Katie Sandwina: Strongwoman of the Circus

Today a celebration of circus strongwoman Katie Sandwina (Katherine Brumbach, 1884-1952). It seems extraordinary to me that she had the same birthday as Vulcana, another famous performer in the same line of work, but apparently strength was in the stars that day. Let May 6 be henceforth known as Day of the Strongwomen.

She was born in Vienna Austria into a family of Bavarian circus performers. She distinguished herself from her 13 siblings by her strength and her ability to wrestle any many in the audience. Her stage name “Sandwina” is a feminized riff on Sandow, the reigning strongman of the day, whom she claimed to have bested once in a weightlifting contest. She was also billed as Lady Hercules. She could lift nearly 300 pounds over her head, a record that stood for decades. She could also break iron chains and bend steel bars. Another favorite stunt was to hold up a footbridge while members of the audience walked over her.

Sandwina came to the U.S. to perform with Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus some time prior to 1906, for that is the year her son, the boxer Ted Sandwina was born in Sioux City.  In 1910 she married a man named Max Heymann and he became part of her act — she would lift him high above her head and twirl him like a rag doll.  In 1918 their son Alfred Sandwina (later Alfred Sandor) was born. Alfred also started out as a boxer and also a circus ringmaster. In the 1950s, he became a stage and screen actor with many Broadway and television credits to his name, eventually becoming a TV star in Australia.

Katie and Max retired circa 1944 to Ridgewood, Queens. There they opened a restaurant and bar that capitalized on Sandwina’s fame. She passed away in 1952

To learn more about show biz history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.