Rasmus Nielsen, Forefather of Pierced Weightlifting

by The Great Nippulini


Rasmus Nielsen (also spelled Nielson in some of his banners) was born in Denmark, although because he did much work in Northern California, near Angels Camp, it became rumored that he was born there.  Nielsen worked as a blacksmith in his early years and spent quite some time getting tattooed on most of his body.


When Nielsen made the decision to join the show business world, he found the tattooed man slot on the sideshow platform crowded, there was enough of those at the time.  He chose to pierce his nipples and decided to invent a strongman act utilizing these piercings.  He became billed as “Tattooed Wonderman”, “Tattooed Strongman”, and “Rasmus Nielsen, Strongman from Denmark”.  Although his most well known stage name was “Tough Titty”.


Rasmus Nielsen is someone who is well known in the sideshow world as one of the many people to have made themselves self-made freaks. He was not born with any abnormality or talent that would win him any position on the bally platform, he had to work at it and earn it.  It was said that he “made himself into a freak by having metal rings set in his chest”, and a reporter wrote in the 1950's that "Rasmus Nielsen is probably the best example of a man who was determined to make a freak out of himself."  In addition to being a tattooed strongman that performed pierced weightlifting, he also showed feats of extraordinary strength.  At the age of 65, he appeared at the N.Y. World’s Fair at the “At Strange as It Seems” Oddittorium, lifting 1,525 pounds of boulders on a platform by a weight belt strapped around his waist.  Nielsen was turned down when applying for blacksmith work being told he was “too old and feeble for work.”


An early photo (possibly in the 20’s or 30’s) of Nielsen shows a full front and back view of Nielsen's tattoos which includes a large Statue of Liberty back piece topped with eagle, shield and flags. Christ heads are seen on the ribs, while the legs carry such designs as Bill Cody portrait and California redwood trees labeled “Calaveras Big Tree” and “Sequoia Gigantica”, not your normal fare, much of the work being done by "Brooklyn" Joe Lieber .  Upon close inspection of this photo, it is noted that he had tattooed his name upon his wrist, possibly for those hangover mornings when one forgets who they are.  His chest had three horse heads, swallows, poppies and other such classic artwork.  Geisha girls adorned his legs as well as dragons and other Asian influenced designs.   Nielsen's nipples were pierced at this point with very large barbells,  but they were not as stretched as in some later photos.


Another frequently seen photo shows Nielsen in 1936 in a pose that would become one of his most famous, lifting a large anvil with a blacksmiths clamp held on by the rings in his chest. Through the years the weight of the anvils changed from 50 to 100, 150 and to even 250 pounds!  He used this image for many years on his pitch cards and other photos in magazines and postcards.


In 1940 Nielsen arrived in the San Francisco Bay Area to work at the Golden Gate Exposition for the famous Robert Ripley at his Believe it or Not Oddittorium. One of the many souvenirs available at that Expo was the hand tinted linen pitchcard showing Nielsen doing his famous anvil lift, reading: ”Rasmus Nielsen, blacksmith, Lifting 150 lbs. By his breasts”. Often these are found autographed on the back by Nielsen himself.


For the next decade Rasmus Nielsen worked as a sideshow attractions. He worked with Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus in 1936 and again in 1942 and continued with them until 1948. He was often billed as the "Tattooed Wonderman" or "Tattooed Strongman", even “Strongman from Denmark”; he also did the iron tongue lift.  At some point he had his neck pierced (currently called a “Madison”).  There is no documentation or photos of any use of this pierce, but it has been rumored that he may have used this piercing to tow cartloads of sledgehammers or even some bystanders.


Rasmus Nielsen's history after 1950 is unclear. The year of his death is not known, as is his date of birth.


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