The Great Antonio's Personal Archives: A Sizable Acquisition! - McCord Museum
The Great Antonio souvenir, Montreal, QC, about 1985. Gift of Mme Élise Gravel, M2017.37.2.417 © McCord Museum

The Great Antonio’s Personal Archives: A Sizable Acquisition!

The personal papers of legendary Montreal strongman, the Great Antonio, enter the McCord's archives.

Eugénie Marcil, former Curator, Textual Archives, McCord Museum

July 13, 2017

Thanks to a generous donation from author and illustrator Élise Gravel, the McCord Museum’s collection was recently enriched by numerous textual and iconographic documents once belonging to Anton Barichievich, better known as the Great Antonio.

Born in Europe in 1925, this modern-day Samson came to Canada at the age of 20. Aware of his extraordinary powers, he entered various strongman exhibitions and was recognized by The Guinness Book of Records in 1952 for having pulled a 433-tonne train along 19.8 metres of track. In 1956, he dragged a Chevrolet attached to his hair and, in 1960, he pulled four buses full of passengers along Montreal’s St. Catherine Street. He hit his peak in the 1960s and 1970s, when he also worked as a professional wrestler. He travelled around the world, attracting crowds in Japan by fighting three, four or five men at a time.

Measuring 6’4″ (1.93 m) and weighing 495 pounds (225 kg), the Great Antonio wore size 28 shoes and was famous for his distinctive appearance: baggy clothes, shaggy beard and long unkempt hair. With his “gentle giant” persona, he appeared on various popular TV shows like The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and in several films, notably the international hit Quest for Fire (1981), a France-Canada co-production directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud.

In the 1990s, the “strongest man in the world,” as he liked to call himself, gradually disappeared from the public eye. The Great Antonio lived in the borough of Rosemont and hung out in downtown metro stations where he sold signed photographs and photomontages of his past exploits for a few dollars. He died of a heart attack in 2003, at the age of 77. As he had no known family, the cost of his burial was covered by an anonymous donation to the Sun Youth Organization. The day of his funeral, some 3,000 people came to pay their respects.

From triumph to poverty, the Great Antonio enjoyed a life and career that captured the collective imagination. One of many Quebec strongmen in the tradition of Louis Cyr, he was exceptional for his strong personality and marginal status. The archives of this colourful figure chronicle his career and exploits. It contains correspondence, work contracts, business cards, and wrestling show programs and posters featuring the names of the wrestlers who shared the ring with him, from Pat O’Connor to Maurice “Mad Dog” Vachon, Buddy Rogers and Édouard Carpentier.

Over 500 photographs and numerous informative press clippings also illustrate that the Great Antonio was a self-proclaimed public relations expert. For four decades, he leveraged his fame to enter the national and international jet set, rubbing shoulders with the biggest stars of the day like Maurice Richard, Michael Jackson, Clint Eastwood, Sophia Loren, Luciano Pavarotti, Liza Minnelli, Alain Delon, Jean-Paul Belmondo and Tom Jones.

The Great Antonio, about 1960. Gift of Mme Élise Gravel, M2017.37.2.221 © McCord Museum
Antonio Barichievich, about 1950. Gift of Mme Élise Gravel, M2017.37.2.220 © McCord Museum
The Great Antonio and Nana Mouskouri, Montreal, about 1985. Gift of Élise Gravel, M2017.37.2.220 © McCord Museum
The Great Antonio and Muhammad Ali, about 1980. Gift of Mme Élise Gravel, M2017.37.2.177 © McCord Museum
The Great Antonio, about 1960. Gift of Mme Élise Gravel, M2017.37.2.222 © McCord Museum

This new acquisition will enable the McCord Museum to preserve and celebrate the memory of this great Montreal legend. Soon, researchers from all disciplines will be able to consult the Great Antonio fonds through the Museum’s Archives and Documentation Centre.

About the author

Eugénie Marcil, former Curator, Textual Archives, McCord Museum

Eugénie Marcil, former Curator, Textual Archives, McCord Museum