LOUIS CYR: STRONGEST MAN WHO EVER LIVED
by DAVID GENTLE
Reprinted with permission of The Iron Master
The title is not mine, it was first coined by pioneer George F. Jowett, famed trainer by mail, who wrote much on legends of strength, including a prized collectors item of the above title on our subject this month - LOUIS CYR.
In more recent years, Ben Weider wrote and published a similar tome, well worth reading, and highly entertaining, entitled "The Strongest Man in History" detailing much of Cyr's life and adventures. To search further, one has to look at contemporary journals such as Police Gazette, Health and Strength and later Superman and Iron Man, especially the works of W.J. Lowry O.B.E., Thomas Inch (in "Strong Man I Have Known") and the painstaking analytical essays of the late David Willoughby.
Willoughby, stickler for facts, once gave me a right drubbing in personal correspondence for quoting ad lib, some of the more unqualified measurements and so called feats of Cyr, suggesting for example that the oft quoted calf measurement of Louis as being 28" was ridiculous, being "Larger than his head" with similar scorn being cast on some of Cyr's feats of strength. Regrettably David Willoughby never lived to see some of today's behemoths or powerlifters, far beyond any of Dave's predictions or limits based on scientific calculations. Who could foresee Ted Arcidi's 700 lb. bench press, and almost regular heavy weights now squatting with near or over 1000 lbs. Let us forget about comparisons between strength athletes in widely different eras. A champion is one who is tops in HIS OR HER TIME ALONE! You cannot compete out of your own century/epoch, nor will we ever know what limits, if any, bind mankind.
W.J. Lowry once said "History of any subject is seldom indisputable. Those who make history in the first instance, seldom realize that their accomplishments will interest future generations, and therefore do not bother to leave evidence of authenticity." Let us do the best we can, with what we know, and talk about the French Canadian Louis Cyr, and of the days when he could rightly claim to be THE STRONGEST MAN WHO EVER LIVED.
Louis Cyr (pronounced seer) was born on October 11th 1863 in St. Cyprien, near Montreal, Quebec, Canada. Coming from a robust French Canadian family, developing extraordinary strength, when even at a early age. Whilst Louis' father was of average proportions, his mother was almost Amazonian, recorded as weighing 265 lbs. at 6' 1". She in turn had a father of 6' 4" and 260 lbs., thus there were the genetics already established ensuring that the young Louis would develop into a pre-ordained Hercules.
Louis started his strong man career at the age of 17, after some publicity came about due to an incident when the young Louis was reported to have lifted a farmers heavily laden wagon out of the mire in which it had become stuck. He was matched in a contest against Michaud of Quebec, who was recognized as Canada's strongest man of the time, the results being that Cyr beat him, the tests being the lifting of heavy stones, Cyr winning the match by hoisting a granite boulder weighing 480 lbs./ 217.7 kg.
In 1882 Louis married a petite and attractive girl named Melina (nee Courtois) with Louis obtaining work in the tough and hardy occupation of Lumberjack (in the days before chain saws etc).
Soon proving his immense strength, he was urged by friends to enter the exciting, albeit highly precarious world of professional strong men, lifting mainly crude solid or shot filled weights.
With little reward at this early sporray into professional weightlifting, Louis was forced to seek other employment, fate taking a hand in his decision when he apparently stepped into, and broke up, by sheer physical force, a dangerous knife fight. Accounts of the day recall how Cyr disarmed and subdued the combatants and then made a citizens arrest, almost Charles Bronson style, although not as permanent, carrying both miscreants, one under each arm to the local cop shop. With this superb reference, Louis joined the good guys, becoming for several years a genuine police officer. (An early Sergio Oliva).
Prudent with his earnings. Louis left the Police Force and purchased a Tavern/Restaurant in St. Gunegonda, where he also featured a gymnasium which like many such places in its day became a Mecca for strength athletes and fighters. (Cyr was well acquainted with the famous John F. Sullivan, being one of the few to defy Sullivans commands to drink when he drank. Sullivan by the way was known as The Boston Strong Boy and was VERY powerful, but not in Cyr's class) Cyr, happy in his own environment beat all comers when challenged to perform.
