Today is the birthday of Joseph L. Greenstein, a.k.a The Mighty Atom (1893-1977). Greenstein was not only one of the premier circus strongmen of the 20th century, but, because he continued to ply this traditional trade so late in life (into his 80s), he is a vital link with the past. Many living people remember his performances. I first learned about him in the terrific documentary Bending Steel.
A native of Poland, small, sickly and Jewish, he apprenticed himself to Russian strongman “Champion Volanko” at age 14 and spent some time with Issakoff Brothers Circus. He became a professional wrestler while still in Poland, and emigrated to the U.S. with his wife in 1911. In the States (initially in Texas) he worked as a manual laborer and wrestled as “Kid Greenstein”. In 1914 he was shot in the head by a man who was obsessed with his wife, and miraculously survived. This caused a kind of epiphany and Greenstein became a sort of performing Holy Man, growing his hair long, following a strict dietary and exercise regimen, and developing an act that combined incredible feats of strength with lectures on will power and healthy living. He was now the Mighty Atom, who could bend iron bars with his bare hands and break chains with his expanding chest.
The Mighty Atom worked in vaudeville and sideshows into the 1930s. Much like Houdini before him, he engaged in many publicity generating stunts outside the theatre, as when he stopped the take-off of an airplane using only his HAIR on two separate occasions. His personal exploits also made the headlines. He became legendary for dispatching large numbers of foes in street brawls, usually against loud-mouthed bigots, becoming in the process a sort of real life Jewish superhero.
When vaudeville and sideshow work began to dry up, he developed his own product line and took his pitch to the streets. And there was occasional work at places like the Ripley’s Odditoriums. His last performance was at Madison Square Garden, shortly before he died in 1977.
The Mighty Atom was inducted into Coney Island USA’s Sideshow Hall of Fame in 2010.
To find out more about the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous