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Iron ladies of the old times

Strong Circus lady
Circus strong woman, 1905
Web resource Hoodoo That Woodoo

Русская версия


Since time immemorial, there were women who had outstanding physical strength. Spartan girls, gladiatrices, women warriors, Brunhilde and many other epic legendary women.

Adelia Capatain and Eugene Sandow
From San Francisco Chronicle, March 14, 1896
Two strong persons: Adelia Capatain, an aerialist and gymnast (15.5 inches biceps) and famous strongman Eugene Sandow
Photo from the resource Orrin Heller

Yucca
Madame Yucca lifts a horse
Photo from the resource Orrin Heller

Since the XVI century, people admired powerful women performing stunts with weights in fairs and markets. Those strongwomen women carried weights hanging on their hair and played with heavy iron balls. They lay stiffly supporting their bodies horizontally by feet and back of the neck between two chairs while weights were loaded on them – the stunt performed by few strongmen. Later, "women cannons" appeared – a stunt where a heavy cannon shot while it was attached firmly to back of a strongwoman. Also there were women who threw heavy dumbbells, inviting men from the audience to repeat that, among which just few were capable even of moving the weight a little. Other women stopped a few horses by pulling a cord bound to them; they lifted carts, they tore a thick bunch of paper (later - telephone guides) just with their hands; they broke nails and doubled bars of iron; they danced a waltz with three men on their shoulders. Besides, it was popular show where a lady lifted and held a bunch of people.

A frequent spark in such spectacles consisted in inviting male spectators to compare theirs strength with that of the strongwoman, resulting always extensively surpassed by her. Undoubtedly, thousands of assistant men on these spectacles along all the epochs have seen like the sensation of shame did that their cheeks blushed (especially if they went accompanied by a lady).

In a London publication of 1724 it was announced that the famous "Female Italian Samson", in whose spectacle, among others demonstrations, being performed, a great block of marble of 900 or 1300 kilograms (two thousand or three thousand pounds) was placed on her and then, after bearing this weight for a while, she threw it to almost two meters of distance without using her arms. On December 19, 1751 a London daily announced a spectacle "Little Woman from Geneva", in which this woman was loaded with the weight of 5 or 6 men; also she was placed an iron anvil on her body, being later struck with a sledgehammer by two men. She demonstrated some other tests of strength as well. In 1754 there was an exhibition in Paris with stunts of strength performed by "Les Femmes Fortes" (strong women), who supported great weights on their stomachs while stretched supine with their heads on one chair and their feet on another.

Although there are earlier references to women of unusual strength, it was in the 1880’s when reports of strongwomen began to appear with regularity in sporting publications such as "Police Gazette", a magazine which was a major influence in the development of the professional strongwomen in America and in the rest of the world.

Athletics booming at the turn of the XIX and XX centuries involved women as well. They tried not to be second to men in any area. Female wrestlers came out to the scene to the music and a jury from the audience assessed double nelsons, wrestling bridges and supples. Sometimes mysterious masks came to the mat… Yet the audience didn't take women's wrestling "championships" seriously and they were not too popular. However, the opposite attitude was toward strongwomen.

Some of the most famous strongwomen’s names have remained over the course of the time.

Charmion
Charmion. Photo by Taschen, resource Flickr

According to a ranking of the strongest women at the turn of the century there are the strongest five:

1. Sandwina (Katie Brumbach), Germany
2. Athleta (Van Huffelen), Belgium
3. Vulcana (Kate Williams), Britain
4. Luisita Leers (Louise Krokel), Germany
5. Athelda (Frances Rheinlander), Britain

In view of the fact that strongwomen of that time mostly performed in circus, theaters, vaudeville acts or music halls, their strength records are rarely reasonably sufficient

La la by Degas
Olga and Kairi la Blanche.

La la by Degas
Oil painting "Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando" by Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas


Charmion. Laverie Vallee nee Cooper (1875–1949), best known by her stage name Charmion, was an American vaudeville trapeze artist and strongwoman. Charmion built her act around a memorable routine which opened with her on-stage entrance dressed in full Victorian street attire. She subsequently mounted the trapeze and disrobed down to her acrobat leotards in the midst of the trapeze's swinging motion. She appears to have begun performing while in her late teens and this was part of her repertoire at least as early as 1896-1898. Charmion performed a version of this then-risque striptease for an Edison short film, "Trapeze Disrobing Act", in 1901. Having impressive well-developed muscularity, she was probably the first woman exposing her stressed bared torso muscularity. She actually was a pioneer of the sport of bodybuilding. Unlike contemporary over muscular female bodybuilders, Charmion managed to balance attractiveness, femininity and developed muscularity.

Miss Lala. Olga the Mulatto was born in 1858 and acted under the name of Lala. Famous Miss Lala (or La La) performed strength acrobatic and trapeze acts throughout Europe in circuses, music halls, in the troupe called "Follies Bergere" (Mad Shepherds) between 1860s and late 1880s. She was also known as Olga, "Olga the Mulatto", "Olga the Negress", "The Cannon Woman" and "The African Princess". She was painted by Edgar Degas in 1879 (Miss Lala au Cirque Fernando). A poster was done on her "Follies Bergere" performance in 1880 by Jules Cheret and another poster was done in 1890 by Parisian lithographer Appel depicting Miss Lala performing with Troupe Kaira. One of her stunts was to hold a full size civil war era cannon (with weels) suspended from her teeth while a cnarge of powder was fired. Her partner, anotehr strongwoman, Theophila Szterker was about six years younger than Olga - she was know as Kaira la Blanche.

