The strongman and strongwomen were very popular in the circus in the 19th century. These performers would lift, pull, push or bend seemingly unbendable or unbreakable objects. Early strongmen would lift anvils, have anvils placed on their stomachs, bend iron bars around their arms. Weights, chains, cannon balls, cannons and barbells served as standard items of heavy objects to lif. Some strongmen would hold a canon on their shoulder as an assistant lit and fired it. Hippisley Coxe in A Seat At the Circus (London: Evans Bros, 1952) 59 writes about a strong man in 1920 lifting an elephant.
Other circus strongmen include Canadian Louis Cyr and French Hercules, Horace Barre. They toured with the John Robinson show in 1897. The Cyr-Barre act went to the Ringling Bros. circus in 1898. The Ringling Bros. featured in the 1910s the Saxon brothers.
In some cases performer lift other strongmen and strongwomen to illustrate both strength and muscular control. In this act, performers often cover their bodies with a mixture of glycerin and gold dust and refer to themselves as “Living Statues” or “Golden Statuary.” One performer supports the weight of other strongmen. When shifting pose they move smoothly without the slightest trace of effort or awkwardness.
Women also participated in this exhibition of human strength. Strongwoman “Catherine the Great” had motor cars driven across her body, a merry-go-round with four men placed on her stomach, blocks of granite positioned on her stomach and broken with sledge hammers while lying on a bed of nails. She also caught a cannon ball on the back of her neck.
Katie Sandwina (Brumbach) was billed as the world’s strongest and most beautiful woman in the world. In the late 19th century she was the center ring attraction of the Ringling Bros. circus. She was six feet tall and weighed 200 pounds. She was able to lift her 160-pound husband above her head and carry a 600-pound canon on her shoulders.