any other nation's territory. It was a view held by many soldiers. He was discharged by the US Army on June 1, 1919. He traveled to Walnut Iowa to see his wife and new born child. He then claimed his old title and began training to defend it.

The story believed by most wrestling writers, is that Caddock's post-war performances were poor because he was weaken from being gas in France. This may be true but he had many great matches during this period. Some over two hours performed at a fast pace. After his return from the war he talked about his health, but didn't single out the gassing incident. He talked a lot about poor food and he did suffer from influenza in January 1919. Influenza was a major disease during the war, and had killed over 50,000 soldiers. Also, it's been claimed that Caddock, as a child, suffered from tuberculosis. Tuberculosis is a very serous problem, which would have been hard to treat before 1900. Today doctor use months of anti-biotic treatment in isolation to subdue it and anti-biotics didn't exist until World War II. Caddock probably had some other type of respiratory illness, possibility asthma. Either way, these were illnesses that would not go away and perhaps the gassing or unhealthy conditions of a war zone caused a relapse. From press clipping, there is not any indication of any deterioration in his workrate. Storylines in some match were that he wore down, but that was believable plotting considering just about everyone outweighed him by 30 to 40 pounds. These matches were works, not shoots, Caddock had many major victories and had great matches after World War I. In fact, his good reputation as a wrestler and worker came from this period. Caddock, himself, was on record saying he didn't feel like himself for almost a year after his return from France.[83]

Lewis was signed for a Chicago match with Wladek Zbyszko on May 19. During May, Lewis worked in the training camp of Jack Dempsey. Dempsey was readying himself for his title winning victory over Jess Willard on July 4. Boxers in the early part of the 20th century usually had a wrestler in camp to help train. Dempsey and Lewis develop a friendship. Dempsey himself was a good wrestler and remained a part of the wrestling business long after his boxing career was over. His manager was the same Jack Kearns that promoted the Lewis/Wladek match in San Francisco back on June 5, 1917.

The May 19 1919 Lewis/Zbyszko match was one of their best. Wladek won the first fall in 1:36:52 with his reverse body lock. The pole looked the master during the fall, and Lewis looked spent. With defeat staring him in the face, Lewis crawled through the ropes for the second fall with a determination that could not be denied. A series of headlocks led to a Wladek defeat in 48:35. Lewis went after the giant Pole in a vicious third fall and with the use of another headlock pined Wladek in 12:56. Lewis claimed the world title because of the night's win and the win over Stecher in Chicago. The match drew 6,000 fans and $9,000.[84]

On June 11, 1919, Lewis returned to Omaha, for the first time sense the now famous five hour draw with Stecher, to again wrestle the young star Jim Londos. Lewis took the first fall in 1:34:45 using the headlock. Londos hurt his neck, but returned to finish the match. Londos carried the fall, getting several dangerous holds and nearly pinning Lewis twice, but finally succumbed to another headlock in 17:30. Londos, out weighed by 40 pounds, gave Lewis one of his hardest matches and didn't lose any fan support. Lewis returned to San Jose to train for his next big match. [85]

It was not by chance that the same promoter, booked the same two wrestlers, in the same city, on the same day in July. Pro wrestling and everyone connected with it was looking for vindication of the July 4, 1916 mess. Stecher had promised the people of Omaha another match with Ed "Strangler" Lewis, and on July 4, 1919 the promise was fulfilled. The famous 1916 match, would, at last, have a finish. Gene Malady signed Lewis and Stecher on June 21 and, to insure the fans a battle from start to finish, it was made a "winner takes all" match. Pro wrestling had gone through a lot in the three years, and like All Japan wrestling in 1989, it learned that fans need clean finishes.[86]

The match took place at the Omaha Auditorium, which was equipped with new larger seats and a cooling system to insure the comfort of the fans. The arena attendance was a sold out 5,000 fans as their hero Joe Stecher, who had never actually pined the Strangler, entered the ring. There was three men in the ring claiming the world title, Lewis and Stecher plus the true world champion, referee Earl Caddock.

