Marie-Louise Sirois, the forgotten strong woman of Quebec


It was by chance that we read about the strong men of Quebec that we discovered a few lines about a strong woman who had made history, a woman married to a strong man from Roxton-Pond in Estrie.

After consulting the site of the Haute-Yamaska ​​Historical Society, we go to Granby, where a first element of response arises. This woman is buried in Roxton-Pond, a few miles from Granby. Contrary to what is indicated on her stele, Mrs. H. Cloutier, she is actually named Marie-Louise Sirois.

A tombstone on which one can read: "Mrs. H. Cloutier, the strongest woman in the world".

The tombstone of Marie-Louise Sirois at Roxton Pound

Photo: Radio-Canada / Jacques Racine

We will then meet the former director of the Haute-Yamaska ​​History Society Johanne Rochon. The only material proof of her existence that she has is a family picture. She shows it to us. We can see a woman posing with her children and her husband Henri Cloutier.

A vintage family photo in black and white

Marie-Louise Sirois (left) in a family photo. Her husband is on the right

Photo: Radio-Canada / Jacques Racine

"She was born in La Pocatière in 1867," explains Ms. Rochon. She was 12 years old when her parents decided to go to the United States, like many Quebeckers at the time, in pursuit of a better life, because the crisis hit Quebec hard. Little by little, she will meet Henri Cloutier, a Quebecker from Roxton Pond. He had opened a gym in Salem. A strong man who will become even the strongest man in the United States.

"Becoming Mrs. Henri Cloutier, it is in this gym that his reputation will be born. Equipped with exceptional strength, she will challenge men. Three in reality, who vainly tried to lift weights. By watching them, she will challenge them and tell them there is nothing there.

To the general amazement, she will lift the charges with disconcerting ease. The applause will then fuse on all sides.

Johanne Rochon, former director of the Haute-Yamaska ​​Historical Society
A woman looks at her desk with old photos

Johanne Rochon, former director of the Haute-Yamaska ​​Historical Society

Photo: Radio-Canada / Jacques Racine

We knew now a little more about this Marie-Louise Sirois become Mrs. Henri Cloutier. Now go to the cemetery of the small town of Roxton Pond. After much research, because finding an old tomb dating back to 1920 is not an easy task, we finally discover on an old stone the following epitaph: "Mrs. H. Cloutier, the strongest woman in the world".

We wanted to know more and then we go to the National Archives of Quebec. To our surprise, we discover an article from The Press, dated May 25, 1898, which details his exploits and his prodigious strength:

  • raised from the ground with a hand of 510 pounds;
  • raised from the ground with two hands, at the Kennedy, 1000 pounds;
  • standing on a table, raised by means of belts fastened to the waist, a platform loaded with 1800 pounds;
  • hold two 1400-pound horses in the manner of Louis Cyr.
An old schoolbag with period newspaper articles

An old schoolbag with period newspaper articles, including one from La Presse on Marie-Louise Sirois

Photo: Radio-Canada / Jacques Racine

A challenge to Louis Cyr?

Another surprise, and size, would appear as we read. Marie-Louise Sirois dared to challenge Louis Cyr, the strongest man in the world in his time. We then take the road to Quebec to meet the one who presents himself as the official biographer of Louis Cyr, Paul Ohl.

"First of all, you have to know which is pretty much the only one," explains the former Quebec strongman coach. There is no equivalent that we know. Maybe there were villages in the hinterland or from village to village. It was said of her that she was very strong.

Marie-Louise Cloutier is the only one who gets talked about and you should know that particularly in Quebec, demonstrations of strength are very poorly seen by the Church, especially if they are public demonstrations. Louis Cyr paid the price because in his case, he used his wife as a partner in some demonstrations and his wife was wearing tights, (…) not what the Catholic Church asked. If you wanted to do things in public, you had to wear a three-quarter-over-knee dress that was not too tight at the waist. Marie-Louise also wore a tights, so imagine a little the anger of the Church.

Paul Ohl, biographer of Louis Cyr
A man lifts weights in a gym

Paul Ohl is the biographer of Louis Cyr

Photo: Radio-Canada / Jacques Racine

And what about the challenge she would have thrown at Louis Cyr?

"It says, but it has never been officially confirmed, he says. I must present myself as the official biographer of Louis Cyr. There has never been a meeting. That's certain. There was no meeting between a woman, however strong, and Louis Cyr. That's clear. "

Would Louis Cyr have refused such a duel?

"Absolutely," replies Paul Ohl. Louis Cyr would probably have refused. In the period from 1894 to 1899, the phenomenon of force and demonstrations of force became highly politicized. In Quebec, we had to protect this image of the strongest man in the world, Louis Cyr, for political and cultural reasons as well. It was the affirmation of French Canada that claimed (…) (the) privilege of having the strongest man in the world within his walls and as a nationality of birth. "

Mr. Ohl adds, magnanimous: "She had zero notoriety in relation to what she could have had (…) She should have had the equivalent of the fame of Louis Cyr and the equivalent of its title and be considered as the strongest woman in the world. "

An heiress of Marie-Louise Sirois

We continue our research to find out if, today, a woman is following in the footsteps of Marie-Louise Sirois. We quickly fall on the name of Émilie Morin, who is presented as the strongest woman in Quebec and the 7th in the world. Direction Charlesbourg, where is his gym.

For any gym, a tire shop welcomes us. In the back room, a hangar is full of dumbbells of all kinds, weights as dizzying as each other and huge tires and, especially, heavy, like those seen on trucks in large mining projects .

A woman in a shed that serves as a gym, in front of big tires

Émilie Morin in her gym

Photo: Radio-Canada / Jacques Racine

It is a smiling woman with tattooed arms who welcomes us. First surprise: she has already heard about Marie-Louise Sirois on a show to which she had collaborated on sports strength.

"I really read and tried to understand what were her strengths and weaknesses, but also her way of life and the type of competition and the trials in which she participated," says Émilie Morin. How could I reproduce a test or try to compare my strength with her?

For the time, it was amazing what she was doing. If she were alive today and followed the lifestyle of being an athlete, she would be an exceptionally strong woman, even more than she was at the time.

Émilie Morin, strong Quebec woman

We were not going to stop there. We dared to ask Émilie Morin to reproduce some exploits and records established by Mrs. Henri Cloutier. A demanding exercise to which she lends herself with a smile in the form of a challenge that could have been that of our champion of the day against dubious men and sneers.

After raising a certain load, we are surprised to want to try too. The dumbbell will remain irremediably stuck on the ground!

A woman raises a load at the end of her arms.

Émilie Morin lifts a load in her gym.

Photo: Radio-Canada / Jacques Racine

Do you have the feeling that if you were transporting yourself in Marie-Louise Sirois or Ms. Cloutier's time, you think she would have had some satisfaction in beating men, asks Émilie Morin .

"Yes, sure she had to have a guilty pleasure in beating men as much at the time (…) Today is still new. But at that time, she was really a different woman in a male environment, "she says.

An inspiring woman, totally inspiring. It is clearly a woman who was an example. A force of nature, not only physical, but mental, because it also had to fight prejudices. Even if we have to do it again today, it has inspired the strong women of Quebec.

Émilie Morin

Everyone now seems to agree that this strong Quebec woman could have had the same status as Louis Cyr.

Mrs. H. Cloutier or Marie-Louise Sirois: Whatever the choice of the name, history will remember that she was the strongest woman in the world.

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