By Tim Hornbaker
Another miscarriage of justice in the annals of professional wrestling history is the general
disregard for one of the most important wrestlers of the early 20th Century. To this day,
perhaps wrestling has never seen someone more well rounded than Dr. B.F. Roller, combining
a robust education and a natural aptitude in multiple sports. He was a sportsman
extraordinaire, devoting more than 25 years of his life to athletics, and in addition to wrestling,
he played college and pro football, was a standout disc thrower, and was considered, at one
point, a potential challenger to the heavyweight boxing throne .
Roller’s historical standing is shrouded behind individuals from the same era who have been
given better press. Writers have tended to focus more on the legendary Frank Gotch, George
Hackenschmidt, and even Stanislaus Zbyszko than look at the contributions Roller made during
the same time-frame. While Roller was never generally accepted as a claimant to the world
championship, he was acknowledged by sports writers as the second best heavyweight in the
country for a period of time, and held wins over Ed “Strangler” Lewis, Joe Stecher, Charlie
Cutler, and even Gotch himself in a handicap match.
Unlike other made up stories in the wrestling business, Roller was a real doctor, and a good
deal of the publicity that followed him during his career was at least somewhat accurate. He
really was a professional football player, a surgeon, and a skilled wrestler. Roller was also a
showman in the ring, developing a series of gimmicks to include dramatized injuries that added
to the entertainment on any given night. Comfortable in front of crowds, he regularly spoke to
the audience in between falls and complimented his opponents, which made him a favorite of
Born on a farm near Newman in Douglas County, Illinois on July 1, 1876, Benjamin Franklin
Roller was the fifth child of Phillip J. (1838-1896) and Emily (1843-1909), following brothers
William, Ernest, Andrew, and George. He held a high interest in sports during his youth, and
farming naturally built his strength. While his father believed in the manual labor tending to
their land, Roller’s mother encouraged him to pursue his education. He was 14 years of age
when he deviated from the normal path of young men his own age, and focused on a state
examination to become a teacher, the same course his mother took and passed years before.
Her assistance guided him to a passing grade, but because of his age, he was unable to
assume a real position.
It was his sound determination that carried him to the early accomplishment, and only pushed
him to challenge his mind further. In 1892, he met DePauw University football coach Arthur A.
Sager, who coaxed him into attending the Greencastle, Indiana school. Poor and
inexperienced, Roller was accepted into the university’s prep school, and then attended the
college full time, paying his way by working in a dry goods store or washing dishes. Although
he came from a small community, he adapted to the larger culture, and made friends easily. He
served the president of his class for three years, and was a member of the school glee club as
At DePauw, he began to refine his physical skills, and was one of the best football players on
the varsity team. Known then as “Frank Roller,” he lettered in football between 1895-’97,
standing out on subpar squads as a guard, fullback and kicker. In October 1897, he attended
the Farmer Burns-Dan McLeod World Title match in Indianapolis at the Grand Opera House
and took his first real interest in professional wrestling. The championship affair was won by
McLeod in two-of-three-falls, and the spectacle was alluring to Roller’s athletic-minded
personality. The following year, in addition to graduating from the university with honors, he
served as the secretary for the Indiana Intercollegiate Athletic Association.
Standing a little over 6’ and weighing 200 pounds, he looked like an athlete, and people within
sports circles took a real notice to his abilities. The Chicago Athletic Association courted him to
participate in a dual meet between their club and the New York Athletic Club in June 1898, and
on the afternoon of June 18, he won the discus throw event with a toss of 106 feet. He
improved his toss of the discus to an impressive 124 feet during a training session for the AAU
National Championships, but during the actual competition on June 23 at Parkside in Chicago,
he “fell down badly,” according to the Chicago Daily Tribune.
During the fall of 1898, he entered the University of Pennsylvania, pursuing his dream to
become a physician, a goal he’d been dreaming about since his early teens. He’d used up all
of his eligibility at DePauw, but still managed to play football for intra-college squads. In 1899,
he was the noted figure on the sophomore team representing the Medical Department. On
December 11, 1899 at Franklin Field, he led his team to an exciting victory over the Juniors of
the College Department in a game for the class football championship by a score of 10-6. The
sophomores also beat the senior medical school team and the dentist squad.
With some time in 1900 on the university’s “Scrub” team and a current member of the
Duquesne Country and Athletic Club squad, Roller was enticed by an offer to make some
money on a professional franchise. The Philadelphia Inquirer announced on October 7, 1901
that a number of former University of Pennsylvania players were banding together to form a pro
squad, captained by C.E. Wallace and managed by Wilson Wright. Roller was an exception,
seeing that he was still a student, but not entitled to play any additional collegiate ball. Later
that year, on December 12, his Senior Medical Football team won the university championship
over the Law School Freshmen, winning 6-5. Roller, a fullback, scored a touchdown in the
Roller graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1902 with his medical degree, and was
honored with the Saunders Obstetric prize of $100. He remained with the college, working as
an assistant to Professor of Obstetrics, Dr. Barton Cooke Hirst, and then as the chief of the
Woman’s Clinic. Displaying his extraordinary knowledge, he wrote the chapters on anesthesia
for Hirst’s Gynecology text book. In July 1902, he married Lesley Emma Kast at her parents
home on 4050 Sansom Street in Philadelphia.
The Philadelphia professional team decided to shift Roller from guard to fullback in October
1902, hoping that the move would give them a better offensive weapon. And it worked on
October 25 when the team beat Connie Macks’ Athletics, 17-0. The Philadelphia Inquirer
stated that he was a “bull in line plunging,” and a credible punter. On December 6, the
Athletics avenged their defeat, capturing the local pro football championship over Philadelphia,
17-6, on an ice covered ballpark field.
