Monday, May 23, 2011

THE STRONGEST MAN THAT EVER LIVED - LOUIS CYR, (Circa 1927) - Reminiscence - (Last Chapter) - By George F. Jowett

Some years ago I wrote an article entitled, "Quebec, The Cradle of Strong Men." The title was the result of a statement I had made in which I remarked that within the province of Quebec could be found the strongest men in the world. The statement, and the article, drew widespread interest and comment as to what was the cause of this apparently extraordinary condition among an approximate number of two million people. Was it diet, race or hereditary condition? That was the exact question raised in an editorial.

I often turned that question over in my mind, but not for one moment did I consider the question of diet. I know only too well the thrifty frugal table of the habitant of Quebec, and while the table is well provided for the variety is scant. Three things which the dietitians taboo; namely, pork, white bread and maple syrup, they eat in abundance. The question of race might have something to do with it, but I very much doubt it.

The first people of Canada were the French Catholic Colonists, but very quickly they began to infuse the blood of the Huron and Iroquois into their progeny, and I doubt if there can be found a real native of Quebec wholly free of Indian blood. I say this in view of the fact that no person can call himself a native unless he can produce a lineage of four generations on the native soil. The French Canadians can produce such an heritage more easily than the English Canadian. Through this race commingling we find the blood ties of New France separated from Old France, and along with the change of blood ties we find a diversity of language. In my estimation, there is all the difference in the world between the Frenchman of France and the Frenchman of Canada, and it is also true that the native of Quebec recognizes this condition and does not recognize an absolute affinity with the old land. They grew as a race apart.

France refused to believe it, but when the famous French Canadian battalions first paraded through Paris en route during the great war, it became an established reality to them. France was curious to look upon the descendants of the hardy followers of Cartier and Champlain, and well I remember the French papers commenting on their observations of the prodigals and saying that, "They found them different."

If it had been a question of race they would not have been different. History is full of such incidents. The dispersion of the various Gothic nations as they trod underfoot the various civilizations in their barbarous conquests in the different parts of Europe proves this. They were in time absorbed by the conquered in the process of natural absorption. Most of these all-conquering Teuton races became Latinized. If these particular war-like races had within them the all-dominating features they would never have been absorbed. Other great nations fell of moral decay - for instance, the Hellenic Empire and the Empire of the Caesars. In only one instance have we any record of a race perpetuating its domination - the Anglo Saxons. The Norman conquest of England was absorbed within one generation and British race predominated as Anglo-Saxon.

Of hereditary conditions as a cause there probably are a few more reasons for belief, although I cannot bring myself to analyze this question in the same light as the masters of eugenics analyze hereditary traits, through their experiments with guinea pigs, white mice and rabbits. Whether I am right or wrong, I base my beliefs as history and ethnology have taught me, and until I am proved wrong I shall continue to believe that I am right.

It has always been a doubtful question in my mind as to just how much hereditary has to do with the success of a nation, but with the individual it is quite probably much more important. Yet the greatest fundamental that I have come to recognize is - environment. This condition more than any other makes men what they are. In itself it is the product of conditions or circumstances. The conditions and circumstance of Canada as found by its first settlers, were what determined the real hardiness of the future Canadian. Only the fittest survived, and necessity set for them a task of toil. It developed the true spirit of the pioneer, and from that such a man as Louis Cyr sprung. Among them, strength is a natural acquisition, they do not look for it, they expect it, and taking great pride in the amount they exhibit, the element of combat evolved.

Louis Cyr is not the only great man Quebec had, there are many others, but the great Louis was the greatest of them all. Further investigation proved that Louis was advertising the fact that in the same province were other man of powerful bone and sinew, more capable of comparison with himself than some of the luminaries of Europe. Louis had already produced the prodigious Horace Barre, a man who had on several occasions shouldered a bar bell of twelve hundred and seventy pounds and carried it the entire length of gymnasium of each occasion. Imagine a bar bell of twelve hundred and seventy pounds - would you not believe that such a weight on a bar would not only overbalance a man so that it would be impossible for him to carry it, but the weight on the bar would cause it to be buried deep into the flesh of the shoulder so that the burden would be unbearable. But Barre did it. Twice he performed the feat of the gymnasium of Professor Attila, in New York, and on other occasions in Montreal. Doing the feat so often is evidence enough that it was not his record performance. He could have done more.

