Saturday, July 9, 2016

Amazing Victorian Cannonball Catcher

I've put aside the Work-in-Progress, Never a Viscount, for three months in order to write a holiday novella! By the Light of a Christmas Moon is a spin-off of The Unseducible Earl, scheduled to release later this year. Jamie and Rosemary get their own story!

Jamie contracted Remittent Fever in the Crimea. It's a chronic condition he will have the rest of his life. (Remittent Fever was a chronic infection. No antibiotics then, and some people suffered with chronic, low grade systemic infections for years or for life. I modeled Jamie's illness after the chronic condition Florence Nightingale returned from the Crimea with. One biographer believes she had Brucellosis.) The infection could flare up at any time and produce high fevers. Jamie suffers from body aches, sciatica, and lethargy all the time. He's at risk of dying during one of the fever episodes.

So Jamie wants to get as strong and healthy as possible. To that end he begins a physical training program.

Gymnasiums came into vogue during the Victorian era. A number of exercise machines were developed. There are pictures of Victorians in street clothes--women in corsets and skirts, men in suits and ties--using these machines. But gymnastic apparatuses also became available---the horse, climbing ropes, and Indian clubs.

I wanted Jamie to have a trainer, so I went looking for a Victorian "Jack LaLanne" type. I looked and looked and looked. Not only did I need a well known Victorian strongman or gymnast, he had to be known in 1857.

I found two. Archibald MacLaren built a gymnasium at Oxford University which opened in 1858. The following year he trained twelve army sergeants who then implemented a similar training program for the British military. MacLaren believed both mental and physical parts of the body must be trained. He was expert at numerous gymnastic skills and a fencing master. But other than that, I couldn't find out much about MacLaren. There was also a well known strongman, Professor James Harrison. Although he was honored by Queen Victoria for his physical prowess, even less information was available on Harrison.

So I decided to create a fictional character to be Jamie's trainer. A man who'd trained with both MacLaren and Harrison and followed their philosophies of "physical culture."

The man I found in my research who was truly amazing was strongman John Holtum. I couldn't use Holtum in my novella because he was twelve years old in 1857! But he was phenomenal and I loved learning about him. Holtum had a circus or carnival act that became famous and was never duplicated. He caught a fifty-pound iron cannonball fired at point-blank range. This was the same type of cannon and cannonballs used in war to blow men apart.

The first time Holtum tried it, the cannonball took off three fingers. But that didn't stop him. He wore a skimpy leotard and gloves and a light chest padding and caught the cannonball--fired from a cannon--with his gloved hands and chest. How in the heck does a man decide he can do this, and then try it out? He became famous throughout Europe and England.

Initially people thought it was a hoax. So Holtum invited them up on the stage. He offered a huge amount of money to anyone who could duplicate his feat. No one tried. 

Holtum retired in England and died peacefully in 1919 at age seventy-four. Finding and learning about people like John Holtum is why I love research.