JOSEPH GREENSTEIN – The Mighty Atom

The Mighty Atom

Some call him the ‘The Last Great Circus Stongman’ but perhaps a more accurate title would simply be ‘The Greatest Strongman”.

Yosselle L. Greenstein was born three months premature on July 15, 1893 in Suvalk Poland into the poorest family in town. Weighing less than 4 pounds, “Joseph” Greenstein was fortunate to even survive his infancy and his early tribulations certainly tempered his determination and fortitude. For the majority of his childhood his constitution was poor and his body frail. Standing less than five foot four inches in height as a teenager, Joe was a young man of small statue but possessed colossal resolve, heart and purpose.

At the age of fourteen, the Issakoff Brothers’ Circus came to town and Joseph Greenstein saw a poster for Russian strongman Champion Volanko . He immediately felt drawn to the chiseled strongman and the feats of strength depicted on the poster. With no money to see the show, Joseph attempted to sneak in. He was caught, beaten and left for dead. When the beating had finally ceased, Joseph tried to crawl home. He didn’t make it far before he encountered Champion Volanko himself.

Volanko felt sorry for Joseph and immediately took care of the young man. Following a lengthy conversation, Volanko offered to show the feeble Joseph how to properly eat, train and harness his determination into overcoming physical limitations. Joseph accepted the offer and immediately joined Volanko on tour.

Less than two years later, Joseph was a man chiseled out of stone. His body was finally as hard as his resolve.

Greenstein began his career as a wrestler. Shortly after marrying, and after encountering rising anti-Semitism, Greenstein immigrated to the United States.

It was in America where Greenstein and the legend of The Mighty Atom truly took shape. In 1914, “Kid Greenstein” was shot in the head in Galvenston, Texas. Greenstein left the hospital the same day convinced that his physical conditioning saved his life. Determined to show the world the marvels of his lifestyle, Greenstein truly began his career as a strongman.

The Mighty Atom was able to break chains with his hands and by expanding his chest. He was known to bend iron bars or horseshoes with his teeth. He often bent half inch rolled steel rods into heart shapes and drove nails through wood with his bare hands. He could change a car tire without any tools and could literally bite through nails with his teeth. He once tied his hair to a plane and held it to the ground as it attempted to lift off – the September 29th, 1928 headlines read “ The Mightly Atom – Super Strong Man Pits Brawn Against Plane, Wins!” and the feat was featured in “Believe it or Not”.

The Might Atom was a true superhero, and he was best known for fighting intolerance.

In 1936 he hospitalized six disorderly longshoremen following a dramatic fight. The story was on the front page of many New York papers – the headline read “Little Giant Knocks Out Six’. In 1938, again in New York, The Mighty Atom tore a sign that stated “No Dogs or Jews Allowed” from the front of a building. In the fight that followed, The Mighty Atom injured, hospitalized or otherwise defeated 20 men. He was arrested for the incident but was released when the court refused to believe he worked alone.

During World War II, The Mighty Atom volunteered his time to Uncle Sam’s Bond Drive. He demonstrated his strength by pulling a truck loaded with passengers and sold hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of bonds. The “Mighty Atom” assisted, without any compensation, in the recruitment of New York City’s Police Force. He toured the city for two years giving demonstrations of jujitsu, judo, and wrestling to interest men into joining the civilian Police Force. He received a proclamation from Mayor LaGuardia for his efforts.

Greenstein continued to perform well into his eighties. In his last public performance, on May 11, 1977, The Mighty Atom took the stage at Madison Square Garden wearing a leather vest with a golden Star of David emblazoned upon it. After stunning the audience by still bending horseshoes and driving spike with his hands, The Mighty Atom took the opportunity to wish his great-grandchild a happy first birthday.

On October 8, 1977 Yosselle Greenstein succumbed to cancer at the age of 84. He remains the mightiest little man to have ever walked the earth.

image: Joseph Greenstein breaking a chain via chest expansion.

RELATED READINGS FROM THE AMAZON LIBRARY

The Mighty Atom : the Life and Times of Joseph L. Greenstein; Biography of a Superhuman

Author, researcher and an expert of the odd, J. Tithonus Pednaud has been chronicling bizarre history and highlighting the lives of those born exceeding different for over a decade.

18 Comments

  • Reply February 9, 2012

    Melissa

    I’m loving this site. I check often to see if there is a new story. Happy to see there is a new one, written as good as the rest. Truelly respectful towards these people and giving them a place in history where these people belong for inspiring us to have the dermination to live life to it’s fullest.

    • Reply April 9, 2012

      J Tithonus Pednaud

      Thank you so much for visiting regularly. Your visits are greatly appreciated.