Just the direct opposite was little Bourette, a man who did not weigh much over one hundred pounds stripped. The little dynamo teamed with Louis in his circus troupe, and at every performance he raised a huge bar bell to arms length that weighed two hundred and thirty pounds, while lying on his back. I met Bourette years after his retirement when he was in his fifties, and he could still do it, although he had not touched a weight for years. He formed part of a tremendous spectacular feat with Louis, in which the iron king held a bar bell in his hands, on which Bourette would hang suspended with his hocks. Then Louis, quite matter of fact, would raise the combined weight to his shoulders, and push the weight out straight in front so that his arms were straight, and level with his shoulder. Slowly, he would return the man and weight to the shoulders. It seems terribly hard for the layman to believe a front, "muscle out" like that, but it was just a routine feat for the king of strength.

Then again, remember his brother, Peter, as a lad of nineteen was invincible as a middle weight. All at one time we find four superman produced from a population that then numbered not much over a million people. It was environment that created them, but it was Louis that created the environment. He inspired others, and they accustomed themselves to consider certain poundage as being ordinary, that really shocked the best products of other nations. Well, we always follow a leader and usually find that the magnitude of his brilliance is a cause for our continued striving. The brilliancy of Leader Louis was that he daily reduced the extraordinary in feats of man power to the commonplace.

These points that I have just covered were accepted by all those who had become deeply interested in this topic, but you know how one question will raise another. They pondered over the thought whether Quebec would always be the cradle of strong men. That is something that will always rest upon the lap of the gods. It all depends upon how time will affect the people of Quebec, and whether the future generation will be caught in the whirligig of fast life or not. So far these people have remained much to themselves, clannish if you wish to use the term, but free of the bigotry that prevails over most clannish races. They choose their bosom friends, and their wives from amongst themselves because they feel a closer relationship. It is not hate that separates them from others, but a greater affection for their own. We have to admire them for that.

Anyhow the march of progress has lifted all new countries far away from the pioneer days, which is also true of Quebec, and still be find the Anglo-French colony true to her Titan tradition. Of the men who followed Louis, perhaps the most notable was the young Montrealer, Hector DeCarrie. He certainly was a real good man, but lacked much of the bodyweight that Cyr and Barre had. I doubt if he ever made the two hundred pound bodyweight mark. Of course, we do not hear anything of DeCarrie now, as he retired from the strong man profession some years ago. Like all French Canadian strong men he was great on separate dumb-bell lifting, and he was a wonder on the bent press. He actually claimed to be the first man to do over three hundred pounds with one hand. Be that as it may, DeCarrie was the best man in Canada for many years. Then came Wilfred Cabana, who before he was out of his teens forged to the front with some stupendous claims, but he never conclusively proved his superiority over DeCarrie. Cabana became the rage. He was a regular Adonis, and it looked as though he was going to revive the old glories that had passed away with the incomparable Louis, but lack of proper management, and the refusal to be true to himself lost him his popularity, and he never climbed far on the steps that led to fame. Cabana was really ingenious, and contrived some wonderful feats, but his actual lifting was based upon his bent press ability. I remember quite well his human bridge stunt, performed a la Strongfort. Unfortunately, he was badly injured when the driver of the automobile lost control of the machine, which brought the whole works down upon him.

LaVallee was the next superman that invaded the field. He was undoubtedly the most powerful man since the days of Cyr. Of him I have written considerably in "The Key to Might and Muscle." Here was a man I would dearly have liked to seen featured. He was of a tremendous stature, tall, and well put together with enormous girth of limb. He reminded me much of Apollon, the old French idol, whom he resembled in every way, even to the extent of his laziness in being unwilling to demonstrate the actual limit of his strength. Around this time there sprung up another who claimed much public attention, Victor DeLamarre. He came from further east in the province, but to be frank with all my brother strength lovers, I cannot say that this man was in the same class as any of the other men I have mentioned on pure strength tests. He is a fine showman, but that is all, and I merely mention him because so many interested parties have written to me concerning him. From the moment I first saw him perform at the St. Dennis Theatre, in Montreal, I did not take him seriously. I do not think that he weighs over one hundred and sixty pounds, and I feel quite sure that Fournier could easily dispose of him on any set of lifts.

