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Circus strongwomen and female wrestlers in the beginning of XX century

Part II


Русская версия


Part I

Circus wrestlers

"Wrestlers". Postcard of 1906 (?)
from the collection of
Werner Sonntag


This material represents the second part of the article about women on the circus rings. As it already has been said, to the beginning of the XX century women tried not to be second to men in any area. At that time a lot of strongwomen, female wrestlers and even female boxers appeared in the World. Female wrestling performances were often be accompanied by music; jurors and judges sometimes were selected among audience. Then wrestler pairs were announced and female wrestlers came out to the circus ring and demonstration of "double nelsons" and "bridges" began. Sometimes "mysterious masks" came for wrestling. Yet audience didn't take female wrestling championships too serious, because it was difficult to check if they were for real. All the more, even male wrestlers sometimes didn't wrestle for real at that time. Power exercises, especially on human weights looked differently at that point.

Challenge for wrestling
Heinrich Zille
Challenge for wrestling


As it was said in the first part of the article, one of the popular forms of circus wrestling was challenging volunteers to wrestle against a circus wrestler (of any gender). Wrestling presentations in circus booths of this form were shown since the end of the XIX century. Under conditions when many wrestling matches on the circus ring were staged, such “improvisations” with more or less non-predictable results attracted spectators and tickled their nerves. On the presented pieces of the German painter Heinrich Zille (1858-1929) two episodes of such an entertainment are drawn. On the cartoon on the left a plump solid female wrestler meets a smug guy from the audience. There are a dumbbell and a bar on the floor which the lady just used for demonstration of her strength. Announcement of the wall says: “Extraordinary presentation today! Belt wrestling. Miss Ada pays 100 marks to anyone who will manage to over wrestle her.” Caption under the picture (on behalf of the clown-moderator) says: “Illegal holds are prohibited. No punches, bites, pits and kisses!” We should note that 100 marks at the border of the XIX and XX centuries was a lot of money, so Miss Ada and the promoters were quite confident in her.

Wrestling in a booth
Heinrich Zille
Wrestling in a booth

On the painting on the right, drawn by the witness of the event, it’s shown how such a contest might proceed. A female wrestler (by her back) with the belt around her waist is grappling with a rusty guy from the crowd who just have grabbed her by the belt, picked her up and for the moment he is about putting (or throwing) her down to the floor without further ado. Not separated from the wrestlers the crowd of women, men and children is watching with interest. A smiling lady (at right in a hat) turned away from them, probably laughing at the ridiculous (on her opinion) situation when a woman took it into her head to seriously wrestle a man who is obviously very experienced in such deals. Distinctively, the both pictures represent the belt wrestling where opponents hold each other by waist belts (men seems to use pants’ belts). In fact, the belt wrestling seems to be an appropriate form for such contests because it limits undesirable possibility for men to touch some parts of a female body.

The book dedicated to the circus history “The Booth” ("Schaubude") by the Stefan Nagel (Germany), where we got the information about Zille’s works, testifies that the circus amusement “A volunteer is challenged for wrestling against a lady” was very popular at those times. In the section where he tells about circus wrestling he mentions only such a form – a woman wrestles a volunteer. Talking about mixed circus wrestling and about circus in general, Nagel writes: “The erotic component obviously was an important in such exhibitions. Both women and men demonstrated their perfect body form outlines, strength, free play of the muscles, elegance of the movements… which manifestation not only artistry but rather also provocative sensuality.”

Цирковая борьба Marina Lurs The Russian magazine "Hercules" reported in 1913: "Special attention is attracted by a female power athlete Marina Lurs. She is perfectly built and has massive but gracefully outlined musculature. Lurs performs weight tricks, which would be good for a strong male athlete. She works as a "Hercules" in an old kind circus. Each her trick is perfectly finished each her move expresses strength. However, at the same time, the body of Marina Lurs is not even coarse but it impresses you by its soft plastic lines… Let's put pictures of Marina Lurs on circus placards and let all town ladies see this daughter of Eve who is deservedly proud by her strength and harmony". Odessa's newspapers in 1913 reported with gusto about visit some power lady Marina Lurs already having shocked the European audience. "Her best-known number was lifting a stick where nine men located as roosters on a perch. By the way, she was spinning this weight as well. And shame on those who think she has lost her femininity for their."

Marina Lurs was trained by the weightlifting enthusiast A.I. Andrushkevich, who also trained the famous George Gakkenshmidt. She was considered as the strongest woman in Russia. Marina had been training since 1903 and four years later, she started participating in wrestling championships. In wrestling Marina Lurs more relied on her exceptional physical strength and skills in power tricks rather than on wrestling techniques. She didn't like fussing on the ground and tried to win from the standing. Her favorite techniques were: To lock with an opponent chest-to-chest, embrace her over the waist, pick her up, to bend back, turn around and throw her on the back; Just lift an opponent on arms as a baby and "lay" her on the mat; To bend the opponent's head down, to shove it under the attacker body until the back of her head plants firmly against the attacker belly. Then to lock hands under the opponents' breasts, pick her up, turn her body around in the air and let her down by her back (very impressive technique); To grab an opponent's hand by two hands, to turn backward her, to load her body onto the back as a sack and then down it on the mat; To firmly grab an opponent's hands, pull her and when she is moving, to stand aside, turn her back toward the ground, and let her down. Such techniques combined wrestling and power exercises.

