Dec 03, 2018 News
The Mighty Joe Young is long gone. But old-timers still tell stories of the cripple who could punch-out a jeep-load of policemen and walk a tight-rope on his knees.
And before he passed away, he would regale listeners with his hell-raising days in Brazil…Suriname…Cayenne. He would talk about the women, including the one he tried to shoot with a bow and arrow…and about his near-fatal encounter with a serpent, which gave rise to the legend of the Mighty Joe Young…
He was born Winslow Stoute in April 8, 1927, in Maria’s Lodge, Essequibo, the tenth of 14 children.
He was different from the others, though, from head to knees, he was a healthy child. But his legs were those of a baby’s. They would remain that way for the rest of his life; too weak to support his weight.
When his parents died, he went to live with a sister. But she found it difficult to bring up the young man; and crippled, but fiercely independent, the lad decided to make himself useful. So at the age of eleven, he was hustling at the riverside to earn a small-piece, helping fishermen separate the shrimp from their other catch.
His dream then was to land a partnership with a fishing crew. But the fishermen were reluctant to employ a young man who could only move around on his knees.
“You ain’t got no feet, so you can’t get same pay wid we,” they would tell him.
But he continued working at odd jobs and he was eventually given a job as a cook with a gold-mining crew. That stint in the bush changed him forever.
It all happened one day in ’52, when he was in camp cleaning fish near to the Essequibo River. Unknown to the young man, the smell of the gutted fish had attracted a huge ‘camoodie’. The serpent had concealed itself among the fish in the cleaning pit, and when the crippled youth came close, it struck. Within seconds, he was being crushed in its coils. “Fortunately, there was another man in the camp,” the Mighty Joe Young recalled. He had a shotgun and he was able to shoot the snake, which measured 21 feet three inches.”
But the near-death encounter had left him badly injured. He was forced to leave the bush. A doctor advised him to exercise to fully recuperate and soon he was on a daily regimen of weight-lifting.
His arms and chest filled out rapidly, but his stunted legs remained the same.
Around that time, too, his life took another turn when the circus movie, “The greatest Show on Earth” came to local theatres. The sight of somersaulting acrobats and high-wire performers made him yearn for the same applause.
“I became jealous and I asked myself, ‘Why I can’t do these things?’ I began to train. Practising alone, he began with simple tricks, such as hand-balancing, but then, with his newfound upper-body strength, and a growing realisation that he was a gifted stunt-man, he was soon balancing objects on his chin…bottles, chairs, then bicycles. Next, he was lifting barbells with his teeth.
He literally stumbled on his high-wire act, when he almost tripped over a length of wire stretched across the ground. “But instead of falling, I found myself balancing on the wire and I thought: ‘I can do this.’”
So, fitting a spongy material used by high-wire performers to his knees, he was soon treading a high-wire suspended 20 feet above the ground. By 1953, his act was one of the top draws at schools and theatres around the country. His repertoire of tricks became even more spectacular. At a school in Uitvlugt, he walked across a stage, clutching a small table in his teeth. He changed his shirt and opened and drank from a bottle while walking a tight-rope.
His spectacular feats moved Guyanese folklorist Roy Brummell to immortalize him in a short story.
“Once of the tight-rope, the Mighty Joe Young slowly opened his arms like two wings of control and balance,” Brummell wrote.
“He made his first move and the rope of tension seemed to tighten, daring him to move again.”
His fame grew. Soon he was touring Suriname…then French Guiana…then Brazil. Fortune came his way. Unfortunately, so did the drinks and the women.
“I had a weakness for the women, he admitted with a chuckle. When I was on tour, from the time I spot a woman I like, I had to get her. I would throw the money around and most times, the girl would agree. But then, there would be a boyfriend or a husband to stop her and I would hunt him out. Most of the fights would end with the police coming. One time, four cops tried to put me out of a beer garden. I refused to leave, because I hadn’t finished drinking yet. I ended up beating them, but they were too ashamed to report the matter.
“I was very strong then. I could just spring off the ground into a man’s chest. Now I wonder where I got that strength from.”
He got a licking in Brazil, though.
“I was drinking in a saloon when some Brazilians started to ‘tantalise’ me. A fight started and a cop was injured. Two jeeps with policemen came and they had balata staffs. They beat me from the saloon to the lockups.
“I made a lot of money while touring Brazil. But I was ‘spreading joy’.
I stayed in the best hotels in keeping with my image of a successful performer.
Most times, I would be broke and stranded. I also lost a lot of money and my belongings during a boating accident.”
At one point, broke and desperate, he passed himself off as an ‘obeah man’. He found willing clients in Brazilian miners, who, having witnessed his acrobatic feats, were sure he was blessed with occult powers.
The cash flowed again, until a group of irate ex-customers cornered him in a saloon one night. They lassoed the imposter and were about to throw him into a river when a St. Lucian friend turned up and saved him.
Next stop, French Guiana. But more trouble was waiting for him there. It came in the form of a smooth-skinned girl named Lorancia. He persuaded the girl to leave her parents’ home and fabricated a contract, which claimed that the young woman was part of his act.
But the authorities weren’t fooled. The police destroyed the ‘contract’ and took the young woman into custody.
The Mighty Joe Young threw a tantrum. “I demanded that they gave her back. I warned them that if I didn’t get her back by 5:00 p.m., I would design the streets of Cayenne with blood. I bet up one policeman but then others came and those were armed. They ordered me into a jeep. I sprang over a fence and landed next to a huge dog. I sprang back over and gave myself up. They told me that a Pan American flight was leaving for British Guiana. They warned me not to miss the plane if I wanted to live.”
The Mighty Joe Young caught the flight and returned to BG after five years overseas. He had made a fortune, but now he only had ten dollars. To raise money, he held shows at schools. But the long South American tour; the liquor, the fights had taken their toll. Many who had revered him now called him a ‘has-been…washed-up’.
But he would show them all, he thought. Their adulation would be his again. He would do a trapeze act.
He began training immediately. Twenty feet above the earth he swung, gripping the trapeze bar. Then he let go, hurling himself through space towards another bar several feet away.
But all be brushed was air, then he was plunging downwards, crashing to the earth below.
The career of the Might Joe Young had ended.
“I fell on my head and injured my right shoulder. I had to seek treatment for a year.”
In 1964, broke and unable to find employment, he sought refuge on a small, deserted island in the Essequibo River, some seven miles from Bartica.
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