Wrestling was a popular form of entertainment in European fairs and markets. Women participated in matches against other women, but also against men. In a photograph taken at a fair at Neuilly in 1905, a crowd of men and women are gathered before an outdoor stage to stare at a group of wrestlers. From the stage, in the second row, almost unnoticed, a beefy female glares at her challenges. Circus wrestling which flourished in 20th century, had its roots in fair and market-place wrestling.
Volunteers challenging hired wrestlers or fighters (especially female ones) was a common fairground sight. In order to safeguard the troupe's wrestlers from defeat, as well as to prevent the troupe's women from contesting with strong local men, challenges were often announced on behalf of a group of wrestlers with women among them (women were especially advertised). Then show hosts decided who should compete against a volunteer. If a volunteer was a woman, she had very little chance against skillful and strong female wrestlers. Experienced fairground hosts infallibly recognized weak and unskillful male volunteers and ordered out women against them. If a woman managed to defeat a man the audience's joy was limitless, the show had more publicity and more money.
An 1890 spectacle in London featured a blonde female wrestler called Nellie, who offered 5 pounds to any man out of the audience who managed to defeat her in a wrestling match. In 1899 and 1900 female wrestling matches were held in "Les Folies Bergeres" in Paris.
In 1891, the New York "Police Gazette" sponsored a "female wrestling championship match". Dressed in tights, with short hair (to prevent pulling), Miss Alice Williams took on Miss Sadie Morgan in the "Owney Geoghegan's Bastille of the Bowery".
Above: Female wrestlers Alice Williams and Sadie Morgan wore functional athletic clothing as far as in 1891.
They stepped into the wrestling ring to compete over the "Police Gazette" champion title.
Above; Female wrestling near 1900 in a "Tingeltangel" (popular music hall) in Paris.
By a German collector.
Women's wrestling in the United States (which had begun in fairground sideshows) developed through the "Great American Burlesque Theater" at the turn of the century. Acts where women would box or wrestle other women, or men, could be seen in theaters across the country. According to Nat Fleischer from "Ring Magazine” dated 1966; "Going over a list of old-timers I find Nellie Reville, Sis Howard, Kitty Ammerman, May Edwards, Texas Mamie, the Cleve sisters, Lyde Sheeron, Babe Kelly, Cora Williams, Elsie Burns and Helen Hildreth standing out". Many acts featured both wrestling and boxing. Helen Hildreth and her partner Jack Atkinson had an act where Hildreth mainly boxed while Texas Mamie's act included both wrestling and boxing. The oldest known American female wrestler was Grace Hemindinger. She was a formidable woman weighing-in at 125 kg (275 lbs) and 1.85 m (6' 1") tall. Between 1875 and 1878 she competed against men and she was recognized as one of the best wrestlers of her epoch. After retiring from wrestling, she worked as a strong-woman in a circus. However, she had to disguise herself as a man because the circus promoters thought that public wouldn't accept a female being so strong.
In 1892 Josie Wahlford appeared and remained undefeated until the end of the century. She was the first really capable wrestler to emerge from the burlesque circuit. Wahlford stood 5 feet 8 inches (173cm) and weighed 165lbs (75kg). Josie was powerful. She placed herself in the hands of Charley Blatt, who came from Hoboken and was a strongman more than a wrestler. Blatt taught Josie all the tricks of the trade and she became invincible. She became the first generally accepted champion among the fair wrestlers of the USA. Wahlford soon carved her way through the limited opposition available in those days and at age 24 began touring the vaudeville circuit as a strong-woman act. She called herself Minerva and would lift 700 pounds a foot off the floor and toy with 100-pound dumb bells. She also performed other feats of strength. Undefeated in wrestling, Josie was second only to the great female wrestler of the next generation, Laura Bennett. At the end of Josie's athletic career, when she was 36, she tried to return to wrestling, twice challenging the new champion of the 1900s. However, on both occasions Josie was defeated by Laura Bennett.