Among the many accolades attached to our lively, historic, attractive city, there’s another rarely spoken. Portsmouth is also the birthplace of “the greatest dumbbell performer in the world.”

As a boy, if we can believe the hype, Edward C. Stickney was a “walking skeleton.” Born here on May 22, 1860, the frail little Ed exhibited “a weak and nervous temperament.” By age 12 he was a “mere shadow” when the family doctor recommended he try farm work to build up his strength.

In his teens Stickney discovered the magic of working out with wooden dumbbells. He muscled up and by age 20 became a professional strongman. In 1885, Stickney gained notoriety when, during a Massachusetts competition, he “put up a four-pound dumbbell from the shoulder to arm’s length above his head” 6,000 times in 57 minutes. Newspapers from Indiana and Ohio to New York and Australia reported the event.

Dubbed the “American Apollo,” Stickney followed up by hoisting a 12-pound dumbbell 15,000 times in one day, a feat that “beat all previous records.” That same year, newspapers reported, “New Hampshire’s strong boy put a 25-pound dumbbell up over his head 455 consecutive times using but one hand.” Portsmouth’s sickly boy, according to the Boston Globe had become “without the shadow of a doubt the strongest man on Earth.”

As self-proclaimed “dumbbell lifting champion of the world,” Stickney cleverly issued a challenge. He would best anyone in either a one-hour or one-day timed competition – most lifts determined the winner. His opponent could choose from bells weighing four, 12, 14½, 24, 30 or 50 pounds. Stickney vowed to meet any serious contender in Boston, New York, Chicago or Philadelphia.

The silent bell

The term “dumbbell,” may derive from the early use of heavy metal bells as exercise weights. English poet Joseph Addison mentioned the term in 1711. The bells had no clappers, so they made no sound. They were, therefore, mute or “dumb.” Over time, a person who did not or could not speak was often unfairly considered to be stupid, and the insults "dummy" and "dumbbell" entered the American lexicon.

Health nut Benjamin Franklin wrote in a 1786 letter that “I live temperately, drink no wine, and use daily the exercise of the dumbbell.” These early free weights gained popularity in 1864 when a book titled “The Muscles and Their Story” was published. Lightweight, cheap and easy to make or manufacture, wooden and later metal dumbbells became the focus of countless exercise routines.

Eugen Sandow (1867-1925), the German bodybuilder with the chiseled frame of a Greek god, was also a dumbbell enthusiast. “Nothing, in my opinion,” Sandow claimed, “is better than the use of the dumb-bell, for developing the whole system, particularly if it is used intelligently, and with a knowledge of the location and functions of the muscles.”

Old time strongmen

Eugen Sandow is remembered today as “the father of modern bodybuilding” in photos, posters, books, documentaries and websites. Edward Stickney, however, is as obscure as Sandow is famous. According to John Wood, an expert on early strongmen, Stickney, Sandow and others paved the way for the modern industry of body building and weight training.

Wood’s father, Kim Wood, was a strength coach for the National Football League’s Cincinnati Bengals. “I grew up in what was essentially a half library-half museum devoted to strength training,” he says. “Old books, old magazines, even vintage equipment was always around, so I learned the ins and outs (or ups and downs) of weight training from a young age.”

Employing the principles employed by early strongmen, in four years of high school football in Ann Arbor, Michigan, John Wood went from a 165-pound freshman to a 255-pound senior. Learning he could control and sculpt his own body following classic methods changed his life, Wood says. Today, he promotes the vintage secrets of strength training and blogs about early athletes on his website OldtimeStrongman.com.

“To my mind, studying the past is more than mere nostalgia. You see that a lot of the answers to life’s ‘big questions’ have already been figured out long ago,” he says. Long before steroids and costly gym equipment, he notes, athletes worked out with 2-pound wooden “Indian clubs” and simple calisthenics.

“Old school? New school? Doesn't really matter to me, I'm only interested in what works,” says Wood, who practices what he preaches each day. “I think it is a basic tenet of human beings to make things more complicated than they have to be and this is certainly the case with modern strength training and gym culture.”

