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Bernarr Macfadden

fitness guru known for the slogan "Weakness is a crime; don't be a criminal!"

Bernarr Macfadden

Early Life

Bernard Adolphus McFadden was born in Mill Spring, Missouri, on August 16, 1868. His father was an abusive alcoholic, and his mother was a melancholy woman in very poor health. Bernard was himself a skinny and very sickly child who at age 7 or 8 almost died as the result of a poorly administered vaccination. By the time he was eleven he had been orphaned and raised in a succession of bad homes. At 11 he was placed with a farmer who wanted someone to do all of the work. Bernard took on and performed the chores with pride, and by the time he left he was a very healthy and strong 13-year-old.

After leaving the farm Bernard spent two years in various office jobs, during which time he realized he was losing the strength and vitality he had gained doing physical work. It was at this time that he decided that the best way to stay healthy was to stay physically fit, so, while working at a variety of jobs in and around St. Louis, he began a daily exercise routine that included walking 3 to 6 miles and the lifting of light weights. He also began working out at a gymnasium and became a highly skilled gymnast. Under the tutelage of former professional wrestler George Baptiste, Bernard became an accomplished wrestler within two years, and even defeated a few heavyweights in public matches (he only weighed about 145 pounds at the time).

At age 18-19, Bernard opened his first studio, which he called Bernard Mcfadden - Kinestherapist - Teacher of Higher Physical Culture; it was the first time the word "kinestherapist," which roughly means "weight lifter" was ever used). It was at this time that he coined what became his trademark slogan, "Weakness is a crime; don't be a criminal!" His studio got a fair amount of business, but Bernard wanted to spread his message about staying fit to stay healthy across the country by writing and publishing books. Unfortunately, his lack of formal education came through in his writings and he could not get published.

In 1889, wanting to improve his writing skills, Bernard began working as a trainer and coach (of wrestling and football) at a military academy in Bunker Hill, Illinois, in exchange for tuition. There, he introduced a training program that included specialized diets, fasts, exercises, hydro-therapy, and a system of massage and manipulation similar to that used by modern chiropractors. He also promoted boxing and wrestling matches. His self-imposed heavy workload did not keep him from accomplishing his initial goal, however, as he also found time to complete an 80,000-word semi-autobiographical novel called The Athlete's Conquest, which was published in 1901.

Early Career

Bernard's first stint as a showman came at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, where he demonstrated an exercise apparatus for a friend. His demonstrations were successful, as was his friend's apparatus. While at the Fair, he also watched renowned strongman Eugen Sandow perform. Sandow's physique impressed him, but not nearly as much as the lighting and staging that accentuated that physique. He also saw many classical sculptures and paintings that idealized the human body, and spent the rest of his life duplicating, and showing off, that ideal as much as possible.

Arriving in New York City, New York, in 1894, Bernard rented two small rooms, one of which he turned into a studio. He then plastered flyers all over the city and was soon a successful personal trainer and physical therapist. It was at this time that he changed his name to Bernarr Macfadden -- Bernarr because it sounded like a lion's roar, Macfadden because it was much more distinctive than McFadden. He also sold an exerciser he designed, competed as a wrestler, taught wrestling, and began publishing pamphlets and booklets on health and physical training. Although he was only in his late twenties, his hair had already begun to thin and his eyesight was beginning to weaken, but he came up with special exercises that overcame both and he enjoyed a full head of hair and perfect vision well into his sixties. Naturally, he published books on how he accomplished both.

Taking his training program overseas, Macfadden toured England in 1897 and 1898. In addition to finding a new market for his program, he also found a company to manufacture and sell his exerciser. He was also approached by many fans wanting to know whether there was a physical culture magazine they could subscribe to.

