ABOVE: MLLE ANGELA DATALLE, THE FEMALE SAMPSON, AND M. DATALIE, LITHOGRAPH FROM 1873 BARNUM ADVANCE COURIER.
BELOW: UNIDENTIFIED STRONGWOMAN DRESSING BACKSTAGE IN CIRCUS TENT (THOUGHT TO BE MADAME YUCCA), 1902.
BACKGROUND IMAGE: UNIDENTIFIED STRONGWOMAN LIFTING ANCHOR AND WEIGHTS WITH HAIR AND TEETH, C. 1780‑1810, LITHOGRAPH.
ABOVE: LUIS1TA LEERS, C. 1928‑1930,
AN EARLY IMAGE OF THE GERMANBORN AERIAL STRONG WOMAN. SIGNED SEPIA POSTCARD, 51/2 x 31/2'.
RIGHT: UNE FEMME ATHLETE EN 1783," LITHOGRAPH DEPICTING AN EIGHTEENTH‑CENTURY WOMAN PERFORMING FEATS OF STRENGTH.
ABOVE: MADAM YUCCA SHOWN PERFORMING HER STRENGTH FEATS, 1892 BARNUM AND BAILEY POSTER, 42 x 28.
RIGHT: THE ATHLETIC WOMAN. 1906. COLOR "PENNY DREADFUL' POSTCARD, 51/2 x 31/2
RIGHT: ATHLETA OF BELGIUM LIFTS FIVE MEN ON A POLE, C. 1890. BLACK‑AND‑WHITE PHOTOGAPH OF CABINET CARD, 7 x 51/4
BELOW: ATHELDA, BRITISH STRENGTH AND PHYSIQUE PERFORMER, C. 1910‑1915, BLACK‑AND‑WHITE POSTCARD, 51/2 x 31/4•
Athleta understood, as did most of the successful strongmen and strongwomen, that audiences needed to see real things lifted and moved, not just iron weights. And so she demonstrated her strength by lifting people, horses and barrels; by bending horseshoes and spikes; and by wrestling other women professionals. A regular part of her strength act was to waltz while supporting three men on her shoulders. Athleta was rarely able to participate in standard weightlifting events because of her heavy touring schedule, but in front of reliable witnesses she lifted 204 pounds over her head.7
The second factor that catapulted Athleta to stardom, however, was her appearance. The fin de siècle era relished full‑figured, vigorous models of womanhood, and Athleta was considered a great beauty. Her measurements in 1908, three years after her retirement from the stage, were: bust, 48 inches; waist, 35.4 inches; and upper arm, 16.7 inches.
Although Athleta appeared in the United States, she did not have nearly the impact on America that another strongwoman, the German immigrant Josephine Wohlford, had. In 1890, after an illustration of Mlle Victorine, the "luscious and robust strongest woman in the world," appeared in the widely read tabloid National Police Gazette,8 Josie Wohlford was quoted in the Police Gazette as saying: "I hereby challenge her to arrange a match to lift heavy‑weights and catch cannonballs from 10 pounds to 20 pounds for $500 to $1000 a side and the female heavy weightlifting championship of the world. The $100 my backer, Mr. C. P. Blatt, has posted with Richard K. Fox, shows that I mean business.'9
Taking the stage name Minerva, Wohlford soon defeated Victorine and was presented by Richard K. Fox with a championship belt made of silver and gold and engraved with the words "The Police Gazette championship belt, representing the female heavyweight lifting championship of the world." 10 During most of her active years as a performer, Minerva weighed around 230 pounds at a height of 5’8”.11 Although some of her bulk came from her training, Minerva also told one reporter: Eating is about the principal part of my existence, and I always have the best I can possibly procure. For breakfast I generally have beef, cooked rare, oatmeal, French‑fry potatoes, sliced tomatoes with onions and two cups of coffee. At dinner I have French soup, plenty of vegetables, squabs and game. When supper comes, I am always ready for it, and I then have soup, porterhouse steak, three fried eggs, two different kinds of salads and tea. For every meal I have a bottle of the best wine I can procure." 12
Minerva may have been the strongest of all the early performers. Contemporary reports credit her with a "700 pound lift from the floor with two hands and a one hand press over her head with 100 pounds." In her act, she also broke horseshoes, caught cannonballs, and did harness lifting.13 Minerva's most famous feat of strength was a hip and harness lift performed in front of hundreds of witnesses at the Bijou Theater in Hoboken, New Jersey, in 1895. This feat, in which she lifted eighteen men and a platform for a total weight of approximately three thousand pounds, has never been approached by any other woman. For many years, the Guinness Book of Records listed it as the greatest feat of strength ever performed by a woman.14
MINERVA, 1893, LITHOGRAPH FROM POLICE GAZETTE, JULY 1916. TINTED LITHO, 131/2 X 1O/4.
