Who was the Stronger Frenchman…
Quebec’s LOUIS CYR or Maine’s JOHN GAGNON
If you believe the notoriety that still attends the Canadian Louis Cyr (1863-1912), he was the strongest man that ever lived. Maine’s John Gagnon (1884-1939) made the same claim but never received any recognition. Perhaps John Gagnon didn’t deserve the title or maybe he just wasn’t as adept in self-promotion.
Canadian admiration for Louis Cyr lives on. As late as 1970 a great bronze statue was erected in Montreal’s Saint Elizabeth Square. His fame has not diminished possibly because no other Canadian has come forward to outdo his accomplishments.
Canadian’s marvel still at his stature. Cyr weighed 18 pounds at birth and though he wasn’t tall, under six feet, he weighed over 300 pounds at the height of his career in 1895. His personal dimensions were well known: neck 20″, biceps 20″, forearms 16.3″, chest normal 55.2″, chest expanded 60″, thighs 28.5, calves 19.3″. Louis Cyr may not compare in size with some men today but probably hasn’t been surpassed by many, in brute strength.
Stories about him abound (see additional articles, below) starting as a youngster, then as policeman, circus performer and competitor in world competitions and exhibitions. His weight lifting career started at age 17 when he bested the then recognized champion, David Michaud, in 1880.
His notoriety was established in Boston in 1883 when he dramatically lifted a horse off the ground, which no other weight lifter could do. He was welcomed back in Montreal with an exhibition at Mechanics Hall, then Montreal’s largest venue, that wasn’t large enough to hold the crowd that wanted to see him.
One of his most famous feats was performed in 1891 before 10,000 people. He restrained two sets of draught horses, pulling in opposite directions. Another notable feat was his back lift of a stage holding 18 persons, with a total weight of over 4,000 pounds.
He is well known for these dramatic lifts but there were some more standard weight lifting feats as well. In London, during a world tour in 1892, he did a bent press without bending his knees, first with his right hand and then the left, of 273 1/4 pounds… a world record that stood for a long time. Some have questioned whether Cyr used the proper procedure. The standards for weight lifting were not as well established then, so it is difficult to compare his accomplishment with those of John Gagnon, just thirty years later.
Louis Cyr’s great strength was probably acquired as much from his maternal as from his paternal side of the family. Though his Acadian grandfather Pierre Cyr, who encouraged Louis as a youngster, was know to be a weight lifter, Louis’ mother and her father were unusually large people. Both were over six feet tall and weighed about 260 pounds.
Louis was the first of 17 children and was christened Noe-Cyprien Cyr. His parents had his name changed because Louis was easier to pronounce, especially by the non-French community, attracted and impressed by Montreal’s Mr. Muscle.
John Gagnon never acquired the notoriety that attends Louis Cyr. He was born in Caribou, Maine… one of five children of Louis and Sophie Levasseur Gagnon. His mother is reported to be a relation of Louis Cyr but the connection is not clear. His father was robust, but notably strong. At 19, John married Elizabeth Michaud and had two daughters. They lived throughout New England, as he worked at a variety of jobs.
His physical stature was not particularly notable: about 5′ 10″ tall and weighing about 230 pounds. His biceps were 17″. His weight lifting capabilities were not noted until they settled in Augusta, Maine in 1908, when he was 24 years of age.
His local fame was established in 1909 when he was asked to lay the cornerstone of a new public building. The crowd was skeptical when the 1800 pound block of granite could barely be moved by four men using crowbars. A logging chain was passed around the stone and a steel bar attached to serve as a handle. John managed to lift the stone and put it in place. He then repeated the feat for the benefit of the awed crowd. There was much local lore about him, especially about his lifting of automobiles with riders aboard.
At a circus in Hallowell, Maine, Gagnon lifted a platform with 12 people standing atop. Like Louis Cyr, Gagnon travelled with a circus and demonstrated his ability to hold two teams of horses, pulling in opposite directions.
