In Episode 184, Jeff Belanger and Ray Auger don their gym shorts and pump some iron in Voluntown, Connecticut, while they search for Elmer Bitgood: the strongest man in New England. Bitgood kept himself in the newspapers between 1909 and 1916 by performing various feats of strength, including lifting 2600 pounds in front of reporters! But when you make bold claims, others will come gunning for you. Enter Bartello the Great for a potential showdown.
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JEFF: (STRAINING) …eight, nine, ten… grrrrr.
RAY: Whatcha doin’ Jeff?
JEFF: Spot me, Ray! I’m blastin’ my pecs.
RAY: Yeah, I can see you’re really working that bar and… whatcha got on there? 25 pound weights?
JEFF: (GRUNTING) There’s two of em!
RAY: Right! I see that.
JEFF: Plus the weight of the bar!
RAY: So we came to Voluntown, Connecticut, just to go to the gym and lift a few dozen pounds?
JEFF: No… we came to Voluntown looking for Elmer Bitgood… the strongest man in New England.
JEFF: I’m Jeff Belanger.
RAY: And I’m Ray Auger. And welcome to Episode 184 of the New England Legends podcast. If you give us about ten minutes, we’ll give you something strange to talk about today.
JEFF: Voluntown, Connecticut, is the next stop on our mission to chronicle every legend in New England one story at a time. And we’re glad you’re with us! Please be sure to subscribe to our podcast so you don’t miss a single strange story. And if you want to get even more involved in our community, be sure to join our super secret New England Legends Facebook group, and download our free New England Legends app in your app store. The app gives you access to our entire archives, plus an interactive map with directions to every location we’ve covered. Almost 200 places and growing each week!
RAY: Before we go searching Voluntown for the strongest man in New England, we want to take a minute to tell you about our sponsor, Nuwati Herbals!
JEFF: You’ve been hearing us tell you about all of the great teas, balms, soaps, and essential oils Nuwati Herbals has to offer. They have a tea for every occasion and mood. And since we’re talking about strong people and physical training, we want to tell you about their Buffalo Bone Tea. No, there’s no buffalo bones in the tea, and it won’t give you buffalo breath, we promise. But it is named after the buffalo bone, a strong bone used by our ancestors for making tools, weapons, and jewelry. This unique blend of herbs are meant to keep you strong on the inside.
RAY: And after your workout, a little Indian Blanket Balm will sooth those sore muscles and joints and get you ready for your next workout. These are Native American-inspired products. Herbal remedies from Mother Earth. Please check out their Web site to see all of the great products that we’ve been telling you about each week. AND you legendary listeners get 20% off your order when you use the promo code LEGENDS20 at checkout. Visit Nuwati Herbals dot com. That’s N-U-W-A-T-I Herbals with an S dot com.
JEFF: So Ray, we said earlier that we’re looking for Elmer Bitgood the strongest man in New England.
JEFF: Though if he heard us say that, he just might kick our butts.
RAY: Why’s that?
JEFF: Because Elmer Bitgood actually claimed to be the strongest man in the WORLD!
RAY: In fairness, that would also make him the strongest man in New England by default.
JEFF: Good point. Here’s a picture of Elmer with his brother from the May 7th, 1909 Norwich Bulletin newspaper.
RAY: Wow! That guy is built like a house! He looks to be about as wide as he is tall!
JEFF: Are you ready to meet him?
RAY: I am.
JEFF: Then let’s head back to 1909 and set this up.
JEFF: It’s May of 1909 and 39 year-old Elmer Bitgood and his brother, Doane (Like the woman’s name Joan with a D.) are posing for a Norwich Bulleting reporter in front of 2200 pounds of rocks on top of a wooden bench that stands about waist high.
JEFF: Elmer stands about five feet eight inches in height. He’s got a 52-inch chest, a 50-inch waist, and he weighs about 300 pounds. Oh, and his biceps measure 20 inches in circumference.
RAY: He’s wearing a tight, black t-shirt, he’s got one hand on his hip, and he’s puffing his chest out for the camera.
RAY: So Elmer, you claim to be the strongest man in the world?!
