Louis Cyr: The World’s Strongest Man
The strongman had a flare for publicity and his stunts attracted large crowds around the world. Louis Cyr may well lay claim to having been the strongest man ever and his prodigious feats were accomplished without the benefit of pharmaceutical enhancements.
Louis Cyr’s Early Life
It was in October 1863 that Louis Cyr first saw the light of day in Saint-Cyprien (Napierville), Lower Canada. Christened Cyprien-Noé Cyr, he was the second of his parent’s 17 children. Understandably, he is said to have inherited his great strength from his mother Philomène described as “a woman of imposing stature and physical power” (Dictionary of Canadian Biography).
It soon became obvious that the child was going to grow up to be a strong man, and Cyr made the most of this attribute. He is said to have been inspired by Milo of Croton, a wrestler in the sixth century BCE.
Historian Michael B. Poliakoff writes that Milo “reportedly ate twenty pounds of meat, as much bread, and drank eighteen pints of wine each day, and once carried a four-year-old bull around the stadium at Olympia before eating it in the course of one day.”
Louis Cyr ate massive amounts of food to bulk up his physique but definitely fell short of the bull-a-day diet. However, by the age of 17 he weighed 230 pounds and, with his mother’s encouragement, grew his hair long just like Samson in the Bible.
The Cyr Legend Begins
When Cyr was 18 years old he performed his first notable lift. Josh Buck of the University of Maryland writes that “If legend can be believed, Cyr did not know the potential of his own strength until he lifted a farmer’s cart out of a muddy rut in the dirt road.” (The caveat about believing legends is duly noted and may apply to some other accomplishments of Cyr).
The farmer was greatly impressed, and so he should have been, and he alerted the young Atlas to a competition for strongmen in Boston. There was only one task: could the contestants lift a horse. Apparently, Cyr put on a theatrical warm up and hoisted the animal off its hooves with ease.
The next move was a contest with David Michaud who, at the time, was billed as the strongest man in Canada. A match was arranged to see who could lift the heaviest stone.
Cyr defeated his older rival by picking up a stone variously quoted as weighing 480 to 522 pounds. The Dictionary of Canadian Biography adds that Cyr lifted “a 218-pound barbell with one hand (to Michaud’s 158 pounds) and a weight of 2,371 pounds on his back (to his opponent’s 2,071).” A new Strongest Man in Canada was crowned.
The Vaudevillian Strongman
During the second half of the 19th century, the strongman act became a staple of vaudeville and circuses.
Young Cyr did not have a lot of schooling but he had enough to realize a lucrative career in show business awaited him. However, it didn’t come easily for him. He was swindled by his first manager and took various day jobs - lumberjack, policeman, farm labourer – to support his wife and child.
Eventually, his fame increased and he started touring with shows during which the “Brawny ‘Canadian Oak,” as he was called, offered to take on any local lad who fancied his muscle power.
Typical of the call for challengers was this advertisement: “Cyr is at all times ready and anxious to meet any of the alleged strong men of any nation … and will cheerfully forfeit the sum of $1,000 to any of them who can duplicate his feats.” Humiliation always awaited the hometown Hercules as Cyr was never defeated. His reputation was such that even professional strongmen refused to challenge him and conceded the title of the world’s strongest man.
Among his exploits was:
- Lifting a platform on his back on which there were 18 men of ample girth;
- Pushing a freight car up an incline;
- Lifting a 535-pound weight with one finger; and,
- Restraining two horses pulling in opposite directions.
By 1904, Louis Cyr had ballooned up to about 400 pounds. He was eating massive amounts of food to keep up his strength but this likely caused his health to decline. The Montreal Gazette wrote that “about 1900, he was struck by kidney disease that led to heart problems, difficulties in breathing and paralysis in his legs. He was reduced to a diet of milk and little else.”
But, he had one massive exploit left in him. As happens, a younger lion rose to challenge the aging king. Twenty-six-year-old Hector Decaire made the claim that he was the world’s new strongest man.
In February 1906, Cyr came out of retirement to put the young pup in his place. In front of a crowd of 4,000 in Montreal the two men did four lifts each. At the end of the contest, each man had four points; Louis Cyr retained his title as the world’s strongest man.
But, there was one last twist. Cyr went to the front of the stage and lifted his arm in triumph. Then, he turned to his opponent and lifted his hand in the air saying, “I have decided to retire forever. I bequeath my crown as the world’s strongest man to Hector Decarie.”
Six years later, the great strongman died; he was only 49.
- The story is that Milo of Croton carried a calf across his shoulders when he was a child. Intrigued by this, Louis Cyr tried the calf program but changed to carrying a heavy sack of grain after a calf kicked him.
- In 1901, a giant of a man called Édouard Beaupré, 20, challenged Cyr to a wrestling match. Louis Cyr was 5 feet 8.5 inches tall and weighed 365 pounds. Beaupré weighed the same as Cyr but stood 7 feet 8.1 inches tall. The bout didn’t last very long; Cyr won.
- Weightlifting suffers from doping more than any other Olympic sport. Over the years, 47 weightlifters have been stripped of their medals for taking banned substances.
- “Strongest Men in History Hoisted Cattle and Crushed Stones to Show Their Might.” Erin Blakemore, History.com, undated.
- Louis Cyr and Charles Sampson: Archetypes of Vaudevillian Strongmen.” Josh Buck, Iron Game History, December 1998.
- “Combat Sports in the Ancient World: Competition, Violence, and Culture.” Michael B. Poliakoff, Yale University Press, 1987.
- “Cyr, Louis.” Céline Cyr, Dictionary of Canadian Biography, undated.
- “From the Archives: Cyr, the World’s Strongest Man.” John Kalbfleisch, Montreal Gazette, February 27, 2017.
© 2019 Rupert Taylor