Mat’s Giant-Killer At 34, Farmer Burns Dies At 76

Omaha World-Herald – January 9, 1937
By Robert Phipps 

It’s hard to believe that Farmer Burns, for years a shadowy and legendary figure on the streets of Omaha, is dead.

The facts of this man’s long career in athletics were almost lost in the wealth of stories that accompanied him everywhere. A main point was that he was a giant-killer at the age of 34, beating the original Strangler (Evan) Lewis in Chicago.

This won for him the world’s heavyweight championship in wrestling, then almost as important as the heavyweight fighting crown. Burns then and later was legitimately a lightheavyweight, never weighing more than 180 pounds.

He held the heavyweight title for three years, losing to Tom Jenkins. But he held the 175-pound crown for years after, and Pete Loch, who was associated with him for 12 years, doesn’t believe he ever lost it. Officially,he passed the title to Fred Beel around 1911.

“He beat everyone that was a lightheavyweight,” said Loch. “He beat Frank Holman in Omaha at 168 pounds and he beat Tom O’Connors of England and every one else. There never was a man who could beat him at pulling sticks, or in a rough and tumble fight – the kind where you lock the doors on the two of them, and the man who comes out takes the money.”

To latter-day rasslers and to the public tired of the fast, clean bouts of Burns’ day, the Farmer was a great but unhappy ghost of the great days in the past. He always attended matches in the Auditorium, sometimes audibly scorning the rowdies, sometimes keeping silent.

People pointed him out, always. A gnarled figure, leaning on a cane, speaking a husky voice. He could read only a little so watching rasslers was one of his few entertainments. A hip injury made him seem feeble when he was in reality taut and fit almost to the day of his death

The name of Burns always brought up the name of Frank Gotch, only champion wrestler to retire undefeated. Burns found Gotch on a farm near Humboldt, Ia., tutored him and made him unbeatable.

Burns at the time was traveling with a carnival. He made countless tours with carnivals and rolled up a total of six thousand matches. It was his boast that he was beaten only six times in a lifetime, that he taught three thousand men to wrestle.

Burns taught skill, timing, lightning thinking on the mat. During his active career he was able to scale anywhere from 178 to 158 for bouts, but it was his delight and specialty to pin men weighing anywhere up to 320 pounds.

At least one Omaha man, Pete Loch, saw the famed hanging stunt at Rock Island, Ill., around 1906. It was a carnival stunt, offered whenever the gate receipts warranted. Burns took a regulation drop with the hangman’s noose around his neck.

The tremendous neck development was due to tremendous early training. In the days of the original Strangler, the choke hold was allowed. So well did Burns train his neck muscles that to the day of his death, no man could choke him with hands alone. Or stop his conversation while trying, either.

Burns stayed for years at the Carleton Hotel on Fifteenth Street. He was a familiar figure along Cigar Store Row, but never a part of it. He was 76 at death, approaching 77. He had been a part of Omaha’s athletic scene since 1901, and his presence here, and later that of Gotch, made this one of the wrestling centers of the nation for years.

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