The first Canadian women to use their athletic bodies and get a wage for it were in the circus.
Trapeze artists, human cannonballs, and strongwomen went to work even though the pay was crummy, the employment was precarious, and the circumstances were usually demeaning. Compared to other jobs for women then, the big top was a pretty good option.
Montreal’s Louise Armaindo was a true daughter of the circus. A pistol-packing, cocaine and strychnine fuelled badass. Her story is one for the ages. Armaindo became the dominant bike racer of her day — and certainly one of Canada’s very first pro women athletes. Almost everything we know about Louise Armaindo now is thanks to professor emeritus in sports, Ann Hall, from the University of Alberta in Edmonton. She put years into researching early sportswomen for her book ‘Muscle on Wheels’ which is the basis of practically every substantial thought and fact in this essay.
Like most circus folk, Louise Armaindo lived by her stage name. She was born Louisa Brisbois or perhaps Brisebois, probably on Oct. 12, 1860, in St. Anne de Bellevue on the island of Montreal. Armaindo took her stage identity a step further and also cooked up her own bio and backstory.
Her mother was a circus strongwoman and her dad was a voyageur. Fans of Stompin’ Tom Connor’s classic ‘Big Joe Mufferaw’ may know the song was based on an actual Quebecois voyageur named Joseph Montferrand, who was an ornery giant of a man. Montferrand picked fights with whole groups of men, sometimes for money, sometimes just because he felt like it. He had a sister named Helene, which was Louise’s mum’s name. It is probably not true, but Louise Armaindo liked to say that Montferrand was her uncle. She wisecracked that it took six men just to lift his hat.
Louise Armaindo was born strong. By the age of 18 she could dead lift 760 pounds. She had a harness contraption that allowed her to hoist four men off the ground with her teeth. From too early for the historic record to show, she was on the trapeze. We don’t know what tricks she could do, or how long exactly that gig lasted. It was obviously dangerous work and the pay was rotten. So somewhere around the mid 1870s, she went to Chicago. There have been French Canadians in that city from the very beginning. Armaindo ditched the trapeze and got into marathon walking, which was weirdly popular in the 1870s.
The grueling life of a pedestrienne
In March of 1879, Louise Armaindo entered a ten-mile walking race. Betting was the main raison d’etre for public sport then, and we know that about 1500 people showed up to lay their money on this one. Armaindo came third. Somewhere around the time of that race, she crossed paths with Tom Eck, a fellow Canadian, and a good athlete himself. His resume included cricket, running, skating, a stint as a jockey, and finally professional cycling. He was the first man to ride 100 miles in less than six hours. Eck was also Tom Longboat’s trainer for a while — but that’s another story. Eck became Armaindo’s promoter. Maybe her husband too, but there’s no proof of that. Armaindo and Eck went around the U.S.A. together, entering and sometimes organizing indoor track walking contests and demonstrations.
Marathon walking women, so called pedestriennes, attracted big audiences. That might seem admirable, ahead of its time, maybe, but there was an unpleasant undercurrent to the attraction. The long walking contests were horrifying, sometimes month-long endurance feats. Even in the shorter six-day races, walking per se wasn’t the draw so much as the spectacle of suffering. Near total sleep deprivation and fatigue left participants hallucinating, delirious, walking corpses. The events were so grueling that there were protests against it, even back then. It was a vehicle for gambling, sure, but it was also a theatre of cruelty. New York City banned marathon walking because the races were “offensive to the sense of propriety and decency, demoralizing on community, and cruel and inhuman for participants.”
As marathon walking matured, audiences faded. The trouble was, the best race-winning strategy was to plod along at a dull pace, saving energy for the only sprint-y bit, which was at the very end. Audiences understandably got bored watching a handful of people walking around at an unhurried tempo for days on end. Crowds sought more bang for their betting buck. The pedestriennes needed to up their games. Louise Armaindo liked a new challenge.
Moving to high wheel racing
After her rootless years of pedestrienne racing, Armaindo and Tom Eck moved back to Chicago. While they were there, the brand new business of High Wheel Racing began. These were the big front wheel, tiny back wheel, ‘penny farthing’ machines. Tricky to hop aboard, downright dangerous to race. All the racers in those early years were men. But towards the end of 1879, San Francisco saw the first known women’s race. Three women, in a two-hour contest, the winner of which was declared “The Champion Lady Bicycle Rider of California.”
