History’s human powerhouses were mammoths of muscle who could tow a ship with only their teeth or roll up a frying pan as if it were a newly laundered T-shirt. Four top strongmen will reenact legendary feats of strength in HISTORY’s “The Strongest Man in History,” premiering July 10 at 10/9C. Here are some of their historical precedents.
Vikings (8th-11th centuries)
Behind the Legend: The great Norse seamen of their day—known as pugnacious warriors, intrepid explorers and skilled traders—sailed the globe, sometimes requiring ships to be removed from water and transported over land to more navigable seas. One method Vikings used to ensure a stalwart crew? Stone lifting. To earn respect, a Viking seafarer was required to lift a stone weighing more than 340 pounds.
Famous Feats: According to one famous legend, more than 1,000 years ago, Icelander Orm Storolfsson (a.k.a. “Orm Storolfsson the Strong,” presumably to squash any doubt) walked three steps with the mast of the Ormen Lange, a powerful longship, on his shoulders before allegedly breaking his back. The mast, said to span 11 yards long and weigh some 1,433 pounds, had to be lifted by 50 men onto his shoulders.
Fun Facts: Strongman competitor Hafthór Björnsson (known to “Game of Thrones” fans as “The Mountain”) unofficially broke Storolfsson’s millennium-old weightlifting record at the 2015 World’s Strongest Viking competition in Norway by carrying a 1,433-pound log on his back for five steps. The sport of strongman has important ties to Viking traditions: Roughly 200 years ago, Iceland’s Húsafell village became home to a 409-pound Viking lifting stone that played a prominent role in the 1992 World’s Strongest Man contest.
READ MORE: 10 Things You May Not Know About the Vikings
William Bankier (1870-1949)
Nickname: Apollo, the Scottish Hercules
Born: Banff, Scotland
Behind the Legend: By 15, early bodybuilder and strongman William Bankier had twice run away from home, eventually joining a road show and finding a friend and mentor of sorts in its star attraction, a strongman with a drinking problem. As that performer’s absences piled up, Bankier saw an opportunity to showcase his own strength. Other circus jobs soon awaited, among them “Buffalo Bill” Cody’s Wild West Show in Wyoming.
Famous Feats: As part of his act, Bankier would harness-lift an elephant. He could also jump over the back of a chair, frontward or backward, while holding a 56-pound weight in each hand. Another celebrated routine, the “Tomb of Hercules,” saw the strongman support a piano with a six-person orchestra and a dancer. Bankier would always end the performance by offering cash to the audience member who could carry a sack weighing 475 pounds off the stage. Inevitably, the strongman kept his money.
Fun Facts: After retiring, Apollo became a wrestling promoter, teaming up with fellow bodybuilder Monte Saldo to form an academy for wrestlers, boxers and jiu-jitsu competitors. His famous book on muscle-building, Ideal Physical Culture: And the Truth About the Strong Man, was published in 1900. In it, Bankier challenged German rival Eugen Sandow to a series of competitions in wrestling, running, jumping and weightlifting. Sandow refused the challenge.
Donald Dinnie (1837-1916)
Born: Near Aboyne, Aberdeenshire, on the edge of the Scottish Highlands
Behind the Legend: Dinnie, often cited as Scotland’s greatest athlete, was a strongman whose career spanned half a century and more than 11,000 competitions—including 16 Highland Games, the seasonal Scottish sporting event. He was the undefeated Highland Games heavyweight champion from 1856 to 1869, and then again from 1871 to 1876. During Dinnie’s first year as a professional athlete, he set records for throwing the heavy hammer, throwing the heavy stone and clearing 5-feet-1 inch in the high jump. During his lifetime, Dinnie participated in more than 2,000 wrestling matches and 200 weightlifting contests, winning an amount equal to more than $2.5 million dollars in current figures.
Famous Feats: His most legendary effort remains a challenge to strongmen today: The legendary “Dinnie Stones” are two granite boulders weighing a combined 733 pounds, which Dinnie in 1860 carried for more than 17 feet across the width of the Potarch Bridge, near his birthplace.
Fun Facts: To date, the Dinnie Stones have only ever been lifted and carried over the distance barehanded by fewer than 100 men, and two women. A more serious fact: Dinnie became so well known that some heavy artillery shells used in World War I were nicknamed “Donald Dinnies.”
Thomas Topham (1710-1749)
Nickname: British Samson
Born: London, England
Behind the Legend: Topham was known as a strongman with the 18th-century version of a “bad-boy” attitude. His career started in his own pub, where he would enrapture crowds with various stunts in order to draw in more patrons.
Famous Feats: In 1741, Topham lifted three barrels weighing 1,336 pounds, to commemorate Admiral Vernon’s taking of Portobello, which led to England’s takeover of Panama.
