By January 1907, Apollo Magazine (“the most practical Physical Culture Guide in existence”) considered Juno well known and admired enough to include her illustration among the great and good of British bodies, and promoted her inclusion in the magazine’s advertising on the front page of the Sporting Life. The two-pence publication included articles on the rise and progress of boxing, the difficulties of the modern athlete, and the stage and physical culture, and Juno’s pictures ran alongside those of popular champion wrestlers Bob Sommerville, ‘Battling’ Nelson and Billy Nolan.
In January 1907, Juno was the only woman among a long list of male athletes, including the boxer Charlie Mitchell and wrestler George Hackenschmidt to be receiving fan mail and other correspondence through the Sporting Life’s pillar box, and the Life’s bulletins indicate that letters were still arriving in 1908.
In the spring of 1907, with few public performances under her belt (or at least ones which featured in the press) she was announced for the Empire Theatre in Dublin, with a five quid prize attached for women challengers if they lasted fifteen minutes with her. The Irish Independent predicted that “outside the many other attractions held forth to Patrons of the Empire, this engagement alone is likely to draw very large houses”. The Empire’s advertising described her with the wonderful tagline: “Without doubt, the finest specimen of womanhood extant”.
Among the other acts to perform at the venue the week before Juno’s engagement was Kitty Marion – most likely the one and the same Miss Marion who, a year later, joined the Women’s Social and Political Union and embraced the violent militant activism of the suffragette cause (see Dr Fern Riddell’s brilliant book, Death in Ten Minutes, for more). I’d love to know if the two women crossed paths.
The Dublin Daily Express were mildly impressed with the show, describing the six or eight minute exhibitions by Miss Juno May, her troupe of lady wrestlers, and a series of male antagonists as “interesting”.
Then, a scandal (albeit a slightly boring one, involving a quibble over bacon) erupted.
Under the headline of ‘Extraordinary Charge Against Miss Juno May’s Assistants – Strange Application in Police Court’ the Dublin Evening Telegraph reported:
“To-day in the Southern Police Court, before Mr Drury. Mr M’Cune, solicitor, said he had an application of a somewhat peculiar and exceptional character to make to his worship. His client was Mrs Elizabeth Jones of 50 Great Brunswick Street, who is the owner of a lodging house. The only lodgers she received were members of the theatrical profession, amongst whom she was very well known. On Sunday last three young men went to her house and stated – what no doubt would appear to be the fact – that they were assistants and at present performing in the Empire Theatre. These gentlemen took the apartments, stating to his client that they were helping the lady wrestler in her performance.”
Two of the men took a “double bedded room” with a sitting room, while the third booked another room to himself. The payment for the single room came to eight shillings in total for the week without meals provided while the sharing gents paid 13 shillings with the expectation of board for the week, including tea and bacon for breakfast.
After consuming their first day’s meals, the men returned to the lobby with their luggage and announced they would not be staying after all, and would be moving to another lodging house two doors down, but they would be happy to offer Ms Jones two shillings and sixpence in payment for what they had already consumed. Ms Jones, no doubt extremely confused and doubting the quality of her beds, tea, and bacon, demanded four shillings. At this point in the court transcript, the judge, Mr Drury, sarcastically quipped that Ms Jones should take out a summons – he failed to see why he was being bothered with such a trivial matter.
The men refused, grabbed their luggage, and Ms Jones took it upon herself to try and forcibly prevent them – the men who wrestle for a living – from leaving. One of them “drew out” and shoved or hit her into a wall. “This, coming from a wrestler, or, at least, the helper of a wrestler, was a very serious thing.”
The court transcript, printed in the Dublin Evening Telegraph, continues:
Mr Drury: Yes, but why did she not call a policeman?
Mr M’Cune: Well, no doubt that might have been the best thing. But the two comrades or associates of this man remonstrated with her, and unfortunately she does not know the name of her assailant – the man who struck her
Mr Drury: I assume she knows his appearance and could have him arrested
Mr M’Cune: When she asked him for his name he said he was known by several names (laughter)
Whether the mysterious assistant was ever arrested and charged I cannot determine, but Juno’s run at the Empire continued, with well-known Belfast wrestler Jack Neil engaged to fight her to the finish for £10 as the headline act for the final nights of the run.
And it is here, in the middle of May 1907, just a year and a half after her first media appearance, that she drops out of the British press entirely, or at least from the British press currently digitised and available to through the British Newspaper Archive.