Opening a doctor’s office at 5202 Haverord Avenue, he was a vocal advocate of using formalin
solution (saturated solution of formaldehyde in water with methanol) for patients suffering from
tuberculosis, and received national attention in newspapers for a successful treatment using
the injections in February 1903. Three months later, on May 17, Roller performed an operation
for tonsillitis on a four-year-old and used a small amount of cocaine as an anesthetic, a
controversial, but common practice. Following the procedure, the young girl collapsed and died
a short time later despite the efforts of Roller and another doctor to revive her. The loss
In October 1903, Roller was playing for the team he’d opposed the year before, the famed
Philadelphia Athletics, and became the football coach for the Pennsylvania Rail Road YMCA.
Although there were still opportunities as both an athlete and as a physician in the region,
Roller’s attitude had changed. He decided to close up his office, and relocate across the
country to Seattle, taking a professorship at the University of Washington. He was called the
administrator of physical culture, performing lectures, and became the director of the Seattle
Athletic Club in 1904.
On the issue of allowing professional athletes to attend college and be eligible for collegiate
sports, Roller voiced his opinion in August 1905, a story that again garnered him publicity. He
supported the belief that anyone who didn’t accept money for playing college sports should be
able to participate, regardless of their previous standing.
Having arrived in Seattle with very little money, Roller quickly turned things around. He was
active in women’s health issues, specializing in surgery and disease, and his private practice
was making more than $1,000 a month. He invested in some expensive property, but the day
came that he needed to raise an estimated $10,000 in a short amount of time or face losing
everything he’d put into it. That made the opportunity to become a professional wrestler a little
On September 22, 1906, he entered the grappling realm at the Vancouver Athletic Club in
Seattle, and admitted that he was taking on the challenge of Jack Carkeek because he wanted
to buy a home, and had no intentions of becoming a full-time wrestler. Regardless of his
motives, Roller displayed his aptitude in his defeat of Carkeek, and earned an disputed amount
ranging from $300 to as much as $1,600.
Roller’s potential as a wrestler was quickly realized by Carkeek’s manager and trainer, Joe
Carroll, also known as J.C. Marsh. In fact, it was Carroll who has been credited by many
newspapers as the man who discovered Roller. Carroll was a veteran smooth-talking hustler
with many years of wrestling and promotional experience. In 1901, he’d ventured to the Yukon
Territory and Alaska with a young Frank Gotch, and was well known throughout the world.
Carroll was as skilled as anyone in his ability to make promises of fame and fortune, whichever
Roller wanted most, and the lessons he could offer on the mat were something the doctor
wouldn’t be able to find in any classroom.
In addition, there was his unique connection to Gotch and Farmer Burns that would expedite
Roller’s advance up the ladder to the billing of “future champion.” Carroll knew how the Gotch-
Burns method worked, and with the right wrestler and build up, there was a bundle to be made
in a match against Gotch, especially with the gambling associated in such a venture. Even
before Roller stepped onto the mat for his second professional match, he was worth thousands
to guys like Carroll, Gotch, and Burns. He was the ideal person to run in this particular scheme.
Immensely bright, Roller had to learn the facets of this type of wrestling, and Carroll, being the
clever swindler that he was, taught him the rules of the road. Roller accepted the showman
aspects of the angle, and the dollar signs attached to the scenario were worth his participation.
It all begins by advancing the hype of Roller throughout the Pacific Northwest. That includes
shouting his name from rooftops and badgering sports writers for above the fold action. Word
gets back to Gotch that there is an apt challenger, and he barnstorms his way to Seattle.
Although Roller was touted, he was still green and gamblers bet on the champion to win all the
That’s where the tricky and most controversial part comes in. At this point, Roller and Gotch
were on the same page, affiliated with each other to build toward a hugely rewarding finish
contest down the road. Both men understood the importance of their first meeting, and played
their parts to perfection. Again, demonstrating that Roller was a model candidate for this ploy,
when he won their special handicap match after an hour’s wrestling on October 12, 1906, no
one was overly befuddled by it. Roller was considered a natural athlete, a football star, and a
man of extreme intellect. It surely seemed possible that he could mentally and physically find a
way to tie Gotch up.
Just as they had anticipated, a large crowd witnessed the affair, and the post-match dialogue
added to the drama. Writers said Roller was a better man, overall, and that as the bout went
on, he improved measurably. Gotch, on the other hand, loafed early on in the match, and later
claimed that he’d been traveling the entire night before the engagement. The Humboldt, Iowan
also stated that he’d heard Roller was tough from friends in the area, but didn’t take the reports
seriously because in similar situations, the wrestler he faced were push overs. Gotch and
Burns both put Roller over in interviews, and the excitement toward a finish match was
In the months following the October 1906 exhibition in Seattle, Roller refrained from committing
his entire life to wrestling, but was involved enough to keep the citizens of the Northwest
talking. Marsh wanted to protect Roller’s image and reputation to a certain degree, and didn’t
want a shooter coming out of the woodwork to capitalize on his inexperience. Emil Klank, who’d
serve as Gotch’s manager for a number of years, arrived in Seattle and met Roller in a private
meeting on September 25, 1907, and the doctor won “easily” in two-straight falls. The future
Oscar winning actor Victor “Sharkey” McLaglen met Roller’s challenge on November 4 in
Tacoma, and again, the latter won in two falls. The newspapers lauded his clean wrestling, and
noted that he had “superior skill” over his rival.
