Sunday, May 15, 2011

THE STRONGEST MAN THAT EVER LIVED - LOUIS CYR, (Circa 1927) - Chapter 1 - By George F. Jowett

Quebec! Beautiful Quebec! What a pageant of thoughts surge through my mind as the six little letters which compose that magic word drip from my pen. One great writer named it the "enchanted province," thinking only of its natural beauty, as did Champlain nigh three hundred years ago when he wrote his royal master at Versailles on the new colony, "La belle du France." The spell of beauty sprinkled its mist over this glorified province long before the great Cartier sailed up the majestic St. Lawrence, to cast the first anchor in the St. Charles River.

The spell has remained, to grow and remain always as a thing apart, more entrancing even than Longfellow's land of Evangeline. Its barbaric splendor rears its rugged head like a mighty queen who fosters no weaklings, bequeathing her earthly womb as a cradle of strong men.

Such has her brood been, men who thrilled to pit their powers against the elements of God man, with a resolution that despised pain. Turn the pages of history and se the array of dauntless men who thrust forward the march of progress, with a fearless tread, far beyond the Mississippi, facing hunger thirst, torture and death with iron courage and unshakeable faith in the cross that each man bore. Each episode reviewed in its respective light of conquest, my sympathies and admiration are drawn to the little bank of descendants of the followers of Cartier, who swore their fealty to that magnificent lord of chivalry and physical might, Maisenneauve; the man who slew the great Huron chieftain whose prowess wan changed in all the wigwams far towards the setting sun. In a hand-to-hand encounter on the site of Place d'Armes, Maisenneauve won the land by right of might upon which the site and surroundings of Montreal now stand.

His followers were the hardiest of all the hardy adventurers, and it is only fitting that from this group should descend the man whose great feats of physical prowess assured his immortality among men--Louis Cyr, the man who for many years has been termed the "daddy of 'em all;" a colossal pillar of strength with a heart as big as his soul, which imparted good fellowship and geniality upon all who came with the sunshine of his smile. In reproof he was very mild, as Goldsmith would say, "More destined to guide than chide." He recognized his great strength and the frailty of others in comparison, which probably was the reason why he could forbear and become more tolerable with others, as was certainly always the case with him. Is there any wonder that around such a character a deep feeling of respect should have been established? In his native province he was followed with a dog-like devotion of adoration that enshrined him on the altar of demigods. Probably it was not the Carlyle kind of hero worship, for their creed is too simple but utterly unshakeable--the creed of the French Canadian.

When I ponder over the characteristics of Louis Cyr, I realize how humble one so great can be before God and man and yet so exalted. Then I find more depth in Gray's "Elegy" and eulogy to man.

Much confusion surrounds the exact birthplace of the nineteenth century Samson. I have seen no less than five different spots claimed as the cradle of "Our Louis." He first saw the light of day on the eleventh of October, 1863, in the little village of St. Cyprien, Quebec, and was born of parents who had been tillers of the soil and hardy woodsmen for generations. Although his father was a powerful, stockily built man, it is to his mother that he owes an ancestry of prodigious super-men. Tremendously formed, the mother of this great son evoked more awe and admiration than her mighty offspring. Terrifically strong, she stood six feet one inch and weighed two hundred and sixty-seven pounds in her prime. Looming out of the wild primeval setting of Quebec, a mighty Amazon above all others, with piercing eye and commanding carriage, the son she bore was a just tribute to her forebears. She reminds me of what her ancient Gaulish ancestors must have been, when the women followed their men into battle and slew with a berserk fury that must have been appalling. Being women of steel fiber, they equaled their warrior husbands in withstanding hardships. Such was her race,and probably, she was the last of her kind. Many a tree fell before the onslaught of her axe as the land was cleared and the winter fuel brought in. In such a vigorous atmosphere was young Louis reared and with each succeeding year his form filled out into the sturdiness of the oak. When he crept into his teens he was above the average man for strength and already manifested a love to display his great natural powers.