ELMER: I say the strongest man in the world is the man who has authority on the subject and never has been beaten. There may be some people who are stronger than what I am, but as yet I have failed to meet one. I have a perfect right to claim the title until someone can prove that I am not worthy of it.
JEFF: That’s fair. Okay, Elmer is getting under the bench… or table… with the rocks on top and he’s placing his shoulders up against the bottom-front of the bench. Under his hands there’s a small stool he’s using to steady himself. He’s pretty much half-bent over with his hands on the stool.
JEFF: Wow! Look at that! He’s lifted the entire bench about three inches off the ground. (PAUSE) And now he’s setting it back down as gentle as a feather.
RAY: 2200 pounds is a ton of weight!
JEFF: It’s more than a ton!
RAY: Good point. 10 percent more! Elmer claims his personal best is 2,600 pounds on this same apparatus.
JEFF: Of course we’re taking Elmer’s word for it that those stones do indeed weigh 2200 or 2600 pounds. But no matter the exact number, it’s clearly a lot of weight.
RAY: Okay, a little more about Elmer. He was born in 1869 right here in Voluntown, Connecticut. There are a bunch of Bitgoods in this region, so he comes from a BIG family. And I don’t just mean there’s a lot of them, I mean these Bitgoods aren’t small people. We already saw Elmer’s brother Doane who is almost as big as Elmer, they also have a brother named Paul, one named Eugene, Robert, and two sisters Mary and Elizabeth, plus various cousins in the region.
JEFF: Elmer leads a simple life. He works on the family farm here with his brother. He doesn’t drink alcohol ever. In fact the only liquids he drinks are water and milk. He’s not married, never was, and he’s a devout Baptist. He’s kind of a gentle giant here in Voluntown. Everyone knows him, and most folks like him.
RAY: Maybe it’s because he’s so likeable that his legend grows. Any neighbors who happen by the Bitgood farm can always stop and ask to see Elmer lift some weight.
JEFF: They say he’ll lift up a 180-pound keg over his head with both hands.
RAY: Or he’ll lift a 175-pound rock above his head with one hand.
JEFF: Then there’s the special rock dumbbell he had made that weighs 416 pounds. He’ll lift that over his head, while visitors clap.
[SMALL GROUP CLAPPING]
RAY: And from there the tales get taller. They say Elmer Bitgood used to plow his fields by pushing an actual plow all by himself. No team of oxen to pull it! And one day a stranger stopped by along to the road to ask Elmer for directions. Elmer lifted his plow to point the way as easily as you or I might point a stick in the right direction.
JEFF: They say once Paul Bunyan left New England, Elmer Bitgood moved in. And second only to his strength, is Elmer’s legendary appetite. They say his mom used to cook his dinner in the wash tub. No matter how much he eats, he’s still hungry.
RAY: I can see how the legend just keeps growing. Okay, I have a question. Elmer, how often are you lifting these huge amounts of weight? Is there some kind of regiment you follow?
ELMER: How often? Oh, sometimes three or four times a day and sometimes not for a week. It all depends. If I need exercise, I try it, and if visitors come along and won’t believe I can do it, I just show them.
JEFF: This continues for years. Elmer is a local celebrity. He likes the attention. But, there is a price.
RAY: What’s that?
JEFF: There are other strong men in the region, of course. And then there are those strong men who tour around the country doing feats of strength at carnivals or even in local theaters. Annnd when you claim loud enough that you’re the world’s strongest man, pretty soon someone’s going to come gunning for you.
RAY: It’s true in your local bar, it’s true across New England… so enter the Great Bartello!
JEFF: Who is the Great Bartello?
RAY: The Great Bartello tours Vaudeville theaters around the United States demonstrating his feats of strength. Audiences pay for admission to watch him lift. And if you want people to pay money to see you lift weights, you can’t exactly call yourself a really strong guy… or stronger than most of the people you know. NO! You gotta be the strongest man in America… NO! The strongest man in the WORLD! That’s what sells tickets. Then The Great Bartello arrives in Norwich, Connecticut, where he runs smack dab into the local legend of Elmer Bitgood.
JEFF: Ooooo there can’t be TWO strongest men in the world.
