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Old Time Kentucky: Hollywood strongman of 1930s performed physical feats that were hard to believe


By Berry Craig
KyForward columnist

Galen Hobson Gough heaved anvils, let beer trucks run over him and hung by his teeth from an airplane.

But he’s best remembered in Benton for beating a pair of mules and a flatbed truck in a test of strength that would have torn an ordinary man limb from limb. Hundreds watched in amazement, the late John Clay Lovett among them.

“They strapped the mules to one of Hobson’s arms and the truck to the other one,” said Lovett, who was an attorney. “The mules tried to pull one way, the truck the other.”

Gough, his biceps bulging, held on.

In Louisville, Gough helped advertise the nutritional value of a local beer by living only on the brew for a month. Afterwards, to prove his fitness, he allowed a loaded beer truck to drive over him (Photo Provided)

In Louisville, Gough helped advertise the nutritional value of a local beer by living only on the brew for a month. Afterwards, to prove his fitness, he allowed a loaded beer truck to drive over him (Photo Provided)

“The truck was stronger, and the mules started backing up,” Lovett said. “Hobson still didn’t let go. He did a lot of miraculous things I wouldn’t have believed if I hadn’t seen them myself.”

For years, Gough’s feats amazed thousands nationwide. He tested several stunts on the homefolks in his native Marshall County.

“He could throw an anvil 10 feet into the air and catch it,” said the late “Toad” Brien, longtime Marshall County circuit court clerk. “I’ve seen him lie down under a board full of spikes and an anvil on top of that. Men would hit the anvil with sledgehammers, and it wouldn’t draw blood.”

Gough billed himself as “the world’s strongest man.” But a strongman career seemed impossible after he suffered a serious head wound in World War I. Gough, then 19, was left paralyzed in one arm; his speech and hearing were impaired.

Physicians put a metal plate in his skull and warned him he’d be an invalid. But Gough embarked upon a rigorous bodybuilding regimen that cured his paralysis. His normal speech and hearing returned, too.

Gough, who lived to age 64, said he used his mind to heal his body and give himself superhuman strength. A bodybuilding magazine recognized his achievements, proclaiming the 6-foot, 250-pound Gough a “modern Hercules.”

Gough became a Hollywood actor and strongman in the 1930s. But he continued to travel the country, often dropping by Benton.


“I’ve seen him tear a Sears and Roebuck catalog in half like it was a little old Sunday-school book,” Brien said.

“I’ve seen him put car keys in his mouth and twist them off like it was nothing,” Lovett said.


In one of his most famous stunts, Gough flew over Washington, D.C., dangling at the end of a rope below a biplane. That wasn’t the half of it; he held on only with his Herculean teeth.

Besides that show-stopper, Gough bent horseshoes “into any shape you wanted,” Lovett said. He also wrapped steel wagon wheel rims around his arms, Brien said.

In Louisville, Gough helped advertise the nutritional value of a local beer by living only on the brew for a month. Afterwards, to prove his fitness, he allowed a loaded beer truck to drive over him.

“But his father was a preacher and somebody said Hobson shouldn’t be promoting alcoholic beverages,” Lovett remembered. So for another month, Gough ate nothing and drank only water.

“When the time was up, he proved he was just as fit by letting another beer truck drive over him,” Lovett said.


When he wasn’t lying under moving trucks, Gough was picking up parked cars. On a car shopping trip to Mayfield, he lifted an auto by its bumper so he could have a look at the chassis.

Lovett also recalled the time Gough, home in Benton, had a flat tire. “It was a Stutz-Bearcat sort of car,” Lovett said. “He just lifted it up so the tire could be changed.”

The strongman’s story is told in Galen Gough, ‘The World’s Miracle Strong Man’: The Incredible, True-life Story of Galen Hobson Gough, who Overcame Hopeless Paralysis to Become the Strongest Man on Earth: A Biography Structured from a Compilation of Previously Published Newspaper, Magazine and Book Accounts,” a 1993 book by Greg Travis.

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Berry Craig of Mayfield is a professor emeritus of history from West Kentucky Community and Technical College in Paducah and the author of five books on Kentucky history, including True Tales of Old-Time Kentucky Politics: Bombast, Bourbon and Burgoo and Kentucky Confederates: Secession, Civil War, and the Jackson Purchase. Reach him at bcraig8960@gmail.com


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