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.
Josephine Blatt (née Schauer) (1863 – 1923)
“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!)
Kate Williams (1875 – 1946)
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.
Laverie Vallee (née Cooper) (1875 – 1949)
Though 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.
Katharina Heymann (née Brumbach) (1884 – 1952)
Born 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)
“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.
(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.