Friday, August 8, 2008

Karl Moerke - David P. Willoughby

Karl Moerke
by David P. Willoughby

One of the most remarkable strongmen – in point of physique, at any rate – was the late Karl Moerke, of Cologne, Germany, who stood only 5 feet 2 inches in height yet weighed 220 pounds or more! Literally as “broad as he was long,” naturally he was tremendously strong.

Moerke was born in Cologne in 1893. Both of his parents were stronger than average, and even as a boy Karl had a very heavy, thickset build. While, because of this, he did not show to advantage in the regular Turnverein gymnastics at school, he did excel in all feats of strength performed with weights. Not having the money with which to buy a regular barbell, he improvised his first weights out of lead pipes and locomotive bumpers, which he obtained from the local freight yards where he was a student at the Railroad Technical School. He first started to train systematically at the age of 14, being inspired in this direction by the example of an older brother who had been working out with barbells for some time. For about two years Karl confined his training to bodybuilding exercises, then, with several partners his own age, he organized a neighborhood weightlifting club and trained daily, trying for records once a week. Shortly after embarking on this schedule, and while still only 16 years of age, he entered and won first place in the annual weightlifting championship of Cologne. A year later, in 1910, he won the championship of Rhineland and Westphalia, respectively. In 1913, in the Championship of Germany, held at Kassel, Moerke finished second to Paul Trappen, of Trier. During World War I he was kept employed as a defense worker by the railroad company of whose Technical School he was then a graduate. In 1919, after the intervention of the war, he again entered the annual German Weightlifting Championship, which was then held in Munich, and this time he took first place.

Perhaps Moerke’s greatest amateur victory was in 1920, when he won first place in the world’s weightlifting championship held in Vienna, and in which he forced the Austrian heavyweights Aigner and Alscher in to second and third places, respectively. Coincidentally, the first place in wrestling in the same championship was won by a fellow-townsman of Moerke’s, Heinrich Book. The winning lifting total made by Moerke at Vienna consisted of the following poundages: right hand snatch, 165 pounds; right hand jerk (two hands to shoulder), 220 pounds; and two hands continental jerk, 358 pounds. For some reason he did not enter the Olympic games held at Antwerp, Holland, the same year. If he had entered, barring any unforeseen circumstances, he would surely have emerged as the champion, since his lifts at the time far surpassed those of the actual heavyweight Olympic winner, Bottino of Italy. Either it was that the Germans and Austria were not competing against the allied nations in the 1920 Olympic games, or that Moerke had already turned professional and was getting ready to come to America. This he duly did – hoping when he arrived to obtain a theatrical contract. But in this he was doomed to disappointment, as his dwarfed stature was against him and the one-time popularity of strongman acts was already on the wane. Moerke did, however, join a carnival show that was playing at a resort near New Haven, Connecticut; and in this show he was obliged to give no fewer than 19 performances a day! At each performance he would press a 250-pound barbell 10 times in succession, do a squat with 500 pounds, and end up with one or more heavy supporting feats.

Moerke’s best amateur lifting records were as follows: right hand snatch, 187 pounds; right hand continental jerk, 248 pounds; two hands snatch, 231 pounds, two hands military press, 259 pounds; two hands continental push, 308 pounds; and two hands continental jerk, 374 pounds. Since most of these lifts were made about 1913, when Moerke was 20, and since he dept in more or less steady training for some years after that, it is probable that he made the following lifts which are claimed for him as a professional: two hands military press, 265 pounds; two hand continental jerk, 386 pounds officially and 405 pounds unofficially; squat (bounce style), 650 pounds; and two hands dead lift, 650 pounds. Karl Moerke and Henry Steinborn were contemporary rivals in the squat; but due to his short, short, exceedingly thick legs, Moerke was not able to bend past the thighs horizontal position. Accordingly, his lift of 650 pounds would probably have been reduced to not more than 590 pounds if it had been performed in Steinborn’s “all the way down” style. Even so, if we allow this 590 pounds and figure that Moerke’s maximum muscular bodyweight was the figure given in the following paragraph, his lift (if performed in 1920) would have the phenomenal rating of 98.2%, which would make it the best squat, relative to weight/height ever performed!

As previously mentioned, Moerke at 5 feet 2 inches was almost dwarf-like in stature, considering the immensity of his bodily girths and his bodyweight. At that height and at a weight of 220 pounds (in 1920), some of his girth measurements as given by the German trainer Jacob Dirsherl were as follow: right upper are, flexed, 18.1 inches; right forearm, 14.2 inches; wrists, 7.65 inches; thighs, about 28 inches; and calves, 17.5 inches. Later on, when weighing 245 pounds, his calves measured 18.5 inches and his thighs 29.5 inches. A 29.5 inch thigh at 5 feet 2 inches would be equivalent, on a man 6 feet tall, to a thigh of 34 ¼ inches!

As would be expected in view of his corpulency, Moerke was a big eater, although strangely in contrast to most of his fellow countrymen, he drank no beer. On one of his visits to a friend’s home in New Haven, he ate at one sitting an 8-pound ham, a loaf of pumpernickel bread, a head of cabbage and drank a gallon of coffee. (We wonder if the friend ever invited him again!) Next door to the carnival at which he worked, there was an open-air restaurant, and each day at Moerke’s lunch time a crowd would gather to watch him “eat up his paycheck.”

After remaining in the United States for a few years, Moerke returned to Germany, where he acquired a small auto-transported circus of his own. This proved quite successful for a while, and with it Moerke toured Germany, Poland and South Russia. In due course, however, the circus entered upon lean days, and Moerke returned to his former job at the railroad yards in Cologne. During the closing stages of World War II, he suffered injuries during one of the bombing raids, and these were perhaps the cause of his death in 1947.

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