Two decades later Katie Brumbach Heyman, who toured professionally as Sandwina, became an even greater sensation than Minerva had been in the 1890s.15 Unlike the massively built Minerva, the taller Sandwina’s two hundred pounds were more gracefully proportioned. Kate Carew, a reporter for a New York newspaper, described her as the 'most bewilderingly beautiful woman I have ever seen. She is as majestic as the Sphinx, as pretty as a valentine and as wholesome as a great big slice of bread and butter. '16 William Ingliss was equally rhapsodic in a 1911 article for Harper's Weekly, noting that Sandwina had as pretty a face, as sweet a smile and as fine a head of silky brown curls as a man could ask to see ... but she had the muscles of Thor. Those shoulders! And the arms on her—a pair of thick, white graceful, rippling pythons! A condition not a theory confronts us. The New Woman is not threatening; she is here. She is modestly billed as Katie Sandwina, Europe's Queen of Strength, Beauty and Dexterity. She'll be Queen of America too. 17
Sandwina may not have become the "Queen of America," but she was a remarkably successful entertainer. Like Athleta, Katie Brumbach was born with sawdust in her blood. Her mother, Joanna, and her father, Phillipe, were strength athletes, and all sixteen Brumbach children performed in the family‑run circus. Katie began performing at age two and was taking on all comers in wrestling while still a teenager. She married hand balancer Max Heyman, a gifted acrobat who was considerably smaller than his wife. Together, they created an act in which Sandwina demonstrated her strength by lifting Max overhead and doing the manual of arms with him as if he were a rifle. The show proved to be a success and in 1909 they moved to the United States to work for Keith's Orpheum Vaudeville circuit, the most prestigious circuit in the business. The next year, Sandwina became the center ring attraction for the Ringling Circus. For the next three decades, she often earned fifteen hundred dollars a week.
Although the Depression of the 1930s closed many vaudeville houses and circuses, two women emerged who substantially changed the course of weight training for women. The first was Ivy Russell, born in 1907 in Surrey, England. The second was a young Californian, Abbye Eville Stockton, born ten years later. Although exceptionally strong, these two women became more
RIGHT: KATIE SANDWINA, 1912 BARNUM & BAILEY POSTER, 42 x 28.
BELOW: CHARLES J. HOWARD, YOU NEED MIND CULTURE MORE THAN PHYSICAL EXERCISE, 'PENNY DREADFUL" RESPONDS TO THE RISING WOMEN'S PHYSICAL CULTURE MOVEMENT, C. 1900. COLOR ON NEWSPRINT, 10 x 7',
ABOVE: STRONGWOMAN KATIE SANDWINA BREAKS CHAINS IN CIRCUS PERFORMANCE, C. 1923. PHOTOGRAPH, 7 x 91/2.
