David Gentle, ‘The Fairground Strongman Who Challenged the World.’ (Part I)

Image of Thomas Inch Deadlifting

Conor’s Note: For those who don’t know, the late David Gentle was one of the foremost collectors and writers on physical culture and weightlifting. David was kind, considerate and incredibly generous in his dealings with others in the strength community. For many years he ran davidgentle.com, which unfortunately no longer exists. David’s website contained many writings and musings, as well as an incredibly vibrant forum filled with like-minded strength enthusiasts. David’s passing in 2020 at the age of 87 left a void in the physical culture community, which has yet to be filled. Today’s post, on the Circus strongman, comes from David’s non-defunct website. I offer it here to readers as an opportunity to share David’s writing and, in my own way, to process the passing of an individual who helped kickstart my own interest in the history of fitness.

All that lives must die,
Passing through nature to eternity.
— William Shakespeare (1564-1616), Hamlet
— Act i, Sc. 2

It is many years since I last saw a Circus strongman. Circuses themselves are becoming rarer in Britain, although in Eastern Europe they are still very much in evidence, with Russian Circus acts being considered a legitimate career. Fairgrounds in the U.K. are now either of the small family travelling variety or more often the permanent site amusement parks, as of Blackpool Pleasure Beach. Modern fairs consist mainly of thrilling rides, ‘one arm bandits’, ‘space invader’ machines and ‘trash’ stalls. Earlier fairs I remember in Southampton on the Common had more exotic offerings, with ‘Barnum’ type freak exhibits, boxing booths (all early boxing champs had an apprentice with travelling booths), escapologists and STRONGMEN.

Early Performer, CHARLES ATLAS

Before the days of Disney World and those amusement parks boasting the latest Roller Coaster, in the USA the Mecca for fairground entertainment was Coney Island. N.Y. This permanent site of amusements was the breeding ground of many professional strongmen in the earlier years of the Iron Game. CHARLES ATLAS used to exhibit there before he became World famous for his ‘Dynamic Tension’ mail order course. JOE GREENSTEIN, known as ‘The Mighty Atom’ and only recently passed away, used to demonstrate his strength there, genuinely biting through chains and six-inch nails amongst other stunts, on his plot at Coney Island, EARLE LIEDERMAN, former Editor of Joe Weider’s Muscle Power magazine, had a business there in his earlier days, and so on……. One man however, stands out for his amazing feats of strength, that man was WARREN LINCOLN TRAVlS. With a strength of grip, and back power almost unequalled, Travis daily CHALLENGED THE WORLD.

Warren Lincoln Travis, Aged 40

Originally born Roland Morgan in Brooklyn, USA on 21st February 1876, he became an orphan in early childhood. Luckily Roland was adopted by a couple named Travis, soon who, being extreme1y patriotic, renamed the young boy Warren from an American Army General and Lincoln from the early US President.

Travis began training with weights very early in life, lifting some creditable poundages from the age of 16. He lifted on one occasion when about 18 years old, over 3000 lbs (1,360kg) in the back lift, which consisted of twenty-one men on a platform. Travis, who never became very large, at that time only weighed in the region of 140lbs at 5 ft., 8 inches. His biggest measurements in his later prime were approximately, bodyweight 200 lbs (91kg), chest 47 ins, arms 17ins and upper thighs 26 ins. His thighs were extremely well developed due, no doubt, to his specialization of the back, hip and thigh lifts. Travis’s other strong point was his superior power of grip and forearm even though his forearm size of 13ins was nothing compared to earlier strongmen like Louis Uni or Louis Cyr with their massive 18 ins or lower arms.

The Dumbbell was designed many years ago for Warren Lincoln Travis, famous stage and sideshow strongman. King of Back and Harness Lifting, and winner of the Richard K. Fox Diamond best for winning the title as World Champion Strong Man. For many years Mr. Travis made Coney Island, NY his home. Here at the seaside amusement park he gave exhibitions on feats of strength. In 1929 the Dumbbell was purchased form Travis, along with other strongman equipment by the Good Brothers, and present owners of the Bell. The price paid for the Dumbbell was $110.00.

WARREN LINCOLN TRAVIS turned professional when aged 21, then weighing still only just over 10 stone. He performed the following feats of strength in under 10 minutes, demonstrating endurance as well as strength. He lifted with his teeth, hands behind his back, 350 lbs. (159kg), with one finger (using a special finger ring) he picked up
545 lbs (247kg), in the harness lift he hoisted 3,260 lbs (1,479kg) and in the back lift 3,450 lbs (l,565kg).

