“Weakness is a crime. Don’t be a criminal.”
Born Bernard Adolphus McFadden in Mill Spring, Missouri August 16, 1868, sickly and into a poor, dysfunctional family, none would have suspected someday he would become Bernarr Macfadden a muscleman multi-millionaire.
His father was an abusive drunk who died in 1874 from delirium tremens.. Bernard’s mother suffered from depression and died of tuberculosis. Both parents passed away before Bernard was 11. His mother destitute and unable to care for Bernard, put him in an orphanage prior to tuberculosis ending her life. He spent a year there before being shuffled from one relative to another.
He overheard one relative say he was so sickly he would die soon like his mother. That comment sparked a desire in him to become strong and healthy. At age 11, relatives gave him to a farmer who needed someone to do his farm work. The outdoor labor became a pivotal point in his health. After 2 years of farm labor, which he thrived on, he grew into a robust child.
In his early teens, he worked in an office. His farm boy strength benefits fading, he bought a set of dumbbells to exercise with and began walking 3-6 miles a day. Walking became his favorite exercise, one he did all his life along with calisthenics and working out with light weights. He joined a gymnasium and became highly proficient in gymnastics. A couple of years later, he trained under a champion wrestler and matured into an excellent wrestler.
After his office job, he worked at various odd jobs, one in a print shop that gave him experience he later used to build a publishing empire. In a library, he studied fitness related subjects, fasting, whole foods, drug free treatments and so forth.
In 1887 he opened a health center with the title “Bernard Mcfadden – Kinestherapist – Teacher of Higher Physical Culture.” That beginning of his work in fitness and health led to many remarkable accomplishments in the years that followed.
Some Of Bernarr Macfadden Many Accomplishments
In 1889, he realized his scant education and his poor spelling and grammar held him back from the kind of recognition and success he hungered for. In exchange for tuition, he worked as a football and wrestling coach at a military academy in Bunker Hill, Illinois. He won many awards for his coaching and became a popular figure at the academy.
While at the academy, he wrote an 80,000 word novel. The Athlete’s Conquest. He also promoted boxing and wrestling matches between his coaching duties, his studies and his writing.
In 1894, at age 26, he moved to New York with $50. He set up a studio for personal training and physical therapy, advertised his services all over New York and soon gained a clientele. He changed his name from Bernard to Bernarr because it sounded more masculine and reminded him of a lion’s roar. He changed his last name to Macfadden believing it was more distinctive.
He designed and sold an exercise device with rubber strands, weights and a wall pulley.
Along with running his fitness business, he fought as a professional wrestler and taught wrestling classes. He published pamphlets and books on his exercise methods and philosophies.
He toured England from 1897 to 1898 giving lectures and posing demonstrations in various classical poses of his muscled and defined physique. One of his astounding demonstrations was to recline on the stage floor and have his wife jump off a 7 foot ladder and bounce off his stomach like bounding off a trampoline.
He returned to New York in 1899, did a lecture tour across America, and established Physical Culture Centers in various cities.
From 1899 to 1905 he wrote 14 books and published a monthly fitness magazine Physical Culture that lasted 50 years and sold millions of copies. He also published a fitness magazine for women Beauty & Health.
He founded the Coney Island Polar Bear Club in 1893 where participants still gather and take dips and swim in freezing winter water.
In 1904 he organized bodybuilding contests for men and women. One of the notable winners was Macfadden’s “Most Perfectly Developed Man” title holder. None other than Charles Atlas the inventor of the Atlas Dynamic Tension course.
He bought property in a remote area of new Jersey in 1905 and started a city devoted to physical culture, Physical Culture City.
In the same year, he established a Health Institute whose graduates found work in coaching and health fields.
In 1910 he opened 20 health food restaurants called Penny Restaurants where people could buy health food meals at low prices.
Macfadden published his greatest work in 1911, the 3,000 page Macfadden’s Encyclopedia of Physical Culture.
In 1919 he expanded his publishing empire to include a new magazine True Story consisting of true stories by readers about their trials and tribulations. It found instant fame and sold 2 million copies by 1926. He published other magazines after that: True Romances, Dream World, True Ghost Stories, Midnight, Dance, True Detective, Photoplay, and many more and became the most successful magazine publisher in American publishing history.
