Sandow the Lion Tamer

sandow lionThough more synonymous with bodybuilding than wrestling, the late 1890s saw Eugen Sandow, the man many credited with possessing the perfect physique, wrestle a caged lion in front of a US audience (1).

The bout was undertaken during Sandow’s extensive tour of the United States under the tutelage of promoter Florenz Ziegfeld. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many viewed the event as an exercise in futility, during which a half-dazed lion lazily swiped at the Prussian showman.

Today’s post focuses on the circumstances leading to this bizarre encounter, the fight itself, and its aftermath, to explore just how far Sandow was willing to go to promote his body and his business.

Why a lion?

The decision to pit Sandow against a 650-pound lion in a ‘catch as you can’ wrestling match was not the result of meticulous planning. Indeed, the fight only occurred following the cancellation of a circus wrestling match between a grizzly bear and a lion.

The proposed bear-lion face-off had been the brainchild of Colonel Daniel Boone, a California-based circus manager seeking to draw greater crowds to his events.

When word hit the public that a grizzly bear would be fighting a lion, the reaction was remarkably mixed. Some rushed to buy tickets ranging from $10 to $20, while others, such as the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, sought to ban the fight.

In the end, it was the latter who won out, as the proposed fight was quickly banned by law enforcement authorities, leaving Boone with a problem. He had sold tickets for a lion fight and was understandably hesitant to refund the money.

Sensing the opportunity for a quick buck, Florenz Ziegfeld, the man responsible for handling Eugen Sandow’s 1894 tour of the United States, stepped in.

Ziegfeld’s reasoning was simple. While the law banned bouts between two animals, it said nothing about an animal and a man. What’s more, the man in question, Eugen Sandow, was believed to be one of the strongest men in existence. If anything, it would be an even fight! (Or so the promotional material would have you believe.)

In the week leading up to the fight, Sandow appeared in numerous Californian newspapers in a bid to drum up support for his latest publicity stunt. When questioned about his motives, Sandow told reporters that because he was interested in testing the limits of human strength, he had resolved to do what no one else had ever done: fight a lion.

Ziegfeld’s advertising was even more grandiose, as the final days before the fight saw the eccentric promoter tell people that Sandow was risking life and limb to fight a man-eating lion that was hungry for blood.

Would the world’s most perfectly developed man survive? Would Sandow tame the lion, or would the lion tame Sandow?

High hopes but poor performances

sandow lion tamerNat Pendleton recreating the fight for the 1936 film ‘The Great Ziegfeld’

When the night of the fight came on May 22, 1894, it was clear that the fight’s promotion had been successful. When the lights came down on the stage, over 3,000 spectators had arrived to watch Sandow face his greatest foe.

Question marks were quickly raised, however, when the lion entered the caged wrestling arena.

Though undoubtedly fearsome in its own way, the lion (nicknamed ‘Commodore’) seemed less than fighting fit. Aged and disheartened, it was clear that this animal had seen better days.

The lion’s claws had been visibly clipped, and some suspected that the animal had been drugged before the fight so as to protect Sandow.

As Cynthia Brideson and Sara Brideson recounted in their biography of Ziegfeld, what followed next was nothing short of farcical.

Sandow put up his fists as if preparing to box another man. The lion yawned at him. Sandow pulled at the big cat’s whiskers to rouse him. The lion half rose but then lay down again.

Sandow then grabbed the lion’s mane, but the cat did nothing more than flick sawdust in the strongman’s face with his tail.

In an attempt to salvage the evening, Sandow lifted the lion as if it were a house cat and carried it around the ring. The lion seemed to enjoy being carried, which only angered the crowd more.

The fight quickly ended, with Sandow declared the winner. When the chorus of boos quietened and a disgruntled crowd went home, the local newspapers began their assessments.

There’s no such thing as bad publicity, right?

