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A History Of Strength & Muscle (Part 2)

The Second Edition About Our Historical Heroes!

Posted by WelshFitnessFan - February 3rd, 2017

Ursus (Born 64 AD. Died Unknown – Written 1895)

The Roman empire was now at its peak, and would stay that way for several centuries more. However, Rome itself had a problem. It was rather overpopulated, but the emperor had a wonderful idea, a complete and utter redesign of the city. An idea that was rather slapped down by the Senate. Now, usually you would think that the emperor would take this on board and adjust his plans. Sadly, Emperor Nero was not that sort of Emperor and decided to kill two birds with one stone by setting fire to the city and then blaming Christians for the disaster. “Ah” therefore you are thinking, “Ursus is a Christian who has been endowed with incredible strength in the vein of Samson and defeats the emperor’s scheme?” Nice try, and good if you are a Hollywood producer, but sadly rather wide of the mark. Ursus was a slave in the house of Pomponia and who is described as “a tall and broad shouldered Lygian” and in laymen’s terms, a bit part. So how did he become so famous? If you want to know why, you should watch the 1951 film version which saw Buddy Baer play the character and it all becomes clear.

As soon as the Hercules films were released, sweeping all before them, Italian film makers were grabbing at any muscular character they could think of and in 1961, “The Revenge of Ursus” was released starring Samson Burke and from that moment on, his fame was assured as over the next three years, nine Ursus movies were released starring Ed Fury, Dan Vadis, Reg Park and Alan Steel. In 1964, to get even more bang from their buck (or perhaps lira), they produced the ultimate bill as Hercules, Samson, Maciste and Ursus all appeared in the same movie entitled “Samson and His Mighty Challenge”, which was wonderfully lampooned in the 1995 Australian comedy “Hercules Unleashed” where the owners of an independent cinema, trying to overcome the machinations of a film company, were duped into buying the undubbed version of the film and had to live dub it in front of an audience in real time.

100 AD: The Roman Empire begins to conquer North Africa

200 AD: Teotihuancan becomes the largest city in both North and South America

300 AD: The Kama Sutra is written in India

400 AD: Under attack from Germanic tribes, the Roman empire begins to collapse

500 AD: Clovis, king of the Franks in Germany, converts to Christianity

600 AD: Hohokam culture, influenced by Mexicans, emerges in Arizona

700 AD: The Lindisfarne Scriptures are written in the North East of England

800 AD: Charlemagne is crowned Holy Roman Emperor

900 AD: Manuscripts showing musical notation have been dated from this time

1000 AD: The Vikings attack Normandy in France

1100 AD: The Incas emerge at Cuzco

1200 AD: The first pavements are installed in Paris, France

1300 AD: The Ottoman Empire is established in Turkey

1400 AD: Semaphore is invented for communication at sea

1500 AD: Corbal establishes a Portuguese trading post in India

1600 AD: The building of statues on Rapa Nui (Easter Island) ends due to lack of materials

There has been a great deal of academic discussion about the noticeable absence of strongmen or of feats of incredible strength. Discussions range from the lack of recorded history post the Roman Empire, otherwise known as the “Dark Ages” from 400AD – 1100 AD to whether such feats were deliberately hushed up lest the people who performed them were classed as witches. Indeed, the only reference to a strongman I can find during the whole of those fifteen hundred years is an unconfirmed report from Germany in 1490 where it was alleged that the then Duke Christopher of Bavaria (who reigned from 1449 – 1493) did, according to an inscription on a stone weighing four hundred pounds, “lifted it and threw it away from him” however I can find no peer reviewed evidence of this. That is not to say, however, it was impossible, as in the Basque Country on the Franco-Spanish border, the 15th and 16th centuries saw the rise of a sport similar to weightlifting where stone cylinders weighing up to four hundred and forty pounds were lifted on a regular basis.

Porthos, Baron du Vallon (Born 1610. Died 1661 – Written 1844)

To look at the French nobility in the seventeenth century, you might wonder how on earth any of them would appear on a list of strength and muscle. After all, your average nobleman would be laid out on a chaise longue, being fed grapes by either a servant or mistress, complaining about their gout. Well, Porthos was nothing like that, if only because for the first twenty years of his life, he wasn’t. No, he started out as plain old Porthos, a man who put his great strength to work in the defence of France as a member of His Majesty’s Musketeers. And how strong was Porthos? Well, let’s put it this way. Captain Treville, the overall commanding officer of the Musketeers, was strong himself so when you hear that “more than once in his struggles with Porthos he had overcome the giant whose physical strength was proverbial among the Musketeers”, you know that Porthos must have a bit of muscle on him.