“Mae,” of the Des Moines Daily News, wrote in her January 22, 1908 column “As I View it Thru
the Spyglass,” that wrestling was under the gun in Chicago because of the amount of fakers
giving the sport a bad name. She explained that Roller was only taking on grapplers who were
on the “square,” and picked his first opponent to be, ironically, former heavyweight champion,
Farmer Burns. Gotch, incidentally, agreed with Roller’s sentiment, and it was clear that these
men were trying to distance themselves from those in wrestling who were too stupid to better
conceal their trickery.
There were ways to perform in a worked wrestling match during this era (before the slam-bang
style became popular) that gave the appearance of being a contest of skill. These measures of
psychological warfare that worked so well for Gotch, maintained the illusion of realness, and
were perpetuated throughout the Burns syndicate. “Mae” of the Des Moines Daily News
described it by saying that you know a match is not on the level when the wrestlers
demonstrated a variety of fancy holds on each other, all the while knowing that when the time
comes, the wrestler will be able to be freed. On the other hand, during a real match, the
grapplers will act slowly and cautiously, and not allow their opponent to attain a “fancy” hold.
But there were also slowly moving worked matches, which were harder to spot, and performed
beautifully by the more classy grapplers like Gotch, Burns, Fred Beell, and now Dr. Roller.
Despite the knowledge of the veterans in this group and their intentions, there were times in
which the sporting press and public were not buying what the wrestlers were selling, and in the
case of Roller’s January 24, 1908 match in Seattle, this was one of those harsh moments.
Burns himself, a man of advancing age and well out of contention for a championship, went to
the Northwest to further Roller’s push and continue the build up toward a bout against Gotch.
His status in the wrestling community, while admired for his achievements, was acknowledged,
and he was seen as a speed-bump for Roller, and not a serious opponent. The gamblers sat
this one out, and as expected, Roller went over in two-straight, taking the entire match in over
The Salt Lake Tribune, likely stemming from a report in Seattle, called the Roller-Burns affair,
the “most miserably handled affair of the kind ever pulled off in this city.”
However, Burns told journalists that Roller was the “best man I ever met, barring Gotch,” and
that he was a future champion.
The resume of Roller was improved by the win, but the Seattle public awaited a real challenger
to enter town and give their man a test. Another member of the Burns tribe, Jess Westergaard
went west and battled him on March 16, and Roller again proved his mastery, taking the first fall
in 24-minutes, and the second in just over an hour. This was said to be Westergaard’s (also
known as Jess Reimer) first loss. One newspaper stated that Roller, by this time, was already a
millionaire, but that was incorrect. However, he was worth more than $70,000, and reportedly
earned over $15,000 for wrestling engagements over a six month period.
If the Burns and Westergaard matches weren’t respected enough by the Seattle public to
create the immense fury heading into the Gotch match, the next wrestling superstar entering
the picture was going to accomplish the task in spades. He was probably the number two
wrestler in the Burns-Gotch combine. Two years before, Fred Beell toppled Gotch for the
American Title, and the success of their dealings made the men bags of money. Beell was
known throughout the wrestling fraternity and his name was big enough to draw interest
regardless of the town. His accomplishments were well known and going into Seattle, the
publicity reports reminded everyone what an amazing grappler he really was.
Beell’s participation in Roller’s ascent was significant at this point. For Gotch had affirmed his
worldwide dominance in April 1908 through his victory over George Hackenschmidt in Chicago,
and there were few challengers to his throne remaining that people actually took seriously. If
Roller could dismantle Beell in such a way that it didn’t hurt his reputation because it was seen
as being fakery, and get more positive comments from Burns, Beell, and even Gotch,
everything was going to fall into place.
It was a touchy situation, one that had to be dealt with ever so carefully. And the masters at
work managed to swing the hammer exactly as needed.
Beell and Roller were matched up on May 14, 1908 in Seattle and both were said to have
grappled spectacularly. Roller surprised many pundits by winning two-straight falls, taking the
opening stanza in 1-hour, 16-minutes and the second in 35. When a rematch was quickly
planned for May 22, gamblers thought this was the part of the script where Beell gained his
revenge, and beat Roller. That’s what happened in similar situations before, and the
speculation going into the second bout was intense. It was generally expected that Beell was
going to even matters before leaving for Wisconsin.
An “immense” crowd attended the return bout and Roller again won, taking two-straight falls.
According to reports, “much money changed hands” through betting, and it was said over and
over that the only suitable opponent left for the doctor was Gotch. To protect his own image,
Beell claimed he was in poor condition going into the duel matches, and called Roller a
“wonder,” predicting that he’d give Gotch a tough match.
Roller was at the point where he could do no wrong and receiving top-notch press around the
country. His manager Joe Carroll had succeeded in pushing the right buttons, and they all had
survived the Burns calamity a few months earlier. The only thing left was for Gotch to arrive
and milk the final days of promotions going into their July 1, 1908 match in Seattle.
The local market was riveted and the gate approached $15,000. Newspaper reporters stated
that there was little betting, and that the odds were only slightly in favor of the champion.
During the first fall, Roller escaped the toehold six times in succession, and Gotch later claimed
he’d demonstrated the maneuver for Carroll, who taught Roller how to break free from the
finisher. Finally, after 15:25, Gotch attained a crotch and half Nelson and won the fall. Roller
was said to be “nervous,” and was losing his temper at Gotch’s aggressive tactics. In the
second fall, Gotch again used his crotch hold to win at the 25:51 mark despite Roller’s
The champion dominated the affair, plain and simple. Afterwards, Gotch did compliment Roller,
but said that the physician needed additional training. His participation in the Seattle bout
earned Gotch $6,500.