The reaction of the American newspapers was undeniably critical. According to San Francisco Hall, the fight had been a terribly one-sided affair that pitted a feeble lion against a ‘gladiator of the modern day’.

The fact that the lion had ‘not played at all’ served to illustrate the asymmetry of the affairs. Other criticisms similarly reigned in, with one newspaper choosing to satirize the bout through the cartoon shown below while others began to question both Boone and Ziegfeld about the lion’s health.

sandow lionSandow v. a shackled Commodore

Though not affecting Sandow’s reputation or prestige in any real way, the fight had significant repercussions for Ziegfeld, who went several years before returning to California with a promotional event. The lion bout had taught him that his marketing abilities were not infallible.

Sandow later managed to turn the bout into an enthralling fight in his 1897 manual, Strength and How to Obtain It (2). Displaying a remarkably poor short-term memory, Sandow told readers of his heroic endeavors.

Let it never be said that Sandow was a poor marketer. For fun, you can read his entire description of a fight below, with the caveat that the historical recounting of the fight by others paints an entirely different picture!

Perhaps the greatest, and certainly the most thrilling, of all my experiences is that to which I am about to relate. It is the story of my lion fight in San Francisco.

I was performing in that western city at the time of the mid-winter fair, which followed the Chicago Exhibition. In connection with this fair, Colonel Bone was exhibiting a great menagerie. One day, he advertised a fight to the death between a lion and a bear. A tremendous tent, with accommodations for twenty thousand people, was erected for the occasion. Thousands and thousands of people had bought tickets when the police issued an order forbidding the performance, and the proposed spectacle had to be abandoned.

The thought occurred to me that I should take the bear’s place and measure my strength against the king of the forest’s. Of course, there is always this disadvantage between the unarmed man and the beast: the beast has natural weapons in his teeth and claws, while a man has nothing to help him in the fight. This lion, moreover, was a particularly furious animal. Only a week before, he made a meal for his keeper. I have met many lions in various places, and this beast was certainly the largest and finest of them all.

I was fully prepared to meet him as he was, provided I could have an equivalent for his claws in a short dagger or some similar weapon; but the law in America, as in England, is rightly very strict against cruelty to animals, and the dagger, of course, could not be allowed. If I desired to meet the beast, the only way was to fight him as I would box a man, completely unarmed.

As there is no law to prevent cruelty to men, there was no objection to this method, though Colonel Bone, as well as my own friends, insisted that if there was to be a fight, it must be a struggle between brute strength and human strength. In short, mittens would have to be placed on the lion’s feet to prevent him from tearing me to pieces with his claws, and a muzzle would have to be placed over his head. Even with these precautions, I was advised not to proceed with the contest.

“With his strength,” said Colonel Bone, “he’ll knock your head off.” But, personally, I had no fear; I was only anxious for the contest to begin. The engagement was accordingly made, and “A lion fight with Sandow” was boldly advertised. The announcement sent a thrill through the cities for hundreds of miles around. In order to fully be equipped for a performance that would be bound to attract thousands and thousands of people, I decided to rehearse my fight with the lion beforehand.

Accordingly, preparations were made, and with much difficulty, the lion was mittened and muzzled. It took several men with lassos and chains some hours to perform this operation, for not only had they to guard against the animal’s overpowering strength, but they had to proceed cautiously in order not to injure him.

A great cage, measuring seventy feet across, was brought around, and into it Colonel Bone, one of the most experienced of lion tamers, let the animal enter. Few people were present, but amongst them was my manager, that tall, slim, great little Ziegfeld with a face as white as snow.

There is no doubt that Mr. Ziegfeld and the small company felt the position acutely, for, though personally I had confidence in myself—and confidence in victory is always half a battle won—then those around were by no means sure of the issue, and there was some fear that my first tight with a lion might be my last.

However, my purpose being fixed, I entered the cage unarmed and stripped to the waist. The lion, with fury in his eyes, crouched down, ready to spring. Having read a good deal about the methods of the lion, I was not unprepared for this form of attack.

