Wrestling with danger: “We legislate by panic, and are surprised to find our laws a farrago of nonsense”

In 1878 a young man called Hooler was put on trial in Liverpool for the crime of accidentally killing a man named Brindle as a result of a half-Nelson. The unfortunate incident occurred at Burnley cattle market on the 9th November 1877.

The men were engaged in wrestling, not a proper organised match, but rather a sudden outbreak of grappling to settle an argument. They were, of course, drunk. In the course of the fight, Hooker applied the half-Nelson (I believe from a standing position, in this case), an easy and effective folk style wrestling move whereby one hand is passed under the arm of the opponent, and the hand locked on the opponent’s neck.

Reports vary but it appears that after putting on the hold, according to witnesses, Brindle fell to the ground with Hooler on top of him, Brindle landing on his neck and shoulders, resulting in a ‘dislocation’ of Brindle’s neck. He died about half an hour later. Hooler was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to a month in prison with hard labour. This appears to be a relatively light sentence, the judge recognising that the unfortunate events were an accident, but it prompted some discussion between jury and judge as to whether wrestling itself was an illegal activity or not, given that it was ‘permitted in gymnasiums’. It was, as it turned out.

While wrestling deaths in a formally-organised ring setting were relatively rare at this time, a quick scan of the British Newspaper Archives in the late 19th century reveals numerous grisly reports of horrible incidents involving spontaneous grappling, blunt force trauma, burst bits of brains, penetrative objects, and the occasional bear. The following selected stories act as clear warnings – Don’t Try This At Home. And sometimes it’s better, gents, to simply talk out your differences.

There’s the 1890 case of a young boy named Jerry from Boston, Lincolnshire, for example, who was enjoying a friendly bit of wrestling with a school pal, when he was stabbed in the neck by a pencil protruding from his opponent’s shirt pocket. The pencil entered about an inch, and Jerry died a few hours later.

Jerry’s death, however, sounds practically pleasant in comparison to poor 33-year-old pitman Patrick Fox in County Durham. Engaged in a wrestling match with his friend, McHugh, after several beers and an argument over a mother-in-law, Fox fell toward a fireplace and McHugh fell on top of him. “Oh, I am done for… I am satisfied I am done,” cried Fox.

A doctor was called, and found a poker on the scene and “blood issuing from the back part of [Fox’s] body”. Fox died a few hours later.

He’d been thrown on the fender with his back to the fireplace and expired from “loss of blood, caused by laceration of an artery and rupture of the rectum”. McHugh was determined to have acted in self-defence.

And then of course there’s poor John Picton, who volunteered to wrestle a bear at the Sebright Music Hall in 1891, in order to try and win 10 shillings. He was a large man, weighing over 16 stone, but had never wrestled a bear before. The bear in question had never, apparently, hurt anyone before either but on this occasion had the best of Picton, Picton fell awkwardly, cracked his knee cap, and after a short period of mania caused by infection, he died after a few days in the London Hospital.

Shortly after Hooler’s sentencing in April 1878, the South London Press published a lengthy opinion piece by someone writing under the name Rupert. Evidently a passionate wrestling fan, his letter highlighted the contradiction between wrestling’s illegality and its popularity and importance as a sport that builds character and courage, and notes that plenty of other athletic activities are just as, or more, dangerous to undertake. I particularly enjoyed his digs at members of the fox hunting class.

Rupert argued that a bit of risk is actually a good thing, and he is heartily sick of watching fakes and shams perform in circuses while “manly exercises” are suppressed. “What London wants is an arena in which experts might exhibit the results of genuine skill and real hard training,” he argues. He concludes with an extremely good point: why was a man serving time with hard labour for wrestling at the same time “half of London” was off to watch the traditional Cumberland and Westmoreland wrestling matches at Lillie Bridge?

In lieu of any new research articles from me, I thought I’d present Rupert’s piece to you here as it is an excellent read and also amusing in its tonal similarity to the sort of angry rants you might read today regarding snowflakery, coddled kids or nanny state hypocrisy.

ILLEGAL ATHLETICS

It will come as a surprise – and anything but an agreeable surprise – to most persons to learn that wrestling is illegal! This is a manly exercise, practiced in these realms from all time, and supposed to to be peculiarly English. It has always been a favourite with athletes, and in bygone days there was scarcely any popular festival of which it did not constitute a feature.

Even of late years Cornish wrestlers have exhibited in public in all the great towns without “let or hindrance” and certainly without any suspicion that the wrestlers were breaking the law.

Unfortunately, in a recent case, a young man, while engaging in the sport, fell and broke his neck, and Mr Justice Lopes actually sentenced the person who wrestled with the deceased to one month’s imprisonment with hard labour.

It is not for me to question the righteousness of his lordship’s decision. Doubtless he interpreted aright some musty old statute, and acted under it conscientiously enough: but one cannot help feeling that the sentence was a thing to be regretted.

There are certain pastimes which the State has seen reason to forbid, and on very good grounds. No one regrets that bear-baiting and cock-fighting belong to the past, or that exhibitions of “the manly art of self defence” are interdicted. But it is absurd to bring law to bear on every form of athletics involving possible danger.

The modern ‘prentice is not to be congratulated because he cannot indulge in a game of quarter-staff on a Monday, as the ‘prentice of old days was wont to do, though he thereby saves himself from the chances of an ugly crack or awkward blow.

Football is a rough pastime with a good deal of risk in it, and cricket is not unattended with danger; but there would be an outcry throughout the land if these sports were forbidden, and accidents attending them entailed a penalty of imprisonment with hard labour.

