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The Quebec Colossus

He just couldn’t turn down such a brazen dare. All his life Louis Cyr had been called upon to prove the immense strength bestowed upon him by nature. He was not about to allow some upstart to arbitrarily strip him of the title of World’s Strongest Man, earned and bolstered at countless public demonstrations and weight-lifting show-downs throughout North America and England.

So, on Feb. 26, 1906–when he was 44–Cyr took on Hector Décarie, a young buck at the peak of his rigorous and scientific physical conditioning. The setting was a cavernous pavilion in Parc Sohmer, an exhibition ground that had sprung up in 1889 to lure customers to east-end Montreal aboard the city’s new tramway system. Parc Sohmer, built by a promoter who had tried to bilk Cyr early in his career, had been the scene of many Cyr triumphs over the years. One of these was his laughingly lopsided wrestling match in 1901 against Édouard Beaupré, an eight-foot-two-inch, 400-pound giant from Willow Bunch, Sask. During the match, Cyr tossed the Willow Bunch Giant to the mat four times in three minutes.

The weight-lifting match against Décarie wouldn’t be so easy. Word of the match spread quickly in Quebec as people sensed a historic occasion, either an astonishing comeback or the tragic end to an unprecedented career. Four thousand people packed the pavilion, hundreds more were turned away. When the spotlights were turned on they revealed to a shocked crowd the disparity between the two men. Cyr was slow moving and short of breath. His colossal girth had clearly fallen to seed. Décarie’s young body was hard and taut, like marble in motion.

For the first of eight lifts, the weight-lifters had to keep their legs straight and their feet together, a position that Décarie knew would be terribly awkward for a man of Cyr’s inverted-pyramid physique. Décarie lifted first, 135 pounds, little exertion apparent. Cyr’s turn. The crowd was hushed as the champion shuffled forward to take his turn with the barbell now weighing 151 pounds.

With the agony of strain contorting his face, Cyr managed to force the weight above his shoulders. Décarie added another 20 pounds to the bar and, with some struggle, raised it high. It was back to Cyr. He hesitated, looking to the crowd for a sign of hope, then, his eyes wet with tears of shame, he shook his head and conceded the lift to Décarie. Although the show-down with Décarie eventually finished a 4-4 draw, Cyr could not claim victory. After the match he called for silence and made this announcement: “I have decided to retire forever. I pass on my crown as world’s strongest man to Hector Décarie.”

The next day the papers began to feed on the carcass of the fallen champion from St-Jean-de-Matha, Que. In Montreal, a sports reporter for La Presse wrote: “There was a time when Louis Cyr was the hero of French-Canadians, the Samson of strongmen, the prototype of human strength. Alas, those times are over. Louis Cyr, beaten by age, is no more than a shadow of himself, a remnant of his past glory, a relic of his former power.”

One wonders whether the reporter would have been so harsh had he known the truth about Louis Cyr, that the man who showed up to win that night was in fact dying of a combination of debilitating ailments brought on by excessive eating that left him nearly crippled, subsisting exclusively on a diet of milk. That Louis Cyr was alive, let alone lifting enormous weights, was a miracle.

Cyr himself apparently didn’t make too much out of the rendezvous with Décarie. Indeed, he saw himself as the winner. In his memoirs–recorded two years after the event–Cyr merely notes that, unlike all his other competitions, the one with Décarie was based on points, not total weight lifted, in which case he had won hands down.

In his day, Cyr was probably the best known Canadian in the world, with the possible exception of Sir Wilfrid Laurier. His legend persists 100 years after he lifted himself into prominence simply because his feats of strength are so overwhelming and so well-documented they have resisted, like a mountain of granite, the erosion of time. It also helps to keep the name in play that there are weight-lifting championships bearing his handle, a dandy bronze statue in the St-Henri district of Montreal to keep kids asking “who is Louis Cyr?” and a play based on that fateful night in February 1906. The play, which was staged last summer near Shawinigan, is subtitled The Story Of A Life, The Story Of A Man, The Story Of A People. This was not just a weight-lifter because Cyr was the pride of a Quebec badly in need of inspiration.