Gagnon’s most famous competition was in 1923 when he was 19 years old. Warren Travis, then reigning weight lifting champion and bearer of the diamond belt, accepted an invitation to compete against Gagnon in Augusta, Maine, probably not expecting much competition against the local fellow. Gagnon outdid him in every lift. The most dramatic was the back lift. Travis’ record was 3660 pounds. With 23 men and I woman on the platform, Gagnon lifted 4170 pounds. Travis acquiesced… not even attempting a lift. Travis said he would invite Gagnon to compete again under recognized lifting rules, but he never did despite Gagnon’s inquiries.
Gagnon’s accomplishments were publicized on a flyer entitled “Records of the World’s Five Strongest Men”. Gagnon was featured with the implication that he was the strongest of the five, including Travis, Louis Cyr, Arthur Saxon and Eugene Sandow. On the flyer was an offer of $500. in cash to anyone who could equal his performance. His performance represented lifts of 16,650 pounds in 25 minutes as follows… [all lifts were in pounds and held for three seconds]: Finger 794, one hand 1111, two hands and knees 2195, neck 1317, harness 2689, teeth 627, one arm 924, two arms 1248 and back 4170.
Was John Gagnon stronger than Louis Cyr or was this just a publicist’s dream? That may never be resolved, but one thing is clear… Louis Cyr’s adulation and recognition in Canada, was never accorded John’s Gagnon’s, in Maine.
The above noted was published in the University of Orono, Maine’s “Le Forum” Newsletter, Fall 2005 and Winter 2006 Edition, and I am very grateful to its author, Norbert Michaud,for having provided me approval to reproduce the article here. Norbert is the grand nephew of Elizabeth Michaud (1st wife of John Gagnon).
Louis Cyr, the strongest man in the world
LOUIS CYR, the Quebec strongman.
January 27, 1999
Thanks to the added information provided me by my good cousin Robert L’Heureux, I’ve come to realize that Louis’ real name was Noé Cyprien Cyr (born October 10, 1863; married Melina Comtois January 16, 1882; died November 10, 1912).
I think you’ll find the following re-print from the “The CYR Legacy” Book published by Claude L. Cyr (and his Committee) on the occasion of the CYR FAMILY RE-UNION held in Madawaska, Maine in 1981, of interest!
LOUIS CYR was the strongest man in the world!
He stood only five feet, ten and one half inches, but his huge chest (which bulged 60 inches in circumference), seemed like a barrel that had popped-out of his 300 pound frame! His legs and biceps were tremendous. The strength of the farm boy from St. Cyprien, Quebec, is the stuff that legends are made of!
But Louis CYR was no legend. He really could lift a full barrel of cement with one arm and he once pushed a freight car on the railroad tracks, up an incline. On another occasion, 18 men who in the aggregate weighed 4,300 pounds, stood on a platform which Louis lifted! And to further get tongues wagging, CYR lifted 588 pounds off the floor…with one finger!
But undoubtedly, CYR’s most dramatic feat occurred on the day he was pitted against four work-horses. On December 10, 1891, standing before a crowd of 10,000 in Sohmer Park, Montreal, Louis CYR was fitted with a special harness. Four draft horses were lined-up opposite CYR…a pair of them on his left, and a second pair to his right. Heavy leather straps encased his upper arms; sturdy hooks at the end of these straps were attached to whiffle-trees, which led to harnesses strapped to the four horses.
CYR stood with his feet planted wide and placed his arms on his chest. As Louis gave the word, the grooms urged their horses to pull. The regulations of the contest, ruled-out any sudden jerk. The four horses pulled with all their might and main on the strong-man, trying to dislodge Louis’ arms from his chest. If CYR lost his footing, or either arms left his chest, he would lose the contest.
The grooms whipped the horses, and urged them in every way to pull harder and harder. But the horses slipped and slid, while CYR didn’t budge an inch. After a few minutes of tugging, it was obvious that CYR was stronger than all four horses put together!”
Louis Cyr preparing to resist the opposing pull of two horses, 1892.
Perhaps one of his most memorable displays of strength occurred in Montréal in December 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. He completed a similar challenge in England in 1892, returning to Canada with one of the marquis of Queensberry’s horses. For several years he worked as a Montréal police officer. By 1904 he weighed around 400 pounds (180 kg). Louis’s health was deteriorating, brought on by inactivity and overeating. He slimmed down and won his last contest, against Hector De Carrie, before retiring in 1906. Louis Cyr died in Montréal on November 10, 1912 of a kidney ailment.
