The year was 1881 and the annual Boston strong man competition was underway.
Two of the strongest men in the state had already failed the simple test; to lift a Percheron horse completely off the ground using only their own muscle power. Neither could even budge the animal. Now an apple-cheeked eighteen-year-old Canadian with flowing locks of curly blond hair strode up to the huge equine. At first he was greeted by laughter from the audience, which quickly turned to incredulous silence as young Louis Cyr boosted the horse onto his back and lifted all four hooves clear of the ground.
In a day of scientific training methods and anabolic steroid shortcuts, Canadian body-building guru Ben Weider still maintains that no one, dead or alive, even approached Quebecker Louis Cyr for shear power. Cyr was officially recorded to have back-lifted (off a trestle) 4,337 pounds. Unofficially he had often surpassed 5,000 pounds. He was also recorded to have lifted 1,897 pounds several inches off the ground with two hands, and with one finger was able to raise the incredible weight of 553 pounds. He could pull fully laden rail cars and on one occasion held back four 1200-pound horses, two in each hand, pulling in opposite directions.
Louis Cyr was born Noe-Cyprien Cyr on October 10, 1863, in the town of St. Cyprien de Napierville, near Montreal. He later changed his name to Louis after moving to Massachusetts, as this was easier for his American neighbors to remember and pronounce. Louis was the oldest of seventeen children and was noted from an early age to have preternatural strength. This was not a unique trait in his family. His mother weighed over 250 pounds and exceeded six feet in height. She would routinely climb ladders toting 200-pound bags of flour on one shoulder, and later worked as a bouncer in her husband’s tavern. It was reported she could pick up a hefty, angry adult male clear off the ground and pin him to the wall like a butterfly. Her father was also a powerful man, at six-foot-four inches, weighing 260 pounds. Louis’ brother Pierre was destined to be the Canadian middleweight boxing champion, and was able to back lift over 2000 pounds. Later, Louis’ daughter Emiliana performed with her father, and was billed as lifting over 300 pounds at the tender age of eight.
Mama Cyr was very proud of her powerful son. She kept his blond hair long and curled after the style of the biblical hero Samson, a trademark he maintained well into his career.
Later, the Cyr family moved to Lowell, Massachusetts to take advantage of improved employment opportunities in the textile mills. Louis, still an adolescent, worked at a variety of occupations, and subsequently met and married Melina Comtois. Anxious to support his family, Louis was easily convinced by a dubious character named MacSohmer that he could make a good living by going on tour displaying his strength. MacSohmer, however, lived high off the earnings of his protégé and Louis saw little money for his troubles. Eventually MacSohmer pushed things too far. When Cyr failed to show at a sold out show, the promoter found the dressing room bare, the proceeds of the ticket sales gone, and his strongman had checked out of the hotel, leaving his “boss” to pay the bill.
Cyr later found more honest backers, however, he delayed going back on the road. His wife had lost her first pregnancy, and Melina was once again expecting. To avoid the hardship of traveling during her gestation, the strongman took a position with the Montreal Constabulary. He was assigned to Saint Cunegonde, the most dangerous and lawless district in the city. Cyr and four other gendarmes were confronted and assaulted by a gang of thugs. Other constables were in hiding and joined the fray, arresting many of the criminals. Louis took care of a dozen opponents single-handedly by picking up his adversaries and using them as human missiles and battering rams.
Some time later, when the furor had died down, patrols in the district dropped to only two officers. One evening Louis and his partner, Constable Proulx, saw an altercation involving two drunks. Running to break up the fight, the two policemen were ambushed by a dozen men with clubs and hatchets. Louis grabbed one of his assailants in each hand and again used his opponents as human shields and weapons. He got off with a superficial knife wound, though his partner subsequently died of his injuries. A large number of men were arrested, with only one receiving a light sentence. This was one of Cyr’s hapless shields, who’d been cut and bludgeoned to a pulp by his confreres attempting to kill the policeman. Saint Cunegonde remained a safe district for years after.
Louis subsequently went on tour across North America, forming his own circus, Cyr Brothers, with Pierre. He received invaluable publicity from Richard K. Fox, publisher of The Police Gazette in New York. The strongman challenged all comers across the continent and remained undefeated in virtually any type of lifting contest.
Subsequently, in 1892 he traveled to Europe and premiered to a sold out house at the Royal Aquarium in London. After a demonstration of his incredible lifting prowess several famous European strongmen in the audience slunk away without answering Cyr’s public challenge to oppose him on stage. Cyr was subsequently feted by London’s high society including the Royal Family. The Marquis of Queensbury gifted Louis with a fine gray horse, and was amazed when the strongman consumed twenty pounds of meat at a dinner thrown in his honor.
Louis returned to the North America and continued to break records and amaze audiences. Unfortunately his health began to deteriorate in his late thirties attributed to his excess food consumption and sedentary lifestyle. He developed “nephritis, complicated with heart trouble and asthma” and came under the care of Dr. Donald Hingston of Montreal. For his last twelve years of life he was placed on diet consisting only of milk.
Despite his deteriorating health, Cyr’s abilities remained formidable. In 1906 the ailing forty-two year old accepted a challenge from a young strongman named Hector Decarie. Though Cyr lifted a platform weighing 2,870 pounds onto his back for a full minute, and actually won the competition based on points, for the first time he was out-lifted in several categories. Louis realized that his powers were diminishing and that he was no longer fit to continue competing. He graciously offered his title of Strongest Man in the World to Decarie and retired.
Cyr died on November 10, 1912 in Montreal. His daughter Emiliana who retired from her weights to marry physician, Dr. Zenon Aumont, survived him. Their son Gerald also became a medical doctor and practiced in Montreal.
An examination of the members of Cyr’s family who manifested great strength suggests an autosomal dominant pattern of transmission. Louis’ maternal grandfather, his mother, his brother Pierre, and daughter Emiliana all were unusually powerful. Cyr’s father and his wife Merina were not recorded as being particularly big or strong, again in keeping with a dominant trait.
Interestingly the hereditary conditions of malignant hyperthermia and Thomsen’s disease (a form of myotonia congenita) are passed on in an autosomal dominant manner and may be associated with unusual strength or muscle bulk. Both these conditions are described in French Canadian populations. Animal geneticists have been trying to breed hogs with the malignant hyperthermia gene because of the greatly increased muscle bulk, and hence meat production, associated with this condition.
Myotonia congenita may cause increased strength, but the muscle spasm associated may otherwise tend to interfere with agility and coordination. Ben Weider in his book The Strongest Man is History: Louis Cyr, Amazing Canadian points out that Cyr was actually quite agile for a man of his size and bulk, which would tend to make this condition less likely.
Perhaps the Cyr family strength is an independent autosomal dominant trait. It would be interesting to know whether great strength still runs in descendants of the family, or whether cases of malignant hyperthermia or Thomsen’s disease have been reported.
Whatever the underlying cause of Cyr’s great strength, he remains a remarkable Canadian as well as an international icon in the world of body builders. He is probably the only strongman in Canada, if not in the world, memorialized by a public monument, which is located in the city of Montreal.
1. Malignant Hyperthermia in Hyperkalemic PP: Periodic Paralysis News
2. Muscular Dystrophy Association Publications: Facts About Myopathies
3. Weider, Ben: The Strongest Man in History: Louis Cyr, Amazing Canadian: Iron Mind Enterprises
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