Many oldtime strongmen were excellent showmen, but one stood out as a master of theatricality. His name was Jean-Baptiste-Charles ‘stienne, but he would achieve fame under the name Batta. He was born in Lille, France, on August 17, 1866.
He was orphaned at an early age, but when he was 15, ‘stienne finagled a job at a local gymnasium, and there he began working out with weights. Shortly after that he landed a job in a dismal little caf’ where he lifted weights and put on a rather lackluster show, but his strength and inventiveness soon propelled him upward.
It was his feats of grip strength that first took the strength world by storm. Hooking his finger around the handle of a heavy kettlebell, Batta would extend his arm straight forward with forearm barely clearing a sharp dagger and the jagged edges of broken bottles. More spectacularly, Batta would place a bottle and glass filled with water, several heavy gold rings studded with precious jewels, a fine diamond-encrusted watch and a pile of gold coins on the seat of a chair. Then, squatting down, he would grasp the bottom rung of the chair and lift the entire load clear off the floor until he stood erect, holding the chair at arm’s length. Not a drop of water was spilled or an object on the seat of the chair moved from its place. He would then offer a prize to anyone who could duplicate the feat. No one ever could.
It was not merely those stunts that made Batta famous but also the way that he performed them. In an era that produced huge, fleshy strongmen who grunted and wheezed with every exertion in order to show the audience that they were working for their money, Batta was different. He always performed his feats of strength with great grace and suavity. He was known in his day as ‘Le Gentleman-athl’te’ because he seldom wore the Roman sandals and animal skins that similar performers wore. He did his act dressed in silken tights that displayed his shapely physique or, more often, in white tie and tails.
Thanks to his marriage to a beautiful Italian heiress, Batta retired to become the manager of a prosperous theatrical agency. The great gentleman athlete died on June 7, 1939. IM