The story is told that one day as he journeyed home along the old dirt trails of those days, he came upon a straining team of horses, who were struggling to draw their load from out of a deep rut into which the wheels had sunk; but neither failing strength stimulated under the lash of the whip, nor the exhortations of the teamster could move the load. As Louis neared the scene he saw a team of horses trembling from their exertions, and a voluble French teamster standing helplessly by.

"M'Sier, M'sier," young Louis reprimanded, "You should not abuse your horses that way."

"But I cannot stay here all night with my load. It has to be drawn out," the teamster replied. "What am I to do," he wailed. "They cannot move it."

"Oh! M'sier, but you take the wrong method," Louis answered. " I will show you how."

Then before the astonished eyes of the teamster, the youthful descendent of a Gaulish chieftain got under the back of the wagon and placed his hands upon his knees, while his back strained up against the load. Inch by inch the wagon wheels rose, until they were clear of the rut; then with a side movement the load was transferred out of the rut onto the road level. Louis beamed with pleasure on the success of his task as he straightened up to gaze into the dumfounded face of the speechless teamster. If the poor fellow had witnessed a miracle he could not have been any more astonished. With profuse thanks he climbed up into his wagon and drove off, his eyes filled with wonder and admiration.. Later it was his delight to tell all with whom he came in contact of the doughty deed.. In a country where the strength of a man is his deciding qualification, such news travels with incredible speed. The curiosity of the countryside was aroused, which brought a flow of callers to the Cyr home, under one pretext or another, in order to gaze upon the boy wonder. A crowd which never ceased until his death many years after.

Strength lovers were drawn to him like moths to a flame, mostly to admire, although there were a few brave enough to cast doubt upon the extent of his bodily strength, but Louis suffered no doubting Thomases to remain long around him. They either put up or shut up. Nevertheless, the fact that he had become the center of attraction kindled apace the fires of his youthful enthusiasm and spurred him on to greater efforts. From the pastime of lifting logs and stones, he turned towards the implements of the professional strong man, and at the age of sixteen we find him daily contesting his strength against the records of others.

In two years that intervened between the ages of sixteen and eighteen, his powers were only demonstrated locally, but the time was spent in building a solid rock for the fame that his future achievements were to bring him. So popular did he become that his name began to be spoken on equal terms with that of David Michaud, the reigning king of all Canadian strong men of that time; but the "fort Phomme" almost developed cholera to think that an eighteen-year-old boy should be considered his equal, let alone his superior. Just the same, popular opinion is as relentless as the tide which beats upon the shore, and day after day the shadow of the youthful Louis Cyr loomed greater and more insistently into his pathway.

In 1881 the inevitable happened for Michaud, and the match was made. They came together that same year and measured their strength against each other in Quebec, but not with bar bells or dumb bells as became the vogue later on in the French province. Rocks were the vehicles of resistance on this occasion, as they had been with their Gaulish ancestors. The event became almost a national holiday. From out the great south woods of Maine -- once part of Quebec -- came rugged men who prided themselves on the heftiness of their axe stroke, of their ability to wield a cant hook on a huge log, and their ability to run the logs down stream among the ice floes of springtime. Out of the north woods came the giant trappers and half-breed voyagers, who carried loads on the trump line over mountains and portages that would have crushed the ordinary man to the ground. East and west, from the farms, stores and business houses, men of all social grades, but with one thought in common, gathered to witness this struggle for supremacy between a boy in his teens and a seasoned giant of strength.

At the signal to commence Michaud stepped forward to his first task with the confident air of a man who knows his strength, and with no apparent exertion raised the awkward object from the ground -- that was to be expected; but the interest was centered upon the youth whose turn came next.

