At one point in history every circus, carnival, and vaudeville hall had a strongman on hand to astound spectators. The image of a mustachioed man clad strongman smiling in leopard print while hoisting a bending barbell high aloft is still synonymous with circuses. The spectacles these men provided ranged from the highly impressive the the borderline mundane but in a golden age populated with hundreds of contemporaries an individual simply had to go the extra mile to ensure fame and fortune.
John Holtum elected to stand apart by becoming a human target. Holtum caught cannon balls fired directly at his him from point-blank range.
Born on October 29, 1845 in the Danish town of Haderslev John Holtum led a relatively uneventful life until finally enlisting as a sailor at 15. His work on deck and in shipyards sculpted the muscular physique he would eventually be known for. In time, Holtum found his way to California and after a string of temporary heavy manual labour jobs he found work in San Francisco as a professional strongman. There, he learnt and practised the basic feats most strongmen mongered.
It wasn’t until Holtum returned to Europe in 1870 that he stuck upon the idea of catching a cannonball.
The experts Holtum asked told him it couldn’t be done and his initial attempts seemed to support those claims and his experiments almost took his life. One failed attempt saw Holtum purportedly loose a couple of fingers. After two years of training and against all odds Holrum perfected the feat, and from then on his fortune and reputation were made.
It was a feat that required immense strength, steely nerves and lightning fast reflexes. It was a feat that never failed to stun witnesses. An assistant would load the cannonball into a regulation cannon on one side of the stage and after a deafening explosion the ball would fly directly toward Holtum. Wearing only a pair of sturdy gloves and a pad on his chest for minimal protection, Holtum would attempt to catch the speeding projectile with his hands. As soon as Holtum caught the cannonball he would throw it quickly to the ground. He had learnt early on that the ball would burn his flesh if not released immediately.
Was there trickery involved? Perhaps so. Perhaps the charge of gunpowder was much less than what would have been used in battle. Perhaps the ball was lighter than was claimed or perhaps it was completely hollow. Such claims were made by the public, however Holtum offered 3000 francs to anyone who could perform a similar feat and no one ever took up the challenge. The stunt was death-defying and only Holtum dared to face the Grim Reaper.
The Danish-born strongman continued to draw crowds wherever he performed and his fame continued to grow. His charm, his physique and his death-defying ways made Holtum something of sex-symbol. In Paris, a group of female fans petitioned to ban his performance. They feared that their Adonis would meet an early demise – or worse – that his beautiful body would be maimed.
Eventually, Holtum decided to retire from strongman antics. He married a pretty equestrienne and settled down in England where he lived in considerable comfort until he died peacefully of natural causes in 1919.