‘I am not a freak of nature. Instead, I just live the most natural life.’
At left, Marguerite Martyn imagines Katie Sandwina lifting her, sketchbook and all, as circus onlookers gasp. At right, Katie prepares a meal for her family.
Sunday, June 4, 1911 St. Louis Post-Dispatch
By Marguerite Martyn
“Gee! Wouldn’t I love to be able to bat a man around like that!”
This sentiment came from a woman behind me as I sat watching the middle ring at the circus one night last week. The inspiration of that inelegant remark was the act of Frau Sandwina, billed as “The Lady Hercules.”
At that moment she was twirling her husband about in dizzy circles above her head. Carelessly, laughingly, she tossed him about as though he were not flesh and bone but merely an effigy of inflated rubber. And Herr Sandwina is no insignificant man, either: Rather short of stature when he has the opportunity to stand up, he stretches to his full height and makes you aware of his well-muscled 156 pounds.
She had entered gracefully into the arena on her supple, slender, silk-encased limbs. She is a large but perfectly proportioned woman, like a shining statue of a heroic Venus.
I hate to add one more comparison of the female sex to the cat tribe, but, yes, Frau Sandwina does have panther-like attributes of swiftness and grace, and she does conceal great strength within soft, subtle curves.
You don’t hesitate to vent ohhh, and ahhh, for you have paid your good money to experience the thrills of the circus. But there was an unwonted fervency which was echoed along the rows of spectators, boldly, titteringly, half apologetically, self-consciously, and it set me to wondering:
What if all women were possessed of the strength of this circus top-liner? What vistas of possibilities would be opened up?
If we were all as powerful as Sandwina, what would happen to the masculine idea of the “stronger sex”? That would be an antidote to the ancient, very tiresome claim of the anti-suffragists that women have no right to vote because they could not defend themselves, serve in the army, join the police force, and all that.
If physical strength is to decide supremacy in our government, here is Sandwina, stronger than the average man, be he voter or otherwise. Wouldn’t it be a good idea to nominate this young Amazon as the leader of the suffrage movement and follow her to victory?
These possibilities sprang to my mind, and I resolved to join Mrs. Sandwina to see if her great strength made any difference in her own home.
Her press agent supplied me with the address, and soon I was standing in front of a house at 3414 Laclede Avenue with a sign in front: “Furnished Rooms Available for Light Housekeeping.” And then I was inside, amidst scenes of the mildest form of domesticity.
Her Son a Hercules, Too
Here was a small, barefoot, sticky-faced, jumper-clad toddler playing noisily with toys on the floor. An aroma arose from a pot roast stewing on a gas stove from the next room, which had been once the back parlor of this ancient building.
And to greet me was Max Sandwina, bowing hospitably, rather reserved as befitted his secondary, supine role he had played the evening before.
“My wife is busy washing,” he said. “She washes our clothes every day. Now,” he hastened to add, “she does not do it to save money but she just like to. She always says it’s a bother when you are traveling to always be looking for a laundry, and then having your clean clothes catch up with you on the road. Be seated, and soon my wife will come in and make us some coffee.”
I must have looked surprised.
“Oh, yes, my wife cooks. She does not need to, but she likes it. Always when we are more than one day in a place, I find housekeeping rooms, so we have more food, and better cooked, than what we could get at the circus or any hotel.”
Presently Frau Sandwina loomed large in the doorway. She is six feet tall and weighs 210 pounds. But the weight is distributed as on any other woman, with no unusual musculature. It’s like looking through a magnifying glass at a splendidly formed and very pretty woman.
Her voice is pleasant. She speaks slowly and reservedly, but she laughs a great deal, displays a quick and keen sense of the ridiculous.
Six Generations In Circus
To be sure, she did rather obstruct the view in the small room, but that was due in no small degree to the vigorous whirlwind of arms and legs that ensued when she seized her small son with the avowed purpose of washing his face.
“I’ve changed his clothes twice today, and now look at him!” she remarked, just as I’ve heard other mothers complain. The struggle lasted only for a moment, and the baby’s face remained unwashed, the lad being too obstreperous for her. But no hint of impatience clouded her brow.
She laughed and acknowledged herself vanquished. “Oh, well. Dirt is good for boys.”
“He is another Brumbach,” husband Max said of the boy. “Which is my wife’s family name. And all over Bavaria you say ‘Brumbach’ and that means ‘strength.’ Katie’s father —“
“Katie?” I interrupted. “Wouldn’t she rather be called ‘Katherine’?”
“Katherine is right,” he said.
“But Katie is nicer,” purred the strongwoman.
Her husband resumed: “Katie’s father was one foot taller than she. He was the father of sixteen children, and he owned a circus, and he never had to go outside the family to hire a performer. Six generations in the circus business, all doing acrobatic feats.”
Will Tug Against Horses Next
“And has strength increased with each generation?” I asked.
“That we do not know, for no records were kept. At Columbia University they said she is the most perfectly formed of all the women they had before them.”
Then — “Get the pictures, Katie, and show the new act we have for next year.”
Katie produced some photographs that showed her lying face down, her arms grasping an iron bar while two great draft horses, lashed by her husband in the role of a teamster, tugged at a band across her chest but failed to detach her grip.
“This act was presented in Paris, for three months already,” he said.
“It is hard work, this act,” she said.