Quietly Louis moved from the circle of his friends and straddled the huge stone. Never for a moment did he pause as he placed his hands underneath the stone and tore it from the ground so easily as the champion did. The multitude applauded vociferously as the St. Cyprien youth proved himself, causing interest to mount high. Michaud was astonished and muttered to himself, but manfully accepted the issue and with a fixed determination he moved on towards the heavier stone. Again the champion was successful in raising the monstrous object from its setting, but there was a marked effort on his part this time. He took greater pains to set himself to balance the weight of the stone and clasp his hands under it. As he raised the stone the muscles of his back bulged and the gnarled muscles on his arms and shoulders separated with the force of taxation. To some his legs seemed to tremble, and his regular breathing seemed to strangle into a tiny gasp -- but it was a perfect lift and one that none of the spectators, but one, could duplicate. Louis stepped forward, a little pompously, as becomes a Frenchman, but there was that slight shadow of hesitancy within his eye that goes with youth and inexperience as it seeks to find its bearings. He paused at the stone, then walked around it. Satisfied with his observations, he stepped astride the stone and settled himself down to do what had to be accomplished. The big form bulged and the neck shortened, and before the eyes of the tensed crowd the stone began to yield against a mightier resistance, so that once again the youthful challenger tied a lift with the champion Michaud.

All eyes now became centered upon a stone of greater size and awkwardness, which constituted the final test. Speculations ran high as to the ultimate outcome, and it is safe to say that the majority of the gathering placed their bets in favor of Cyr as the one of the two who would lift the stone, if it was to lifted at all. It is impossible to describe the shape of this stone, as it had none, so to speak. As the time approached for Michaud to make his attempt it was plainly seen that an atmosphere of anxiety had formed among his followers. Michaud carried a look of uncertainty upon his face, and his step was less confident than before. However, he circled the boulder and rocked it several times in order to ascertain the axis of balance, and when he stepped astride his arms were taxed to circumnavigate it. Satisfied that he had secured the best grip possible, he bent his back to the task, and pouring into his effort all his reserve -- but not a move. His muscles twisted and writhed like live steel cables, and veins in his throat stood out like whipcords. Still he fought it, and applied such great resistance that his feet were forced deep into the ground. Finally his fingers weakened and his hands slid away from their grip, leaving the stone as it was, unmoved. His bolt was shot; he stood aside, panting and trembling, a beaten man, with his gaze riveted upon the bulk of the youth who now stepped forward to try his luck. From all sides a babble of advice poured upon young Louis in a jargon of confused, meaningless words, but he did not hear them, for he had his mind concentrated upon the issue that lay before him. His success in the second attempt and apparent distress of the champion had given him great courage, and he stood astride the rock with less speculation than he had used before. His huge legs were set beneath him like the proverbial oak -- props with which to conquer, and his massive back and arms glistened as the sun threw their waning rays upon his skin. As his arms spanned the stone, he breathed hard and commenced to lift; in response his young frame creaked under the terrific exertion. Time seemed to stand still and stretch into limitless space to the beholders who, with abated breath and riveted sight, hung upon each contracting muscle as he fought for supremacy. A gasp went through the crowd as the stone was seen to move. They pressed forward as they saw it leave its bed, and broke into a roar of exultation as the young giant held it free from the ground. Daylight shone beneath it and the ground, as he held it suspended within his mighty arms several inches high. Here he paused a moment before he released his grip and then let the stone fall to the ground. With the characteristic display of the Frenchman, they hailed him with voice and gestures. Friends in thousands pressed around the eighteen-year-old Hercules to congratulate him as the new champion of Canada.

For many years this stone became a relic and a monument to his fame, and was a revered by French Canadians with a fervor that was likened to that attributed to the stone of Jacob. The sold mass of stone was given out as having a weight of four hundred and eighty pounds. Some of you may be surprised to learn that stones of less weight than this had been used to tax the efforts of these two men of brawn. But did you ever weigh a large field stone? It is hardly likely hat you have; otherwise you would not be surprised to find how much bulk is required to make up four hundred and eighty pounds. Some weigh much more that others, and granite for one exception is a great deal more compact and will considerably outweigh the average field stone of its dimensions. The stones used in this contest were of the boulder species, which are heavier than the general run of field stone. Generally they are very awkward, and their unwieldy bulk makes them terribly difficult to handle. The actual lifting of the stone depends upon its shape almost as much as its weight; and men have been known to exaggerate the weight of stones greatly, being misled by the bulk and awkwardness that cuts down the poundage they could lift under more favorable conditions.

