The Strongman of the circus was basically the first bodybuilder, so even though this site is about bodybuilding I felt I should tell a little about it.
Brief History of the Circus
The circus is somewhat mysterious and many stories are told about what happens behind closed doors. There are also different historical stories told. One story told is that the circus was started by the Romans, but this is incorrect.
People misunderstand the difference between “The Circus” and “The Roman Games.” The Romans did not use elephants or clowns or tight rope walkers, etc. in their games. They had three games:
• The first game was the Olympic Games, similar to the Olympics of today. It began in 776
B.C. in Olympia and were held in honor for Zeus.
• The second game, which is the cause of people thinking that the Romans started the
circus, is the Chariot Races. These were called circuses, but it was called a circus
because the Latin and English meaning of circus is “circle.”
The most famous was Maximus Circus (6th Century B.C.E.), and the Latin meaning of
that is “greatest or largest circus.” The Chariot Races were like the racetrack, but much
more dangerous and also could be violent. Chariot Races were added to the Olympic
Games in 680 B.C.
• I guess we could call the third game a theater, a very violent theater, such as the
gladiators. The first gladiator game was in 246 A.D. The Roman’s favorite entertainment
was to watch people kill each other or people being devoured by wild beasts.
Phillip Astley (1742-1814)
The circus that we know was first created in England by Phillip Astley, known as “The Father of the Modern Circus.” He had been a cavalry Sergeant-major and decided to become a showman.
Astley had served in the Seven Year War, being part of the Colonel Elliott’s 15th Light Dragons regiment. He had been an excellent horse-breaker and trainer so once he was discharged of duties he chose to do like the many trick-riders that had performed all across Europe.
Jacob Bates had been an English equestrian and did performances in both the United States and Russia and was the first showman to make his mark.
In 1768, Astley chose to reside in London and near Westminster Bridge he opened a riding-school. His school had a circular arena that he called the circle, or circus, and later was known as the ring. And Astley allowed people to watch these trick-riders.
The original ring that Astley used was somewhere around 62 feet in diameter, but later it was changed to be 42 feet in diameter, which is the international standard today.
The Circus is Born
By 1770, Astley was seen as a better showman than the great teacher that he was. After performing in London for two seasons he felt that he needed to add other events to his trick-riding. He included acrobats, jugglers, rope-dancers and clowns and the modern circus was born.
In 1782, Astley went to Paris and opened their first circus at the Amphitheatre Anglois. Also in that year equestrian Charles Huges decided to compete with Astley.
Hughes had once been a member of Astley’s company, but now, in association with Charles Dibdin, opened up a rival amphitheater in London, the Royal Circus and Equestrian Philharmonic Academy.
In 1793, Hughes went to the court of Catherine the Great in St. Peterburg, Russian and performed. At this time one of his students, John Bill Ricketts, crossed the ocean and opened the first circus in Philadelphia.
Four years later Ricketts went to Montreal, Canada, and opened the first circus. Philip Lailson had arrived in the United States in 1795 (Ricketts only competition in America) and in 1802 he took the circus to Mexico.
Circus were originally performed in circus buildings which were wooden structures that could be opened and closed quickly. Yet, the circus was such a hit that every major European city built a circus building that was permanent.
In time, similar buildings appeared in the largest cities in the United States: New York and Philadelphia, as well as in Montreal and Mexico City. The circus buildings in Europe and America were basically the same, but the performances differed between the two continents.
The Traveling Circus of America
Nineteenth century America was still new and in the developing process. In order for the circus to make a living they had to be able to travel.
In 1825, Joshuah Purdy Brown was the first circus entrepreneur and he replaced the makeshift wooden structures with a canvas tent, which became popular by midi.
Hachaliah Baily, a cattle dealer, owned an African elephant that could do tricks and he showed it around the country and from there other exotic animals were added to the circus.
In 1835, 135 farmers, like Baily, joined together and created the Zoological Institute, and it had control over thirteen menageries and three affiliated circuses, and in turn cornered the country's market on traveling-circuses and menagerie businesses.
In 1871, Phineas Taylor Barnum and circus entrepreneur William Cameron Coup devised the P.T. Barnum’s Museum, Menagerie & Circus and it was a traveling museum filled of exotic animals and human oddities, i.e., the American Sideshow.
The next year, Coup came up with a system where they could have daily transportation by rail and he also added a second ring. The circus became the most popular type of entertainment in America, nothing like the Romans.
Coup wanted to add more features to the circus – more features meant more customers. To do that he had to increase the size of the tent. In 1881, he added the third ring and in time there were seven and stages.
