Career opportunities were very limited in the 1890s for those who wanted to live by their muscles. They could work in a gymnasium or become a professional strongman. Warren Lincoln Travis chose the latter course, and by the time he passed on, he had become one of the most famous performers in American athletic history.
Travis was born in Brooklyn in 1876 and took to sports at an early age. After building his muscles through progressive-weight training, he became a stage Hercules. Travis was especially fond of the splashy, spectacular feats that were beloved of old-time strongmen. He liked the lifting and supporting feats that required elaborate scaffolding or fancy equipment. Travis became very proficient at the back lift. He positioned himself beneath a platform that was piled high with weights of various sorts, then would use his back and sturdy legs to raise the platform.
Another favorite was a harness lift, in which Travis climbed atop a sturdy scaffold and attached a leather strap around his hips. It was connected to chains that were attached to a platform below him. He was able to lift 3,600 pounds that had been piled on the wooden platform. Eventually, he could even lift an elephant in this way.
Travis traveled on the vaudeville circuit, where he performed his back, harness, hand and finger lifts. After a time the strongman was drawn back to New York, and he found steady work on Coney Island. It was there that he remained for the rest of his life, becoming one of the most famous midway attractions at the amusement park.
Quite possibly Travis’ last feat was his most spectacular. On his 65th birthday the aging strongman decided that he would lift 1,000 pounds 1,000 times. He strapped himself into his famous harness and proceeded to lift. He would do 50 to 75 reps, then rest, then do more. At the end of several days he was still lifting, but just after midnight Travis collapsed in midlift and never rose again. He died in harness’quite literally.
Warren Lincoln Travis was a true original. He promoted progressive-weight training as a means of attaining strength at a time others warned of health risks or muscle binding. The Brooklyn Hercules never wasted an opportunity to promote vitality and muscularity.
Klein, Siegmund. ‘Strongmen I Remember Best.’ Strength & Health, October 1956.
Travis, Warren L. ‘I Can Lift Five Million Pounds in Three Hours.’ Muscle Builder, May 1924.