Saturday, May 21, 2011

THE STRONGEST MAN THAT EVER LIVED - LOUIS CYR, (Circa 1927) - Chapter 7 - By George F. Jowett


I never will forget the first time I met him. It was very incidental and came at an age when first impressions are etched with vivid distinction upon the mind. You never forget. I had been standing at the corner of one of the cross streets of Notre Dame, about a block away from Place D'Armes, for about fifteen minutes, waiting for a pal who showed no signs of turning up. In fact had told me not to wait any longer than eight o'clock, and it was then ten minutes after. Why I stood there so long I do not know. The night was cold, and the street so ill lit that it was almost in complete darkness.

I guess that I was in one of those retrospective moods of mine with nothing to do and all night to do it in. When I arrived I had noticed across the way what looked to be the end of a lighted cigar stuck in someone's mouth. The person was so hidden by the greater darkness of the doorway in which he stood that I could not see who it was, or what it was. In consequence, the lighted cigar appeared glaringly visible. I would watch it gleam and dull as the smoker puffed and relaxed on it, and all the time my interest grew. I can remember as though it was today, how I stood trying to pierce the darkness with a curiosity that made me think of what Ella Wheeler Wilcox said about the fascination in all human beings to raise the veil to peer into the unseen. Perhaps this reads queerly to you, as you may wonder what on earth is there to the lighted end of a cigar. Not much, as a rule, I'll admit, but there was this time. The light vanished and I still lingered.

Presently a voice spoke - "Bon Soir, M'sieur. Quelle heure est-il?" (which apart from bidding you a good night means he wants to know the time). I told him; then he asked me for a light, and I had to apologize for not having one. When I told the stranger I did not smoke he asked me with a friendly laugh if I was an athlete. Well, you can figure what happened after that. One thing led to another, which climaxed with his asking me if I knew personally the great Louis Cyr, with whom he was well acquainted. Up until then I had never seen Cyr, as I was quite young and being a real enthusiast of body culture had never dreamed of frequenting saloons.

Anyhow, the upshot was we started for Louis' place with me all athrill. Happily, it was too early for the regular nightly gathering when we arrived, and few of the patrons were as yet about. My companion shouted, "Hello, Louis," as a form so huge appeared in the doorway I thought he would shove the door jambs out as he came through. My father was a big man, and my grandfather was bigger, but his man looked like them both in one. I was awed out of my senses.

My friend introduced me and Louis smiled kindly when he was informed that I was one who practiced lifting weights. The big man felt my hand and wrist and said, "Yes, you're a strong boy." I colored visibly at this kindness, and the rest of the night my fascinated gaze never the herculean proportions of the colossal chest, and back of the arms upon which the sleeves were rolled. That was all I could see of him above the bar, and enough for one night. As the gathering grew the patrons became noisy and more boisterous with every drink. Everything talked about was strength and every word of it I devoured.

Finally, "Come, Louis, let me see if can move your arm tonight; I feel terribly strong," one burly fellow sang out happily. Louis strode up behind the bar facing the challenger with a smile and placed his huge arm upon the bar with the forearm bent at right angles. With both hands the burly fellow took hold of Louis' hand, and throwing all his weight backwards he tried to pull the arm down. It was useless. He reminded me of a flying dangling on the end of a fishing hook. Then he called for his friend to help him. Two more complied and all Louis did was to double up his forearm on the biceps to foil their resistance.

At another time I saw Louis perform a feat by which he is commonly remembered. Men came from all over with the hope of witnessing this unusual stunt, and in it there was a great deal of secret tact between Louis and his wife. Though it was never said so, but I always believed it to be a trade-drawing stunt, and the way it was offered it was never meant to appear as a stunt, but more or less of a commonplace event in the order of their matrimonial life.

Louis would be standing with arms folded on the bar, talking to the patrons (he was always talking when it happened), when from the rear Madame would emerge dressed for the street, and simply say "Louis." Without breaking his speech or taking his eyes away from their original object, one big arm would slide off the bar. Madame would then sit upon the palm of that great platter of hand without doing anything other than pull on her gloves, or look into her handbag, while as easily and smoothly as the hoist of an elevator, her weight would be curled over the height of the bar, and then in a clear muscle-out, she would be transferred over the bar and gently lowered on the other side until her feet touched the floor. Sliding off the hand, she would then pass out into the street with the commonplace expression of one who had ordinarily used and elevator, or an escalator, to transfer then along from one place to another. Silence was the biggest attribute ever paid to this wonderful feat. Never was there any vociferous applause heard or resounding of clapped hands or stamped feet upon the floor. They spoke their thought to each other by shaking their heads in an understanding way. While Louis continued his conversation, unmoved, a past master of showmanship.

The manner in which he loaded or unloaded barrels of beer and wine off the brewery trucks, would have excited the envy of Goliath. Three hundred and twenty pounds, four hundred; 'twas all alike to him. He grasped the barrel by the chines and with one swing hurled it onto the dray wagon or upon his one shoulder, as perfectly as if a windlass had been employed, and with it stride away with his long, heavy measured tread, like a patrolling soldier on picket duty with a shouldered rifle.