RIGHT: JAPANESE STRONGWOMEN AND FEMALE WRESTLERS, "A CONGRESS OF 50 OF JAPAN'S FAMOUS STRONG MEN AND WOMEN GLADIATORS,' 1913 BARNUM & BAILEY POSTER (DETAIL), 28 x 42.
famous for their physiques than they were for their strength feats. Russell, whose body was remarkably muscular, shocked many who saw her. Stockton's body, while lithe, was also voluptuous, and she became a role model for other women who turned to weight training over the next several decades.
Ivy Russell began training 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 4101/2 pounds in the deadlift.18 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. Russell carried almost no fat on her 125pound frame and displayed muscularity rivaling many modern bodybuilders. No one knew quite what to make of her. She didn't look like the turn‑of‑the century strongwomen, yet she also didn't look like the girl next door. She presented a new archetype for womanhood—yet one that would not be embraced for many years. However, her rare combination of strength and muscularity made her quite famous. In 1934, at the height of her career, she was featured on the cover of the National Police Gazette.19
On the other side of the Atlantic, Abbye 'Pudgy" Stockton's glowing skin, shining hair, miraculous curves, and amazing strength graced the golden sands of Santa Monica in the late 1930s.20 Competent, feminine, strong, and sexy, Stockton caused one bodybuilding writer to observe in 1997: 'There hasn't been anybody since her who has dominated the field so completely and there won't be anybody who ever will again. There are so many luminaries today that none can dominate the bodybuilding firmament as Abbye once did."21
THE THREE HUGONY SISTERS (AKA THE LAVACCI SISTERS), ACROBATS FROM ITALY AT THE RINGLING BROTHERS BARNUM & BAILEY CIRCUS IN BARABOO, WISCONSIN, AUGUST 3, 1933. BLACK‑AND-WHITE PHOTOGRAPH, 2/4 X 1/8
Abbye Eville was born 11 August 1917 and moved to Santa Monica in 1924. Called Pudgy as a small child by her father, the name stuck. During her senior year in high school, Pudgy began seeing UCLA student Les Stockton. Their favorite date was to go down to the beach and practice gymnastics. They soon had so much company that the city of Santa Monica erected an outdoor platform and "Muscle Beach" was born.
As the weekend exhibitions at Muscle Beach grew in popularity, so did Pudgy's fame. She appeared in main stream publications such as Life, Pic, and Laff, and in two newsreels of that era—Whatta Build and Muscle Town USA. By the end of the 1940s, Pudgy's figure had appeared on forty‑two magazine covers from around the world.
In 1944, Bob Hoffman asked her to become a regular contributor to Strength & Health. Her column was called "Barbelles" and it ran for nearly a decade. Although Pudgy's place in the history of women's bodybuilding is secure simply on the merits of her lifting career, her Strength & Health columns were extremely important. Writing in what was then the most influential fitness magazine in the world, Stockton featured the other women who trained with her at Muscle Beach as she trumpeted the benefits of barbell training. By publicizing women such as Relna Brewer McRae, Evalynne
RIGHT: PUDGY STOCKTON PERFORMS STRENGTH ACT AS "UNDERSTANDER. SUPPORTING TWO WOMEN AND A MAN ON MUSCLE BEACH PLATFORM, VENICE, CALIFORNIA, C. 1945.
LEFT: IVY RUSSELL OF ENGLAND LIFTS AGNES CLARK OF SCOTLAND (FIRST WOMEN COMPETITIVE WEIGHTLIFTERS), C. 1930‑1935. SEPIA PHOTOGRAPH FROM COURIER & ADVERTISER, PEOPLE'S JOURNAL (ENGLAND), 10 x 8.