There was an ugly class divide between amateurs and professionals in sport back then. To be a professional athlete was to attract insulting scorn from the always upper class amateurs. Among male cyclists, the pro-am divide was very bitter. Professor Hall raised her voice as we were talking about this:
“It's incredible how much anger there was with the divide between the professionals and the amateur men. But women never became part of that divide. They were only professionals. Women never raced amateur. There's no evidence whatsoever of amateur races in the high wheel for women. None.”
As soon as women’s cycling emerged as a paying sport, Louise Armaindo put her feet to the pedals, and learned to ride high wheel bikes. By 1881 she was doing show riding for the Wilkinson Bicycle school. Within months, she threw down the gauntlet at all the other women riders in the world: Her offer was “throw $100 in the pot and race me 25 miles, or $250 and we’ll race 100 miles.” Louise took on all comers, but she leveled a particular challenge at the woman who would be her foil for most of her racing career: Elsa von Blumen.
Like Armaindo, von Blumen was a former pedestrienne who had followed the money over to cycling. She was a petite woman from Kansas and later New York, whose retiring demeanour had earned her the label ‘the White Fawn of Rochester’. She and Armaindo were dramatically contrasting characters. Elsa von B. was modest, proper, and conservative. Armaindo was, well, the opposite: brash, bragging and bold. Von Blumen insisted on propriety at all times. No wagering, no rowdiness, no less than total respectability at her events. Armaindo was in it for the money and the more the merrier. Von Blumen was the more famous of the two in the early days. Armaindo was the upstart challenger. For at least a year, every time Armaindo would publically challenge her, von Blumen would discretely ignore or decline the invitation to race.
Since their sport was so new, finding legitimate competitors was a challenge. In those early days, women riders would often race against horses, or against men who would give them a measured head start. It took a while before there were enough women who had mastered the big bikes to make proper races happen. Which is not to say there weren’t some amazing physical performances happening. In one race in 1882, Armaindo covered more than 600 miles in 72 hours, (12 hours a day for six straight). That set a new American long-distance record.
Fame starts coming
Louise’s fame began to spread and male riders began to take notice. She and Tom Eck and another rider travelled the western states, racing one another on indoor tracks of greatly varying quality. It’s not easy to picture these races, because they bear no resemblance to modern velodromes. Louise and her cohorts raced for days at a time on very small, often flat tracks. Sometimes these things were 18 laps to a mile, which seriously cut into speed. The spaces were dank, gas-lit, holding a thousand or more spectators puffing away on raunchy cigars. Children, touts and the over-refreshed stumbled on and off the track at will. It was a constant air quality health hazard, enlivened by frequent crashes. Coming a cropper, as they used to say, from a starting point of six feet in the air, added to the tally of broken bones.
Louise and the boys’ barnstorming took them to Toronto in 1882 — where she won praise for her elegant racing form at the CNE grounds. She also made perhaps her only professional return to hometown Montreal on this trip. Among other events, Armaindo won a hundred-mile race against the two men. In July of that year, Louise finally got the matchup she had been asking for. Von Blumen agreed to meet the Canadian bombshell for a curious contest in Philadelphia: every day for six days, they raced ten miles, in five two-mile heats, making 30 races in total, of which Armaindo won 21… and every night, the plan was to race horses for another five miles. The bike vs. horse races didn’t quite work out because the track was too narrow and they just couldn’t all squeeze in at once. Plus horses are terrible cyclists.
Strange event, hey? It was an interesting time. People were just starting to experiment with sporting spectacle, seeing what worked.
The week after the Philly event, Armaindo and von Blumen teamed up in Coney Island for a two-on-one, six day race against a bloke named Morgan. He rode six hours nonstop daily, and they switched every half hour for the same time. The track was wooden, rough, outdoors, and damned treacherous in the rain. Both women had bad crashes in the wet. Armaindo face planted, and probably broke bones in the process. Morgan won by a single mile at the end of the 467 mile race. The day following, Armaindo and von Blumen went head-to-head for 50 miles. Armaindo beat her dainty opponent by a whopping eleven miles. Von Blumen didn’t race against Louise again for another seven years.
