Canadian strongman and weightlifter Louis Cyr (1863–1912) was considered the world's strongest man for much of his lifetime, and he is often cited as the strongest man in recorded history. As with many accomplishments that originated in the world of 19th-century entertainment, those of Cyr are difficult to document definitively. However, photographs of Cyr that have survived from the period appear to corroborate his extraordinary feats.
Eventually hailed as the strongest man in the world, Louis Cyr was born Cyprien-NoéCyr on October 10, 1863, in Saint-Cyprien (now Saint-Cyprien-de-Napierville) in southwestern Quebec, which was then part of the British Province of Canada. Cyr's strength came from ancestors on both sides of the family: his paternal grandfather had been a lumberman and wilderness man who was said to have been physically powerful, and his mother was also reported to have been large-boned and strong.
When Cyr began to demonstrate an unusual physical strength, his parents encouraged him to cultivate his gifts. The image of the Paul Bunyan–like, almost supernatural lumberman had been deeply woven into Quebecois culture since the days of Joseph Montferrand (1802–1864), a logger whose legendary strength had transformed him into a local legend, that of Big Joe Mufferaw. After Cyr dropped out of school and began to divide his time between the family farm and a nearby lumber camp, it seemed natural for him to try to become as strong as he could. An early demonstration of his gifts came when, according to various accounts, he either carried an injured farmer from a forest path back to his house or lifted a stuck wagon onto dry ground. Cyr seems to have received his first farm job as a result of this incident.
Cyr entered his first strongman contest in 1877, lifting a boulder that weighed more than 400 pounds. His family moved to the United States the following year and settled in the mill town of Lowell, Massachusetts, where Cyr adopted the first name Louis. The teenager worked in a textile mill and did manual labor at various other jobs to help support his struggling family. By age 17, he weighed 230 pounds. In addition to lifting weights, he pursued more delicate hobbies, such as dancing and playing the violin. Because of such interests, as well as due to the long, styled hair his mother urged Cyr to wear in emulation of the biblical figure of Samson, local youths teased him frequently. That stopped, however, when Cyr entered a strongman contest in Boston and lifted a horse off the ground.
America's great circus spectacles were then in their infancy, and it was difficult for Cyr to make a living from touring and strongman competitions alone. In 1882, he and his family returned to Quebec, where he married Mélina Comtois, settled in the small town of Saint-Jean-de-Matha, and took a lumbering job. The couple had a daughter, Emiliana; a second child, a son, died in infancy. Cyr continued to dream of wider fame, and he returned with his wife to Lowell in 1883, seeking backers for publicity and for a tour in which he would perform. One such tour, of Quebec and Canada's Maritime provinces, got underway in 1883 but lasted only a short time; Cyr received no payment and was probably swindled by the promoter.
Perhaps as a result of this close call, in 1888 Cyr left the police force and opened a tavern on Montreal's Notre-Dame Street, sometimes entertaining customers with feats of strength. He continued to long for the spotlight, however, and in the late 1880s the Troupe Cyr resumed touring. Cyr traveled to the United States in 1890, joined a troupe there, and convinced a substantial number of observers that he was, in fact, the world's strongest man. The U.S.-based Police Gazette newspaper helped bolster his contention by offering a $5,000 reward to anyone who could beat Cyr in a one-on-one competition; no one did. After returning to Montreal in 1891, he was reported to have won a tug-of-war against four horses at Sohmer Park. Cyr went to Europe in late 1891, offering to take on all comers in strength competitions, but he found few takers; his reputation preceded him, and even the continent's famed strongmen declined to challenge him.
Cyr staged several exhibitions while in England that ran into 1892, and during this tour he was photographed in a stunt in which two horses, pulling in opposite directions, could not dislodge racket-shaped handles from his bent arms. French-language Cyr biographer David Ohl, quoted in the Toronto Globe & Mail, noted that the strong man “was written about across Canada, across the United States, in London and Paris and throughout Europe.”
