Old Book Review: The Magnificent Scufflers

The Magnificent Scufflers: Revealing the Great Days When America Wrestled the World by Charles Morrow Wilson 1959

History tends to record grappling in a strange and sloppy way. First, a character is briefly depicted. Then he goes down a timeline with various challenges and milestones. Finally, the protagonist loses, retires, or dies. Much like what we see in Kung Fu movies. Then, another protagonist appears with a slightly different timeline. Names, places, and different stories will reappear at unexpected times.

In this book, we begin with Eliphapet “Dufur” Dunn. We are looking at an Irish born wrestling champion in Richford VT, around 1856. Our hero has four sons, who he also teaches “collar and elbow” style wrestling. He passed out word to everyone in a kind and neighborly manner that he would wrestle anyone who came along. Everyone, including his four teenage sons, were victim to his superior wrestling. There was no mention of exactly how many people everyone else was… It was on this rock solid history that American folk style wrestling was apparently founded. Eliphalet’s son Henry Moses Dufur would go on to have 177 recorded bouts with 127 consecutive wins over 30 years.

The rules that define wrestling acted as the next chapter as the protagonist on the next timeline.

The book jumps back into history as far as 648 BC, noting that only biting and eye gouges were illegal. Moving on, the author mentions Milo of Crotona and his tendency to kill people around 500 B.C. Then Afghan hero Rustam Zoal who was 9 feet tall and weighed 650 lbs. He was said to have killed his own son in a casual exhibit.

Moving on to more civilized times, Sir Thomas Parkyus was a friend of Isaac Newton who wrote a manual of wrestling in 1660. By this time, they had prohibited strangling. Also headblocks, eye gouges, and leg, toe, and finger twists.

The rules became gradually safer over time. The first style and its variants was “upright” where the goal is off balance. The second style was called “ground” where the goal is a shoulder pin. Collar and Elbow was the style that this book seemed to favor. Although it goes on about many different rulesets and interesting notes. A couple individuals had double seamed coats or leather jackets for the purpose of grappling. Long underwear was also widely accepted for a time.

Professional wrestling dates back to 17th century Ireland.

In Ireland, a town would allow one “freeloader” until he was killed by a challenger. Looking back at the time period, it appears to have been the best deterrent for using violence and bullying as a means to make a living.

By the 18th century, wrestling in Ireland was considered a spectator sport and a gentlemen’s game. The book’s author then goes on to list wrestling presidents of the US. There is a brief mention of the Union Army in the Civil War, which is revisited later at length.

Techniques and details were very roughly explained. Most of the material was the classic recurring story of a protagonist in a slightly more recent timeline than the last. We can be sure that single legs, sprawls, collar and elbow ties, and footsweeps were figured out by the late 1800s.

We have little evidence of technique from these times. This appears to be early evidence of a hip toss, a sprawl, and a half Nelson. Among other antiquated techniques.

Grappling as a spectator sport came and went many times. County fairs were common places for a display, but never made any money. Rich people would put on shows and circuses. In 1867, a show would pay $10 for wrestling. $7 for the winner and $3 for the loser. A typical week’s wages was from $6-12/wk. The matches went as long as 3 hours. One match was recorded at 9 1/2 hours! Eventually, they were limited to 30 minutes. There were a couple big money bouts for the time. One for $15,000 and another for $1000 in the 1870s. In 1901, the winner of an international match won $21,000 plus half of concession profits.

Many wrestlers in history made serious money for their efforts. This was from 1876.
Police noticed that grappling is optimal for their work in the 1870s and 1880s.

Bill Muldoon was listed by some historians as the Father of American Wrestling. He worked as a Police officer in New York and showed ability in handling people, especially breaking up brawls. Unfortunately, his professional matches were remembered as being totorous and brutal. The idea was good, but grappling had not yet developed past a human fascination with pain compliance.

Interesting facts and familiar names.

We also learned more interesting facts and oddly familiar names tied to wrestling. They told the story of Vino Small, the first Black Pro Wrestler in the post Civil War era. He was abandoned at 9 years old and sounds like a truly inspirational story. John McMahon was a famous wrestler and circus promoter who produced the first championship belt in the 1880s. Oscar Wilde was recorded saying that he couldn’t see the stage. Another circus name that stood out was P.T. Barnum. At the beginning of the next century, 46 colleges and universities had wrestling. The first Female Pro Wrestler, Mildred Burke (Shining Moon) was popular from the 30s. She was from Wheatfield, MO according to the author. In the 40’s there was a wrestling vs. Judo demonstration at Ft. Benning, GA in front of 80,000 men.

Philosophy begins to emerge.

The 1940s story slowly drifts into the sad story of pro wrestling degenerating into a corny shameless money making scheme. Then, we look at Mister Ed Decker. He was an established champion for 44 years. His philosophy was that wrestling was the spirit of youth. That lack of progressive change leads to stagnation and eventual collapse. The story immediately shifts to Art Griffith from Oklahoma He was successor of Ed Gallagher as coach of an Oklahoma team. He credits much of his understanding from a fighting dog named Rudolph. He noted that wrestling should be of sport skill rather than hulk.

This is a link to more information about Ed Gallagher. https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry?entry=GA003

Edward Clark Gallagher was named the pioneer wrestling coach of the era. He had different ideas from Griffith on cutting weight and which positions to focus on. His system focused on a cross body ride from the back. Gallagher seemed to win the initial rivalry by more well thought out systemization. Griffith still had successes by encouraging his wrestlers to win by what they as individuals had developed. Examples given were hip locks, underarm plays, and quarter nelsons. Gallagher emphasised leverage, and Griffith saw that as too much strain.

I personally got a lot from this book.

I would have never guessed that folkstyle wrestling originated in Ireland and made its way to the midwest through Vermont.

The development of wrestling into a spectator sport is a cautionary tale. At first, there was money in the sport. Until the audience was exposed to fake contests. once they were aware that a contest could be fake, there was a choice to make as consumers. The consumers took a surprise turn. They figured out 80 years ago that people will buy bullshit more than real contests.

Nepotism may go back farther than I originally realized. McMahon is the last name I expected to see in a book about the origins of wrestling. I also knew that Barnum was an old name in the circus, but that was well before what I thought it would be. I have read about grappling in circuses in Jiu Jitsu histories, and expected to find something like this. After reading this, I feel the picture is much clearer. Luckily, nepotism is just a side note and not a shut out for hopefuls.

The bulk of the book was trivial names and their genetic gifts or lack thereof. Tall people, fat people, short people, and small people were all noted much more carefully than their technique. Also, their blue collar pedigree could have been listed as their superpower. One standout was an accordion player with strong hands.

Gallagher and Griffith were lifelong influencers with far reaching philosophies. They both obviously became beacons for future generations to look to. Their competitive nature and respect for the other’s system helped us to appreciate different outlooks in the game.

They said some funny shit.

My favorites were: “he had taught all four boys all that he knew of his art—except how to grass-down their pappy.” “Next thing I know I’m flyin’ over that fence like a kitten shot out of a cannon.”

Final note.

In the end, the goal was similar to what we pursue today. An art where one can win on skill rather than genetic gift. Age was not as big of a factor in the early years, but by the end it was the youth who competed and the coaches retired to philosophy instead of action. The rules were consistently refined towards sustainability. Everyone was trying to stay alive and not be crippled at the end of their careers.

I can see how takedowns became the primary objective of this iteration of grappling through these stories. The only thing that bothers me is the degeneration of adults from challenging those two decades younger into 22 year old coach/retirees. My hope is that Brazilian Jiu Jitsu learns from this and stays as is.

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