Louis Cyr's exploits had been well publicized in the 'Pink UN' (the paper was actually pink, although the contents were often 'Blue') Or Police Gazette published by Richard K. Fox, the famed proprietor and promoter of other strength athletes, e.g. Travis, Sandow etc. Fox offered a side bet of $5,000 to anyone who could beat Cyr at any of his strength feats. Promoted by Fox, Louis went on tour circa 1885 - 1891 beating amongst others Sebastian Miller, Bienkowski or Cyclops who could genuinely bend coins, August Johnson and Richard Pennell, plus continually challenging .... without success Eugen Sandow, with a genuinely diamond studded belt to be awarded to the winner, should such an event ever take place. It never did. Sandow was an astute showman, but no fool, and avoided any such challenges throughout his esteemed career after early mistakes, like the time when he was beaten by McCann.
There was no doubt that Cyr was an unusual man regarding size and measurements, the latter often causing debate. His height was normally agreed at 5'10 1/2", although Dr. Dudley A. Sargent, famous Harvard University physical director recorded measuring Louis Cyr in 1895 when Cyr was 32 and weighed 291lb/132kg. Sargent listed Cyr's height as just 5'8 1/2". Other measurements, most on the conservative side as compared to other biographers, were Neck - 20"/50.8cm, Biceps - 20"/51.5cm, Forearms - 16.3"/41.4cm, Wrists - 8.2"/20.8cm, Chest (normal) - 55.2"/140.2cm, Chest expanded - 60"/152.4cm, Waist - 47.4"/120.4cm, Hips - 48.1"/122cm, Thighs - 28.5"/72.4cm, Knees - 17", and Calves - 19.3"/49cm, far short of the quoted 28", but perhaps a possible 23" later when of higher bodyweight. Ankle 10.3"/26cm and Shoulder width with calipers .... across the deltoids 25.6"/65cm. The above details were just one set of figures relating to Cyr's size, others being recorded by Willoughby when for example Cyr was 47 years old (in 1910) gave him calf 23", neck 22 3/4", Biceps 21 1/2". chest normal 59 1/2" and thighs 33" with other parts to match the increase in weight, being at the time a heavier 365 lbs. Ben Weider who was privileged to family archives was even more generous giving arm size 24"/61cm, forearms 19"/48.2cm, and calves, the disputed 28"/71cm, following a similar line to Jowett.
W. J. Lowry once wrote 'Credit may have been given to certain people in the past by writers whose integrity is doubtless beyond reproach, but nevertheless possibly allowed their enthusiasm to sway their sense of responsibility towards registrars of history.' What is interesting is to compare some of the measurements of todays behemoths in the Worlds Strongest Man Contest, e.g. Grizzly, to see just what is possible.
Willoughby rated Cyr on a par with earlier heavyweight Karl Swoboda, Horace Barre and latter day giants Paul Anderson and presser supreme Doug Hepburn. It has to be stressed when you later compare some of Cyr's feats of strength with his modern equivalent that ALL standards have, and do increase over the years, as much due to psychological as physiological reasons.
Most of Cyr's lifts were inhibited due to being made WITHOUT COMPETITION, and on crude apparatus, in most, if not all cases by his sheer strength, certainly no technique, and limited motivation. I am positive that he could have done much more if pressed. When it counted in HIS TIME, Cyr was without doubt a champion, and an honest one to boot.
Through no fault of his own, many of Cyr's lifts, like his measurements have been exaggerated of misquoted especially his celebrated back lift done in Boston, of 18 men on a platform, usually generously estimated at 4,300 lbs., which allowing for a very heavy platform of say 500 lbs., meant that each man on average weighed 211 lbs., hardly likely...but again I emphasize, if given more motivation and competition, Cyr was certainly capable of lifting nearer the 5,000 lb. mark. (Anderson of course is renown for lifting 6,270 lbs.)
Cry was also credited with side pressing 273.75lb/124kg with ONE ARM (the right) ...a lift witnessed by Britain's great champion Tom Pevier, who described it more like a 'Jerk Press.' The dumbell, a huge thick handled one, was lifted to the shoulders with two hands, before the single handed overhead move. Cyr's dumbbells were often so unwieldy that many respectable strongmen were unable to budge them OFF THE FLOOR, let alone lift them over head.
One particular dumbell of Cyr's weighed, when empty, 202lb/92kg. it being the same bell that had defeated a drove of former strength athletes, was exchanged by it's owner, 280 lb. police chief Joseph Moquin of Quebec (who could and did bent press the weight) for a modern set of York weights, thus it came into the possession of the late Bob Hoffman and Mike Dietz. According to Strength and Health magazine, Hoffman, after several attempts was able to bent press it, as did the much lighter 150 lb. Sig Klein, John Grimek later also bent pressed it, for I believe half a dozen times or so one afternoon, when the weight was increased to 269.5 lbs., by adding, as it happened, the lead type from Mark Berrys' classic tome Physical Training Simplified. Hence the reason the book was never reprinted.