Smith, and Edith Roeder, Stockton demonstrated that weights would enhance a woman's figure and athletic ability. Although Pudgy held only one bodybuilding title during her career—Miss Physical Culture Venus in 1948—her influence on women's weight training has endured. Lisa Lyon, whom some would argue was the first modern woman bodybuilder, was so inspired by pictures of Pudgy that she joined Stockton's gym in the late seventies. With Pudgy's help, Lyon won the first professional bodybuilding contest for women and helped usher in the modern era of women's bodybuilding.22
There are others, of course, who contributed to the evolution of the modern Amazon. At the turn of the century, magazine publisher Bernarr Macfadden urged women to use weights to improve themselves physically in both Physical Culture and its sister publication, Women's Physical Development. Macfadden further promoted the relationship between women and weights through his sponsorship of several physical culture extravaganzas that included women's physique contests. The 1905 show, held in Madison Square Garden, attracted over fifteen thousand spectators and was covered by most of the New York newspapers.23 In the mid‑20s, Strength, then the most influential weightlifting magazine in the United States, began actively promoting the idea of women and strength. For instance, a 1923 editorial by Carl Easton Williams urged readers to 'idealize and glorify strength....We want them to be saturated with this notion of strength as being the basis of a scheme of living. 24
MISS LALA AND KAIRA LE BLANC, EUROPEAN STRENGTH, AERIAL, AND ACROBATIC PERFORMERS, C. 1878‑1887.
Another major figure in the debate over women and muscles was Robert (Bob) Hoffman of York, Pennsylvania, who began publishing Strength & Health magazine in 1932. Strength & Health was more than simply the
voice of the competitive weightlifting community. It was an innovator in its advocacy of new ideas and methods for training, and from its very first issue Hoffman argued that women, no less than men, should see to the perfection of their bodies, and that weight training would help women become better athletes in their chosen sport.25
Finally, there was Dr. Al Thomas, professor in the Department of English at Kutztown University, and lifelong weight training devotee, who in a series of ground breaking articles for Iron Man magazine in the 1970s raised the dialogue to a new level. Thomas wasn't interested in simply arguing for exercise. He wanted women to fully realize their potential for strength and muscular development. Thomas' articles helped pave the way for the first women's power lifting meet, held in 1977, and the first official women's bodybuilding show, held in 1978. Without him to encourage, and to applaud the post‑Title IX influx of women to the gymnasiums, we would not be where we are today.26
Among the most notable of the early performers was Angela D'Atalie, "the female Sampson [sic]." D'Atalie toured with her husband, a famous iron‑jaw artist, and two adopted sons. Barnum's promotional literature for the 1873 season described her as "not only the strongest and most thoroughly developed physically, but is likewise modest and retiring, and without doubt, the most beautifully formed woman in the profession." Barnum's Advance Courier for 1873, (PT. Barnum, 1873), 11. Another early pioneer was Mademoiselle Lavely, who toured with the King, Burk & Co. Circus in 1883 as "The Strongest Woman in the World." Lavely offered a thousand dollars to any woman who could match her feats of strength. These included "lifting with her teeth huge barrels filled with water weighing 300 and 480 pounds." King, Burk & Co.'s Great Allied Shows, Museum, Trained Animal Exposition and Congress of Sensational Features Advance Courier (King, Burk & Co., 1883).
Alma Hayes, born in Montreal in 1852, assumed the name Millie De Grandville for her career as "the lady with the jaws of iron." De Grandville worked in both the circus and variety theater, and specialized in holding a cannon in her teeth while it was fired. William L. Stout, Olympians of the Sawdust Circle: A Biographical Dictionary of the Nineteenth Century American Circus (William L. Slout, 1998), 71. Cannons also were featured in the acts of Mademoiselle Doublier, who toured Europe in the 1880s and 1890s with her pro‑wrestler husband and of Madame Ali Bracco, "the Cannon Woman of the 1870s," who was described by French strength historian Edmund Desbonnet as a woman with "superb musculature" and "very real strength." Edmund Desbonnet, The Kings of Strength (Paris: Librairie Berger‑Levrault/Librairie Athlétique, 1911); trans. David Chapman (unpublished manuscript, 1998), 209.