Ali Bracco Madame Ali-Braco ("The woman-cannon"). This powerful woman worked in the circus world since 1875. She was an expert in acrobatics, but the most of her famous stunts was demonstrations of her strength with cannon, which was placed on her shoulders. In the other action, she hung upside down leaning on a trapezium by her legs and lifting a heavy cannon held by the teeth (without using the hands).

Loise Armaindo Madame Yucca. Outstanding American strongwoman in 1880-1890s. She performed for "Barnum and Bailey" circus which presented her as "The champion American female Hercules whose most extraordinary feats of strength stand unequalled record. Breaking trials with heavy weight and ponderous cannon balls, carrying many men aloft at one time and even lifting giant live horses from the ground. A graceful athlete with the might and power of Samson."

Loise Armaindo. Louise Brisbois (Loise Armaindo), eminent athlete and strongwoman in the late of the XIX century; the world-champion female cyclist of her time. She was born in St. Ann, Quebec (Canada) in 1860s. Having 5'2" (158 cm) in height and weighed just 135 pounds (55 kilograms), she held up two suspended men for a minute just by her teeth – she performed that on the exhibitions in the Athenaeum Gymnasium in Chicago. A short time before the end of the XIX century she became the first woman in the world running 20 miles uninterruptedly (with an average speed of 9.5 miles per hour). With a "high wheel" bicycle" (the old bike style with enormous wheels which were utilized in that epoch) she covered 760 miles in the six day ride. In the Reservoir Park in Maryland she broke the record for this type of bicycle that had been owned by a man, Chat Jenkins. It was told that she elevates an 80 lb (36 kg) dumb bell and raised a weight of 760 pounds (345 kilograms)! If this In fact, there are no reliable sources confirming that (as well as sources confirming women's powerlifting records until the middle of the XX century) and it’s quite difficult to believe in such a feat. In 1911 Louise withdrew from all the practices of athletics and worked as a waiter at a restaurant in Minneapolis.

Minerva Minerva. Josephine Blatt, nee Schauer ("Minerva"), America strongwoman and weightlifting record holder (1869-1823). Having a height of 173 cm she weighed 75 kilograms and her biceps were measured 45 turn centimeters (in an interview with his husband after her death, he declared that she was as heavy as he was that time - 204 kilograms). In 1889 she married a local powerful guy, Paul Blatt ("Hoboken Hercules") and they began a joint strength acts which continued through 1910. During the 1890-1900s, Minerva worked in diverse weightlifting spectacles and carried out tours all over Europe and states of America with various circuses until she retired in 1910. In her spectacles she demonstrated such stunts as breaking horseshoes with the hands; breaking steel chains by expanding her chest; catching 24 pound cannon balls launched out of a cannon situated at 30 feet from her; lifting by hands a chair with a man of 60 kilograms and lifting him in front of her with the extended arms. She was capable to lift a stone of 165 kilograms with a single finger having rings grasping it. On April 15, 1895, in the "Bijou Theatre" in Hoboken, she stood to a high platform and harnessed herself by cables to another wood platform below her with 23 men on it, having total weight (included harness and chains) of 1617 kilograms. Minerva lifted all of them of the floor. In 1893 Minerva received widespread national attention following her victory in a weightlifting contest over another professional strongwoman, "Victorine", and her acceptance of a belt – donated by the "Police Gazette" – recognizing her as the "world’s strongest woman." For several years, the Guinness Book of World Records listed Minerva as having lifted the greatest weight ever by a woman 3,564 lb (1,617 kg). However, some sport historians doubt about this record.

Miss Apollina
Miss Apollina

Miss Apollina. Elise Gillaine Herbigneaux (Miss Apollina), born in the village of Tongrine, Belgium in 1875. Growing up in a large family, Elise from little up participated in violent games in the open air, played hockey, romped around wildly, and tussled with boys. At thirteen, she loaded and unloaded wagons with her own mighty and tireless arms. At fifteen years, Apollina chose to imitate strongmen, dreaming only of strength and athletic prowess. Alone and without anyone's knowledge she trained in an attempt to imitate the feats of the Antwerp strongman, Jean Larrey. Then she moved to Paris where trained wrestling and weightlifting in the Arasse Gymnasium, which was at that time the meeting place of all the wrestlers and amateurs of Paris. After much effort and getting over obstacles, she left for Hamburg and returned victorious from a wrestling championship that was organized there. She emerged world's champion in international competitions in Liege, Brussels, Ghent, Charleroi and Mons where she defeated forty female wrestlers holding that title which has never been taken away. Next, she toured London and the principal cities with strength feats. She raised the audience's enthusiasm, wrestling with local amateurs. In her stage performances, Apollina regularly wrestled men. Apollina got married and legally adopted a three year old lost boy who later became a famous professor of strength. Apollina's measurements: height 165cm (5'4"); weight 84 kg (185.18 lb.); neck 38cm (14.96"); shoulder width 53cm (20.86"); chest circumference 106cm (41.37"); arm length 68cm (26.77"); biceps at rest 35cm (13.77"); biceps flexed 39cm (15.35"); forearm at the bend of the arm 30cm (11.81"); thigh 66cm (25.98"); calf, 41cm (16.14"). Apollina's feats: Steady arm extension of 20 kg (44 lb); throwing a 20 kg weight and catching it by the little rim; one-hand snatch of 48 kg (105.8 lb) - in a single motion; one-hand snatch of 35 kg (77.16 lb) - in a single motion and without bending the arm; 50 kg (110 lb) barbell lifted eight times with two hands; lifting a 80 kg (176 lb) barbell in two stages with two hands without spreading the legs or jumping beneath the barbell; lifting a 250kg (550.15 lb) load on her shoulders and walking around and dancing with it.

