The "spectator sport" of bear wrestling is an ancient, if disturbing, one that is still practiced in only a few nations. In America, the man-vs.-bear spectacle became a fad among beered-up tavern patrons in New York in the 1800s and eventually grew into a common feature of traveling circuses, county fairs, and amateur wrestling matches all across the country. Numerous bears became headliner attractions, and the Pacific Northwest produced a few of its own stars, including Billy the Bear and Big Andy. Though their life stories remain a bit sketchy, it is known that both those bears were raised, trained, toured, and promoted by Seattle's famed middleweight wrestling champ, Mervin Barackman. From his birth around 1894 in Nebraska, Barackman's personal life included several marriages and the birth and death of a son. His career took him all around the West, where he wrestled and so did his bears. Over time, as concerns increased about human safety and animal cruelty issues (bears are trained through fear of physical punishment rather than positive reinforcement), the sport fell largely out of favor. In recent decades, laws have been passed widely to prohibit its practice.
In the "sport" of bear wrestling, a human contestant grapples with a half-tamed ursine that has usually suffered some combination of having its teeth yanked and deadly sharp claws removed, being muzzled and fitted with mitts, or having its leg and arm tendons cut. An ancient activity in the old world, the practice sadly persisted into modern times in some areas. Bear wrestling spread to Europe in the mid-nineteenth century as "a byproduct of a flurry of interest in Greco-Roman wrestling" (Gipe).
"In order to score a fall, a wrestler had to throw his opponent so that his two shoulders touched the floor simultaneously. Neither tripping nor any holds below the hips were allowed; as a result, the bouts tended to be tediously long. But if Greco-Roman was not exactly ideal for men, the style seemed made to order for bears" (Gipe).
Setting aside popular lore about Kentucky's great woodsman Daniel Boone (1734-1820) and mythic tales about how he wrestled a wild bear into submission, America probably saw its first organized bear-wrestling show in 1877. In November of that year Brooklyn's Daily Eagle documented an event in which a "Pyrenean Bear, who wrestles all comers under the rules," was the star attraction ("Wrestling Bear Results"). Then, that same month, Pete the wrestling bear defeated his opponent/trainer Adrian at New York's Gilmore's Gardens.
Meanwhile, a savvy beer-hall operator/athlete named Emil Regnier saw a keen means of entertaining his clientele by booking a bear-wrestling match at the adjacent Athletic Hall. On December 11, two visiting circus bears were brought in and Regnier himself took one on. After much "grappling, he managed to throw his bear -- but was dragged down with it. As the crowd cheered and the sawdust from the stage filled the air Regnier finally managed to roll the animal over on its back and hold its head and shoulders to the platform" (Gipe). The other match was even less satisfying for everyone -- especially the bear. William "Oak of the Rhine" Heyster found himself unable to throw his opponent and, indeed, "'The bear did not understand the fun of the thing,' the New York Times reported. 'He did not want to be thrown, but he [also] exhibited no desire to throw his opponent.' The match therefore was declared a tie" (Gipe).
The following month Regnier was declared the winner in a match against a bear named Lena, and Regnier's beer-selling partner, Thiebaud Bauer, also gave bear-wrestling a go. Understandably, Bauer's slated opponent, Martin, seemed to want nothing to do with this fighting business and just kept backing away in the cage. Bauer reportedly swore up a storm while chasing Martin, finally succeeding in grasping the exasperated animal and flinging the poor creature to the floor. That was apparently enough for Bauer to be declared the victor, though Lena exacted a bit of revenge by winning against Regnier in a rematch.
Before long, alcohol-fueled attendees, egged on by pals or seeking to win a bet, were climbing into a cage or ring with "bears that will wrestle with any man in the audience on a wager" ("Political Pot-Pie"). But, no getting around it, this bear wrestling was a risky business. In January 1878, Lucien Marc defeated a bear in Cincinnati -- at the cost of having a thumb partially bitten off. That same month saw Billy Clark "win" a match against another bear after his opponent was clubbed mid-match by his owner after gaining the upper hand on Clark in a bout in Puebla, Mexico. And then the whole emerging industry took a beating in public opinion when, on April 14, 1878, wrestler Jean Francis Borne perished after being crushed by Regnier's former nemesis, Lena.
