Madison Magazine – December 1991
By Pete Ehrmann
When the headline “The Apache Wars Not Over” appeared in the June 1, 1885, Wisconsin State Journal, Madisonians may have taken comfort in the fact that Geronimo was 2,000 miles southwest of town. But further into the newspaper they discovered that all was not exactly peaceable right here in the urbane capital of civilized Wisconsin.
Evan Lewis was on the warpath.
A century ago, professional wrestling was as truly violent a spectacle as its burlesque modern incarnation intends to be. Now either forgotten or confused with a later popular Wisconsin-born wrestler who borrowed his name, Evan Lewis, a native of tiny Ridgeway in Iowa County who moved to Madison in 1885 to pursue his wrestling career, was one of the most feared and famous figures in 19th Century sports.
“A cruel and really dangerous athlete,” wrote ring historian Nat Fleischer of the 5-9, 180-lb. Lewis in his 1936 history of wrestling called “From Milo to Londos.” “Lewis for many years held his own when pitted against the best men . . . and the country grew fairly wild over (him) and his wrestling ability.”
“Wild” certainly described the scene when Lewis beat middleweight champion James Faulkner in Madison on May 31, 1885. Faulkner called the crowd “the worst he ever struck,” and the State Journal itself noted that “the rowdyism displayed on the (wrestling) platform was truly disgraceful, while Lewis’ friends in the audience made a vast deal of noise.”
What stirred up friends and foes alike when Lewis wrestled was the trademark maneuver that gave Evan Lewis his nickname – “The Strangler.” He “made no bones about his method,” said Ring magazine in 1930, “which was to get an arm about the throat of an opponent and choke him until he whispered ‘enough’ or was unable to whisper anything.”
It was for real and perfectly legal in wrestling then under the “catch-as-catch-can” and “no-holds-barred” style the Chicago Tribune called at that time “one of the cruelest forms of sport permitted in any civilized community. The breaking of a leg, the crushing in of the ribs, the slow torture of tearing a limb from its socket is permissible and constitutional . . . ” Ironically, boxing was illegal in most of the country then because it was considered too brutal.
Evan Lewis was born May 24, 1860. His father, William E. Lewis, was a Ridgeway farmer and butcher. How and why Evan became a professional wrestler is unknown now, but The Milwaukee Sentinel of July 22, 1888, in a story calling wrestling the equal of baseball in national popularity, probably was describing Lewis when it noted that “the most successful wrestlers come from the country and are usually men whose lives have been spent on a farm, where they have laid the foundation of a strong physical constitution and learned the first rudiments of their profession while tumbling on the meadows with their playmates and school fellows.”
Just exactly how one went from such bucolic sport to choking opponents senseless can’t be traced, but Lewis was first heard from in Montana in May, 1882, when he won a 64-man tournament. He was introduced as the Montana champion when he beat Ben Knight for the Wisconsin title in a Dodgeville match on March 21, 1883.
By the time Lewis moved to Madison in 1885, he had perfected the strangle hold that he claimed was taught to him by an opponent named Frank Whitmore. After he deflated James Faulkner with it even Faulkner, while decrying Lewis’ “harsh methods,” conceded that the Wisconsinite “appears to have a bright future in the sporting world.”
French champion Andre Christol left town after losing to Lewis on August 20 at Lake City Summer Garden “vowing that in all his 24 years of wrestling he had never encountered such a man.” British wrestler Tom Cannon wasn’t saying much after his December 21 match with the Strangler; after Evan got his right forearm across the Britisher’s windpipe, Cannon was lucky he could talk at all.
Evan Lewis didn’t invent the strangle hold, and nothing in the rules prevented others from using it on him. Henry Shellenberger got his hands around Lewis’ neck and choked him unconscious to win a fall in their July 25, 1887 match in Madison. Unfortunately for him, Lewis woke up in time to resume the match and then showed Shellenberger how it should be done.
Other wrestlers had their own violent specialties. A Japanese grappler named Matsada Sorakichi, known in that ethnically not-so-sensitive time as simply “The Jap,” broke lots of ribs with his favorite tactic of ramming opponents with his head. So when he and Lewis were matched in Chicago on January 27, 1886, the Central Music Hall overflowed with customers anxious for blood.
Lewis had a 25-pound and one-and-a-half-inch height advantage, but Sorakichi was immensely strong. In between bouts he performed a stage act that consisted of twirling 250-lb. Indian clubs. The only things twirling after his match with Lewis, however, were Sorakichi’s eyeballs. Lewis strangled him so hard that The Jap, spitting blood, surrendered. When the latter protested, Lewis said he had gotten off easy. “I didn’t choke The Jap. That is, not hard. When a man’s choked he can’t stand up and he’s limp as a rag. I gave (Tom) Cannon the grip when I wrestled him and he didn’t get over it for a week.”