Within a few short weeks, there was already talk of Roller becoming a professional boxer, and
striving toward the heavyweight throne. He had considerable boxing experience as an amateur,
mostly in athletic clubs, and the challenge of again starting at the bottom of a sport and working
his way up the ladder was a chore he’d like to tackle. Plus, the money, he felt, would be better
than what he was making as a doctor or in the wrestling field. Former heavyweight champion
Bob Fitzsimmons was rumored to be his trainer, and offered commentary on Roller’s potential,
but “Denver” Ed Martin ended up being his coach.
Ballyhooed by sports writers, Roller’s prospects as a boxer were considered endless. One
writer of the Anaconda Standard (Anaconda, Montana; 10/29/1908) noted that because he was
an all-around athlete, his jump from wrestling to the pugilistic enterprise might be easier than
others who’d attempted the trek. In January 1909, Roller displayed his confidence, perhaps a
bit too early, and posted forfeits to meet Al Kaufman at the Jeffries Athletic Club in Los
Angeles. He swiftly backed out of a possible match, but continued his training.
In Seattle on January 19, he fought his trainer to a draw, and was scheduled to box Boomer
Weeks in Spokane before Mayor Moore cancelled the fight after renouncing the fistic sport.
Roller’s exhibition with the more experienced Kaufman came on July 30, 1909 in Seattle, and
went six uninteresting rounds with no decision rendered.
Roller lacked the speed and depth to become a great boxer, and the dream faded. His name
value as a wrestler was still very apparent. In April 1909, he went on his first Midwestern tour
as a grappler, appearing in Danville and Chicago, Illinois. Then on April 27 at the Convention
Hall in Kansas City, he again challenged Gotch for the championship and the two drew 5,500.
The result was the same, but newspapers couldn’t compliment their contest enough. It was
showered by words like clever, fast, clean, and the most scientific ever in the city.
Roller had two important dates in early September 1909 in the Northwest, first defeating
Charles Olson in two-straight falls for a claim to the World Light Heavyweight Title on
September 2 in Portland. The next night, he wrestled and lost to Henry Ordemann, a pupil of
Burns and Gotch, in Seattle. Roller suffered an injury in the match, a theme that would become
commonplace in matches that he’d lose. This time, he was knocked unconscious when
Ordemann threw him to the ground after 66-minutes, and was carried from the ring. He
remained out cold for a half hour.
The incorporation of the injury gimmick to matches was a paramount tool in Roller’s arsenal. In
some contests, he’d feign broken ribs or a shoulder separation, and use the theatrical aspect
of the handicap to extract audience reaction. It would also be an excuse for a loss.
In September 1909, the Roller-Carroll affiliation ended on a sour note, and the physician took
noted promoter Jack Curley as his manager. A deal was made between undefeated
heavyweight boxing champion James J. Jeffries and Gotch to tour together in November 1909,
and Roller joined the traveling athletic combination along with several other popular figures.
Curley, for a time, managed both Gotch and Roller during this tour, and helped Jeffries’s
manager Sam Berger in the promotions.
Roller beat Gotch in fifteen minute handicap matches in Detroit (11-29), New York City (12-1),
and St. Louis (12-25) and took a 60 minute handicap victory from Stanislaus Zbyszko on
December 21 in Kansas City. On April 7, 1910 in Kansas City, he was defeated by Yussiff
Mahmout and on May 16, he lost a finish contest to Zbyszko in Buffalo in a bout that saw him
In Douglas County, Illinois, the Roller Family owned around 4,000 acres by 1909. Frank,
though one of the most traveled individuals working the wrestling circuit, often made stops in his
hometown of Newman, and competed in nearby Tuscola, which was due west. The Gotch-
Jeffries Combination even stopped there on December 28, 1909, and Frank’s brothers Manford
and Andy attended the program. Manford, interested in wrestling, learned much from his
brother, and made his pro debut. He made a showing on the undercard of his brother’s match
with Pat Connelly on March 28, 1910 in Homer, Illinois. A rare photograph of the Roller Clan
appeared in the November 1, 1908 edition of the Decatur Daily Review, Decatur, Illinois.
Dr. Roller suffered from blood poisoning in January and again in April 1910, and was
hospitalized both times in Chicago. Roller and Curley, looking for a new range of wrestling
adversaries, and interested in the money that could be made, ventured to Europe for the
summer. On August 8, 1910 at the London Music Hall, Roller was defeated by Gama of India in
two-straight falls (1:40, 9:09). He suffered several broken ribs in the bout, and was hospitalized
at Charing Cross Hospital. Any hope of additional matches in Europe were dashed and the trip
was beginning to look like a real failure.
That was until Roller and Curley met George Hackenschmidt, known as the “Russian Lion,” who
was interested in making a second tour of the United States.
Curley brokered a six week deal with Hackenschmidt over dinner, and Roller signed on to train
him. The first leg of the journey would begin with Hackenschmidt’s October 29, 1910 arrival in
New York City, and continue through a cross-country tour of cities big and small. Spirited on by
Curley’s massive umbrella of connections and the Empire Athletic Association syndicate, he’d
build up his status like Roller did a few years earlier, working toward the match against Gotch.
Roller would offer support as both a foe and a trainer behind-the-scenes, and the wheels of
manipulation were actively working the American public.
