WISCONSIN WONDER & ALL-TIME GREAT
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)