'Little Hercules': When 1940s Audiences Were Awed by Wallace Gough, World's Strongest Baby
By Jake Rossen
Open a newspaper—any newspaper—in the summer of 1938 and odds were you’d be confronted with the sight of an infant dangling from a chin-up bar or gripping his father’s finger with a tiny hand. The baby in question was 8-month-old Wallace Key Gough, offspring of strongman Galen Gough, who was being paraded as the world’s mightiest infant.
Or, in his father’s words, “the first of a race of supermen.”
The bombast was part P.T. Barnum and part Pampers. And for the Gough family, it proved to be a lucrative endeavor.
Born in Kentucky in 1899, Galen Gough spent much of his life capitalizing on the public’s fascination with strongmen [PDF], though it was not without adversity. While serving in the Marines during World War I, Gough was seriously injured by an explosion that led to partial paralysis, deafness, and impaired eyesight. He was discharged and, according to Gough, declared disabled.
“For three years I remained an invalid, paralyzed on the right side and unable to walk a step,” Gough wrote in 1935. “Physicians and surgeons said I never would.”
Gough was motivated to improve his health with physical conditioning. He laid out a healthy diet plan for himself and began a walking regimen. When his body was built back up, he trained more strenuously. Eventually, Gough—who was 6 feet tall and already stout—worked his way up to roughly 250 pounds. He drew publicity for his outrageousness, whether it was by hanging from a plane by his teeth, letting a car drive over his torso, or wrestling a bear. In one of his most outlandish stunts, Gough tossed a 200-pound weight in the air with one hand and caught it with the other.
The fame led to opportunities writing for the many magazines devoted to physical culture as well as newspaper articles advising readers on how to improve fitness, if not quite lift a car off the ground. The interest in Gough was in his contrast, going from an injured war veteran to what was considered the pinnacle of physical prowess.
When interest flagged, Gough knew how to stir it back up. In 1933, he locked himself in a cage and declared he would perform his usual feats of strength while subsisting only on Oertel’s beer. “I am going to prove that Oertel’s Beer will keep your body in perfect condition,” he said. (Oertel’s was, of course, sponsoring him.) True to his word, Gough twisted metal and executed many of his same demonstrations despite reportedly not consuming any solid food.
In his travels, Gough met and married his third wife, Martha Louise Key, a grade school teacher. The couple settled in Fort Worth, Texas, where Martha gave birth to Wallace Key Gough in December 1937. The tot would prove to be exactly what Galen needed to retain the public’s attention.
To inquiring and incredulous reporters, Gough insisted that Wallace was standing upright in his palm when he was just a few days old. The genetic gifts the young boy had been granted by his father also allowed him to scamper up the sides of his crib. The baby, Martha confided, was given a “secret formula” in his milk, ostensibly to promote accelerated physical development. Not yet a year old, young Wallace swung on a stick like a trapeze artist and pulled his elfin frame up in front of awed journalists. Climbing a ladder was no problem for this tot.
“If this keeps up, the kid will be lying down in front of scooters in another month,” Gough said, referencing his stunt of allowing trucks to drive over his prone body. (Gough stopped when one such incident left him with a fractured pelvis.)
No one ran over the baby. But Gough insisted his son was “the reincarnation of Sampson.” In another interview, he said, “A baby is born with abnormal strength and we cultivated that.”
By 1940, Wallace—by now bedecked in a strongman-style singlet—was ripping telephone books in half and could press 60 pounds over his head. The tot even landed endorsement deals, shilling for a vitamin drink suitable for both adults and children. According to a relative, Gough also had Wallace dangle by his hands from a bar on a skyscraper. In what amounted to his crowning achievement, Wallace was also named honorary president of the Super Youth Club of America, a fitness movement for kids. (Galen was the creator and bestowed him the honor.)
Galen and Martha had a daughter, Jill, born in 1942, though they didn’t seem to be interested in showing off her physical acumen. Coverage of Wallace leveled off. Then, in 1945, Wallace went to his father and declared he “was getting a little old for this strongman stuff.”
Who or what Wallace Gough grew up to become is not easy to uncover, as newspapers appeared to lose interest in his exploits once he got aged out of being a junior strongman. The “Little Hercules” moniker resurfaced in the early 2000s, however, when young Richard Sandrak adopted the nickname and received attention for his ripped appearance and feats of strength, including being able to bench-press 160 pounds despite weighing just half that. That led to speculation that his parents had administered performance-enhancing drugs and drove him to a highly disciplined childhood, which they denied. Now 30, Sandrak has said he’s largely lost interest in having a noteworthy physique.
For his part, Galen Gough—who later reinvented himself as a Judo practitioner and then a painter before passing away in 1962—was happy only as long as his son was happy. “That was the last time he’s done any of it,” he said of Wallace retiring at age 8. “I wanted him to do it only as long as it was fun.”