“My family is an old circus family, too, one of the oldest in Germany, and we have been very strong. I am the smallest of the thirteen children. My mother was taller than Katie; my father was not so big, and I think it makes the children stronger if the big woman marry the little man and the big man marry the little woman. That is just my idea. Whether our son will be the strongest remains to be seen.
“Already he trains himself. When he sees a great stone, he wants to lift it. He grunt and groan until he budge it a little, or else he take a big hammer and he pound, bum! bum! and make a great noise. We can’t let him play with other children because he always wants to fight, and he is too strong for them. He is more than fifty pounds heavy. Pretty good for two-and-a-half-years old.”
“But when he came, he was so little,” volunteered the mother. “He weighed only ten pounds. He was long, but all bones. I worked to the day he was born. On Sunday I do my act, and on Monday he came. In two weeks, I act again. It was in Sioux City, Iowa, and we name him Theodore — after Roosevelt.”
“We have a letter from Roosevelt,” added Herr Sandwina.
Planning the Boy’s Future
“And are you going to follow that piece of advice the ex-President is fond of offering?” I asked. (That couples of white, Northern European stock have many children to forestall “race suicide.”)
“Oh, no. Not in this country,” laughed Frau Sandwina. “This is no place for babies.”
“We would like to have a large family, madam,” Herr Sandwina said, “but not in this country; the long journeys are not comfortable for children. This one shall go all over the world. He shall go to school and become well educated,” mused the fond father. “Not too much shall I give him. I have seen men spoil their sons with too many advantages. But this one has a good heart: I do not think he will become spoiled.”
“And what occupation do you intend he shall follow?” I inquired.
“Oh, a millionaire,” spoke up the mother.
Then, more seriously, fondling him as he sat in her lap: “It is for that I leave my country and do my work, so he may be a millionaire.”
Frau Sandwina had been unobtrusively preparing a pot of coffee in the next room. “Will you be seated, madam?” she directed.
It was just such a repast as you might encounter in any of those households in South St. Louis where they have not abandoned their custom of coffee at four o’clock. There were a bowl of strawberries, a pitcher of cream, white bread and butter on the table. The coffee proved to be not extraordinarily strong. No heavy furniture had been overturned; no iron ranges had been crushed in the preparation of the little luncheon.
What Others Might Do
“Do you think other women might become as strong as you, Frau Sandwina?” I took occasion to inquire.
“If they live as I do. If they have parents and grandparents and great-grandparents such as I,” she replied. “I am not a freak of nature. Instead, I just live the most natural life as did my ancestors before me. We eat much good food, plenty vegetables, plenty fruit, not so much meat except when it is boiled with vegetables. I use always butter instead of lard or oil, and I season meat or vegetables with salt or pepper before I cook, not after the food is done. That is just my way. And I cook everything a long time.
“My family — we eat a great deal when we are hungry. And when you are always outdoors or doing much exercise, you get very hungry. We just love exercise, but we become tired, and then we sleep. Oh, much more soundly than other people. And these things make us strong.
“In America, the hausfrau cook too quickly. Her husband eat too quickly. They all live too quickly, and so they are not strong. I see the American husband leave the house in the morning. His wife goes into the kitchen; in ten minutes she has her house all arranged, and she is out and away all dressed up.
“Ten minutes before he comes home at night, she returns and prepares his supper. All the rest of the time she is doing thousands of things where I don’t know what. And she is so nervous. I must stay away from American women or they get me crazy.”
Likes Housework Best
“If you were not engaged with the circus, would you not, with your great strength, find many occupations other than household duties?” I inquired. “When you accomplish things so easily, would you find time hanging heavily on your hands? Why didn’t you devote your great strength to some task in the outside world?”
Clearly I had addressed my question to Frau Sandwina, but her husband responded abruptly:
“My wife would never appear in public except as she does in her profession. She likes best the family life.”
No one thus far had attempted to interfere with his amiable inclination to do the talking for the family. But at this juncture, the Lady Hercules cast a glance in his direction. A glance so gentle, so sweet, so calm that I feared the thoughts behind it would not find voice, but it was a glance so freighted with intelligence that I was moved to suggest to the eager husband that he let his wife express her own opinion.
Throwing up his hands with an excitability that was truly Latin and a gesture that implored a thousand pardons, Herr Sandwina subsided, and the Strong Lady resumed the topic I had introduced.
“I am still too young, madam, not to wish to see the world. I am but twenty-five, and that is too young to settle down. But if I had not my present work, I should like best the family life. There are enough duties in her own home for any woman if she would make her family healthy and strong and wise. I should be content to devote all my strength to my household.”
Is She Wiser Than Others?
And this was final. The great wave of feminine unrest has not yet reached Frau Sandwina. Draw your own conclusions, you women hurling yourself so swiftly against the powers that be.
What is apparent to me is that in her placidity, her contentment, her forbearance, her gentleness, her large tolerance — in all those may lie her strength. They are worth emulating, you would-be world beaters. Have you not heard Heaven described that way — a place where the ambitions and desires about which we fret become puny and small and beneath our notice? ————--
Besides Theodore, who became a professional boxer, the couple had Alfred, who became an actor known as Alfred Sandor. After retiring from the circus, the Sandwinas operated a restaurant in Ridgewood, Queens, New York. Katie died in 1952 and Max in 1974.
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(The article has been edited from the original text.)