At that time, I could have put my hands on a dozen men in Montreal alone, who collectively, could defeat the twelve best men all the other nations of the world put together could bring. Since then, the world has made rapid strides in the strength field, and developed some wonderful material. Nevertheless, Quebec still produces the quota from her handful, that can challenge the world on an even footing.

I quite expect that there are some who will be inclined to think that Quebec's production is an accident. They may thing that a province of so small a population could not lord it over the rest of the world otherwise. Now here is where I want you to understand me thoroughly. I am no one who puts things down to miracles or accidents, when anything unusual becomes repeated more than two or three times. There is always a reason to be found somewhere, is my belief. It is not because the French Canadians are a northern people that they are so sturdy. The Scandinavian races have a similar climate, but they, as a people do not compare with the Canadian strong men. It is all in environment, the atmosphere we live in that moulds our character and disposition. Quebec is not the only country that has proved this. Look at little Estonia and the powerful men it has produced. They claim George Hackenschmidt, Lurich and Aberg of the old regime, and are responsible for such splendid men as Neuland, Kikkas and Tammer of the present day. It is an Estonian strength club that has the highest standard of any other club in the world. No man over one hundred and eighty-two pounds is admitted into membership, who cannot make a two-hands jerk in two clean movements of three hundred pounds.

I am aware of the fact that Hackenschmidt, Lurich and Aberg have claimed Russia as their nationality, but then, Estonia was part of Russia. On the other hand it was easier for them to say they came from Russia, just the same as it is for a native of Quebec to say he is from Canada.

It has been environment with Estonia, as with Quebec, that has developed such a high standard, and kept it, and as long as they cater to strength as their national sport, each nation will continue to produce extraordinary specimens.

Montreal has been the scene of many rare strength fests, and seen many a great man come and go. Last summer Arthur Giroux retired, and with him went much of that which we admire in the man of bone and sinew. He was a popular national figure, and endeared himself to the hearts of many American strength lovers. He did not commence to display his powers until he was thirty-four years of age, and when he did, he made them all step. I never knew a lifter who was as anxious as he was to satisfy others as to the honesty of the weights that he lifted. In that respect he was like his great forerunner, Louis Cyr. He was exceptionally good at walking with weights in both hands, and naturally his grip was unusually strong. He held the beautiful trophy from the French Canadian Federation of Weight Lifters, for many years, turning it in during the summer of 1926, when he announced his retirement.

Arthur Dandurand was also a fine speciman of manhood, and among the smaller men, Fournier, Marineau, Angers, Gratton, and Barbeau are wonders. But Montreal has recently brought to light another figure whose caliber of strength surpasses that of any other since the advent of Cyr. His name is Caouette. He is not yet thirty years of age, but is an enormous man, heavier even than Cyr. He strips at three hundred and forty-seven pounds, but is so powerful that it is hard to give any exact estimate of his strength at the present time. On some feats he equals the great Louis, but whether he can equal him on all tests, or beat him, is something that remains to be proved.

I have know them all, along with many others whom I have not mentioned, and with due respect to them all, including the powerful new comer, Caouette, none of them come within a thousand miles of touching the great Louis. With the exception of DeLavalee and Caouette, not one of them had anywhere near the strength of Cyr. Even if they had, there was many things that Cyr had, which they lack. This can be equally applied to all the strong men of any other country. Cyr was magnetic. He attracted, and swayed the public with his inborn traits of showmanship that was brought to the peak of perfection, from use. A promoter who had handled Louis, told me that he was the easiest man in the world to handle. He was a shrewd business man, but never exorbitant, and at no time was he known to resort to harsh words. Louis would say what he had to say, and if they could not agree on terms, well, there was no harm done. They all could part with a handshake, knowing Louis was still a friend. Most men who rise to the peak that Louis reached, are as hard to handle as any operatic star - No wonder their managers die young.

