October 10, 1863
Saint-Cyprien-de-Napierville, Quebec, Canada
|Died||10 November 1912
Montreal, Quebec, Canada
|Other names||Canadian Samson|
|Known for||Strongest Man Who Ever Lived|
|Height||5 ft 8.5–10.5 in (174–179 cm)|
|Weight||270–400 lb (120–180 kg)|
Louis Cyr (French pronunciation: [lwi siʁ]; born Cyprien-Noé Cyr, 10 October 1863 – 10 November 1912) was a famous French Canadian strongman with a career spanning the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His recorded feats, including lifting 500 pounds (227 kg) with one finger and backlifting 4,337 pounds (1,967 kg), show Cyr to be, according to former International Federation of BodyBuilding & Fitness chairman Ben Weider, the strongest man ever to have lived.
Cyr was born in Saint-Cyprien-de-Napierville, 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 lb at 6' 1". She in turn had a father of 6' 4" and 260 lb. From the age of 12 Cyr worked in a lumber camp during the winters and on the family’s farm the rest of the year. Discovering his exceptional strength at a very young age, he impressed his fellow workers with his feats of strength. After learning of the tale, Cyr attempted to mimic the practice of legendary strongman Milo of Croton, who as a child carried a calf on his shoulders, continuing to carry it as it grew into a full-grown bull and he into a grown man. Cyr's calf, however, bolted one day, kicking him in his back, after which he instead began carrying a sack of grain 1⁄4 mile (0.40 km) every day, adding 2 pounds (0.91 kg) each day. According to one of his biographers, his mother decided “he should let his hair grow, like Samson in the Bible.” She curled it regularly.
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 lb/ 217.7 kg.
In 1878 the Cyr family immigrated to Lowell, Massachusetts in the United States. It was in Lowell that Cyr changed his name from Cyprien-Noé to Louis, as it was easier to pronounce in English. Again his great strength brought him fame. At 17 years old he weighed 230 pounds (104 kg). He entered his first strongman contest in Boston at age 18, lifting a horse off the ground; the fully grown male horse was placed on a platform with 2 iron bars attached enabling Cyr to obtain a better grip. The horse weighed at least 3⁄4 short ton (0.68 t).
Rise to fame
In 1882 Louis married Melina (nee Courtois) while Louis worked as a logger. The following year he and his wife returned to Lowell, hoping to capitalize on his fame there. A tour of the Maritimes was organized, and while it may have benefited the organizer, Cyr gained no profit financially. He then began touring Quebec with his family in a show they called "The Troupe Cyr".
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.
From 1883 to 1885, Cyr served as a police officer in Montreal. Following this he went on tour with a troupe that included a wrestler, a boxer, and a weightlifter. He entered a strongman competition in March, 1886, at Quebec City, against the reigning Canadian strongman, David Michaud. Cyr lifted a 218-pound (99 kg) barbell with one hand (to Michaud’s 158 pounds or 72 kg) and a weight of 2,371 pounds (1,075 kg) on his back, to his opponent’s 2,071 pounds (939 kg) to win the title of strongest man in the country.
With little reward at this early foray 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, carrying both miscreants, one under each arm, to the local police station. With this superb reference, Louis joined the police, becoming for several years a genuine police officer.
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 L. Sullivan, being one of the few to defy Sullivan's commands to drink when he drank. Sullivan 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 he was beaten by McCann.
There was no doubt that Cyr was an unusual man regarding size and measurements, the latter often causing debate. Although Dr. Dudley A. Sargent, famous Harvard University physical director recorded measuring Louis Cyr in 1895 when Cyr was 32 years old and weighed 291 lb/132 kg. Sargent listed Cyr's height as 5'8.5". Other measurements, most on the conservative side as compared to other biographers, were neck - 20"/50.8 cm, biceps - 20"/51.5 cm, forearms - 16.3"/41.4 cm, wrists - 8.2"/20.8 cm, chest (normal) - 55.2"/140.2 cm, chest expanded - 60"/152.4 cm, waist - 47.4"/120.4 cm, hips - 48.1"/122 cm, thighs - 28.5"/72.4 cm, knees - 17", and calves - 19.3"/49 cm, far short of the quoted 28", but perhaps a possible 23" later when of higher body weight. Ankle 10.3"/26 cm and Shoulder width with calipers .... across the deltoids 25.6"/65 cm. 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"/61 cm, forearms 19"/48.2 cm, and calves, the disputed 28"/71 cm, following a similar line to Jowett.
Reputation as a strongman
While several of Cyr's feats of strength may have been exaggerated over the years, some were documented and remain impressive. These included:
- lifting a platform on his back holding 18 men for a total of 1976 kg
- lifting a 534-pound (242 kg) weight with one finger
- pushing a freight car up an incline
- At 19 years old, he lifted a rock from ground up to his shoulder, officially weighted at 514 pounds
- He beat Eugen Sandow's bent press record (and therefore the heaviest weight lifted with one hand) by 2 pounds (0.91 kg) to a total of 273 pounds (124 kg).