Athleta
Athleta. Photo from the resource Orrin Heller

Athleta (Van Huffelen). A daughter and granddaughter of athletes, she was born in 1868, in Anvers, Belgium and was named Athleta – she would later completely prove her name. Married at the age of 18 Mr. Go Huffelen she had three daughters, Brada, Louise and Anna, who followed their mother. Having ideally harmonious build, Athleta had outstanding physical parameters which were (when she was 30): height 170cm, weight 73kg, biceps 42 cm, waist girth 68cm, chest girth 102cm, calf 43 cm, thigh 61cm, forearm 30cm, neck 38cm. In 1886, when she was only 18, Athleta acted in a weightlifting spectacle moving heavy loads in the theater "Eden Alhambra" in Brussels. After her initial success in Belgium, Athleta traveled to England, where she also had a great success. Later she traveled all over Europe and America holding exhibitions of physical power. Athleta participated in numerous spectacles with strength demonstrations which consisted in lifting and carrying different heavy objects. In those spectacles she was dancing with three men on the shoulders; carrying on her shoulders a heavy bar with four suspended men dressed as soldiers... In 1905, after gaining sufficient money, Athleta decided to leave the world of spectacles and went to live to a chalet (called "Village Athleta") in the country, near Anvers, in Belgium, along with her husband and her family. These are some Athleta's personal records: jerk by two arms – 90 kg, snatch by one arm – 49 kg, holding a 19.6 kg load on the palm of an outstretched arm for a minute. Contemporary stereotypes of a beauty wouldn't allow Athleta to compete in a beauty contest but she still remains a model of a harmonious, strong and beautiful woman.

Athletas daughters
Athleta's daughters:
Anna, Brada, Louise
Photo from the resource Orrin Heller

Continuing the business of their famous mother, Athleta, her daughters Brada, Louise and Anna also worked in spectacles demonstrating physical strength. At first, they began to act together with the mother and then, after she had withdrew, the three continued acting in spectacles performing in the famous Parisian nightclub "Folies Bergere" (Mad Shepherds). Nevertheless, they did not reach the glory of their mother had obtained. In 1905, when Athleta visited the "French Club of Weightlifting", the oldest daughter Brada, 18, had parameters 170cm/70 kg and lifted a bar of 70 kilograms over her head. Louise, the second daughter, 16 (168cm/40 kg) lifted 40 kg over her head. Anna, the youngest one, 14 (165cm) lifted 50 kg over her head and 55 kilogram to the shoulders.

Madame Montagna Madame Montagna. She was born in the city of Bologna, Italy, in 1874. Married another strong person who weighed 115 kilograms. Madame Montagna, in an occasion, bore cannon on her back which weighed 105 kilograms while it was loaded with 200g of powder and blank shot, while Montagna stood stock-still. In 1909, an Algerian newspaper published that Madame Montagna tear and left in half a composed deck of 110 playing cards in five seconds and later halved them again.

Sandwina. Katie (Kate) Brumbach ("Great Sandwina") - possibly the best ever known strongwoman. She was born in 1884 in Vienna, Austria and passed away in 1952. Katie was the second oldest of 15 children whose parents were circus performers. Her father, of Bavarian stock, Philippe, was six feet six inches tall and weighed about 260 pounds with a 56 inch chest; her mother, German Jew Johanna, whose biceps measured 15 inches, amazed European audiences with their feats of strength. Three daughters inherited the strength and talent of their parents and joined the act very young. Sandwina had exceptional physical parameters: 184 cm of height, 85 kg of weight; 44 turn cm of biceps; 20 turn cm of wrists and 67 turn cm of thigh.

Sandwina
Sandwina
Photo from the resource Forgotten Newsmakers

Her parents, Philippe and Johanna Brumbach acted as a powerful pair in fairs and circuses (the biceps of Johanna measured 40 cm) and they had fourteen children. Kate’s three sisters, Barbara, Marie and Eugenia also possessed great physical strengths and acted in power demonstrations. Yet Kate was the most famous one of the four. Barbara and Marie acted as a duet, with the artistic name of "Braselly". During years, Kate participated in circus spectacles with her family, and the most exciting moment came when her father offered 100 marks to any man in the audience who would capable to defeat his daughter Kate in wrestling. According to the legend, nobody earned the 100 marks which was a lot of money at those days. Her husband during 52 years, Max Heymann, was one of those daredevils who accepted the challenge and according to his own words, the following had happened with him: "As I have entered the ring I started thinking that if I earned the 100 marks it would be the most extravagant way to earn money I have ever had. But the only thing I recall is my sudden rotation in the air with the flashing blue sky in my eyes, and then free falling down. Eventually, I found myself on the floor panting and semi-unconscious, while the girl bent down to me and said: "Have I inflicted any damage to you?" Then she grabbed me in her arms as a dummy and carried me to her tent."

