Historical Strongwomen

Fellow author and lovely person, Michelle Osgood (author of Better To Kiss You With) requested a further look into my archival research about historical Strongwoman. I couldn’t decide which one of these awesome women to focus on, so…I ended up writing a combination post. Unfortunately, a lot of the early strongwomen suffer a similar fate as a lot of women athletes (a lack of documentation), but here we have some of the gleanings I used in my research. So many of them would make fascinating studies for books all their own. I’m certainly considering it. To say otherwise would be a lie.

 

Minerva

Josephine Blatt (née Schauer) (1863 – 1923)

JosephineBlatt-PoliceGazette.jpg“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 50 pounds for $500 to $1000 a side and the female heavy-weight-lifting championship of the world.”

-Letter signed Josie Wohlford, National Police Gazette. 3/28/18911

Precious little is known about the specifics of her early life.  Much of what exists in secondary sources is not officially confirm-able (though Jan Todd’s excellent essays in Iron Game History gave me far more insight into her life than I had imagined possible. )

Though contradicted in her public biography (which is the case with many early performers), Minerva was likely born in New Jersey and joined the American vaudeville and circus circuit in the 1890s as strength acts were beginning to take hold as an audience draw. (Also like many performers of the era, there is evidence to suggest that she used her talents as a means of escaping an unsatisfying marriage.) For many years she was listed in the Guinness Book of World Records  as having lifted the greatest amount of weight for a woman: 3,564 lb with a hip and harness lift at the Bijou Theatre, Hoboken, N.J., on April 15, 1895. (1895 reports indicate that this weight was closer to 3000 lbs than 3564, but hey, that’s still a feat!)

 

Vulcana

Kate Williams (1875 – 1946)

Vulcana1900.jpg

A Welsh strongwoman known for her combination of femininity, strength, and the use of her talents to perform heroics. Perhaps the real first superhero, Vulcana is credited (among other tales) with stopping a runaway horse in Bristol in 1888, rescuing two children from drowning in the River Usk in 1901, and rescuing another performer’s horses during a fire at the Garrick Theatre in Edinburgh in 1921.  She and her long-time love interest, Atlas Roberts, formed the Atlas and Vulcana Society of Athletes in which their children often performed as well. Though the society was charged a few times with exaggerating their lifting abilities, Vulcana’s feats were truly spectacular even so. She was authenticated as bent pressing 124½ lbs with her right hand  and an overhead lift with a 56 lb weight in each hand.

 

Charmion

Laverie Vallee (née Cooper) (1875 – 1949)

Charmion 1897.jpgThough most of my research into Charmion ended up more inspiring Della and the other burlesque girls than Suprema, she was one of the many performers who considered themselves both strongwomen and acrobats. This is not surprising. Acrobatic and gymnastic talents require incredible strength that the viewing public does not always consider.

Charmion was born in Sacramento, California and made a name for herself with her controversial trapeze disrobing act.

 

Kati Sandwina

Katharina Heymann (née Brumbach) (1884 – 1952)

Katie Sandwina (the Lady Hercules).jpgBorn in Vienna and one of 16 children, Kate began performing in her family’s circus at the age of 2. After earning herself the title of “Europe’s Queen of Strength, Beauty, and Dexterity” she traveled to the United States and began an illustrious career with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, continuing to perform with them until she was in her 60s.

Her stagename, Sandwina (essentially a feminine version of the name Sandow), came from that of famous strongman Eugene Sandow who she defeated in a contest of strength. She was especially known for lifting her husband, acrobat Max Heymann, bending steel bars, and resisting the pull of several horses.

 

Abbye “Pudgy” Stockton

Abbye Eville (1917  – 2006)

Abbye Stockton lifts a barbell as other women look on

“In those days, lifting weights was thought to be unfeminine. The misinformed think if women strength-trained, they’d become masculine looking. We laughed knowing they were wrong.”

-Abbye Stockton as told to Sport’s Illustrated

The original “Queen of Muscle Beach”, Abbye was one of the first “true” professional female body-builders, and was a trailblazer when it came to normalizing the idea of athletic women. Abbye was not part of the circus circuit, but I included her in my research because her work would have had a significant influence on Suprema; she would have been someone that Suprema looked up to.