Mind you, he did come from a strong family. His grandfather, Antoine, was said to be three times stronger than Porthos and his father, Gaspard, was twice as strong, which would lead you to suspect that if Porthos had a son, that son would be half as strong as Porthos (but, my word, even with half the strength of Porthos he would still be a very formidable person) and here are a few reasons why…

Travelling from the port of Piriac, d’Artagnan, the youngest of the Musketeers, came across a group of people working on the road loading very large stones onto trollies so they could be moved from one part of the work site to the other . However. one stone fell off one of these trollies and was now embedded in the mud and impossible to move. It came as quite a surprise then, when a workman (Porthos in disguise and working undercover) “stooped, slipped his hands under the face lying upon the ground, stiffened his Herculean muscles, and without a strain, with a slow motion, like that of a machine, lifted the end of the rock a foot from the ground. The workman who held the plank profited by the space thus given him, and slipped the roller under the stone”. Similarly, when he and d’Artagnan are trapped in a prison, the Gascon asks Porthos about how life is treating him as a member of the nobility to which he replies “I have heard speak of a certain Milo of Crotona, who performed wonderful feats, such as binding his forehead with a cord and bursting it – of killing an ox with a blow of his fist and carrying it home on his shoulders, etcetera. I used to learn all these feats by heart yonder, down at Pierrefonds, and I have done all that he did except breaking a cord by the corrugation of my temples”, to which d’Artagnan helpfully points out that Porthos’s strength is in his arms. He demonstrates this by ripping an iron bar out of the window and bending it into a bow shape.

But, as any great hero will tell you, it is how a hero dies that can cement their legend, and the death of Porthos is worthy of the Titans of Greek legend. Himself and Aramis are holed up in a grotto surrounded by guardsmen when Porthos has a good idea, and, lifting a barrel full of explosives, he throws it at the guardsmen. This has the desired effect, but also a downside, namely bringing the grotto down on them both. Porthos, of course, lifts the roof to stop it collapsing on his friend, but then suddenly finds he cannot move and so pleads with Aramis to leave him be so he can escape with his life. Aramis does and just seconds later, the grotto collapses with Porthos still inside but still able to be heard from the outside where he whispers “"Too heavy!" After which his eyes darkened and closed, his face grew ashy pale, the hands whitened, and the colossus sank quite down, breathing his last sigh. With him sank the rock, which, even in his dying agony he had still held up”.

Although Porthos was a fictional character written by Alexandre Dumas, all the tales were based on the records of the actual Musketeer corps that served the Kings of France in the seventeenth century and there is evidence to suggest that Porthos was based on Isaac de Portau who lived from 1617 – 1670 and was a Musketeer from 1640 onwards, however, no evidence has come to light to suggest that he was as strong as Porthos.

1700 AD: “The Selling of Joseph” – A Book Supporting Abolitionism Is Published In North America

Thomas Topham (Born 1702. Died 1749)

Thomas was the son of a carpenter and would have become one, but decided on a different career as a landlord of the Red Lion Inn, near the former St. Luke’s Hospital. Sadly, he wasn’t a very good one as that inn soon folded, but he had by then gained quite the reputation for being strong. This was all done on the quiet, but when he did go public, he certainly captured people’s imagination as he was pulled by a horse, whilst lying on his back with his feet up against a wall that divided two houses, in other words something that would certainly get noticed.

In July 1734, he was the star of a benefit concert for himself where he demonstrated his strength by, amongst another things, lying with his head on one chair and his feet on another, holding a glass of wine in his right hand and having five men stand on his chest, torso, hips and legs. Yes, he still had a thing for the hospitality industry and around the same time became landlord of the Duke’s Head in modern day Islington in central London.

Like a modern-day pop star, he also toured, going to Ireland in 1737, Scotland, and in Macclesfield in Cheshire, he made such an impression that the local town council gave him a purse of gold and even made him an honorary council member. He also impressed the residents of Derby where not only did he roll up a dish made of pewter in the same way that you roll up a piece of paper, and twisted a kitchen spit around the neck of someone who had insulted him. He also lifted the vicar of All Saint’s church in the town with one hand, which may not sound like much, until you learn that His Reverence weighed twenty eight stone or three hundred and eighty pounds. If that wasn’t enough, he even sang!

