Pumping Iron

This is one of 1122 articles in my book Now and Then Again, The Way We Were and the Way We Are, second edition. The book is available from Amazon for $20.95 print and $9.95 Kindle and  also as an ebook from Apple, Kobo, and Scribd for $9.95. It’s fixed format so it’s better with a tablet, laptop, or computer. There are more articles from the book on another blog here. And there is a book preview website .

Pumping Iron

In January, 1898 an act at the Empire Theatre in Liverpool, England went badly wrong. As a pianist impersonating Paderewski played, a man in evening dress listened, absorbed in the music. But when the pianist started singing, the pained man picked up the piano with the pianist still sitting on the attached seat, still playing, and marched offstage in time to the music. Unfortunately, the strongman stumbled and both piano and pianist went flying, causing considerable damage to both.

The pianist sued his partner in the act and won an award of £150 ($650) in January, 1900. The jury didn’t believe the strongman’s claim that a crease is the carpet caused the accident. The strongman appealed and the award was overturned.

The strongman was Eugen Sandow (1867-1925). Born Friedrich Muller in Konigsberg, in East Prussia (now Kaliningrad) he changed his name to avoid the Prussian draft.

He joined a circus as an acrobat. The circus went bankrupt in Brussels where Sandow met Louis Attila, a professional strongman who mentored him and the two eked out a living touring music halls.

They separated in 1889, with Attila settling in London and Sandow wandering around Europe ending up in Venice. Attila sent for Sandow later that year to come to London to challenge two strongmen, Sampson and Cyclops. Each night of their act, Sampson offered £100 to anyone who could duplicate the feats of strength of Cyclops and £500, a fortune at the time, to anyone who could perform Sampson’s.

After Sampson announced his challenge on October 29, 1889 at the music hall of the Royal Aquarium, Attila rose and announced he had someone to take him up on it, amazing everyone, including Sampson.

Sampson hedged, saying the challenger would have to take on Cyclops first for £100, only then could he challenge the mighty Sampson. Attila demurred: the challenger had come all the way from Italy for the £500 contest. After consultations with theater management, it was agreed that Sandow would take on Cyclops that night and would return for the main event.

Sandow jumped on the stage wearing evening dress complete with monocle, which caused him to trip over weights and props on the stage to derisive laughter. But the laughter died when Sandow ripped off his suit, specially designed for this, revealing a Greek god physique in tights and Roman sandals.

Cyclops lifted a 150 pound dumbbell and then a 100 pound one over his head. Sandow lifted the 150 pound one and then lifted the 100 pound one twice. Then Cyclops lifted a 220 pound barbell over his head with two hands. Sandow then lifted it with one hand. For the final test, Cyclops lifted a 250 pound barbell lying on his back, which Sandow easily matched. The judges then ruled that the contest was over and Sandow had won.

But Sampson demanded that they start over again and keep at it until one man collapsed. The raucous audience was having none of it. The judges then proposed a final test. Cyclops lifted a 150 pound dumbbell with his right hand and a 100 pound kettlebell with his left overhead. Sandow bested the feat by lifting the dumbbell seven times over his head and the £100 was given to Sandow by the judges.

On November 2, Sandow returned to confront Sampson. The hall was so jammed that Sandow could not get in, finally entering late by breaking down the stage door.

Sampson bent iron pipes over his chest, legs and arms, then hammered them straight with his fists. Sandow, having never done this trick, was able to do it, but clumsily. The next feat was breaking a wire rope by expanding the chest, part of Sampson’s routine which he did easily. Sandow was finally able to do it after the audience shouted out instructions to him.

Next was breaking a chain by flexing the bicep. Sampson offered one to Sandow, but he rejected it. Then Sandow produced his own chain. He had anticipated this test and had found Sampson’s chain maker who supplied him with an identical chain, but with the proper fit, the key to the trick. He had arranged for the chain maker to be in the audience to verify that the chain was identical to Sampson’s and Sandow passed the chain to the audience for examination. Sandow handily broke the chain.

After protestations by Sampson, the judges decided to award Sandow the £500 if he would perform some further feats of strength. Sandow picked up a man standing stiff with one hand, then performed some tricks with a 150 pound dumbbell.

Sampson stalked off the stage and the judges awarded the £500 prize to Sandow. Sampson left town and Sandow had to settle for £350 from the Aquarium management.

Sandow received offers to perform all over England and polished his act over the next four years.

In 1893, Sandow was enticed to go to America and while performing his act he was spotted by Florenz Ziegfield, later to become a famous Broadway impresario, who booked him into his father’s nightclub, the Trocadero, which had been opened to get business from the nearby Chicago World’s Fair.

Sandow was a hit and Ziegfield arranged for Sandow to tour the country with his act.

When Sandow returned to England, he founded a fitness empire with his Institute of Physical Culture, gymnasiums, a magazine, books, and exercise equipment he invented.

In 1901 Sandow organized the first bodybuilding competition in London (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a judge). He promoted exercise in schools, and traveled the world promoting the benefits of exercise.

Sandow died of a stroke in 1925. He had separated from his wife and she had him buried in an unmarked grave, forgotten for over 70 years until an admirer added a gravestone and plaque in 2002. In 2008, Sandow’s great great grandson replaced it with a large pink sandstone with “Sandow” engraved vertically

Sandow today is revered by bodybuilders. The award for the Mr. Olympia contest is a statue of Sandow. Arnold Schwarzenegger won a Sandow in 1970.

There are many photos of Sandow online, often wearing only a fig leaf, including an 1894 Edison Kinetoscope of Sandow flexing his muscles.



As a publicity stunt, after Sandow’s show at the Trocadero, wealthy women could pay $300, which would be donated to charity, to go backstage to feel his muscles. One woman fainted and had to be revived with smelling salts.

While Sandow was in Venice in 1893, just before he was called to England for the Sampson challenge, he attracted the eye of E. Aubrey Hunt (1855-1922), an American painter, who painted him in the Coliseum as a Roman gladiator wearing a leopard skin and sandals.

The 8’6” high x 5’6” wide painting was acquired by Joe Weider, founder of the International Federation of Bodybuilders and founder of the Mr. Olympia contest. The painting now hangs in The Joe and Betty Weider Museum of Physical Culture at the University of Texas.

A full-size plaster body cast of Sandow (sans fig leaf) was commissioned by the the British Museum of Natural History in 1901. Sandow presented one copy to his friend Dr. Dudley Sargent at Harvard, which is lost. Another copy is on display at the USA Weightlifting Hall of Fame in York, Pennsylvania.

The original cast is in the basement of the museum. Arnold Schwarzenegger had a copy of it made at great expense.

A tiny ad for a Sandow photograph in the April 19, 1902 Literary Digest mentions a bronze statue of him at Harvard University in the same pose as the British Museum cast. The ad implies that the bronze is not life size.

Copyright © 2020 Joseph Mirsky

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