Sandwina
Sandwina holds a platform with a crowd on it

      Occasionally, famous Eugene Sandow, who made the epoch in powerlifting, appeared in a small athletic club in New York and responded to Kate’s challenge to a strength test. Kate started lifting weights increasingly heavier and heavier and Sandow, subsequently, caught the ones she left and lifted them at the same time. Finally, Kate lifted a weight of 300 pounds (136 kg) on the level of her head whereas Sandow was able to lift it just to his chest, with which Kate won the contest. Overpowering Sandow she decided to adopt the artistic name of "Sandwina" (female derivative from "Sandow"). She was capable to lift her husband of 75 kilograms above the head with just one arm. In fact, she used him in performances just as a dumbbell. She was able to lift over her head 75 kg (moving the body aside) with one arm and 100 kg with two arms. Among her actions were: tossing up iron balls of 14 kilograms which then she caught by the back of the neck; maintaining a carousels of 14 persons on her shoulders; doubling iron bars of 5 centimeters in diameter; resisting the traction of 4 horses...
      During the 1920s, 1930 and the beginning of the 1940, she worked in the United States. In 1941 season, in the age of 57, Sandwina still worked as powerlifter in the "Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus". Being 64 year old she still was able to break horseshoes and to double bars of iron with the hands as well as to lift her husband with one hand. Subsequently she and her husband opened a restaurant in New York. Their son, Theodore Sandwina, was a famous heavyweight boxing champion in the 1920s and early 1930s (his parameters were 6'2"/210 Lbs). Teddy’s strength in the ring was hereditary…

Vulcana. Kate Roberts, nee Williams ("Vulcana"), the famous lightweight strongwoman was born in 1883 of Irish parents in Abergavenny, in Wales. When she was young she loved running without rest, climbing to the trees and all those things that girls were not supposed to do. Being a middle school student she surprised her classmates by carrying the weighty school organ. With strongman William Hedley Roberts, better known as Atlas, they toured music halls, in Britain, Europe and Australia, performing as "The Atlas and Vulcana Group of Society Athletes". Atlas and Vulcana introduced themselves as a brother and a sister, even though they lived de facto as a married couple having many children which they kept with the troupe. Kate took the artistic name "Vulcana" when was performing with strength demonstrations in the "Music Hall of London" (alone or with Atlas). Her specialty was lifting men.

Vulcana and Atlas
Vulcana and Atlas

Vulcana
Vulcana, the muscular beauty
Postcard from James Gardiner Collection 1994
Resource Flickr

      Vulcana reached the peak of her strength and popularity in about 1910. On May 29, 1913 at Haggar's Theatre in Llanelly, she lifted a challenge bell that rival strongwoman harda failed to raise after twenty-five minutes of trying. Vulcana was triumphant in France, impressing the "l'Halterophile Club de France" with her feats of strength, earning her a medal from the "Father of French Bodybuilding," Professor Edmond Desbonnet, and the cover of La Sante par les Sports. She was honored with over one hundred medals throughout her career. Her best-authenticated feats were bent press with her right hand of at least 124? lb (56.5 kg), with some authorities accepting a press of 145 lb (66 kg).
      Although her power stunts were not especially innovative, being the typical for strongwomen, Vulcana was the first woman who included in her repertoire the unique stunt, so-called "Tomb of Hercules" which had been performed just by few powerful men. This act consisted in supporting a big platform placing on the abdomen of the performer who leans backwards on the floor by the hands and legs. The wonder is that two horses with their attendants stood on that platform and leave it for a few seconds. She struggled against the custom of wearing corsets considering this part of women’s equipment to be unnatural that was an instrument of torturing grandmothers of that epoch. There are a lot of legends about her strength and courage. It is said that once, in Paris, she caught a thief, grabbed him and took him to a police precinct. In 1898, at the age of thirteen, she stopped a runaway horse in Bristol. She freed a wagon stuck in Maiden Lane, London in October 1901 by lifting it before astonished witnesses.
      She rescued two children from drowning in the River Usk in July 1901, for which she received an award in gratitude. On June 4, 1921 the Garrick Theatre in Edinburgh caught fire on an evening of the Society Athletes' performance. Vulcana risked her life to save another act's horses, and came away with serious burns on her head. For this she won commendations and an award.
      Vulcana and Atlas moved permanently to London in the 1920s, and retired from performance in 1932. Vulcana was hit by a car in London in 1939, and was conscious when she heard her own death pronounced. She suffered brain damage, but partially recovered, and briefly outlived Atlas and her youngest daughter, both of whom also died in 1946.
      Kate was as strong as she was beautiful but with none of that aggressive assertion of muscular development which leads many to believe that strength and maidenly modesty are an impossible combination. Vulcana convinced women to be in charge of their own physical development. The Health and Strength magazine in 1904 said that Vulcana was "a veritable Venus in form."