He published several newspapers. One, The New York Evening Graphic, a forerunner of tabloids, featured stories of sex and sensationalism. Critics called it The Evening Pornographic.
In 1928 he bought Castle Heights Military Academy in Lebanon, Tennessee and included many of his health and fitness teachings and character development into the school’s curriculum.
Macfadden purchased a sanatorium in 1929 and refurbished it into a resort hotel with high class accommodations that attracted the rich and famous.
In 1930 he established a charitable foundation that funded many causes.
Unfortunately, despite his many accomplishments and the millions of dollars he made, near the end of his life he was beset with financial and legal problems that began to diminish his money and erode his fame. He died in 1955 at age 87 from a urinary tract infection that he refused medical help with. He had a lifelong distrust of doctors after one nearly killed him with a botched vaccination in his youth.
Macfadden lived a long, rags to riches life influencing millions of people on two continents to exercise and enjoy better health. Not bad for a sickly kid born into poverty and unhappiness.
“Winston Churchill has said that all the famous men of his acquaintance were the products of an unhappy childhood. Macfadden cannot remember having had even a moderately cheerful day before he was twenty.”
- Robert Lewis Taylor, New Yorker, October 14, 1950
Additional Information About Macfadden:
1. The photo you see at the top of this post is not one of his best. He looks bigger and more muscular in other photos. It was the only photo I could find that I was sure was in the public domain and free to us.
2. Macfadden, though obscenely rich, always wore old clothes.
3. He was super dynamic often working 16 hour days on many projects.
4. Though he had his failings and some failed businesses, his sole ambition was to educate people everywhere on the value of living wholesome, healthy lives. To that end, he devoted his life with incomparable zeal.
5. Supposedly, he often walked barefoot and cut holes in his shoes to gain sex power from his feet having contact with the earth. It might have worked. He was a ravenous, lady’s man.
6. He married 4 times and had 8 children. 6 of the children had names beginning with the letter “B”.
7. Everyday he did 25 exercises and stood on his head.
8. Macfadden always ate raw egg mixed with cottage cheese, carrots, vegetable and lemon juice for breakfast.
9. He walked barefoot 5 or 6 miles everyday to his office in Central Park New York hauling a 40 pound sandbag on his back.
10. He sang while he worked out.
11. Macfadden was an an advocate of Fasting and fasted throughout his life.
12. He wrote over 100 books.
13. When people met his they were surprised he was shorter than they expected. He was only 5’6″ tall, weighing around 145 pounds, but he built a powerful, well-defined, muscular body and had boundless energy as well as a magnetic personality.
14. He never slept in a bed, preferring a hard floor and believing it more healthy for the spine.
15. Macfadden was friends or acquaintances with many celebrities of his era: Shirley Temple, Clark Gable, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Will Rogers, and Rudolph Valentino ….
16. At age 80, he parachuted out of a plane and continued that practice each succeeding birthday.
17. After he passed away, his fourth wife claimed he had buried millions of dollars in steel cartridge boxes at secret locations in different parts of America. Though many who knew him scoffed at that claim, in 1960, $89,000 was found in a steel cartridge box on property once owned by Macfadden in Long Island.
For a more detailed account of his life with many photos and fascinating memorabilia, see Bernarr Macfadden (1868 – 1955), the “Father of Physical Culture”.
Image credit: Wikipedia
“Bernarr Macfadden.” Wikipedia. www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bernarr_Macfadden (accessed April 23, 2014)
“Bernarr Macfadden (1868 – 1955), the ‘Father of Physical Culture’.” bernarrmacfadden.com. www.bernarrmacfadden.com (accessed April 23, 2014)
“Bernarr McFadden.” A History of Self-Resistance Exercise. www.angelfire.com/ny5/shenandoah/OBB/History.html (accessed April 23, 2014)
“Mr. America.” The Wall Street Journal. www.online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB123748259690186221 (accessed April 23, 2014)
“Mr. America.” Harper Collins Publishers. www.harpercollins.com/browseinside/index.aspx?isbn13=9780060594756 (accessed April 23, 2014)
“Screwball Macfadden Died (holes in his hat) Died A Millionaire.” Sandowplus.com. www.sandowplus.co.uk/Macfadden/obit.htm (accessed April 23, 2014)