katie sandwina

Strength History: Strongwoman Icon Katie Sandwina

By: Barbell Logic Team

Katie Sandwina
World’s Strongest Woman
from Ringling Bros.
Barnum & Bailey Circus

Katie Sandwina: World’s Strongest Woman

Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, [reproduction number, e.g., LC-B2-1234]

At Machpelah Cemetery in Queens, NY, Harry Houdini’s gravesite memorial is a testament to the star-creating power of the Vaudeville circuits. In particular, the Orpheum Vaudeville circuit was the most popular chain of vaudeville theaters. For performers, it also paid the highest salaries and had the best working conditions. (Todd, Minerva) The Orpheum was Houdini’s big break, with the owner booking him and focusing his performances on the escape acts for which we now best remember him. The subject of our last article, Minerva, also starred at the Orpheum.

One mile from Houdini’s memorial, up Cypress Hills St. to 70th Ave., is another piece of Orpheum history, nearly unknown and completely unmarked. Now housing a church, the building at 70th Ave and Cypress Hills St. was the subject of a 1947 newspaper article in the New York Mirror. The Mirror article describes a Bar and Grill opened in 1942 by a curiously mismatched couple, known in the neighborhood simply as “Papa,” and “Mama,” and for the draw of eccentric entertainment. When the restaurant first opened, it was common for the patrons to get rowdy and cause trouble. At least those that hadn’t met Mama yet. She would yell, “Papa, open the door[!]” and summarily heave the troublemakers out of the restaurant and into the street where they would land beneath a sign reading

Kati Sandwina
World’s Strongest Woman
from Ringling Bros.
Barnum & Bailey Circus

Once the troublemakers met Mama, Papa told the New York Mirror, “dey are al gentlemens. Mama she talks to dem nice. ‘Go home,’ she says. ‘No more drinks for you.’ Dey go. Ven dey come back de next day dey put dere head in da door ferst und ask, ‘Can I come in, Kati?’” (John D. Fair, Ph.D. “Kati Sandwina: ‘Hercules Can Be A Lady,’” Iron Game History, vol 9, No. 2 (Dec. 2005))

Katie Sandwina was a born performer. “She was born in the back of a circus wagon belonging to Philippe and Johanna Nock Brumbach on 7 May 1884 either in, or just outside, Vienna, Austria.” (Todd) It’s not clear when she began her physical training, but by sixteen she had become a star in her father’s circus. As her finale, Katie would challenge any man or woman to a wrestling match. And this is how she met her husband Max Heymann: “She picks me up vuns and trows me on de floor and I say Kati I luv you. Will you marry me?” (Fair)

It is not clear when, or exactly why, Katie took the name “Sandwina” other than it being a derivative of Sandow. One story, though apocryphal, is that Sandow jumped the stage at one of Katie’s shows to challenge her to a lifting match where Katie lifted 300 pounds overhead, but Sandow only made the lift to his chest. This story was most likely an invention to add to Sandwina’s mythology. (see Todd, “Reflections on Physical Culture,” Iron Game History Vol 13, No 2 & 3 (2015): “will future scholars believe that Sandow “promoted” the career of Katie Sandwina, when in fact they hardly associated?”) Regardless of the source, Max and Katie adopted the surname Sandwina, performing as “The Sandwinas” and giving the name to their sons, Theodore Roosevelt Sandwina and Alfred Sandwina.

A new name may not have been necessary to establish Katie’s mythology. Her strength was beyond impressive: “An unsigned 1946 article in Strength & Health . . . credits her with a 264 pound continental jerk, a right hand continental jerk of 176 pounds, and a press in excess of 200 pounds on numerous occasions.” (Fair). Her act included lifting a 600-pound cannon, bending iron bars, and breaking iron chains. She would also use the diminutive Max as a human barbell, sometimes lifting both he and her 50-pound 2-year-old son, together weighing about 200 pounds.

Her popularity increased as a member of the Barnum & Bailey Circus. John Ringling had seen Katie and Max perform and brought them into the circus where Katie was a side-ring act. When her popularity grew, the circus promoted her to center ring and began to create a celebrity image. Here again, her career mirrors that of the famous Sandow. Articles about Katie began to use classical Greek architecture and aesthetics—“[s]he has the look of some heroic work in marble.” (Todd, quoting Kate Carew, “Barnum & Bailey’s ‘Strong Woman’ Tells Kate Carew—This Young Goddess of the Tan Bark, Who Tosses Her Husband About as She Would a Feather, Explains How She Came By Her Strength.” New York American, 16 April 1911, 2-M”).

Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, [reproduction number, e.g., LC-B2-1234]

The circus promoted Sandwina as a perfect specimen. Part of the climate and draw of the times was the theory of eugenics. The Academic community supported the idea of genetic superiority, and the movement spoke to the floundering nationalism of the United States. Eugen Sandow had been extensively measured and studied as “the perfect male specimen.” Exceptional individuals, were, in part, popular because it was felt that they embodied the standard for genetic superiority. And, when Barnum & Bailey sought to promote Katie’s rising star, they publicly measured her and had doctors name her “perfect.” Her first son, Teddy, was even nicknamed “Superbaby,” his strength and size being seen as evidence of her own strong genetics.

Sandwina was a performer made for her time. The combination of her tremendous strength, her beauty, her dedication as a performer, and even her size compared to her diminutive husband’s met and, for a time, seized the implacable need for grandiosity that made vaudeville variety shows and the circus the incredibly popular. Perhaps the biggest shame is that, given the amount of embellishment and outright fabrication of the promoters and magazines of the time, we really do not know much about the woman who was then heralded as the “World’s Strongest.” Though we don’t know the details of her feats or the actual numbers she regularly lifted, strength historians agree that Sandwina was the real deal. And, if we can glean anything from her later life, running a bar and grill with her husband Max, she seems little diminished when, at 64 years old, she was cautioned by police after forcibly ejecting a bruiser from the premises, “Mama, don’t hit him too hard!”

References

Jan Todd, “Center Ring: Katie Sandwina and the Construction of Celebrity,” Iron Game History Vol. 10, No.1 (Nov. 2007)

John D. Fair, “Kati Sandwina: ‘Hercules Can Be a Lady’,” Iron Game History, Vol. 9 No. 2 (Dec. 2005) (quoting Fields, “Hercules Can Be a Lady,” New York Mirror (Dec 1947)).

Jan Todd, “Sex! Murder! Suicide! New Revelations about the ‘Mystery of Minerva’,” Iron Game History, vol. 10 no. 4 (January 2009)

*Note of References: Anyone wanting to learn about Iron Game History needs to visit the Stark Center. Most of the references here come from the work of its co-founder, Dr. Jan Todd. She has done the leg work of collecting and researching strength history and has written dozens of fantastic articles. You can, and should, read more here: https://www.starkcenter.org/

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