Testing the “strength” of a local legend

Elmer Bitgood and his back press board weighted with stones in Voluntown, CT. Findagrave.com account of William Molis, Jr.
Elmer Bitgood and his back press board weighted with stones in Voluntown, CT. Findagrave.com account of William Molis, Jr.

Voluntown, a small eastern Connecticut town of just over two thousand, was once home to a national legend who is all but forgotten today. From January 1869 until 23 July 1938,[1] it was the home of Elmer G. Bitgood, a man many locals claimed was the strongest man in the world. I was intrigued and wanted to investigate further.

Stories abound about the strength of Elmer Bitgood, who spent his entire life living and working on his family’s farm in Voluntown. Separating the truth from local folklore was increasingly difficult, even during Elmer’s lifetime, as residents of the area took a certain pride in their hometown Samson. By the 1920s, Bitgood’s fame had grown to national proportions, as articles detailing his exploits appeared in newspapers from New Orleans to Evansville, Indiana, to Rhinelander, Wisconsin.[2] Because he refused all offers to join circuses and museums, he became the focus of many stories throughout eastern Connecticut.

Allegedly Elmer could lift 2,600 pounds clear off the ground, eat four to five roast chickens in one sitting, and carry a full-grown bull on his shoulders.[3] His neighbors, friends, and family loved to tell these stories; in fact, Elmer’s brother, Jessie, was known to tell of his brother’s ability long after Elmer’s death.

What was tall tale and what was fact? According to the 1900 census, Elmer was living on the farm of his father, Charles M. Bitgood, and working at a local sawmill.[4] The 1917 Connecticut Military Survey provides the most insightful information, giving Elmer’s occupation as “none in particular” and telling us that, at the age of 50, he stood 5 feet 8 inches tall and weighed 325 pounds. He had some experience riding a horse, but no experience with electrical machinery.[5]

One of the more prominent pieces of evidence pointing toward Elmer’s immense strength lies on the grounds of the Nieminen Farm in Voluntown. There visitors will find large homemade stone barbells, the heaviest of which reportedly weighs 1,225 pounds. Owner Arthur Nieminen, who acquired them from the Bitgood homestead, has refused offers to sell them and maintains that they should remain a part of the local heritage. Documentation that Elmer used them is lacking, however.[6]

With the resources currently available to family historians, now more than ever we can attempt to uncover the truth about local legends such as Elmer, allowing us to get a better understanding of the time in which they lived. Elmer has been revered as a local legend for more than 100 years, and perhaps the evidence that Elmer Bitgood did exist and was a man of great size will fuel the search for solid evidence of his great feats of strength.

 Notes

[1] Charles M. Bitgood household, 1900 U.S. Census, Voluntown, New London, Conn., roll 150, ED 490, p. 3B; New London Directory (Prince and Lee Co., 1939), 128, entry for Elmer G. Bitgood.

[2] “Eat Barrel of Crackers: Two Connecticut Boys Consumer Fifty Pounds on Twelve-Hour Trip,” Times-Picayune (New Orleans, La.), 14 Feb. 1926, p. 15; “Elmer G. Bitgood of Vernon, Conn.,” Evansville [Ind.] Courier and Press, 1 Jan. 1922, p. 8; “Boys Consume Barrel of Crackers on Ride,” The Rhinelander [Wisc.] Daily News, 12 Feb. 1926, p. 4.

[3] “Elmer G. Bitgood of Vernon, Conn.,” Evansville Courier and Press (Evansville, Ind.), 1 Jan. 1922, p. 8; John D. Fair, “The Search for Elmer Bitgood: The Paul Bunyan of New England,” Iron Game History (Oct. 1998):9, 12, online at http://library.la84.org/SportsLibrary/IGH/IGH0502/IGH0502c.pdf.

[4] Charles M. Bitgood household, 1900 U.S. Census, Voluntown, New London, Conn., roll 150, ED 490, p. 3B.

[5] Connecticut Military Census, Form No. 1, Record No. 141645, Elmer G. Bitgood, 20 Feb. 1917.

[6] Fair, “The Search for Elmer Bitgood,” p. 7.

About Zachary Garceau

Zachary J. Garceau is a former researcher at the New England Historic Genealogical Society. He joined the research staff after receiving a Master's degree in Historical Studies with a concentration in Public History from the University of Maryland-Baltimore County and a B.A. in history from the University of Rhode Island. He was a member of the Research Services team from 2014 to 2018, and now works as a technical writer. Zachary also works as a freelance writer, specializing in Rhode Island history, sports history, and French Canadian genealogy.

5 thoughts on “Testing the “strength” of a local legend

  1. I think that even the vast majority of the people here in Voluntown don’t know who Elmer was. Truth be told I happened to read about him in an old issue of ‘Yankee” magazine many years ago before I even moved here to Voluntown in 1989.

    The Bitgood Family is still here today and Elmer rests in the local cemetery in the center of town. Quite a fascinating story. In addition thatnk you for asking beforehand and giving credit for the photograph. Your blog is terrific and is bookmarked. Please keep up the outstanding work!

  2. I am a descendant of Jesse Bitgood mentioned in your article. Jesse and Elmer were sons of Charles W(orden) Bitgood. I have many, many photos of Elmer and other family members and have visited Voluntown many times. Thanks for your article.

    1. I would love to get any of those pictures! Elmer is a descendant of my wife Alice Bitgood. We live in Arizona, but we went to Voluntown last year and took pictures of all the Bitgood graves. We also found the family cemetery in out in the woods where the Revolutionary War Bitgood’s are buried. We talked to a nearly 100 year old local historian who knew all the Bitgood’s, including Elmer. He had stories about the stone barbells. He said some of them were taken to Texas somewhere… Supposedly the Bitgood’s are gone from there now. But a huge percentage of the cemetery are Bitgood’s.

      1. Thank you for your response to my comment. I would be happy to send you a few pictures of Elmer if you send me your email address. Since Elmer did not have any children, can you send me the names of Alice’s ancestor connections to Elmer?

      2. I am a descendant of Samuel B Bitgood and I have been searching for his cemetery marker and homestead location for months with no success. If you still know the location I would be gratefu.

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