“Sandwina”, the Woman of Steel

Katharina Brumbach (1884-1952), better known by her stage name, “Sandwina”, was born into a family of Austrian circus athletes and strength performers.

As a teenager she received extensive physical training that augmented her natural gifts towards great strength. By the time she made her official debut in her family’s circus act – offering 100 marks to any man in the audience who could defeat her in a wrestling match – she already stood close to six feet tall and weighed in the region of two hundred pounds.

Her stage name was purportedly adopted after she defeated the famous strongman Eugen Sandow in a weightlifting contest during the very early 1900s (“Sandwina” being a feminine variant of “Sandow”). She and her husband, acrobat Max Heymann, developed a double act in which Sandwina played the role of a soldier going through a rifle drill, manipulating Heymann as if he were a rifle.

Sandwina

By 1911 the couple were touring vaudeville and circus circuits throughout the United States and Europe, with Sandwina performing numerous impressive feats of strength including bending iron bars, breaking chains and supporting enormous weights on her shoulders. She became particularly famous in America, where she was seen as an exemplar of several popular cultural trends including eugenics, physical culture and women’s suffrage. Circa 1912 she became the vice-president of a suffrage society within the Barnum and Bailey Circus, although she was quoted as saying that she feared suffrage might “masculinise” women.

Retiring from the circus life, Sandwina and her family opened a popular tavern and restaurant in Ridgeway, New Jersey, where she continued to perform feats of strength for their patrons every Saturday night. She also took a hand in training her son Teddy, who became a prominent professional boxer, during the 1920s and 30s.

A New York Mirror newspaper article of December 15, 1947 recorded an incident in which a “bruiser” had entered Sandwina’s bar, berated everyone in sight and then started aggressively for Max. Under such circumstances, Sandwina – known to all in the neighbourhood as “Mama” – was known to say to her husband, “Papa, open the door …”. She knocked the bruiser out cold with one punch and ejected him from the premises. Apparently, this sort of thing happened often enough that the local cops had developed a customary word of caution for Sandwina the strongwoman:

“Mama, don’t hit him too hard!”

Sandwina, the Woman of Steel appears as a member of the Amazon bodyguard team in the Suffrajitsu graphic novel series.

The Mighty Sandwina, aged 63 years, bends a steel strap into a pretzel.
The Mighty Sandwina, aged 63 years, bends a steel strap into a pretzel.
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