Miracle Mongers and Their Methods/Chapter XII
FEATS of strength have always interested me greatly, so that in my travels around the world I have made it a point to come in contact with the most powerful human beings of my generation. The one among these who deserves first mention is Charles Jefferson, with whose achievements I became quite familiar while we were working in the same museum many years ago. I am convinced that he must have been the strongest man of his time at lifting with the bare hands alone. He had two feats that he challenged any mortal to duplicate. One was picking up a heavy blacksmith's anvil by the horn and placing it on a kitchen table; for the other he had a block of steel, which, as near as I can remember, must have been about 14 inches long, 12 inches wide, and 7 inches thick. This block lay on the floor, and his challenge was for anyone to pick it up with bare hands. I noticed that it required unusually long fingers to grasp it, since one could get only the thumb on one side. Though thousands tried, I never saw, or heard, of anyone else who could juggle his anvil or pick up the weight. True, I saw him surreptitiously rub his fingers with resin, to assist in the gripping, but that could have been only of slight assistance to the marvelous grip the man possessed.
It is generally conceded that Louis Cyr was, in his best days, the strongest man in the known world at all-round straight lifting. Cyr did not give the impression of being an athlete, nor of a man in training, for he appeared to be over-fat and not particularly muscular; but he made records in lifting which, to the best of my knowledge, no oiher man has been able to duplicate.
John Grun Marx, a Luxemberger, must have been among the strongest men in the world at the time I knew him. We worked on the same bill several times; but it was at the Olympia, in Paris, that he shone supreme as a strongman—and at the same time as a weak one. For, in spite of his sovereign strength, Marx was no match for a pair of bright eyes; all a pretty woman had to do was to smile and John would wilt. And—Paris was Paris.
Marx's strength was prodigious, and he juggled hundreds, and toyed with thousands, of pounds as a child plays with a rattle. He must have weighed in the neighborhood of three hundred pounds, and he walked like a veritable colossus. In fact, he reminded me of a two-footed baby elephant.
Always good-natured, he made a host of friends both in the profession and out of it. After years of professional work he settled down as landlord of a public house in England, where, finally, he was prostrated by a mortal illness. Wishing to die in his native city, he returned to Luxemberg. He did not realize that he was bereft of his enormous strength, and those about him humored him: the doctor and the nurses would pretend that he hurt them when he grasped their hands. He died almost forgotten except by his brother artists, but they (myself among them) built a monument to this good-natured Hercules, whose only care was to entertain.
Among the strongmen that I met during my days with the museums, one whom I found most interesting was William Le Roy, known as The Nail King and The Human Claw-Hammer, whose act appealed to me for its originality. So far as I could learn, it had never been duplicated.
Le Roy was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, October 3rd, 1873. He was about 5 feet 10 inches in height, and well set up. The inordinate strength of his jaws, teeth, and neck, enabled him to push a nail, held between his teeth, through a one-inch board; or to nail together, with his teeth, two ¾-inch boards. He could draw with his teeth a large nail that had been driven completely through a two-inch plank. Then he would screw an ordinary two-inch screw into a hardwood plank with his teeth, pull it out with his teeth, and then screw it into the plank again and offer $100 to any man who could pull it out with a large pair of pincers which he proffered for the purpose. When he had performed these stunts in various positions, he would bend his body backward till his head pointed toward the floor, and in that position push a nail through a one-inch board held perpendicularly in a metal frame. I saw no chance for trickery in Le Roy's act.
Another nail act was that of Alexander Weyer, who, either by superior strength or by a peculiar knack, could hold a nail between the middle fingers of his right hand with the head against the palm, and drive it through a one-inch board. But since this act did not get him very far—either on the road to fame, or toward the big money—he turned to magic and finally became one of the leading Continental magicians, boasting that he was one of the few really expert sleight-of-hand magicians of the world.
I met Weyer at Liège, Belgium, where we had an all-night match with playing cards. He admitted that there were some tricks he did not know, but he claimed that after once seeing any magician work he could duplicate the tricks. On this occasion, however, he was unable to make the boast good.
