Just last week, George Eyser made my list of heroic Summer Olympians. In reading about his life, it seemed that he embodied some of the characteristics of a great Olympian. Competing at the 1904 Olympic Games with a prosthetic leg, he won several medals–gold, silver, and bronze. I love stories like these, where athletes rise above challenges, emerging victorious. I was intrigued by George Eyser and his inspirations story. I thought he’d make a great subject for a blog entry. Other than an amputee, an Olympian, and a gymnast, who was George Eyser?
Everything we know about Eyser’s life is admirable, and his achievements are inspiring. An immigrant who arrived in America as a child, he worked hard to achieve the American dream, working as a bookkeeper to earn an honest living. Yet his true love seemed to be for sport. During the mid-1800’s, a new movement, turnverein, was becoming increasingly popular. A German sport brought over to America, turnverein, or “turning,” included tumbling and athletic maneuvers on bars and a vaulting horse (the modern-day vault). The movement was particularly popular among German-Americans, including Eyser. Although he had lost one of his legs during his youth in a train accident, he was relentless, no doubt, in his training, relying on his upper body strength.
In 1904, the third Modern-Day Olympics were held in St. Louis. Eyser and his Concordia Turnverein team, also of St. Louis, competed in the Games. After a dismal performance in the first few events (including an all-around event), Eyser sprung back to win 6 medals in a single day: 3 gold medals (parallel pars, long horse vault, and 25-foot rope climbing), 2 silver (pommel horse and the 4-event all-around), and one bronze (horizontal) . He also helped Concordia Turnverein finish a respectable fourth in the team competition. (At this time, gymnastics had not yet become organized into country teams.)
Eyser continued competing in gymnastics after the St. Louis Games. Concordia Turners won a 1908 international competition in Germany and in 1909 a national competition in Ohio.
What about Eyser’s life after 1909? Well, I don’t know. No one seems to know. Here begins the mystery of George Eyser.
Every biography lists Eyser’s date of death as “unknown.” Being a fairly experienced researcher in genealogy, I thought I could find the answer to this question and determine what happened to Eyser. I ventured over to Ancestry.com. Unfortunately, I came up empty.
Using his biography, I was able to verify a few details at Ancestry.com. Born in Germany, Eyser immigrated to the U.S. in 1884, which would make him about 14 years of age. He first appears in US Census records in 1900, where he is living in Denver, Colorado. (He probably appeared in the 1890 Census, but those records were destroyed in a fire.) In 1900 he was renting a room from a family in their home. His occupation is that of a bookkeeper for a construction company:
In 1910, when the next Census was conducted, Eyser had relocated to St. Louis, where the 1904 Olympics and World’s Fair had occurred six years earlier. Eyser is still single, still renting a room, and still working as a bookkeeper:
According to his biography, Eyser was still competing in 1908, a member of Concordia Turnverein in St. Louis. As we know, he was still living in St. Louis in 1910. But then the trail goes cold. In 1920, there is no record which I could find of a George Eyser living in St. Louis. I searched nationwide. I searched Social Security death records, death certificates, and could not locate anything. It’s as if Eyser vanished into thin air.
The story of the immigrant-turned-Olympic Hero abruptly ends, the pages left blank without a conclusion. A man who overcame challenges and competed for his new country deserves a more fitting tribute in the history books, and one that includes a final chapter.
What happened to George Eyser? Did he have any siblings? Did he ever marry? Did he live out the remainder of his life in St. Louis? Where is he buried? Where are his medals?
George Eyser, what happened to you?
Swifter, Higher, Stronger.