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The Pro Wrestler Who Fought Segregation in 1950s Memphis

Shortly after Memphis city judge Beverly Boushe handed down a $26 fine to the 235-pound man with a streak of white hair running down the middle of his grimacing head, Boushe told reporters that it was the first time he could ever recall seeing a white defendant being represented by a “negro attorney.”

The white man in front of his bench was Roscoe Monroe Merrick, better known by his stage name of “Sputnik” Monroe. His lawyer, Russell Sugarmon, Jr., faced Boushe and tried to argue that the police allegations over Monroe’s disorderly conduct were unfounded. All he had done was visit a black cafe to hand out tickets to one of his professional wrestling events, a right afforded to him according to the abolition of the Jim Crow laws.

Boushe didn’t respond to the argument and levied the fine. It was January 1960. Monroe would repeat this process several times, always accused of a vague infraction known as “mopery” by drinking alongside black patrons. Each time, he’d pay the penalty.

In a segregated Memphis, Monroe was looking to make news and fill seats at Ellis Auditorium. The difference between “Sputnik” and other pro wrestlers of the era was that he welcomed—and eventually insisted—that his black fans sit wherever they chose.

In living out his ring persona on racially divisive streets, Monroe was about to single-handedly desegregate public venues. While wearing only his underpants.

Monroe was born in Dodge City, Kansas on December 18, 1928 to a single mother. His father had died in a plane crash one month before his birth. When Monroe was four, his mother remarried, this time to a baker named Virgil Brumbaugh. That decision would have lasting effects on Monroe’s sense of equality. His stepfather’s bakery had black employees; his nanny was a woman of color. Monroe had never been given a reason to feel different or superior to the people who populated his life.

When he was 17, Monroe entered the Navy and navigated his way through post-war assignments in Japan before leaving and deciding to pick up impromptu grappling matches at carnivals. At six-feet, two-inches and well over 200 pounds, Monroe was solidly built and had developed a taste for wrestling while in high school. He adopted the name “Pretty Boy Roque” and began traveling to wrestling territories in the South just as the sport was introducing more colorful and bombastic performers with increasingly exaggerated violence. He didn’t mind cutting himself with a razor to put on a bloody show for fans; he insisted his streak of white hair came after he was blasted with a wooden—not steel—chair, a giant splinter having lodged in his head.

Monroe had an aptitude for angering audiences, particularly when he would introduce the notion of racial equality into his appearances. In 1957, while driving to Alabama for a show, he grew so tired that he pulled over at a gas station and invited a young black hitchhiker to take the wheel. When he arrived at the arena, he slipped his arm around the man in a sign of solidarity. When the white audience jeered, Monroe leaned over and kissed him on the cheek.

The crowd almost frothed at the mouth. One woman who had exhausted all of the typical invective called him “Sputnik,” the Russian satellite that had recently gone up. It was supposed to be an insult. The name stuck.

As a self-described grappler made of “twisted steel and sex appeal,” word traveled to Memphis, then a hotbed for wrestling, that Monroe could draw a crowd—one that largely hated him, but a paying crowd nonetheless.

In 1958, promoters invited him to town. Almost immediately, he began frequenting Beale Street, a stretch of road that was home to many black businesses. Monroe would dress outlandishly, laugh and drink with minorities, and pass out tickets to his matches. He repeated his visits every night for six months straight. On the date of the events, thousands of supporters would be lined up outside the arena door.

But Ellis Auditorium, like virtually all public venues in the South, segregated their seats. Black attendees would be placed in a tiny “crow’s nest,” a balcony in the nosebleed section, even if the white-only seats on the floor were half-empty.

Monroe thought turning away paying customers was senseless both morally and financially and told the promoter as much. To prove his point, he started bribing the arena employee in charge of counting entrants to allow more black ticket holders inside. So many spilled in that the building had no choice but to let them sit wherever they wanted.

When he was confronted about the tactic, Monroe became more belligerent. He could draw crowds of up to 15,000, making him the biggest star in Memphis wrestling—and by default, their most profitable performer. 

“There used to be a couple of thousand blacks outside wanting in,” Monroe once told the Washington Times. “So I would tell management I’d be cutting out if they don’t let my black friends in. I had the power because I’m selling out the place, the first guy that ever did, and they sure wanted the revenue.”

Green was the only color that mattered. Ellis Auditorium quickly became the first public gathering in Memphis to be desegregated.

Natalie Bell via WKNO

According to wrestlers who knew him, Monroe never took a break from his gimmick of being an agitator. His wife and child dyed their hair to match his famous streak—so did local high school kids, whose yearbook photos would display evidence of their devotion to him. Once, walking into a Dillard’s department store with a black friend, he told the man not to remove his hat, which was typically done as a sign of servitude. “Don't take that damn hat off,” he said. “We may have a fight, but we ain't taking our hat off.”