But it was only down for the count and the sport was revived in traveling circuses and other venues. In February 1902 a bear named Bess was reported to be taking on challengers at Chicago's Rogers Park:
"[S]he is a wrestler of great prowess. Many a man skilled in the difficult half Nelson and on intimate terms with the strangle hold has gone down to the mat beneath the weight of the bear." On the 24th, a local policeman named M. E. Smith took Bess on, but she apparently wasn't very motivated that night. "Smith won in three straight falls in 12 minutes. The bear's backers accused her of lying down" ("Chicago").
Around 1905 a grappler named Jacob Glass "wrestled collar and elbow and catch-as-catch-can" with his bear in the Boston area ("Wrestling Bear Results"). In May 1907 the Norris & Rowe Circus brought "A troupe of fierce Russian bears" to Walla Walla to "be seen in wrestling bouts" ("Trained Wild Animals"). In June 1908 the Ohio-based Sells-Floto Circus's 50-year-old bear, Big Jim, wrestled in Spokane. Later, in January 1913, Big Jim was the featured attraction at Seattle's Empress Theatre where he took on various wrestlers including a German champion.
Brutes and Bruins
In July 1894 an "African" strongman from Scotland named Apia Kack accepted a $50 bet to wrestle "a big mountain bear," which Tacoma's Frank Schmidt had kept caged at the Hunter's Home (E 25th Street). Though the end result of the encounter is uncertain, the Tacoma Daily News reported that "the African must win three out of five falls. 'If he can throw that bear in a week he will be a dandy,' said Proprietor Schmidt" ("A Strong Man").
In August 1911 the Al G. Barnes Circus performed in Newport, Washington, and then in Aberdeen in September. Among the advertised acts featured in its three rings were "30 Groups of Savage Beasts," which included "Wrestling Siberian Bears" ("Al G. Barnes Circus"). In December 1915, Mme. Doree's Italian Grand Opera Co. staged a vaudeville program at Tacoma's Pantages Theatre that included a performance by a wrestling bear named Alice Teddy. The Tacoma Times reported that she was very enthusiastic: she wrestled all comers "and kept on wrestling everyone she could even after her turn was supposed to be over" ("Pantages").
On August 4, 1923, a man in Seattle learned the hard way about the dangers of messing with a bear. The Seattle Daily Times reported that Bruin, a bear included in a sideshow set up at the foot of Cherry Street in Pioneer Square, caught the eye of an appropriately named sailor, R. F. Payne. Out on the town enjoying his shore leave that evening, Payne decided that he would like to take Bruin back to the U.S.S. Pennsylvania as the battleship's mascot. Climbing into the cage, "the impromptu bout, which was given before an enthusiastic audience," resulted in a win for Bruin and a trip to the police station for medical treatment and then a ride home with the Navy's Shore Patrol for Payne.
Some of the numerous American bears who were pressed into wrestling careers over subsequent decades include: Teddy (whose earliest known match was in 1931), Buster Bruin (1933), Big Boy (1935), Jiggs (1938), Ginger (1939), Gorgeous Gus (1949), Betty (1956), Brownie (1958), Victor (1960), Terrible Ted (1965), Rex (1966), Markoff (1968), Big Ben (1969), Bosco (1975), and Caesar (1984). However, Seattle's Billy the Bear and Big Andy deserve special attention here.
Plenty of details about the early years of Seattle bear-wrestler Mervin Barackman seem to be missing from the public record, but what is known indicates that he led a roller-coaster of a life. Born around 1894 in Nebraska to C. Barachman and Tina Hedrick, Mervin Hudson Barachman met and married a fifteen-year-old girl named Willette at Edgar, Nebraska, in 1913. Their son, Jackie, was born in 1914. The couple separated and then divorced in 1915. Barachman worked in Edgar and Valentine for a while but then moved to his father's farm in Cherry County. Meanwhile Jackie was sent to live with Barachman's divorced grandmother in Deweese. Along the way, Barachman's father was murdered by his second wife.
Meanwhile, Willette Barachman married Grover Culver, who died in France during World War I, and then in 1919 married Clyde Snook, by whom she bore a son and got pregnant yet again. Then around noon on February 20, 1922, the Snooks had a raucous argument in their apartment -- having to do with his coming home drunk after an all-night bender with another woman -- and the fatally stabbed husband tumbled out into the hallway, where several neighbors witnessed his death in her arms. The first degree murder trial, in March and April 1922, was a spectacle, with hundreds of townsfolk packing Judge W. E. Stewart's Lincoln, Nebraska, courtroom.