Tracking a lost celebrity

In a recent documentary about Eugen Sandow, “Legends of Strength,” his great grandson Chris Davis noted that, by example, Sandow gave individuals “the courage to improve themselves... He gave people the confidence to take on board the exercises and make something of their lives.”

David Waller, author of “The Perfect Man,” says Sandow “changed thinking about physical development entirely… He offered this promise – you too could be like me, you too could make yourself perfect through discipline, through exercise, through physical culture. And that just chimed in perfectly with the needs, the concerns, the anxieties of the era.”

While Sandow performed feats of strength by lifting horses and humans, he focused his “brand” on physique and training. His books, magazines and exercise routines are still used today. Portsmouth’s strongman, however, followed the more traditional path of the vaudeville and county fair circuit.

Most of what we know about Edward Stickney comes from the back of scraps of his promotional literature. His first exhibition was a benefit for the Odd Fellows of Portsmouth (Osgood Lodge #48). According to an account in the Portsmouth Herald, plans to create the Portsmouth Athletic Club were hatched by men who gathered regularly at Edward Stickney’s gym on Ladd Street in 1885. Stickney then made his mark in Lynn, Massachusetts, where he apparently lived when not touring.

“Edward Stickney seems to be a good example of a ‘local hero’ kind of strongman,” historian John Wood says. “He appears to have done some traveling on the vaudeville circuit. His forte was repetition dumbbell lifting. Back in his day, it was common for certain folks to have standing challenges, mostly for bragging rights and some measure of local fame.”

In 1891, we find Stickney at the Summit House in New Hampshire’s White Mountains holding a 250-pound dumbbell over his head with one hand for 42 seconds. He was often known for bending and breaking metal horseshoes with his bare hands. With one hand, he claimed he could lift any man standing on a chair, a feat considered to be “the most wonderful exhibition of strength the world has ever seen.” That same year we see him in a charity benefit the Sorrento Hotel in Maine, a property owned by Portsmouth ale tycoon Frank Jones.

In 1893, the Boston Globe reported Stickney’s “wagon show” was heading to the interior of New England accompanied by “a lady brass band and orchestra.” After attending a strong man convention in New York, Stickney was promoted by the Wonderland Amusement Company. Leaving no mythical hero behind, a large newspaper ad announced the arrival of “the Modern Samson” a.k.a “the American Apollo” with “Herculean strength.” Stickney’s unique novelty act featured a fine wardrobe and nickel-plated bells.

In the tradition of the times, both Sandow and Stickney, are depicted in Tarzan-style animal-skin underwear hoisting comically large barbells. But while Sandow capitalized on his god-like form, Portsmouth’s native son wandered between resort hotels and the carny market, forever touting his record-breaking dumbbell days while challenging all comers to beat him.

By 1900, Edward Stickney was frequently seen at the Austin & Stone’s Dime Museum in Boston. For a 10-cent admission this entertainment emporium featured a freak show and, for another dime, exotic dancing girls. The Austin & Stone Christmas show featured an assemblage of the world’s strongest women called “The Female Sandows.” Madame Yucca, a handsome, powerful woman could lift a horse, a carriage, and its occupants. Stickney was only one of 40 acts that week and his name appeared in a small font near the bottom.

Edward Stickney was still playing the Austin & Stone holiday show in 1926 when the local newspaper reported he was visiting his father, John Stickney, who lived on Rogers Street. The “world’s greatest athlete” showed up in town again following “a tour of the East” on the eve of World War II in 1941. From there, so far, the trail of the formerly famous strongman goes cold.

Copyright 2019 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson’s history column appears in the Portsmouth Herald every other Monday and his weekly photo blog runs each Thursday. He is the author of a dozen history books on topics including the 1873 Smuttynose ax murders, Strawbery Banke Museum, Privateer Lynx, and Wentworth by the Sea Hotel. He is currently working on a hardcover history of the Music Hall and can be reached at dennis@myseacoastnh.com.