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.