Among those who testified was Mervin "Barackman," who stated he was both a professional wrestler based in Torrington, Wyoming, and Willette Snook's first husband -- one who still loved her. "I heard of Willette's trouble and came here to protect her and Jackie as best I could. Jackie is always glad to see me when I come. I have been willing to take her back ever since the divorce." When asked by the defense counsel: "Do you still love her?" Barackman said, "Yes I do. I want her back and I'll take her." "Do you love little Jackie?" "I certainly do." But when further queried, "Wasn't your separation on account of your mother?" he was forbidden to answer the question ("Love Has Not Died").
On April 1, Barackman, son Jack, and Snook's eight-year-old son "sat beside the little twenty-two-years-old alleged murderess" as her prosecutor gave his final arguments and the judge gave his final instruction to the jurors ("Life Term Demanded"). Five hours later, the jury announced their guilty verdict, and on her way back to the jail a sobbing Snook asked that son Jackie be sent to live with his grandmother who, Barackman testified, lived in Seattle.
From there the story only gets stranger and even more tragic. By the mid-1920s, Barackman and an unnamed wife and his son Jack were all living in Seattle with her father, J. E. West, in his home at 201 Queen Anne Avenue. And, The Seattle Daily Times reported, on July 9, 1926, in the midst of a heat wave, young Jack and his grandfather went swimming at Cottage Lake east of Bothell, where the boy drowned as West himself almost did trying to rescue the lad.
Mervin the Bear Trainer
On February 12, 1928, Barackman surfaced in Spokane, Washington, where he signed a Certificate of Marriage document (No. 40452) -- stating that he was of "divorced status" and his occupation was that of "Physical Culture" -- and entered wedlock again, this time with a local 23-year-old waitress named Essie M. Pump. By now, Barackman's wrestling career was picking up momentum. The earliest known match he fought locally was on January 11, 1929, at the Hub City Athletic Club in Centralia, Washington, where he defeated Billy Condon.
The Seattle Daily Times then mentioned a tied match against Tacoma's Billy Coggins on May 1, 1929, at what was touted as the first "rastling" show held at Seattle's Civic Auditorium (225 Mercer Way) ("Auditorium Mat Show ... "). Another news clipping that year hyped an upcoming wrestling match in Centralia, featuring Mervin Barackman, a 150-pound middleweight champ of the Northwest circuit, who was initially famed for his "jumping headlock" move ("Wrestling Show Billed ... "). The wrestler's actual home base is confused in such articles, with one claiming he hailed from Olympia, another from Salem, Oregon, and yet another that he was from Longview. Maybe those locations were all accurate, and as a striving wrestler he simply had to move around a lot. That would help explain why in the 1930 U.S. Census the Barackmans are noted as residing in Linn, Oregon.
The following year, The Centralia Daily Chronicle hyped another Barackman bout, as the paper's history column recalled three-quarters of a century later:
"Centralia played host to a rough wrestling match, 'one of the hottest and most grueling contests seen since grappling started here in 1929,' The Daily Chronicle wrote. Mervin Barackman of Seattle 'tussled a torrid draw' against his old rival, Glen Stone of Olympia. 'Gong after gong saw these two experienced knights of the mat charging like wild animals of the jungle,' the newspaper wrote of the match, which included biting, rabbit punches, knee-butting and hair-pulling" ("Today In History ... ").
In July 1931, The Chehalis Bee-Nugget reported that Barackman would be returning to Centralia for a rematch against Glen Stone at the Hub City club on the 29th, adding that while Stone "looks to be in splendid condition ... He has met Barackman before with the Seattle wrestling champ coming off with just a little bit the best of it. This time Stone figures to romp home with the decision. Maybe he will and maybe he won't. Barackman is no cinch, even for the middleweight champion of the globe" ("Wrestling Bout at Centralia").
In that rough-and-tumble era in the world of wrestling, adopting an intimidating stage-name was important. The Northwest ring scene saw bouts by such colorful characters as Wildcat Johnson, Tiger McEuin, Bearcat Jackson, Bulldog Jackson, Strangler Lewis, Swede Lindberg, Sparkey Walker, and Gorilla Poggi. No wonder Mervin the Bear Man Barackman fit right in with this crowd ("Clingman wins ... "). By early 1930, Barackman had also begun marketing himself by claiming that he "trains for his wrestling matches with a bear" ("Barackman and His Bear ... ").
