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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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Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
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Tomb Raider: The Story of Saint Nicholas's Stolen Bones
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock

Throughout history, corpses have been bought and sold, studied, collected, stolen, and dissected. In Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses, Mental Floss editor Bess Lovejoy looked into the afterlife of numerous famous corpses, including Saint Nicholas, one of the many canonized bodies whose parts were highly prized by churches, thieves, and the faithful.

Don't tell the kids, but Santa Claus has been dead for more than sixteen hundred years. No, his body is not at the North Pole, and he's not buried with Mrs. Claus. In fact, his remains are thousands of miles away, on Italy's sunny Adriatic coast. And while Santa might be enjoying his Mediterranean vacation, he's probably not too happy about what happened to his remains. They were stolen in the eleventh century, and people have been fighting over them ever since.

Of course, the Santa Claus of folklore doesn't have a skeleton. But his inspiration, Saint Nicholas, does. That's about all we can say for sure about Nicholas: he was a bishop who lived and died in what is now Turkey in the first half of the fourth century. Legend tells us that he was born into a rich family and delighted in giving gifts. Once, he threw three bags of gold into the window of a poor family's house, saving the three daughters who lived there from a life of prostitution. Another time, he raised three children from the dead after a butcher carved them up and stored them in a vat of brine. He also protected sailors, who were said to cry out his name in rough seas, then watch the waves mysteriously smooth.

The sailors spread Nicholas's cult around the world. Within a century of his death, the bishop was worshipped as a saint, lending his name to hundreds of ports, islands, and inlets, and thousands of baby boys. He became one of the best-loved saints in all of Christendom, adopted by both the Eastern and Western traditions. Christmas probably owes something to his December 6 feast day, while Santa Claus’s red outfit may come from his red bishop’s robes. "Santa Claus" is derived from "Sinterklaas," which was how Dutch immigrants to New Amsterdam pronounced his name.

As one of the most popular saints in the Christian world, Nicholas had a particularly powerful corpse. The bodies of saints and martyrs had been important to Christianity since its beginning: the earliest churches were built on the tombs of saints. It was thought that the bodily bits of saints functioned like spiritual walkie-talkies: you could communicate with higher powers through them, and they, in turn, could manifest holy forces on Earth. They could heal you, protect you, and even perform miracles.

Sometimes, the miracles concerned the saints' own bodies. Their corpses would refuse to decay, exude an inexplicable ooze, or start to drip blood that mysteriously solidified and then reliquefied. So it was with Nicholas: at some point after his death, his bones began to secrete a liquid called manna or myrrh, which was said to smell like roses and possess potent healing powers.

The appearance of the manna was taken as a sign that Nicholas’s corpse was especially holy, and pilgrims began flocking by the thousands to his tomb in the port city of Myra (now called Demre). By the eleventh century, other cities started getting jealous. At the time, cities and churches often competed for relics, which brought power and prestige to their hometowns the way a successful sports team might today. Originally, the relics trade had been nourished by the catacombs in Rome, but when demand outstripped supply, merchants—and even monks—weren't above sneaking down into the crypts of churches to steal some holy bones. Such thefts weren't seen as a sin; the sanctity of the remains trumped any ethical concerns. The relics were also thought to have their own personalities—if they didn't want to be stolen, they wouldn't allow it. Like King Arthur's sword in the stone, they could only be removed by the right person.

That was how Myra lost Saint Nicholas. The culprits were a group of merchants and sailors from the town of Bari, located on the heel of Italy's boot. Like other relic thefts, this one came at a time of crisis for the town where the thieves lived, which in this case had recently been invaded by a horde of rapacious Normans. The conquerors wanted to compete with the Venetians, their trading rivals to the north, who were known for stealing the bones of Saint Mark (disguised in a basket of pork) from Alexandria in 827. And when the Normans heard that Myra had recently fallen to the Turks, leaving Nicholas’s tomb vulnerable, they decided to try stealing a saint for themselves.

According to an account written shortly after the theft by a Barian clerk, three ships sailed from Bari into Myra's harbor in the spring of 1087. Forty-seven well armed Barians disembarked and strode into the church of Saint Nicholas, where they asked to see the saint’s tomb. The monks, who weren't idiots, got suspicious and asked why they wanted to know. The Barians then dropped any pretense of politeness, tied the monks up, and smashed their way into Nicholas's sarcophagus. They found his skeleton submerged in its manna and smelled a heavenly perfume wafting up from the bones, which "licked at the venerable priests as if in insatiable embrace."

And so Nicholas of Myra became Nicholas of Bari. The relics made the town, and the men who stole them. The thieves became famous in the area, and for centuries their descendants received a percentage of the offerings given on the saint’s feast day. The townspeople built a new basilica to hold the remains, which drew thousands of pilgrims throughout the Middle Ages. Even today, Bari remains a major pilgrimage site in southern Italy, visited by both Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians. Every May an elaborate festival, the Feast of the Translation, celebrates the arrival of Nicholas’s relics. As one of the highlights, the rector of the basilica bends over Nicholas’s sarcophagus and draws off some of the manna in a crystal vial. The fluid is mixed with holy water and poured into decorated bottles sold in Bari's shops; it is thought to be a curative drink.

But Bari is not the only place that boasts of the bones of Saint Nicholas. If you ask the Venetians, they will say their own sailors visited Myra during the First Crusade and stole Nicholas’s remains, which have been in Venice ever since. For centuries, both Bari and Venice have claimed the saint's skeleton.

In the twentieth century, scientists waded into the dispute. During renovations to the basilica of Bari in 1953, church officials allowed University of Bari anatomy professor Luigi Martino to examine the remains— the first time the tomb had been opened in more than eight hundred years. Martino found the bones wet, fragile, and fragmented, with many of them missing. He concluded that they had belonged to a man who died in his seventies, although because Martino was given only a short time with the bones, he could say little more.

Four decades later, Martino and other scientists also studied the Venetian bones. They concluded that those relics and the ones in Bari had come from the same skeleton, and theorized that the Venetian sailors had stolen what was left in Myra after the Barians had done all their smashing.

As for Demre, all they have is an empty tomb. And they want their bones back. In 2009, the Turkish government said it was considering a formal request to Rome for the return of Nicholas's remains. Though the bones have little religious significance in a nation that’s 99 percent Muslim, there’s still a sense in Turkey that the centuries-old theft was a cultural violation. Its restitution would certainly be an economic benefit: according to local officials, tourists in Demre frequently complain about the barren tomb, and they weren't satisfied by the giant plastic sculpture of Santa Claus that once stood outside Nicholas’s church. Even though Santa has become an international cultural icon, his myth is still rooted in a set of bones far from home.

From REST IN PIECES: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses by Bess Lovejoy. Copyright © 2013 by Bess Lovejoy. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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