Pro wrestling has been built around working matches since the 1870s. Eventually, working extended beyond two individuals fixing their match. “Trusts” or “syndicates” were built, which were a group of wrestlers, typically led by a champion and a promoter/manager, that would tour together, and all be working with one another. These really took hold in the 1910s through the 1930s, and some of these trusts are still famous today, like the one led by the later-dubbed Gold Dust Trio. Pro wrestling historians typically argue that these began in the 1900s.
But did they miss an earlier one?
All of these trusts and stables took place in the twentieth century. No historian has ever posited a trust that was organized before that. However, there is evidence that an earlier trust that may have been heretofore unknown. A stable that for some reason has been lost to history until now. That is the syndicate of wrestler John McMahon, carnie Homer Lane, and moneyman Harry Hill.
Harry Hill was an Englishman that immigrated to the United States, and in the 1860s was a wrestler in his own right. Coming from a wealthy family, he had a tavern and venue on Houston street in Manhattan, where boxing and wrestling were hosted, as well as prostitution and gambling. As wrestling grew in popularity after the Civil War, Hill’s venue became more lucrative.
One of Hill’s known associates from as early as the 1860s, was the one and only Homer Lane. Lane is one of the most interesting characters of nineteenth-century pro wrestling. Although there are disagreements about when and for how long, there is no doubt that Lane spent time working in the carnival in his youth. Considering that carnival wrestling had been in the States since at least 1844, it is safe to assume that he learned a thing or two about working there.
John McMahon was from the wrestling capital of the United States at the time, Vermont. He has absolutely no relation to the famous McMahon family. But he began wrestling in smaller matches around Vermont, and built a local name for himself. However, that all came crashing down in June 1872. He worked a match with JH Covill in Rutland, and it was exposed immediately as a work. The town, and the state as a whole, tore him to shreds in the papers. He was virtually run out of town, and didn’t show his face in the wrestling world for months on end.
That is until March 20, 1873.
On that night, Homer Lane defeated WL Ainsworth to retain his “claim” to the title. And who should step out of the crowd and challenge Lane to a title match, after not being heard from for nine months? John McMahon.
It appears that McMahon was caught working, and felt the only option he had was to throw in his lot with another worker. So on May 30, 1873, at Harry Hill’s venue in Manhattan, where Hill presided as Master of Ceremonies, John McMahon defeated Homer Lane to become the new champion. Remember, this was at a time when wrestlers made most of their money not on gate receipts, but betting on their own matches. Going into the match, Lane was the strong favorite, meaning they all made great money on the McMahon win. With Hill’s house overseeing the gambling taking place, with no site fee, and with two well-known wrestlers, the Hill-Lane-McMahon trio recognized that this thing of theirs was worth continuing. Four days later, they had rematch, again won by McMahon.
However, they couldn’t wrestle each other every night at Hill’s place. McMahon needs new opponents. So they brought in Canadian “champion” Thomas Copeland. This was no doubt a hoax claim, as no Canadian or American paper mentions anything about Copeland before being announced for this match. Nonetheless, the international angle worked tremendously, and it was a money match. Next, McMahon worked with long-time Lane associate, Perry Higley, with whom Lane worked extensively in late 1872. Lane, McMahon, and Hill are very careful to keep this circle of theirs very tight.
Lane, wanting to add the group’s coffers, came up with a brilliant idea to give himself some cache: the Middleweight title. Weight classes were now introduced into pro wrestling, despite being nothing more than a hustle by Lane so that both he and McMahon could claim championships. Now the group had two belts, and a venue secured, and this was as stable as a wrestling group at the time could be.
After seeing the value of the international match with Copeland, the group set up a match with Albert Ellis, who claimed to be the English Middleweight Champion. This claim was certainly bullshit, as Ellis hadn’t been home to England in years, and hadn’t even made that claim when he wrestled previously in the States. The trio, though, was smart, and worked the bout to set up a bigger money rematch. The match took place at Hill’s, with Hill himself as referee. McMahon was getting the better of Ellis, but couldn’t get the pin. There was a close call at one point, but Hill said no fall. This was to protect McMahon, while still having a draw. That same night, it was announced that a rematch would take place for more money.
Before the rematch took place, McMahon had another bout with Lane, once again getting the win. And, to the surprise of no one, McMahon would also go on to get the win over Ellis in the rematch. This required a lot of affability from Ellis, so there is evidence that Ellis was brought into the fold as well.
As further evidence that Ellis was brought into the circle of trust, he, McMahon, and Hill were the three judges for a Lane vs William Kennedy Middleweight title match, which of course Lane won. McMahon would referee another Lane title match after this, leading to a Lane victory.
This all culminated on December 22, 1873, with a two-match card at Harry Hill’s place. The main event was once again John McMahon vs Homer Lane, and the other match was Albert Ellis vs an “unknown.” McMahon and Ellis won their matches, and no doubt all the men in the trust shared in the profits. With Hill providing the venue and overseeing the gambling, and Lane and McMahon working together, these three would be able to perpetuate their activities profitably.
It would seem dishonest to assert anything other than these three working together as a trust. Hill had known connections to New York City’s underworld, and organized plenty of gambling under his roof; Lane was a known carnival wrestler, which is where worked wrestling even began; and McMahon had proved he was not above fixing a match. These three had the means, the motive, and ability to form a collective agreement. They worked in Hill’s venue so often, the refereed each other’s matches so often, and wrestled each other so often, than there can be no other conclusion than them working together.
This has to be a trust. Which would mean that this is wrestling’s first trust.
Pro wrestling in the 1800s has been so generalized by historians that is often mischaracterized, even to the point that something as important as this is overlooked. Trusts, syndicates, and who a wrestler was aligned with are staples of early twentieth-century pro wrestling. And, as is now known, the late nineteenth century as well. Historians must delve deeper into this era so as to miss watershed points like this one.
Lance Larson is the host of the Mat Miscellaneous podcast, chronologically covering 1800s US pro wrestling in weekly episodes. You can follow the show on Twitter @Matmisc