News of Juno’s existence had reached the American papers during the first round of publicity in 1906, the New York Sun and Waterbury Evening Democrat among the publications to be found in the Library of Congress archives which carried the news. The New Haven Morning Journal and Courier suggested at the time that she was in training for a match “against the Terrible Greek” rather than being trained by him, but also offered the following rather cool and feminist intro:
“Some dull people continue to think and say that Woman never can be anything but the weaker sex. Let such people wake up for a minute and contemplate Miss Juno May of London.”
Then predicted, somewhat ominously:
“Of course one swallow doesn’t make a summer, but one swallow is indicative of summer. There may be only one Miss May in the world now, but she is an indication of what is coming. She is training for a wrestling match with the Terrible Greek, who doesn’t terrify her.
And everywhere Woman is training for the coming match with Man, and when she is trained and ready she will throw him so neatly and completely that he will retire from the arena and leave the profession from which he is futile.”
The Rock Island Argus went with the eye-catching headline 252 POUND ENGLISH GIRL SEEKS FAME ON THE MAT.
As early as December 1906 American publications were predicting the “Amazon grappler” would be arriving on their shores to “chase all the lady wrestlers to the brush and tackle any gentleman under 165lb” (Waterbury Evening Democrat). In alignment with their British peers, they made pains to mention that her brawn was offset by a charming graceful beauty: “She is well proportioned in every sense, having remarkably small feet, a fine fresh complexion, and an attractive personality.”
The Minneapolis Journal’s Sporting Magazine published the cartoon below which I (an almost 6ft woman) really must print out and ironically stick to my fridge. And the following, which is posted here without comment, should I combust with horror at what the writer takes for humour. Okay, there are a few comments (in italics):
JUNO IS COMING
“It is high time for a lot of these four-flushing heavyweight wrestlers to take up the trail leading to the lava beds. Nemesis is on their trail. Nem this time is coming in the person of Juno May, who is something of a mat artist herself.
Juno was born in a poor but English family in Kent several years ago and, like every other woman, isn’t any too fresh about telling her age, although her press agent admits she is young and beautiful. She wrestles Greco-Roman style and has thrown every other woman in the world – that is, every other woman who has screwed up courage to try conclusions with her. She is anxious to meet any American Amazon at any weight and any man in America at 165 pounds.
Right here is where we pause to put a crimp in any hope Juno may entertain of picking up a husband in America (gggrrrr…). Juno may be fair to look upon, but it will be a braw lad who cuddles up to her and asks her to share his fate for life.
Think of commanding any 252-pound woman wrestler, with 14-inch biceps and 6ft 2 of length, to hustle up the wheat cakes. There is no real joy in any household where father isn’t big enough to thrash mamma if he wishes to (calm down, Sarah, stay calm…). No thin, puny, mere man would sail in to bump Juno’s blonde tresses against the piano when she got sassy about the milliner’s bills (too late, I’ve exploded). A man would use diplomacy to get her to put a half Nelson on the kindling splitting and hammerlock on sifting ashes.
Juno may make a big success in America, and doubtless she will, but as a bride on this side of the water its a 100-1 shot that it’s nix for Ju.”
The Evening World, a New York paper, made clear to concerned readers that Pierri insists Miss May is “pleasant and gentle when it repose, but when aroused can throw any wrestler in the world” while in a Live Wrestling Gossip column Alabama’s Birmingham Age Herald speculated on who would make an adequate first match:
“Would a wrestling match between two women be a go in Birmingham? Madam Pons, wife of Carl Pons, the French champion, is making a claim for the woman championship of the world. Disputing the claim is the renowned Juno May, the 280 pound woman of the northwest. Mrs Pons has expressed a willingness to meet Juno May. As Mrs Pons’ husband will be in Birmingham next week, it is wondered whether the two female artists can’t be brought together in Birmingham later on.”
This was written in June 1907, a couple of weeks after the run at the Empire in Ireland, the implication being that she did, indeed, make it over to the United States. Yet I cannot find any reports or listings at music halls or sporting events to support this. The name Juno May disappears from the American press quickly (those newspapers which I have access too, at least). Was there a change of stage name? Or did the fancy tire of this phenomenon so quickly? Did she succumb to a tragically early death? Despite the odds stacked against her in the quest for a husband (thanks Minneapolis Journal!), did she in fact marry and quit the game?
Nicknames and stage names were common enough in boxing and wrestling before exotic character names or gimmicks came along, but I can usually find enough information from newspaper articles, interviews or funeral notices to make a good enough go at finding biographical information in official records. Jacks are Johns, Jem and Jim usually James. Spelling variations are common – Davenport as Devenport, or Bartlett as Bartley, for example. Where more creative stage names are used, there might be something in the newspapers to reveal the truth (Ching Hook was revealed to be Hezekiah Moscow by a music hall promotor in an advert, and later on after his disappearance in public notices from his wife). With Juno, I haven’t found a thing.