On 28 May 1741, to celebrate the taking of Porto Bello by Admiral Edward Vernon, he performed at the Apple Tree Inn in the presence of the admiral and numerous spectators. Here, standing on a wooden stage, he raised several inches from the ground three hogsheads of water weighing 1,336 pounds, using a strong rope and tackle passing over his shoulders. He wasn’t afraid to play tricks on people, as demonstrated by a suggestion that one night he carried a watchman in his box from Chiswell Street till he finally dropped his sleeping burden over the wall of Bunhill Fields burying-ground. Add to that holding back a horse and cart, just like Franco Columbo lifted a car, and bending a poker simply by hitting it with his arm. This last feat was witnessed by Dr. John Theophilus Desaguliers, and he was to make Topham a star, employing him as a personal bodyguard while he travelled and encouraged Topham to perform at places they visited. In 1745, having left Islington, he was established as master of the Bell and Dragon, an inn in Hog Lane, St. Leonard's, Shoreditch, and exhibited for his usual charge of a shilling a head. He was also a freemason as well and a member of the, aptly named, Strong Man Lodge.

He was said to be about five foot, ten inches tall, muscular and well made, but did walk with a slight limp and although very much a gentle giant, he was prone to having a temper if something upset him and something that did upset him quite badly was the infidelity of his wife. So much so that in August 1749, he attacked her and ended up stabbing her. Although there is nothing to say what happened to Mrs. Topham, Thomas’s fate was sealed as he was wounded in the attack so severely that he died from his injuries on August 10th, and was buried at St. Leonard’s in Shoreditch, eastern London.

But his legacy lives on, as in the British Museum, there is a dish made of hard pewter that on April 3rd 1737, was rolled up by Thomas and marked with the names of everyone who witnessed the performance of as close to superhuman strength as it was possible to get in the 18th century.

Jean Valjean (Born 1769. Died 1833 – Written 1862)

Jean was born in 1769 and instantly had problems. After all, when you become a child orphan in the mid-18th century you were more likely to die than live, but he managed to survive thanks to becoming a pruner. Everything seemed to be going well, that is until a bitter winter in 1795 when he was forced to steal a loaf of bread. Now, in this day and age the worse that could happen would be a fine and maybe community service, but in 1795 that meant only one thing – five years in prison. But it got worse, for this was a prison with very strict rules, namely every escape attempt added an extra three years to the term (so as he tried to escape four times his release date was put back to 1812, plus an extra two years for resisting arrest on his second attempt). He spent a total of 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread.

So, in 1814, you think he is released and able to live a blameless life eh? WRONG, because there was a sting in the tail of French justice in the early 19th century. All ex-convicts had to carry a yellow passport, a passport that they had to give to anyone who wished to employ them which of course meant that as soon as they were employed, out would come this document and bang, instant dismissal. As you can see, Napoleonic France was a cruel country. So, it should come as no huge surprise to hear that he is arrested again for stealing some silverware from a bishop who, bizarrely, takes him to task for forgetting to also take the silver candlesticks that he'd given Valjean. Nonetheless, it’s another black mark in his books.

So, you are probably wondering, what’s a convicted criminal doing in a list of strongmen? Well, about 15 months later he pops up (under an assumed name) in in Montreuil-sur-Mer and revolutionizes the town's manufacturing, earning himself a small fortune. He spends it mostly for the town's good, paying for the maintenance (including required staff) of hospital beds, orphanages and schools, and is even appointed mayor, despite not wanting it. During his time in the town he saves an old man named Fauchelevent from death (he had fallen beneath his wagon just as it started settling into the mire and his horse broke its thighs). Knowing that he had to do the right thing, he dashed to the town and announced that he would pay anyone who could raise the wagon but when nobody wanted to risk their life climbing under the wagon and the wagon started settling faster than the Jack would get there, he jumped down into the mud and lifted the wagon off Fauchelevent.

 This act rang something in the memory of a man called Javert, who witnessed the rescue, and tells Madeleine (Jean’s assumed name) that he once knew a very strong man, back when Javert had worked guarding prisoners, who had climbed under a mast, in the same way that he had climbed under the wagon, and raised it on his back. With that memory, he put two and two together and realised that this mayor was in fact, the criminal Valjean. It is not for another 30 years that this is revealed. Unable to bear the shame anymore, Valjean commits suicide but not before taking Javert with him by drowning themselves in the sewers beneath Paris.

You will note that both Porthos and Jean Valjean are written by French authors (Alexandre Dumas and Victor Hugo), have similar backgrounds and deaths, perform similar feats of strength, and were written about within 18 years of each other. Could the two authors have compared notes and come up with two almost superhumanly strong characters? Well it’s possible, but, I don’t like to say off the cuff, just in case I am wrong.