Billy the Bear
Exactly how Seattle's promising grappler became the owner of a bear is unclear, but he started getting billed as Mervin "Bear Trainer" Barackman and was reputedly "one of the best known middleweights on the coast" ("Irish Trio ... "). In the early summer of 1931 Barackman and Billy the bear hit the road, wrestling wherever they could get a booking, including in Spokane and Walla Walla. In the former town, 360-pound Billy went up against the 225-pound Harold Rumberg at the Dishman Arena. As the Spokesman-Review warned potential attendees, the sizable bear "is trained in the wrestling game, and is a real opponent for a heavyweight." As a special bonus, promoter Jack Routledge would "have a cub bear weighing 90 pounds in several short bouts against boys averaging 100 pounds" ("Bear to Tussle ... "). Exactly who that cub was remains another mystery.
In Walla Walla that same June, Barackman faced Robin Reed, and big Billy took on three men in three sequential ten-minute rounds. The event's site was an outdoor dance pavilion called the Edgewater, which was located east of town along Mill Creek (near 35 S Colville Street). The trio of challengers was Joe Kitterman (of nearby Dayton), Leemon Broadhead (of Pomeroy), and Lee Smith (of Pasco). According to the next day's Union-Bulletin, "Billy was ponderous. He also was a bit tired. But with the three middleweights who grappled with him, he did put on a novel bit of action. ... Broadhead had the most success in stirring Billy to action" ("Etcetera ... "). During 1931 Barackman also wrestled at least eleven times just over the border in British Columbia, Canada, with only the final bout, on December 10, pitting him against a wrestling bear.
Another bear-wrestling event that took place in Seattle saw heavyweight grappler Dr. Karl "Doc" Sarpolis (1897-1967) -- who in 1930 had been hospitalized in Portland, Oregon, after Strangler Lewis dislocated his back -- climb in the ring with a large bear. Although it is known that Doc was famed for his "flying body scissors" move, exactly who that bear was, and who won the match, remain mysteries. But it seems likely that the bruin was Barackman's Billy.
And another mystery arises. At that June match in Walla Walla, the attendees witnessed an additional bout, one that the Union-Bulletin described as a three five-minute rounds match between the 85-pound John Ruff and "Billy's 125-pound cub Andy" ("Etcetera ... "). Interestingly, the paper also noted that both bears wore muzzles and that Andy was gloved for the physical safety of tough Ruff (who was additionally protected by being clad in a leather jacket). Ruff "got nicely hugged during the proceedings," but any details about how Billy had fathered Andy are unfortunately not included in the newspaper's coverage. Similarly, accounts about the subsequent career arc for Billy seem to be lacking.
The world of wrestling is infamous for it traditions of promotional exaggeration, hype, and fibs, so it comes as little surprise that another source, Acme Newspictures, asserted in 1931 that "'Andy' was caught as a cub in the woods of Northern Washington and raised on a bottle" ("Just a Little Practice for Andy"). So it is possible that Big Andy wasn't the dynastic torch-bearing scion of Billy after all.
What is known is that on February 24, 1931, Barackman and Andy appeared in Clovis, New Mexico, where they took on, and won against, different opponents in mat matches at the local armory. Barackman beat Bill Kendall and Big Andy beat Cyclone Mackey. The following day, that town's Evening News Journal reported, "The bear showed an uncanny knowledge of wrestling and several times actually applied scientific holds on the Cyclone. His height and ability to stay behind Mackey most of the match kept the local grappler on the run" ("Wrestling Bear Results"). Still touring the southwest circuit, on March 9 Barackman beat Jack Christie and Andy beat Benny Bolt in the third round at San Antonio.
Then on May 17 a crowd back in Clovis saw the Seattle duo come through again -- and got to experience a memorable evening that showed one way that things can go wrong when a man enters a cage with a bear. Besides seeing Barackman being bested by Blacksmith Pedigo, Andy was evidently chagrined at actually having his shoulders pinned to the mat by Dutch Mantel. Worse yet, Andy seems to have had his pride hurt a bit, as the Evening News Journal reported the next day: "The crowd screamed with laughter when the Dutchman chased the bear out of the ring, and the bear consequently chased the spectators from the ringside seats on the stage" ("Wrestling Bear Results").
As unusual as that incident was, it was not the only disconcerting way that a man-vs.-bear match could end. On November 27, 1930, at the Swope Park Zoo in Denver, a grappler named Everett Marshall was booked to take on a 350-pound black bear. But soon after entering the ring and eyeballing his big furry opponent, Marshall had second thoughts, and the astonished crowd of some 1,500 witnessed the mighty wrestler ignominiously flee the cage. Another variation occurred at the Pocatello, Idaho, National Guard Armory in November 1953 when 300-pound Gorgeous Gus was slated to wrestle, but "refused to let handlers put on his muzzle and mitts and the match had to be called off" ("Wrestling Bear Results").
