In December of 1973, I took a workout at the Texas Athletic Club in Austin, Texas, and tested myself for the first time in the deadlift. I was inspired to see what I could lift that day by watching a young woman deadlifting at the gym who had entered a local powerlifting meet as a member of a men’s team. On the way home, after deadlifting 225 in my first workout, Terry (my husband) and I talked about why more women didn’t lift (in 1973 there were no women’s powerlifting, bodybuilding or weightlifting contests) and he told me that there had been a time, back at the turn of the twentieth century, when some women performed in circuses and vaudeville as strongwomen and were even honored for being strong. The most famous of these, he explained was Katie Sandwina, who’d been a center-ring attraction in Barnum and Bailey’s circus and possessed what Terry called “true strength.” That first deadlift session and the conversation on the way home changed the course of my life. I decided to shift my training to see how strong I could become rather than just train for general fitness as I had been. The decision was not an easy one for me as almost no other women were pursuing strength for its own sake in the mid-1970s. However, the knowledge that I had foremothers like Katie Sandwina sustained me in those early days and helped me to find the courage to test my own limits.
I’m not sure why I’ve continued to feel such a strong connection to the German strongwoman who was born as Katharina Brumbach and later adopted the stage name Katie Sandwina. Perhaps I feel connected because she died the same year I was born, or perhaps it’s simply because she stayed strong and continued performing in circuses and vaudeville for more than 30 years. In any case, since I first heard her name in 1973, I’ve pretty much been on continuous “Sandwina Watch.” As Terry and I became more heavily involved in collecting strength materials, I’ve always kept a special eye out for photos or new articles about Sandwina. I clearly remember first seeing her name in print in an old copy of the Guinness Book of World Records shortly after that first deadlift workout, and I also know that the first photo I saw of her was in David Willoughby’s masterpiece, The Super Athletes. As I evolved from strength athlete to strength historian/collector, I’ve seen photos of Sandwina in muscle magazines and in the photography collections of strength and circus memorabilia collectors. I’ve researched her life in the major circus museums here in the USA and in libraries in New York City and London. I’ve even done research on her in Germany for the Rogue Legends documentary about her life which I helped produce: The Rogue Legends Series – Chapter 4: Sandwina. It would only be a guess, but I suspect that I’ve seen more original and published (not on-line) photographs of Sandwina than just about anyone.
And that’s why I was truly shocked this past week when our Associate Director Cindy Slater sent me this rare photo of Sandwina when she was only 17 years old. I had never seen it before. Since the pandemic hit and UT closed most of our campus, Cindy has continued working at the Stark Center and has been cataloguing collections during these quiet weeks. She recently started organizing strongman/wrestler Milo Steinborn’s book and magazine collection that Terry and I acquired in 2017. Milo owned many rare, early German magazines, the majority of which he had bound. As Cindy was checking to make sure that the bindings held a full year of magazines, she found this photo of “Käthe Brumbach” in the 8 March 1902 issue of Illustrierte Athletik-Sportzeitung.
At the top of the page in the magazine, the editors have printed her name and beneath it written, “truly the strongest woman in the world.” For the Illustrierte Athletik-Sportzeitung to give her that accolade is notable given the magazine’s familiarity with the various strongmen and strongwomen performing in Europe at this time. Below the image, in a single paragraph, they also report her age, that she stands 5’9” tall, and weighs 170 German pfunds, or about 187 American pounds. They are complimentary about her figure and suggest that as she gets older she will get much stronger. The text also states that lifting 200 pfunds (220 pounds) with two hands is “easy work” for her and that she can do 140 pfunds (154 pounds) with one hand. Although it does not say how she lifted the weights, these were most likely overhead lifts of some sort (the standard measure of strength in those days) and it further states that, “she can do these anytime.” The author of the brief bio note further explains she is learning to wrestle, and is currently appearing in Munich at Hammer’s Panoptikum, a variety theater.
As a historian, the most fascinating thing to me about the photo isn’t seeing Sandwina’s body without a corset to distort its shape, or the rounded cheeks on her youthful face, but the fact that at 17 she was appearing in a theater in Munich. In nearly all the various newspaper and magazine accounts of Sandwina’s life, the story usually told is that she was born to a circus family, appeared as a child in the family circus, began doing strength stunts as a teenager in the family circus, and that she met Max Heymann, her future husband and stage partner, after beating him in a wrestling match in that same family circus. This family-oriented version of her early life became particularly popular after she joined the Barnum and Bailey Circus in 1911 and their press agents reimagined her as not just any strongwoman, but “the strongest and most beautiful woman in the world.” See Iron Game History article “Center Ring: Katie Sandwina and the Construction of Celebrity“.
As I thought more about the amazing photo Cindy had found that gave evidence to her appearing in at least one theater at age 17, I decided to take another look at some of the genealogy and historic newspaper sites I use for this kind of research to see if I could find other mentions of Sandwina performing outside the Brumbach family circus. In Ancestry.com, I got another surprise when I found her name on a passenger list for a ship that sailed from Hamburg to New York in October of 1901. Her 44-year-old father, Philippe Brumbach, often billed as “the strongest man in Germany” accompanied her. On the passenger list, her name is recorded as “Kath. a. Brumbach” and it lists her (and her father’s) “profession” as Gymnastiker. Children do not normally have professions assigned to them on passenger lists, of course, which suggests she and her father were coming to America to perform.
Admittedly, these are small clues as to what may have been happening in her life at this time. It may well be that I will never find much more about her early stage career since newspapers, our best on-line resource for these kind of performers, rarely reported on acts playing in small vaudeville theaters and the less important circuses. However, more things are being digitized and posted on the internet every day and I am always happy to keep looking.
In the meantime, I am grateful to Milo Steinborn for making the effort so many years ago to collect these rare magazines, and especially to Cindy Slater for recognizing the photo as something truly rare. I am also grateful to Thomas Klose, my good friend in Germany who helped us make the Sandwina documentary, and to Alec Hurley, one of our doctoral candidates here at the Stark Center, both of whom helped me with the translations.
In closing, stay safe and remember,
It’s a Good Life … If You Don’t Weaken.