Another clever performer of those days was Mexican Billy Wells, who worked on the Curio platform. His act was the old stone-breaking stunt, already explained, except that he had the stones broken on his head instead of on his body. He protected his head with a small blanket, which he passed for examination, and this protection seemed excusable, considering that he had to do at least seven shows a day. A strong man from the audience did the real work of the act by swinging the heavy sledgehammer on the stone, as shown in the accompanying illustration. Usually the stone would be riven by a single blow; but if it was not, "Wells would yell, "Harder! harder! hit harder!" until the stone was broken.
The last I saw of Billy was during one of my engagements at the Palace Theater, New York. He was then soliciting orders for some photograph firm, the halcyon days of his big money having faded to a memory. But he had been a good showman and his was one of the best liked working acts in the Curio, as the dime-museum profession was called.
Of all the acts of this nature that I have ever seen I think the most foolhardy was that of an under-sized Italian who lay on his back on the floor and let fall from his hands, extended upward at arm's length heavy weights upon his chest—the silly fool! I said as much to him—and some other things too. His act had little entertainment to show as compared with the pain and danger involved. I do not know what became of him, but I can guess.
Among the museum attractions of those years was a man named Wilson who had the incredible chest expansion of twenty-one inches. This man would allow a strong leather strap, about the size of a trunk-strap, to be buckled round his chest; and then, inflating his lungs, would break it with very little apparent exertion. An imitator, named Herman, worked the side shows for a long time with a similar act, and was fairly successful, although his expansion was only about sixteen inches. The last time I heard of Wilson, he was working in the shipyards at Newport News, Virginia.
Another "Samson," a German, among other sensational feats, such as breaking coins with his fingers, used to flex his muscles and break a dog-chain that had been fastened round the biceps of his right arm. While he was performing at the Aquarium, in London, he issued a challenge. Sandow, then a youth without reputation, accepted the challenge, went upon the stage, defeated him, and, since Samson's act had been the talk of the town, thus brought himself into instant notice, the beginning of a career in which he rose to the top of his profession. After several successful years on the stage, Sandow settled down in London, where I last heard of him as conducting a school of instruction in health and strength methods.
In the tradition of the "Female Sampsons" noted in Chapter Eleven, I recall two strong-women who were notably good; Yucca, who lifted a horse by means of a harness over the shoulders; and La Blanche, who toyed with heavy articles in a most entertaining way. I remember these ladies particularly because both were remarkably good talkers—and I am referring to conversational quality, not to volume.
Lulu Hurst—known variously as The Georgia Magnet, The Electric Girl, The Georgia Wonder, etc.—created a veritable sensation a generation ago by a series of feats which seemed to set the law of gravitation at defiance. Her methods consisted in utilizing the principles of the lever and fulcrum in a manner so cleverly disguised that it appeared to the audience that some supernatural power must be at work. Although she was exposed many times, her success was so marked that several other muscular ladies entered her province with acts that were, in several instances, superior to the original.
One of the cleverest of these was Annie Abbott, who, if I remember rightly, also called herself The Georgia Magnet. She took the act to England and her opening performance at the Alhambra is recorded as one of the three big sensations of the London vaudeville stage of those days. The second sensation was credited to the Bullet-Proof Man. This chap wore a jacket that rifle bullets, fired point-blank, failed to penetrate. The composition of this jacket was a secret, but after the owner's death the garmaent was ripped open and found to contain—ground glass! The third sensation I must, with all due modesty, (business of bowing) claim for myself.
The Magnet failed to attract after about forty-eight hours, for a keen-witted reporter discovered her methods and promptly published them. The bullet detainer also lasted only a short time only. When my opening added a third sensational surprise, one of the London dailies asked, "Is this going to be another Georgia Magnet fiasco?"
That they were gunning for me is proved by the fact that the same newspaper investigator who exposed the Magnet, came upon the stage of the Alhambra at my press performance—the same stage where the unhappy Dixie lode-stone had collapsed—and though he brought along an antique slave iron, which he seemed to think would put an end to my public career on the spot, I to escape in less than three minutes. When I passed back his irons, he grinned at me and said, "I don't know how you did it, but you did!" and he shook me cordially by the hand.
Some twenty-six years ago I was on the bill with Mattie Lee Price, who, though less well known, was in many ways superior to either Miss Hurst or Miss Abbott. For a time she was a sensation of the highest order, for which thanks were largely due to the management of her husband, a wonderful lecturer and a thorough showman. I think his name was White. He "sold" the act as no other man has sold an act before or since.
