Baby Doe: From Johannesburg, South Africa To Armourdale, Kansas?

Writer’s note: the following story concerns an arm of professional wrestling formerly, and, perhaps, currently in some areas, called midget wrestling. As we evolve as a people, so too does our language. The term ‘midget’ is not a medical term, nor was it ever recognized as an acceptable descriptor. Point of fact, the term was created by carny asshole P.T. Barnum and, as such, has no place here. Instead, I’ll be employing the use of the preferred terms ‘little person’ or ‘dwarf’. Far be it from me to tell anyone how to speak. I won’t, however, participate in language that is considered harmful by so many. Thanks very much and thanks for reading. – IFO 

From 1940 through 1948, Orville Brown was a top draw in the Midwest, working for the Midwest Wrestling Association and winning the promotion’s world title a record 11 times. When the National Wrestling Alliance was formed in 1948, Brown was recognized as the governing body’s first ever heavyweight champion, spending the next year working to unify the various world titles across the U.S. and winning the American Wrestling Alliance Heavyweight Championship from Frank Sexton in March of ‘49. Sexton had previously unified the AWA title (then considered the 2nd most important championship in the U.S.) with the Maryland version of the World Heavyweight Championship.

On November 1st, 1949, however, Brown’s in-ring career ended in tragic fashion. Around 1 AM in the morning, Brown and another wrestler were involved in a car crash in which his 1949 Cadillac sedan ran under a stalled tractor-trailer. The wreck forced the champion to relinquish the NWA World’s Heavyweight Title. Lou Thesz, then the National Wrestling Association World Champion, was awarded the championship, furthering the unification. Thesz would hold the championship for 2,300 days. Brown would begin promoting wrestling shows for the MWA, a role he would retain through 1958, until the promotion was taken over by Bob Geigel.

From Humble Beginnings, Come Great Things

In 1957, Brown commissioned famed Kansas City sportswriter Bill Grigsby to write the life story of two women wrestlers. One of the women, Baby Doe, was a dwarf from Johannesburg, South Africa and her tale reads like a pro wrestling odyssey. 

A Russian woman living in Egypt met a travelling seaman and a romance ensued. The coupled married, moved to Johannesburg and had a baby. Her real name was Anna Lee Brown, but for the purposes of this article she will be referred to by her wrestling name: Baby Doe. In 1948, at the age of 8 years old, Baby Doe survived a horrific car accident; her parents, however, would not be so lucky, resulting in the child being placed in an orphanage until the age of 16, at which time she was forced to leave the facility and strike out on her own. Up to that point, and because of her physical differences, she was treated like an oddity, picked on by other children and often forced to complete many of the menial tasks at the orphanage. However cruel the treatment, Baby Doe persisted, her resolve resulting in the acquisition of a great deal of physical strength and a tough-as-nails fighting style.

Homeless for the first time, Baby Doe wandered the streets of Johannesburg. One day, she found herself in front of the Johannesburg Palace of Sports and an idea came to her concerning a way to improve her lot in life while putting her muscles to good use. Happening upon a promoter inside the palace walls, Baby Doe inquired as to when the next elimination tournament for little people would take place. No such thing existed, but Baby Doe convinced the promoter with whom she was speaking of its merits. A tournament was arranged, advertising a week-long series of contests between 32 of the greatest small women wrestlers from all across the globe. Baby Doe won the whole tournament, setting her off on her wrestling journey that would next lead her to Lisbon, Portugal.

Stranger Than Fiction

In September of 1956, before a sellout crowd of 32,435 spectators in the Lisbon Palace of Sports, Baby Doe went toe to toe with the Women’s Little Person World Champion, Maria de Francisco, defeating the champion and becoming the “darling of European royalty”. After several months in Europe spent defending her championship, Baby Doe was booked for her first North America tour.

Her first show was set to take place in Memorial Hall in Kansas City, Kansas. 

Wait, umm, Kansas?! 

Needless to say, Johannesburg to Lisbon to Kansas by way of European royalty is quite the odd travel itinerary. 

It’s made even odder by the fact the entire story is a complete fabrication. Yes, you read that right. Everything you’ve just read about Baby Doe is pure fiction straight from the mind of Bill Grigsby.

Turns out, Orville Brown not only tasked Grigsby to write the life story of Baby Doe, but also to create the life story of the champion wrestler from thin air. On January 3rd, 1957, Baby Doe entered the ring to wrestle Caroline Bennett, who herself had amassed quite the win-loss record across the Southwest. All was well until a man sitting ringside recognized Baby Doe from Armourdale, Kansas, a neighboring district in the lower part of the Kansas river valley. Despite his protestation, the match went off without incident.

Baby Doe’s star remained on the rise, to the point where Tommy Zaharias, retired wrestler, promoter and brother to George Zaharias, the husband of Olympian, LPGA champion golfer and Port Arthur, TX native, Babe Didrikson, actually kidnapped the women’s wrestling star away from Orville Brown to take on tour for his own monetary gain. So infuriated was Brown at the loss of his star, he filed a police report and a warrant was issued for Zaharias’ arrest. Thinking better of his decision, Zaharias sent Doe back to the Midwest, but not before getting her bookings to wrestle at the Ellis Auditorium in Memphis, Tennessee and Jimmie Thompson’s Arena in Alexandria, Louisiana. In both matches, she defeated Caroline Bennett. 

And Then, Nothing

Little is known about Baby Doe after her return to the Midwest. She continued to wrestle through at least part of 1957, working a series of matches for Fred Kohler’s promotion in Chicago against the aforementioned Caroline Bennett, losing all three recorded matches. After April of ‘57, however, little else is known about the wrestler. Did she make her way back to Armourdale and walk away from wrestling? Did she continue wrestling under a different name for a time?

According to her niece, Carla Price, Baby Doe married a man by the name of Herbert Lloyd Beacham, had three children (all boys) and spent the rest of her years in the Kansas City area. Though little else is known about her career, one thing is certain: Baby Doe serves as a reminder that, in the weird, wonderful world of professional wrestling, the lines between fact and fiction are often drawn with invisible ink.

A Beauuutiful Life

As for Bill Grigsby, the man responsible for crafting Baby Doe’s tale, she would not be the only wrestler for whom he created a life story and character. Canadian wrestler Lionel Giroux was given the “Grigsby treatment”, adopting the character Little Beaver and becoming one of the top drawing little people in wrestling history. Haystacks Calhoun, born William Dee Calhoun of McKinney, TX was yet another wrestler created from the pen of the longtime Kansas City sportswriter. Calhoun remains one of the most recognizable “giants” in pro wrestling lore and traveled the globe for 30 years as a “special attraction”.

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