Louis Cyr: The strongest man in the world

Hiebert on Heritage

Richard Hiebert

The story of Quebec’s legendary strongmen begins in the early 19th century with the birth of Jos Montferrand. He was a man of exceptional size. At age 16, he was six foot four inches and had already established himself as a man of great strength and agility. While still a teenager, he took on an English boxer, who claimed he was the champion of Canada, and knocked him out with one punch.

Montferrand spent his early years as a wanderer, taking jobs in lumber camps north of Montreal. The heavy work added to his strength and size. His title, King of the Strongmen, caused sailors, soldiers and goons to challenge him at every turn. He vanquished them all. Legend has it that, on one occasion, he chased away 150 thugs who were waiting to ambush him. On another occasion in a saloon, he jumped in the air and kicked the ceiling.

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Jos Montferrand’s phenomenal feats of strength and agility entrenched him deep in the folklore of rural Quebec. He was the habitants’ great hero. He became a mystical figure who is still admired and emulated.

Although Jos Montferrand was the greatest strongman of his time, there were others, of which a soldier called Grenon was notable. He once defended his comrades in arms against 20 Englishmen.

But the most famous of all was Claude Grenache. The story goes that a thug was looking for a fight and came across Grenache peacefully ploughing his field. The thug asked where he might find the strongman. Grenache picked up his plow and pointed toward his house. Grenon and Grenache were impressively strong athletes, but they and their contemporaries paled in the shadow of the demigod Jos Montferrand, who was almost worshipped in Quebec.

Jos Montferrand died in 1864 and passed on his legacy to the baby Joseph Louis Cyr, the spiritual heir of the great strongman. Louis Cyr’s lineage was impressive to say the least. During the late 19th century, the ideal woman was required to be delicate and physically weak. But Louis Cyr’s mother was an exception. And despite the fact that she bore 17 children, she stood six foot two, weighed 267 pounds and was immensely strong.

Louis Cyr developed his great strength and physique early in life. Like Jos Montferrand, he worked in the lumber camps north of Montreal and Quebec City, and others. The strongman also worked for a few years for the St.-Jean de-Matha and Montreal police departments, during which time an American promoter took notice of his amazing feats of strength. For a handsome piece of cash, Louis Cyr was persuaded to take on the title of, “the strongest man in the world.” And this wasn’t hype. It was true.

Louis performed at exhibitions in Quebec and abroad. His fame spread throughout the land. He was a great hero like Jos Montferrand, except he was stronger. He was idolized by an adoring public. Women named their babies after him. Families drove many miles to see him perform.  

Louis Cyr was the first truly professional urban Quebec athlete – an urban strongman.  His promoter offered $5,000 to anyone who could beat him. Many tried; all failed. All of the European strongmen failed miserably. Germany’s champion, Otto Ronaldo, “The German Eagle,” the “Polish Cyclops” and the Scandinavians, Montgomery and Johnson were not up to the task.

How strong was Louis Cyr? At the height of his fame, on Jan. 19, 1899 in front of 5,000 people, including the Prince of Wales, at the Royal Aquarium Theatre in London, Louis Cyr performed his greatest feats. He lifted 551 pounds with one finger. Then he supported 14 good-sized men on a platform on his back. In another venue, he held two work horses pulling in opposite directions. This feat was performed for the Marquis of Queensbury, the father of modern boxing. This gentleman was so impressed that he gave a horse to the strongman.

On one occasion, he lifted a boulder weighing 480 pounds. On another, he lifted a horse weighing three quarters of a ton.

One of Louis Cyr’s training methods was to carry a heavy sack of grain on his back one quarter of a mile and add two pounds every day.

Louis Cyr was also a showman. He grew his hair long to emulate Samson of the Old Testament. He performed his feats with imagination and panache, to impress his audience. And his attire enhanced his spectacular physique.

So great was Louis Cyr’s fame that his records remained unbroken. His successors measured their accomplishments against his exploits. Louis Cyr passed on his title to the immensely powerful Hector Decarie. Madame Cloutier, who was mindful of her gender, nevertheless emulated her hero by lifting 510 pounds with one finger. No man could match this feat. And, Victor Delamarre, the “Quebec Superman,” vied for supremacy.

Tales of the exploits of the great strongmen of history were entrenched in Quebec folk art. Heroes like Montferrand, Grenon, Grenache and Cyr became mythical figures, who fuelled the fires of Québécois nationalism. But in the case of Louis Cyr, there was tangible evidence. His legendary feats of strength were witnessed.

A decade after the death of Louis Cyr, physical strength no longer had the mystical and spiritual meaning it once had. There was little need for strongmen to keep the peace in bars and taverns, their traditional employment. But strongmen were still needed to build railways and buildings, and load and unload cargo from ships in many ports – work that provided a good living.

Many generations of strength athletes followed in the footsteps of the strongmen and women of the late 19th century, but none were their equal. Louis Cyr stood head and shoulders above his contemporaries and rightly claimed the title, “the strongest man in the world.”

Source: Heritage Post, a newsletter for teachers, 1994-95; internet, Louis Cyr’s early years

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