Notable Strongmen and their fascinating feats of strength

Nikola Simonovski
Featured image

 With people pushing boundaries and displaying incredible talents, it is safe to say that we’ve seen most everything.

However, certain people still manage to amaze the world, usually with their physical abilities. Among their number, strongmen have been some of the most popular individuals throughout history, being ever present and always impressing people.

Once an obligatory part of every circus and later a special category in strength sports, these men can perform amazing feats and push the limits of human muscle power. Although most of them won’t make it onto any list of the most popular athletes, some strongmen from history will never be forgotten.

John Holtum is the first strongman in our top ten. Born in 1845 in Denmark, the man who was nicknamed the Cannonball King was a worldwide star, attracting thousands to his shows and demonstrations of strength. His specialty was the catching of a fifty-pound cannonball after it was fired from a cannon, using his hands and chest.

Satirical portrait of John Holtum (the Cannonball King).

With Holtum being popular both in Europe and the United States, skeptics appeared who denied the reality of the show. The strongman invited them all to the stage, offering to award a substantial amount of money to anyone who could do the same feat. No man ever collected the money. Needless to say, it didn’t always go smoothly, and in fact, John Holtum lost three fingers on his first attempt at this scary feat.

Another strongman, born in France in 1862, was Pierre Gasnier, the French Hercules. The guy was so strong that he could rip a deck of cards in half. But he really impressed the crowds with his special trick: breaking a chain over his chest by only expanding his ribcage. What’s even more impressive is the size of Mr. Gasnier: he was 5’3” tall and weighed only 143 pounds. Pierre could also lift a 260 pounds dumbbell over his head, a feat that several strongmen twice his size could not do. Gasnier performed for Barnum and Bailey, a traveling circus from the United States, once called The Greatest Show on Earth.

Arthur Saxon (ca. 1905). Photo Credit

The third strongman on our list is the Iron-Master, born in 1878. The real name of this athlete was Arthur Saxon, and he worked as a circus performer in the late 19th and early 20th century. The special performance of the Iron-Master was the lift called the bent press, where he used the muscles of his back, legs, and arms to lift an enormous weight.

The Text Book of Weightlifting. Photo Credit

Arthur even set the world record by lifting a weight of 370 pounds. His brothers were also strongmen and joined the Iron-Master in his shows, forming the Saxon Trio, famous all around Europe. Arthur Saxon challenged Eugen Sandow, another strongman, to repeat his feat, claiming he wouldn’t be able to. Sandow accepted the challenge and did the bent press lift in 1889. With the brothers still denying his success, Sandow took the trio to court and won the case against the Saxons. Arthur Saxon died in 1921.

The next strongman is Angus MacAskill, a Scottish giant born in 1825. The man who later emigrated to Nova Scotia was seven feet and ten inches high, with a weight of 580 pounds and was known as a “true giant.” He joined P.T. Barnum’s circus in 1849, where he became known as Giant MacAskill.

Angus MacAskill in Uniform beside a (6 feet 5 inches tall) canadian friend.

The feat that made him famous was the lift of a 2800 pounds heavy anchor from a ship. The giant was also able to carry two barrels, one under each arm, each with the weight of more than 300 pounds. Angus became so famous that even Queen Victoria invited him to Windsor Castle for a demonstration of his incredible strength. After the show, the Queen declared him to be the biggest and strongest man ever to enter the royal palace.

Number five on our list is Mr. Thomas Inch, holder of the titles Britain’s Strongest Youth and Britain’s Strongest Man. Born in 1881, Thomas created a dumbbell with the weight of 172 pounds, with extra thick handles so they wouldn’t bend. The handles made the dumbbell even more difficult to lift, and Thomas was one of the few people in the world that could perform this feat. He even offered 200 British Pounds to anyone that could lift the dumbbell, which was known as the Inch Dumbbell, after its inventor. Thomas could still lift this weight when he was 72 years old. The strongest man in Britain died in 1963.