THE POLICE GAZETTE, an early magazine known affectionately as “The Pink Un” because of its tinted paper, specialized in the sensational and matters relating to Music Halls, boxers, wrestlers and strongmen. The magazine’s publisher Richard K. Fox sponsored a competition in October 1906 for the ‘World’s Greatest Weightlifter’, the title going to W. L. Travis, along with a beautiful diamond studded belt. The Gazette records many of Warren’s lifts when he was in his prime. In front of many notables with authentic poundages, at a bodyweight of 185 lbs, he lifted 3,985 lbs (l,807kg) in the harness lift, he did a two finger lift of 1,105 lbs (50lkg) and back lifted 4,140lbs (l,877kg). On 5th November 1907, using a specially padded ring, he lifted with ONE FINGER ONLY the amazing weight of 667 lbs (302kg).

Bob Hoffman, of Strength and Health fame, had considerable knowledge of Travis. (Bob worked with him in 1924 lifting a 1,600 lbs dumbell 80 times a week) helping him in earlier years and of course, trying out the miscellaneous collection of challenge weights. Bob records in Strength and Health mag October 1941 of seeing Travis lift 430 lbs. (195kg) with one finger, causing his (Travis’s) finger to bleed profusely. Bob wisely suggested at the time that the lift could be dangerous, giving examples of torn tendons resulting from its practise.

It was however in back and hip lifts that Travis excelled. Without being exhaustive, I will detail just some of his lifts. Warren lifted the huge dumbell acquired from the Good Bros., former American strongmen. This dumbell resides with Bob Hoffman, as does Travis’ famed bell in the York Hall of Fame. The dumbell weighed 2,150 lbs empty (3,985 lbs loaded) and the Good Bros. were pictured lifting it with a harness in early Strength magazines.

On 3rd November 1907 Travis, after much practise, decided to attempt some repetition and speed records. He consequently raised 1,000 lbs (453.5kg) ONE THOUSAND TIMES in nine (9) minutes. Several days later he lifted 3,000 lbs (1,361kg) fifty times in just 20 seconds. The aforementioned poundages were lifted in the back lift with rapid short movements of the legs.

A further contest sponsored by Fox of the Police Gazette for ‘The Strongest Man in the World’ was won by Travis in 1918. Travis lifted on that occasion 3,583 lbs (l,654kg) in the harness lift, and 3,657 lbs (1,658kg) in the back lift. As a matter of interest, it is estimated that the average weight trainer, without specialisation, would be capable of lifting 1,000 to 1,500 Ibs in the back lift. LOUIS CYR, the famous French Canadian, is credited with lifting 4,300 lbs in this lift, but the poundage was only an estimated one. PAUL ANDERSON still holds the World Record with 6,270 lbs (2,844kg) and is believed to have lifted even more but not officially. Remember Anderson’s size to the much smaller Travis.

Warren L. Travis was 42 years old when he won the title and past his prime, although he retained fantastic strength and endurance throughout his very active life.
The December 1920 Strength magazine stated in it’s Editorial:

“Warren Lincoln Travis is said to be recognised as the champion. He has deposited with the Editor of Physical Culture magazine a $10,000 Liberty Bond. This, together with the diamond belt held by Travis, is to be presented to anyone who meets Travis and defeats him on ten lifts, the opponent to have the choice of barring one lift, and in case of bad teeth, the teeth lift may be omitted.”

DAVID WILLOUGHBY, strength historian par excellence, devoted much space and effort on Travis, including detailed drawings of some of Travis’s weird and wonderful collection of iron ware. In Superman magazine July and August 1939, Dave records many of Travis’s feats of gripping power, repeating the same records and others later in his books ‘The Kings of Arm Strength’ and “The Super Athletes’. Examples are, pinch gripping a block of iron, weighing 210 lbs (95kg), which was 4ins wide, and snatching with two hands a 3ins. plank which weighed 140 lbs (63kg), shifting the plank to one hand whilst moving overhead, finishing up with a one-handed press. Travis, as George Weaver statistician and anthropologist records, had only average size hands with very short fingers, making the gripping of thick heavy objects even more creditable.

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