Human Oddities and the Circus
The telegraph led to the telephone, and the Circus Human Oddities led to Bodybuilding. To name a few:
Joseph Greenstein – the Mighty Atom (1893 to 1977)
Greenstein had been born three months premature and weighed less than four pounds. He was lucky to survive and he became what many call, “The Last Great Circus Strongman” or “The Greatest Strongman.”
When Greenstein was fourteen years old the Issakoff Brothers’ Circus came to town and he saw a poster of the Russian strongman Champion Volanko. He was intrigued by the chiseled strongman and the events portrayed on the poster.
He was broke so he snuck in to watch the show, but he was caught, beaten and left to die. He tried to crawl home when he ran into Champion Volanko. Volanko felt sorry for Greenstein and a friendship formed.
He offered to train Greenstein so he accepted and joined Volanko on tour. In less than two years Greenstein’s body had been transformed into chiseled stone.
He started his career in wrestling and after getting married he went to the United States and there he became the legend of “The Mighty Atom.”
In 1914, while he was in Galveston Texas he was shot in the head, but he left the hospital the same day. Greenstein decided to use the shooting as to his benefit and with his already stone body started a new career, the Strongman, and marveled the world with his events:
• He could break chains with his hands or expansion of his chest.
• He could bend iron bars and horseshoes with his teeth.
• He could bend half inch rolled steel rods into heart shapes.
• He could drive nails through wood with his bare hands, as well as bite the heads of them
with his teeth.
• He could change a car tire with his bare hands.
In 1928, he tied his hair to a plane and he was able to stop it from taking off. The newspaper headlines read “ The Mighty Atom - Super Strong Man Pits Brawn Against Plane, Wins!” and the feat was featured in “Believe it or Not”.
In 1936, Greenstein fought six longshoremen and hospitalized all of them. The newspaper article in New York read, “Little Giant Knocks Out Six’. In 1938, Greenstein tore a sign off the front of a building that read, “No Dogs or Jews Allowed.”
The twenty men in the building were not happy about that and a fight began, at the end Greenstein walked away while his opponents were transported to the hospital.
He had been arrested and charged for assault, but the judge could not believe that he had defeated all of those men by himself and the charge was dismissed.
During World War II, Greenstein gave much of his time to Uncle Sam’s Bond Drive. By showing off his strength by pulling a truck full of passengers he sold hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of bonds.
Greenstein also helped out with the New York City’s Police Department by touring the city for two years giving free demonstrations on jujitsu, judo and wrestling in the hopes that the men in the audience would join the Police Force.
Mayor LaGuardia gave him a proclamation for all that he did. Greenstein, even in his eights, was able to continue to perform.
May 11, 1977, was his last public performance which was done at Madison Square Garden. Still at the age of 84 he could bend horseshoes and drive spikes with his hands.
Almost five months later, October 8, 1977, Greenstein died of cancer, but he is still seen as the mightiest little man that ever lived.
John Holtum - The Cannonball Man (1845 to 1919)
In the history of the circus, as well as carnivals and vaudevilles. A strongman was present. These strongmen did different feats to entertain the audience and to ensure fame, if not fortune.
Competition was sometimes hectic, forcing the strongman to go that extra mile. Holtum took that extra mile by making himself a human target.
He would stand on one end of the stage facing a canon. The canon would shoot the ball out directly at Holtum and he would catch it.
It is unknown as to how fast the canon ball was going because it depends on the size of the ball and what it is made of. Yet, the slowest it could travel would be 100 miles an hour.
Holtum grew up in Haderslev, Denmark. He basically lived a simple life until at the age of 15 he enlisted as a sailor. The work he did on deck and the shipyards gave him a very muscular body.
Sometime after his time in the Navy, Holtum moved to California and was employed to do numerous hard labor jobs and later moved to San Francisco and became a professional strongman.
From there he studied and practiced the basic feats of the strongman. In 1870, Holtum returned to Europe and told experts about his idea of catching a cannon ball with his hands, but they all told him it could not be done.
For two years he continued to fail at performing his act, one attempt cost him some fingers. Finally, against all odds, Holtum fulfilled his dream and in turn, fortune and reputation prevailed.
This act required unbelievable strength, powerful nerves and extremely fast reflexes. This act never failed at stunning the audience.
The cannon ball would shoot across the stage aimed directly at Holtum, wearing only sturdy gloves and a pad to cover his chest. Holtum would catch the cannon ball with his hands and immediately throw it to the ground because he had learned through trial and error that if he held onto the ball it would burn his flesh.