Back in Washington
On January 30, 1933, Barackman "gave an exhibition of grappling with a live bear for five minutes" at the Civic Auditorium before engaging in his main match against Alaska's Steve "Eskimo" Okie. Who that bear was exactly is unclear, in part because, on January 28, The Seattle Daily Times previewed the event by reporting that "Marvin" Barackman would be appearing with Curley, a "black bear he has raised from a cub" ("Masked Marvel ... "). Yet on the 31st that same newspaper, reporting that Barackman won via a "surprise backwards body slam ... and was a bit lucky," now identified the 300-pound bear as Buster Bruin, noting that the animal "worked out against a couple of grapplers as a prologue and he polished them both off" ("Slippery Finn ... ").
Although various newspaper accounts that year mention Barackman as hailing from locales as disparate as Kansas City and Portland, by May he and Andy were back in Seattle, where Barackman, his latest wife, Dolores, and Andy were living in a home at 329 8th Avenue N in Seattle's Cascade neighborhood (later dubbed South Lake Union). It was from that home that, on May 20, Andy escaped his backyard enclosure and was rescued from a neighbor's porch just as police closed in on him.
By that July Playland, a 12-acre resort on the shore of Bitter Lake, then just north of Seattle's city limits, had added wrestling matches to its array of events and activities. On July 5 Barackman was scheduled to wrestle Oklahoma's George Bennett, and "the special added bout will feature 'Andy,' a rassling brown bear, meeting Einer Lindberg, Seattle heavyweight grappler, for three two-minute rounds" ("Einer Lindberg to Wrestle ... ").
On August 2, Barackman beat Hugh Adams, and then on the 9th he beat Harold Hiebert. On September 6, the Western Athletic Club's arena at 5th Avenue and Lenora Street was the site of "[f]our mat matches and a special added attraction featuring Andy, the famous wrestling bear, against all comers " -- curiously, given how Dutch Mantel bested Andy in 1932, The Seattle Daily Times claimed that the bear "has never been pinned" ("Wrestling Bear Stars Mat Card").
Seattle's Civic Auditorium was the site of the Pioneer Athletic Club's weekly wrestling program, which on November 13 saw "Seattle mat ace" Barackman wrestle Andy for three three-minute rounds, with The Seattle Daily Times noting that "They do say that Andy is quite a wrestler himself" ("Middleweights Scrap Tonight").
In 1934 the Barackmans moved up the block to 325½ 8th Avenue N, but after December both Barackman and his bears suddenly dropped from local media coverage, so perhaps they moved away at that point. It is known that on April 3 Barackman was defeated by Charro Aguayo at El Teatro Esperanza Iris in Mexico and that on September 4 in Knoxville, Tennessee, Barackman was beaten by Buck Lawson and at that same event a wrestling bear battled Tony Romelli to a draw.
Andy was not retired quite yet. On January 11, 1935, the bear took on both Eddie O'Shea and Lew Kodrick, while Barackman wrestled Jimmy Murphy at the Abilene Athletic Club Arena in Texas. On the 18th he took on Ken Gaston, and on the 25th he fought Benny Wilson. Barackman defeated Wilson there on February 8, and fought Pug Hester on the 15th. Then, on the 22nd, Big Andy tied with Joe Bauer and Joe Kopecky vanquished Barackman. On December 3 in Chico, California, The Bat defeated Barackman; on the 4th in Marysville Luis de la Torre did likewise; and on the 6th in Modesto The Bat repeated his win. However, back in Seattle on the 20th the hometown hero whipped Ernie Arthur.
A return to the Pacific Northwest in January 1936 saw Barackman fight Jean Pierre Labelle at the Denman Auditorium in Vancouver, B.C., but from there on into 1937 Barackman's wrestling seems to have been focused on the Texas and Midwest circuits. Indeed, the career records of the "Bear Man" and both of his bear partners, Billy and Andy, seem to trail off, except for one press reference years later noting Mervin and Dolores Barackman being in Montgomery, Alabama, to attend an event honoring Essie Barackman in 1970. It is believed that Barackman passed away in January 1977. Alas, answers to some of the mysteries about his life, and that of his bears, may have gone with the old bear-wrestler.