Fun Facts: Among those beguiled by Topham’s displays was John Theophilus Desaguliers, an assistant to Isaac Newton who hoped to find a scientific explanation for his neighbor’s strength—and so he kept a journal of Topham’s triumphs. Noted in his writings, he witnessed Topham lift a 100-pound table using his teeth; he saw the pub owner lift an 800-pound stone, though the strongman weighed just a quarter of that amount; and he saw Topham roll up a pewter plate—essentially a frying pan—after rubbing his hands with coal ash, a strongman substitute for chalk. Desaguliers, perhaps shrewdly, eventually employed Topham as a bodyguard.
Paul Anderson (1932-1994)
Nicknames: The Georgia Peach, Wonder of Nature
Born: Toccoa, Georgia
Behind the Legend: Paul Anderson, considered the father of modern-day powerlifting, began weight training in high school, hoping to make the football team. Hoisting dumbbells soon proved effortless, so he scoured junk piles for truck axles and even took to lifting 55-gallon drums filled with poured concrete. During a four-year span in his 20s, he was a national, world and Olympic weightlifting champion. After turning professional, he made more than 500 public appearances a year to support the Vidalia, Georgia youth home he founded in 1961, which is still in operation.
Famous Feats: A September 1957 guest spot on “The Ed Sullivan Show” saw him lift a crowd of celebrities on a platform, among them boxer Jack Dempsey. He could drive a 20-penny nail through two wooden boards, using only his thumb and lift two 85-pound dumbbells with his little finger. He is among the strongest humans to ever walk the planet, with official numbers at 440 pounds for a clean and jerk, 930 pounds for a back squat and a 6,270-pound backlift.
Fun Facts: Long before Rocky Balboa fought Ivan Drago, Anderson engaged in Iron Curtain theatrics, with a 402.5-pound lift at a June 1955 Moscow goodwill competition that earned him the nickname “Chudo Piryody,” or “Wonder of Nature.” In 1958, he gave acting a shot, appearing as a blacksmith in the Rowan & Martin western comedy “Once Upon a Horse,” where he eventually handled an intrusive cow…by picking it up and carrying it outside.
Monte Saldo (1879-1949)
Born: Highgate, in London
Behind the Legend: If strongman Monte Saldo had a contemporary, it could be David Copperfield. At 144 pounds, the practically petite Brit (born Alfred Montague Woollaston; the Italian-sounding stage name would come later) became interested in strength training as a teen, while working as an apprentice to German bodybuilder Eugen Sandow. The experience helped cultivate his appetite for showmanship.
Famous Feats: His most riveting stunt involved holding up a platform while a car full of people drove over it. He first performed it at the London Pavilion in 1903, earning the then-largest payday for a strongman act. He eventually upped the stakes by putting himself and the car, a Darracq, on a revolving platform, to increase visibility. The car and rig weighed about a ton, but he didn’t lift it—instead, the vehicle was placed on top of him and he supported the weight of it, plus five passengers, with his shoulders and knees, like his contemporary Bankier relying on the “Tomb of Hercules” position.
Fun Facts: In 1906, Monte and his brother Frank teamed up for a new act, “The Sculptor’s Dream.” It began with a sculptor “at work” on a reproduction of a classical statue of a muscular athlete, but the statue was Monte himself, clothed to appear marble-esque. As the scene progressed, the sculptor appeared to fall asleep, at which point his statue came to life and enacted a series of poses in front of a mirror, affording audiences a three-dimensional view of his physique. Acrobatics, balancing tricks and wrestling ensued, all set to music.
Peter Francisco (ca. 1760-1831)
Nickname: The Virginia Giant
Born: Porto Judeu, Portugal
Behind the Legend: Strongman Peter Francisco was a hero of the American Revolution and part of George Washington’s army at the Battle of Yorktown, where British forces surrendered. It was an impressive evolution for an orphan (born Pedro Francisco) who had been abandoned on the docks of Hopewell, Virginia. After more than a decade as an indentured servant in a blacksmith shop, Francisco—by age 15, some 260 pounds and 6-feet, 6-inches tall—was inspired to join American forces after witnessing Patrick Henry’s “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death” speech.
Famous Feats: Legend says he toted an 1,100-pound cannon, mired in mud, on his shoulders and off the field at the 1780 Battle of Camden, in South Carolina, to keep it out of enemy hands.
Fun Facts: Francisco was recognized by George Washington for his contributions to the war. A quote from the first president is engraved on a monument to Francisco in New Bedford, Massachusetts: “Without him, we would have lost two crucial battles, perhaps the war, and with it our freedom. He was truly a one-man army.” Francisco was honored with a commemorative stamp in 1974. A park in the Ironbound section of Newark, New Jersey, heavily populated by Portuguese Americans, is named for him.
Watch a preview of The Strongest Man in History. Premieres Wednesday, July 10 at 10/9c.