The Queen of Strength and Beauty

Just two years after he organized what is largely considered the world’s first bodybuilding competition in 1901, acclaimed German muscle man Eugen Sandow met his match in a woman. The story goes that it was at a performance of feats of strength in New York when strongwoman Catherine Brumbach challenged anyone in the audience to outlift her.

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Also known as the “Lady Hercules,” Katie Sandwina was known for being feminine as well as uncommonly strong. University of Washington [Public domain]
Sandow allegedly jumped onto the stage and proceeded to lift a 300-pound barbell to chest height. Catherine then lifted the same weight over her head with one hand. Some historians question the truth of the tale that pits the two heavy lifters against one another. When one considers that Katie spent much of her life working for master promoter P.T. Barnum, it’s easy to suspect it may be little more than a load of hogwash.

But there’s no question Catherine Brumbach, whose stage name became Katie Sandwina after her rumored victory over one of the world’s strongest men, was a powerhouse. Katie grew up in a circus, performing with her very large family. When she was a teenager, her father offered a prize to any man who could outwrestle her. None ever did, but one man did fall in love and propose.

Happily married for more than fifty years, Katie incorporated her husband Max into the show, lifting his 165-pound body above her head with one arm and then tossing him about with ease.

I’m impressed by this woman, whose 5’9”, 200 lb. frame was considered by many to be the ideal image of perfect womanhood. She was even known as “Europe’s Queen of Strength and Beauty.”

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She’s lifting three grown men. And she’s wearing heels. I’d say the title of queen is well deserved. Bain News Service, publisher [Public domain]
I can’t exactly relate, but I have recently begun lifting with my husband. Of course I don’t mean that I’m lifting him over my head like Katie Sandwina would do with her Max. But we do try to get to the gym together about three times a week where he lifts the kind of large weights a large man might lift and then I show him how it’s done by lifting much lighter weights. Super impressively.

And I am getting stronger, though I’m pretty sure no one is referring to me as America’s Queen of Strength and Beauty. Or even Missouri’s. Yet. Katie still has quite a bit of size and strength on me, and I’m a lot more interested in being a little bit healthier and a little bit stronger than I am in becoming the strongest woman in the world. She was, by the way, her record unbroken until 1987 by American weightlifter Karyn Marshall.

Katie performed with Barnum & Bailey’s Circus until she was sixty years old. Then she and Max retired to run a restaurant in New York. There this queen of beauty and strength cooked up a storm and occasionally acted as formidable bouncer until her death in 1952.

Perhaps that should be my goal. By the time we retire, I plan to be strong enough to literally throw someone out of my kitchen should the need arise. Like a queen. And of course, I’ll look beautiful doing it.

That Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze

Chances are if you’ve been to a circus at some point, you’ve seen people risk their lives. It’s part of the thrill of the show. There are fire-breathers, lion-tamers, high-wire walkers, and sword swallowers to name just a few.

And while the circus used to be primarily about tortured exotic animals, unfortunate human oddities, and psychotic-looking clowns that haunt our nightmares, at some point the attention shifted to more and more dangerous performances of highly skilled human oddities as they defied the kind of grisly deaths that haunt our nightmares.

One of the turning points for the circus came in the middle of the 19th century when a young Frenchman named Jules Léotard went swimming in his father’s pool in Toulouse. A skilled gymnast, Léotard swam a few laps and then thought he might have more fun at the pool if he swung above it. He rigged up a series of apparatuses resembling dangling pull-up bars and began swinging, launching himself from one to the other. Soon he was performing elaborate acrobatic maneuvers above the pool.

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Jules Léotard and his bulging muscles. Fetch the smelling salts!

And a terrifyingly dangerous circus act was born.  Léotard performed on the trapeze above straw mattresses in his home town and soon he found himself flying above large crowds in Paris and London. The practical, tight-fitting costume he designed both for flexibility and for making the ladies swoon at the sight of his bulging muscles, came to be known as the leotard. And that song about flying through the air with the greatest of ease? That was about Jules Léotard, too.

Today the flying trapeze is an iconic act in the world of the circus performances. And it’s one of the reasons I won’t attend a circus. Now I don’t care much for the animal training or the clowns, either, but I really really don’t like to watch people risk their lives for the sake of my entertainment. It’s just not my thing.

But I am fascinated by the performers who do it. So a few months ago, I wrote a little flash fiction piece about a circus acrobat performing on the trapeze. I entered the story into a contest sponsored by the group Wow! Women on Writing. And the story won third place, which was very exciting. If you’d like, you can follow the link and read “The Greatest of Ease” and some other lovely flash pieces on the Wow! website.

Then, if you’re a really super amazing person, you can also check out an interview with me that was posted on the Wow! blog earlier this week. In it I talk about the story, about my forthcoming novel, and a few other writerly kinds of things.

I hope you will find it entertaining, because though it would be pretty cool if someone wrote a song about me one of these days, this is pretty much as close as I ever plan to get to risking my life for the sake of entertaining an audience. And I think it’s also unlikely I’ll ever wear a leotard in public. Because that’s the kind of thing that haunts my nightmares.