After returning to New York City, Macfadden decided to establish the magazine his English fans had asked about. The first issue of Physical Culture came out in March of 1899, and the magazine remained in publication for over fifty years; it still holds the record for being the longest running health and fitness magazine in U.S. publishing history. By 1890 the magazine was doing so well that Macfadden was able to move into a new, larger building and establish the Physical Culture Publishing Company. In May of 1919, Macfadden launched True Story, a magazine featuring accounts by readers of Physical Culture on how they overcame personal difficulties via Macfadden's methods. By 1923 it was the largest newsstand seller, and its success spawned several other Macfadden publications, including True Romances, Dream World, True Ghost Stories, Midnight, Dance, True Detective, and Photoplay. Macfadden soon became the most successful publisher of magazines in history, surpassing even William Randolph Hearst, and by 1924 he was a multi-millionaire. By the time he died, Macfadden had authored over 100 books on health, many of which he published himself.

typical Physical Culture article
typical Physical Culture article


Throughout his life, Macfadden earnestly believed that sickness was caused by toxins and low levels of nutrients in the blood, and that germs could only cause illness in persons whose blood was polluted and under-nourished. He believed that poor blood was caused by a poor diet, lack of proper exercise, stale air, a lack of sunshine, the use of tobacco and other substances, and other bad habits. To keep the blood, and therefore the body, healthy, he "preached" a diet rich in fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. While he did not advocate strict vegetarianism, he did stress that meat should be eaten in moderation. He personally abstained from sweets and white bread, only drank whole (unpasteurized and unhomogenized) milk, only ate two meals a day, and advocated fasting on a regular basis (he fasted every Monday).

Macfadden's physical training program was even more extreme than his diet. He himself regularly walked 25-50 miles a day (usually barefoot), and his 325-mile-long "Cracked Wheat Derby" walk was an annual, fairly popular, event for many years. He prescribed calisthenics and training with light weights for most of his customers, regardless of initial complaint. In keeping with his philosophy that breathing good clean air was vital to maintaining good health, Macfadden advocated sleeping with as many windows open as possible; when weather conditions permitted, he took it even further and slept outdoors. Believing that plunging into freezing water in the winter prevented colds, Macfadden is believed to have been the originator of today's "Polar Bear Clubs." His physical training courses also included instructions on how males could enhance their sexual attributes, and he was never shy about letting anyone and everyone know how vigorous his own sex life was (even when he was well into his 70's).

Macfadden's childhood experience with medicine left him with a lifelong distrust of doctors and their medications, but he truly believed that there was no disease or condition his methods couldn't cure. Although many of his "teachings" and practices were extreme, many others are now generally accepted by the medical community, especially his dietary recommendations and the need for regular exercise.

Personal Life

In 1913, Macfadden held a contest in England to select "the most perfect specimen of English womanhood." One of the contestants was 19-year-old Mary Williamson, a champion swimmer. Macfadden fell in love with her physique and she was unanimously declared the winner of the contest. The two were married a couple of months later (he was 45 at the time), after which they embarked on a two-year tour of England as "the world's healthiest man and woman." Returning to America in 1915, the couple initially settled on Long Island, but moved to Nyack, New York, in 1920.

By 1918 Macfadden had six daughters (four with Mary). Although all six of his daughters seemed to readily take to his rigorous physical training, he wanted a boy, so he began looking for natural ways to predetermine the sex of a baby. Whatever he discovered apparently worked, as Mary subsequently bore him three sons in succession (one of whom unfortunately died in infancy). He publicly raised all of his children using his physical culture methods, and was never shy about pulling them into the spotlight to show off their good health and apparent happy dispositions.

the Macfadden family
the Macfadden family

Whether Macfadden's children truly enjoyed their father's physical culture method or not is unknown, but it is known that the Macfadden marriage was not as happy in private as it was in public. The couple separated in 1932, and were divorced in 1946. In 1948, just shy of his 80th birthday, Macfadden married 44-year-old Johnnie Lee, a health counselor and lecturer; this marriage only lasted four years.

Other Business Ventures

In 1905, Macfadden leased 1,900 acres near New Brunswick, New Jersey, and established "Physical Culture City," which he advertised as a place where "people with alert minds could live and thrive in healthy bodies." He expected to attract at least 30,000 settlers, but never had more than about 200 at any given time. Those people who did take advantage of Physical Culture City appeared to truly enjoy its great open spaces and seemingly endless opportunities for outdoor and indoor exercise, but neighboring residents were horrified at the scantily dressed, sometimes naked, residents of the "city" and complained to officials. In 1907, Macfadden was found guilty of violating a federal obscenity law and was sentenced to two years hard labor and fined $2,000. In 1909, President William Howard Taft signed a pardon on his behalf, but the fine was never removed. Mounting legal costs and minimal profits finally forced him to abandon the project.