Lurs
Marina Lurs in 1908.
Photo from the Russian magazine Nauka i Zhizn

Marina Lurs Maria Loorberg (scenic name Marina Lurs), one of the strongest women of the Russian Empire in the 1900s - 1910s. She was born in 1881, in Tallinn (Estonia), and passed away in 1922. Maria had a solid build: weight of 80 kg and height of 168 cm. She was trained by the weightlifting enthusiast Adolph Andrushkevich, who was the first trainer of the famous strongman George Gakkensmidt. Maria had been training since 1903 and later, she started performing strength stunts and participating in wrestling championships. Since 1905, Maria appeared in carnivals and circuses of Estonia and other provinces of Russia with her feats with weights.
Marina Lurs       Maria was capable to lift two men, weighing 66 kilograms each, with one hand and to move a man suspended with a strap which she held with the teeth. Marina Lurs easily joggled with two 70lbs/32kg dumbbells, pushed up 176lbs/90kg with two arms, and snatched 106lbs/48kg by one hand. She carried three people on her back; lying on back she 32 times lifted by legs a bar with two people on its tips (with total weight 406lbs/184kg); she held 9 people on erect legs. On August, 1913 Lurs established the record: she planted her arms firmly on the knees and maintained 13 people on her legs. The total weight – 1940lbs/880kg – almost a ton! The audience was dazzled by the act in which Marina was spinning a yoke with "human loads" on its – the stunt was called "Live Carousel" - things were flashing before spectators' eyes when Lurs rotated a yoke with live load.
      Lurs’ the most famous strength stunts were the following: she carried three people on her back; lying on back she 32 times lifted by legs a bar with two people on it’s tips (with total weight 184 kg) and held in such a position 9 people. On August 27, 1913 she established the record: she planted her arms firmly on the knees and maintained 13 people on her legs. The total weight – 880 kg! (The famous male athlete Arthur Saxon managed to hold 1040 kg on his legs.) Lurs easily joggled with two 32kg dumbbells, pushed up 90kg with two arms, and snatched 48kg by one hand. The audience was dazzled by the act in which Marina was spinning a yoke with "human loads" on its tips.
      Her artistic name Lurs is probably a female version of the name of her fellow-countryman, famous strongman Georg Lurich. In her epoch she enjoyed an enormous popularity, and went known as a female Kalev (Kalev is a national hero of Estonia). And she is still honored in Estonia as a strongwoman and a great wrestler.
      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." Ivan Lebedev, athleticism and wrestling promoter, wrote about her: "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".

Lillian Leitzel
Lillian Leitzel. Photo from the resourse LHart

Lillian Leitzel. Alitza Pelikan (Lillian Leitzel). Beautiful strongwoman and acrobat. Lillian Leitzel was born in Breslau, Germany on January 2, 1892 in a family of circus performers. Her father was a Hungarian army officer and theater performer. Her mother was a Czech circus acrobat. She weighed just 43 kg (95 Lbs) with the height 143 cm (4’9"). Unlike other stronwomen, this little lady was famous by her inconceivable acrobatic numbers which required literally herculean strength.
      Although she had been well-educated and had prepared to pursue a career as a concert pianist, she joined her mother's aerobatic circus group, the Leamy Ladies. In 1910, she came to the United States with the circus troupe and performed with Barnum and Bailey. The group later dissolved and its member returned to Europe, but Leitzel continued to attempt to perform in the American vaudeville circuit. In South Bend, Indiana, she was seen by an agent of the Ringling Brothers who offered her a contract. When Ringling and Barnum and Bailey merged, she became a huge star and a headline performer for the circus.
Elvira Sansoni       Leitzel's act included one-armed plunges, momentarily dislocating the shoulder during each plunge. She would flip her body over her shoulder repeatedly, sometimes hundreds of times in a feat of endurance, encouraging the audience to count each one in unison. She was best known for her flirting rapport with the audience.
      Being just four feet, nine inches, she was also famous for her demanding personality and temper. Although pursued by many wealthy suitors, she married a series of circus individuals and never had any children. Her last marriage was in 1928 with the circus trapeze performer Alfredo Codona. On February 13, 1931, she fell to the ground from her rigging while performing in Copenhagen, Denmark when the swivel that held the rope in place crystallized and snapped. She and Codona had been performing in Europe separately, and he rushed to Copenhagen. They boarded a train to return to Berlin where Codona had a commitment. However, she died on February 15, two days after the fall, aged 39.

Elvira Sansoni and her Sisters . The sisters The sisters Sansoni, and first of them, Elvira, worked in the "Circus Rancy" performing in spectacles of strength. Usually they worked with weights between 36 and 68 kilograms (80 - 150 pounds). One of the stunts consisted in leaning feet and hands on the floor backwards, forming an arch and supporting a little orchestra on the chest: a woman-pianist with a piano and a man touching the violin. In the placard there you can see also maintaining three men on her shoulders: a seated one and two others hanging on the bar. She also was good in playing with cannon balls. Her performances attracted a lot of attention and she became very popular and famous in the world.

Marie Ford Marie Ford. She was born in 1900, in the town of Olean, in the New York state, USA. Having 163 cm (5'4") and 59 kg (130 Lbs) she was very versatile athlete - she participated in powerlifting, boxing, wrestling, marathon; she also worked in the circus as an acrobat. Marie Ford was unusually for that time great female athlete. The remarkable development of her shoulders and biceps enabled her to perform such feats as driving stakes with the 16-pound mallet, like a really strong man and lifting the front wheels of the model T. Ford, so a jack could be placed under the front axle. In one of her spectacles, she caught a nail and punched them into a wood board to an inch (two and a half centimeters).
      While she travelled all over North America with her spectacles, she challenged any woman or man in the audience to a wrestling or boxing match (for male volunteers for boxing, it was the restriction though, to have about the same weight and not to be a boxer-professional). As her trainer said, in view of her unusual strength and perfect boxing techniques, it didn't seem possible that any woman could defeat her in a finish boxing match.
      Especially spectacular were boxing matches between small Marie and sturdy rustic women from the American Middle West who had been hardened in physical work and didn’t shun men’s activities. Those women usually broke straight through and pressed hard on Marie who sidestepped the attacks very adroitly and allured her opponents into exhausting bustle. As soon as the opponent had exhausted and embarrassed and the heat of the audience reached culmination, Marie managed to duck under her big opponent and delivered her master stroke – crushing uppercut to the jaw. That usually was a final of the bout – the opponent was either knockout or unable to continue.
      By boxing skills and techniques she could be compared to the best male boxers. Actually, Marie Ford was a founder of contemporary pancration, so-called "mixed martial arts" - combination of boxing and wrestling. When competing in this combat style with volunteers from the audience, Marie used a tactics of contemporary MMA fighters: she first "softened" the opponent with accurate powerful punches from weird angles 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.

