Masked and Maskless
The First of the Great Masked Men
Carl Van Wurden
Ron Historyo introduces Carl Van Wurden, not the first masked man, but a pioneer of the career masked man
Carl Gustav Van Wurden was born 26th July 1898 and always claimed roots of Ottawa in Canada. But what I will say is that for a long while Carl spent his life in Oshkosh, Wisconsin in America. Here he helped with wrestling exhibitions at the high school in the early 1920's. For some reason he featured in the High School Year books from 1922-1925 and they estimated his year of birth as 1905-1906.
I have a theory for that. I found an article in the Ottawa Citizen in 1956 about the death of Carl's uncle, Henry Van Wurden, naming Carl in the article. The report said that Henry was the son of the late Frederick van Wurden and that they had come to Canada 50 years ago from Copenhagen where he had been born.
Now maybe, you see what I am driving at. Maybe Carl Van Wurden was actually born in Copenhagen also and that 1905-1906 was the time of his arrival and nationalization. I can't seem to get that vital proof, but lets just say, Family of Danish Origin. When Carl came to England he sometimes fought as billed Denmark, sometimes Norway, and you will see later even Egypt.
As far as Britain goes, I want to propose Carl as a 1940's wrestler rather than a pioneer. He falls into that era before T.V., and that group of wrestlers who few alive today can remember. All through the 1920's Van Wurden was a headline act in Wisconsin and had some big fights. I will use a few bills to illustrate this. All below are 1921.
And the next set below are from 1925
What I am establishing that is that Van Wurden starts out as a Middleweight and never really comes in any more than Light Heavy. His profile was high and his record good but tended to just fall short when up against the very best, such as Johnny Meyers.
I think if I had to pick his greatest challenge then it might have to be Pojello. But I have to say reading the papers, there were hundreds of reports to choose from. It's a strange thing really because Van Wurden was described as a great wrestler and master of many holds and yet from what I can see was accused of being a little dull as far as that excitement factor goes.
Van Wurden branched out far and wide in the 1930's and fought in many states as well as back in Ottawa. Certainly no longer billed from Oshkosh but Ottawa. And usually Canadian champion. In late 1936 I last sighted him in both New York and Newfoundland and that suits my purpose of moving in time over to Europe.
The date is now 23rd March 1937, Van Wurden was arriving in Liverpool from Nova Scotia and had traveled on the SS Nova Scotia. He did not travel alone. Another wrestler George Andrew Hayes, who was younger at age 29, was with him, and both were on their way to The Strand Palace Hotel in London.It soon became apparent what good companions they were. The first time I found Van Wurden fighting was against Buster Hayes. They must have gone all the way round the country working their bout.I found them in Blackpool, Exeter and Newcastle.
In April 1938 Hayes went home alone. Van Wurden stayed. Now you will remember I said,” Think of Van Wurden as a 1940's wrestler”, and my reason for that is that I find him here in England in 1937 and fading away in 1953. Could be later, but that is what I could see.
He was tremendously busy.
As can be found below he worked numerous fights with Jack Atherton and settled in the Victoria Park area of Manchester. Although wrestling suffered in the war in London and many of the strategic target cities for bombing, I remind you again that wrestling did not stop for the war. Blackpool and Morecambe became a second home for Carl Van Wurden and they had weekly wrestling right through the war at the Tower and the Winter Gardens. Many other towns were the same. Right through the war Van Wurden was prolific and gave a lot to British wrestling in this period.
That's not all I have to say about Van Wurden. I cast my mind back to Max Crabtree talking his wonderful anecdotes on the BBC Timeshift documentary and you may recall he said that what was needed was a little bit of panache.
About two years ago I started a forum thread entitled Green Asp Wartime Masked Man.
Heritage member Bernard Hughes found him being unmasked at Newcastle, and we were perhaps a little critical of the name Green Asp as perhaps not a name to strike fear. Well, what I am leading up to, is that this was no flash in the pan. The Duration of the Green Asp was at least 1939-1950. That is some going. Not as great as Kendo Nagasaki's run or Count Bartelli, but a pretty significant run and all the time overlapping with Carl fighting as himself.
Here he is, all resplendent in the Green Asp costume in this 1939 programme from Blackburn. Oh to see this in colour! When I wrote about the Isle of Man I mentioned that Bob Silcock wrestled over there as the Blue Mask costumed head to toes in Blue. Green Asp was described as wearing a Green Balaclava Helmet mask.
Remember that word panache, well Green Asp was from Egypt or Norway and he was always unbeaten despite being unmasked probably on numerous occasions. Not a certainty though, as I have not found any instances in the papers despite defeats. November 1939 to Jack McLaughlan at Newcastle remains the one alleged unmasking.
But look at the bills. Two great Mask v Mask matches here with Dark Owl who was probably Ernie Riley at that time and also Red Devil who I am not so sure of. Certainly Charlie Glover was about in the 1930's. (note Dark Owl not to be confused with Black Owl who was Jules Kiki).
This was what was needed in Wrestling in the days before TV exposure. We hear stories of great wrestlers just walking to the ring with no gimmick. To fully push the crowd appeal a good gimmick was needed . Mask v Mask was a bit of added spice to get the fans in. And it worked in every town, because this stuff did not make national papers.
The above 1950 bout against the Dark Owl was a defeat for the Green Asp, but no report of an unmasking. The ref was Billy Riley.That particular 1941 match with Red Devil at Preston never took place as Green Asp was replaces by Pavio Peltonin. The 1947 bout with Sandy Orford was a double K.O.
Below is a typical headline in local papers, and it is for sure the same format was played out in many towns, nearly always in the north. Yes we are at that point where nobody remembers him and word of mouth is gone, and remember also he was performing not against our heaviest men although he was beaten by champion Doug Clark at Rotherham Stadium in August 1939. He also fought Bill Garnon. But Bill was well versed in working a bout. Johanfesson also took up a challenge to last 10 minutes with the Asp at Rotherham in 1939.
In a bout at Cheltenham in 1943 against Jan Blears we went through the “Try to remove the mask routine” with the crowd cheering and then booing when Blears failed. It seems that the technically brilliant but dull Van Wurden had learned the art of Showmanship.
Carl went back and forward to North America a few times and did wrestle a little over there, but his main reason for going was to visit friend and family. In 1948 he fought Anatoli La France in Valparaiso, Indiana and all the wrestlers were described as from The Pojello of Chicago Stable.In 1955 he went on the SS Nova Scotia again to either Boston or Halfax and was still living in Victoria Park Manchester. On the passenger Log he gave his date of birth as I had stated at the opening.
For sure Carl wrestled well into a fourth decade.
Using something as simple as phone books I can confirm Carl stayed in Victoria Park right into the 1980's and past his 90th birthday before dying in 1988. His death was registered in Blackpool where he had fought many times. The death registration again confirmed his birth as 26th July 1898.
All sorts of possibilities spring to mind. Did the Asp ever fight young Conda (Bartelli). They must have known one another. Looks to me like the Green Asp had the longest streak as a masked wrestler in Britain until Bartelli overtook him in the late 1950's.
Was the mask a way round working for different promoters. Van Wurden does not seem to be masked at Backpool or Morecambe and yet was the Green Asp at Preston. Food for thought.
Guys like Jim Hussey would have remembered him and in fact many 60's wrestlers probably knew him after he finished wrestling. Perhaps we have underestimated Carl Van Wurden's contribution to British wrestling.
Heritage Members I give you Carl Van Wurden