By Tim Hornbaker
Martin Burns was born on February 15, 1861, the third child and second son born to
Irish immigrants, Michael and Mary. His father was a farmer, and mother, a homemaker, raised
seven children born between 1856 and ’71. A year after the final child, Ellen, was born, Michael
was killed in an accident, leaving his widow and eldest children to support the family. The
Burns’ clan lived in Springfield in Cedar County, Iowa near Rock Creek. Legend has it that
young Martin wrestled his first professional match as early as eight years old, competing with a
school yard friend and winning 15 cents.
Nearing 5’10” and weighing between 160 and 170 pounds, Burns was brawny and quick on his
feet. He excelled in most athletics, but it was the competition of wrestling that occupied most of
his time. When he wasn’t farming, he was wrestling, quickly learning the trade that would make
him world famous. Burns focused heavily on personal training, and built his body into a
machine, with a 20” neck. He swayed from alcohol or cigarettes, never cursed, and had a
personable disposition that attracted people. As he developed his wrestling skill, it became
easy for him to share his knowledge with fellow grapplers, and his ability to train others was a
gift he worked with.
Burns would often travel from town to town, and take on any potential challenges in shoot
matches. Wrestling was popular in most communities, and Martin would rarely come up empty
when searching for an opponent. His reputation grew and began to precede him, and the
legacy of the wrestling farmer was born. Perfecting his abilities in the catch-as-catch-can style,
Burns also competed in matches following other methods and held himself well.
On Saturday, April 20, 1895, Burns defeated the original “Strangler” Evan Lewis at the Second
Regiment Armory in Chicago and captured the World Heavyweight Title in the catch style.
3,000 fans saw Burns win the second, fourth and fifth falls and capture the title and $2,000.
Burns had given 15 pounds to Lewis, and although he barely stood taller than his rival, many
believed the “Strangler” was the favorite. Instead, Burns captured the championship and was
quickly challenged by Parson Davies for his man, Dan McLeod. In May 1897, Burns beat
McLeod, but ended up losing a rematch on October 26 in Indianapolis at the Grand Opera
House. McLeod won the first and third falls to capture the World Title.
Farmer Burns trained at an athletic association in Chicago for several years prior to settling up
gymnasiums in Rock Island, and finally in Omaha. He also established a correspondence
course entitled Lessons in Wrestling and Physical Culture, published in 1914, which was 96
pages and had 12 lessons. Among the individuals he personally trained were Gotch, George
Turner, Cecil Conley, Hugh Nichols, Charlie Hanson, Rudy Dusek, Joe Malcewicz, Paul Jones, J.
C. Nichols, Jack Reynolds, Emil Klank, Jess Westergaard, Joe “Toots” Mondt, Marin Plestina,
Charles Peters, Fred Beell, Henry Kolln, Johnny Billiter, Marion Mynster, Jack Sherry, Dale
Parrish, his sons Charlie and Raymond Burns, and an estimated 1,600 in total.
Numerous times it has been declared that Martin Burns wrestled 6,000 bouts and only lost six,
and maybe that was his claim to reporters. In truth, he lost a number of worked matches in the
ring. A list of those to defeat Burns were Gotch (at least four times), McLeod, Jack King, Fred
Beell, Tom Jenkins, Charles Hackenschmidt, Tom Cannon, D.A. McMillan, and Dr. Roller.
The famous hangman stunt Martin was known for saw him survive a six foot drop with a noose
around his neck. His exceptionally developed neck muscles defied the laws of both gravity and
rationality. In January 1912, an amateur wrestler from St. Paul named George Loefler died
following a similar attempt, further proving Burns’ unbelievable method of performance and
skill. Burns had a 20” neck, and an amazing photograph of his muscle development, even at
age 69, was printed in the Saturday, February 15, 1930 edition of the World Herald, Omaha,
Burns was a beloved father, a dedicated wrestler, and respected teacher. In 1930, he had a
gymnasium in his home, 306 South 49th Street in Omaha, and trained daily. His sons,
Raymond and Charlie became musicians in Chicago. He suffered the loss of his wife Amelia (3-
28-30) and daughter Mayme (11-7-32), leading to the downfall of his own condition. Martin
died on January 8, 1937 in Council Bluffs, Iowa at the age of 76, and he was buried at the St.
James Cemetery in Wheatland, Iowa. Memorial shows were held in his honor by promoters in
Toronto, Iowa. The Des Moines Register inducted Burns into its Iowa Sports Hall of Fame in
1951. He was inducted into the George Tragos/Lou Thesz Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame
at the International Wrestling Institute and Museum at Newton, Iowa on June 16, 2001.
Other Historical Information:
On October 27, 1893 in Rock Island, IL, Farmer Burns beat Moth by taking the second, third,
and fourth falls. Moth won the opening fall.
The Freeborn County Standard (Albert Lea, Minnesota, 1/8/1896) stated that the Chicago Inter
Ocean "says that Farmer Burns, the wrestler, has recently been spending his time
'hippodroming' through Minnesota, getting up matches and 'doing' the citizens of the small
towns out of their money. He recently had a match at Graceville with Duncan McMillena nd the
two of them made a neat stake."
The Massillon Independent (Massillon, Ohio) (12/31/1896) stated that Farmer Burns was part of
the reason of wrestling's revival, despite the fact that he was a veteran of the game. Burns was
said to be 38 years of age and had been wrestling for 20 years. He stood 5'9 1/2". The big
match upcoming for the Farmer was against Dan McLeod.
Burns was a member of the Jeffries-Gotch combination in January 1910. His two sons,
Raymond and Charles were in school at Omaha.
In 1913, Farmer Burns was touting the attributes of Yusiff Hussane of Bulgaria, a talented
wrestler who he was training and managing. Hussane reportedly "stayed more than two hours
with Hackenschmidt," according to the Lincoln (NE) Daily News (12/9/1913). The article also
claimed Burns sent Dr. Roller packing, apparently from the Burns-Gotch troupe, after the latter
claimed he could beat Burns. Burns' friends put up the money for a match, but Roller never
backed up his words.
|Farmer Burns Wrestling History
Legends of Pro Wrestling