For 10 years (1944-1954), Abbye wrote a column in the magazine Strength and Health entitled “Barbelles” which discussed women’s fitness in ways that were far from the norm at the time, focusing on strength training rather than simple calisthenics and including profiles of other strongwomen like herself. After her husband Les returned from WWII, he and Abbye founded one of the first women only fitness clubs.

Joan Rhodes

(1921 – 2010)


The strongwoman that Suprema would have been most aware of and probably most want to emulate would have been one who started gaining fame for her performance right when Suprema was beginning her act: Joan Rhodes. Famous for her vaudeville act in which she tore telephone books in half, bent steel bars, and lifted various audience members, she began touring with Bob Hope and appearing on television around 1955. She would later go on to appear in a number of films as a stunt performer and sometimes acting as herself.

These were just a few of the wonderful and amazing strongwomen throughout history and hopefully I will get the chance to feature more of them in the future.

 

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Traveling with the Caravan: Getting Around With McClure’s Amusements

Sheboygan Press June 12 1914
Sheboygan Press June 12 1914

Stories of the traveling carnival are imbued with a certain mythological essence, and much as it does with road trip tales, travel memoirs, wagon train westerns, and memoirs of adventurous feats like climbing Everest, the secret of this essence lies in the word “traveling.” The concept speaks to people on a deep level. I doubt there are many people who could honestly say that they haven’t thought, at least once in their life, “maybe I should just pack up and hit the road.”

Once in a fit of whining about how “there is nothing new under the sun,” I read something that comforted me. “There are only two plots: someone leaves or someone arrives.” (a paraphrase of a quote often attributed to John Gardner) Travel stories like Sideshow fit an interesting space between these two “plots.” Abby is leaving her home and “going on a journey,” but she also has “arrived” at the carnival and is a stranger in their world.

Image Credit: ReflectedSerendipity
Image Credit: ReflectedSerendipity

Because travel is so central to the narrative and it’s themes, it was important to me that I portray it in the right way.  While earlier circuses and bigger carnivals mostly traveled by rail in the United States, by the 1950s smaller carnivals such as McClure’s Amusements mainly traversed the country in trailers. This meant I got to choose some fun locations without regard to rail lines (Hence the decision to take the caravan through places like Kokomo, Indiana).

The tricky part, however, of mapping out the route McClure Amusements would take across the Midwest was the fact that in 1957, the interstate highway system had only just begun construction.

When today, you could use highways to make the trip

Sideshow travels today

When Abby was adventuring, they would be using, at best, state routes. My mother used to tell me tales of her childhood Cleveland trips, which were huge undertakings akin to cross country road-trips. You packed a lunch. Today, her family could have made that trip in an hour.

Sideshow travels sans highway

The maps themselves don’t look terribly different and maybe 13 vs. 17 hours doesn’t seem like much of a trial, but keep in mind that while today you might be driving 80 miles per hour on the highways, these routes would have speed limits that topped out at 55 (most would be quite lower). Not to mention that hauling or driving a trailer, ride, or truck full of carnival supplies would slow you down and destroy your gas mileage. (And to be honest, some of those state routes were in different locations at the time. I double checked old road atlases because I am a research nerd. They just don’t scan well on the blog)

Image Credit: Tin Can Tourists
Image Credit: Tin Can Tourists

Also important were the campers themselves. The concept of the “Recreational Vehicle” or RV is so ubiquitous nowadays, that it might surprise you to learn that term wasn’t used until the 1970s. Still, people were roaming the country in campers, trailers, and “housecars” practically since the invention of the automobile. These vehicles were especially important to more nomadic people such as those who were employed by McClure’s Amusements. Being able to keep your home with you as you traveled could be a real source of comfort during their grueling travel schedule.

There were many examples of trailers available to to the performers and crew from the brand new Volkswagon Westphalia to small Empire trailers like Suprema’s. Choosing what sort of trailer I would base each character’s home-base on was a lot of fun for me. I wanted it to reflect the character’s personality, means, and needs just as well as any other aspect of the character did.

1955 Empire Trailer. I based Suprema's on this model. [Image Credit: Tin Can Tourists]
1955 Empire Trailer. I based Suprema’s on this model. [Image Credit: Tin Can Tourists]
Travel is essential to Sideshow and the lives of the characters in the novel.  Even though that work isn’t one of the most obvious aspects of the narrative (less so than, say, researching slang or fashion), I knew it was something that I had to consider and focus on carefully. Travel is part of us and it’s history, in many ways, is ours too.