Rustic She-Hercules. Agafia Zavidna (Zavidnaya) (1890-1935) – outstanding Ukrainian strongwoman of natural gifts - she easily pressed 72-pound weights by her little fingers; a phaeton with passengers was moving over a platform lying on her chest; she successfully wrestled against men. Being a student of the great Russian wrestler Ivan Poddubny, Agafia at the age of 17 became a real giant and even physically exceeded her mentor – she was 6”3’ (190cm) and 330Lbs (150kg); her breasts were so big than stretched below her waist. For six years Agafia worked in the wrestler’s troupe. Agafia Zavidna She performed strength feats. She pushed up two 35Lb weights, arched her body forming a bridge and holding a platform with eight men; she was spinning a rail with four men on each side; she was placed a big stone on her chest being struck and broken with a sledgehammer by two men. Zavidnaya easily tore iron chains and twisted an iron bar making a spring of it; she lifted a chair with a man sitting on it just by her teeth. She willingly and successfully wrestled men; such wrestling matches were supplements to her tricks with weights (women didn’t dare to wrestle her). After demonstrations of superhuman abilities of the “Rustic She-Hercules”, 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 arena”…
      Read more about Agafia Zavidna in the article “Ukrainian Hercules”

Luisita Leers
Luisita Leers. Luise (nee Krokel) was born in Wiesbaden, Germany in 1909. A physically powerful woman, she acquired fame with an elegant and unusual aerial acrobatic and strength acts. Luisita never knew her biological father, who left the family when she was two years old. Her mother remarried with Guido Krokel, an aerial contortionist. Guido took care of Luisita's artistic education without too much tenderness and made of her an extraordinarily strong female athlete able to hold her own in the Leers-Arvellos's troupe various exhibitions of strength. Luisita made her professional debut at age 11, on March 8, 1920 in Cologne (Koln), working with the troupe on the Roman Rings (live chain of aerial acrobats). Soon, she was able to accomplish one-arm "planche" and "iron cross" (standing on an arm, which were then supposed to belong exclusively to a male repertoire) and to hold with one arm her hanging stepfather. Meanwhile, she was building a solo trapeze act in which to display her unusual strength. She began her solo career in 1926. Her remarkable trapeze feats quickly drew headlines. It took her to some of the world's most prestigious circuses and variety theaters, from the Wintergarten and the Scala in Berlin to the Roxy in New York, with a four-year stint with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey from 1928-33. There, she occupied center ring in a program that was often unusually rich in stellar aerialists, including Winnie Colleano, the Codonas, the Siegrist-Silbons, and Lillian Leitzel, the undisputed star of the show. In 1936 she returned to Germany and soon her circus career was over…

Martha Farra Iron Martha. Marta Farra (Iron Martha) was born in 1903 in Vienna, Austria. Her maiden name was Martha Khan. She weighed just 55 kilograms. Her parents were circus acrobats, and since she was a baby Marta learned to be an equilibrist and to accomplish somersaults. In 1924, she proclaimed herself to be the strongest woman of the world - she was capable to lift a platform of 3500 pound (1587 kilograms) to 75 centimeters over the floor. There is the famous photograph where she can be seen trying to lift a young elephant standing on a platform. In reality, however, it turned out later that the stunt with the platform was just a trick. Besides powerlifting she practiced in freestyle wrestling and participated in some wrestling matches.
      This is what she said herself: "I am the strongest woman in the world; I understand it sounds disputable but I prove it every day that I ma a real strongwoman. If you look at me and say "weaker sex", I will prove the opposite. Louis Cyr, the avowed "iron master", held two tons on his back but he weighed 160kg. My weight is just 60 kg and I can hold 1,700kg on my shoulder. Calculate now who is strongest of the two. Of course I don’t demonstrate my strength to everyone in the street. But newspapers call me "Atlas in skirt" and "Woman-Hercules". Give me a horse shoe and I straighten it by bare hands; give me a piece of steel and I will shape anything of it. And nobody could portray me as a goggle-eyed monster with swelled veins spoiling my appearance. I am beautiful, any model would be happy to have such a nice face as mine. But very few have such a perfect body as I do! I think, only athletically developed women are truly beautiful and only weight exercises can make a woman beautiful!"

Ada Ash
Testing durability of Ada Ash

Ada Ash.This powerful blonde was born in 1906, in Hamilton, Ohio (USA). She was surprisingly short, her height was just 153 cm. Around the decade of 1930s he worked in diverse spectacles with strength stunts. In one of these spectacles, her husband, Al Szasz, directed a truck of 4 tons that rolled above a board situated on her stomach. In other actions, Ada fought against a crocodile suffering several serious bites in jaw, arms and legs. Another her act consisted of lifting a horse that stood on a wood platform. She also doubled iron bars and performs many other strength demonstrations like being an anvil – holding a board which her husband hit by a sledgehammer (see the photo). Besides possessing an enormous physical strength and acting as a strongwoman she showed her worth as a great wrestler and trainer having written three books dedicated to judo and self-defense (together with her husband). Being brave and strong she participated in female wrestling competitions (her husband also was a great wrestler). Actually, at her time women wrestling was transformed from competitive (albeit not always real) to an entertainment show which now is known as "professional wrestling", the profitable show industry. In one of wrestling matches against another famous female wrestler Nell Stewart (who was much younger her), Ada accidentally fell out of the ring to the floor in a bad position and damaged her spine. As the result, she was disabled during almost two years, and recovered thanks to the care and dedication of her husband, who remained next to her doing massages for five hours every day.