The Legislature might as well interpose and put down bicycling or knurr-and-spell.

If we are to grow men we must give them manly sports and pastimes, and not hold them in leading strings by “coddling” Acts of Parliament. There is quite enough in our luxurious habits and “aesthetic tastes” and sedentary occupations to render modern Englishmen effeminate. It needs a strong pull in the opposite direction to keep up pluck and stamina, endurance, darking, and contempt for physical pain. The old pastimes were rough enough, and some of them brutal enough; but they were all on the side of manhood, and kept up the Spartan “grit,” which it is the tendency of civilization to undermine.

But the danger? Well, yes, danger is an element in these things, and sometimes – as in the case on which Mr Justice Lopes pronounced – fatal consequences will attend the sport. What then? It is the habit of us Britons to regard danger as the salt. It is that which gives zest to many of the enterprises in which we engage.

It has been said of us, “they have an invincible stoutness; exposed to whatsover danger, they have extreme difficulty to run away, and will die game. Wellington said of the nice young coxcombs of the Life Guards, delicately brought up, ‘But how the puppies fight?’ and Nelson said of his sailors, ‘They really mind shot no more than peas.’ Of absolute stoutness, no nation has more or better examples. They are good at storming redoubts, at boarding frigates, at dying in the last ditch, or any desperate service which has daylight and credit in it.”

And how is the character built up and maintained? By grandmotherly legislation making it felonious to run into danger? Not a bit of it; on the contrary, by the habit of facing danger and getting a contempt for it.

Besides, legislators should be consistent; and what do we find? Wrestling is illegal; fox-hunting is the cherished pastime of the legislators themselves; and for one man killed from the effects of the “half-Nelson,” or an awkward throw of any sort, hundreds break their necks and limbs in the hunting field. Does that deter the rest?

Does anybody have the courage to rise in the House of Commons and propose that hunting is cruel and dangerous and shall therefore be declared illegal?

The fact is that danger – even peril of life – is no recognized basis of legislation. There are performances at the Circus and Music Hall which derive all their attraction from the risk of life and the danger of mutilation to which the performers are nightly exposed. Every now and then some wretched acrobat falls a mass of pounded flesh and broken bones – a spectacle that would have disgusted the audiences of the Lower Empire. Men and women alike exposed to this peril, and now and then one is killed on the spot or dies in hospital. Is it anyone’s business to interfere? Is any manager sent to prison – any accessory to the death punished?

Oh, no; we are so squeamish. We reserve our punishments for those who indulge in manly sports and feats of strength. They are demoralizing; it is through them that the public mind is brutalized.

So I suppose the noodles argue, if they argue at all: but in reality they do not, and most of the absurd restrictions of the statue-book have been hastily passed over when some accident has occurred like the death of the young man alluded to, whose antagonist Mr Justice Lopes has sent to gaol.

It is the old story: we legislate by panic, and are surprised to find our laws a farrago of nonsense.

Mention of Circus induces me to digress for a moment to say a word on the curiously sham nature of the majority of entertainments offered there. Everything – with the exception of simply dangerous feats – is so strangely artificial. It is all a sham. Our old friends “the riders” are dexterous and graceful enough, going through their conventional business more or less satisfactorily; but there is no dash, no daring, nothing desperate or manly about it.

The spangled youth, with the scarlet fillet about his carefully-oiled locks, who trips in with the dancing-school bow, and springs gracefully upon the back of the Wild Horse of the Pampas, which “urges on its mad career” at the rate of a couple of miles an hour, might, for any peril he encounters, be taking a ride in a sedan chair. There is nothing of the skill which can “catch the wild goat by the hair,” which can “leap the rainbow of the brooks,” or the daring which snatches triumph from peril.

As to the gymnasts, the Bounding Bricks of Babylon, and the rest of them, they simply fail to satisfy any of the conditions of the gymnasium. They are all show, and posture, and grimace. The acrobat is the substitute for the gymnast. We ask for muscle, and they give us attitude. We look for the highest training of the schools, and they offer us tricks and contortions. We are weary of the long-haired Gemini, the Boneless contortionists, the Dislocated Infants and the Gelatinous Phenomena of the arena generally. We are sick of the somersaults, and human pyramids, and sham Gladiators, and pseudo-Roman Brothers. It is quite time that all this trumpery were swept aside – or reserved for the delectation of the youngsters – and that we had a Circus suited to a day of popular gymnastic and athletic training.

What London wants is an arena in which experts might exhibit the results of genuine skill and real hard training.

This, however, is not very likely to obtain, while judges step in and find that manly exercises are illegal and the encounters which try the sinews of heroes are liable to be punished with imprisonment.

I would not tolerate prize-fights, because there is much about them which is unnecessarily brutal and revolting. I would certainly repress the trapeze in the style in which it is exhibited, since all the science could be shown without the danger. But I would encourage in every way manly exercises calculated to develop the strength, to increase the alertness and agility, to bring out capacities of endurance, and in every way to build up the physical man. Certainly no barrier should be thrown in the way of this sort of corrective in our national effeminacy.

The German Turnverein is a grand institution, and exhibitions such as it gives of prowess and dexterity can do nothing but good. I suppose, however, that if a fatal accident were to happen, some Member of Parliament would bring in a measure to put down Indian clubs and parallel-bars. And the House might pass into law so that Gymnasia would be suppressed or only kept open on sufferance, and there would be a companion picture to that now before me – that of a man doing hard labour in prison for wrestling and half of London going to the Lillie Bridge on Good Friday to see the Cumberland and Westmoreland wrestling matches. 

– RUPERT.

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