At the age of eighteen Cyr was the symbol of strength in Canada, and he began to dream of other fields to conquer. His form had already reached Herculean proportions. The spread of his shoulders, twice the size of the ordinary strong man, concealed masses of muscles which lay in huge slabs upon their scaffold, and the depth and width of the pelvis was gigantic, even as the circumference of his powerful legs was beyond the belief of men who had never seen him.

The next three years found him persevering, and our next glimpse of him is caught on the eve of the year of his majority. At this time we find he had made a steady push, from the shoulder with one hand, of a dumb bell weighing two hundred and fifty pounds, and raised upon a platform with his back placed under it, a combined weight of iron and stone weighing two thousand nine hundred pounds. Slowly the news seeped through to other countries of this youthful Goliath, but no man believed it. Here in America we had Richard Pennell, who was looked upon as the greatest man of strength in the world. Seven years before Louis met the sturdy Michaud, Pennell had made the first one-arm record of any note at Wood's Gymnasium in New York, by raising a dumb bell that weighed two hundred one pounds and four ounces. The world positively refused to believe that one so young as Louis had beaten that mark. Such disbelief almost thrust the great Louis down among the common herd, where he would have lived and died a hidden jewel of magnitude, but for the hand of fate.

During the year of 1885, Cyr went to Montreal to fulfill an engagement with Gus Lambert, a great patron of strong men, who then had a saloon in that ancient city. After concluding the engagement Louis decided to join the police force, since the prospect of making good as a strong man seemed very remote, due to the skeptical attitude of promoters and theatrical managers. It was just a temporary relapse, due to disappointment, that caused him to don the uniform at St. Cunegonde, a small village on the outskirts of Montreal. However, seven days after taking office, opportunity was to come to him in this secluded part of the world and hurl him before a startled public and so, eventually, launch him upon his great career. While on duty the seventh day, his march was arrested by the sound of profane altercation and the heavy thud of bodies colliding with each other. He paused a moment to locate the struggle, and with no further hesitation rushed to the scene where two burly men, much the worse for drink, were locked together in each others' arms, kicking, biting, gouging, and each trying his hardest to plunge a

wicked looking hunting knife into the other. Men fell back, afraid of the onslaught of the two powerful antagonists, but Louis plunged into them headlong and tore them apart, holding each of them at arm's length. Infuriated at being molested, they broke away and both turned upon Louis with murder in their eyes as they rushed upon him knife in hand. Little did they know what they were up against. Despite his huge bulk, Cyr was known throughout the province to outfight and outwork any man as easily as he could outlift them. As the two men closed upon him, he grabbed each one by the breast of the shirt, which checked them with the same suddenness as if they had charged into a stone wall. Before they could recover the breath that had been knocked out of them, he had thrown them off their feet, face down in the dust of the road, and with one huge, powerful knee rammed in the small of each back, pinning them down as securely as if they were spiked, while his hand tore the knives out of their hands and hurled them aside into the grass by the road. Badly hurt and exhausted from contact with this extraordinary human, they were unable to fight back, and their brains seemed to stand still as Cyr tucked one of them under each arm and walked to the police station in that manner, and dropped them in a heap before his amazed chief.

That night the Montreal papers were filled with the story, and the news spread all over the country like wildfire. It crossed the border into New York State and finally into the New York papers, where it drew the attention of Richard K. Fox, sportsman and publisher of "The Police Gazette," who was later to play a large part in the French Canadian's career.