Sideshow is available now for pre-order from Interlude Press. Be sure to reserve your copy today.

The Birthplace of Rock & Roll & Abby Amaro: Cleveland in the 1950s

Starting this week, we will begin our look deeper into the world of Sideshow with explorations of the setting, plot, characters, and the research that it took to get them right. Enjoy!

Looking east down Superior Avenue from monument sector of Public Square, July 1950.
Public Square -1950 [Image courtesy of the Cleveland Public Library Digital Gallery]
Sideshow begins in Cleveland, Ohio. This seemed a natural choice to me. I honestly never even considered setting Abby’s beginning anywhere else. Continuing the world of “The Fire-Eater’s Daughter” meant continuing a story set in the 1950s. That was not a problem. As far as the writing of historical fiction goes, the 1950s have a ton of interesting themes to mine and I’ve only begun to crack that surface. Using Cleveland as a backdrop for the opening scenes just seemed to slip right into those themes seamlessly.

In the 1950s, Cleveland, like the rest of the world (and the Amaro family – I’m sure the reason for the gap between Abby and Leon is painfully obvious) was trying its best to move on from WWII. The world was still in turmoil, but Cleveland was trying to forget.

The post-WWII manufacturing boom definitely helped. Cleveland was, after all, a manufacturing city, for better or worse.

Abby’s father, like many other Cleveland fathers of this decade and decades prior, worked in a steelyard. It was hard work but would have provided well for the growing Amaro family  and allowed them to live in a house between the neighborhoods of Little Italy and Coventry Village (a one time “planned” community for Cleveland’s wealthy Protestant elites which began growing in ethnic diversity around this time). Natale and Abby both work and are concerned with money, but they would, unlike their parents, have been able to finish out their high school years in relative peaceful enjoyment. They would have likely attended a local Catholic School such as St. Marion’s (which would close in the 1960s, so the younger Amaro children would have to be sent elsewhere).

Cedar Lee Theatre
Cedar-Lee Theatre [Courtesy of the Cleveland Heights Historical Society & Cleveland Historical]

A critical intersection, both to Abby and Sideshow is that of Cedar and Lee roads. Abby spends her evenings after her music classes working at the fictional (though loosely based on a one time burger joint known as Mawby’s) Cedar Lee Diner, the existence of which was inspired by local Cleveland landmark, the Cedar-Lee Theatre.

The Cedar-Lee opened in 1925 and anchored the ever changing commercial center around it. It’s still there today, albeit a little different than Abby would have known it.  Though Abby and Marjorie likely preferred the East Side Drive In (especially during the summer), Cedar-Lee would definitely have held a special place in her social life.

Announcement of the Moondog Coronation Ball at the Cleveland Arena, March 1952. WRHS.
Announcement of the Moondog Coronation Ball at the Cleveland Arena, March 1952. WRHS. [Courtesy of Encyclopedia of Cleveland History by CWRU and the Western Reserve Historical Society]
Speaking of social life, Abby would likely have also frequented dances held by Italian-American social clubs and teen organizations. As a music lover, Abby’s adoration of everything from opera to folk to, of course, rock and roll would mean seeking out places where she could hear the music she loved. In Sideshow she mentions to Suprema that she listened to Moondog every night. This is a reference to Cleveland disc jockey Alan “Moondog” Freed often credited with coining the term “rock and roll” leading to Cleveland’s beloved moniker. [I will discuss this particular aspect of Abby’s life in further detail in a later post.]

The carnival the Amaro family attends on that fateful day in late July would likely have been held in Gordon Park on the lakeshore or somewhere similar to it. These areas were casualties of that manufacturing boom mentioned earlier as the lake struggled through environmental degradation. That would have allowed McClure’s Amusements the ability to rent their time on the land cheaply, however. As seen in Sideshow, they do not always get the choicest locations, but they make the best of it. (Gordon Park’s Beach is also where I envisioned Abby’s breakup with Frank.)

The 1950s in Cleveland truly do provide an incredibly rich backdrop in which to paint the story of Abby Amaro’s early life and launch her into her later adventures with McClure’s amusements. This real and vibrant city that is more than it appears on the surface was, in my mind, the only place to begin.