When Arthur Conan Doyle Judged A Bodybuilding Contest

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On the afternoon of March 27, 1904, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was driving home from a day of playing golf with his brother, Innes, when he turned too quickly into his driveway and clipped a gatepost. The collision sent the car careening up a grassy bank inside the gate and it flipped over, trapping both him and his brother underneath. Luckily, the steering wheel kept the chassis high enough off the ground to allow Innes to scramble free, but before Arthur had a chance to escape, the wheel buckled and the full weight of the car suddenly pinned him face-first to the ground.

In his autobiography, Memories and Adventures, 20 years later, Doyle wrote that:

…the weight of the car settled across my spine just below the neck, pinning my face down on the gravel, and pressing with such terrific force as to make it impossible to utter a sound. I felt the weight getting heavier moment by moment, and wondered how long my vertebrae could stand it. However, they did so long enough to enable a crowd to collect, and the car to be levered off me. I should think there are few who can say that they have held up a ton weight across their spine and lived unparalyzed to talk about it. It is an acrobatic feat which I have no desire to repeat.

Amazingly, both men were left with nothing more than a few bruises.

When news of the incident broke in the press a few days later, Doyle was soon being asked to account for his miraculous escape from what would ordinarily have been a fatal accident. He was a keen sportsman, and certainly physically very fit—Doyle played soccer and was a proficient skier, and played on the same cricket team as Peter Pan author J.M. Barrie—but above all else, his attributed his escape to a muscle-conditioning program he had undertaken several years earlier with the help of a world-renowned German bodybuilder named Eugen Sandow.

Sandow was born Friedrich Müller in Königsburg (now Kaliningrad, Russia) in 1867. His interest in fitness was apparently sparked by a childhood trip to Italy, during which he resolved to emulate the physically-perfect statues and sculptures on display across Rome. He began attending local gymnasiums when he returned home, and his efforts quickly paid off: in the mid-1880s, he landed a job as a circus strongman and began touring Europe performing feats of strength under the stage name Eugen Sandow, before being hired by Broadway mogul Flo Ziegfeld in the early 1890s to take his act to the United States, where he was filmed by Thomas Edison:

Before long, he had earned a sizeable fortune, which he took back with him to Europe and invested in an “institute of physical culture”—essentially, a 19th century gym—that he opened on St. James’s Street in London in 1894. And it was there that he first attracted the attention of Arthur Conan Doyle.

By now, Doyle was a well-established and successful writer. The first Sherlock Holmes novel, A Study In Scarlet, had been published almost a decade earlier, and Doyle had followed it with a second novel, The Sign of Four, and two dozen short stories. Despite his literary success, however, Doyle continued (as he always had done) supplementing his writing with his day-to-day work as a doctor, and in 1890, he had opened a private medical practice in central London—barely a 20 minute walk from Sandow’s institute. Doyle’s training in medicine and anatomy, as well as his own personal interest in sport, led him to become one of Sandow’s earliest and most significant clients, and over the years that followed he meticulously followed Sandow’s exercise regime—so that by the time of his car accident in 1904, he was in exceptional physical shape. Sandow’s training, it seemed, had quite literally saved his life.

The two men became good friends over the course of Doyle’s coaching, such that when Sandow came up with the idea of holding a charity bodybuilding competition—much larger and grander than any that had been held before—his most illustrious client happily agreed to act as one of its judges. Sandow’s “Great Competition,” as it was called, was held on September 14, 1901, as a fundraiser for injured British troops returning home from the Boer War, in London’s illustrious Royal Albert Hall. Three lavish prizes—enormous gold, silver, and bronze models of Sandow striking a suitably macho pose—were commissioned and Doyle was joined on the judging panel by Sir Charles Lawes, a famous English athlete and sculptor. He later wrote that:

The Albert Hall was crowded. There were eighty competitors, each of whom had to stand on a pedestal, arrayed only in a leopard’s skin. Lawes and I put them up ten at a time, chose one here and one there, and so gradually reduced the number until we only had six left. Then it became excessively difficult, for they were all perfectly developed athletes. Finally the matter was simplified by three extra prizes, and then we got down to the three winners, but had still to name their order, which was all-important since the value of the three prizes was so very different. The three men were all wonderful specimens, but one was a little clumsy and another a little short, so we gave the valuable gold statue to the middle one, whose name was Murray, and who came from Lancashire.

The competition was a huge success, and at a lavish champagne banquet afterwards Doyle and Sandow were able to meet and congratulate the competitors in person—although Doyle eventually went one step further. When the party was over, Doyle left the Hall to go find a cab to take him back to his hotel, but outside he saw the winning strongman, Mr. Murray, walking away, still carrying his enormous golden statuette under his arm. Doyle ran after him, and asked where he was going.

He confided to me that he had no money, but he had a return ticket to Bolton or Blackburn [200 miles away], and his idea was to walk the streets until a train started for the North. It seemed to me a monstrous thing to allow him to wander about with his treasure at the mercy of any murderous gang, so I suggested that he should come back with me to Morley’s Hotel, where I was residing. We could not get a cab, and it seemed to me more grotesque … that I should be wandering round at three in the morning in the company of a stranger who bore a great golden statue of a nude figure in his arms. When at last we reached the hotel I told the night porter to get him a room, saying at the same time, “Mind you are civil to him, for he has just been declared to be the strongest man in England.”

Doyle found Murray a room for the night, and paid for it himself. The next morning, he woke to find that word had spread throughout the building that the world’s strongest man was staying in the hotel, and that Murray was holding “quite a reception” in his room, with “all the maids and waiters paying homage while he lay in bed with his statue beside him”:

He asked my advice as to selling it, for it was of considerable value and seemed a white elephant to a poor man. I told him he should open a gymnasium in his native town, and have the statue exhibited as an advertisement. This he did, and I believe he has been very successful.