I wonder if you have ever noticed the passion the French have for clean-cut logical sayings. If you have, you will , no doubt, recall the proverb which they have made very familiar and which is typical of the Gaulish mind. They say, "a door ought to be kept open or shut." This is a decided truism. Perhaps Louis believed in this proverb and decided it should be kept open for him so that he could step through when opportunity beckoned. The incident just related opened the door for him, and right then Louis definitely determined to become a professional performer. He resigned from the police force, but kept his saloon, which he had recently opened. He threw out a defy to all and sundry to a contest, with the world's championship title as the issue and as much money as a side stake or wager as the other side cared to bet. He was now twenty-two years of age and began to fit out for himself an act with which to tour Canada and the United States. He stood five feet nine inches and weighed three hundred pounds, a mountain of iron steel and stone, covered with straps and sheets of muscles as hard as rock. He was not a fat man as many imagine; his body was thick, almost square, built like a box. For so large a man he had an inspiring form. This is particularly true of his legs, which were very clean cut, despite their great size. Although there is no doubt about it that he was given to corpulence, it was not until later years that he showed it, when his weight went up to around four hundred pounds; but at this time he was living the years of enthusiasm, when his whole heart and soul were in his training and the testing of daily increasing strength.

He liked to picture himself as the modern reproduction of the Biblical Samson, and his vision carried him on to the crest of the wave that was to sweep all opposition before him with the same all-conquering power as that of his ancient hero. No other man appealed to Louis as did that instrument of God, the son of Sarah. He imitated his religious hero to the extent of wearing his hair in long tresses, which he wore cascading over his shoulders for many years. To him dumb bells and weight-lifting records of others were the Philistines -- something to be conquered, and he attacked them with the same vigor as Samson of old fell upon his enemies. He was spectacular in a way beyond imitation and developed the inborn trait of the dramatic that belongs to the Latin mind; the skill that can provide a climax at a desired point when the beholders hand suspended upon the next movement, breathless, to be swept off their feet and the grand culmination.

In the year 1886, he met Richard Pennell for the premier strong-man honors of the world. On every feat he hopelessly outclassed the successor of Dr. Winship. Pennell was a finely built man and was looked upon as a wonder by reason of his great one-arm lift of two hundred and one pounds four ounces, which he performed at a body weight of one hundred and seventy-eight pounds, when he was twenty-eight years of age. He was in his fortieth year when he clashed with Cyr, who was then in his twenty-third year. The record made by Pennell is the first bent press on record, and he is credited as being the originator of this lift, but I think the honors are divided. Louis Attila, the European strong man, was the first to develop the lift in Europe, and he later taught it to Eugene Sandow, who made it so popular; but there is no doubt in my mind that Pennell thought the lift out himself, as this was many years before Attila or any of the formidable Europeans came to America. Neither one knew of the other, yet the American's record was greater that Attila's at that time.

Matches in those dawning days of strongmanism were not conducted as the matches of today. Each man selected a set of his own pet lifts, and each had to follow the other through his routine. The man who did better on the other man's set of lifts was adjudged the winner. He did not always have to outlift his opponent; that was to be decided by the judges, and some weird decisions were handed out, as was proven by the Sandow-McCann match and the Sandow-Saxon lift.

The followers of Pennell smiled as they saw Cyr go through his set of back lifts, finger lifts and other dead lifts that were raised just off the floor, followed by his manipulation of barrels of sand. They figured Cyr was built for those stunts, and Pennell would do better in the judge's eyes than Cyr would on Pennell's lifts. They believed that the Pennsylvania University instructor would tie the huge man up in what they termed as arm lifts. They were to learn that the bulk of the French Canadian's arms was muscle and not fat. As Pennell made his one-arm press of two hundred pounds, he wore a satisfied smile, but it soon faded as he became dumbfounded to see Cyr pick the same weight up as though it was a bag of peanuts and shove overhead with no perceptible body bend. His next lift was a revelation as Cyr rolled forward a huge dumb bell. People speculated on the weight of the dumb bell, many scoffing and saying it was hollow; but this was just one of Louis' ideas to create an effect. He tossed the bell to the shoulder, and stiff-legged, with a limited body bend, he slowly thrust the weight to arms' length. Letting it crash to the floor, he calmly said, "Weigh it." Curiosity became amazement as the announcer cried out, "Two hundred and fifty-three pounds." Reporters and sportsmen alike began to realize that there was foundation to the news that had drifted across the St. Lawrence to their ears, and before the contest was over they were satisfied that they were looking upon the man who comes only once in so many hundred years, according to some statisticians.

