The strong Cincinnati man Henry Holtgrewe achieved legendary feats

The strong Cincinnati man. The West End Hercules. The strongest man in the world.

These are among the nicknames of Henry Holtgrewe, Cincinnati’s own turn-of-the-century man whose exploits were legendary.

He could lift a 287-pound dumbbell with one hand. He is known to lift 20 men, an assortment of dumbbells, and a monkey – all weighing more than 4,000 pounds – on his back. He beat every challenger but refused to go on tour as a showman, the next Eugen Sandow, the most famous strong man of his time.

In 2014, Holtgrew was honored in an ArtWorks mural created by artist Jason Snell on the side of a building at 1215 Vine Street in Over-the-Rhine. The mural is stylized as a vintage advertising poster in bright red, white and blue and shows the giant Holtgrewe with his massive muscles and handlebar mustache and his most amazing deeds.

In the days leading up to television or competitions for the world’s strongest men, such demonstrations of strength were carried out in parlors and on stages, usually via an expensive bet, in front of numerous witnesses. There was a certain theatrical quality to the whole business – incredible performances that we have to believe in because people say they saw them.

However, based on the news of the day, Holtgreve’s reputation was well deserved, and his accomplishments were more notable when training consisted of throwing stones into a quarry.

Holtgrewe (the “w” was pronounced like a “v” after old articles) came from Osnabrück and came to America at the age of 22. He became a saloon keeper with bars in Downtown, West End and Cheviot.

His father Fred was known to be a strong man, but Holtgrewe couldn’t explain his strength.

“I can’t tell you anything about my strength. It’s there, and that’s all I know, “he told The Enquirer in 1903.” I never like to boast, but when I can meet a man as strong as me, he will become my forever friend. If there is a strong man who can get me out of the way, he can get both my money and my friendship. “

Famous performance in League Park

His most famous performance was during a private exhibition for The Enquirer on August 29, 1896 at Cincinnati Baseball Park (officially League Park, on the site where Crosley Field was later built).

Holtgrewe was then 34 years old, 242 pounds, 5 feet 8, with a 52-inch chest and biceps of 18.5 and 19.25 inches. He wore black tights and a sleeveless knit shirt, and “loomed over the men around him like a gulliver among the midgets,” The Enquirer wrote.

A platform made of heavy hickory boards was placed on two sawhorses and then loaded with 1,600 pound dumbbells along with 20 men, including League Park groundsman John Schwab and the red monkey mascot Jocko.

Holtgrewe bent under the platform, a chair in front of him to support his arms. “He tensed each tendon until the muscles protruded like lashes on the arms and chest, and slowly lifted the heavy load,” wrote the investigator. After lifting the platform back 10 inches, he put it back down and barely gasped.

An enquirer illustration of the feat accompanied the article.

Henry Holtgrewe, strong Cincinnati man.  Illustrations from The Cincinnati Enquirer, August 30, 1896.

The investigator stated the total weight as “within a fraction of 4,500 pounds”. Later news reported it was 16 men and 4,103 pounds. Sandow himself, who was unable to replicate the elevator, later gave Holtgrewe a medal in which he was named the strongest man in the world.

The Enquirer also recorded a competition between Holtgrewe and East Coast weightlifter Otto Ronaldo in 1902 for a $ 1,000 stake placed in the Enquirer’s office. Each man designated five lifts so that the other would fit together. The number of pounds of a failed lift has been subtracted from the total of the lift.

Holtgrewe won on points without having to do his last lift.

“His heart was as big as his body”

Other stories were passed on. Holtgrewe raised a barrel of water with a man sitting on it with a finger. He held back a horse and buggy with one hand while reading a newspaper. He fought off four robbers, grabbed one by the ankles and used it as a club to beat the others.

There are different versions of the time when a rogue screwed a weight onto a stage floor, but Holtgrewe lifted it anyway and took the floorboards with him.

A cartoon of Cincinnati strongman Henry Holtgrewe by enquirer cartoonist Harold Russell shows off some of Holtgrewe's amazing strengths.  From The Cincinnati Enquirer, February 28, 1915.

Holtgrewe retired from lifting in 1915 and suffered from Bright’s disease (a kidney disease now known as nephritis) and diabetes. After a paralyzed stroke, he died on January 1, 1917 at the age of 54. He was buried in St. Joseph’s Cemetery in Price Hill.

It was said that “his heart was as big as his body.” He once defeated a weightlifter with a stake of over $ 500, but the man was having a hard time and had six children to feed, so Holtgrewe gave him the money and sent him home with gifts for the children.

“He was powerful enough to destroy everyone, but he was as gentle as a child,” said a friend in his obituary.

It is a legacy as worthy of its strength.

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