There had many critics, saying:
• It was a trick.
• The amount of gunpowder in it was not the same as what was used during battle.
• The ball was lighter than what was told or it was empty.
Holtum argued the statements and offered to pay anyone 3000 francs if they would perform the act, but no one accepted the offer. Much later, Holtum married an equestrienne and settled down in England where he died of natural causes.
Katharina “Sandwina” Brumbach – Woman of Steel (1884 to 1952)
There have been many “Women of Steel,” but one name that will never be forgotten is Sandwina, a woman was possibly the most powerful person alive during her time.
Sandwina was born in Vienna, Austria, with the name Kate Brumbach. Both of her parents were circus performers in their own way.
Philippe, her father, had a 56 inch chest and her mother, Johanna, had 15” biceps. They had fourteen children. Three of Sandwina’s sisters, Barbara, Eugenia and Mari, were very strong and participated with their parents.
Sandwina had been born with strength that was unparalleled to her sisters and was the only one that found fame with it.
When Sandwina was a teenager she was 6’ feet+ and weighed in at 187 pounds. She worked out religiously and was known for her 17” biceps and 26.5” thighs.
Sandwina, like her sisters, worked at the circuses her father was contracted out with and would show her muscular body to the audience.
She had first been a wrestler, she offered 100 marks to any man that could beat her. Athlete Max Heymann scoffed at her proposal and thought it would be fun to wrestle a woman and make a quick 100 marks.
By his own words, all he could remember was entering the ring, a blue sky and being carried away from the ring by Sandwina.
According to legend, she stayed undefeated and married Max Heymann. They stayed married for 52 years. Sandwina was visiting New York and during a promotional stunt and boasting of her strength she dared anyone to out lift her.
To her own surprise one man took that challenge, the “Father of Power Lifting and Bodybuilding,” Eugene Sandow.
Sandow had worked hard and sculpted his body to be carved of granite and the world saw him as the most physically gifted man in the world. Sandwina had forgotten about him or she didn’t expect to see him there.
She began to doubt that she could beat this man, but the contest had to go on. Sandwina the contest by lifting heavy weights and Sandow repeated all that she did.
The actions the two did went on for some time and finally Sandwina lifted 300 lbs. over her head with one hand. Sandow picked up the bar but could only bring it to her chest.
Her win is where the name “Sandwina” came from. Sandwina was already well known, but this win gave her absolute fame and a few of the events she did were:
• Juggle 30 pound iron spheres,
• With one arm press her 165 pound husband above her head,
• Lifted horses,
• Hold 14 people on her shoulders, and
• Carry a half ton of cannons on her back.
In between all of that, she also bore a son, Theodore and she taught him how to box. He had inherited his mother’s strength and grew to be 6’2”.
With his strength, size and his mother’s training he became a professional heavyweight boxer. When he retired he had 46 wins, 32 being knockouts.
Sandwina toured the world over, but most was done in the United States. Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus had hired her and even at the age of 57 she performed.
In 1948, Sandwina retired and opened a restaurant in New York with her husband. At times she would still entertain her customers by breaking horseshoes, bending steel bars or lifting her husband above her head.
In 1952, Sandwina, as the age of 68, she lost her first wrestling match, but it wasn’t to a man, she was defeated by cancer. Today she is still known as the strongest woman that ever lived.
Josephine “Minerva” Blatt – Strongwoman (1865/67 to 1923)
Sandwina may have been the strongest person that ever lived, excluding Samson of course, but then again, maybe not.
Josephine Blatt, better known as Minerva stated that she was born in Hamburg, Germany in the year 1865. Yet, some sources, such as the Guinness Book of World Records, says she was born in Hoboken, New Jersey in the year 1867.
It doesn’t actually matter where and when she was born, her strength is what made the world stare in awe. Her demonstrations kept people on their toes:
• Breaking horseshoes with her hands,
• Breaking steel chains by expanding her chest, and
• Playing catch with a 24 pound cannon ball.
• Lifting stone that weighed 360 lbs. with a single finger thrust through a lifting ring.
On April 15, 1895, Minerva was at the Bijou theater in Hoboken showing off her strength. According to the Guinness Book of Records and in front of hundreds of people, Minerva lifted 3,564 pounds in a hip-and-harness lift.
With that lift she obtained her mythical name, the Roman goddess Minerva. In 1910, Minerva and her husband Charles, a strongman, retired and in 1923 she passed away.