Hackenschmidt’s tour stopped in Montreal on November 29, where he met Roller and defeated
him in two-straight falls. The two locked up again in Pittsburgh at the Old City Hall on
December 8, this time in a 60-minute handicap match in which Hackenschmidt agreed to throw
the doctor twice. In a demonstration of his versatility, Roller played the Gotch role in the
narrative, acting aggressive against his 235-pound opponent. The time-limit was achieved
sans a fall for either side and Roller was congratulated by the rowdy crowd on the stage
The story of Roller’s achievement carried over to their finish bout in Boston on December 26,
1910 at the Mechanics Building. With the Boston Daily Globe telling readers that
Hackenschmidt’s chances of another match with Gotch was on the line, an estimated 6,000
people turned out to see the exciting contest. The newspaper also stated that Roller was a
“protégé of Gotch,” and had been “coached by the latter the past week.”
The validity of that last statement may or not be true. If it was, would it be that hard to draw the
connections between these individuals to see that these matches were being staged by
members of the same troupe, each working toward a similar goal, and and not true exhibitions
of strength, agility, and science? In August of 1910, Roller and Jack Curley were in London
following the Gama match, and met Hackenschmidt. They then convinced him to return to the
United States under the auspices of Curley. “Hack” comes over and all of a sudden finds Roller
standing in his way between himself and a crack at Gotch. Roller, however, was now being
trained by Gotch.
Furthermore, only months before, Curley ran the AT shows that both Gotch and Roller worked,
and Roller treated Gotch when he was sick in December 1909.
Regardless of past allegiances that can be proven through research, these men wanted to
create some major separation, and it clearly wasn’t so much between Roller and Hackenschmidt
(seeing that Roller faced “Hack” so many times on that winter tour), as it was the latter duo and
Jack Curley from Gotch.
Tommy Clark, a syndicated writer and the Henry McLemore of his day, noted that Curley had
been saying “very sassing things about the champion,” in recent weeks that really bothered
Gotch. Gotch, in turn, explained that Curley had been exploiting his name to boost ticket sales
for Hackenschmidt’s matches. In March 1911, Clark quoted Gotch as saying that Roller
“furnished Jack Curley with the money to bring Hack to this country,” and that Roller “met the
‘Russian Lion’ nine times on the latter’s tour.” Gotch also explained that Curley guaranteed the
strongman as much as $20,000 for the winter jaunt around North America.
Confusion in this situation was good. Smart newspapermen or fans would see through the
façade and blow the lid off the potential Gotch-Hackenschmidt rematch, which had Clark
predicting that the gate would “easily” be worth $50,000. Hackenschmidt returned to London
on April 5, 1911, but the foundation for continued promotion were in stone. All Curley and
Roller had to do was goad Gotch a big more in the press, find the right city to host the event,
and then light the fire.
Roller, in the meantime, continued to wrestle. As a veteran with name repute, he settled into a
role that put over up-and-coming wrestlers in the Empire Athletic Association syndicate. Over a
series of four matches, he came out even against Americus, the Pride of Baltimore, and on
March 6, 1911, he dethroned Charles Cutler in Chicago to capture the American Heavyweight
Title, winning two-straight falls. Later in the month, on March 25, Cutler regained the
championship in Buffalo.
By May, Gotch agreed to a finish match with Hackenschmidt for a flat fee of $20,000, plus
$1,000 for expenses, and the contest would be held in Chicago on Labor Day. Heading back to
London to meet up with “Hack,” Roller, his wife Mary, and Curley sailed across the Atlantc on
the Adriatic, arriving on May 25, 1911. Roller trained the Russian grappler while overseas for
several weeks before making the return trip, sailing on the S.S. Olympic from Southampton to
New York City with Hackenschmidt and Herman Koch, and arriving on August 16. The trio were
joined by Americus, and boarded a train for Chicago, where they set up a headquarters at the
Empire Club in the Sherman Hotel.
Adolph Ernst, a German-born light heavyweight, was a fixture in Chicago wrestling for a number
of years and had worked out with Gotch and Roller. He’d also accompanied Hackenschmidt
during his previous tour as his chief trainer, and wrestled him in public exhibitions. Ernst joined
the training team in Chicago, and the quartet were putting “Hack” through the mill preparing him
for the big day against Gotch. Around two weeks prior to the September 4, 1911 engagement,
Hackenschmidt suffered a serious injury to his left knee. The damage was significant, and was
enough to get the match cancelled.
Realistically, Hackenschmidt couldn’t confront the world’s greatest wrestler in a straight match,
or even make a performance look believable. The always aggressive Gotch entered the ring
and tackled his opponent like a famished lion going after prey, and captured two straight
matches from “Hack,” the first in 14:18 and the second in 5:32. In excess of 25,000 fans were
duped by the disappointing match that should’ve never taken place. Instead, promoters
pushed the match through despite an injury to one of the participants, took and money and
ran. There was over $87,000 to be divided up behind the proverbial curtain.
The agendas of sportswriters in the aftermath of the match were apparent when dissecting this
story. Some backed Hackenschmidt, giving him the benefit of the doubt and proud that he had
the grit to stand toe-to-toe with Gotch. Others criticized every aspect of the debacle. The
Decatur Review had a report (9/6/1911) that it was evident that “Hack” had gone through with
the match to collect his money, and that in justice to the thousands of people in attendance who
paid exorbitant amounts to see the contest, they should never have attended in the first place
because it should’ve been called off.
