Posted on 28 Jul 2014
6 min read
Nowadays it seems the great unwashed derive most of their entertainment from bickering on YouTube, watching anything hosted by Ant and Dec and Instgramming pictures of their genitals.
A far cry, indeed, from the gladiatorial maulings, cat burnings and public hangings that enticed hordes of cheering plebeians back in the day.
Although, thankfully, these bloodthirsty public spectacles have long been committed to the annals of history, around 150 years ago the world was gripped by another extreme piece of public theatre.
It was a feat of superhuman strength that was in equal parts breathtaking, dangerous and clinically insane.
During his circus show, the great Danish strongman John Holtum shocked audiences by catching a cannonball – a fucking cannonball! – that was fired toward him at point blank range.
We’re talking about the same cannonballs that were employed to obliterate the limbs of soldiers on a battlefield and carve holes in the bows of ships.
What follows is the story of John Holtum, ‘The Cannonball King’, and his death-defying displays of strength and nerve.
John Holtum was born on October 29, 1845 in the Danish town of Haderslev.
At the age of 15 he signed up as a sailor, thereafter experiencing all the adventure, labour and homoerotic company that the high seas had to offer.
This profession also afforded the young sailor the chance to hone the strong physique which he would later become famous for, as on the shipyards and shipdecks he toiled diligently as a manual labourer.
Eventually Holtum found himself in California where, after a stint as a labourer, he found work as a professional strongman.
Upon his return to Europe in 1870, John Holtum had conceived a strongman act the like of which the world had never seen before.
This would be an act that would put him well and truly ahead of his competition.
It would call upon superhuman strength, lightning quick reflexes, nerves of steel, and a brain that was surely in some way damaged.
He would attempt to catch a 50 pound (22.5 kg) iron cannonball which would be fired directly at him at 100 miles per hour.
This strikes me as an idea that could ONLY have been arrived at when drunk – and then in the morning, such is your bravado, that you have no choice but to follow through with it.
“What’s the strongest thing that you could do John?”
“Probably… catch a cannonball.”
“Are you sure? Wouldn’t that… kill you?”
“Nah, I’ll wear gloves, it’ll be fine.”
However, John’s plans hit an early obstacle when the several experts he consulted informed him that such an act was impossible and he would more than likely wind up getting himself killed.
Despite such warnings, John ploughed on with his crazy plan.
He wasn’t going to let a silly thing like impossibility or certain death get in his way.
Unfortunately, his first attempt at catching the cannonball seemed to corroborate expert opinion, as the red-hot iron ball blew off three of his fingers.
But, again, John was not deterred by such a trivial injury.
Like the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, you can imagine him informing bewildered bystanders, as his fingers lay mangled and bloodied at his feet, that it was “but a scratch!”
Nor was John deterred by the fate of one of his contemporaries, an Italian strongman who attempted to deflect a live grenade with his powerfully muscled chest, only to be blown to smithereens.
John refused to give up, and after two years of experimentation, discipline and determination, finally managed to achieve the impossible.
Fame and fortune were in sight.
It was time to take the show on the road…
John stands on one side of the stage, clad in a skimpy red leotard and boots, with nothing but a pair of gloves and some chest padding for protection.
His assistant wheels the formidable cannon onto the other side of the stage and the strongman stares down the barrel, summoning his nerve.
The cannon is loaded, the fuse is lit.
The audience holds their breath.
And suddenly… BANG… a deafening explosion.
The iron ball hurtles towards Holtum who – defying all the odds – catches it, taking the crashing impact against his mighty chest.
The audience cheers, unable to believe their eyes, some whooping for joy, some hiding the disappointment that they’ve been denied a gruesome public execution.
Once the cannonball is safely in his hands, Holtum quickly drops it to prevent the hot iron from burning through his gloves.
He faces the audience, smiling, and a legend is born!
After his first performance, as word of his superhuman feat of strength spread, Holtum faced many dissenters who cried “hoax”, “fraud” and “absolute bollocks mate!”.
Some claimed the cannonball was hollow.
Some claimed the cannon did not use a standard military load of gunpowder.
Some claimed Holtum was a “massive knobhead”.
Irked by these aspersions, Holtum began offering a generous pile of cash to anyone who could replicate the act on stage, with the same cannonball and charge of gunpowder.
And, despite their accusations, no-one, from the reputed 161 volunteers in Europe and America, was ever able to replicate Holtum’s feat.
In fact, in England in 1880, Holtum was brought up on remand at Leeds Magistrate court for “unlawfully wounding” a member of his audience, one Elijah Fenton, who had foolhardily accepted the challenge.
The first to try to catch the ball was Mr Fenton, but when the cannon was fired it struck him on the head and knocked him down.
He was conveyed to the Infirmary, where it was found that his skull was fractured, and that he had received injuries to the nose.
Holtum went on to use the personal misfortune which befell any audience member stupid enough to try catching the ball in the promotional material for his show.
As word of the mustached muscleman’s abilities spread, the cannonball catcher grew in renown.
Crowds grew in size, hoping to see this absurdly dangerous game of catch performed successfully, or, at the very least, a Scandinavian dude sliced in half by a ball of hot iron live on stage.
The ‘Human Target’ performed all around Europe, even for royalty, leaving gasping crowds, empty beer kegs, brassiere straps and legendary tales in his wake.
Holtum became especially popular with the female contingent of his audience.
He had charm, an athletic muscular physique and he could catch a huge fucking iron ball fired from a cannon – go figure!
In fact, such was his popularity with women that in Paris a group of seatwetters campaigned to stop Holtum catching cannonballs so as to prevent him dying – or worse, mangling his good looks and bulging muscles.
After retiring from his strongman act, John Holtum saw out the rest of his days in England.
He died peacefully in 1919 at the ripe old age of 74.
Clearly toying with death so often had done wonders for his longevity!
Although Holtum’s name is not afforded the same respect and reverence as other great strongmen of his time such as Arthur Saxon and Louis Cyr, the Cannonball King was an extraordinary athlete who nonetheless deserves his place in the pantheon of legends.
Next time you’re watching World’s Strongest Man or a clip of Dan Green smashing some powerlifting record on YouTube, just ask yourself:
“Are any of these guys strong enough to catch a speeding cannonball without ending up looking like a prolapsed uterus?”
As tests of strength and willpower go, iron is a pretty decent indicator, but red-hot iron moving towards you at 100mph is even better.