When people think of the father of modern day Bodybuilding, Eugene Sandow is the name that comes to mind. Without denying the incredible work done by Sandow in the spreading of physical culture, to speak of a ‘father’ of bodybuilding does a great disservice to the men and women who preceded Sandow. One such man is Ludwig Durlacher or Louis Attila, the man who discovered Sandow. Today at Physical Culture Study we are going to examine the life of ‘Professor Attila’ and ask why his name has largely disappeared from popular physical culture narratives.
If you haven’t heard of Professor Attila before, don’t worry, many haven’t. Regardless of his lack of notoriety many of us still employ Attila’s methods. Before we get to that let’s examine the man himself. Born Ludwig Durlacher in Karlsruhe Germany around 1844, Louis was a well-educated man. Displaying a proficiency on the piano and capable it is said of speaking five languages fluently. He was educated in Berlin by a Professor Ernst a man who oversaw every aspect of Louis’s intellectual pursuits. Having mastered the finer aspects of Education, Louis soon diverted his attention away from the classroom and into the gymnasium. Whilst in German, Louis had the privilege to view a show by Italian strongman Felice Napoli (1821-1887). This was an era when strongmen earned their keep by performing in music halls, theatres and of course circuses. Something about Napoli’s mastery over mind and muscle attracted young Ludwig who soon became a discipline of Napoli’s.
It was during this time that Louis learned the finer aspects of the strongman trade. Training was important of course, but so was putting on a good show. Two types of strongman shows existed during this time. The first seems to have been centred around impressive feats of strength. The strongman would emerge before the audience, flex their bulging biceps, and then began to break chains, lift heavy weights, throw horse shoes and so on. It centred around strength. The second type of show was to resemble much more the vaudeville acts popular around the turn of the 19th century. Here pageantry, posing, showmanship and costumes were combined with feats of strength to give the audience a spectacle in which strength happened to be the attraction.
Both types of show were part of the craft and Louis proved himself an able student. It was in the early 1860s that Louis was mentored by Napoli but this was not to last. By 1863, a 19 year old Louis had decided it was time for him to forge his own path. He teamed up with another performer named ‘Valerie the Female Gladiator’ and together they toured Europe and America dazzling crowds with feats of strength. It was also during this time that Ludwig changed his name to Louis Atilla (inspired it is said by Attilla the Hun). Louis recognized the need for brand recognition and a sellable name. Something he took very seriously.
Attila spent almost two decades on tour around the world and it is during this time that he helped to revolutionize the strongman act. From 1863 to 1887, Attila is credited with the popularization of many famous feats of strength such as the Roman Chair, the globe barbell and the ‘Human Bridge’. Louis is also credited with inventing the Bent Press, a feat of strength and balance in which he lifted over 200 pounds at a time. His years on tour saw Louis pack a 5’4” frame with a 46″ chest, 17.5″ neck, 16.5″ calves, 25″ thighs, and a 36″ waist. He weighed in at 175 pounds, which made his feats of strength all the more impressive. Wherever he went it is said that people asked him for advice about how to exercise and how to become like him. Sensing a good business opportunity when he saw one, Louis soon began to formulate ideas for a gym. This decision would affect the future of physical culture.
It was around 1886-1887 that Louis began to curtail his strongman performances and focus on the business of muscle building. Around this time that Louis opened his first gymnasium in Brussels, Belgium. Louis’s reputation and the gymnasium’s facilities attracted people from around Europe, be they interested in keeping slim or building muscles. It was during his time in Brussels that Louis met a certain Friedrich Muller, better known to you and me as Eugene Sandow. It was under Attila’s guidance that Muller changed his name to Sandow, learned the importance of showmanship and of course sculpted his legendary physique. Attila’s influence over Sandow is often relegated to one or two sentences but it is important to note that Sandow owed much to Attila. Attila employed Sandow as a janitor in his gym and helped train Sandow in his spare time. He thus, paid, trained and mentored Sandow.
But Louis is more than a character in the Sandow story and was successful in his own right. The increasing interest in physical culture and the reputation of Attila’s Brussels gym saw Louis open up a London gym some time in the late 1880s. His gym is said to have attracted many European royals during this time and in 1887, Louis performed feats of strength in front of Queen Victoria as part of her jubilee. It is interesting to note that Louis trained those from working class to monarchy. Coupled with this Louis encouraged women to train in his gymnasium, a pioneering step that is often overlooked. Europe soon became too small a pond for Attila and in 1893 he took the decision to move to New York City.
America was beginning to open up to physical culture and New York had a large German immigrant population. Louis felt that being a native German speaker himself and a successful strongman would attract German immigrants into his gym. Louis was also concerned with the health of New York office workers. Sitting at a desk all day had left these workers in need of rejuvenation. The gym was named ‘Attila’s Athletic Studio and School of Physical Culture’ and like his European adventures, proved to be very successful. Louis attracted athletes from different sports and is said to be one of the first coaches use weight training to improve athletes from other sports, particularly boxing. For example Louis largely oversaw the training of Heavyweight boxing champion James J. Corbett during this time. Louis ran the gym in New York until his death in March 15, 1924,
Bob Hoffman, another legend in the history of Physical Culture, would later say of Attila
“The modest Attila deigned to remain in the background, never seeking publicity, for he had built a better mousetrap and the world beat a path to his door. . . . Modern strength athletes owe more to this man than to any other.”
So why has Atilla been relegated out of memory and Sandow’s legend remained? One is the way physical culture’s history has been written. Very few biographies exist and those that do reinforce the Sandow myth. Many credit Sandow with laying the foundations of modern weight training in part because he opened a popular gymnasium in London. The desire to find the ‘father’ of something, be it the father of soccer or the father of baseball has long biased histories of sports and physical culture. Such hero worship is something that needs to be readdressed if we are to discover a fuller history of physical culture. A history in which the Napolis, Attilas and all those in between are studied. Physical culture came about not because of the efforts of one man but through groups of networks working towards a shared interest. Should the Sandow myth ever disappear we may finally see the forerunners to Sandow have their due praise.