Martin "Farmer" Burns -
by Matt Furey
The Grandmaster of American Catch Wrestling
A 20-inch neck is not too common in today's world. If you see someone with a
neck of that size, he is probably a heavyweight wrestler or a football player
that weighs between 250 and 300 pounds. Imagine, though, that in the late
1800's there was a 165-pound man with a neck 20 inches around. Now, he would
look like he was part-bull, wouldn't he?
Well, in many ways, the man WAS part-bull. He was one of the most disciplined
individuals the world has ever known. He had a work ethic that men today
would shirk. Like the Shaolin monks in China, this man believed in training
the mind and the body as one and his lifestyle was one of purity: no tobacco,
no alcohol, no coffee, no tea and most importantly, no swearing.
His name was Martin "Farmer" Burns, the "Grandmaster of American Wrestling"
... a man that could take a six-foot hangman's drop and remain suspended in
mid-air for three minutes .... while whistling the tune of Yankee Doodle
Dandy. Sounds too incredible to believe, but it is true. In the early 1900's
"Farmer" Burns performed the hangman's stunt a half-dozen times a day; tens
of thousands witnessed it.
More than any other accomplishment, the hangman's drop is what wrestling
historians remember the most about "Farmer" Burns. But there was a lot more
to the man than most people know. Taking the time to read about him will lift
your spirits, give you strength and make you strive to make your life better
than it already is.
Martin "Farmer" Burns was born February 15, 1861, in a log cabin located in
Springfield Township, Cedar County, Iowa. When Martin was only eleven, his
father died, leaving him behind with his mother, one brother and five
sisters. In order to help support the family, Martin worked for a neighboring
farmer for twelve dollars a month. He also took jobs sawing wood, plowing
corn and digging graves.
Although he received little schooling, Martin made up his mind early on that
he wanted to become a professional wrestler. When he was only eight years old
he wrestled another boy for his first stake; fifteen cents was put up by each
side. The opponent, James Magrin, was three years older than Burns, but young
Martin tossed him and walked away with the prize. He also left with an even
stronger desire to achieve even more.
In the book, Life Work of Farmer Burns (copyright 1911), it says, "From the
age of twelve to the age of nineteen years he spent his time plowing corn in
the daytime and wrestling evenings every time he secured a chance with
whoever he could find to hold up the other end of the work. At the age of
nineteen years he was quite well known in the neighborhood of Dennison, Iowa,
as a very husky young man with a reputation as a winner in every match into
which he had entered, and it was here that he met a professional wrestler for
the first time in his life."
Burns' match with Graft lasted two hours and nineteen minutes and was
declared a draw. Afterward Burns went to work in a grading camp, and on
payday he would take on all-comers. It was in the grading camp that Burns
developed many of his theories about wrestling, mostly because he had to
continually whip bigger and stronger men who were in good condition.
In 1886, Burns lost his first match to Henry Clayton, who wrestled under the
name of Evan "Strangler" Lewis (not to be confused with Robert Friederich,
who wrestled in another era under the name of Ed "Strangler" Lewis). One
year later Burns lost again, this time to Tom Connors. Burns later avenged
both of these losses.
In the spring of 1889, Burns made a trip to Chicago with two carloads of
hogs. Because he had a ten-day stay, Burns unloaded the hogs and went sight
seeing. While wandering around the town he spotted various advertisements
posted in regard to two wrestlers, Jack Carkeek and Evan "Strangler" Lewis,
who were taking on all-comers. The bill read as follows:
and EVAN LEWIS, the STRANGLER,
WILL MEET ALL COMERS.
to anyone staying fifteen minutes
or $2.00 per minute after the first
seven minutes. No limit to time
and nobody barred.
Parson Davis, Manager.
Burns, viewing this as his chance to break into the professional ranks of
catch-as-catch-can wrestling, seized the day and went to the manager's office
to say he wanted to take the $2 per minute challenge. The manager booked
Burns for the following evening. But word soon got out and Carkeek met with
the manager, trying to persuade him to call off the engagement. Burns was not
to be turned away. He told Manager Davis that he would be in town for 10 days
and any night would be just fine.
The following evening was not only Burns' chance to make it big, it was also
the night he became known as the "Farmer." As wrestling was only part of the
show and most of the rest was comedy, the crowd waited for J.W. Kelly, who
showed up for work drunk, to make the introduction of the next contestant.
Burns had to literally shake Kelly awake, and when he finally came to and saw
him dressed in overalls, he rushed onto the stage.
"What would you call a man who hoes potatoes and squash and shucks corn?"
"A farmer," replied the musician.
"Well, then," he continued, "if this farmer would get locked up in a house
and the house would catch fire, what would happen to the farmer?"
"I do not know," the musician replied.
"Farmer Burns," replied Kelly. He then ran off the stage and the audience
sat dumbfounded. A few moments later, however, when Burns appeared in
overalls and shook hands with Carkeek, who was bare-chested, they understood.
Although the large crowd now understood the joke, they had no idea that this
"Farmer" was going to put on one helluva show. Burns took Carkeek off the
mat and tossed him about the stage, knocking the scenery around with him for
fifteen minutes. He was finally declared the winner after 15 minutes as
Carkeek was unable to throw him.
Then it was time for Lewis. 15 minutes proved to be too short a time for
Lewis to throw Burns, and the "Farmer" won that bout as well. The next day
the Chicago newspapers lauded this unknown "farmer" and within short order
his story was known across the land.