Journalists were also interested in what Roller had to say because he’d always been frank with
his opinions. “A gamer man than Hackenschmidt might have continued the struggle,” Roller
explained. “There can be no doubt that he was injured. However, I have seen other wrestlers
who were suffering from injuries fully as severe as that of Hackenschmidt go through their
matches until it was no longer possible for them to continue.”
The hopes that Hackenschmidt would bear it out and give the fans a nice show were dashed
that day in Chicago, leaving plenty of people very angry. Roller was said to have left town
“disgusted,” and “down and out.” It’s hard to say whether the doctor was truly upset at
Hackenschmidt’s poor display and lack of courage. He may have expected more under the
circumstances, and despite the “Russian Lion’s” claim that he wasn’t a quitter, he surely filled
the bill here. But who can say they would’ve done any better, handicapped, against Gotch?
Once again, it must be reaffirmed that all of these guys, Roller included, were paid handsomely
for whatever showing was made. The wrestling public had to decide the next time around
whether they wanted to support a match that could easily be another embarrassing
demonstration of athletics.
Separated from Curley and back on the road, he launched a several year tour which would see
him travel extensively, from Boston to Seattle and from Southeastern Texas to Canada with
stops all over America. In late January 1912, he appeared at a smallish facility in Fremont,
Nebraska, where he encountered two brothers with wrestling aspirations. Roller accepted their
challenges and was able to top them both, but before leaving town, he had nothing but great
things to say about the younger of the two siblings, Joseph Stecher. Stecher would shoot to
the top of the heavyweight wrestling charts within a short time, and capture the World
Heavyweight Title from Charles Cutler in 1915.
Roller wouldn’t be afraid to remind people later on that he was one of the few people to defeat
Stecher, regardless if it was before Stecher had turned pro or not.
While traveling, he gave speeches, taught wrestling holds, and carried himself like a
gentleman. Although he was constantly bouncing in and out of cities, he wasn’t hurting the
business and acting like a bully against local wrestlers. He was more humble than not, and
made his opponents of all types look like they had a chance to score a fall against him. He’d
carry on hour-long falls, and still win in two-straight, but the local man wasn’t hurt by the effort.
In fact, they were boosted by it because in future press reports, writers could say that “so-and-
so” held Roller to an hour of competitive grappling before being defeated. Additionally, the
local audience responded positively to his mat skill, and maintained their appreciation for
His qualities as a showman improved each time he pulled tricks out of his bag. On November 8,
1912, at the Laurier Avenue Arena in Ottawa, Roller was at the mercy of punishment by
Frenchman Raymond Cazeaux the entire match. He was continuously roughed up, but showed
his bravery by keeping up the good fight, trying to match his science against the brutality of his
opponent. Roller took both falls by disqualification and was cheered by the audience.
Three days before Christmas 1912, Roller was driving a friend to deliver some food and toys to
a home of lesser fortunate people in Chicago, when a young girl of 8 darted out in front of their
car. His automobile struck her, and despite their efforts to rush her to Mercy Hospital, Mary
Kurnicki passed away. Investigators found that because Roller was not driving recklessly, and
going less than 10 mph at the time, he wasn’t at fault in the accident.
In Lexington on May 14, 1913, he delivered his customary speech about athletics to the Opera
House crowd, and then proceeded to beat Ed “Strangler” Lewis (Robert Frederich) in two-
straight falls in what the Lexington Herald called the “cleanest wrestling match yet held in
Lexington.” The paper went on to say that Roller “made a distinctly favorable impression in
Lexington as a man of clean athletic ideals, a trained wrestler, and a gentleman off the mat as
well as on it and should he have occasion to return here he will find warm welcome from many
Before what the Benton Harbor News-Palladium called “one of the smallest crowds that ever
appeared at the park,” Dr. Roller wrestled American champion Cutler on July 4, 1913 for the
Empire Athletic Club. The match was expected to draw record breaking attendance from all
adjacent states, and heat was blamed for keeping people away. Roller won the second and
third falls and captured the championship, much to the delight of those who did brave the
steamy weather. Cutler, during the third stanza, lost his temper and began to choke Roller,
causing many fans to charge the ring. Referee Ed Smith disqualified him and gave the
physician the bout.
Facing Cutler in a return match on September 1, 1913 before 2,000 fans in Conroy, Iowa, east
of Des Moines, Roller fell from the mat and suffered multiple injuries to include a bruised
shoulder, a sprained ankle, and three hurt ribs. The match was halted and given to Cutler,
which would’ve transferred the American Title to the man from Chicago. A press report stated
that Cutler refused the victory and wanted a draw instead.
Roller went back to Lexington a little more than two weeks later, on September 18, and put Ed
Lewis over in a two-of-three-falls match. Again, he suffered more of his famous fractured ribs,
and according to the Lexington Herald, Lewis captured Roller’s claim to the American
championship. News of the match made the front page. Ironically, when Roller beat William
Demetral on July 10, 1914 in Rock Island, IL and captured whatever claim Demetral had to the
American Title, it was the Greek wrestler who professed a broken rib.
The differences between the “World” title and the “American” title were blurred during this time-
frame and the only thing most of the sporting public completely understood was that Frank
Gotch still hadn’t been beaten for his championship. The lineage of the secondary title was
extremely difficult to follow, and many wrestlers were claiming to be the American champion with
little or no basis.
In December 1912, Cutler claimed the World Heavyweight Title with support from Gotch, but
when he lost to Roller in July of 1913, it was said to be for the American championship. Cutler’s
claim disappeared, perhaps going to Stanislaus Zbyszko after a pair of losses (December 25,
1912 in Boston and January 13, 1913 in Chicago).