Sorakichi dared Lewis to wrestle again with the strangle hold barred. When Evan agreed, The Jap made sure he understood the rules. “You choke me,” he told Lewis, “I shoot you.”
“I will not choke you this time,” promised Lewis, “but I will screw your leg off.”
A trainload of Madisonians followed their hero to Chicago for the February 15 rematch. “No man ever had a more ardent and enthusiastic personal following than Evan Lewis,” wrote the Chicago Herald. “To a man Madison swears by him, bets on him, brags on him, and the sun rises and sets on him.”
That included the hometown press, which forgot its earlier scolding of Lewis and defended him against the Illini slurs. “From first to last, the Chicago papers have taken sides with the cooper-colored foreigner, complained a February 8 editorial in the State Journal that lauded the hometown favorite as mere boy, with only that experience as a wrestler which he had picked up in friendly tussles with his companions at home.”
Perhaps the famous bout of the last century, if not ever, certainly the Lewis-Sorakichi match was the only professional wrestling contest to make the front page of the New York Times. Interviewed in bed, “unable to turn on either side, his features distorted with pain,” Sorakichi “in broken English attempted to describe how Lewis had tried ‘to breakee the leg like a stick.’”
Over fifty years later, accounts of the match still referred to The Jap’s broken leg. But in truth the Oriental wrestler was back on the mat just three weeks later, wrestling on the same night, March 7, that Lewis faced Carl Moth in Milwaukee. Reverting to his pet strangle hold, Lewis beat the German at the Grand Opera House, but his performance didn’t inspire any arias. When Evan took the victor’s customary bow at the footlights he was showered with cries of “Rats! Rats!” and a local paper said, “It is apparent that his brutal treatment of The Jap will not soon be forgiven.”
For all his professional notoriety, on the street Evan Lewis did not go around choking everyone in sight. Even the Chicago Herald admitted, “Off the stage Lewis is quiet, modest and unassuming. There is no braggadocio about him and no evidence of any unnatural ferocity, but the moment he faces an opponent his whole nature seems to change and no one can control him in the least.”
While he wrestled all over the country and overseas, Evan Lewis’ rural ties drew him back to Iowa County. In June, 1889, he bought the Wisconsin Hotel in Barneveld and ran it for many years while continuing on the mat. He enjoyed the rugged farming life, and trained for a match with English champion Charles Green (won easily by Lewis) by putting up 35 tons of hay with Barneveld neighbors in the two weeks before the bout.
Although occasionally defeated, Lewis beat the top wrestlers of that era – Joe Acton, Carkeek, Edwin Bibby and more. On March 2, 1893 he beat Ernest Roeber in New Orleans for the championship of the world. Before the 75-minute match, reported the New York Times, the referee announced that the strangle hold was barred, “at which Lewis smiled, while Roeber looked as if a great load had been lifted from his mind.” Not to mention his throat.
By the mid-1890s, the strangle hold was generally declared out of bounds in wrestling because of its brutality. On April 20, 1895, Lewis met Martin “Farmer” Burns, an Iowan he had previously defeated. Thirty-five-year-old Evan, described by one paper as “fat as a prize pig,” lost the match and title to Burns in Chicago. The result was so stunning that there were rumors of a fix; but Farmer Burns was a great wrestler himself, and Lewis was at the end of his career.
Upon his retirement from the mat, Evan returned for good to Ridgeway and lived a normal and very civilized life. He even served on the town board. He was a game warden and helped keep order at the State Fair. He also did the latter at Democratic Party caucuses, which were less likely to degenerate in battles royal with Sergeant-at-Arms Strangler Lewis on the scene.
When Evan Lewis died of cancer at age 59, on November 3, 1919, the news was reported in a single paragraph in the Madison press. “Veteran Wrestler Dies,” announced one tiny headline, right beneath an item reporting the victory in New York of Joe Stecher over Ed “Strangler” Lewis for the heavyweight championship. The latter was born Robert Friedrich in Nekoosa, Wisconsin, but took the name of the original Strangler Lewis when he became a wrestler because his parents disapproved of the sport.
The second Strangler Lewis, whose specialty was actually the headlock, won his own mat fame and about $4 million in a long career, and though he only lived in Wisconsin for a few early years he was elected to the Wisconsin Athletic Hall of Fame 40 years ago.
The original, who lived here his whole life, is not among the 80-plus athletes enshrined in the Hall of Fame.