Apollon (Louis Uni)
Famous Strong Men of France, Part Three
by Leo Gaudreau
Controversies are easily started, but none of the strength fraternity would dare to be so unholy as to deny my statement, viz.: that Apollon, the genial French Colossus was the “King of Strength.”
Unfortunately, all photographs of Apollon now in existence are poor, furthermore, it is common knowledge among old-timers contemporary with him that he never swelled his chest or bulged his muscles to impress.
To add to this difficulty, Apollon was not a weightlifter as we know them at present (competitive lifters or record holders). We must delve into the records that have been written by appreciative men of his time to know and understand a strength that was taxed to its limit only once. The story has often been written (sometimes inaccurately) since I first wrote an Anglicized account of it in “Police Gazette” more than ten years ago. I give it to you now translated from the original story in French by Leon See, I believe around 1906:
“While doing his most remarkable feats of strength, as he snatched his four 44-lb. weights without bending his legs, as he brought the needle of the Regnier dynamometer to an unbelievable number, this athlete of gladiatorial aspect, this superman, this demi-god of strength, displayed no visible signs of physical effort.
“When San-Marin tricked him into lifting four 44-lb. weights (which had been augmented by charges of lead) Apollon did not notice that instead of lifting his normal 176 lbs. he had lifted 198 lbs.
“What then was the limit of this superhuman vigor? To what inaccessible heights could this phenomenon of strength have carried the records?
“Could he have snatched 24, 286 lbs.? Would he have jerked 440 lbs.? None can say, for he was as indolent as he was strong. Nothing was more difficult than to coax him to lift, and neither supplications nor promises of his best friends could persuade him to attempt certain orthodox feats which would have immortalized his name.
“One person had a great influence over this giant, his wife – a slender woman, black haired, and of energetic physique – when she spoke severely in her southern accent:
‘Come, Apollon, lift! lift!’ Apollon would turn his big head, look at her submissively, and the weight which had a moment before refused to go up because he was not in form, or, he had a sore arm, was thrown up with an unbelievable facility.
“One evening Apollon had to give out with all of his strength, and the modern Hercules accomplished a feat that in all probability would have defied the strength of the Hercules of mythology.
“A number of years ago he was performing in the music halls of Paris and other big cities in an unique and impressive strength turn. He was 25 years of age. His musculature was incomparable, his enormous proportions unmatched, and he was further endowed with a head as shapely as his physique, suggesting a phenomenon that capricious nature pro produces only once in ten centuries.
“I have seen in action the greatest athletes: Sandow, the superb model; Batta, gentleman athlete, lifting a horse at arm’s length; Cyclops, who could bend and tear coins; I have admired John Grunn, the breaker of horseshoes; but none of these “turns” was comparable to Apollon’s.”
Now I leave the translation by Leon Lee and give you my own version of Apollon's dramatic stage entrance, as I have reconstructed it from the large amount of material I have studied: Let us hark back nearly fifty years:
We are comfortably seated in the theatre and eagerly awaiting the rising of the curtain, the start of Apollon's act.
There is inspiring music; the curtain goes up.
The scene is an old castle wall, barely discernible in the gloom.
A rapid heavy step is heard, and through an iron-barred gate we see a dark form approaching.
It is the shadowy form of a huge man wrapped in a great cloak, obviously one intent on escape. The alarm is sounded, the guards are in pursuit, shots are fired. The heavy iron gate obstructs the way of the prisoner.
So graphic is the scene that the audience imagines that it is witness to a real-life happening.
The desperate man grabs the gate and tugs at it frantically as he hears the cries of the guards.
Time is precious.
Madly he grasps one of the bars and by a tremendous effort bends it back. Through the opening we see a great bare arm, an arm as big as an average man's thigh. It is well-proportioned from fingertips to shoulder, with great bulging muscles like intertwined ropes of various sizes.
The audience is awed at the sight of such a limb.
With another tremendous effort born of desperation, the bars are pried apart. The man's cloak partly opens by the effort, and we get a glimpse of a bare leg that can be compared only to the pillar of a temple . . .
Now through the forced opening appears the prisoner's head, shoulders, arms, body. All are brought hastily, feverishly into concerted pressure against the cold, resisting metal.