Visiting a county fair one Sunday afternoon, he strolled up to some cowboys and suggested they get their shoes shined by two black children working nearby. When they ignored him, Monroe kept pressing until one of the men knocked him unconscious. After claiming in the press that he was kicked by a bull, requiring stitches, Monroe invited the man for a rematch in the ring. He declined.    

Monroe kissed black babies, draped his arm around black friends, and generally behaved like he was completely oblivious to the racial divide. White crowds booed him; black crowds loved him. Memphis became a capital of wrestling, with Monroe befriending the likes of Sam Phillips—Elvis Presley’s producer at Sun Records—and recording a song.

The more tensions eased in the 1960s, however, the less disruptive Monroe appeared. As business dwindled, he began taking his act back on the road. A divorce, excessive drinking, and odd jobs kept him from enjoying the same success he had earlier.

In the 1970s, Monroe had an idea. He returned to Memphis, this time with a tag-team partner named Norvell Austin. Austin was in his early 20s and happened to be black. When the two took the advantage over their opponents, Monroe would dump black paint over them and scream, “Black is beautiful!”

In an area still struggling to evolve from its biases, it was enough to put him back on the map. Monroe wound up wrestling into his 60s before settling down and getting steady work at a gas station: He died in 2006 at the age of 77.

Once, when he was lacing up his boots to get ready for an appearance in Louisville at the height of his fame, a woman approached him and thanked him for helping her to get out of the crow’s nest balcony at Ellis Auditorium. Monroe, she said, had really changed things for the better.

Without many people around, the man who had picked fights with cowboys, cut himself with razor blades, and insisted he wasn’t a “do-gooder” teared up a little. Then he went back to being the bad guy.

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Penn Vet Working Dog Center
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.

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9 Scandals that Rocked the Figure Skating World
ERIC FEFERBERG, AFP/Getty Images
ERIC FEFERBERG, AFP/Getty Images

Don't let the ornate costumes and beautiful choreography fool you, figure skaters are no strangers to scandal. Here are nine notable ones.

1. TONYA AND NANCY.

Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding
Pascal Rondeau, ALLSPORT/Getty Images

In 1994, a little club-and-run thrust the sport of figure skating into the spotlight. The assault on reigning national champion Nancy Kerrigan (and her subsequent anguished cries) at the 1994 U.S. National Figure Skating Championships in Detroit was heard round the world, as were the allegations that her main rival, Tonya Harding, may have been behind it all.

The story goes a little something like this: As America's sweetheart (Kerrigan) is preparing to compete for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team bound for Lillehammer, Norway, she gets clubbed in the knee outside the locker room after practice. Kerrigan is forced to withdraw from competition and Harding gets the gold. Details soon emerge that Harding's ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, was behind the attack (he hired a hitman). Harding denies any knowledge or involvement, but tanks at the Olympics the following month. She then pleads guilty to hindering prosecution of Gillooly and his co-conspirators, bodyguard Shawn Eckhart and hitman Shane Stant. And then she's banned from figure skating for life.

Questions about Harding's guilt remain two decades later, and the event is still a topic of conversation today. Recently, both an ESPN 30 for 30 documentary and the Oscar-nominated film I, Tonya revisited the saga, proving we can't get enough of a little figure skating scandal.

2. HAND-PICKED FOR GOLD.

Mirai Nagasu and Ashley Wagner at the podium
Jared Wickerham, Getty Images

Usually it's the top three medalists at the U.S. Nationals that compete for America at the Winter Olympics every four years. But in 2014, gold medalist Gracie Gold (no pun intended), silver medalist Polina Edmunds, and ... "pewter" medalist Ashley Wagner were destined for Sochi.

What about the bronze medalist, you ask? Mirai Nagasu, despite out-skating Wagner by a landslide in Boston and despite being the only skater with prior Olympic experience (she placed fourth at Vancouver in 2010) had to watch it all on television. The decision by the country's governing body of figure skating (United States Figure Skating Association, or USFS) deeply divided the skating community as to whether it was the right choice to pass over Nagasu in favor of Wagner, who hadn't skated so great, and it put a global spotlight on the selection process.

In reality, the athletes that we send to the Olympics are not chosen solely on their performance at Nationals—it's one of many criteria taken into consideration, including performance in international competition over the previous year, difficulty of each skater's technical elements, and, to some degree, their marketability to a world audience. This has happened before to other skaters—most notably Michelle Kwan was relegated to being an alternate in 1994 after Nancy Kerrigan was granted a medical bye after the leg-clubbing heard round the world. Nagasu had the right to appeal the decision, and was encouraged to do so by mobs of angry skating fans, but she elected not to.

3. SALT LAKE CITY, 2002.

Pairs skaters Jamie Sale and David Pelletier of Canada and Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze of Russia perform in the figure skating exhibition during the Salt Lake City Winter Olympic Games at the Salt Lake Ice Center in Salt Lake City, Utah
Brian Bahr, Getty Images

Objectively, this scandal rocked the skating world the hardest, because the end result was a shattering of the competitive sport's very structure. When Canadian pairs team Jamie Sale and David Pelletier found themselves in second place after a flawless freeskate at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake, something wasn't right. The Russian team of Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze placed first, despite a technically flawed performance.