That is not to say that every town in Quebec has a street named for their celebrated compatriot. There is a Chemin Louis Cyr in St-Jean-de-Matha, but, as Stuart McLean recounts in his 1992 book Welcome Home: Travels In Smalltown Canada, townspeople refused to rally a few years ago when most of the Cyr memorabilia kept by his surviving grandson was put up for auction. Only a few items were salvaged by a couple of determined Mathalois when the town could have had an entire museum’s worth for $8,000.

The hopeful news is that since that tale was told, St-Jean-de-Matha has realized what a treasure it has in Louis Cyr, who is buried there. One of the above determined individuals, Pierre-Michel Gadoury, himself the grandson of senior strongman Donat Gadoury, has been the driving force behind the museum devoted to Louis Cyr which is housed for now in the town hall. The museum contains a growing collection of Cyr artifacts, photos and other memorabilia; a life story that is at once stirring and disturbing.

It is probably best to begin that story in 1755 when the two brothers Cyr, exiled from their Acadian homes by British troops, fled to Quebec. Pierre Cyr, Louis’ great-great-grandfather, settled in St-Cyprien-de-Napierville, south of Montreal. Somewhere along the genetic trail, the Cyr family picked up a tendency to be very strong and live very long. In his memoirs, Louis recounts that his great-grandpa Pierre was known to battle bears with a stick and lived to be 102. But it is his grandfather Pierre who, as the young Louis’ constant companion, drilled into the boy the importance of physical strength, not just as an asset to hard farmwork, but as a noble goal in itself. He also sowed the seeds of his grandson’s eventual destruction by convincing him that the more you eat, the stronger you’ll be, a credo that Louis followed with mortal gusto.

With a reputed birth weight of 18 pounds–”my first record”, he would joke–Louis Cyr began life in October 1863, as Noé-Cyprien, the eldest of 17 children born to his mother Philomène and his farmer father. His mother was a story in herself. She could fling 200-pound sacks of grain around like pillows and later, when she and her husband opened a tavern in Montreal, it was she who was the bouncer. It was also mom who, after having a vision in which she saw her budding Samson vanquish the English in a reprise of the Plains of Abraham, compelled Louis to let his hair grow long and curly, which, until baldness prevailed, was his strongman trademark.

From an early age Louis showed exceptional strength. As a toddler he would tip over a chair, pile it high with logs and drag it across the farmhouse floor. At eight years, told by papa to go round up a calf, he happily did so, returning with the 100-pound animal wrapped around his shoulders. At school, teased for his size, he quickly turned the taunts to respect through feats of strength; a little bullying was involved, but by all accounts Louis was a nice, God-fearing boy who obeyed his parents and didn’t unduly throw his precocious weight around.

The Cyrs were like thousands of Quebecers in the late 19th century. Times were tough on the farm and jobs were scarce. In 1879–when Louis was 15–the family packed its belongings and headed for the greener pastures of the United States. About 900,000 Quebecers made this same trek over a period of 80 years in what’s called the Great Hemorrhage, an exodus that historians say set francophone Quebec’s development back by decades.

It was in Lowell, Mass., where the on-again, off-again farm and factory worker shed the Noé-Cyprien name at the U.S. border and got his first taste of the business potential of his muscles. Cyr was prodded by his work buddies to try his strength against a Professor Donovan, part strongman, part con-man, who ran a local gym. Cyr easily out-lifted the Professor and suddenly realized his destiny might not be confined to menial work. Word spread of Cyr’s feats of strength and soon enough he found himself at his first public competition in Boston where he scored a triumph as the baby-faced, curly-haired “Frenchman” who lifted a massive Percheron workhorse off the ground.