Agafia Zavidnaya The most interesting wrestling match Marina Lurs had against another Russian strongwoman Agafia Zavidnaya. Marina attempted to hug Agafia by her waist in order to pick her up but robust Agafia wasn't second in strength and just grew into the ground. Ladies were grappling for a while locking in standing position and each one tried to pick each other. Powerful Agafia started pouncing on Marina and jostling her back trying to topple her. To the whistling and screaming of the audience, Marina used her favorite move: when Agafia jumped up, she moved back, turned around, let her go by inertia and then pinned her down. In fact, the spectacle of close contact of two powerful female bodies was odd that time. If consider wrestler style of Marina Lurs, we must note that she was wrestling in feline manner "softly" and "tenderly", never inflicting any damage to her opponents.

Rustic Russian woman-nugget Agafia Zavidnaya was a born "Hercules" - she easily pressed 72-pound dumbbells by her little fingers and a phaeton with people was moving over a platform lying on her chest. Very few women ventured to wrestle her.

Sisters Kiddjah
Circus wrestlers,
sisters Natta and Karlotta Kiddjah
on the Molier circus ring in Paris

She often successfully wrestled against men, such wrestling matches were supplements to her tricks with weights. After demonstrations of superhuman abilities of the “woman-Heracles”, a master of ceremonies solemnly said, “In front of you this is the strongest and the most dangerous woman in the world who is able to topple any man. Agafia Zavidnaya challenges men in the auditorium! If a real man sits here we invite him to come out to the ring”… You shouldn’t be much astute to figure out how those matches ran out… Agafia didn’t spare men too much and some of them were trampled down by the robust lady and were unable to rise on foot without help.

The Irish strongwoman Kate Roberts (“Miss Vulcana”) who lived in England appeared on stage with acrobatic and power exercises and sometimes participated in circus wrestling. At the age of 30 she had the following anthropometrical data: height – 5’7”; weight – 161Lbs; the following circumferences: chest – 3’6”, waist - 2’3”, biceps – 1’3”, thighs – 2’1”, forearm - 1’, neck – 1’3”. She was able to lift a weight 181Lbs by one arm. One of her personal records was twisting (press with substantial body deviation) by one hand – 130Lbs. She performed power acts very easily and gracefully. There are many legends about Vulkana’s exploits. One story tells how dressed up Kate broke into a brawl between two drunk marines in a London restaurant. Allegedly, she seized the both scrappers by the collar and tossed them to the sides. One brawler disliked that and having risen from the floor pounced on Kate with fists. What the surprise was for everyone after the dressed up lady grabbed him by hand and twisted it so intense that he stuck to the floor by his nose. Another legendary incident happened on a circus show in Bristol when volunteers were called to wrestle a local male wrestler. Being incognito among spectators Miss Vulcana dressed as an ordinary woman volunteered for the wrestling. The wrestler was embarrassed and attempted to refuse but the audience demanded the match so zealously that the circus owner ordered him to go and to pretend wrestling. However, unexpectedly the femininely looking woman grabbed the luckless wrestler by waist, threw him over her head and dropped to the mat remaining on foot…

Vulcana Vulcana Vulcana

Vulcana wrestled rarely but if she did, she wrestled with men only in order to demonstrate physical advantage of a woman. Her favorite technique was arm-twisting which worked smoothly. Once being a fourteen-year-old girl on a Bristol street, she noticed a cab with a woman and a baby being dragged by a rabid horse. Kate rushed toward the horse and hung on the reins. Passers-by helped and the cab was stopped. When a pickpocket tried to rob her, she just squeezed firmly his hand and took the unlucky uncomplaining guy to a police precinct. “You can give a hand to such a woman (get married)” the criminal said. However, he would better not to say that because Miss Vulcana didn’t understand the double entendre and immediately recalled her lawsuit in exchange with his hand and heart. That’s how the offender became an aggrieved party and was “suffering” for full twenty years… Vulcana was the first woman who proved advantage of women over men, and her maxims regarding women’s power was used by feminists.

Marie Ford Famous American strongwoman, boxer and wrestler Marie Ford (photo on the left) was born in New York in 1900. Having just 132 Lbs and being 5’6” she became an athlete in different sports. She participated in Marathon, acrobatics, boxing and wrestling. Strange as it seems, her favorite sport was boxing. Marie Ford toured all over the North America and challenged volunteers (women and those men who were not professional boxers and not heavier her) for a combat match (boxing or wrestling or their combination - by choice). At the beginning, women were challenged and after contests with them (if any woman happened) had been over men were challenged on the ring. At those times puritanical customs prevailed in America and very few women brought themselves to violate the decency rules and to participate in a men’s activity. Nevertheless, sometimes Marie had hard time with robust female peasants with their big fists and well-trained arms and legs. If a hitch occurred with daredevils, Marie goaded people present claiming that there were no real men in the audience and that all cowards gathered here, etc.