Perhaps his greatest feat occurred in 1895, when he was reported to have lifted 4,337 pounds (1,967 kg) on his back in Boston by putting 18 men on a platform and lifting them. One of his most memorable displays of strength occurred in Montreal on October 12, 1891. Louis resisted the pull of four draught horses (two in each hand) as grooms stood cracking their whips to get the horses to pull harder, a feat he again demonstrated in Ottawa with Queen Victoria's team of draught horses during her 'Royal' visit. While in Ottawa he volunteered with the police when they took deputees to round up a local gang of miscreants; they turned him away claiming he would be too slow due to his bulk. He challenged the regular officers to a foot race, beating the majority, and they took him on.
He patrolled as a police officer between 1883–1885 in Sainte-Cunégonde, known now as Petite-Bourgogne (Little Burgundy) in Montreal. Both the Parc Louis-Cyr and the Place des Hommes-Forts ("Strongmen's Square") are named after him. Statues of him are located at Place des Hommes-Forts and the Musée de la Civilisation in Quebec City. The highschool in his hometown of Napierville is also named after him.
Through no fault of his own, many of Cyr's lifts, like his measurements, have been exaggerated or misquoted. In particular, his celebrated back lift done in Boston, of 18 men on a platform, is usually generously estimated at 4,300 lb, which allowing for a very heavy platform of at most 500 lb, meant that each man on average would have weighed approximately 211 lb. This is unlikely, though if given more motivation and competition, Cyr was certainly capable of lifting nearer the 5,000 lb mark. (Anderson, of course, is renowned for lifting 6,270 lb.)
Cyr was also credited with side pressing 273.75 lb/124 kg with one arm (the right), a lift witnessed by Britain's great champion Tom Pevier, who described it more like a 'Jerk Press.' The dumbbell, 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 lift them off the floor, let alone lift them over head.
One particular dumbbell of Cyr's weighed, when empty, 202 lb/92 kg. it being the same bell that had defeated a drove of former strength athletes, was exchanged by its 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 & 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 lb, 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 lb 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 lb, although his normal contest condition was nearer 320 lb. Cyr's wife, Melina, by contrast, never weighed more than 100 lb.
In 1886 Cyr met and defeated Richard Pennell, then Pennell being 40, and Louis just 23. In 1888 on October 1 at Berthierville, Quebec, he lifted 3,536 lb/1, 604 kg of pig iron for his first record in the back lift.
On December 1, 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 money in those bygone days. It was on this historical occasion, on January 19, 1892 that Cyr pressed the pre-mentioned 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 lb. 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 Prince of Wales and Queen Victoria.
After returning to the U.S.A. on May 27, Cyr did his best back lift in Boston, with over 4,000 lb estimated. Consisting of 18 'bulky' men.
During his most active period, circa 1896, he performed the following:--March 31 did clean and jerk (the clean is a misnomer) of 347 lb, 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 525 lb/238 kg, made harder by the fact that the bar was 1.5 inches thick. On May 7 and 8 1896, he performed a crucifix with 97.25 lb/44 kg in his right hand, and 88 lb/40 kg in his left. Some authors often credit him with holding out with one arm!!! - 131.25 lb/59.5 kg. He also dumbbell pressed 162 lb for 36 reps, did a genuine ONE FINGER lift, first with 552 lb and the next day made it 553 lb/280.8 kg. Lifted via one hand, style not specified, but most suspect using hand and thigh method, 987 lb/447 kg. plus again, using hand and thigh, 1897.25 lb/860.5 kg.
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.
Wrestling a giant
Cyr learned boxing and wrestling for a match. While in Montréal, Que., March 25, 1901, Louis Cyr wrestled Édouard Beaupré, who was known a giant man. Cyr's height was measured at 5 feet 8.5 inches (1.74 metres) and he weighed 365 pounds (166 kilograms). Beaupré's height was measured at 7 feet 8.1 inches (2.34 metres) and he weighed 365 pounds (166 kilograms). Cyr won.
By 1904 Louis' health began to fail due to excessive eating and inactivity. At the time, he weighed 400 pounds (180 kg), 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 10, 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.
As shown in movie Louis Cyr
- Crucifix: 97 3/4 pounds (44 kg) left hand and 88 pounds (40 kg) right hand
- One-handed snatch: 188 1/2 pounds (85 kg)
- One-handed press: 273 pounds (123 kg)
- Back lift: 4337 pounds (1967 kg)
- Cyr, C. 2000. Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online. Library and Archives Canada. Retrieved 2007-04-24.
- "Louis Cyr". Louiscyr-lefilm.com. Retrieved 2014-03-22.
- Calvert, Alan "The Secret of the Bent-Press." Super Strength – Chapter 24.
- "Canadian Heroes in Fact and Fiction." Library and Archives Canada. Retrieved: 2007-04-24.
- Weider, B. 1976. The Strongest Man in History: Louis Cyr, "Amazing Canadian."” Translation of Louis Cyr, l’homme le plus fort du monde. Vancouver: Mitchell Press.
- Debon, Nicolas. 2007. The Strongest Man in the World: Louis Cyr. Toronto: Groundwood Books.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Louis Cyr.|
|Wikisource has original text related to this article:|
- Biography at the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online
- Heroes of Yore and Lore: Canadian Heroes in Fact and Fiction
- Sandow Plus website featuring a link to a vintage biography of Cyr..