By David F. Gentle, PC Historian & Author
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.
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.
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.
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’.
© The Fairground Strongman Who Challenged the World by David Gentle