April 18, 2024


Built General Tough

Tarn. The fate of the “man-steamer”, one of the fastest runners in the world, who died in prison

A pedestrian race in Paris at the beginning of the 20th century, several years after the exploits of Jean-David Calvayrac known as the
A pedestrian race in Paris at the beginning of the 20th century, several years after the exploits of Jean-David Calvayrac known as the “man-steamer”, which will have given rise to many vocations. (© Gallica / Agende Rol)

It was called the “Man-steamer”, in reference to the capacities of this famous steam engine which, at the same time, revolutionized the relation to speed.

A very appropriate nickname: Jean-David Calvayrac (1861-1911), was able to beat a horse and a velocipedist in a straight line race, using only those legs and as if being pushed by a motorized force.

Apprentice blacksmith in Mazamet

Born in Esperausses (Tarn) in 1861, nothing predestined this young southerner to become one of the first most popular athletes of his time, capable of bringing together between 5,000 and 10,000 people to witness his exploits.

Born of a weaver father, established in the mountains of Lacaune, he first entered an apprenticeship with a blacksmith in Mazamet. There is definitely boredom there, one must believe. He will soon rather beat the pavement than the iron.

Around Paris in less than three hours

This Belle Epoque Forrest Gump decides, at the age of 19, to force his destiny by offering himself a feat in the capital. For this, he sets out to do better than a young athlete, Mr. Delatone, calling himself the “Man-horse” and a series of performances at well-paid meetings. Jean-David Calvayrac finds a rich American with whom he bet 1,500 francs that he will achieve the Paris – 44 km at the time – in less than three hours.

Calvayrac, who baptized himself the “man-steamer” as if to announce the change of an era in pedestrian performance, ends his turn in 2h58. A sacred performance when we know that the winner of the marathon of the first Olympic Games modern, in Athens in 1896, covered 40 km in 2 h 58 min 50!

The “man-horse” who tried to follow him changed his mind along the way and cut across town to come and applaud him on arrival, with a large crowd.

Staged in the press

The new champion is greeted by a unanimous press to compliment him. “M Calvayrac, from Mazamet “Is described as” not paying much “with the “Slender legs, hollow cheeks and a little hunched back”.

But we must believe that the young runner quickly becomes aware of the popularity that he can derive from the publicity of the gazettes. A month after his exploit in Paris, he himself warns the newspapers that he is taking a new bet: to go around the Place des Fêtes de Clichy three times in 1h50. 2000 people come to applaud him.

He still uses the press to insult his competitors as when he warns an English rider claiming to be in better shape than him that the Cadran Bleu meadow (in Meaux, editor’s note) will be his “tomb”.

He asks for more, the chroniclers too. The meetings are linked, the performances also, the bets even more. Calvayrac goes around the festivals of the Parisian suburbs, and pulverizes all those who try to compete with him for a centimeter of glory. Follows, a “tour” in the provinces that it foams during the summer according to the votive festivals.

Poster announcing the arrival of Jean-David Calvayrac, known as the
Poster announcing the arrival of Jean-David Calvayrac, known as the “man-capeur” and the “strongest runner in the world” in Saint-Ouen near Paris. (© DR)

In Toulouse, he distances three horses and a cyclist

Soon it was rumored in the newspapers that there was not a man daring to come and challenge him and that as a result, he takes the bet to measure himself against a horse.

Toulouse will offer it a meeting to its measure: we transform the Grand-Rond and the alleys (today “Jules-Guesde”) into a giant track. A few days before the exercise, the local press salivates with pleasure.

The distance to be covered for this race will be forty kilometers, represented by 130 times around the enclosure. For greater difficulty, it will be erected two barriers that will have to jump, at each turn; which will make 260 obstacles to overcome. The total of the bets engaged, amounts to 2500 francs. Mr. Calvayrac will fight in this race, against four serious adversaries, including three runners on horseback, and a bicycle rider.

Le Journal de Toulouse (February 24, 1882)

The following Sunday, in front of more than 5000 people, Jean-David Calvayrac triumphs over the horses and the cyclist, completing the 40 km in “two and a half hours”, according to the press.

The fall

But as the races, the “steam man” and the big bets he pocketed arouse vocations. He receives stiffer competition. A new “horse-man” or even a “lightning-man” and even a “rabbit-man” are leveling up and inflicting a few first defeats on him. In July 1883, two too fast horses also forced him to abandon Aurillac.

Worse, other runners take his nickname, including the American William Stewart, probably lured by the juicy bets that the presence of the “steam man” on a race generates. He then uses superlatives to distinguish himself, forcing the press to qualify him as “the greatest runner in the world”, “champion of France”, “winner of the Grand Prix in England and America”.

Soon, no longer succeeding in using the sheer force of his strides, he duped the organizers of meetings where he performed, sometimes under assumed names. He received three convictions so that when he was called up for his military service, he was sent to a disciplinary battalion in Algeria from where he continued to shower the press with promises of new challenges as soon as he returned to France. .

Aeronaut and crook

Returned to civilian life in 1886, he found it difficult to regain his athletic form and became interested infree balloon ballooning. Hot air balloon captain, he launched into the organization of aerostatic festivals throughout France. Above all, he turns out to be a perfect crook, spinning the English way by pocketing only the receipts of meetings co-organized with the host municipalities and leaving to his dupes the care of settling the suppliers. He was sentenced to three months in prison by the Orleans court in 1891.

He was arrested again in the Bordeaux region in 1894 at the request of the Jonzac prosecutor’s office. He is picked up in a balloonist’s full uniform, wearing stripes and looking great. Verdict: six months in prison. He was again arrested the following year for a series of fraud in Pornic and Pornichet.

Relegated to the Cayenne penal colony

The “man-steamer” will finally complete his judicial marathon by a conviction of the court of Châlons-sur-Marne in January 1897. Confirmed by the court of appeal of Paris on March 20, 1897, this is his fourteenth conviction and by far the most uncompromising since he is condemned to a sentence of relegation to forced labor.

He joined Guyana in July 1898 by the boat Le Calédonie and was interned in the penal colony of Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni where he will be condemned two more times, for drunkenness in 1909 then insulting gendarme the following year.

He died in prison on December 27, 1911, in conditions unknown to us and leaving no known descendants.