Lewis tried repeatedly to get his headlock around Stecher, but was unable to get a pin. Twice Caddock was forced to break the hold after Lewis dropped down into a strangle. Several times Stecher just broke the hold. The post war Stecher had developed new upper body strength and he showed improvement in the use of arm holds. Several times he had Ed in dangerous positions from which he was barely able to wiggle free. At no time did the Strangler threaten Stecher. Three times Stecher had Lewis almost pinned, but the sweaty wrestler was able to slip away. At one hour and 47 minutes, Joe caught Lewis in the body scissor with a wrist lock to get the pin and first fall. The second fall was also won by Joe using the same hold in 14 minutes. So Stecher got his hand raise by Caddock and took revenge for July 4, 1916 by winning two straight falls over The Strangler.[87]

Putting over Stecher took a lot of heat off Lewis in the Midwest, but in their eye he would always remain the villain.

Lewis seemed to spend the rest of July into October in San Jose with his new wife. On Aug. 19, he lost a handicap match to Jim Londos in San Francisco. He agreed to pin both Dante Petroff and Londos in two hour but only pined Petroff in 1:15:32. Londos lasted the rest of the time limit, so it was considered a exhibition loss for Ed. So once again we find Lewis going out of his way to put over Londos.[88]

In September, Lewis was at his wife's ranch or orchard near Santa Ana, California, when an intruder pulled a gun on him. Lewis took the gun away and then spanked the man before sending him on his way.[89] In October he was training at the gym in San Jose with Dick Daviscourt for another match with Stecher in New York City.[90] Ed was doing double duty because around this time Dr Ada became pregnant.

On October 10, 1919, the Cincinnati Reds defeated the Chicago White Soxs to win the 1919 World Series. The "worked" series would lead to a national scandal with a number of players banned from the Major Leagues. Authorities clamped down on anti-gambling laws in most large cities. The major promoters realized that pro wrestling, a worked sport, was vulnerable to prosecution and would have to survive by being entertainment and clean itself of the idea of using gambling to make a buck.

Leading up to November of 1919, Jack Curley announced that he was going to promote a series of matches, with no time limits, to decide, once and for all, the true world champion. The three major title claimants, Ed Lewis, Joe Stecher, and Wladek Zbyszko would meet in a double elimination tournament with the winner getting an undisputed title match with Earl Caddock in Madison Square Garden. The first match would be between Joe Stecher and Ed "Strangler" Lewis on November 3 in the Garden.

The sold out Garden cheered the wrestlers as they entered the ring. Both wrestlers had gained strength during the war and Lewis had put on some weight. Lewis forced the action at the start and threw Stecher around the ring roughly, but Joe was too agile to get an effective grip on him. Lewis repeatedly floored Stecher, but the farm boy bounced up as soon as he hit the carpet. At the 20 minute mark, Stecher got Lewis in a head scissor and almost got a count but Lewis wriggled free. Lewis took a lot of punishment from a Stecher toe hold, but his great strength didn't let him down as he kicked out and almost threw Stecher out of the ring. Twice Ed applied his headlock and the second brought Joe to the mat with the crowd yelling for a pin, but the champion twisted free. At the hour mark both wrestlers began to tire. Stecher tried some jujitsu throws, but Lewis refused to be caught unaware. Lewis took the offence and twice applied the headlock with his arm clutched around his opponent's head like a steel band. But the hold was broken and Stecher raped his legs around his opponent like a grapevine. The two crashed to the mat, with Lewis slowly turned on his back. He bridged to fight off the eventual but Stecher clinched both of his wrists as his knees rode the Strangler's shoulders to the mat with the weight of his own body. The Joe Stecher win lasted 1:31:25.[91]

Joe Carroll Marsh was the last of the Farmer Burns group that once ruled pro wrestling. His real name seemed to be George M. Marsh (also know as Joe Carroll or Ole Marsh). Marsh was one of the men who claimed to be the manager of Frank Gotch. In 1909 he was promoting wrestling in Seattle and engaged in a wrestling war with Jack Curley. In 1910, he was indicted by authorities as being part of the Maybray Gang. This gang was a nation wide group of swindlers that scammed people by fixing horse races, boxing and even wrestling matches. Marsh pleaded guilty and served a year in Leavenworth prison. Much of his problems he blamed on Curley, who had moved on to New York City and bigger things. In 1919, he was managing Marin Plestina, the last of Farmer Burns's good heavyweight wrestlers. Plestina was big and could wrestle, but nothing on his record makes him seem like a superstar hooker. He lost major matches to Stecher (3-25-14) and Caddock (12-1-15), early in their careers when a true shoot was possible, and later he proved nothing in matches with John Pesek and Jim Londos. He did have an early win over Lewis, but it seemed to everyone like a worked match.