Cyr was a big man in all ways, both heart and size, being a great trencherman, eating more than four normal men. Up to 6 lbs. of meat at one meal...a genuine gourmand, increasing weight enormously in his later years. His lightest bodyweight was when he competed against August Johnson, then just 270 lbs., although his normal contest condition was nearer 320 lbs. Cyr's wife, Melina, by contrast, never weighed more than 100 lbs.
In 1886 Cyr met and defeated Richard Pennell, then Pennell being 40, and Louis just 23. In 1888 on October 1st at Berthierville, Quebec, he lifted 3,536lb/1, 604kg of pig iron for his first record in the back lift.
On December 1st 1891 at Sohmer Park in Montreal, before some 10,000 people Cyr resisted the pull of four draught horses, two each side, pulling away at his clenched hands, regardless of grooms cracking their whips to encourage the horses to pull harder and strain their haunches.
In January 1892 Cyr embarked in England with partner Horace Barre, resulting in arousing much interest and curiosity at his London debut at the Royal Aquarium, with 5,000 people packing the theater to watch Cyr's act and witness his open challenge to the wide world of strongmen, many celebrities of which were in the audience, with a side wager of �1,000...a lot of filthy lucre in those bygone days. It was on this historical occasion, on January 19th 1892 that Cyr pressed the prementioned 273.75 lb. dumbell. Many years later Doc Aumont, son-in-law of Louis, loaned Cyr's famous dumbell to the Weider's Your Physique office in Montreal for a month, during which time over 500 people tried and failed to lift the weight.
During his first London show, many other feats followed, all exceeding contemporary records, culminating in the famous Backlift. Placing a number of men upon a heavy platform resting across two trestles, Louis ducked beneath the platform, placed his back below the center, and raised both the contraption and the passengers clear off the trestles. Weight on this occasion was estimated at 3,635 lbs. Traveling extensively throughout the UK he also visited Scotland, raising and carrying for a distance one of the famed Dinnie stones. Cyr was very popular in Britain, being feted by celebrities and Royalty alike, including the then Prince of Wales and Queen Victoria.
Returning to the U.S.A. on May 27th, he did his best back lift in Boston, with over 4,000 lbs. estimated. Consisting of 18 'Bulky' men.
During his most active period, circa 1896, he performed the following:--March 31st did clean and jerk (the clean is a misnomer) of 347 lbs., then a World record, without science or skill, little if any dipping.
Reputable witness Oscar Mathes said the lift was closer to a straight legged press. Cyr did a one handed deadlift with a dumbell weighing 525lb/238kg, made harder by the fact that the bar was 1.5 inches thick. On May 7th and 8th 1896, he performed a crucifix with 97.25lb/44kg in his right hand, and 88lb/40kg in his left. Some authors often credit him with holding out with one arm!!! - 131.25lb/59.5kg. He also dumbell pressed 162lbs. for 36 reps, did a genuine ONE FINGER lift, first with 552 lbs. and the next day made it 553lb/280.8kg. Lifted via one hand, style not specified, but most suspect using hand and thigh method, 987lb/447kg. plus again, using hand and thigh, 1897.25lb/860.5kg.
For years Louis pictured himself as a modern Biblical Samson with tresses to match. In the folds of his long hair he would tie three fifty pound weights, one on each side, and one in the center, with the three weights dangling from his scalp, he would also spin around, swirling the weights around his head. By co-incidence on his visit to Britain, the top of the pops was a ditty entitled 'Get Your Hair Cut'...Louis must have taken the hint, as afterwards he always sported short hair.
More power of the arm and shoulder was demonstrated by his stunt of stacking four fifty pound weights one on top of the other on his half flexed arm, balancing them whilst walking across the room.
Even giants are not immortal. The years began to take their toll, and by 1904 Louis' health began to fail, also helped by the excessive eating and inactivity...he then weighed in the region of 400 lbs., he slimmed as best he could for his last contest of strength with Hector De Carrie, with Louis retaining his title, retiring unvanquished.
Louis Cyr, 'The Strongest Man Who Ever Lived,' died on November 10th 1912, in Montreal, of chronic nephritis, being interred at St. Jean de Martha. Great homage was paid by all of Canada with immense crowds attending the funeral, floral tributes coming from all over the World. Some men are perhaps similar to, but there will never be another Louis Cyr.
Grateful acknowledgments to Ben Weider and his fine book 'The Strongest Man in History' also to the late W.J. Lowry, Dave Willoughby and George Jowett.