Although Physical Culture City was already straining his company's finances, Macfadden opened a sanatorium at Battle Creek, Michigan, in 1907, in direct competition to the sanatorium operated by the Kellogg Brothers. In 1909, he closed the Battle Creek facility and moved its resources to the former Lakeside Club on Chicago's South Side, in what was also his Physical Culture Training School. He dropped all formal connections with the sanatorium in 1911 and turned all of its operations over to Susie Wood, who continued to operate it as the International Healthatorium until after World War II.

In 1924, Macfadden established The New York Evening Graphic, a newspaper not unlike today's National Enquirer and similar publications. It was Macfadden's belief that, like himself, the general public preferred "low-brow" news over that published in more traditional papers, and it turned out he was right. The Graphic soon became one of the most popular newspapers ever, but that popularity was not reflected in its advertising accounts as few major companies were willing to associate themselves with the assortment of gossip and sensationalism the paper featured. Macfadden pumped over $10 million of his company's money into the paper believing that he could make the paper so popular that advertisers would begin begging for space, but by 1932 he was forced to throw in the towel and shut it down.

In 1928, Macfadden purchased the Castle Heights Military Academy in Lebanon, Tennessee, which he made into a model of his educational philosophy, where character development and physical culture are just as important as academics. Macfadden maintained an active interest in the school for many years, and visited it often. One of his few business ventures to survive more than a few years, Castle Heights continued to operate under direction of the Bernarr Macfadden Foundation until 1986, when declining enrollments following the Vietnam War finally forced it to shut down.

The Jackson Sanatorium at Dansville, New York, was opened by Dr. James Caleb Jackson, a nutritionist and practitioner of hydrotherapy who is also known as the developer of "Granula," the first cold cereal, in 1883. The sanatorium had been in decline for a few years when Macfadden purchased it in 1929. He then spent millions of dollars turning the sanatorium into the Physical Culture Hotel, which soon became a haven for celebrities and the well-to-do. The resort offered a number of health therapies, but also emphasized recreation and social activities such as swimming, sunbathing, tennis, and dancing. Macfadden turned control over the resort to his foundation in 1932. He also owned the Hotel Deauville in Miami Beach for several years, as well as Arrowhead Springs Hotel and Spa near Los Angeles.

In addition to all of his business interests, Macfadden was also involved in politics. He was the first to propose that the President should have a Secretary of Health in his Cabinet, but his proposal constantly fell on deaf ears. Believing that there were too many laws, he used his publications to promote himself as an ideal political candidate, and used company money to finance his campaigns for Mayor of New York, Governor of Florida, and even President of the United States. None of his campaigns ever came close to a successful conclusion, due in large part to his habit of not caring how he dressed or spoke.

Macfadden's constant use of corporation money for his personal gain resulted in several lawsuits, and in 1941 he agreed to relinquish all interest in the corporation.

Later Life

By the time he was in his 70's Macfadden had lost most of his muscle mass and almost looked emaciated, but he frequently gave lectures while standing on his head, still participated in his "Cracked Wheat Derby," and could still outperform men half his age when it came to calisthenics. He celebrated his 81st, 82nd, and 83rd birthdays by parachuting from an airplane over Dansville.

Macfadden celebrating his 83rd birthday
Macfadden celebrating his 83rd  birthday

By the time Macfadden reached the age of 84, however, much of his vitality had been sapped. He had lost most of his resorts, had spent a short time in jail for failing to pay alimony, and was still facing numerous lawsuits stemming from his business dealings. To make matters worse, ex-wife Mary published a scathing "tell-all" book that year in which she accused him of being both a lousy husband and bad father. For the first time since his childhood he began complaining about his health, but he refused medical attention. In 1955 he developed a urinary tract blockage, which he tried to cure by fasting. He was rushed by ambulance to a Jersey City, New Jersey, hospital on October 7 after losing consciousness, and died there on October 12.

The publication company that Macfadden started in 1890 continued on without him, and is now the Macfadden Communications Group.


The Golden Age of Iron Men

See Also

1893 Chicago World's Fair
President William Howard Taft
World War II

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The Robinson Library >> Physical Fitness

This page was last updated on August 16, 2018.