Victorian strongman Eugen Sandow was thought to possess the perfect male body. Like Oscar Wilde, he is essential to understanding modern manhoodby David Waller / December 1, 2011 / Leave a comment
On the evening of Tuesday October 29, 1889, at around 10 o’clock, a young man wearing a monocle and evening suit jumped onto the stage of the Royal Aquarium Music Hall in Westminster. There was a moment of astonishment among the crowd, followed almost immediately by catcalls of derision, as the feeble-looking youngster with flaxen hair and girlish face declared in a voice barely audible against the hubbub, that he intended to prove himself the strongest man in the world.
The man was an unknown Prussian by the name of Eugen Sandow (1867-1925). Having ripped off nearly all of his clothes, he triumphed on that evening and became an instant music-hall sensation, going on to great success as a performer in North America and throughout the British empire. He became an early example of a global celebrity, thought to possess the most perfect male body, and in my new book I argue that he deserves to be resurrected as a significant cultural figure. He straddled the Victorian world and the modern, and, like Oscar Wilde, helps us understand the birth of modern manhood. He also deserves credit for initiating the modern craze for physical fitness.
On the night of the challenge, the Royal Aquarium was full to the rafters with excited young men, drawn from all social classes, some members of parliament from across the way, others mere clerks, but all fuelled with drink, smoking cigars, hot and perspiring under the bright limelight. Their ruddy, bewhiskered faces were reflected in the mirrors that lined the refreshment bars on every tier of this massive theatre. Over the course of the previous hours, they had seen a succession of acts, each one ushered on by a stage footman slipping a giant card bearing a number into a gilded frame on either side of the proscenium. Now at last they reached the highlight of the evening when Sampson and Cyclops were set to perform their bogus feats of strength. For three months, these professional strongmen had been juggling hollow barbells, bending iron bars and snapping steel cables, and pretending to lift a horse in a halter. They had issued a challenge: any contender besting Cyclops in a trial of strength could win a prize of £100, and a further £1000 to anyone who could beat Sampson himself. These were fabulous amounts and ought to have been a temptation for all those who had…