Around the same time that Minerva was raising great weights, a young lady named Charmion was raising eyebrows with her unusual strength-related act.
Louis Cyr – The Strongest Man in History (1863 to 1912)
Some of the most unbelievable acts performed are done by the strongmen, or women, in the sideshow. One of the most famous strongmen was the strongman Louis Cyr.
Cyr was born in St. Cyprien de Napierville, Quebec. At birth he weighed 18 pounds and at the age of 12 he became a lumberjack and many stories were told about his strength.
In 1878, Cyr and his family moved to the United States. At the age of 17 Cyr was 5’`0” and weighed in at 230 lbs. While at a strongman competition in Boston he shocked the audience when he lifted a horse complete off the ground.
In 1882, Cyr with his wife and family returned to Quebec and went on tour, “The Troupe Cyr.” At the end of it he decided to join the police force in Montreal.
In 1886, since being a policeman bored him he entered another strongman competition that was being hosted by Quebec City. His competitor was David Michaud who carried the title “World’s Strongest Man.”
In the competition Cyr lifted a 218 lb. barbell with one hand, but Michaud could not do more than 158 lbs. Cyr then squatted a platform that weighed 2,371 pounds. Cyr became the new “World’s Strongest Man.”
Cyr would tour the world showing off his incredible feats:
• Squatting a platform holding 18 men,
• Lifting a 500-pound weight with one finger, and
• Pushing a freight car up an incline.
In Montreal 1891, Cyr performed his greatest feat of all, he defeated four horses at a tug-of-war. In 1912, Cyr died due to chronic nephritis, but his legacy still lives.
He had been titled “The Strongest Man in History” and in his honor a district of Montreal that was named Louis-Cyr. In Saint-Henri, where he patrolled as a police officer, a park was named the Parc Louis-Cyr.
Aside from that, in 1970, a statue of Cyr was made with the title “The Strongest Man in History.”
Friedrich Wilhelm Mueller – “Eugen Sandow” – Father of Bodybuilding (1867 to 1925)
Sandow was born in Konigsberg, Prussia, which is Kaliningrad, Russia today. At the age of 19 he began doing strongman stunts.
Sandow had a chiseled physique and he was mainly known for his barbell routines and the ability to break a chain that was locked around his chest. He was initially known for his impressive barbell routines and for breaking a chain locked around his chest.
Through the decades people had stood in awe watching the many strongmen/women lift incredible weights. But when it came to Sandow the interest was not in how much he could lift, but his bulging muscles.
Due to that, Sandow began to pose for the audience, calling them “Muscle Display Performances,” which was the precursor of bodybuilding today. He was compared to a Roman god.
As a child Sandow visited Italy and after staring and admiring the powerful looking statues of the ancient gods he desired to sculpt his body.
Sandow went all over Europe and in 1893 went to the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. With his perfect body, intelligence and politeness his popularity grew.
Aside from that he always dressed well, had the charm of the European accent to go with deep blue eyes and a hearty laugh. King George, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Thomas Edison all became friends of his.
In time, he married Blanche Brooks and had two daughters. Yet, he was always accompanied by other women that were willing to pay money just to feel his flexed muscles, but one has to wonder if that is all that happened?
Sandow also had a close friendship with a male musician/composer in whom he hired to join him when he went on tour.
The two men had lived together in New York for a time, but nothing is known of the degree of their friendship. Yet, it was obvious that Blanche was not happy with it.
Sandow was also a businessman:
• Author of five books,
• Owner of a mail-order physical instruction and exercise equipment business,
• Inventor of a unique spring-loaded dumbbell and a weighted rubber band resistance
• Popularized home training equipment,
• Produced and promoted Sandow Cigars, Sandow’s Health & Strength Cocoa, and
Sandow, a magazine devoted to physical culture.
• Owner of a Physical Culture Studio in London,
• Organized the first bodybuilding contest on September 14, 1901 called the “Great
Competition” and held it in the Royal Albert Hall, London, UK. The judges were himself,
Sir Charles Lawes, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
Sandow died at the age of 58 (1925) and a cover story came out stating that he had died due to pushing his car out of the mud. Yet, it is more likely that he died of syphilis.
At his wife’s request he was buried at the Putney Vale Cemetery near London in an unmarked grave. In 2002, Thomas Manly, an admirer, had a gravestone and black marble plaque placed upon it and the gold-letter inscription read, “1867-1925, the Father of Bodybuilding.”
Starting in 1977, the winner of Mr. Olympia is given a bronze statue of Sandow.