One of the few women of color in the profession was Lala, also known as "Miss Olga the Mulatto Strongwoman." Olga was born to a white mother and black father in 1858 and began performing as a circus artist at the age of nine, using the name Lala. She was an all‑around artist, and worked at various times as a wire‑walker, handbalancer, trapeze artist, and strongwoman. Desbonnet saw her act in 1887 and reported that she held an "enormous" cannon by her teeth, which was then fired. She also "hung by her knees from a trapeze while holding rings in her hands; she then took a man weighing 70 kilos who hung from the rings and brought her hands to the level of her thigh several times, thus doing a sort of two‑handed press with 70 kilos." Desbonnet reports that he "was jealous of her biceps." How large were her arms? Desbonnet claimed that he measured their circumference as 38.5 centimeters (151/8 inches), "all muscle and of an incomparable shape.” Performing with Olga in 1887 was Theophilia Szterket an all-around circus performer who used the stage name Miss Kaira. According to Desbonnet, Kaira was “an equally superb woman,” who did a remarkable tumbling act. Desbonnet, Kings of Strength, 219-20.
Another important early strength artist was Mary Uller who performed at various times as both Madam Yucca and Madam Santel. According to the magician Harry Houdini, who toured with Yucca and her husband, circus owner John T. Welsh, Yucca was authentically strong, specializing in lifting horses and elephants. She was described in an 1899 promotional advertisement as “handsome of form and feature, with nothing in her appearance to suggest her almost superhuman weighing 500 pounds, she manipulates like paper pellets.” The Great Adam Forepaugh and Sells Brothers Consolidate Shows Courier for 1898 (Adam Forepaugh and Sells Brothers Consolidate, 1898). See also: James W. Shettel, “They Bought a Circus,” The White Tops, n.d., pp. 5-7, Strongwoman Clipping File #2, The Todd-McLean Physical Culture Collection, The University of Texas at Austin.
The author would like to thank Mr. David Chapman for permission to use his translation of Edmund Desbonnet's The Kings of Strength.
1 Prentice Mumford, "The Coming Woman," Lippincott's Monthly Magazine 9 (January 1872): 107.
2 See, for instance, Paul Bouissaic, Circus and Culture (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1976).
3 Bouissaic, Circus and Culture, 8.
4. Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Advance Courier for 1930 (Ringling Brothers, 1930), 6.
shape." Performing with Olga in 1887 was Theophilia Szterker, an all‑around circus performer who used the stage name Miss Kaira. According to Desbonnet, Kaira was "an equally superb woman," who did a remarkable tumbling act. Desbonnet, Kings of Strength, 219‑20.
6 Desbonnet, Kings of Strength, 235.
7 Ibid., 235. Desbonnet described these as lifts done in "three stages," meaning that she lifted the weights first onto a belt at her waist, then to her shoulders, and finally jerked them overhead. This type of lift was called a Continental and Jerk and was the standard method of overhead lifting in that era.
8 Mile Victorine, National Police Gazette, 25 January 1890, 7, 13.
Josie Wohlford, letter to the editor, National Police Gazette, 13 March 1891, 10, A copy of the letter is also included in Gene Smith and Jayne Barry Smith, eds., The Police Gazette (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1972), 134‑135. Although it is mentioned in several later Police Gazettes that Minerva defeated Victorine, no contest report appears in any of the Police Gazettes that survive from these years.
10 The belt was presented to Minerva on 19 December 1893. Fox gave a similar belt to boxer John L. Sullivan.
11 "Minerva: Strongest Woman," Police Gazette, April 1874, 16. C.P. Blatt's measurements are included in: "A Strongman from Pittsburgh," New York Times, 21 March 1891, 8. He is described as being 591/2" tall "in his stockings" and weighing 205 without "a superfluous ounce of adipose tissue." He measured 431/2" around the chest and 17 1/2" around the biceps. Interestingly, this article makes no mention of Minerva even though, according to most reports, they married in 1888.
12 "Minerva Interviewed,' San Antonio Daily Light, 15 August 1892.
13 Shelland, "Recalling Minerva," Police Gazette, 28 December 1931, 3.
14 "Weightlifting," Guinness Book of Records (New York: Sterling Publishing, 1978).