The guards are almost upon him -- but too late, for his enormous body comes through the forced opening. The prisoner is free, leaving behind the bent and twisted bars , mute evidence of his superhuman power.
Such was Apollon's entry on the stage, his overture to his feats of strength. For a smaller man of less impressive mien to perform this, would have meant an invitation to ridicule. Performed by Apollon, it was convincing, awe-inspiring, magnificent to the last gesture.
In the year 1889 this same scene was the cause of Apollon's strength being taxed almost (even for him) to the point of failure.
The iron grate used in his act was always on exhibition to the public before the opening of the show. After the act was over -- before using the iron grate again -- it was taken to a blacksmith to have the bars straightened.
On one occasion the smithy, supposedly ignorant of their purpose, heated the bars to a red-hot heat, and straightened them. Instead of allowing the iron to cool off gradually he poured cold water on the hot metal. This, as anyone informed on the subject can tell you, made the metal harder and consequently the bars were more rigid.
That evening the scene opened as usual and all went well up to the point where Apollon attempts to bend the bars. From this point we go back to Leon See's writings. In the company of Professor Desbonnet in a theatre in Lille, he saw Apollon's greatest feat of strength, and the translation starts as Apollon grasps the bars of the iron grate:
"His two powerful hands grasped two of the bars, and the formidable muscles of this Colussus produced their effort.
"To his ineffable surprise, the usual things did not happen. He applied more pressure, but in vain, the iron was resistant.
"Without releasing the bars, he turned toward his wife in the wings, anguish written on his slightly large brow and with the unforgettable expression of a wounded animal, he exclaimed in a low choked voice:
'I do not know what is the matter -- I cannot pass!'
"His wife believing him to be in a lazy mood, ordered him severely to hurry and apply more strength and proceed through the bars.
"So he applied himself to his task. All acting was forgotten, his huge cloak which embarassed his movements, was thrown off his shoulders. Pressure was applied with all his power, the veins of his neck stood out like big blue ropes, it was terrifying.
"His efforts shook the whole scene, as if it had been in the path of a hurricane.
"Bit by bit, under his prodigious efforts, superhuman, the bars started to bend. In the theatre an unprecedented silence prevailed; the spectators held their breath; the only audible sound was the loud gasps from the depths of Apollon's enormous chest at every effort.
"The strong man, now maddened, was giving out for the first time in his life the extreme limit of power; he had now brought into proximity with each other two of the bars, his powerful hands grasped these and gave a great muscular contraction. When he released these bars they were touching each other.
"By forcing his shoulder at the expense of ugly lacerations, he was able to buttress his back against a bar and by applying pressure with concerted strength or arms and back the bars slowly bent and partly broke. Slowly, painfully, through an opening hardly large enough for his body, the giant's head, torso, and finally the entire body emerged.
"He had accomplished the greatest feat of strength of his career. Breathless, covered with perspiration his great chest rose and fell like a bellows, and his breath was heard at the farthest corner of the theatre.
"He advanced to the edge of the stage, staggering slightly, eyes blood-shot, exhausted, he said simply:
'Behold, there it is.'
"When his weights were brought out, he was unable to lift them.
"A snatch of 176 lbs. went no farther than shoulder-height.
"His 176-lb. juggling weight was missed the first attempt.
"He advanced to the edge of the stage again and in breathless spasms said:
'Please excuse me, I do not know . . . what is the matter . . . I do not feel well . . . I am afraid to miss my tricks . . . and break the floor . . .'
'He bowed, and with faltering steps returned to the wings.
"The theatre remained silent. The audience, mute. Intuitively they realized that they had witnessed an extraordinary performance.
"Back stage, the athlete was sprawled in a chair, his head bowed, chin resting on his chest, his enormous forearms supported on his thighs were swollen to an enormous size. They must have measured nearly 19 inches in this condition, and they had lost all regular shape.
"Apollon had a persecution complex, and it was his unshaken opinion that he had been the victim of the machinations of a jealous rival."
That is the end of Leon See's eye-witness account of Apollon's great feat. While many of the older readers may be familiar with the story, I am pleased to introduce a climax to the story, not so well known, and this time from the pen of Professor Desbonnet.