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.]