Marie was well grounded in track and field which helped her move easily and agilely during boxing and wrestling matches keeping cunning smile. Boxing was her forte. According to Marie's manager, the secret of her success in boxing attributed to her prudent tactical approach: she loved flank attacks punching opponents at weird angles while aiming mostly at the body (yet usual boxing tactics then was to aim at the head and neglect the body). She had a habit of not aiming punches at someone's face unless a male opponent was too dangerous - then she used hooks at the lower jaw. She usually delivered blows in the same direction her opponent was moving at that moment helping lose the opponent's balance. In wrestling, she used her outstanding strength and quickness. Marie had her specialty – she locked tight the opponent's neck and sharply threw him/her down and instantly pinned. Actually, Marie Ford was a pioneer of Pancration, the mixed combat style – combination of wrestling and boxing. When competing with volunteers from the audience, Marie used a tactics of contemporary MMA fighters: she "softened" the opponent with accurate powerful punches and then (if the opponent hadn't been knocked out yet) vigorously grabbed him/her (usually by the neck), threw down and pinned. At those times, they wrestled just for a pin rather than for a submission.

The idea to combine boxing and wrestling came to Marie and her manager when she performed in the American South. A well-endowed black female giant challenged Marie to a fight; her name was Miriam (at that time race segregation existed and separate seats were reserved for blacks). Marie got into confusion - she herself had established the weight limit just for male opponents; now she didn't dare to give up and just asked the opponent if she wanted boxing or wrestling. Miriam answered that it didn’t matter for her how to thrash and kick Marie’s ass offering both styles at once. The audience died down. There were not such a thing as weighting categories and if it was, the difference may be five or six categories. Miriam didn't beat about the bush and began beating Marie up by her huge fists. Marie didn’t have anything to answer and she just took the defending stand and shielded her face and breast by hands. When Miriam started grabbing the tiny woman, Marie realized she would be heavily beaten and ran away from the aggressor while Miriam chased her around the ring. Trained by the Marathon, Marie hoped to exhaust Miriam but she didn’t show any fatigue indication. Then Marie managed by ruse. The giant got carried away and didn’t notice how Marie tripped her. Miriam crashed down and being taken aback was unable to repulse a pinning technique which Marie successfully executed... After that, the black hero Miriam was taken in the circus troupe and she acted successfully as a strongwoman, boxer and wrestler.

Ada Ash wrestles crocodile
Ada Ash with husband
In closing, a few words about the most famous female wrestlers in 1920s and 1930s - the last decades which are considered in this article. In 1924 the 21 year-old Austrian beautiful strongwoman Martha Farra (at right she is winding a steel bar into her hand) who weighed just 55 kg proclamated herself as the strongest woman in the world - for instance, she managed to lift a platform of 3500 pound (1587 kilograms) to 75 centimeters over the floor. She also was training in freestyle wrestling and participated in wrestling matches. Another small sized strongwoman, American Ada Ash (born in 1906) was able to lift a platform with a horse on it. Ada was incredibly strong and brave – she fought against a crocodile (see the left photo) suffering several serious bites in jaw, arms and legs. Being not afraid of crocodiles she was ready for physical combat against her equals and became a skilled wrestler and a wrestling trainer.
Ivy Russel Ivy Russel
Along with her husband Al Szasz (also a great wrestler) she wrote three books dedicated to judo and self-defense (lower left photo shows the couple). Trained by her husband, she successfully participated in female wrestling competitions. As a matter of fact, at her time women wrestling was being gradually transformed from competitive (even not always real) actionn to the specific type of entertaining show that now is known as “professional wrestling”, the profitable branch of the show industry. In one of her wrestling matches against another famous female wrestler Nell Stewart (who was much younger than Ada), Ada accidentally fell out of the ring to the floor in a bad position and damaged her spine and she was disabled during almost two years.

The last famous strongwoman of this period who became a great wrestler was the English, Ivy Russell (born in 1907). She was very powerfully built and surpassed in muscle parameters the famous heavyweight boxer of her epoch, Max Schmeling from Germany. Owing to her incredible physical strength Ivy became a great wrestler (at the photo at right she wrestles a man). In 1934 she started attending the “Victory Ladies Wrestling Club” to train in wrestling, and just in a year she managed to gain the champion title in the female wrestling championship defeating all her opponents. Ivy reportedly decisively punished any skeptical man who doubted that a woman could be a real wrestler. Ivy just grabbed him into her steel hugs and instantly forced him to take his words back (look at the right photo).

Alexander Khromov
September 30, 2002

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Circus wrestling and powerlifting at the turn of the century

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