RAY: No there can’t. The tension only escalates when Elmer posts a sign by the road on his property.
[HAMMER ON POST]
RAY: The sign is a feats of strength challenge to the Great Bartello for all to see.
JEFF: I like it! The gauntlet has been thrown down!
RAY: There’s some back-and-forth between the two in the newspapers.
JEFF: Of course, anyone who claims to be the strongest man in the world CAN’T back down from a challenge.
RAY: The thing is, each man has different lifts they do to impress audiences. There’s the bench lift we witnessed Elmer do earlier, which mostly involves leg strength. There’s dead lifting. There’s arm curls. But Elmer is specific in his challenge.
ELMER: My idea of a strong man is not the man who can do one little feat, or tell of what he has done, or what he has heard or read that someone else has done, and speak until his breath gets hot. Such men are better off putting up balloons and not dumbbells. My idea is the man who can produce the goods and can handle them. I have the goods and can handle them also, and if Bartello or anyone should like to contend for the title, they are welcome. My proposition is not unreasonable for it is simply a two-hand grapple with a bar dumbbell from the floor to arms length over the head as high as one can reach. Bartello positively refused to meet me at my lifts. I cannot get Bartello the Great to enter in a contest of strength with me, and I will not indulge in any trick lifting.
RAY: I can see the potential problem here.
JEFF: You can?
RAY: If two guys claiming to be the world’s strongest man have a contest, one of them is going to lose.
JEFF: Ahhh, I see your point.
RAY: The Great Bartello has more to lose, because he’s touring in theaters making this claim. If someone bests him, his career is over. Elmer Bitgood would just go back to his farm either way.
JEFF: But still, pride can be a powerful thing. Elmer doesn’t want to lose either. The way he remains a regional celebrity is to show off his feats of strength at local fairs and events. And all the while his legend grows. The newspapers claim he can pick up 250 pounds with the little finger of either hand. The stories go on and on.
RAY: Meanwhile, the Great Bartello challenge never does come to fruition. Both men go on their way, each claiming to be the world’s strongest. After 1916, Elmer Bitgood kind of fades into legend.
Elmer: There may be some people who are stronger than what I am, but as yet I have failed to meet one. I have the perfect right to claim the title until someone can prove that I am not worthy of it.
RAY: And that brings us back to today.
JEFF: We know Elmer Bitgood died in 1938. Between 1916 and 1938, he’s not mentioned in the papers again. Granted, in 1916 he was 47 years old, and one can only display feats of strength for so long before father time catches up with you. You know, unless you’re Tom Brady.
RAY: That’s true! It sucks getting old. If Elmer Bitgood taught us anything, it’s that one way to retain your title of world’s strongest man is to avoid challenges from people who might dethrone you.
JEFF: Still, I love how the legend of Elmer grew. As one person is trying to describe just how strong this guy is to others, you can’t help but exaggerate just a little.
RAY: We saw one story in the newspaper about a claim that Elmer used to hoist a cow in his barn with a leather strap over one of the beams. Elmer was said to pull of this act using only his teeth!
JEFF: Ouch! So we were wondering how Elmer’s claims would compare to today. In 1993 the Guinness Book of World Records reported that Gregg Ernst lifted 5,340 pounds.
RAY: To give you a comparison, a four-door Toyota Rav4 weighs about 4,700 pounds.
JEFF: So maybe Elmer Bitgood wasn’t the strongest man in the WORLD, even at his time, but he made a name for himself then, and here we are still talking about him all these years later. That makes him a legend. Given we have no reports of anyone besting him, it’s fair to call Elmer Bitgood the strongest man in New England.
RAY: Want to be some pictures of Elmer Bitgood, head over to our Web site and use your strongest finger to click on Episode 184.
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RAY: We love when you folks reach out to us, either through our Web site, social media, or our legend line that you can call or text anytime at 617-444-9683. You can even leave our show closing on there for us.
JEFF: We’d like to thank Dave Schrader for lending his voice acting talents this week. Dave is from Darkness Radio and The Holzer Files television series that you can watch right now on Discovery Plus. And our theme music is by John Judd.
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