Strength History: The Challenges of Minerva
By: Barbell Logic Team
At the end of her act, Minerva asked for the assistance of 18 men from the audience, weighing an average of 150 pounds each. The men filed onto the stage and were ushered to a broad platform with chains leading up toward the ceiling. Minverva ascended to a raised platform above the men. The chains of the men’s platform attached a harness that Minerva stapped to herself, one belt around her hips and one around her shoulders. The chains and platform on which the men stood weighed about 300 pounds. Minerva would attempt to hoist the entire platform with the combined weight of the men, 3000 pounds all together, and suspend them above the floor supported only by her body.
The Strongwoman Minerva
On April 29th, 1895, two years after Eugene Sandow began his breakout American tour at the Trocadero Theather in Chicago, when the spectacle of strength exhibition performances was at its pinnacle in the United States, spectators packed the Bijou Theater in Hoboken, New Jersey for the headlining “World’s Strongest Woman.” The woman, known only as Minerva, “lifted and juggled heavy dumb bells and weights with ease.” (Todd) She had issued challenges to the world’s female celebrity strength athletes but none had answered. Having no one against whom to prove her strength, her promoter set up the exhibition at the Bijou.
At the end of her act, Minerva asked for the assistance of 18 men from the audience, weighing an average of 150 pounds each. The men filed onto the stage and were ushered to a broad platform with chains leading up toward the ceiling. Minverva ascended to a raised platform above the men. The chains of the men’s platform attached a harness that Minerva stapped to herself, one belt around her hips and one around her shoulders. The chains and platform on which the men stood weighed about 300 pounds. Minerva would attempt to hoist the entire platform with the combined weight of the men, 3000 pounds all together, and suspend them above the floor supported only by her body. The attempt, if successful, would be recorded as a world record, and for Minerva—a strength athlete in want of a challenge—the lift would elevate her among the strongest women in history.
Building an Image
In the decades surrounding the turn of the 19th into the 20th century—the Gilded Age of America and the Golden Age of the circus strrongman—feats of strength were rarely considered separately from the spectacle of their presentations. We have written about Eugen Sandow who blended prodigious strength, spectacle, and aesthetics, being most famous for his build and symmetry and paving the way for the early bodybuilders. This blend making him by far the most popular circus strongman to have ever lived. Strength exhibitions were popular for leisure-time gawking, and leisure is first and foremost about entertainment.
Before standardized barbells and rule sets for weight lifting competitions, the pioneers of strength training were found in the vaudeville circuits and circus tents. And there, packaging and presentation were as important as the actual feats of strength.
This was true for the strongmen of the day, and perhaps doubly so for strongwomen. At any given time, there were half a dozen women claiming the title of “World’s Strongest.” Given the lack of standardized equipment and the penchant for promoters’ hyperbole, each claim is as dubious as the next. They seemed to avoid meeting each other on stage to test themselves as a matter of course—why risk competing in challenges when not doing so allows you to continue to claim to be the World’s Strongest? And so, without competition, sensationalism ruled the day and packaging was everything.
This may be why there is much less information about turn-of-the-century strongwomen performers than there is for their male counterparts. The women who were truly successful had carefully curated images that came partially from their strength and partially from their strategy as promoters. One of the ways to build an image was through public challenges, essentially daring other athletes onto the stage to prove their claims of being the strongest. The strong woman named Minerva began and built her career issuing challenges to every other strong woman of her day. Below are a few details of her career and the road to being named, for a time, the “World’s Strongest.”
Everything here relies heavily on the thoroughly researched, scholarly articles from the Iron Game History publication of the University of Texas’ Stark Center, and in particular from Strength Historian Dr. Jan Todd’s work. See the References below for some much more information.
Josephine Blatt, nee Schauer, much more commonly known by her stage name, built a career out of challenges. Little is known about Minerva prior to an 1891 public challenge issued to a popular strength performer in London named, Victorina, reading:
“Having been informed that Victorina, the female heavy-weight lifter, is eager to compete in feats of strength with any woman in the world, 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-weight-lifting championship of the world. The $100 my backer, Mr C.P. Blatt, has posted with Richard K. Fox, shows that I mean business.”
Mr. Blatt was Charles Blatt, her husband and well-regarded strongman, and Richard Fox was the publisher of the Police Gazette, where the challenge appeared, and a sports promoter.
