On this day in 1933, Galen H. Gough, Western Kentucky native and renowned strongman, was sitting in a steel cage in Louisville surrounded by guards.
Also surrounding Mr. Gough? Cases and cases of Louisville’s Oertel’s Beer.
November 19, 1933 marked the sixth day of a month-long endurance stunt in which Gough set out to prove that a man could live for 30 days on beer alone. His guards were Legionnaires from the Jefferson Post of the American Legion who were on 24-hour duty to ensure that Gough consumed no food…only beer. Said Gough of the stunt: “I am going to prove that Oertel’s Beer will give you more energy, more pep, more vitality. I am going to prove that Oertel’s Beer will keep your body in perfect condition” (The Louisville Courier-Journal, Nov. 17, 1933).
Galen H. Gough is truly a fascinating individual. This small article can hardly do his biography justice. In a nutshell, however, his story begins with his birth in Calvert City in 1899. By age 16, he had enlisted in the Marines to fight in World War 1. A shrapnel injury to the head left Gough partially paralyzed on his left side, and it was during his rehabilitation to regain his movement that he trained himself as a strongman. Billed as “The World’s Miracle Strongman,” his performances took him around the country. A few of his stunts included a tug of war with 40 men pulling on each arm, hanging from a rope with only his teeth while flying over Washington D.C., biting keys in half, driving nails with his hands, letting people hit him with an iron bar, and breaking steel bands over his biceps. His signature stunt was letting a truck or car run over his abdomen. Some even credit Gough with being the first strongman to rip a phonebook in half. The full list of his performances is impressively staggering.
As part of his physical training, Gough regularly went on 30-day liquid fasts in an effort to purify his body, a regimen which ultimately led to his Oertel’s Beer stunt of 1933. At that time, the United States was in a state of flux regarding the sale and consumption of alcohol. In fact, it was on December 5, 1933 in the midst of Gough’s stunt, that the 21st amendment was signed which revoked Prohibition. Breweries and distilleries were undoubtedly looking for clever ways to tout their products again, particularly to those who still maintained prohibitionist beliefs.
Oertel’s solution was brilliant. Hire a strongman, one who could already maintain a liquid fast, and promote your beer as a health drink.
John F. Oertel, president of the company, stated, “We don’t want anybody to get the idea that we are advocating beer as an exclusive diet. We want to establish accurate scientific evidence that a good beer will supply nourishment, sustain strength, keep the body in perfect condition and at the same time, not be fattening” (The Louisville Courier-Journal, Nov. 12, 1933).
So was it successful? Did Gough make it all 30 days?
According to his Legionnaire guards, Gough indeed lasted the whole month only drinking Oertel’s Beer (some reports say he consumed nearly 1100 brews). By the end of the fast, Gough had dropped more than 20 pounds. However, he was still in such fine shape that following his emergence from the steel cage he let an 8000 pound truck drive over him. In fact, he was in such good condition that he actually repeated the stunt in California a couple years later.
For more about Western Kentucky’s feats of strength, visit us in the Local and Family History Department at the McCracken County Public Library.