Louise Armaindo was in it to win. She wanted the money and she wasn’t too picky about who she raced for it. She set the standard in Chicago, in a race that was legitimately billed as the Long Distance Championship of America. Armaindo took on a pair of men, on a makeshift wooden track. It was 72 hours of racing spread over 6 days. Louise racked up 843 miles and won handily, in front of 2000 fans. There was no handicap here, her opponents were both good athletes, solid racers, in their prime, trying their hardest. Louise beat them cold. Just to show this was no fluke, she raced them again on a new track in Milwaukee. This was a big facility, the track was eight laps to the mile, the fastest track in America. Louise won again, fair and square, to the delight of her growing female audiences.
Man or woman, Armaindo was the fastest
By 1883, very few women could be found who would consider racing Louise Armaindo. Those who did were trounced. Armaindo simply owned the field. She was so dominant, basically unbeatable. She easily bested most men. Even though record-keeping was spotty then, particularly for women racers, there is no dispute that Armaindo established, improved, or broke every bike racing record there was. And just to be clear, many of these records were best time or distance overall. Against men or women, she was the fastest. Period.
It is a depressing fact of history though, that even as Armaindo was going from strength to strength on the track, she was regularly getting beaten up by Tom Eck. His assaults escalated at this time. Armaindo was beaten badly enough to require doctor’s attention. Eck and Armaindo went their separate ways late in 1883.
As six-day bike races became more and more popular among North American and European race fans, the money finally started to come Armaindo’s way. Organizers could charge for deluxe inside seating, ticket sales were brisk, wagering as always was core business. Armaindo made $4,000 from racing in 1883. That put her in an earning category all her own.
Since new opponents were so hard to find, Armaindo became a founding member of the League of Bicycle Champions, a small group of men and women who toured and raced each other and demonstrated trick riding. When that business ended, Armaindo kept racing, again taking on men and horses. As often happens when wagers and cash are involved, there were some sketchy moments. Armaindo missed a payout that was her due in Missouri. She was owed a few hundred bucks of her own stake money, which a race organizer denied her. Armaindo was furious. She went to the manager’s hotel, produced a pistol and aimed it squarely at him, along with a few choice words. Armaindo got paid in full.
In 1888, Louise married a 23-year-old layabout by the name of Norman Stewart. Her racing performances went into a sharp decline around this time. Since her scrawny new husband was dependent on her race winnings, there appeared to be bad blood almost immediately.
Protests from The League of American Wheelmen
As her fame grew, Louise rode into stiff headwinds blowing from the League of American Wheelmen. These boys were a product of cycling’s growing popularity as an amateur sport — remember that old beef? Anti-gambling, anti-professional, apparently misogynist, their name sounds like a Marvel Comics property but the L.A.W. editorialized in Bicycling World that “the sooner the female bicycle rider is hooted off the race track, the better for our sport.”
If nothing else, the protest was a sign that women were becoming a genuine threat. When Armaindo was entering the twilight of her most competitive years, promoters were starting to assemble all-women, six-day races. As the racing improved, so did the coverage, although rude attitudes persisted. The Pittsburgh Dispatch’s reporter at an all-women’s six-day race: “We seldom will listen to anyone who says that a woman can make anything like a reasonable showing in any contests that demand grit stamina and skill.”
Before we scoff, a terrific French language website called Le Petit Braquet quotes quite a wacky contemporary effort to keep women off bikes. Dr. Ludovic O'Followell in his 1900 book with the catchy title “Bicycle and Genitals” said:
“For women, the effect of using the bicycle is also very serious. Let us remember the disorders, observed medically, caused by the sewing machines among the workers who make constant use of them and engage in this fatiguing occupation from morning till night. All sorts of diseases of a special kind have been found in these labors, but a particular fact has been noticed also, is the early development in this workplace of nymphomania and characterized hysteria. Cyclomania, apart from its ordinary perils, has the same disadvantages for women as the sewing machine. It brings the same effervescences, the same lustful excitations, the same fits of sensual madness.”
Where do you start?
A watershed race was held in the centre of America’s sport universe, Madison Square Garden. Feburary 11, 1889, twelve women crossed the starting line for the six-day, big stakes contest. Louise Armaindo was there. For the first time in seven years, so was her old arch rival and champion of propriety, Elsa von Blumen. Armaindo focused her attention on a newcomer, Lottie Stanley, of whom she is quoted saying, “Who is this little monkey anyhow? I’ll send her home sick before long.”
