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Shtetl-Born Strongman

How a Polish Jewish refugee named Joseph Greenstein became a legendary Coney Island strongman

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Joe "The Mighty Atom" Greenstein. (The Association of Oldetime Barbell and Strongmen)

In a fortnight, millions of TV viewers will tune in to watch world-class athletes perform acts of great strength and endurance. But a few generations back, at the turn of the last century, long before the Olympic Games became the outsized spectacle that they are today, audiences looking to be entertained by athletic prowess were more likely to find it at the fairgrounds, on a vaudeville stage, or along the boardwalk. That’s where strongmen could be found, pulling trucks with their hair or splitting nails with their teeth.

One of the greatest strongmen of all time was one Joseph Greenstein, born Yossele in 1893 in the small Polish town of Suvalk. At a young age, Greenstein ran away to join a Russian circus, then made his way to the Texas oil fields, and finally to Brooklyn, where, as the Mighty Atom, he would earn a place in Ripley’s Believe It or Not and the Guinness Book of World Records for his extraordinary feats (for instance, in 1928, resisting the pull of a plane with a 220 horsepower using ropes tied to his long hair).

The Mighty Atom died in 1977, at age 84. Reporter Jon Kalish presents this profile of him, drawing on archival interviews as well as conversations with his protégés and with his son Mike Greenstein, now 91. [Running time: 12:51.] 

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Bari_Weiss says:

Re: the photo above, Joseph Greenstein’s son Jerry (age 82) writes: “The photo is an old one and we have no idea who took it. What is interesting is that he is displaying one of his world records, a thirteen and one half inch chest expansion. The old record was six inches. He was a
ble to accomplish this by deflating his chest completely prior to beginning the expansion. This was something he had learned in India from a Hindu man.

Phillip Cohen says:

During the 1960’s I lived in the Lewis H. Pink Houses, a Federal Housing Project in Brooklyn, New York. As a child I would hear numerous tales about the Mighty Atom, Joseph Greenstein, on the local news and from a neighbor, Harry Greenstein, one of his sons. Harry, a hero in many ways in his own right, would gather up as many neighborhood kids and toss them into his family wagon and take us to places like Far Rockaway to go fishing. Each one of us was brought into his family’s apartment to select the rod and rail we wanted to use for the day. On these trips Harry would share many of the stories about his father and show a few tricks. He explained, in a barn yard sort of way, the applied physics behind quite a few stunts. Vibration was key behind tying and untying everything from hair knots to bending metal. I have a few vague memories of the Greensteins gathering together for holidays. All of us wanted to grow up to be like the Mighty Atom, a man full of strength, filled with Jewish pride, who took joy in children and just a little bit meshuga because of the many ways he seemed to defy convention.

    Great stories, Phillip! Thanks for sharing them.

    Hi Philip, I am Harry’s oldest granddaughter. I spent many, many hours in Gramma and Grampa’s apartment in the pink houses. You are right, we very often gathered there for the holidays. If you lived there in the 60’s you must also remember that they took in foster children. My grandfather was always my hero and we had a very special relationship. Zadie, as we all called the Mighty Atom, was also quite a man. He was a little intimidating to us little kids, but it was amazing to have a great-grandfather like him well into my teens.

Ora Rivka says:

All serious lifters know about the “Mighty Atom”. I had the pleasure of seeing him inducted into the Weightlifting Hall of Fame last year in York, PA (at York Barbells). His son (now in his 80’s, I believe) and other family drove from NYC and Baltimore for the event. Greenstein was a rather small individual compared to today’s lifters and strongmen–what an amazing man!

Vinko Ivanko says:

Good to see this online. We’ve got a lot of original film & other materials of the Mighty Atom in our archives that we’ve been slowly digitizing and preserving. Vinko —

    i was a friend of joes towards the end of his life. i would love to see the clips that you have. i personally saw him perform the chain shtick, pound a train track nail into a block of oak wood and then proceed to pull it out with his teeth, bend a tire iron with his nose etc, etc, etc.. what a character he was, god rest his beautiful soul! my name is meshulam (moskowitz) ben-meir. i currently live in israel and he performed those feats at the ramaz yeshiva in manhattan for the purim festival in 1974. although he told me that he stopped performing after his wife died and that he lost the desire to perform, he was willing to come out of the home he was in to perform those amazing superman feats.

michael hodesh says:

John (Kim) Wood introduced me to the worldd of ATOM and I am so Happy he did what A great story.Thanks old Fart.


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Shtetl-Born Strongman

How a Polish Jewish refugee named Joseph Greenstein became a legendary Coney Island strongman

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