Strongman is a sport in which competitors are tested on pure strength. With origins in Viking lore and medieval Iceland, England, and Japan, strongman turned from proving one’s manhood by lifting large stones, to a display of superhuman strength in sideshows and public competitions in the late-18th century. The strongman’s ability to perform amazing stunts and feats of strength made their presence in 19th and early-20th century circuses a necessity.
1. Pierre Gasnier
Born in France in 1862, Pierre Gasnier — the “French Hercules” — traveled with Barnum & Bailey in the 1890s. Standing at 5’3” and weighing 146 lbs, Gasnier was known for being able to rip a deck of cards in half, bending horseshoes, and breaking chains wrapped around his chest just by expanding his rib cage. He could also lift a 260-pound dumbbell over his head using a technique called the one-arm bent press. Many other strongmen tried to replicate this feat, but could not pull it off successfully.
2. Angus MacAskill
At 7’8” and 428 lbs, Angus MacAskill holds the record for the tallest Scotsman to ever live. His reputation for his strength and size spread from Scotland to New York and he was recruited to join P.T. Barnum’s traveling circus in 1849. Known as Giant MacAskill, he worked alongside General Tom Thumb, the world’s shortest fully grown man at the time. It is said that MacAskill could carry a barrel weighing 300 pounds under each arm, but he feat that brought him fame, was the lift of a 2,200-2,700-pound anchor.
3. Siegmund Breitbart
Siegmund Breitbart, born in 1883, was discovered to be an incredibly strong child at just the age of three. Breitbart joined Germany’s Circus Busch in 1919 after being spotted performing in a market by the circus’s director. He joined as a strongman and was billed as “The Strongest Man in the World.” At 6’1” and 225 lbs, he could pull a wagon full of people with his teeth and endure immense weight on his chest. Breitbart is also known for climbing a ladder while lifting a baby elephant and holding a train wheel in his teeth while three men hung on.
4. Katie Sandwina
Born in 1884 in Austria, Katie Sandwina found fame at the age of sixteen in her father’s circus. She used to challenge any man or woman to a wrestling match at the end of her act — which is how she met her husband Max Heymann. Max, and eventually their 2-year-old, became part of her act as human barbells. Sandwina could lift a 600-pound cannonball, bend iron bars, and break chains. She joined Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus and quickly was promoted to a center ring act. Sandwina performed with the circus until she was 60-years-old.
5. Louis Cyr
A proverbial gentle giant, Louis Cyr was a blonde-haired, rosy-cheeked, violin-playing strongman. Born in Canada in 1863, he was known to be an exceptionally strong boy, showing off feats of strength that quickly impressed his family and garnering attention from the public. Cyr won his first strongman competition at the age of 18 by lifting a horse off the ground. In 1892, Cyr signed a one-year contract with Ringling Bros. He then started his own circus with fellow strongman Horace Barre. His feats of strength, which include carrying 2,371 pounds on his back, are still considered unrivaled.
Also known by her name Josephine Blatt, strongwoman Minerva was born in 1869 in either Germany or New York. Minerva could break chains by expanding her chest and catch cannonballs fired from a cannon at point-blank range. She was the first woman to hold a professional wrestling championship and was once recognized as the strongest woman in the world by the Guinness Book of World Records, lifting 3,564 pounds. After performing, wrestling, and traveling with various circuses throughout her career, Minerva retired in 1910 at the age of 42.
That’s a Wrap!
Though you may not be able to see strongmen perform in circuses like you could have in the 19th century, strongman competitions are still held all over the world. Thanks to “circus strongman,” the tradition of strength athletics holds fast in popular culture and is still a source of public amazement.