There were several other well-known strong women in Minerva’s day that could vie for the title of World’s Strongest Woman:
“Roberta, the champion strong woman of Cuba; M’lle Madro of France; Madame Robusta who claimed to be ‘Champion of Europe’; Beulah, the Champion of Germany; and Myra, the champion of France.” (Todd)
There was also Athleta, of Belgium, who is informally considered the strongest woman performer during Minerva’s career. (Webster) Of these only Athleta is known to have issued a challenge to Minerva, but the two never met on stage.
Minerva’s act contained many of the typical feats seen in circus and vaudeville strength acts. Dr. Todd writes, “Her act consisted of lifting with her teeth a cannon and running gear weight 400 pounds, lifting a horse reportedly weight 1420 pounds with one finger, and lifting a rock weighing 400 pounds.” As with most strength performers, these were a combination of strength, daring, and skill. For example, in “Super Strength” Alan Calvert describes the typical one-finger lift, saying that it is a combination of extreme finger strength and uses a “prepared grip of such a shape that once the finger is inserted into the grip, it is almost impossible for any amount of weight to straighten out the finger.” He suggests that this type of exhibition was more of a “supporting,” rather than a “lifting” feat.
A supporting feat would allow the lifter to handle loads in much greater excess of what he or she could lift. Typically they used the structure of their bodies and cleverly designed riggings that would allow them to use leverage to move weight and the structure of their bodies to support the weight. These movements still took tremendous strength and were more satiating to the audience’s need for sensationalism than more straightforward lifting demonstrations. One of the best examples of a supporting feat is the careful execution of the bent press. Described here:
“In a well-executed bent press, the weight in the hand would not actually change its vertical position during the entire bending over the phase of the lift. The lifter would, essentially, push his body downward, keeping the weight supported against his body for as long as possible, using first his bodily orientation to support the load, then standing up with it using his entire body with his arms locked out overhead. As anyone who has pressed a weight overhead knows, it is much easier to support the load overhead with locked out elbows than it is to press it there.” (Barbell Logic, Strength History: Performance vs Training)
Another common performance was the harness lift, of which Minerva was a master.
Minerva challenged other strength athletes directly, putting up cash for a chance to prove herself. In addition to her challenge to Victorina, she traded challenges with “Yucca” a strong woman who performed in Mexico. Then, in 1894 she issued a challenge that would lead to her world record attempt at the Bijou Theater.
Fox, the promoter, had created a belt for the “female heavy-lifting championship of the world” that was intended to go to whomever of the strong women won it three times in contests or held it for one year against all comers. The belt was meant to go to the winner of the impending challenge between Minerva and Yucca. Eventually, however, Fox gave Minerva the belt announcing she would “stand ready to compete for the belt against all comers, according to the rules governing the trophy.” (Todd) When no challengers surfaced, Fox organized a strength exhibition for Minerva as the headliner during a vaudeville show. Dr. Todd writes about the event:
“Near the end of her act, she asked for 18 volunteers from the audience, men who averaged around 150 pounds apiece. Once assembled on stage, the men were asked to stand closely together on a broad platform while Minerva climbed to a platform above their heads.”
Minerva stood above them, her legs slightly bent at her knees, her body inclined forward, her hands on support railings. The skill of harness lifting comes in straightening, simultaneously, the knees, arms, and torso, using the strength of the entire body and favorable leverages. Even though the range of motion is short, the strain on the body of standing with such a tremendous and unstable weight was great. Minerva threw herself into the lift. Straining arms, legs, and hips in a practiced burst of tightly controlled power. The chains pulled straight and, gradually, the platform shifted then lifted into the air, rising as Minerva rose into a vertical standing position, supporting the entire weight of 18 men and the platform with her body.
As Dr. Todd notes, the lift was as reported at the time was likely around a 3000-pound lift, but it became exaggerated over time and was reported in the Guinness Book of World Records as 3564, three men having been added to the platform in the retelling.
With this lift, Minerva earned Fox’s belt and the unofficial title of “World’s Strongest Woman.”
At the same time, in Austria, there was an 11-year-old girl, the daughter of circus performers who was already a rising strength performer. She had begun weight training at five years old and would later come to America. There she would star in the center ring of the Greatest Show on Earth and become, undisputedly, the strongest women of the gilded age, and, many think, of all time. Next time, we will look at the impressive feats of Katie Sandwina.