An investigation into the result revealed that judges had conspired to fix the results of the pairs and dance events—a French judge admitted to being pressured to vote for the Russian pair in exchange for a boost for the French dance team (who won that event). In the end, both pairs teams were awarded a gold medal, and the entire system of judging figure skating competition was thrown out and rebuilt.

4. AGENT OF STYLE.

Jackson Haines was an American figure skater in the mid-1800s who had some crazy ideas about the sport. He had this absolutely ludicrous notion of skating to music (music!), waltzing on ice, as well as incorporating balletic movements, athletic jumps, and spins into competition. His brand new style of skating was in complete contrast to the rigid, traditional, and formal (read: awkward) standard of tracing figure-eights into the ice. Needless to say, it was not well received by the skating world in America, so he was forced to take his talents to the Old World.

His new “international style” did eventually catch on around the globe, and Haines is now hailed as the father of modern figure skating. He also invented the sit spin, a technical element now required in almost every level and discipline of the sport.

5. LADIES LAST.

In 1902, competitive figure skating was a gentlemen's pursuit. Ladies simply didn't compete by themselves on the world stage (though they did compete in pairs events). But a British skater named Madge Syers flouted that standard, entering the World Figure Skating Championships in 1902. She ruffled a lot of feathers, but was ultimately allowed to compete and beat the pants off every man save one, earning the silver medal.

Her actions sparked a controversy that spurred the International Skating Union to create a separate competitive world event for women in 1906. Madge went on to win that twice, and became Olympic champion at the 1908 summer games [PDF] in London—the first “winter” Olympics weren't held until 1924 in France, several years after Madge died in 1917.

6. AGENT OF STYLE, PART 2.

A picture of Norwegian figure skater Sonja Henie
Keystone/Getty Images

Norwegian skater Sonja Henie was the darling of the figure skating world in the first half of the 20th century. The flirtatious blonde was a three-time Olympic champion, a movie star, and the role model of countless aspiring skaters. She brought sexy back to skating—or rather, introduced it. She was the first skater to wear scandalously short skirts and white skates. Prior to her bold fashion choices, ladies wore black skates and long, conservative skirts. During WWII, a fabric shortage hiked up the skirts even further than Henie's typical length, and the ladies of figure skating have never looked back.

7. TOO SEXY FOR HER SKATES.

Katarina Witt displaying her gold medal
DANIEL JANIN, AFP/Getty Images

A buxom young beauty from the former Democratic German Republic dominated ladies figure skating in the mid- to late 1980s. A two-time Olympic champion, and one of the most decorated female skaters in history, Katarina Witt was just too sexy for her shirt—she tended to wear scandalously revealing costumes (one of which resulted in a wardrobe malfunction during a show), and was criticized for attempting to flirt with the judges to earn higher scores.

The ISU put the kibosh on the controversial outfits soon afterward, inserting a rule that all competitive female skaters “must not give the effect of excessive nudity inappropriate for an athletic sport.” The outrage forced Witt to add some fabric to her competitive outfits in the late '80s. But 10 years later she took it all off, posing naked for a 1998 issue of Playboy.

8. MORE COSTUME CONTROVERSY.

For the 2010 competitive year, the ISU's annual theme for the original dance segment (since defunct and replaced by the “short dance”) was “country/folk.” That meant competitors had to create a routine that explored some aspect of it, in both music and costume as well as in maneuvers. The top Russian pair chose to emulate Aboriginal tribal dancing in their program, decked in full bodysuits adorned with their interpretation of Aboriginal body paint (and a loincloth).

Their debut performance at the European Championships drew heavy criticism from Aboriginal groups in both Australia and Canada, who were greatly offended by the inaccuracy of the costumes and the routine. The Russian pair, Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin, were quick to dial down the costumes and dial up the accuracy in time for the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, but the judges were not impressed. They ended up with the bronze, ending decades of Russian dominance in the discipline. (With the glaring exception of 2002, of course.)

9. IN MEMORIAM.

While not a scandal, this event bears mentioning because it has rocked the figure skating world arguably more than anything else. In February of 1961, the American figure skating team boarded a flight to Belgium from New York, en route to the World Championships in Prague. The plane went down mysteriously (cause still questioned today) as it tried to land in Brussels, killing all 72 passengers. America's top skaters and coaches had been aboard, including nine-time U.S. Champion and Olympic bronze medalist-turned-coach Maribel Vinson-Owen and her daughter Laurence Owen, a 16-year-old who had been heavily favored to win the ladies event that year.

The ISU canceled the competition upon the news of the crash and the United States lost its long-held dominance in the sport for almost a decade. The United States Figure Skating Association (USFS) soon after established a memorial fund that helped support the skating careers of competitors in need of financial assistance, including future Olympic champions like Scott Hamilton and Peggy Fleming.

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