Burns went on to become champion of America, even though he was a
middle-weight. In his day, professional wrestling matches were, for the most
part, real contests (but not always). Unlike amateur catch-as-catch-can
(collegiate or freestyle wrestling), professional catch wrestling often had
no time limit. Some matches were takedowns only and the match was decided by
a throw; other matches were decided by pin or submission. On several
occasions, title matches would last for several hours. In some the objective
was to throw the opponent within a specified time limit. If the match wasn't
decided by a throw within a certain time, you could win the bout with a
three-second pin (holding both shoulder blades of your opponent on the
canvas) or by submission. In most matches, the strangle or choke holds were
barred ... in some, toe holds were banned. No points were given for
takedowns, throws, reversals, escapes or the like in a professional match.
Burns was an all-around wrestler who excelled on his feet as well as on the
mat. He was a master of the pin, perfecting the Nelson series, the
hammerlock, double-wrist lock, chicken wing and a great many toe holds. If
Burns didn't pin you - he found a way to make you beg for mercy.
From 1890-1893, "Farmer" Burns traveled around the country taking on all
comers as part of various carnival shows. He never lost a fall. One of his
biggest victories was over Japan's Matsada Sora Kichi, whom he defeated in
Troy, New York, in four minutes.
In 1893, "Farmer" Burns opened a gymnasium in Rock Island, Illinois, where
he trained several hundred students. Later still he opened a wrestling and
physical culture school in Omaha, Nebraska, and helped others across the
country establish schools as well.
In 1908, "Farmer" Burns top student, Frank Gotch, of Humboldt, Iowa, captured
the world heavyweight championship when he soundly defeated the Russian Lion,
George Hackenschmidt. Over the years there have been many Hack fans who have
claimed that Gotch used "foul tactics" to win, but these claims are hardly
worth entertaining. A Burns' trained wrestler didn't need to resort to foul
tactics to win.
Burns involvement in wrestling was so rich and so deep that he taught amateur
catch-as-catch-can in Iowa high schools. Without question, the reason why
high school and college wrestling is so BIG in Iowa to this day, is a direct
result of the forgotten but not lost foundation the "Farmer" laid there a
century ago. In fact, in 1921, "Farmer" Burns coached Cedar Rapids
Washington to the first-ever Iowa high school state championship, held in
Burns also trained many other professional wrestlers. Three of the most
noteworthy were light weight Jack Reynolds and heavyweights Earl Caddock, who
won the world title in 1917, and Joe "Toots" Mondt, a man feared both outside
and inside the ring.
In wrestling historian Mike Chapman's book, From Gotch to Gable - A History
of Wrestling in Iowa, a number of renowned collegiate coaches heaped praise
on Burns. One notable coach, Dave McCuskey, who led Iowa Teacher's College to
the national team title in 1950 referred to Burns as "the cornerstone" of
Iowa wrestling. "He organized clubs and taught young men to wrestle,"
It wasn't just wrestlers who believed in "Farmer" Burns, either. In 1910,
when Jim Jeffries was making a comeback after a long lay-off, he was viewed
as a "Great White Hope." In order to get in shape for his title bout against
Jack Johnson, Jeffries hired Burns to help with his conditioning. While in
training camp in Reno, Nevada, Burns got into a heated debate with another
trainer, who just happened to be Billy Papke, a former middleweight boxing
champion. Burns, in his 50's, was much older than Papke, but the "Farmer"
decided that the two should settle their argument in an all-out street fight.
Papke took a few swings, then Burns took him down and submitted him, making
him cry "Uncle."
In 1914 Burns published a mail order course entitled, Lessons in Wrestling
and Physical Culture. The course was sent out in a newsletter format. Each
set of instructions was 16 pages long and contained two lessons. The first
lesson was on exercise and physical culture; the second dealt with wrestling
techniques. The complete course was 96 pages long; divided into six booklets
containing a total of 12 lessons.
Of all the wrestling books and literature I have ever read, there was
something about the words of the late "Farmer" Burns that stirred my soul.
How great it must have been, I wondered, to have been born during his era,
and to have been one of his students. Although his course could never replace
hands-on instruction, it was the next best thing.
One of the amazing things about "Farmer" Burns is that he was thoroughly
familiar with jiu-jitsu, judo and other methods of grappling and
self-defense. His neck was so powerful and so resistant to pain, that he
often challenged people to try and choke him out. No one ever succeeded
although it is said that thousands tried.
In his mail order course "Farmer" Burns laid out his training method for
wrestlers ... and for that matter, anyone who wanted to improve his overall
health. Although Burns' contributions to the wrestling world were great, his
training method is even more impressive, as he was teaching in the late
1800's and early 1900's what most people today would consider "Eastern"
martial arts principles.
Deep breathing exercises (known as chi kung in China) were the foundation of
Burns' training method. Gymnastic and calisthenic exercises took the place of
heavy weight lifting. Hand and foot movements were done speedily in order to
develop timing. Light dumbbells were used to stretch the muscles more deeply
in every direction. Bridging was done to develop the muscles of the neck and
spine. Isometrics were done solo or with a partner for added resistance.
Distance running and boxing were encouraged to build "wind." And wrestling
was considered the greatest exercise an athlete could participate in.
Martin "Farmer" Burns died at the age of 77. It may be hard to imagine, but
can you picture yourself as a person who will devote nearly 70 years of your
life to your chosen art? That's what "Farmer" Burns did. He championed
"America's martial art" and showed why it was so effective.
In the U.S. we do not typically use the words "master" and "Grandmaster" for
our wrestling champions and our great teachers. But as we enter this new
millennium, it is time to make an exception. It is time to break tradition.
It is time to give Martin "Farmer" Burns his rightful place in history. He is
the Grandmaster of American wrestling.