I have never met a strong man from the land of the maple leaf who did not feel that Louis was something way beyond the rest of them. Dear old Montreal, it has always been the Mecca of strong men on this side of the Atlantic, and rivals such great centers as Munich, Vienna and Reval. American traditions have reposed in the old city of Boston, although during the last few years, Philadelphia has become the hub of attraction. Even so, Boston still retains some magnificent characters. In Louis' days, it was the place and became more popular because the great king of fistiania commenced his career and lived his life there. John L. Sullivan was the first known to the sporting public as - "The Boston Strong Boy," and throughout his life he was tremendously proud of his strength. It was the feature of his ring career. Never was he known to refuse a test with any man of brawn, and he claimed no man was as strong as he unless he proved it. Incidentally, John L. had some pet stunts all of his own that really took some doing, but he found all his best as nothing against the superior powers of Our Louis.

These two men were very friendly, although John L. was very repugnant to Louis when John L. was under the influence of drink, which was very often. While much can be said for John L. as a fighter, and much for him as a man, when sober, nevertheless when drinking he was degraded. He reigned with a rule of terror, and it is a fact that when he called for every man to drink to his toast, he drank. He pulled this stunt off wherever he went, and always when the bar room was the most crowded. His voice was the roar of a bull, and as loud as he could roar he would call for everyone to line up against the bar. This done, and with everyone standing glass in hand waiting for the toast, John L. would exclaim, "Here's to John L. Sullivan, I can lick any son of a - in the world." As they drank, Sullivan would glare around from under his scowling brow to see if anyone had not responded. The day came when one man did refuse, none other than Louis Cyr. They had both walked into a saloon, and when the crowd had gathered to its largest, John L. made his usual boastful toast. The glass was to the mouth of Louis when the speech began, but as it progressed a look of reproach settled upon his face, and he returned his glass to the bar. Sullivan had drank enough to bring all the viciousness of his nature to the surface, which always laid dormant when he was sober.

"Drink!" He roared out at Louis, but Louis just shook his head. " I'm sorry, M'sier, I cannot drink to that expression." Silence settled upon all as tense as that experienced by a soldier waiting for a flying bomb to explode. John was shocked speechless for the moment, but he quickly recovered and took a step closer to Louis, with the glass in his hand that Louis had set down.

"Drink that!" he shouted, almost purple in the face, but Louis replied by placing one hand on John L.'s chest, and gave him a push that sent the drunken prize fighter reeling up against the bar. That was all. Sullivan then came to his senses, and manfully said to Louis, "I did not mean it that way, Louis." The breach thus filled, Louis called for drinks all around, and toasted, "To the champion fighter of the world, John L. Sullivan," to which everyone there applauded, glad to be released from the tense situation.

This little incident alone proves Louis' broadness of mind. Some men with half the strength that Cyr had would have tried to have taken advantage of the situation. Instead, Louis gave John L. a chance to reassert himself, which he did. Judged in our day, such a statement is a deep affront and most men are likely to resent it. Many years ago, it was used as an expression of deep friendship, or in terms of admiration, but with it went the cowboy's advice, "Say, pard, when yuh use that name, smile." John L. Sullivan never smiled; his face always bore a ferocious scowl with which he always tried to reduce his opponent.

However, that expression broke a friendship later on that ended in a thrashing being administered to him by James J. Corbett, who also took his title. Cyr and Corbett are the only two men known to have dared to refuse the toast to Sullivan and get away with it.

Cyr did not pass the thing off lightly because he was afraid of Sullivan. Not a bit. Cyr quite well knew that John L. was supposed to be the most dangerous when under the influence of drink. Louis was positively fearless, and as I have stated in the first chapter of this book, Cyr could outfight any man in the province. Of course, that meant in a rough and tumble fight, hitting when down, as well as when up. John L. came to think an awful lot of Cyr, and he would laugh heartily at his vain attempts to move arm of Louis in a wrist-turning test. On one of these impromptu occasions John L. said, " I bet that I can hit a harder blow than you, Louis. Big as you are, I can knock you off your feet with a blow on the chest." To this Louis replied, "No, John, you can't." By Hokey, I can," John declared, and each man rose to his feet. "All ready," John L. asked. "Stand well back, boys, so you can catch him as he falls, or open the door wide, for I'm going to knock him for a row."

