Minerva, World’s Strongest Woman (Strength History)By all accounts, Minerva was the real deal. Fifteen years after the Bijou theater, she would tell a reporter that she would probably only have about three more years on the stage because she had been “working too honestly.” (Iron Game, 1991) Other performers relied on stage tricks, false weights, and distractions to appear stronger than they were, but Minerva, like most of the greats, was willing to prove her strength in front of spectators and against all comers.
Minerva, World’s Strongest Woman (Strength History)
By: Nick Soleyn, Editor in Chief
On April 29th, 1895, two years after Eugene Sandow began his breakout American tour at the Trocadero Theater in Chicago, when the spectacle of strength exhibition performances was still rising in the United States, spectators packed the Bijou Theater in Hoboken, New Jersey to see Minerva, the World’s Strongest Woman. At 30 years old, she was a vaudeville veteran, having traveled and performed across the United States and toured in Mexico with the Orrin Brothers Circus. Minerva would “lift and juggle heavy dumb bells and weights with ease.” (Todd) Her act included catching cannonballs, bending horseshoes, and rending iron chains. And she was known as a fierce and accomplished wrestler. The performance at the Bijou theater would be her witness mark on the history of strength performers.
Every strongman or strongwoman faced the same problem. Anyone could say they were the strongest in the world, but reputations were built on believability. It wouldn’t be until the following year that weightlifting was contested as an organized sport in the first modern Olympic, and it would be decades before that standardization was codified. Believability came from the performance itself or from challenge matches between performers.
By all accounts, Minerva was the real deal. Fifteen years after the Bijou theater, she would tell a reporter that she would probably only have about three more years on the stage because she had been “working too honestly.” (Iron Game, 1991) Other performers relied on stage tricks, false weights, and distractions to appear stronger than they were, but Minerva, like most of the greats, was willing to prove her strength in front of spectators and against all comers.
She had issued challenges to the world’s female celebrity strength athletes, but none had answered. Athleta was across the pond in Europe, Sandwina had not yet started her career, and the other great American strongwoman, Yucca, may have been traveling in Mexico. Rather than wait, Minerva’s promoter set up the exhibition at the Bijou theater.
For years, her act included “lifting with her teeth a cannon and running gear weighing 400 pounds, lifting a horse reportedly weighing 1420 pounds with one finger, and lifting a rock weighing 400 pounds.” For the finale, on this night, Minerva asked for the assistance of 18 men from the audience, weighing an average of 150 pounds each. The men filed onto a broad platform with chains leading up to a raised platform above the men and attaching to a harness. Minerva affixed the harness to herself, one belt around her hips and one around her shoulders, the chains and platform alone weighing about 300 pounds. Adding the combined weight of the men, Minerva would attempt to lift 3000 pounds. 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
There were no strength sports in Gilded Age America—surrounding the turn of the 19th into the 20th century. There were only performances, and the circus strongman or strongwoman’s feats were rarely considered separately from the spectacle of their presentations and the strength of their promoter’s audacity. Strength exhibitions were popular for leisure-time spectating.
This was true for the strongmen of the day, and perhaps doubly so for strongwomen—those ogling might be a better term. 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 was as dubious as the next, and few would risk meeting other performers on stage. Without competition, sensationalism ruled the day, and packaging was everything.
Minerva (real name: Josephine Blatt) 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 Victorine (or 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 strongwomen in Minerva’s day that could vie for the title of World’s Strongest Woman:
“Roberta, the champion strongwoman 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. As with most strength performers, these were a combination of strength, daring, and skill. 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.” An ad from her show in San Antonio shows her lifting a 500-pound rock with one finger using this method and shooting a pistol with her other hand. These kinds of lifts still took tremendous strength and were more satiating to the audience’s need for sensationalism than more straightforward lifting demonstrations.
Another common performance was the harness lift, of which Minerva was a master.
At the Bijou, above the men on the platform, chains taught, Minerva stood, her legs slightly bent at her knees, her body inclined forward, hands on support railings for balance. The skill of harness lifting comes in straightening, simultaneously, the knees, arms, and torso, using the strength of the entire body. Just standing with 3000 pounds would put an incredible strain on the body. Minerva threw herself into the lift, straightening her legs and hips in a practiced burst of tightly controlled power. The chains pulled straight; the platform shifted, then lifted into the air, rising as Minerva stood, supporting all 18 men plus changes and platform with her body.
As Dr. Todd notes, the lift was likely around a 3000-pound lift, but it became exaggerated over time, three men appearing on the platform in the retellings, and was reported in the Guinness Book of World Records as 3564.
With this lift, Minerva earned the unofficial title of World’s Strongest Woman. Minerva was a pioneer, not just for her act, but because of her strength. Later famous strongwomen would rely more on gymnastics, trapeze artistry, sex appeal, and death-defying feats. Minerva needed little more than her strength and her personality to electrify crowds and carve out a name for herself in the world of strength.
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/
Dr. Jan Todd, “Sex! Murder! Suicide! New Revelations about the ‘Mystery of Minerva’,” Iron Game History, vol. 10 no. 4 (January 2009)
David P. Webster, OBE, “The Atlas & Vulcana Group of Society Athletes,” Iron Game History, vol. 6 no. 3 (May/June 2000)
Expand Your Knowledge of Strength
Explore the Study of Human Movement’s Artistic and Scientific Origins
Biomechanics is the application of universal physical laws to living things. We study biomechanics to improve our own lifting and athleticism and to help us become better coaches. In this study, we are examining issues looked at by Aristotle, da Vinci, Newton, and others. This ebook provides a short introduction to biomechanics by examining its history, from ancient art to modern robotics.