July 26, 2013

Louis Cyr lifted up Quebec

By PETER BLACK, Canadian Dispatch

---- — This summer, there’s the usual offering of cinema superheroes, what with your men of steel, wolverines, lone rangers and what-not.

Here in Quebec, though, film-goers have the chance to thrill to the story of a real-life superman, an all-but-forgotten legend of Canadian history.

The film is called “Louis Cyr: Strongest Man in the World,” and its release two weeks ago was a modest box-office hit by Quebec standards.

Back in his day, Cyr was one of the most famous people in the world, who easily packed exhibition halls across North America and England with exuberant fans excited to witness his latest feats of strength.

There is a compelling American angle to Cyr’s story. In 1879, the Cyr family fled south of the border from rural Quebec in search of work, as was the case for about 900,000 French-Canadians, in what is known as the Great Haemorrhage.

It was in Lowell, Mass., where papa Cyr found a job in a mill, as did teenage Louis, that the young colossus first began to startle folks with his amazing strength.

He took up with a local strongman-competition promoter and, finding the earnings for lifting heavy things for show preferable to drudgery in a mill, Cyr was swiftly on the road to muscular stardom.

In his memoirs, Cyr claimed he got his power from his mother, who could toss sacks of flour around like pillows, and who, when the family opened a tavern in Montreal, served as bouncer. Philomene also gave birth to 17 children, Louis being the eldest.

Although mom’s prodigious output of baby Quebecers was an extraordinary effort in what was known as the revenge of the cradle, she also longed for her superman son to lift up the spirit of French-speaking people in North America.

She had a vision in which she saw Louis as Samson vanquishing the English in a rematch of the Battle of the Plains of Abraham. Hence, long Samsonian locks became Cyr’s trademark in the burgeoning strongman circuit.

From 1885 to 1896, Cyr traveled widely in Canada and the United States, racking up one amazing stunt after another. The feat that perhaps stands above all took place in Boston in May 1895, when he raised a platform holding 18 hefty men off the ground with his back, a hoist of 4,327 pounds.

In Montreal, in 1891, his arms strapped in a special harness, he held firm while four enormous workhorses did their best to pull him apart. Later in London, England, he did the same trick with two horses for the amusement of the Marquis of Queensberry, who made him a gift of one of his prize stallions.

All the while, Cyr fueled his strength with a diet that would surely revolt today’s athletic machines in the WWE or weightlifting world. His maternal grandfather Pierre had told young Louis that the secret of strength lay with massive consumption of food, advice he embraced with gusto.

In one notable episode, he downed an entire roasted suckling pig. At 37, he weighed 350 pounds and suffered bouts of kidney disease that left him partially paralyzed.

An enlightened doctor prescribed a diet of milk as the cure to all his physical ailments. Its effect was dubious since the world’s strongest man succumbed to an accumulation of afflictions at age 49 in 1912.

His death came as a huge blow to French-Canadians, for whom Cyr had been such a source of pride and recognition on the world stage.

A century after his death, the movie about Cyr has sparked a modest boom in awareness of this most famous Quebecer of his generation.

Cyr is buried in St. Jean de Matha, north of Montreal, the town where he bought a farm and settled with his beloved wife and daughter. Plans are afoot to move a small museum into the actual home where he lived.

Fittingly, the man who incarnated Louis Cyr in the movie, Antoine Bertrand, was the guest of honor at a recent fundraiser for the million-dollar museum project. He delivered, they say, a powerful and uplifting tribute to the world’s strongest man.

Peter Black is a radio broadcaster and writer based in Quebec City. He has worked on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, in Montreal as a newspaper reporter and editor, and as a translator and freelance writer. He can be reached at