1800 AD: Washington established as the seat of American government


Donald Dinnie (Born 1837. Died 1916)

Donald was born into a family with almost the same tradition as Porthos’s family – his father was a strongman as well, and clearly there must have been something in the water of Aberdeenshire, as Donald was one of ten children born to his parents, and one of six boys all of whom grew to over six foot tall and did not weigh less than 200 pounds. All of them followed their father to become a mason and chip away at the local rocks to form stones for building, although Walter may have brought some shame onto the family when he became a detective at Scotland Yard in London.

He was a clever lad at school, but left when he was 15 and went into athletics, turning professional the following year. He still dabbled in the family business every now and again and my word, what an athletic career he had. Although he initially went for track and field, where he just happened in one year to be the world leader in the high jump, shot put and hammer, as well as coming within a whisker of breaking the one-hundred-yard dash record and wasn’t a bad hurdler either, he was also a wrestler, strongman, and Highland Games athlete as well. Now I know what you are going to say, but he was never a show. That was until 1870 when after winning numerous events at the Coatbridge Highland Games, and laying claim to the title, “Champion of Scotland” which he kept for around 20 seasons, a Canadian strongman by the name of Thomas Campbell started to take exception to Donald. So Donald put his money where his mouth was, literally, and challenged anyone be they Campbell himself, a fellow Canadian or from anywhere in the world, to meet him for a contest of nine events which, if they beat him, would see him pay them $1,000 prize money. The contest consisted of, putting the heavy and light stone, throwing the heavy and light hammer, tossing the caber, throwing a 56 pound weight for height, a wrestling match, a running event, and a hurdles race, which was dubbed by Frank Zamowski in a book published in 1989 as “one of history’s most challenging events”. It will come as no surprise to hear that Campbell shut up, in fact everyone shut up, and the money was never claimed.

By now Donald’s fame had reached the United States, and with good reason as well. At 33, Dinnie was already acknowledged as Scotland’s greatest athlete, having competed for 16 Highland Games seasons in his native land. Such was his reputation for feats of strength and versatility that American Caledonian clubs amended their calendars and paid heavy appearance fees to Dinnie to compete at their Gatherings. And so, in July, 1870, Donald Dinnie, the world’s greatest athlete and the first superstar of sport, came to America and boy did the American’s get a good look at him. He was now six foot one inch tall, 218 pounds, and possessed a 48 inch chest, 26 and a half inch quads, and had little, if any bodyfat on him, but the thing that really caught the American’s attention was the fact that, as one reporter put it, “the kilt, and nothing but the kilt, is the only covering of his stalwart limbs”. Although it was suggested that he wore tights that were the same colour as his skin, but during his time in the United States he made the hearts of men and the knees of women very weak indeed, and won pretty much everything prompting a ditty to be recited whenever he appeared at a meet, “He’s springy, elastic and light when he’s running,. Comes up to the mark in time and to spare. His opponents can’t match him or beat him in cunning. They say we were beat because Dinnie was there!”

So how strong was Donald? Well, let’s put it this way. At a bodyweight of around 218 pounds he managed to do something that set him in the same status as Hercules. Outside the hotel in Potarch, Scotland, next to the River Dee, there are two large, unwieldy boulders which in bygone days had been used in tethering horses. The smaller weighs 340 pounds and the other 445. A round iron ring is fastened in the top of each weight, large enough to fit the grip of a single hand. Donald, in front of witnesses, carried both stones a distance of five to six yards. By putting the both stones together, keeping one stone in front of him and the other behind. While straddling them, Dinnie could lift and haul both simultaneously. In Scottish folk-lore this feat virtually canonized Dinnie. Once referred to as the “Stones of Dee,” and now known as the “Dinnie Stones”. Carrying them appears to be, century and one half later, an unduplicated feat. Dinnie, an ideally proportioned big man, fused great arm, shoulder and leg strength with agility.


Sadly, like all great stories, Donald’s came to an end in 1916 with his death, but he was still entering competitions as late as 1910. Everyone knew what he was, a real strongman celebrity, so it is perhaps fitting that in 1912 the Health and Strength magazine, one of the first bodybuilding magazines to be published, held a benefit concert for him. Perhaps as we come to the end of the year marking the centenary of his death, we should all try and be like that Scotsman who played his part in the great Victorian revolution known as “The Enlightenment” that allowed the future stars of bodybuilding, weightlifting and strength athletics to come to the fore.

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