FRED BEELL: WISCONSIN WONDER AND
by Mark S. Hewitt
During his mat career, Fred Beell was variously billed as ‘the Marshfield Strong Boy’, ‘the Wisconsin Wonder’ and ‘the Whirlwind Midget’. Though short in stature he was a giant in the ring. Over his career, Beell held the middleweight, light-heavyweight and heavyweight titles. The latter albeit briefly. He was the last man to gain a victory over the legendary Frank Gotch. Beell’s legacy continues to this day, as the still widely used Beell Throw is named after him.
Beell started life in East Prussia, born in 1876. While still a toddler, his family immigrated to the USA, settling in Marshfield, WI. Marshfield was an agricultural railroad hub with mills and factories. In the late 19th century, the population was 2/3 German. Beell grew into a powerfully built and phenomenally strong athlete, although he never stood over 5’4 ½”. At fourteen he went to work in a lumber mill, and soon gained a reputation for his feats of strength. He also had a natural prowess for rough-and-tumble wrestling, relying on brute force and speed to dominate opponents.
In 1896, at 19 years of age, Beell engaged in his first professional wrestling match. A year later, he met defeat at the hands of veteran Evan ‘Strangler’ Lewis. The Strangler, a fellow Wisconsinite, was a former heavyweight champ and one of the pioneers of catch-as-catch-can style wrestling in North America. Beell was undaunted at this loss and continued taking on other locals around his home state. In Stevens Point, WI he defeated Martin Tollephson, winning two straight falls with strangleholds. Although banned under official Police Gazette rules, strangle and choke holds were part and parcel of catch-as-catch-can wrestling as practiced in the midwestern farm communities and mill and quarry towns. When the Spanish American War broke out, Beell enlisted in the Army and served overseas in Puerto Rico.
In 1899, Lewis took the ‘Marshfield Strong Boy’ under his wing, training him at his Ridgeway, WI farm, teaching him the fine points of catch wrestling. Harvey Parker, ‘the Little Demon’ a veteran barnstormer, heard about Beell and traveled to Marshfield to see just how good he was. Parker challenged for a match and was forced to concede twice to strangle holds. Duly impressed, Parker recruited Beell to travel the country with him, meeting all comers on the theater circuit. Parker also arranged side-bet contests for his young charge. These affairs were often held in private, with large amounts of money changing hands on the outcome. It was later stated that Beell engaged in more private money matches than any other wrestler of his era.
Parker took Beell east where he was matched with another up-and-comer called Americus (Gus Schoenlein), the local pride of Baltimore, MD. Americus’ former manager Charles Weiss was on a vendetta to find someone to soundly defeat him. He negotiated with Parker to have Beell do the job.
Arriving in Charm City, Beell kept a low profile and the few glimpses of the pint-sized youngster in his street clothes, presented a rather unimpressive sight. Americus agreed to wrestle him, as he’d already defeated two of Weiss’ challengers. Americus’ only stipulation was that his opponent weigh in at less than 160 lbs. Each camp posted a $500 side bet to bind the match. It would be a three-out-of-five-falls contest. Heavy betting was noted, as out-of-town sporting men, including several from the Badger State, flocked to Baltimore. Americus’ enthusiastic local supporters offered 3-to-1 odds in his favor. Weiss, himself, placed $5,000 on Beell to win.
The match took place on 12/29/1904 at the Germania Maennerchor Hall. The contest proved to be a fierce and grueling battle that lasted until after midnight. It took over two hours, but Beell pinned Americus for the required three falls. Parker and his crew cleaned up in the betting action.
Parker followed up this victory by issuing a challenge for heavyweight champion Tom Jenkins to meet Beell in a private contest for a thousand dollars a side. Arrangements were made for the pair, the nationally known Jenkins and the sawed-off, relatively unknown Beell to come to grips at Billy Elmer’s Gym in New York on 6/9/1905. NY Athletic Club wrestling instructor John J. O’Brien would be the referee and boxers Jack Munroe and Kid McCoy served as the timekeepers. About 60 guests, including former Wild West gunman and sportswriter Bat Masterson were invited to witness the fray. Masterson later described the match as “the roughest kind of wrestling…slam bang from the call of time.” (Marshfield News, 6/22/1905)
Jenkins had been told to hold nothing back and to make his opponent give up. Apparently, there was an old grudge between Parker and Jenkins and both sides were out for blood. One spectator remarked that Beell “looked a small boy beside the big and husky athlete.” (Buffalo Evening Times, 6/10/1905) The match commenced at 9:20 pm and from the jump there was absolutely no stalling. Both men were out to win. Beell weathered the storm of Jenkins’ attacks, escaping his grip with uncanny speed and dexterity. Beell launched his own offensive assaults and was able to maneuver his bigger adversary about the mat. One sportswriter, lucky enough to see the match, said, “…they began to roll about like a couple of battling dogs.” (ibid) Jenkins had a firm half Nelson locked on but Beell powered loose, knocked Tom off-balance, and used a lightningfast arm roll to flatten Jenkin’s massive shoulders to the canvas. They had been at it for two hours, 43 minutes and five seconds.
Following a brief rest, Jenkins returned with “the fire of battle” in his eye. He rushed Beell like a maddened bull, seized him, slammed him to the mat and pinned him; all in a minute’s time. Resuming for a final fall, Jenkins was still fired up and went after Beell hammer and tongs. Beell countered with an offense of his own but was overcome by Tom’s strength and experience. It took 25 minutes and 38 seconds, but Beell was thrown for the deciding fall. This bout went a long way in establishing the Wisconsin wrestler’s reputation. Newspapers across the country reported that the mighty Jenkins had been downed for a fall by a man half his size. Parker considered it worth the loss of the side bet by making Jenkins look bad and gaining nation-wide publicity for Beell.