Officials in Fairfax, Iowa wanted to bring Cutler and Roller together to settle the “world” title
disorder on September 7, 1914, but heavy rain and wind put a halt to those plans. Cutler was
repeatedly billed as the world champion in advertising, and after Roller failed to show for the
rescheduled match, Charlie defeated Wladek Zbyszko instead on September 15. The locals
were told that Roller was hurt in an accident in Chicago, but the truth was that Roller was
performing his injury gimmick in Boston on September 16, knocking himself out on the floor in a
bout with Yussiff Hussane.
Cutler was on cruise control by this point, gaining some serious traction as the heavyweight
champion of the world. His reign wasn’t diminished much by a disqualification loss in the
second fall of a November 25, 1914 bout against Jack Taylor at Winnipeg’s Walker Theatre.
Referee Alex Stewart awarded Taylor the championship, and Taylor capitalized on the decision,
running with his own claim after the bout.
On December 2, 1914 in Springfield, Massachusetts, Roller beat Ed “Strangler” Lewis in front of
a large crowd at the Auditorium. He went to Saskatoon for match against newly crowned
champion Taylor on January 22, 1915, and Roller was able to take the initial fall. Taylor came
back to win the second and third straight. On May 24, 1915, he participated in his first match of
the International Wrestling Tournament in New York City and beat Charles Olsen in 10:20, then
topped Lorenz Christiansen the next day. He remained undefeated until a loss to Alex Aberg in
the Greco-Roman style after more than two-hours. Aberg was considered the champion of that
form of wrestling.
Roller made a good impression on New York fans and was a top star representing America in
the tournament. In July, the New York Times reported that Roller was retiring from professional
wrestling. The doctor was now living in Manhattan and wanted to take up his medical practice
in the city.
Retirement didn’t last long. He entered the winter International Tournament promoted by
Samuel Rachmann and Jack Curley at the Opera House, and during the opening night on
November 8, 1915, he gave a speech to inaugurate the festivities. In addition to performing
admirably night in and night out, he displayed his skills as a doctor on the night of November
25, when he helped Antone Irsa set his dislocated shoulder back into place. Victorious more
than not, Roller’s major losses came at the hands of Aberg and then Ed “Strangler” Lewis on
January 15, 1916. Lewis claimed the American Heavyweight Title after the win.
Maybe because he’d held the American Title so often during his career that it had become a
badge of honor he couldn’t shake regardless of how many times he lost in the ring. On January
8, 1917, Wladek Zbyszko won the American championship, and then when Roller decided to
retire in 1919, guess what? He retired as the American Heavyweight champion.
The mat career of Dr. Roller lasted from 1906 to 1919, and he intersected with Farmer Burns,
Gotch, Beell, Hackenschmidt, Gama, both Zbyszkos, Mahmout, Olsen, Ernst, Cutler, Ordemann,
Westergaard, Ed “Strangler” Lewis, Stecher, and Caddock. He was a central storyline
character in the professional wrestling industry, a constant headliner, and perpetual fan
favorite. Great things were predicted for him when he entered the sport and he lived up to
Roller passed away on April 20, 1933 in New York City at the age of 57.
Shortly before his death, the Associated Press caught up with the famed fighting physician and
Roller expressed his disgust for modern wrestling. By that time, the more obvious
hippodroming was everywhere. Roller hadn’t been above performance as a wrestler, but what
was considered over-the-top in 1933 as compared to the moves in 1913 were like night and
day. His injury-gimmick was a bonafide wrestling classic, and the way he tried to communicate
and interact with audiences exhibited his gift as an orator. Always articulate and classy, he was
ambitious from day one, growing the pocket change he carried as he entered DePauw to a
million dollar estate.
As a physician, he helped people with their health and preached wellness, and as a wrestler he
entertained them using a strict scientific approach. Dr. Roller was a standout in the wrestling
world, and helped build the sport up rather than tear it down through his own greedy needs. He
lived a clean lifestyle and was respected by people throughout the sporting community for his
candor. After losing to Americus at Albaugh’s Theater in Baltimore on December 14, 1910, he
spoke to the crowd, humbly announcing that he’d been beaten by a “greater wrestler.” The
only problem that he had that night was that there was “too much smoking” in the hall.
Dr. Benjamin Franklin Roller was a true one of a kind.
1. Joe Carroll and Dr. Roller parted ways in September 1909 and there was a lot of resentment
left before the two. Carroll, known to be one of the most unscrupulous men in the wrestling
business, was on the brink of being jailed for part of the infamous “Maybray Gang” at
Leavenworth. Before being locked up, he joined up with Bert Warner in an attempt to damage
Roller’s credibility as a wrestler, saying that the physician was engaging in prearranged bouts.
After some shenanigans, Roller and Warner, who weighed more than 30 pounds less, wrestled
what appeared to the audience to be a legitimate match. In the end, Roller scored the win.
2. There were rumors for a number of years that Dr. Roller was heading to Europe to study
medicine, wrestle, and box. The Cedar Rapids Tribune on May 7, 1909 stated that he was
going to the “old country,” and then the Indianapolis Star on October 27, 1909 claimed that
after the first of the year he was going to continue his medical education at Vienna or the
University of Berlin. The Indianapolis Star, on January 1, 1913, reported that Roller did in fact
quit wrestling in 1910 and “studied medicine in Europe at the Imperial Institute of Medical
Research at Frankfort.” However, this report cannot be substantiated.
Sometime in July 1910, Roller went to Europe, where he battled Gama on August 8, 1910 in
London. He returned to North America with his wife on October 9. It appears that if Roller did
briefly study medicine in Europe in 1910, it was within this two-month window.