As he made his last strain for a tremendous leap, I stepped sharply to the side, and he missed his mark. Turning quickly before he had time to fully recover, I caught him round the throat with my left arm and round the middle with my right. By this means, though his weight was 530 lbs., I lifted him as high as my shoulder, gave him a good hug to assure him that it was necessary to respect me, and tossed him on to the floor.

Thus outdone at his first attempt, the lion roared with rage. Rushing fiercely towards me, he raised his huge paw to strike a heavy blow at my head. For the moment, feeling the swish of the lion’s paw as it passed my face, I really thought that Colonel Bone’s remark that he would knock my head off would prove true. Luckily, I dodged my head just in time and got a good grip around the lion’s body, with my chest touching his and his feet over my shoulders.

Now came the tussle; the more I hugged him, the more he scratched and tore, and though his feet were mittened, he tore through my tights and parts of my skin. But I had got him in a vice, and his efforts to get away were fruitless. Choosing an opportune moment, I flung him off me. Colonel Bone and my manager were shouting to me to come out of the cage, as I had done enough and the lion’s rage was unbounded.

I was determined, however, before I left to try just one other feat. Moving away from the lion, I stood with my back towards him, thus inviting him to jump on me. I had not to wait many moments.

He sprang right on my back. Throwing up my arms, I gripped his head, then caught him firmly by the neck and, in one motion, shot him clean over my own head to the ground before me. Colonel Bone rushed into the cage, snapping two revolvers to keep the lion off, and I came out, my legs torn, my neck scratched, and with scratches all over my body, but I felt that I had mastered that lion and that I should have little difficulty mastering him again at the performance that was to be given the next day in public.

When the hour for the fight came, the huge tent, which held twenty thousand people, was literally packed in every part. The cage with the lion was outside, and while he was being mittened and muzzled, he became so furious that he broke two iron chains that bound him and got loose.

The people shrieked; the very men who a moment before had been boasting of their bravery were the first to fly, and there was a general stampede. But the moment the lion saw my eyes fixed fearlessly and firmly on him, he seemed paralyzed. Colonel Bone came and pulled out his revolver, telling me not to take my eyes off him, as I had him in my power. While we both remained motionless, the cage was brought near his head, and by a dexterous movement, I had him over on his back, and once more he was a prisoner. The keepers tried again to mitten him, and after a great struggle, they succeeded.

Then came the scene in the arena; the lion appeared first, and as I entered, the whole place shook with cheers and applause. Through the whole of that vast assembly, there was a thrill of great excitement, and photographers were there, ready to take instantaneous pictures of the various positions of the fight with the lion. But no sooner did I enter the cage than the animal cowered down.

He knew that I was his master, and he refused to fight. Feeling that the audience would be sadly disappointed, I tried to goad him on, but nothing would move him. Most beasts are cowards at heart, and this lion, having met his match at the rehearsal, refused to budge.

At last, I caught hold of his tail and twisted it. This was the only thing that moved him. As he made a bound towards me, I dodged, swung around, picked him up, and then tossed him down.

The fight lasted barely two minutes. The lion, recognizing that my strength was too much for him, would fight no more. Though I lifted him up and walked around the arena with him on my shoulders, he remained as firm as a rock and as quiet as a lamb. The fierce fight at the rehearsal had subdued his courage.

He was clearly conquered. I was afraid that my audience would be disappointed with the comparative tameness of the proceedings, but, on the contrary, everyone seemed thoroughly satisfied, and “the lion fight with Sandow” was long the talk of the day in San Francisco.

While there is much to admire about Sandow, we recognize that his ability to relay the truth is sometimes suspect. From the inflated crowd figures to perceptions of the fight, Sandow’s post-fight writings were the stuff of make-believe and demonstrated that the Prussian-born businessman always sought to promote himself regardless of reality.

A timely reminder for us not to believe everything that comes from the fitness industry!