The Iron Samson was a Polish strongman who spent his early years in Russia. His real name was Alexander Zass, and he became motivated to become a strongman after he witnessed the feats performed by others in a circus. The young man began his training, consisted of running with barbells, climbing trees and bending green branches and twigs.

Alexander Zass. Photo Credit

Zass was able to carry a horse on his shoulders, break chains and bend steel bars. The Iron Samson was wounded and imprisoned by the Austrian forces while serving in the Russian army during the First World War. Put in prison, he continued to develop his strength by pulling on the bars and chains in his cell. The strongman managed to escape from prison and never returned to his homeland. Alexander Zass also worked as a trainer for some of the greatest Russian strongmen.

Louis Cyr weighed 18 pounds when he was born in 1863. He became a lumberjack when he was only twelve years old and soon stories of his amazing strength spread around. When he was 17, Louis stood five feet and ten inches tall and weighed 230 pounds. The first display of his strength happened at Boston’s strongest man competition when he lifted a horse from the ground and stunned the audience.

Louis Cyr ready to restrain horses, 1891.

In 1882, he returned to his home in Quebec and performed various feats, including the lifting of a platform carrying 18 men. Cyr later became employed as a police officer in Montreal, where he patrolled the streets in the Saint-Henri neighborhood. To honor his memory, the city authorities named a district of Montreal as Louis Cyr, with statues of the strongman placed at the Place des Hommes-Forts and the Musée de la Civilisation in Quebec City.

Louis Cyr, circa 1890.

The aforementioned Eugen Sandow was born in 1867 in Prussia, where he began his career as a strongman. Besides being known for his clash with Arthur Saxon, Sandow is known as the father of modern bodybuilding. His most popular performance was the “Muscle Display,” where he would show off his incredible body before the crowd.

Portrait of strongman Eugen Sandow (1867-1925).

In 1901, Eugen organized the first ever bodybuilding contest, known as the “Great Competition.” Held at the Royal Albert Hall in London, the show had Sandow as one of the judges, together with Sir Charles Lawes and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Needless to say, the contest was a huge success. Sandow performed all around Europe until he died in 1925. As per the press reports, he died of a stroke after pushing his car out of the mud, but it is more likely that he died as a consequence of syphilis. He was buried in an unmarked grave in Putney Vale Cemetery at the request of his wife.

Siegmund Breitbart is the ninth member of our strongmen list. Born to an Orthodox Jewish family in Poland in 1882, Siegmund performed amazing feats like biting through chains, lifting a baby elephant while climbing a ladder and bending iron bars into floral patterns. He planned to go to Palestine and recreate the feats of Samson to gain the attention of all the Jews in the world and invite them to join him in the creation of a Jewish homeland.

Postcard written in Yiddish showing the athlete in his last performance.

This accomplishment was never finished due to the fatal injury he received. While hammering a railroad spike with his bare hands through a five-inch board placed on his knee, Siegmund punctured his leg with the nail. As a result of the injury, he got blood poisoning and died two months later. The ten operations and the amputations of his both legs were not enough to save the life of the strongman who left his final Europe tour unfinished. The director Werner Herzog fictionalized Breitbart’s life in his movie Invincible, made in 2001.

Breitbart performing in 1923.

The list ends with Thomas Topham, one of the most famous strongmen of the 18th century. Topham was born in London in 1702 and performed feats like lifting a weight of 224 pounds over his head using only his little fingers and bending thick pokers with his forearm.

Thomas Topham, lifting 1336 lbs. Photo Credit

The most famous display of his strength occurred on 28th May 1741, when the strongman lifted three water-filled barrels with the total weight of 1336 pounds.

Read another story from us: Antonio Maceo Grajales: The Bronze Titan who fought for Cuban independence

Dr. John Theo Desagulaier documented the feats of Thomas Topham in his book named “A Course of Experimental Philosophy.”