Roller and his wife were in Europe again in 1911 between May 25 and August 9 (departure
3. The December 5, 1910 edition of the Baltimore Sun reported that Jack Curley and Dr. B.F.
Roller met George Hackenschmidt in England the summer before. The article stated that
Curley and Roller “parted company the best of friends” on November 15 in Chicago. This was
apparently done to create the illusion that Roller wasn’t in cahoots with Hackenschmidt during
their abundance of matches that winter. Roller, as all evidence supports, was still working with
Curley and Hackenschmidt through the end of 1910 and well into 1911.
4. The injury to George Hackenschmidt in the days leading up to the second match against
Frank Gotch has been a controversial subject since it was revealed to the public on September
4, 1911. Both Dr. Roller and Adolph Ernst were blamed for causing the injury to
Hackenschmidt. Actually, Ernst took “credit,’ as if it was a positive thing to boast about, for
maiming “Hack” in a story recited in Lou Thesz’s autobiography, Hooker.
5. Roller used the injury gimmick at various points in his career. However, he implemented it
with style each time. On one occasion in Ottawa, he wanted to continue after suffering a
broken rib, and was showered with affection from fans who appreciated his courage. Aside
from making money, it was more important for him to score a victory with the audience than to
win or lose a match. Here are some examples of his injury gimmick:
Roller lost to Henry Ordemann, September 3, 1909, Seattle (1-0, UTC) – Knocked out
Roller lost to Yussif Mahmout, April 7, 1910, Kansas City (2-0) – Injury to shoulder
Roller lost to Stanislaus Zbyszko, May 16, 1910, Buffalo (2-0) – Injury to left shoulder
Roller lost to Great Gama, August 8, 1910, London (2-0) – Injury to ribs
Roller lost to Jess Westergaard, February 16, 1911, Omaha (UTC) - Injury
Roller lost to Jess Westergaard, March 18, 1912, Knoxville (UTC) – Injury to ribs
Roller lost to Raymond Cazeaux, May 4, 1912, Ottawa (2/3) – Injury to right knee
Roller vs. Constant LeMarin, November 15, 1912, Ottawa – Injury to ribs
Roller lost to Charlie Cutler, September 1, 1913, Conroy (UTC) – Multiple injuries
Roller lost to Ed Lewis, September 18, 1913, Lexington (UTC) – Injury to ribs
Roller lost to Yussiff Hussane, September 16, 1914, Boston (UTC) – Knocked out
Roller lost to Ed "Strangler" Lewis, March 13, 1918, Atlanta - Injured, announces retirement
These injuries were almost always “serious,” but no permanent damage was sustained.
6. Roller was married three, possibly four times. His first marriage came shortly after
graduating from the University of Pennsylvania in July 1902 to a local girl named Lesley Emma
Kast. In May 1910, he married Tracy Helen, a girl from Washington, and remained wed to her
until 1929, when they divorced in New York City. A short time later, in April 1930, he married
Jane Norris. The New York Times, on December 20, 1918, made reference to a possible fourth
wife named “Maude Roller,” in an article in which the latter was being detained in a bad check
7. The legitimacy of the Roller-Gama match on August 8, 1910 in London has been debated
by pundits for years. The fact that the Roller injury-gimmick was implemented kind of steers the
discussion in one direction, but Roller may have truly been hurt. Gama won the first fall,
reportedly, in only 1:40, and then took the second in 9:09. It was such a decisive win for Gama
that it succeeded in making Roller look like a preliminary guy, and not the second best wrestler
from the United States. However, Jack Curley, who was on the England tour with Roller, wanted
to bring Gama “across the pond,” and what better way to launch a run at Gotch than to say that
Gama destroyed Roller with ease. Curley was unable to secure Gama’s contract, though, and
never wrestled Gotch.
If it was real, the ease in which Gama beat Roller may have hurt Gama more than it did the
doctor because Gama was seen as a powerhouse with possibly no peers except Gotch, and
few wanted to challenge him. Gotch at least has a type of syndicate in place with ready made
opponents when he went on tour. Curley basically needed Gama to either wrestle Gotch
legitimately for all the marbles, or to come to the U.S. like Hackenschmidt did and work the
rounds, giving up handicap matches building toward finish bouts. And it was clear that Gama
wasn’t going to play that game. He was the real deal and his reputation preceded him.
However, we may never know the truth in this situation.
8. Roller also participated in the 1917 International Wrestling Tournament in New York City's
9. There was an uprising of publicity when it came to Dr. Roller becoming a professional boxer
in 1908 with some sportswriters pegging him to be a potential champion. The October 29, 1908
edition of the Anaconda Standard (MT) included an article that likely ran in papers coast-to-
coast, stating that with Roller of Seattle, the "prize ring may find a real champ of the caliber of
the old time fighters." In July of that year, there was even talk of Bob Fitzsimmons becoming his
trainer. Boxing pundits were looking for the next coming champion, perhaps desperate even,
and latched onto the Roller bandwagon, praying that he'd becoming the same sensation as a
fighter as he had as a wrestler. Within a year, it was very clear that Roller was not a
championship caliber fighter. In fact, he was mediocre at best, and the dream was left behind.
*Thanks to researcher Becky Taylor for information on Roller's 1918 injury gimmick being
staged in Atlanta versus Ed "Strangler" Lewis. There are no doubt more incidents of the
wrestling doctor pulling this stunt.
|The Master of Medicine and Gimmicks: Dr. B.F. Roller