An accidental word scramble sends our columnist, Ron Marr, on a search through Missouri’s laws about bear wrestling. And that conjures up a childhood memory about Cletus, Cleo, and the legend of a professional bear wrestler Ransom Prine.

Illustration by Merit Myers

By Ron Marr

The dogs and I go walking every morning as long as the temperature is above 10 degrees and the wind is below 20 mph. I’ve mentioned this before, and typically it’s a pleasant and uneventful affair. Lately though, our placid sojourns have been interrupted by a number of too-close encounters with ill-tempered, local wildlife. 

In recent months, the pups and I have thrice had coyotes and raccoons bolt from the weeds within 10 feet of us. One coyote did a stare-down rather than beating feet when I gave a yell. The raccoon was positively weird. Both were quite possibly sick, and wisdom dictated that I start carrying some sort of weaponry.

This led to hitting a gun show and trading a few old bang-sticks I never shoot for a new, double-barrel, Bond Arms derringer/hand cannon. It fits nicely in a pocket holster, and is chambered in .45/.410. For the “guninformed,” that means it can fire both a .45 caliber bullet and a .410 shotgun shell. I now feel slightly more prepared, but this latest acquisition tweaked my curiosity about Missouri gun laws. Thus, I went to Missouri’s searchable statutes page and, because I’m an idiot, laughingly typed in something about “the right to arm bears.”

I easily found the information I sought, but was also gifted with a lovely surprise. While the law is unclear as to whether concealed carry is legal for bears in the Show-Me State, it’s absolutely illegal to wrestle one. According to Missouri statute 578.176, a person is guilty of a Class A misdemeanor if they wrestle a bear, train a bear to wrestle, buy or sell a wrestling bear, or permit a bear-wrestling match on their premises.

Additionally, you can’t advertise or promote bear wrestling, or collect a fee from the bear-wrestling match you’re not supposed to have. I’m pretty certain a bear-wrestling match involves a human and a bear, but that’s only because discovering this statute unearthed a forgotten memory.

As a kid in the 1970s, I had a summer job in a lumberyard, working with a bunch of old men who were undoubtedly younger then than I am now. One of them—let’s call him Cletus—was noted for being semi-deaf and incredibly annoying. Cletus had this bad-tempered wife—her name was Cleo—who outweighed him by about 100 pounds. That was no mean feat, as he field-dressed at about 250. 

Cleo and Cletus fought like cats and dogs. She once ripped his ear half off, and he retaliated by setting fire to the outhouse while she was in it. I asked a co-worker if their relationship had always been so fractious.

“Cletus could make anybody nuts after a while,” he said, “but I’d never mess with Cleo. Her old man was. Ransom Prine … the professional bear wrestler!”

Based on the date of the revised statutes, bear wrestling apparently was legal until about 1998, which means Cleo had likely been trained in bruin-brawling techniques during her childhood in the 1920s and ’30s. Cletus never stood a chance.

probably good that the sport was outlawed, if for no other than reason than to protect the dogs and me on our walks. Even the best derringer in the world would be wholly ineffective should I ever confront a bear that was proficient in arcane rasslin’ moves, like ear-ripping.

Article originally published in the March/April 2023 issue of Missouri Life.