The New Yorker on physical strength
The urge to perform feats of strength for no good reason seems to be deeply embedded in the male psyche. Shaw’s Manhood Stones are just modern versions of the thousand-pound volcanic boulder unearthed on the Greek island of Santorini. It was etched with a boast from the sixth century B.C.: “Eumastas, son of Kritobolos, lifted me from the ground.” Similar accounts crop up in countless early histories and anthropological studies. The Vikings tossed logs, the Scots threw sheaves of straw, the ancestors of the Inuit are rumored to have carried walruses around. Even a man as brilliant as Leonardo da Vinci felt the need to bend horseshoes and iron door knockers, just to show that he could.
By the nineteenth century, men like Thomas Topham, Louis Cyr, and a succession of German Goliaths had turned such feats into lucrative theatre. Topham, an English fireplug who was five feet ten and weighed two hundred pounds, could bend iron pokers with his bare hands, roll pewter dishes into cannoli, and win a tug-of-war with a horse. According to a playbill from 1736, cited in David Willoughby’s classic history, “The Super-Athletes,” Topham’s act included the following feats: “He lays the back Part of his Head on one Chair, and his Heels on another, and suffers four corpulent men to stand on his Body and heaves them up and down. At the same time, with Pleasure, he heaves up a large Table of Six Foot long by the Strength of his Teeth, with half a hundred Weight hanging at the farthest end; and dances two corpulent Men, one in each Arm, and snaps his fingers all the time.”