We worked together at Kohl and Middleton's, Chicago, and the following week at Burton's Museum, Milwaukee; but when we made the next jump I found that White was not along. They had had a family squabble, the other apex of the triangle being a circus grafter who "shibbolethed" at some of the "brace games," which at that time had police protection, so far as that could be given. He had interfered between the couple, and was, I am sorry to say, quite successful as an interferer; but he was a diabolical failure when he attempted to duplicate White's work as lecturer, and the act, after playing a date or two, sank out of sight and I have heard nothing more of her professionally. Lately I have learned that she died in London in 1900 and is buried in Clements Cemetery, Fulham.
This was one of the most positive demonstrations I have ever seen of the fact that showmanship is the largest factor in putting an act over. Miss Price was a marvelous performer, but without her husband-lecturer she was no longer a drawing card, and dropped to the level of an ordinary entertainer—even lower, for her act was no longer even entertaining.
In Chapter Eleven we read Dr. Desaguliers' analysis of the mechanics of what may be called strongmanship. Similar investigations have attended the appearance of more recent performers.
For instance, reviewing one of Lulu Hurst's performances, the New York Times, of July 13th, 1884, said:
The "Phenomenon of the Nineteenth Century," which may be seen nightly at Wallack's, is not so much the famous Georgia girl, with her mysterious muscle, as is the audience which gathers to wonder at her performance. It is a phenomenon of stupidity, and it only goes to show how willingly people will be fooled, and with what cheerful asininity they will help on their deceivers.
Then follows a description of her performance, which was far from successful, thanks to the efforts of one of the committee, a man described as "Mr. Thomas Johnson, a powerfully-built engraver connected with the Century magazine." Mr. Johnson had evidently caught her secret, and he got the better of her in all the tests in which he was allowed to take part.
A disclosure of the methods employed in a few of her "tests" will serve to convince the reader of the fact that she possessed no super-normal power, the same general principles shown here being used throughout her performance.
These explanations are taken from the French periodical La Nature, in which Mr. Nelson W. Perry thus sums up the attitude of the public in regard to this class of performance: "Electricity is a mysterious agent; therefore everything mysterious is electric." Of the performance of the Electric Girl this magazine says:
It is a question of a simple application of the elementary principles of the laws of mechanics, chapter of equilibrium.
We propose to point out here a certain number of such artifices and to describe a few of the experiments, utilizing for this purpose the data furnished by Mr. Perry, as well as those resulting from our own observations.
One of the experiments consists in having a man or several men hold a cane or a billiard cue horizontally above the head, as shown in Fig. 1. On pushing with one hand, the girl forces back two or three men, who, in unstable equilibrium and under the oblique action of the thrust exerted, are obliged to fall back. This first experiment is so elementary and infantile that it is not necessary to dwell upon it. In order to show the relative sizes of the persons, the artist has supposed the little girl to be standing on a platform in the first experiment, but in the experiment that we witnessed this platform was rendered useless by the fact that the girl who performed them was of sufficient height to reach the cue by extending her arms and standing on tiptoes.
Next we have a second and more complex experiment, less easily explained at first sight.
Two men (Fig. 2) take a stick about three feet in length, and are asked to hold it firmly in a vertical position. The girl places her hand against the lower end of the stick, in the position shown, and the two men are invited to make the latter slide vertically in the girl's hand, which they are unable to do, in spite of their conscientious and oft-repeated attempts.
Mr. Perry explains this exercise as follows: The men are requested to place themselves parallel to each other, and the girl, who stands opposite them, places the palm of her hand against the stick and turned toward her. She takes care to place her hand as far as possible from the hands of the two men, so as to give herself a certain leverage. She then begins to slide her hand along the stick, gently at first, and then with an increasing pressure, as if she wished to better the contact between the stick and her hand. She thus moves it from the perpendicular and asks the two men to hold it in a vertical position.
This they do under very disadvantageous conditions, seeing the difference in the length of the arms of the lever. The stress exerted by the girl is very feeble, because, on the one hand, she has the lever arm to herself, and, on the other, the action upon her lever arm is a simple traction. When she feels that the pressure exerted is great enough, she directs the two men to exert a vertical stress strong enough to cause the stick to descend. They then imagine that they are exerting a vertical stress, while in reality their stresses are horizontal and tend to keep the stick in a vertical position in order to react against the pressure exerted at the lower end of the stick.