15 Biographical information on Sandwina is available in David P. Willoughby, "The Muscular Strength of Women as Compared with Men ... with Special Reference to the Feats of Katie Sandwina," Skill (December 1967): 4‑5; Robert J. Devenney, "Stars of the Big Top‑Katie Sandwina," Muscle Power (July 1947): 16; "Grandma Strong Lady of the Circus," Hit (December 1949): 26‑27; and Max Heyman, "I Married the World's Strongest Woman," American Weekly (5 July 1953): 10‑13.
16 Kate Carew, "At the Circus," and., unpaginated, Sandwina Clipping file, The Todd‑McLean Physical Culture Collection, The University of Texas at Austin.
17 William Ingliss, "Here's the Circus," Harper's Weekly (April 1911).
18 The dead lift is performed by pulling a barbell from the floor to the front of the thighs. For information on Russell's lifting records, see David P. Willoughby, The Super Athletes, (New York: A. S. Barnes, 1972), 575‑76.
ABOVE: CHARMION IN FEATHERED HAT, C. 1903.‑1906. BLACKAND‑WHITE PHOTOGRAPH FROM GLASS PLATE NEGATIVE, 10 x 8".
RIGHT: JEANNE GILLOT, AKA ANNET LEUTH, FRENCH STRONGWOMAN APPEARING WITH STRONGMEN IN SIDE‑SHOW ACT, C. 1900. BLACK‑AND‑WHITE POSTCARD, 314 > 514',
BELOW: MABEL VALENTEENE MOREE, C. 1920, PUBLISHED IN POLICE GAZETTE.
OPPOSITE, BACKGROUND IMAGE: AMERICAN PROFESSIONAL WRESTLER MILDRED BURKE WEARING HER 1936 WORLD WRESTLING CHAMPIONSHIP BELT, C. LATE 1930S/EARLY 1940S. BLACK‑ANDWHITE PHOTOGRAPH, 10 x 8".
RIGHT: ZEFTA LOYAL, AMERICAN CIRCUS PERFORMER, C. 1948‑1949. BLACK‑AND‑WHITE PHOTOGRAPH, 41/2 x 61/2".
19 Pearson's Weekly, 9 October 1937, cited in Al Thomas, The Female Physique Athlete: A History to Date, (Abs‑Solutely Publishing Co., 1983): 90. Russell appeared on the cover of the 1 September 1934 issue of the National Police Gazette.
20 Stockton's bosom played a major role in her appeal. The public's fascination with the bosom as a symbol of femininity has influenced much of the history of women's weight training and bodybuilding. Fears that women would injure their breasts in vigorous sports such as basketball and field hockey gave way in weightlifting to a fear that women would lose their breasts by becoming too muscular. Even modern women's bodybuilding, which glorifies leanness, has been caught up in the bosom debate. Those top women who possess the muscularity and definition necessary for bodybuilding competition generally no longer possess the necessary fat levels to also have "acceptably" large breasts. This has led many modern bodybuilders to surgically augment their breasts with silicone implants, a procedure many consider unethical, or at least ironic.
21 Al Thomas, "Out of the Past ... A Fond Remembrance of Abbye 'Pudgy' Stockton," Body and Power 2 (March 1981): 1
22 Lisa Lyon, interview with Pudgy Stockton, Santa Monica, California, 28 October 1991. Lyon won the first NPC World Pr Championships in 1979.
23 For further information on Macfadden and his early physique competitions, see Jan Todd, "Bernarr Macfadden: Reformer of Feminine Form," Journal of Sport History 14 (spring 1987).
24 Carl Easton Williams, "Strength Has a New Meaning," Strength (December 1923): 53.
25 Bob Hoffman, "How to Improve at Your Chosen Sport," Strength & Health 1 (December 1932): 6‑8.
26 Thomas's first women's article for Iron Man appeared in July 1973. His last appeared in 1985.