Joe Call, The Lewis Giant by Maitland C. De Sormo is a short biography of a 19th century strongman living in the Champlain Valley. He was known in his heyday as the “Modern Hercules” and the “Lewis Giant” and was recognized for performing several feats of spectacular strength. How much of a tall tale the Lewis Giant has become you must determine for yourself.
Exploits of the Lewis Giant
In 1781, Joseph Call was born into a family of reportedly large and strong relatives, including a sister who was described as an Amazon almost equal to Joe in strength (24). Call was born in Vermont and came to Lewis, NY, in his twenties. He lived in the Champlain Valley the rest of his life. He married twice and had several children.
The Lewis Giant’s fame as a wrestler was well-known and several challengers arrived to attempt to defeat him, but only one man ever threw him–Abraham Chase–and that fact is inscribed on his tombstone in Willsboro’s Memorial Cemetery!
Often the Lewis Giant would intimidate would-be challengers and win without even having a match; there is one story that tells how a man asked Call as he was plowing a field where to find the Lewis Giant. Call picked up his plow with one hand and pointed the way to his home, and another occasion (or version) has Call picking up his ox to point the way (39)!
The Lewis Giant was served in a militia during the War of 1812 and fought in the Battle of Bouquet. Call’s fame was apparently known to the British who had a strongman of their own, and when the opportunity arose a match was proposed. Insults were thrown and Call agreed. After winning the first round the Lewis Giant realized he was having to give his full strength to defeat his opponent, and realizing that this was a life or death match he gave it his all and put the British man in a strong hold. When the Lewis Giant let go, the man was dead (47).
Another occasion or possible version of this tale describes a scheduled match with a Vermonter from another regiment that was highly bet on, and the other man was accidentally killed when his ribs were torn from his backbone by Call’s overwhelming strength in the last bout (49).
In his later years the Lewis Giant fought less and devoted himself more to business. He gradually gained a modest estate through the operation of sawmills and logging contracts. He purchased the Donaghy Mill site on Trout River and a small community known as Callsville emerged there. It consisted of a mill, schoolhouse, store, and a few other homes and buildings (56). The construction of the Northway’s exit 32 destroyed the settlement and only a few cellar holes remain today (57).
Joe Call in Essex, NY
As proof of Call’s almost superhuman strength H.P. Smith stated in his History of Essex County that he had seen a section of timber 50 feet long and 10 inches square, now forming the plate of Judge Ross’s stone store in Essex, which timber, it is said, Call had dragged with one end on his shoulder a distance of 20 rods, then up an inclined staging to the top of the wall and finally placed it in its present position. (40)
Another story tells of some trouble the Lewis Giant experienced while crossing Lake Champlain on a steam powered ferry. Perhaps it was at our very own Essex-Charlotte crossing? Call was on the ship and spit some tobacco juice onto the deck. The captain got upset and told him not to do it again; perhaps not liking the captain’s tone the Lewis Giant spat again, and the captain ordered him arrested. However, comically every crewman who got close to Call was thrown overboard! The captain rescinded his order and the Lewis Giant refrained from spitting again having made his point (50).
Legend after Death
In his later years, the Lewis Giant moved to Westport, to give his children better educational opportunities, and it was there that he died at the age of 54. He developed a carbuncle in his neck, and though a doctor was sent for, Call grew worse through the end of summer and died on September 20, 1835.
It was five years after the Lewis Giant’s death that a local journalist, Anson H. Allen, began publishing “whimsical and occasionally fanciful” accounts of Call’s career and great deeds, and many North Country newspapers reprinted and spread these stories (19-20).
Unquestionably, Call was an exceptionally powerful man and a formidable wrestler so even if he did not quite live up to the legends that evolved around him he evidently rated his reputation as the most talked-about Champlain Valley resident of all time. (13)
- Vintage Brochure: Visit Essex on Lake Champlain (www.essexonlakechamplain.com)
- Merchant Row Mansions in Essex, NY (www.essexonlakechamplain.com)
- John Bird Burnham: Conservationist and Adventurer
- Rob Ivy: Rattlesnake Increase and Essex Dissolution (www.essexonlakechamplain.com)