Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Autobiographical Sketches of a Strength-Seeker, Part Four - George Barker Windship (1862)

 


 A big "thank you" to Jarett Hulse for this! 


Continuing from Part Three . . . 


It was now the August of 1855, and I was in my twenty-second year. My first lifting apparatus was constructed in the following manner. I first sank into the ground a hogshead [cask, barrel], and into the hogshead a flour barrel. Then I lowered to the bottom of the barrel a rope having at the end a round stick transversely balanced, about four inches in diameter and fifteen inches long. A quantity of gravel, nearly sufficient to bury the stick, was then thrown into the barrel; some oblong stones were placed across the stick and across and between one another, and the interstices filled with smaller stones and gravel. 

When I had by this method about two-thirds filled the barrel, taking care to keep the axis of the rope in correspondence with the long axis of the rope in correspondence with the long axis of the barrel, I judged I had a sufficient weight for a first trial. 

I now formed a loop in the end of the rope over the top of the barrel, and put through it a piece of a hoe handle, about two feet long; and standing astride the hogshead, and holding the handle with one hand before me and the other behind, -- straightening my body, previously a little flexed, -- with mouth closed, head up, chest out, and shoulders down, -- I succeeded in lifting the barrel, containing a weight of between four and five hundred pounds, some five or six inches from the bottom of the hogshead.

It was no great feat, after all, considering that I had been for five years a gymnast. I found that I was inharmoniously developed in many points of my frame, -- I was perilously weak in the sides, between the shoulders, and at the back of the head. However, the day after this trial, I succeeded in lifting the same weight with somewhat less difficulty. This induced me to add on a few pounds; and in three or four weeks I could lift between six and seven hundred.

I now had the satisfaction of seeing the stout gentleman, whom a few months before my father had pointed out as possessed of a strength I could never attain to, introduced to an inspection of my apparatus. Through the blinds of a back parlor window I watched his movements, as, encouraged by pater-familias, he drew off his coat, moistened his hands, and undertook to "snake up" the big weight. An ignominious failure to start the barrel was the result. The stout gentleman tugged till he was so red in the face that apoplexy seemed imminent, and then he dejectedly gave it up. The reputation he had long enjoyed of being one of the "strongest men about" must henceforth be a thing of the past till it fades into a myth.

In the December of 1855 I was admitted to the arcana of the dissecting room and forthwith commenced some experiments with the view of testing the sustaining power of the human bones . . . 

Someone had told me, that, in lifting a heavy weight, there was danger of fracturing the neck of the thigh bone; but my experiments satisfied me, that, if properly positioned, it would safely bear a strain of two or three thousand pounds. And so I concluded that I might securely continue my practice of lifting till I reached the last-named limit.

In order to get all possible hints from the inspiration and experience of the past, I studied some of the ancient statues. The specimens of Grecian statuary at the Boston Athenaeum were objects of my frequent contemplation, -- especially the Farnesian Hercules. From this I derived a proper conception of the bodily outline compatible with the exercise of the greatest amount of strength. I was particularly struck by the absence o fall exaggeration in the muscular developments as represented. 

I saw by this statue that a Hercules must be free from superfluous flesh, neatly made, and finely organized, -- that form and quality were of more account than quantity in his formation. Some years earlier I might have been attracted by the Apollo Belvedere; but it was a Hercules I dreamed of becoming, and the Apollo was but the incipient and potential Hercules. 

Two other statues that shared my admiration and study were the Quoit-Thrower and the Dying Gladiator. From the careful inspection of all these relics of ancient Art I obtained some valuable hints as to my own physical deficiencies. I learned that the upper region of my chest needed developing, and that in other points I had not yet reached the artist's ideal of a strong man. 

Good casts of these and other masterpieces in statuary may be had at a trifling cost. Why are they not generally introduced into the gymnasia attached to our colleges and schools? The habitual contemplation of such works could not fail to have a good effect upon the physical bearing and development of the young. We are creatures of imitation. I remember, at the school I attended in my seventh year, the strongest boy among my classmates was quite round-shouldered. Fancying that he derived his strength from his stoop, I began to imitate him; and it was not until I learned that he was strong in spite of his shoulders, and not because of them, that I gave up aping his peculiarity.

On the 29th of January 1856 I lifted 700 pounds in Bailey's Gymnasium, Franklin Street, Boston. The exhibition created great surprise among the lookers-on; and at that time it was, perhaps, an extraordinary feat; but since the extension and growth of the lifting mania, it would not be regarded by the knowing ones as anything to marvel at. The fourth of April following, my lifting capacity had reached 840 pounds.

On Fast-Day of that year, two Irishmen knocked at my door and asked to see the strong man. I presented myself, and they told me there was great curiosity among the "ould counthrymen" in the vicinity to ascertain if one Pat Farren, the strongest irishman in Roxbury, could lift my weight. "Would it be convenient for me to let him try?" "Certainly, -- and I think he'll lift it," I modestly added.

Soon afterwards a delegation of Irishmen, rather startling from its numbers, entered the yard. Among them was Mr. Farren. "They surrounded my lifting-apparatus, while I, unseen, surveyed them from a back window. I saw Mr. Farren take the handle, straddle the hogshead, throw himself into a lifting posture, and, straining every muscle to its utmost tension, give a tremendous pull. But the weight made no sign; and his friends, thinking he was merely feeling it, said, "Wait a bit, -- Pat'll have it up the next pull." 

Mr. Farren rested a moment, -- then threw off his coat, rubbed his hands, and, seizing the handle a second time, tugged away at it till his muscles swelled and his frame quivered. But he failed in starting the barrel, and a burst of laughter from his friends and backers announced his defeat. 

It is now but justice to Mr. Farren to say that it could hardly be expected of him to lift such a weight at either the first trial or the second. A want of confidence, or the maladjustment of the rope, might have interfered with the full exercise of his strength. I need not say that his discomfiture was witnessed by me from my hiding-place with the liveliest satisfaction; for I had begun to pride myself on being able to outlift any man in the country.   

In May, 1856, I received the appointment of medical assistant to Dr. Walker, at the Lunatic Hospital, South Boston, and gave up for a couple of months my practice of lifting. The consequence was a rapid diminution of strength, which suggested to me a return to the lifting exercise. Near the hospital was a large unoccupied building, formerly the House of Industry. In the cellar of this building I put a barrel, and loaded it with rocks and gravel as i had done in Roxbury. Immediately overhead, on the first floor, I cut a hole, about six inches square, and passed up a rope attached to the barrel. This rope I looped at the end, for the reception of a handle. On the floor I nailed two cleats between three and four feet apart, as guards to keep my feet from slipping. 

Beginning with about 600 pounds, I added a few pounds daily, till I was able, in November, 1856, to lift with my hands alone 900 pounds . . .   
























  

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