Conor’s Note: The first part of this article was published on Wednesday. Please do check back!
In the 1920′ s Coney Island described itself as ‘The Greatest Carnival Show on Earth’. Here, amongst the freaks, sawdust and tinsel, Travis was billed as ‘The Strongest Man in the World’. At each performance he would flash a real $1000 bill (that’s when a dollar was a dollar, as the song said) and offer the bill to anyone who could duplicate his strength stunts. Travis was involved in property deals (an estate agent) and wealthy, he always backed his challenges with frightening amounts of money as a side-bet. It is interesting to note that Travis had a high-pitched voice similar to Jack Dempsey (see ‘Massacre in the Sun’). In contrast, Thomas Topham, the early English strongman, had a deep booming voice. (Moral: Voices don’t mean a thing man!!)
Travis, a perpetual showman, always greeted friend and foe with a hearty thump on the back, and a vice-like grip. Both early strength raconteurs George Jowett and Liederman recall suffering crushed fingers and in Liederman’s case, crushed ribs through Travis’s hearty welcome. Like many other strongmen of his era, he was a voracious eater, having no recourse to handy packed protein supplements to fuel his endurance feats.
The lay audiences appreciated recognizable feats of strength when Travis would, for example, lift two horses on a platform using a harness. Other examples are lifting 25 men, overcoats included, on his platform, and allowing heavy (old fashioned) vehicles to run over his chest. He supported 26 adult men lying on a revolving platform with his hands and knees and would hold up a model carousel with 14 seated upon it. A real tough guy, he could tear several massive telephone books placed together, and wrestle and box with the best of them, having a reputation of hitting as hard as former World Heavyweight Champion Jack Dempsey, one of boxing’s all-time greats.
Travis continually lifted massive poundages and high repetitions. When he was 63 years old (in 1939) he lifted 1000 lbs (453kg) one thousand and nine times (1,009) in 26 minutes, 30 seconds. W.L. Travis died in ‘harness’ so to speak, suffering a heart attack on his ‘pitch’ at Luna Park, Coney Island on 12th July 1941, aged 65 years. Most people feel that if he had not driven himself so hard in later life, and had been less competitive, he would have lived much longer. The story however does not end there….
Travis left a challenge to the Word. The New York Times, 7th August 1941, quoted part of Travis’s will, as follows:
“I direct that a certain diamond-jeweled gold and silver belt. presented to me through ‘The Police Gazette’ by Richard K. Fox, having won the same in open competition with the strongest men in the World in Brooklyn, N.Y., in October 1906 for being the World’s greatest Weightlifter be offered in public competition and be awarded to the man who at least equalled the record made by the testator herein by performing the following ten feats.”
“My best ten lifts were done in thirty minutes.
- 100 lbs barbell brought from the floor with both hands, pressing overhead ten times with both hands, while sitting. (30 seconds).
- Pair of 90 lb weights brought from side of body to shoulders, then slowly pressing to arms length overhead.
- Teeth lift from the floor, hands behind neck, 350 lbs.
- 350 lbs from floor with ONE FINGER, eight times in five seconds.
- One finger lift from floor, 560 lbs once.
- Two-hand grip lift, straddling the weight, from floor, 700 lbs twenty times in ten seconds.
- Hand and knee lift from the floor, 1600 lbs once.
- Back lift, 3660 lbs once.
- Harness lift, 3580 lbs once.
- 2000 lb back lift, 250 times, seven minutes.”
That grand old-timer Siegmund Klein devotes a superb article to “Travis’s Last Challenge’ in Hoffman’s Strength and Health magazine, Oct. 1941., recording that John Grimek was in training to emulate the records. Grimek in fact could equal many of the lifts with the exception of perhaps the finger and teeth lifts. John, in any case, normally practised more standard barbell lifts and in this area would have beaten Travis soundly. Also bear in mind, the will stated the lifts had to be performed for ten consecutive years. The collection of weights, large dumbell and the jewel-studded belt now reside in Bob Hoffman’s Hall of Fame in York, P.A.
Warren Lincoln Travis also remains as unforgotten as ‘The Fairground Strongman Who Challenged the World’.