The lengendary Louis Cyr from the village of St. Cyprien, Quebec, was the strongest man of his time. His feats of strength ensured that his name would not be forgotten. His mother was reported to be terrifically strong, over six feet (1.8m) tall and weighed 267 pounds (120 kg) in her prime. Little Louis followed in her
footsteps. Though at five feet ten inches (1.75 m) he never attained her height, at 320 pounds (144 kg) he did exceed her weight. As a teenager he was already challenging experienced strongmen for their titles. He also gained publicity by hoisting a granite boulder weighing 480 pounds (almost 218 kg), thereby beating Michaud of Quebec, the strongest man (until then) in Canada. Louis went on to challenge strongmen in the United States and Europe and set many records including a one-finger lift of 553 pounds (about 250 kg) and a one-hand press of 273 pounds (124 kg). He also lifted a platform of 18 men on his back weighing around 4,337 pounds (1935 kg).
More on Louis CYR “the strongman”, by David Wylie
Strongmen have always held a certain fascination for people…from Samson down to Schwartzneggar…and one strongman holds a certain place in the hearts and minds of the CYR clan.
Louis CYR, born in St. Cyprien de Napierville, Quebec, still holds many records for feats of strength, since his death in 1912. Louis, perhaps the most famous of all the CYR’s, both living and dead, is even today considered to have been the strongest man that ever lived!
In a book written by Ben Wielder (a Canadian writer), CYR is portrayed as a man whose physical prowess proved to be his livelihood and his undoing. Encouraged by his grandfather, himself a man of no mean physical strength, to build-up his strength by eating almost uncontrollably. CYR worked himself up to an enormous size and power and, at the same time, literally ate himself to death, at the age of 49.
Alive, however, CYR amazed audiences in Canada, the United States and the countries in Europe with unmatched physical feats, including an unbroken record for having lifted a total of 4,337 pounds of dead weight on a platform, and 3,539 pounds with a special harness in a stunt called the “Pig Iron Shoulder” lift.
CYR was born in Quebec, and spent much of his youth there, working at jobs in the woods. His idol was a local blacksmith who, as ‘smiths were wont do in those days, performed various acts of strength by way of entertainment. CYR learned a number of stunts from the “‘smith” in his youth, and even performed variations of what he learned from this era of his youth.
This Canadian Hercules was considered at the onset, to be precocious when it came to use of his muscular strength. It is said that one time, in school, CYR became enraged at a number of schoolmates who taunted him, and succeeded in knocking down 14 of his tormentors, before being finally calmed. CYR’s temper was later to become one of his less desirable traits and cause him to become an almost unstoppable figure, verging on madness when prompted to lose his self-control.
This however, was a fault that many shared, but in CYR, was a dangerous combination when one considers his incomparable strength.
At one point in his life, the young CYR came upon an injured lumberman in the Quebec woods, near his home; the man had broken his leg and beckoned the youth to travel the seven or so miles to his village, to fetch assistance. Undaunted, CYR hoisted the injured man on his shoulders and carried him the distance, to safety.
This proved to be a fortunate stroke for the youth, as the lumberman became his lifelong friend, a financial backer, and his benefactor in his later years.
When his family moved to Lowell, Massachusetts, CYR capitalized on his strength to gain him his lifelong reputation as a “Canadian Samson”.
CYR eventually married, had children and worked for the Montreal Police Department, before becoming a public attraction. CYR left the department and purchased a tavern where he put on the occasional show of strength.
Finally, CYR went on a tour of the United States, giving demonstrations, at the behest of Richard Fox, a sports organizer for “The Police Gazette”, a New York publication. From there, his reputation spread and CYR went on to greater feats before larger crowds.
His accomplishments read almost monotonously with one feat being overcome by the next. He did practically everything from pushing entire railroad cars loaded to overflow, to restraining teamed-horses and halting their progress.
After travels to England and other stops in Europe, CYR literally stopped in mid-career to retire to a farm he bought, and tended his tavern before dying at the age of 49 in a Quebec hospital.
Weider’s book on CYR tells in greater details the strongman’s exploits, and eloquently describes his amazing, and sometimes tragic life. It comes as highly recommended reading to all CYR’s and all others, as their depiction of this remarkable man.