May she have been a May? Or a June, Joan or Jane? Or an Annie Smith, Bessie Blythe or something else entirely?
If we take what we are presented with by her press agent and reported in the newspapers she would have been born around 1884 but let’s say that a little earlier would not be out of the question. Juno as a Christian name was uncommon but not unheard of – there are several baby Junos to be found in Britain in the mid 1880s, including some in London, but none to be found in Brockley, or wider Kent. But let’s face it, Juno (the ancient Roman goddess of warrior appearance) really has to be a pseudonym.
There is, in the 1880s, a family of Mays living in Brockley who have descendants who have clearly been busy on Ancestry.co.uk. Uploaded photographs of a Winnifred May (1881-1967) jumped out at me straight away – in two family photographs taken as an older woman she is fairly heavyset and looks to be a foot taller than the other women present. She doesn’t not look like Juno. She could also possibly be standing on a step. Or just be, like me, a randomly lengthy woman. There’s nothing else there to go on, the ‘father in South Africa’ mentioned in several early newspaper stories, for example. Census records suggest Winnifred’s father does appear to have travelled, but also that he’d died by 1906. How can we know what was Pierri’s fabrication and what was the truth?
While her height and build gave her a glorious stand-out gimmick to work with, Juno was by no means unique as a female wrestler in the first decade of the 20th century. BNA hits for news stories about “lady wrestlers” go way up in 1902, for example, when Pierri (who clearly knew a good thing when he saw one), toured an international troupe of female stars, a boxer named Miss Polly Fairclough, a Signorita Rosita from Spain, Miss Antoinetta of Italy, Miss Noach of Germany, a Miss Bradford (‘Champion of the World’) and a Miss Ross of New York among them. ‘The Terrible Greek’s Troupe’ appear to have been incredibly popular, and capitalised on the general craze for wrestling that year in England.
The Excelsior Troupe toured too, refereed in 1902 by the renowned ‘King of Wrestlers’ Jack Carkeek. Biddy O’Hara (‘champion of Ireland’) and Violet Dinnie (‘champion of Scotland’) grappled for cash, and took home bouquets of flowers from adoring crowds at the Canterbury, while a Miss Appolina met all comers, male or female, at Plymouth. The list goes on.
Audiences are fickle, tastes change, and performers from all over the world came and went in brief bursts of publicity. Juno’s name appeared more often than most in the 1907 papers, but ‘Roma’ and ‘Aden the Arabian Wrestler’ are among those competing for space, and music halls were running casting calls for more women wrestlers (and, uh, “small comedians”). Juno’s column inches are quickly replaced by another female wrestler using her unusual size for publicity: Miss Moto, a Japanese lady experienced in the increasingly popular art of jiu-jitsu, was rather fearsome but weighed less than seven stone.
And in 1908, the press reported that the crown princess of Montenegro, on top of being a fine pianist, needlewoman, and cartoonist, was a champion at the “masculine sport of wrestling”, in which she trained while growing up in Germany. There were suddenly “charming bevies of lady wrestlers” all over the place.
Might Juno have been among the lady wrestlers at the Olympia in 1908 who “held out alluring invitations to all and sundry (males preferred) to step up and have their noses rubbed in the sawdust” (Clarion, 3rd January, 1908)? Did she ever return from America? Or even make it there in the first place? There’s not too much to be found to suggest she did. Did she settle into a traditional life, branch out into other forms of music hall or circus showbiz under a new persona, or perhaps go down a slightly darker path… like this lady in 1909?
When Antonio Pierri died in Strasbourg in 1912 his short Sporting Life obituary described him as “an extraordinary, even amazing, man” who “until the advent of George Hackenschmidt he, together with men like Tom Cannon and Carkeek, was a veritable knight of the mat”. But it was as a stage-manager of wrestlers and as a showman that they knew him best. Pierri set out to find a male wrestler good enough to beat Hackenschmidt, the man who had “dethroned” him, and along the way found himself creating and capitalising on a hot new trend for ladies who lunge too.
This research very much remains a work in progress, and there may well be things I’ve missed, extra pieces to add to the timeline, and clues to pursue. Do contact me if you strike on anything exciting – tips from readers and relatives have been invaluable.
I am sorry for bringing Juno’s story to an unsatisfying end for now. The optimist in me hopes that it might be read by someone, at some time (and that it is why it is important and extremely cool to bring these stories to people’s eyes and ears) who heard a rumour from mum, that she’d heard from nan, about a rather wild year or two that their intimidating great aunt from Brockley had back before the war.
For now, Miss Juno May remains a big beautiful mystery.