It was all uphill for Beell as he hit the big-time, wrestling all the top-notch mat stars of his dayFarmer Burns, Charles Olson, Dr. B.F. Roller, Jim Parr and Dan McLeod, just to name a few. He was granted a title bout with heavyweight king Frank Gotch. The contest occurred at the Greenwall Theater in New Orleans, LA on 12/1/1906. In one of the greatest upsets in pro wrestling history, Beell beat the peerless Gotch, taking the second and third falls. Weights were announced as: Gotch-202, Beell-168. Charles Olson, himself a feared “shooter” handled the ref chores. After losing the opening fall, Beell slammed Gotch several times. One mix-up resulted in the champ crash-landing on his head. Badly stunned, he was an easy prey for a pinfall. Gotch was “dragged half-limp” to his dressing room (New Orleans Times-Democrat, 12/2/1906). Given extra time to recover, when he came back to the ring, Gotch appeared groggy and sported a big bruise over his left eye. Beell went after him “like a bulldog suddenly unchained” and pinned him with a ½ Nelson in less than a minute. (ibid) Beell was proclaimed “the champion catch-ascatch-can wrestler of America.”
The match remains a controversial subject. Gotch claimed that he lost on a fluke. Some speculated that he had been out of shape and tired out from touring about the country. Ed ‘Strangler’ Lewis went on record stating that Beell “didn’t really beat Gotch…no 165-pounder ever beat Gotch…That was a betting coupe…arranged by…Charles Olson…”* The Chicago Tribune reported that “considerable money changed hands on the result.” (Chicago Tribune, 12/2/06) Billy Quinn, serving as Beell’s manager and described as “a wealthy young sportsman of Kansas City” was on hand with almost unlimited money to bet. He even stood at the front door of the venue and covered every wager at even odds.
Mike Chapman, the premier Gotch biographer, opined, “One seems justified in assessing that he did lose legitimately to Beell…anyone who ever wrestled knows it is possible to suffer a head injury like the one Gotch says took place…Such things do happen during a long career. That it could have happened to Gotch is probable, it is also understandable that others looking at it from afar, could see it as a ‘worked’ match. And perhaps it was-the truth is lost in the midst of time.” (The Life and Legacy of Frank Gotch/Mike Chapman, 2008) Whatever the case, Gotch reclaimed his crown from Beell sixteen days later in Kansas City, MO before a large crowd and would retire with it undefeated.
Beell continued an active wrestling schedule around the country through 1916, the year he unsuccessfully ran for Wood County sheriff. His last recorded bouts were in 1919, appearing in Marshfield and nearby towns. Beell was an avid hunter, trapper and fisherman and spent much of his time in the outdoors. In 1921 he took parttime employment as a relief police officer. Beell often served as the referee for local matches and in 1923 he came out of retirement for a special exhibition bout with his cousin Herman
‘Yuckster’ Witt. In his role as policeman, Beell was called out in the middle of the night on 8/5/1933 to investigate a break-in at the Marshfield Brewing Company, Beell and his partner discovered a robbery in progress. A shootout ensued, and Beell was struck by a shotgun blast to the head, dying instantly. He left behind his wife of over three decades.
Well-known American journalist and author Lloyd Kenyon Jones called Beell “the greatest wrestler of all modern times-excluding none!” (Stevens Point Journal, 8/9/1933)
Minneapolis Star Tribune sports editor George A. Barton said that Beell was “the greatest wrestler of his weight that ever lived.” (Minneapolis Star Tribune, 2/8/1931) Another sportswriter hailed him as “the greatest ‘money wrestler’ of his day.” (Des Moines Register, 8/6/1933) For years, Beell had a standing challenge to wrestle anyone winner-take-all for up to a $5000 side bet. So many of these challenge bouts remain undocumented taking place in barns and gyms before small audiences. He was said to be the only man that George Hackenschmidt flat out refused to meet on the mat. Beell once confronted him and waved 10 one-hundred-dollar bills in his face challenging for a contest to be held in private. Hack turned a deaf ear.
Beell favored the use of a front or reverse headlock. He simply called it a ‘headlock’. He’d clamp one arm around his opponent’s head, lock it with his other arm and “proceed to twist the head and neck until his adversary gave up.” (Minneapolis Star Tribune. 8/6/1933) There was even an outcry to have Beell’s “vicious headhold” banned. (Vancouver Daily World, 3/26/1912)
He used his neck-cranking headlock on a young Ed ‘Strangler’ Lewis in 1911, leaving him with a badly wrenched neck. Lewis recalled, “I rushed Beell and got my arms around him, but I couldn’t lift him. He just twisted his feet around my ankles. He could have pinned me in five minutes, but he wouldn’t do it…He almost broke my neck…Beell showed me there was more to wrestling than just strength…For a week, I had to hold my neck with my hand under my chin.”* Lewis developed his own pet hold the side headlock, based on his early encounter with Beell.
Fred Beell was truly one of professional wrestling’s all-time greats.
*The Ed Lewis quotes come from an interview with Russ G. Lynch that appeared in an issue of Wrestling As You Like It. The undated clipping is in the author’s files.