Here is a little stunt worth the telling which he used to do when he wore long hair which almost slipped my mind. In the folds of his twisted tresses he tied three fifty pound weights, one on each side of the head and one in the center. With these dangling from his scalp, he would spin around until they whirled and whizzed like the propeller on an aeroplane. It always presented a thrilling sight and never failed to delight, and for years he used this stunt with which to wind up his act.

But he later cut off his hair, and with it went this spectacular stunt. As I have often said, Louis never refused a bet on odds of strength. Nor was he ever backward in working out a physical problem. Watching an engine drag a long line of freight cars through a station, he and his friends began to speculate on the weight of a freight car, and the relative amount of manpower it would take to push one along. Louis exclaimed after a moment of thought, "I am willing to wager that I can push one along." Doubt was expressed by one of the group and a wager was made. Cyr jumped right into the task by simply throwing off his coat. The hardest part was the start, but as those two under pins of power straightened themselves the car began to move. Steadily he pushed the car along, not on the level track but up a grade. Just the same, the pride of American had his limitations, and on two occasions he was worsted in the conflict.

The first I will relate to is amusing and also surprising. I bet if someone asked you if you could pass through the full length of a train and open and shut all the windows one after the other without a pause you would say you could. Louis said so, but he failed. His great strength played out just before he completed the round, and never has there been known a man to succeed in this task, no matter how used he is to the work, or how strong. This is one of those tests that on first hearing sound as unbelievable as the ability to tie you up helpless with a foot of thread. Just as surely as the latter can be done, just as surely can the former not be done.

The second time that Louis got stumped was by pure piece of trickery. I am willing to say if he had known it at the time things would have gone ill with the party concerned. It all happened in the Bowery of New York, where a big ex-strong man kept a saloon. This man boasted that no man was ever as strong as he, and on the floor of saloon he had a huge weight placed between two low trestles that acted as a platform for each foot of the lifter to stand on. At the top of the weight was a large ring through which passed a heavy piece of straight iron that acted as a bar to lift the weight with. The object was to stand straddle of the weight by grasping the handle and lift. Something like a two-hand dead lift off the floor. The saloon proprietor had a standing wager that no man could lift it but he. From the very moment Louis heard of it he had a strong desire to see this stubborn piece of metal that would only raise to the exertion of one man.

On the first opportunity he had, down to the Bowery saloon he went. The moment Louis walked in and saw the bloated appearance of a man smaller than he, he figured the lift was all over. The wager was accepted, and everybody gathered around to see the test. Louis stepped astride the mass of metal and began to lift, but not a move. He set himself and tried again, with no better result. Louis was astounded. He looked at the saloonkeeper and then at the weight, bewildered for the first time in his life. It made him angry, so that he grabbed at the bar again and lifted till he saw stars, the bar bent under the great pressure of his pull. Still the weight remained unmoved. Louis knew now that there was something phony about it, but so skillfully was the trick concealed that he was not able to accuse the man of fraud. But in order to win the wager the saloonkeeper had to make the lift. Brazen from use, he arrogantly stepped from behind the bar, and with one pull lifted the weight clear off the floor.

Professor Adrian Schmidt was very familiar with the whole affair; he told me that he had often been around and seen the trick pulled off. But all things come to those who wait, and sure enough exposure came to this faker. The saloon keeper had employed a cellar helper and one day they came to words, and then to blows. The upshot was that the beaten-up smoke took some fellows in to see how the lifting trick was done. In the center of the weight was a tongue which passed through a hole in the floor. In the tongue, was cut a slot through which a bar was put whenever a wager was made, a signal was sent down to the cellar helper who kept the bar in when the other fellow tried. He always knew when the saloonkeeper was going to lift by the manner of his walk, which was also his cue to take out the bar. The other lifter would have to lift the floor up in order to move the weight, which you know is impossible. You might wonder why it was never detected, but it is not so easy to see clear underneath a wide, flat object that is only moved a half inch off the floor for a fraction of time and immediately dropped in order to make a lift.

Just another little story in which I was fooled, and where the superiority of our hero over the present-day luminaries of the iron circle was proven. You will remember me mentioning Professor Louis Attila in conjunction with Eugene Sandow. Well, Attila left Sandow when the latter decided to return to England after his American tour. The Professor started himself on Broadway, New York, and his gymnasium became the meeting place of all great iron men as long as Attila ran it. It was in that place that Louis Cyr and Horace Barre always trained when they came to New York. When Louis retired he gave the Professor one of his bar bells as an appreciation for old times sake. It weighed a little over one hundred and ninety pounds and has a thick handle which fits solidly into each sphere. This bell Louis snatched with one hand at every performance.

It happened on one of my visits to Attila's gymnasium we were discussing Cyr and the remark was made that no man of all who had tried had ever snatched the bell once. I remarked that I thought if anyone could make the snatch lift with it, I believed that Henry Steinborn was the man. I was meeting Henry quite regularly then, and the next time I saw him I told him about it. Now I want you to bear in mind that Henry always figured that he was good enough for a one-hand snatch of two hundred and thirty pounds, and I had seen him do some wonderful stuff. A few days later we met again and he laughingly said, "Say, why did you tell them down at Attila's that I could lift that bell of Cyr's? They had me try it and I could do nothing with it." In surprise I said, "Honest?" "Sure," he remarked, "the handle is so thick and the weight so dead I couldn't get it started, and I do not think anyone else can."

Iron Nation
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