Ivy Russel Ivy Russel. Ivy Elizabeth Russel was born in 1907 in Surrey (England). Her parameters were 167 cm and 57 kg. She was born being just one and a half kilograms. In school she practiced swimming and gymnastics. When Ivy was 12, she became a member of a local gymnastic club. Ivy Russell began training with weight at age fourteen to cure her tuberculosis. She not only got well, she got exceptionally strong. Over the next twenty years, she gave numerous exhibitions in the British Isles, making best lifts of 193 pounds in the clean and jerk and 410.5 pounds in the dead lift. She worked in strength demonstrations, like lifting and maintaining several persons. Later, she opened a small gym in Croydon, England.
      Owing to her incredible physical strength Ivy became a great wrestler. In 1934 she started attending the “Victory Ladies Wrestling Club” for training in wrestling, and in a year she managed to gain the champion title in the female wrestling championship defeating all her opponents. Once a man visiting the wrestling class learned that Ivy was training in wrestling and started mocking her. Other men in the class retorted him that any woman should know how to wrestle. Being deeply touched by this incident Ivy invited the man to her gym and there grabbed him into her arms and kept squeezing strongly until he asked for mercy and begged to release him.
      She also successfully lobbied the British Amateur Weightlifting Association to admit women as full members and to sanction contests for women.
      Although some weightlifting enthusiasts were simply interested in Russell's strength, what captivated the media and, in turn, the public was her body and her athleticism. Her physical parameters were higher than ones of that strong man: the sizes of her biceps, calf and thighs were the same or exceeded the parameters of the most famous heavyweight boxers of her time. Her relatively small size and extreme muscularity were antithetical to many people’s conception of a “strongwoman” but many admired her.
      Read more about Ivy Russell in the article “Compact Muscular Strongwoman”

Joan Rhodes
Joan Rhodes

Joan Rhodes. Her real name was Joan (Josie) Terena. She was born in 1920 (?) in England. Being slender (170cm/65 kg) she dedicated all her life to circus - she left her house when she was thirteen and started working in circus where performed in different kinds of roles, such as trapeze artist, acrobat and strength performer. She doubled bars of iron, broke nails of iron of six inches and tore telephone guides just by hands. In one of her spectacles, Joan grabbed "Atlas", a gigantic Belgian man, who weighed 200 kilograms and charged him on her shoulders.

Gertrude Leandros
Gertrude Leandros

After doubling bars of iron she asked men in the audience to straighten them and, after contemplating as various men from the public unsuccessfully tried that with all their might, she got the bar back and straightened it without any visible effort. Once Joan was busy in a spectacle in a night club in Vienna, where two spectators happened to be Olympic weightlifters. They declared that they could do easily the same things that she did. Joan offered them to break the nails of 6 inches that she used in her action. In spite of the fact that the both tried that, none of the two managed that. After all, Joan got the nail and broke it. Joan Rhodes coached during a time in the gymnasium with Ivy Russel and also had a class of Judo in the Dave Crowley’s Club of London. Besides possessing an incredible physical force, Joan was also able to speak French, Spanish and German.

Gertrude Leandros.Born in Antwerp (Belgium) in 1882. Her parameters were 5'5"/160Lbs (1m 67 cm/72 kg). She was a daughter of the famous athlete of the epoch, Philipi. In her actions she performed diverse exercises of strength and dexterity acting with her husband (whose weight was just 130 Lbs (60 kg) – she lifted and manipulated with his body in different ways, including a sensational hand balancing act with him. She had remarkable development in her arms, legs and deltoids: chest 39.4" (100cm); hops 39.4" (100cm); thighs 24.4" (62cm) ; calves 16.3" (41.5cm); ankle 6.7" (17cm), forearm 12" (30cm); biceps 14.8" (37.5cm).

Caroline BaumanCaroline Bauman. She was born in Austria around 1905 and in 1910 moved with her family to Chicago. Until she was 18, Caroline was quite overweight and by the time she had graduated from high school, she had become quite despondent due to her weight problem. As a last effort to lose weight and gain fitness, at the age of 18 Caroline sought help from Attila, a veteran gymnast and the trainer of many top athletes and strongmen, including Eugen Sandow. He happened to live and work in Chicago. Under his instruction, Caroline made remarkable progress; soon she was no longer plump, and her muscles gained tone and shape. After a year of training Caroline’s weight had dropped to 135 pounds, and she had increased her strength remarkably. In fact, Caroline had become so strong she was able to lift a huge dumbbell that had previously been reserved for Sandow! Caroline’s success in transforming her body encouraged her to help other women improve their physical proportions. Driven by this encouragement, she became a physical instructor and started her own training business.

