As West Terre Haute was building itself up in the first decade of the 20th century it was briefly home to a man dedicated to building his own body.
Louis Rudolph Yanske was the son of Austrian-Bohemian immigrants Emmanuel and Fransceska (Fanny) Borovy Yanske. Emmanuel, a tailor, migrated to the United States in 1867. Fanny followed the next year. Young Louis was born in Vigo County in 1875.
Louis was a precocious child who early on showed startling capabilities and determination. Early on he decided to dedicate himself to building his small body. By the age of eight he was able to lift over 200 pounds, nearly 100 pounds more than his own body weight. Within ten years he had pushed himself so hard that increased to 600 pounds, even though he was only 5’4” and weighed only 114 pounds.
But how could his Samsonian strength serve him? Bodybuilding, the idea that one could sculpt your body to near perfection, had a long history, as exemplified by the Olympics. Modern bodybuilding in which men showed off their crafted bodies and performed feats of strength began to take shape in the late 19th century. This movement was spearheaded by the Great Sandow, a German who performed throughout Europe and was very popular in the US (He was featured in one of the very early films by Edison.)
So, Yansky followed Sandow’s lead and began performing as a strongman in 1896. He travelled the country appearing in fairs, circuses and the vaudeville circuit. He lifted weights, took on challengers, and posed in positions to show off his sculpted body. People came to marvel at his physique, gasp as he lifted 900 pounds, or simply to stare at what some perceived as a “freak.”
Yansky was a natural showman who had a knack for self-promotion. If he thought his name was too long unmentioned in the papers, he would issue challenges to other strong men to garner publicity. In 1901 he took to the newspapers to challenge two particular Terre Haute strongmen, policeman Steve Clark and Herman Prox, who worked for Hulman & Co:
“I hereby challenge any man in the city of Terre Haute to a strength contest, weight not barred, at any place within the city limits. The contest to consist of (1) 2-hand grip lift; (2) hand grip lift; (3) 3-finger lift; (4) 1-finger lift; (5) 1-hand raise over head; (6) 2-hand raise over head; (7) bending nails, etc., with hands unassisted; (8) bending iron or soft steel rods over bare forearm; (9) tearing playing cards; (10) pulling new horseshoe apart; (11) money bending; (12) shouldering with one hand; (13) holding out with one hand; (14) swinging overhead with one hand. The gate receipts to be donated to charity. I herewith deposit $20 with the sporting editor of the Gazette.
The challenge must be accepted within one week. Details to be arranged later.
Louis R. Yansky
Challenger of the World at Weight of 114 Pounds or in Proportion.”
Yansky’s challenge was accepted by Clark—partially. Clark said he would accept part of the tests of strength, but not all them. Yansky would have done of that. He responded that he was already giving the 200 pound Clark a weight advantage and his motto was “all or none” and re-issued the original challenge. Clark demurred.
Two weeks later Yansky headed to California to perform at a fair, but before he left he reminded everyone he was still willing to face-off with Clark and Prox, with the wagers to go to Union and St. Anthony hospitals.
Interestingly, the day Yansky departed, a small man from Brooklyn, NY arrived in Terre Haute with another sort of challenge of strength. H. Mack weighed only 110 pounds but he proclaimed himself a man of a remarkable power, no man could lift him off his feet into the air! His secret power of gravity was that not one, not two, not even three men could lift him off the earth. As if that was not enough, he could transmit his special power to any object he touched.
Planting himself firmly on the floor of Keith’s saloon on the west end of Wabash Avenue he took on all challengers. Among them was the saloonkeeper Keith, a strapping 200 pounder and another Hautean man of strength, Charles Denning. They could not move him. Mack announced he would remain in town for several more days, and perhaps Steve Clark might try his hands at lifting him. From whence did this special power emanate? The Gazette posited that perhaps Mack’s power regulated his weight and controlled his pulse. A more likely explanation can be found in the fact that Mack “places his fingers on the lifters neck; that seemingly roots him to the floor.” But the lifters claimed it in no way lessened their strength. Mack had departed town before Yansky returned, so the strongman did not have a chance to test his strength against the diminutive Brooklyn-ite.
As his trip to California showed, Yansky’s “job” required a lot of travel. After nearly a decade of touring, Yansky decided to step away from his performing career and start a business career. By 1906 he was living in West Terre Haute.
He was also a man possessed of a sharp, inventive mind. In 1907 he announced he had received a patent on an extension device to be attached to a gas line to produce heat and light. The device was attached to the ceiling, but was adjustable so that it could be pulled down to anywhere when in use. He said he was looking for a company to mass produce his invention. That did not happen. It was to be just one of several patents he would receive.
But he did start the business that was very successful. In 1907 he formed the Louis R. Yansky Reporting System, a type of early credit bureau. He issued credit reports on individuals and businesses to merchants wishing to know if potential customers were a credit risk. The agency also served as bill collectors. One can imagine the look on a late-payee when the strong man showed up at his door seeking to collect. The agency grew into a thriving, important firm for Terre Haute area businesses.
Not all went smoothly in his personal life though. 1908 Yansky sued Crawfordsville farmer Samuel Hutton for $100.000.00 for alienation of his wife’s affection. The court decided that he was wronged, but to that extent and ordered that the damages be settled for $5,000.00. Evidently his wife’s affection were not totally alienated, as it would be a dozen more years before he filed for divorce.
Though he seldom “performed,” Yansky continued to devote himself to fitness. In 1949 the 74 year old strongman recounted his daily routine to a reporter from the Saturday Spectator. He rose at 4:45 every morning to begin his two hour exercise regimen. The two hours were filled with 100 chinups, 70 pushups, weight lifting, and running 100 yards in 11 seconds, he said. It was all followed by a nice long hot bath. Still weighing only 130 pounds he credited his long life and health to “clean living, regular hours, exercise, and proper food.” No alcohol, stimulants like coffee or tea, or tobacco ever passed his lips. His diet consisted of fresh fruit, and fruit juices and “lots of milk.” He kept a daily record of his exercise.
On March 24, 1952 Louis turned on the gas water heater to prepare for a hot bath. The man who so devoted himself to health and fitness, who had received two patents for gas lighting devices, was overcome by a silent killer, carbon monoxide, when the unvented water heater in his house leaked. He was found in his bathtub, rushed to St. Anthony’s but died there