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The Acrobatic Immigrant Who Invented Pilates in a Prisoner of War Camp

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In the early afternoon of September 12, 1915, a British vessel set off from the western coast of England and freighted up the Irish Sea toward Scotland. It was a warm day, but most of the men aboard, confined to an airless chamber below deck, longed only to escape the sickening quarters. The passage was short: After traveling 70 miles, the SS Connaught docked at the Douglas breakwater on the Isle of Man. Immediately, the British guards overseeing the ship lowered a ramp and began shouting commands. Wearily, the men disembarked.

The scene was chaotic. “There was no law or order whatsoever,” a reporter for the Peel City Guardian wrote. Within minutes, men from the ship were confused with locals milling about the harbor, most of whom were Manx people native to the isle. Eventually, separated from the crowd, they marched along the South Quay and boarded a steam-powered train that weaved sluggishly into the heart of the isle. As the tin-gray sky turned starless black, the train stopped at St. John’s station. Another march followed, this time under the watch of the King’s Liverpool Regiment. For hours, they trudged through soil that sunk like clay, over streams, through cattle gates. In the distance, hundreds of bright lights flickered, a site rare in the customary blackness of wartime. “Almost like Paris,” one of the men thought.

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an abract illustration of human and feline and other animal figures in different positions

For Joseph Pilates, confinement paradoxically offered a kind of liberation. Illustrations by Julie Benbassat 

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