There is evidently a certain vertical component that tends to cause the stick to descend, but the lateral pressure produces a sufficient friction between the hand and the stick to support this vertical force without difficulty. Mr. Perry performed the experiment by placing himself upon a spring balance and assuming the rôle of the girl, with two very strong men as adversaries. All the efforts made to cause the stick to slide in the open hand failed, and the excess of weight due to the vertical force always remained less than twenty-five pounds, despite the very determined and sincere stresses of the two men, who, unbeknown to themselves, were exerting their strength in a horizontal direction.
In the experiment represented in Fig. 3, which recalls to mind the first one (Fig. 1), the two men are requested to hold the stick firmly and immovable, but the slightest pressure upon the extremity suffices to move the arms and body of the subject. Such pressure in the first place is exerted but slightly, and the stresses are gradually increased. Then, all at once, when the force exerted horizontally is as great as possible, and the men are exerting their strength in the opposite direction in order to resist it, the girl abruptly ceases the pressure without warning and exerts it in the opposite direction. Unprepared for this change, the victims lose their equilibrium and find themselves at the mercy of the girl, and so much the more so in proportion as they are stronger and their efforts are greater. The experiment succeeds still better with three than with two men, or with one man.
The experiment represented in Fig. 4, where it concerns the easy lifting of a very heavy person, the trick is no less simple. Out of a hundred persons submitted to the experiment, ninety-nine, knowing that the experimenter wishes to lift them and cause them to fall forward, grasp the seat or arms of the chair, and, in endeavoring to resist, make the whole weight of their body bear upon their feet. If they do not do so at the first instant, they do so when they are conscious of the attempts of the girl to raise the seat, and they help therein unconsciously. The experimenter, therefore, needs only to exert a horizontal thrust, without doing any lifting, and such horizontal thrust is facilitated by taking the knees as points of support for her elbows. As soon as a slight movement is effected, the hardest part of the work is over, for it is only necessary for the girl to cease to exert her stresses in order to have the chair fall back or move laterally in one direction or the other. At all events, the equilibrium is destroyed, and, before it is established again, it requires but little dexterity to move the subject about in all directions without a great expenditure of energy. The difficulty is not increased on seating two men, or three men, upon each other's knees (as shown in Fig. 4), since, in the latter case, the third acts as a true counterpoise to the first, and the whole pretty well resembles an apparatus of unstable equilibrium, whose centre of gravity is very high and, consequently, so much more easily displaced.
All these experiments require some little skill and practice, but are attended with no difficulty, and, upon the whole, do not merit the enthusiastic articles that have given the "electric" or "magnetic" girl her European reputation.
Strong people, whether tricksters or genuine athletes, or both, we shall probably have always with us. But with the gradual refinement of the public taste, the demand for such exhibitions as fire-eating, sword-swallowing, glass-chewing, and the whole répertoire of the so-called Human Ostrich, steadily declined, and I recall only one engagement of a performer of this type at a first-class theater in this country during the present generation, and that date was not played.
There was still a considerable demand for these people in the dime museums, until the enormous increase in the number of such houses created a demand for freaks that was far in excess of the supply, and many houses were obliged to close because no freaks were obtainable, even at the enormous increase in salaries then in vogue. The small price of admission, and the fact that feature curios like Laloo or the Tocci Twins drew down seven or eight hundred dollars a week, show that these houses catered to a multitude of people; and not a few of the leading managers of to-day's vaudeville, owe their start in life to the dime museum.
Among the museums that were veritable gold mines, I might mention Epstein's of Chicago; Brandenberg's of Philadelphia; Moore's of Detroit and Rochester; The Sackett and Wiggins Tour; Kohl and Middleton's; Austin and Stone's of Boston; Robinson of Buffalo; Ans Huber's, Globe, Harlem, Worth's, and the Gayety of New York.
The dime museum is but a memory now, and in three generations it will, in all probability, be utterly forgotten. A few of the acts had sufficient intrinsic worth to follow the managers into vaudeville, but these have no part in this chronicle, which has been written rather to commemorate some forms of entertainment over which oblivion threatens to stretch her darkening wings.