By Thom Van Vleck
When I was a kid, my granddad told me stories when I would spend the night. He was a great story teller and often, I fought sleep to listen to them. The topics were many, but since he had an interest in weightlifting, he often told me of strongmen of his day or before.
On one occasion he told me of a woman named Katie Sandwina. What I recall from his stories was she was 6’3” tall and 250lbs. She could carry a 1000lb cannon on her shoulder, lift her husband overhead with one arm, clean and push press 300lbs, and she never lost a wrestling match against a man. He told me that she once beat Sandow in a lifting contest.
Many years later, I read an article in an old Iron Man magazine on Katie and found that much of what he told was TRUE. Here are some of the things I have found out on Katie.
Katie Brumbach was her real name and her parents were circus performers Philippe and Johanna Brumbach. Both were large people and her father was said to have a 56” chest. In her early years, Katie performed with her family and her father would offer one hundred marks to any man in the audience who could defeat her in wrestling. It was claimed no one ever succeeded in winning the prize and it is also said Katie met her husband of fifty-two years, Max Heymann when he tried to beat her in a wrestling match and she knocked him out! They were married for 52 years….maybe he was afraid to leave! It was said that when Katie was just a teen she was over 6ft tall, 187lbs, and had 17” biceps and 26.5” thighs and was even larger after that. From what I can tell, she would feign modesty when asked for her dimensions. Perhaps it was modesty, or showmanship, but I do know that an Iron Man article on her listed her at 6’3” and 250lbs, confirming my grandfathers claim.
Brumbach took the stage name “Sandwina” after defeating the Sandow during her show. She offered a cash prize to anyone that could outlift her and Sandow took the stage. Katie lifted 300lbs over head and Sandow only managed to lift to his chest. After this victory, she adopted the stage name “Sandwina” as a feminine derivative of Sandow. I sometimes wonder if these sorts of things are staged by the strongmen to give each other credibility, but at any rate, it is agreed the event happened and it launched her career.
Sandwina worked in the Ringling Bros & Barnum & Baily circus until she was at least 60, possibly 64. One of her standard performance feats was lifting her husband (who weighed 165 pounds) overhead with one hand. She performed many other feats, such as bending steel bars and the pull apart with four horses. She would hold carousels of 14 people on her shoulders and support a half ton of cannons on her back. In between all of that, she also bore a son, Theodore Sandwina who not surprisingly became a large man and was a champion boxer.
There is no doubt Sandwina was quite a strong woman and many of her feats were real or at least close to the claims made about her. She may have been the strongest woman of all time!