In 1919, Marsh was making a lot of noise in the press claiming that there was a wrestling trust composed of Curley, Sandow, Melady and the Stechers controlling the sport and all were refusing to meet Plestina, who swore he never work a dishonest match. He exposed the worked nature of the sport under Curley and gave away future results and storylines. Marsh was friends with Bert Collyer, who published a racing publication called COLLYER"S EYE, so Marsh had a forum for his exposé. Marsh also flooded the major newspapers with letters exposing the sport while claiming Plestina could defeat all the title claimants in one night. At one point, March revealed that Curley was going to run a tournament and the final would be Caddock verses Stecher, with Stecher winning. None of his talk had much of an effect in 1919 but it embarrass Curley and the other promoters. These reports were in the newspapers as Lewis prepared for his second tournament match, this time with Wladek Zbyszko in Boston on November 27.

Wladek, after losing his title claim, seemed to be on the down side. Besides losses to Stecher and Lewis, he was upset by John Pesek on June 14, 1919 at Gordon, NB. Pesek, who would rival Caddock as the best pound for pound hooker in history, beat Zbyszko with a wrist lock in 2:03:15. Going into the Boston match, Lewis seemed to be a big favorite.

The 6,500 fans crammed into Boston's Mechanie's Building witness a different result. Lewis was the aggressor through out the match, but after four attempts to put on the headlock, Zbyszko threw him and put him into a body hold with a head chancery to pin Ed in 38 minutes. The loss was Lewis's second in the tournament and he was eliminated.

Stecher won his return match with Caddock by pinning Zbyszko with a head scissors and wrist lock in 2:24:16 in Madison Square Garden on Dec. 8. Before meeting Caddock he also beat title claimants in John Olin (12-15-19 in Springfield) and John Pesek (1-16-20 at Omaha).

>> Continue to CHAPTER 14


  • 73 SIOUX CITY TRIBUNE February 25, 1919
  • 74 CHICAGO TRIBUNE March 4, 1919
  • 75 CHICAGO TRIBUNE March 4, 1919—Lewis and Stretcher split a purse of $7,200. Promoter in Chicago was actually billed as Jack Herman, who most likely worked for Curley. Quote by reporter Harvey T. Woodruff: "Lewis, by his victory, has placed himself in a position to earn big money in his profession. While not flashy in performance and while his defensive tactics may not always please the crowd, he showed a coolness and strength combined with am improvement since his last appearance here which will make him a most formidable opponent for Champion Earl Caddock when Uncle Sam releases the latter from service."
  • 76 CHICAGO TRIBUNE March 11, 1919
  • 77 NEW YORK TIMES March 22, 1919
  • 78 Lewis wrestled Ben Roller but I see no reason to write about every one of their matches. By April 1919, the record had Lewis winning the last ten matches in straight falls. In THE UNPUBLISHED LEWIS BIOGRAPHY, Lewis claimed every one of the Roller matches were shoots. If you want to believe that, go ahead.
  • 79 Beating John Olin was no longer a big deal. He had lost matches to Lewis (4 times), Wladek (3 times) and Caddock (twice). Olin's fluke win over Stecher had added up to many paydays. In 1922, Olin returned to his native country with a bank roll of $50,000. He settled down on a lovely estate with a new wife but in 1926 his luck ran out when he died after a heart attack. ON THE MAT AND OFF: MEMOIRS OF A WRESTLER by Hjalmar Lundin Page 135
  • 80 LINCOLN DAILY STAR April 29, 1919
  • 83 This section cannibalized from my EARL CADDOCK: "THE MAN OF A THOUSAND HOLDS" by Steve Yohe The Caddock quotes were from THE DES MOINES REGISTER May 31, 1919
  • 84 CHICAGO TRIBUNE May 19, 1919
  • 85 THE DES MOINES REGISTER June 12, 1919
  • 86 THE DES MOINES REGISTER June 22, 1919
  • 87 THE DES MOINES REGISTER July 5, 1919
  • 88 SAN FRANCISCO CRONICAL August 20, 1919
  • 89 OAKLAND CA TRIBUNE September 13, 1919
  • 90 OAKLAND CA TRIBUNE October 27, 1919
  • 91 NEW YORK TIMES November 4, 1919—The play by play of the match was stolen word for word from the Times. Lewis's record verses Stecher at that point was one win, four loses, and two draws.