Many other powerful women acted in the early XX century - they lifted and supported heavy weights (including people and big animals) in different ways. Among them the following strongwomen stood out: Mademoiselle Ani, Miss Bertha, Madame Starck, Miss Perlane, Hermanas Rubio, Miss Ella, Roberta (strongwoman champion of Cuba), M’lle Madro (France), Madame Robusta (claimed to be "Champion of Europe"), Beulah ("Champion of Germany"), Myra (champion of France), Frau der Welt (Germany), Ethel Hart (USA), Rose la Perl.


The following information and illustration are taken from the resource LHart

Athelda
Athelda, an ardent weightlifting competitor. She was born in Manchester (England), her real name was Frances Rheinlander. Her height was 170 cm and weight 75 kg. Athelda performed in the decade of 1910s in various music halls in England, where accomplished different exercises demonstrating exceptional strength lifting and carrying weights and people.

Mars Bennett
Mars Bennett. American strongwoman and wrestler. Born in Texas, in 1920s in the family of a circus clown. Passed away in an automobile accident. Her parameters were 166cm/57 kg. Mars Bennett started as a trapeze artist in the circuses "Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey". Later she acted also as a backup actress in several movies, doubling the real actresses in dangerous scenes. Later, she worked in performances of the strength and wrestling. Mars Bennett was training with the coach Lou Leonard in the Bothners' gymnasium in New York, where she practiced judo, weightlifting, wrestling and boxing. As a wrestler, became very popular to the end of the decade of 1940 and during the 50s. Besides the above-mentioned talents, Mars Bennett was a good singer.

Alice Collins
Alice Collins. The trapeze artist who worked in the circus in the late 1910s and the beginning of 1920s. She possessed a muscular body, especially incredibly strong arms

Eugenia Werkme. Eugenia had hired a guy of the enormous size who played his role in her actions. The giant came to the stage and lifted a heavy bar. Then Eugenia appeared, grabbed the giant along with the weight, lifted them on her head and walked over the stage demonstrating exceptional physical strength.

Madame Doublier
Madame Doublier. Wife of an American wrestler. In her acts, she performed a lot of feats of strength, lifting barbells and dumbbells. lifting a heavy cannon and juggling with weighty cannonballs. She supported the heavy cannon on her shoulders while if was discharged. Being exceptionally strong and having been trained in wrestling, she could defeat men in wrestling. After her "tour of force", her husband would invite anyone from the audience to test her strength in a wrestling match.


Marie la Bordelaise
Marie La Bordelaise. She was a member of an athletic club and performed a bizzare stunt.Her feet were fixed to a vertical upright so her body was out horizontally like a flag. While in this position, weights were suspended from her body, legs, hands and teeth

Madame Casette
Madame Casette

Miss Alice Victoria Chilsona
Miss Alice Victoria Chilson, strong woman from Natale.

Missis Edwin Zello
Missis Edwin Zello who was able to could raise a 150-pound dumbbell above ger head


Caroline Bauman
Abbye "Pudgy" Stockton (1917 - 2006) was a professional strongwoman and forerunner of present day female bodybuilders, who became famous through her involvement with Muscle Beach in the 1940s.

Miss Bertha
Miss Bertha

Mademoiselle Ani
Mademoiselle Ani

Miss Starck
Miss Starck


Perlane
Miss Perlane

Hermanas Rubio
Hermanas Rubio

Miss Ella
Miss Ella. Strongwoman and gymnast of the Schiavoni Troupe of gymnasts


Ethel Hart
Ethel Hart. American dancer and strongwoman. Miss Hart added more muscle everyday through her dancing performance. She could take her male dancing partner weighing over 200Lbs and throw him over her head. She also was a weightlifter and could lift 200Lbs over her head with ease. This muscular beauty believed that every woman should be fighting fit. She favored boxing and wrestling for women and said that women shouldn't be condent to be known as the weaker sex.

Hermanas Rubio
Alcide Capitaine (fl. 1880s-circa 1915), Italian-born international trapeze artist, famous beauty called "perfect woman", the "Queen of the Air", famous air acrobat and strongwoman

Anna Abbs
Anna Abbs. Was a daughter of the famous powerful man Carl Abbs. She held spectacles of physical strength demonstration including weightlifting. She traveled all over Europe. During her actions she called any person from the audience to verify the authenticity of the weights she had lifted and then offered him to try pick up and carry them.

Miss Ella
Miss Robinson could support 1560 Lbs with her shoulders


Belle Gordon
Belle Gordon. American strongwoman, physical culture enthusiast and boxer. Became famous after Thomas Edison filmed her boxing sparring with her sister in 1901.

Miss La Pearl
Miss La Pearl

Miss Ella
Miss Sheffer. Strongwoman could hold a heavy weight on her chest beaing at the bridge position.

Mlle LeZetora
Mlle LeZetora, “Colored Lady Athlete - Heavy Weight Act,” circa 1900. Source: The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, NYPL


Yury Shtern
This material was originally formed in 2003 from the article "Mujeres Forzudas" (Powerful women)
which was originally written in Spanish. The original name was Iron Ladies at the edge of XIX and XX centuries
Later (in 2011), the material was substantially revised based on many Internet sources.

March 22, 2003
Revised in January 2013


Strong lass
A professional strongwoman, circa 1885, taken by the photographer Wendt, of Boonton, New Jersey
Web resource Strongwoman


It took four men and a policeman to hold her
It took four men and a policeman to hold her
Cartoon from Tumblr


>> Female Combat History
>> Circus wrestling and athleticism at the turn of the century

>> Women's Strength
>> Strong women challenge


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