Shortly afterwards the Cyrs decided to return to Quebec and Louis happily agreed, his heart then set on wooing a young woman from St-Jean-de-Matha he had met in Lowell. Petite Melina Comptois also happened to be the heart’s desire of the reigning Canadian strongman David Michaud. This love triangle eventually came crashing down when Louis married Melina and took on Michaud for the Canadian championship in an arena near Quebec City. Michaud lost both his title and his true love and Cyr was handed his ticket to fame.

Cyr, a devoted young husband of 18, was torn between a steady job and going on tour as the latest sensation in a world insatiable for new feats of physical power. He and his father had already taken a little caravan around rural Quebec showing off his incredible strength and Louis liked the life. After a hurly-burly stint as a cop in Montreal, Cyr surrendered to show biz and signed on with a series of promoters and circuses and later formed his own travelling circus.

From 1885 to 1896 Cyr travelled widely in Canada and the U.S. racking up one amazing stunt after another. The feat that perhaps stands above all took place in Boston in May 1895, when he raised a platform holding 18 hefty men off the ground with his back, a hoist of 4,327 pounds, an achievement that has never been even remotely approached. In Montreal, in 1891, his arms strapped in a special harness, he held firm while four enormous workhorses did their best to pull him apart. Later in London, England, he did the same trick with two horses for the amusement of the Marquis of Queensberry, who made him a gift of one of his prize stallions. The marquis and Prince Edward–the future king of England, were among many aristocratic types who befriended the colonial colossus on his 11-month British tour.

Among Cyr’s other remarkable feats: 273 pounds lifted over the shoulder with one arm, the barbell never touching the body; 1,897 pounds lifted off the ground with two hands; 987 pounds off the ground with one hand; 553 pounds with one finger. By way of comparison, in the modern world of power-lifting, the record for a dead-lift is 406 kilograms or 893 pounds, less than half of what Cyr did.

Cyr used a barbell lifting style typical of the era whereby at no time during the lift from floor to full-arm extension over the shoulder does the weight actually rest on the body. As body-building guru Ben Weider notes in his 1976 biography of Cyr, the military press, the style Cyr employed, is immeasurably more difficult than the contemporary clean and jerk method. Weider wonders “what a modern trainer could have done with the muscular force” of Louis Cyr.

While Cyr was wracking up record after record, defeating all who dared meet his challenge, he was putting on similar tours de force at the dinner table. In one noted instance, he and fellow strongman Horace Barré were each presented with a suckling pig and with little apparent effort consumed the entire meal in one sitting. Barré would eventually die of his excesses, and so would Cyr. When he was 37, tipping the scales at 355 pounds, Cyr suffered a severe attack of Bright’s Disease, a kidney ailment that left his legs paralyzed. On top of that he suffered heart problems and asthma that forced him to sleep upright in a rocking chair. His doctors had all but written him off when along came a medical miracle in the form of Dr. Donald Hingston who prescribed Cyr a diet consisting only of milk.

Cyr rallied and decided to lead a less punishing life, running the farm he had bought in St-Jean-de-Matha, managing his circus, playing with his grandchildren, playing his fiddle and serving as the benevolent godfather of St-Jean-de-Matha. He felt well enough to return to the stage in 1901 to fell the Willow Bunch Giant, but the recovery was superficial. One doesn’t really know what possessed him to risk his life in such a way, for he was not a foolhardy or hot-headed man, but Hector Décarie’s challenge was apparently just too boastful for Cyr to ignore. And so Louis Cyr gave the last public demonstration of his titanic force that fateful February day in 1906.

Drained by the effort, Cyr’s health slid downward and he died six years later on Nov. 10, 1912. He was 49. The news of his passing shared the front pages with the escalating brutality of the Balkan War that soon would lead to WW I, and the preparations being made in Canada for the next sitting of Parliament, Robert Borden’s first after defeating Wilfrid Laurier a year earlier.

The Balkan struggle comes and goes, same too the revolving doors of Canadian politics, but one thing has not changed in over a 100 years. Canada’s Louis Cyr is still the strongest man who ever lived.


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