By the mid-1890s, Cyr had begun to profit handsomely from his talents and determination. He and fellow strongman Horace Barréjoined the growing Ringling Brothers Circus for a year beginning in 1892; when they left they formed their own circus, recruiting a variety of other athletes as well as acrobats and jugglers. The circus toured for five years, with Barré-billed as the French Hercules and shown on publicity posters lifting a platform with an elephant on top. Cyr himself was reported to have accomplished various record-breaking lifts during this period.
Surviving photos of Cyr show a barrel-chested but not outlandishly large man; at the peak of his career he stood about five feet, ten inches tall and weighed about 300 pounds. His chest at rest measured about 55 inches in circumference but grew as large as 60 inches under exertion. Cyr was notorious for the size of his meals, reportedly eating up to six pounds of meat at a single sitting.
Cyr performed in the late 19th century, an era when weightlifting had not yet become a formal sport, and the feats of humans with marvelous skills were routinely exaggerated. His life and work were surrounded by anecdote and hyperbole, and it is difficult to know exactly what he accomplished. Some of his feats, however, were well documented. The 1891 tug-of-war against four horses in Montreal was attended by a large crowd and widely reported, and a similar stunt with two horses in England was photographed. Cyr was reported to have lifted a platform supporting 18 men, with a weight of 4,337 pounds in total. Various locations were reported as the site of this feat, and a circus poster of the time depicted Cyr squatting under a platform bearing an improbable 25 men. A photograph reproduced in the Globe & Mail shows Cyr using a stool to do a push-up; on his back is a platform on which 14 men are standing. Photos also exist of Cyr lifting a 535-pound weight with one finger.
The claim that Cyr was history's strongest man is difficult to evaluate. American weightlifter Paul Anderson raised a 6,270-pound weight off a trestle in 1957, exceeding even the most disputed claims made for Cyr, and other weightlifters have topped many of his individual records. But the sheer range of feats attributed to Cyr, and the variety of weightlifting skills they involved, suggests that his talent as a strongman was truly extraordinary. He even engaged in, and won, boxing and wrestling exhibitions against much larger men. Cyr also served as a symbol of the rising aspirations of the people of French-speaking Canada, a minority in a mostly anglophone land; as a result, he remains especially beloved in his home province of Quebec.
Health problems finally slowed Cyr's career. Continuing to eat enormous meals but rarely engaging in exercise other than the nonaerobic activity of heavy lifting, he gained weight and eventually topped the scales at 400 pounds. The result was the onset, around 1900, of Bright's disease (chronic nephritis), from which U.S. weightlifter Anderson also suffered. Cyr retired to his farm in Saint-Jean-de-Matha and occasionally competed against younger strongmen in one-on-one contests, winning them all. In 1906 he retired for good.
In later years Cyr remained at his farm and sometimes granted interviews to journalists about his glory days. These interviews were compiled into a book, Mémoires de l’homme plus fort du monde (“Memoirs of the Strongest Man in the World”) and published in 1980. Cyr died in Montreal, at his daughter's home, on November 10, 1912. The importance of his career in French-Canadian consciousness is shown by the various Louis Cyr place names in Montreal: an entire neighborhood bears his name, as does a park, and a Louis Cyr statue stands in the Place des Hommes-Forts—Strongman Square. A French-language film about Cyr was released in Canada in 2013 and inspired crowds of interested tourists to tour Saint-Jean-de-Matha.
Jowett, George F., Louis Cyr, “The Strongest Man That Ever Lived,” Milo Publishing Co., 1927.
Weider, B., The Strongest Man in History: Louis Cyr, “Amazing Canadian,” Mitchell, 1976.
Globe & Mail (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), June 27, 1892, “The Life and Times of Louis Cyr.”
Iron Game History, Volume 1, number 2, David Norwood, “The Legend of Louis Cyr,” pp. 4–5.
Le Devoir (Montreal, Quebec, Canada), November 11, 1912.