There were crashes and mishaps from the get-go. Armaindo herself fainted at the end of the first day and had to be carried off the track. She was too weak to be a threat after that. As the week moved on, the number of fans swelled to nearly 6000 paid viewers. Stanley, the upstart, won the whole ball of wax. There was, predictably, skullduggery and bad faith when it came to distributing the proceeds. Punches were thrown in the ensuing beef between managers, and the whole thing was considered a disgrace. One of the highest profile races of the era did nothing to polish the sport’s already poor reputation. Von Blumen was so offended by the unseemly wrangling that she left racing that day and never came back.
Seven of the remaining racers, collectively known as ‘The Beauty on Wheels’ troupe, barnstormed western U.S.A. after that. Louise was one of them, but she was out of shape, and more likely to contribute a demonstration ride than to compete. She was fed up with racing against men, teams of horses, and every combination thereof. And by now, quite a few fit young men were getting into the sport, and Louise was unable to beat many of them.
Still, even in her fading powers, Armaindo was no one to mess with. After a race in Omaha, as she lay in bed recuperating, possibly jonesing for cocaine and strychnine, which powered endurance racers back then, her feckless husband Norman started hassling her to get out of bed and go earn him more money. He got physical and Louise, according to reports, dragged herself out of bed, and proceeded to beat the daylights out of young Norman. She threw him all around their room, then knocked and dragged him out into the common areas of their rooming house, kicked him down the stairs, and out the door.
We might quietly applaud Armaindo for this, but at the time, she was held up as a cautionary tale for other young women thinking about a velo career. Editorials warned parents not to let their young daughters get into bike racing. Articles argued that their health would surely suffer from racing, and also that once they got a taste for adulation, the racers would find a return to uncelebrated domestic drudgery less inviting, and we don’t want that! The Omaha Herald called out Louise Armaindo as a particularly sorry example. She comes from a family of strong women, The Herald said, but even she is all broken up now.
Louise hopped a steamer to England where she rode a number of races and exhibitions. Her plan was to head to Paris after Britain to join Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show at the 1889 Paris World’s Fair. That fell through, unfortunately. She would have blended nicely in that crowd.
As she did throughout her career, Armaindo kept issuing defiant challenges. She would race anyone, any distance, if they would put $1000 on the line, but fewer and fewer racers took her up on it. Throughout this whole period, it needs to be said, there were just ridiculous numbers of really gnarly rashes on and off the track. The penny farthing was fast, but it was lethal. Safety bikes — clunky versions of modern bicycles — caught on surprisingly fast. The city of Chicago reported 500 women cyclists in the city in the summer of 1890. That was up from zero in 1887. The new bikes were heavier and slower than the high wheels though, so even though regular people liked them, they were not a quick hit with the pros.
Louise Armaindo’s last recorded race was in Chicago in 1893. She came third, having ridden 416 miles in 48 hours. Over the next few years she popped up in Montreal and New York, unsuccessfully trying to book venues and competitors. By 1896, safety bike races had taken over the game. Louise did not care for safety bikes, and as that cadre of women racers grew, they ignored Louise’s challenges. She snubbed them too, moved back to Chicago, where she lived with no manager, no husband and no trainer.
She was staying in the Carlino hotel, which caught fire. Armaindo had nailed her window shut, to prevent people from getting in her room from the fire escapes. So the flames were well advanced by the time she was able to get free. In her usual take-no-prisoners fashion, Louise leapt out her window, and partially broke her fall by landing onto a shed roof. Still, she fractured a hip and suffered internal injuries that confined her to a five-month spell in a Buffalo, N.Y. hospital. Professor Hall tracked down her name exactly there, recorded in a 1900 census, which appears to be the last official mention of our heroine.
At almost 40 years old, Louise Armaindo’s amazing career was over. The incredibly tough Canadian woman had been a professional athlete since the age of 14. A strongwoman, then a trapeze artist, then a pedestrienne, and ultimately a high wheel racer. She smashed speed and endurance records throughout her career. She died in Montreal, and was buried in the cemetery of Notre Dame Des Neiges. No headstone or grave marker for Louise Armaindo has ever been found.
(Top large image from the collections of Lorne Shields and John Weiss/McGill-Queen's University Press; middle large by Hulton Archive/Getty Images; bottom large image by Three Lions/Getty Images)