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Actor Leonard Nimoy famously invented the Vulcan nerve pinch as a more dignified, in-character alternative to "kayoing" one of Spock's on-screen adversaries. The idea of squeezing a nerve in the neck to immobilize an opponent, however, dates back at least as far as the pop-culture of the 1920s.


After his retirement from boxing in 1914, former bantamweight champion of the world Johnny Coulon (5 ft, 110 lbs) hit the vaudeville circuit demonstrating his apparently mysterious power to resist being lifted into the air. The act was simple; the tiny Coulon would first allow himself to be lifted by his "opponent", typically a big heavyweight boxer, wrestler or weightlifter, who would have no difficulty at all hoisting the smaller man into the air.

Coulon would then apply his special counter-grip, in which he lightly seized the would-be lifter's right wrist (over the pulse-point) with his left hand and placed his right index finger on the left side of the lifter's neck, near the carotid artery. The results were always the same; regardless of how much he strained and struggled, the lifter couldn't budge Coulon from the floor.

Here's the only known film footage of Johnny Coulon in action. Note that, despite the headline and title card claiming that Swiss Athletes Have Now Succeeded in Lifting Johnny Coulon, the footage has actually been edited to show Coulon's act in reverse; the successful lift shown at the end of the film would have been performed first, and Coulon's successful defiance of the lift would have been the grand finale.

After refining the act by touring American music halls and saloons, Coulon departed for Paris where his apparently "occult" abilities attracted a great deal of media attention. This was the height of the post-Great War Spiritualism craze; a time of peak popularity for seance sittings and interest in the "world beyond". Just the previous year, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had made international headlines promoting a set of photographs purporting to show two English schoolgirls playing with real fairies.


In this rarified environment, Johnny Coulon's act was reportedly closely scrutinized by committees of Parisian physiologists, psychiatrists and other specialists led by Professor Charles Nordmann, who ran a battery of tests including wetting the tips of Coulon's fingers and having him stand with his toes elevated on a small board, to change his center of gravity.

The committee concluded that a mysterious combination of physiological and psychological forces were at work, "not in the nature of an electric current and not in the nature of any force known to physiologists":

In the dark wall which, till now, has resisted all attacks of experiment, the enthralling mystery of the relation of body and soul, of mental and material force, the phenomenon discovered by Johnny Coulon is perhaps the decisive breach through which science may perhaps soon enter to victorious attack.


Naturally, many people felt compelled to try to duplicate Coulon's abilities, and it was reported that, for a time, no work was getting done in Paris because the smallest staffers at every office were being press-ganged into "Coulon lift" experiments.

When approached for comment by journalists, escapologist and arch-skeptic Harry Houdini replied:

It's hokum! It's the principle of the fulcrum and a matter of leverage. Coulon is in stable equilibrium and his subject isn't. Coulon keeps his subject at arms' length to get the best advantage of the leverage. Furthermore, the trick has been played before!


As it happened, although Johnny Coulon never publicly explained his methods, Houdini was only partly correct. It's likely that the scientific committee and other observers has been misdirected by the notion of "nerve pressure" into overlooking the fact that Coulon's right wrist pressed firmly into his "opponent's" collarbone at the moment of the attempted lift, while Coulon's right elbow was effectively aligned with his own right hip. This pressure exerted a force of counter-leverage - invisible to the eye and probably not even noticed by the would-be lifter - which effectively put the lifter in an impossible position. The greater the exertion, the stronger the counter-leverage via Coulon's skeletal alignment.


However, Coulon clearly did, in fact, also employ nerve pressure, at least under some circumstances. By extending his right index finger into the lifter's vagus nerve - a sensitive pressure point, regardless of size and muscular strength - Coulon was able to combine his massive leverage advantage with a painful disincentive to being lifted.

Houdini was right about the trick having been played before. During the late 1800s, several young women had enjoyed successful showbiz careers with the so-called "Georgia Magnet" or "resistance" act, employing similar ricks of leverage and misdirection to create the illusion of superhuman powers.


The general public eventually tired of the novelty and Coulon retired from show business, opening a successful Chicago gymnasium. For many decades thereafter, he would challenge visiting heavyweights including boxers Muhammad Ali and Jack Johnson to lift him into the air, and no-one ever managed the trick.


Johnny Coulon, the Unliftable Man, died at the age of 84 years on October 29, 1973.

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