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08/03/2003 Entry: "Aug 08, 2003: Angus MacAskill by Joe Roark"

On August 8, 1863, at age 38 or 39, a man known as The Cape Breton Giant, 7'9" Angus MacAskill, died. The only thing taller than Angus was the body of fiction tales which formed around his legend.

When Angus was age seven, James D. Gillis, the man who would become the main supplier of information regarding MacAskill, was born, and by 1898, Gillis began his search for information on the giant, which would result in a 1926 book, The Cape Breton Giant. This book contains little useful detail about his strength.

In 1970 Phyllis R. Blakeley published Two Remarkable Giants, with Angus being half the cast. Various articles have appeared through the years in the bodybuilding literature but a studied comparison, and a simple analysis of some of the claims yield some doubts.

Angus in adulthood stood about 7'9", or 3" shorter than the average American living room ceiling. He weighed a muscular 400 lbs, though his later non-muscular weight would rise, and whose bi-deltoid measurement was 44"- which co-incidentally is about the same width as is claimed for Victor Richards the famous non-competing bodybuilder. The other measurements offered for Angus vary from report to report. His chest is 70" or 'something like 80"'.

The palm-PALM- of his hand was 6" wide and 12" long- not his hand, but his palm! But the tourist office in Nova Scotia offers 8" wide. Knowing that most of us have a middle fingle length approximately the 'length' of our palm, are we to conclude Angus had a hand length of nearly two feet?

My studies have led me to agree with John Grimek who reported in Muscular Development in March 1970 that the stories about Angus "like Scotch whiskey get better with age." Perhaps only intoxication could explain some of the other authors' assertions.

Angus was born on the island of Lewis in a town called Harris, all part of the Hebrides chain of islands. One writer indicates that Angus was born almost a year to the day before Stephen Foster, which would set about July 4 or so, 1825 for Angus. Now the variances begin.

Angus moved with his family to Nova Scotia when he was three; or when he was six. The full family gave Angus nine brothers and three sisters.

Even David Willoughby took at face value, apparently, reports that Angus had been associated with P.T.Barnum, and had an audience with Queen Victoria, neither of those situations can be proven. But Willoughby with his keen eye for measurement did reduce the claimed 44" shoulder width to an educated guess of 27". Considering the casket in which Angus is buried is 30" wide, one suspects the 27" to be more likely.

Regarding some of the lifting feats ascribed to Angus, Willoughby did not 'believe a word of it'. (What had prompted Grimek to use the whiskey analogy was a reader suggesting that Angus lifted plow horses over fences for fun.)

Here is an examination of some of the feats attributed to MacAskill: (adapted from MuscleSearch June/July 1985)

1. As a teenager, Angus helped his brothers and his father with wood sawing activities. Rough cut large logs would be lifted by four men into a position about seven feet above the ground, placed into cross-supports to be sawed.

During a break, in which wine was being passed around, Angus was denied a share, probably because of his age. He left the table in anger, returned to the worksite and by himself lowered the unfinished log from the supports to the ground. When the rest of the crew returned to work and saw the log, they demanded to know who had helped him lower it, To prove that he had no help, he lifted the log back up to the supports by himself.

Others versions of this story omit mentioning the brothers and/or have Angus lifting the log first, not replacing it. Missing details include length, diameter of the log. Did he walk the log until center-point was reached and then press/jerk it into place? Did he clean it? This is certainly possible, but too many details are missing to put a value to the feat.

2. While plowing a field one afternoon using two horses (another version says two oxen) Angus was hurried to complete the plowing to win a wager he had made regarding being able to finish by a certain time. One of the animals became ill, so while Angus' father guided the plow, Angus put on the horses harness and he and the sound horse finished plowing for the next two hours. Only his mother's pleadings prevented Angus from winning the bet.

Those who have pulled a sled, know that a few feet is murderously difficult- much like pulling a plow would be. While Angus may have been able to plow for a few feet, or yards, two hours of such tugging seems unlikely.

3. The heavy wind blew the snow, increasing the wind chill factor. Angus' friend had become ill, and the nearest medical help was 25 miles away. Assuming Angus was at his heaviest, about 500 lbs, it is claimed he carried his 190 pound friend the whole near-marathon distance without once putting the man down for repositioning or rest. If you weigh 200 pounds, your similar feat would be carrying someone who weighs 76 pounds.

Also, when he finally got where he was going, he lowered his friend, and it was claimed that the man's weight to him had been so insignificant, that Angus did not realize he had been carrying much weight.

4. During a wrestling match with a 200 pound opponent, Angus three the man over a pile of wood ten feet high and twelve feet wide. The woodpile would have thus been at approximately the overhead reach height of Angus, so could he throw about half his own bodyweight forward for twelve feet 'like a missile' as one writer put it? Or did the man bump along on top of the pile?

5. Grip fans will enjoy this one: Angus performed a lateral raise using two fingers (and his thumb it is assumed) thus raising a 100 pound bag of sugar and holding it at the top position for ten minutes, or 600 seconds. Most lateral raises (crucifix lift) can be held steady for mere seconds if the lifter is using 25% of his own weight. Most people cannot hold their empty arm up for ten minutes. Put that amount of weight in a towel, gather the towel and pinch using two fingers and your thumb- how long can you hold it? Plus his long arms would have afforded him unfavorable leverage for this feat.

6. We will end with the anchor incident. This story varies greatly in detail, and I think we can assume, since a career ending injury was the result of this effort, that the event took place only once. So one wonders how it can be placed in New York City, Boston, and New Orleans as various writers have so placed it.

Angus approached an anchor reposing on the dock. The anchor's weight has been reported as light as 1,200 lbs and as heavy as 2,700 lbs. It did not have the chain attached, or it did have the chain attached- take your pick. Anchors of that weight did exist in his day and they were usually left at dockside for anchoring the ship in port.

He lifted it onto one shoulder and walked a few feet, or he walked 100 yards, or he lifted it overhead easily. If he weighed 400 then he jerked triple bodyweight or nearly seven times bodyweight. The lift overhead has been described as easily, and it has been described as straining until his veins nearly burst.

At any rate, all accounts agree that the fluke of the anchor struck Angus and he was badly injured, and afterward unable to stand erect, which makes the one author's chronology of placing the plowing incident AFTER the anchor incident, very suspect.

In the MuscleSearch issue I devoted to him eighteen years ago I explain the P.T. Barnum non-connection, and go into detail about his audience with Queen Victoria.

Bottom line: what we have in Angus MacAskill is Hebrides hyperbole.

See you Aug 15th!