Louis stood up squarely upon his feet, one foot braced ahead of the other and his enormous chest thrust out big enough target for a blind man to hit. John L. had rolled the sleeve of his shirt after discarding his coat, and he measured his distance with the practiced eye of a fighter who is used to measure off an opponent for a blow. The Boston bruiser looked formidable enough as he drew back his powerful right arm to the shoulder and launched forward the blow with all the strength in his body behind. His fist struck with the thudding boom of a big dud shell as it buries its force in the earth. The onlookers gasped and exclaimed, as the contact of knuckles on breastbone collided, and resounded throughout the room. But the mountain of bone and muscle was not moved from off his feet. Sullivan was the most amazed man there; he had never dreamt that any man could physically repulse a blow of his. Ruefully he rubbed his hand and said, "Darn it all, Louis, I would not want to be pounding men like you in the ring."

There was one stunt in particular that was a favorite with John L. which he was everlastingly having fun with. He had a glass a little taller than the ordinary drinking glass, and also with a smaller circumference. In it he place a silver dollar and challenged the onlookers to try to blow it out. It takes some doing, and very few have I seen do it. The object is to blow the breath as forcibly as possible into the glass, and see if the reaction of the air striking the bottom of the glass will lift the silver dollar out of the glass. John L. could do it every time, and as is to be expected, he stuck Louis for the stunt. It strikes me as funny that John L. should entertain the thought that Louis could not do as good as he. Goodness sake! A man with a sixty inch chest surely has a pair of lungs in proportion, and the way Louis blew that silver dollar out was enough to make believe he had four pair of lungs within him. How that made John L. laugh. At another time they both were feeling exceptionally playful, and they decided to have a free-for-all bout. The donned the mitts, and John socked the big man of might as he charged in, but it could not stop him, and the next thing John knew was that he was being squeezed to death with two great arms that wrapped around his head like the tentacles of an octopus. John could not strike, and the next thing he was thrown to the ground with Louis on top. John L. thought the house had fallen on him, and big as Sullivan was, he was completely submerged in the gigantic folds of the giant that held him crushed and powerless. You can hardly believe that men of such size would feel inclined to indulge in such horseplay, but there was much of the boy in both of them. Boston never forgot Louis any more than it ever forgot John L., and their popularity is what made their separate centers so famous in sport.

This retrospect has given me the opportunity to tell you a little more of Our Hero and of others who played a part with him, as well of those inspired by the great iron master who followed after him. I have explained only in a brief was why I believe environment is the real cause of the success of Quebec. I did not see nay reason to go into the technicalities of eugenics, or history, for I do not think you are so deeply concerned with those subjects as much as you are in the evidence produced by the strength of the men we honor.

Lifting weights to the French Canadian is like cricket to the English and baseball to the American. It is their sport. Of course, strength covers a much wider field than the national sports I have mentioned do. Strength embraces the world and has lovers everywhere. Beyond a doubt it is because of the great scope it covers that so many questions and comparisons are raised. Some people like to talk about the wonderful physique of the South American Indians, who live in the high altitude of the Andes, or of the Zulu, the west Australian native of the interior, and so on. To me they mean nothing. The South American sickens and dies when he descends from his high altitude, and the Australian when he comes in contact with the white. They can only live under certain conditions. Then they are not wholly physically strong. Give me the man that can go anywhere, and meet anyone on equal terms, and still remain strong. He holds our answer. Not these people who seclude themselves in the isolated spots of the earth.

We worship Louis Cyr because he was so much all man. It is for these characteristics that make up that type of men we prefer to follow him, and hold him, as our inspiration. If I had the wealth of some men, I would set up a monument to his glory, and in letters of gold inscribe the lesson he gave to manliness and clean living so that all who read would pause and check up on themselves. Show them the value of taking a personal physical inventory so that they would gladly throw away their vices and follow him, as you and I are doing, for the betterment of ourselves and our children.

Iron Nation
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