Pennell was great in a one-arm curl and often curled one hundred pounds. During this contest he curled one hundred and two pounds, but the lift faded into insignificance as the youthful Cyr curled twenty-five pounds more. Pennell did not have a chance on a single lift; thus Louis Cyr became recognized all over the American Continent as the strongest man in the world. He had nothing else but honest praise for the man he beat, and Louis came to respect the man who has been given credit for starting the strong-man movement in America as well as being instrumental in forwarding physical exercise as an educational feature in the schools. Pennell was connected with Dr. Sargeant and, among many others, Dr. Winship. Dr. Flint, of New York, the man who won fame as alienist in the Harry Thaw-Stanford White case, was an excellent pupil of Richard Pennell. He was an unusually powerful man., being capable at any time of pressing his own weight with either hand, which stood at one hundred and eighty pounds. We are indebted to Pennell for this pupil, who was the father of Dr. Flint, Jr., the man who wrote and interesting, instructive volume on exercise, which at that time was a masterpiece.

As so very little is known of Pennell, I feel sure that you will not object if I leave the French-Canadian monarch for a while to tell you a story in which Richard was proven the unexpected master. He was born in America in 1846, although many have stated he was an Englishman, but that was only by extraction. Fully dressed, he was not an inspiring man; only when stripped he did look the part. His best lifting weight was one hundred and seventy-eight pounds., and as a young man he joined the circus of Batchellor and Doris, daily exhibiting his strength. When they were showing in Syracuse, N. Y., a rube came up to him after the performance with more of his friends who had come in to see the circus. Tapping Pennell on the chest, the rube remarked, "Well, you may be a strong man, but we have a man who can beat you on pitching quoits the furthest." "That may be," replied Pennell, "for I have never thrown quoits, but I doubt it very much.""Well, we've got fifty bucks to say he is a better man at his distance," the rube came back, and just as promptly he pulled out a wad of greenbacks and began to thumb off fifty. Just as promptly Dick pulled out his fifty and said, "I bet that your man can't meet me at my distance." The stakes put up, the rube asked, "What is your distance?""Never mind," Pennell reiterated. "Stick up your peg on your man's distance, and I'll show you."

One hundred and fifty feet were stepped off and a stake driven into the ground to mark it. The champion rube pitcher stepped up, coat off, shirt sleeves rolled up, and throat bared, to do his stuff. Right on the one hundred and fifty mark his quoit landed, and a tickled sensation trifled through the bunch of rural sports. It was a husky throw, indeed, for the quoits used were considerably heavier than those pitched today. "Ha, Ha, so that's it," Dick said, and stooped to pick up a quoit without unbuttoning his coat. He toed the line, eyed the distanced and then stepped back, and "whang," the quoit sailed through the air, landing fully twenty feet past the mark of the rube. "That's my mark," Dick grinned, as he coolly collected his own fifty and the rube's fifty and walked away from the gaping throng.

Pennell was enormously strong, as judged by the times; and at wrist-turning and curling weights he was considered invincible until he met his Waterloo in Louis Cyr. In a match with Henry Hotgrewe, the Cincinnati strong man, on wrist turning and curling weights, which were Henry's specialty, Pennell won in a decisive manner, irrespective of Holtgrewe's body weight advantage; but either of these two men might just as vainly have tried to turn over a house single-handed as to have tried to budge the arm of Cyr a fraction of an inch.

Does modern bodybuilding make you sick? You should write for Natural Strength! I always need good articles about drug-free weight training. It only has to be at least a page and nothing fancy. Just write it strong and truthful with passion! Send your articles directly to me:

Vintage Bodybuilding Literature

Vintage Bodybuilding Literature
Oldtime Strongman Books

This site does not provide medical advice. We assume no liability for the information provided in NaturalStrength articles. Please consult your physician before beginning any exercise or nutrition program. Copyright © 1999-2024 | All Rights Reserved.