  • Reply February 14, 2012

    Lee greenstein

    I am wondering if this marvelous man could be related to our family
    As I remember my dad telling me that either his father or grandfather came from Poland
    And I know at one stage all greensteins were related

    • Reply April 9, 2012

      J Tithonus Pednaud

      It’s possibile. Perhaps a deeper look into your genealogy would provide the answer?

    • Reply April 24, 2012

      Meryl Rosen

      Hi. I come from a long paternal family line of athletes, and I am myself a retired gym teacher. My father, Leo L. Rosen was a lifelong athlete, including captain of his swim team in High School on the lower East Side, NYC. My grandfather was Morris Wolf Rosen, changed from “Russak” and the family was from Lodz, Poland.

      My father used to tell me of a picture of the Mighty Atom, lying on a bed of nails, a grand piano on his chest, and his many children (13?) on top. The youngest daughter was my father’s favorite aunt. I believe she lived in the Bronx or uptown Manhattan, as my father said he used to ride on his bike uptown to visit her.

      I would love to know more, especially whether I am related by blood to this family, since I don’t know their names, and my father died many years ago. My father would lift me by his hair, lifted a chair with one arm with a woman sitting in it, was a champion diver, an expert skier and long distance runner.

      Please respond to let me know if any of this sounds familiar, or if you know how I may find out more. Genealogy searches are not turning up much information, so I would very much like to know more.

      Thank you.

  • Reply February 17, 2012

    AuraFox

    I really liked this one. It really plays out like a classic superhero story.

    • Reply April 9, 2012

      J Tithonus Pednaud

      I couldn’t agree more! The fact the he wore a ‘costume’ makes him even more of a comic book superhero.

  • Reply February 22, 2012

    Bobby Salmon

    What a life! :D

    • Reply April 9, 2012

      J Tithonus Pednaud

      Indeed! A remarkable life.

  • Reply February 27, 2012

    Chris Kulik

    Back in the mid 60′s , I had the opportunity to work with Mr Greenstein at a farmers market in Gilbertsville, Pa. He was demonstrating his feats of strength to a very captivated audience. I was a youngster, about 7-8 yrs old. he picked me out of the audience and brought me up on the small stage. He drove nails through planks with bare hands, bent nails with his teeth, and other amazing feats. I helped him with his props, and collected money for the tonic he sold afterwards. I was wide-eyed to say the least. Between sets , he invited me into his traveling wagon to share tea and a cookie with him and his wife. His wagon was papered with newspaper clippings and commendations. By all appearances , he and his wife appeared poor by the days standards, yet they were rich in spirit. He talked to me of doing the right things in life. I will always remember the kindness in his eyes and in his voice. The second show was not quite over and my parents gathered me to leave. He pressed a quarter into my hand for helping him. It was alot of money in those days. I refused, I was just happy to help him. His hand was too strong….. Yosselle Greenstein will be remembered for his feats of strength . I will remember him for his kind heart. Rest in peace.

    • Reply April 9, 2012

      J Tithonus Pednaud

      Incredible story Chris. Thank you for sharing it with us!

  • Reply March 11, 2012

    Chaz

    I am a big fan of the Might Atom There’s quite a lot of pictures and a video here:
    http://www.dennisrogers.net/atommuseum.php
    The Might Atom also trained “Slim the Hammerman”, who retired recently.
    He made an attempt on a larger plane, also, and tore off half his scalp when he failed.

    • Reply March 11, 2012

      J Tithonus Pednaud

      Thank you Chaz for the updated information. The resource you posted is excellent!

  • Reply March 28, 2012

    Kendra Taylor

    I wished that I was able to meet such an amazing individual, and further yet, I’m so glad that despite the fact he was labeled as an ‘outcast’ of sorts, he used his talents to fight against intolerance! RIP!

  • Reply March 28, 2012

    The Human Marvels

    He was truly an outstanding individual.

  • Reply October 31, 2012

    Hiratio

    I used to work with a very nice lady named Myrna Greenstein. She said that she was the great granddaughter of “The Mighty Atom”. I’m into bodybuilding and working out so this was very interesting for me.

  • [...] year old Mike Greenstein, son of The Mighty Adam, pulling a car with his teeth this past July [...]

  • […] Joseph L. Greenstein, známy aj ako Mocný Atóm, bol poľský Žid z chudobnej rodiny, vysoký len 150 cm a s váhou nepresahujúcou 68 kilogramov. Na svet prišiel v poľskom mestečku Suwalki roku 1893 predčasne, len v šiestom mesiaci. Neskôr ho zachránila pravdepodobne iba túžba vidieť cirkusové predstavenie, v ktorom kraľoval ruský silák, Šampión Volanko. Neduživý Greenstein sa vzápäti stal učňom Volankova, ktorého celoživotnou zásadou bolo trénovať každý deň, bez ohľadu na akékoľvek okolnosti. […]

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