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How an Underweight Underdog became The Mighty Atom

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

Youselle Leib Greenstein was not BOI (Born on the Island), but he certainly ranks as one of the more interesting characters to have spent time in Galveston.

Born to a Jewish rabbi and his wife three months premature in Suvalk, Poland on July 15, 1893, 3.5-pound Joseph was not expected to survive, much less thrive. But the infant made it past the preemie stage, only to be diagnosed with chronic asthma at five. That disease, a doctor said, would claim their son’s life before he reached adulthood.

By the time he moved into his early double-digit years, it was apparent that there was something different about young Joseph. Despite his health issues and small stature, he was unusually strong. So strong, in fact, that when he was 14, he went to work for the Issakov Brothers’ Circus.

Soon, the show traveled from Europe to perform in the sub-continent of India, then part of the British Empire. Many a European, or American, has been transformed when exposed to the Eastern, zen-like culture of mindfulness. That’s what happened to Joseph. In addition, a sideshow muscle man and wrestler whose stage name was Champion Volanko began mentoring the youngster.

Beyond teaching him how to wrestle, the Russian strongman had ideas about diet and workout regimens that are much more common today than they were back then. Though many may have doubted how a change of habits – including mindset -- could benefit the body, it worked for Joseph.

When he decided to immigrate to the U.S. in 1911, not only did he have very healthy habits, he knew the finer points of wrestling and the added power of mindful thinking.

Where Joseph ended up was Galveston. By then married, he supported his wife by working on the docks. No matter that he stood only 5 feet, 4-and-a-half inches tall and weighed 145 pounds, he could handle the loading and unloading of cargo more adroitly than most of his fellow stevedores.

During his free time, Greenstein continued to wrestle. Taking on all comers, he usually won.

In 1913, competing professionally for the first time, he faced a heavy-weight wrestler with an even tougher name – Wladek Zbyszko. When Greenstein managed to stay with his 270-pound opponent for 30 minutes, he won $50. Back then, that was a lot of money.

Now billing himself as “Kid Greenstein,” he began making money as a professional wrestler. Later that year, he faced New Yorker George Bothner, the lightweight world champion. After the Kid held his own for 2 hours and 47 minutes, the judges declared the match a draw.

The Kid’s most notable Texas performance came in an unexpected contest with a bullet. In 1915, for reasons variously reported as someone’s inappropriate interest in his wife to the acting out of a friend’s mentally ill son, Greenstein took a .38 caliber pistol round right between the eyes. The shooter fired from only 30 feet away.

At a hospital in Houston, a doctor removed the slug – described as “as flat as a nickel” -- and gave it to Greenstein as a souvenir. The following day, he walked home. Newspapers made hay with the story, one sheet proclaiming, “Kid Greenstein Stops Bullet with His Forehead.”

The close call may have soured him on Texas. That, and at some point he had an ugly brush with the KKK. When Greenstein left Galveston is not clear, but by the mid-1920s he and his wife were living in New York City. In 1927, now a regular on the carnival and vaudeville circuit, the Kid began billing himself as “The Mighty Atom.” He also used “The World’s Biggest Little Man” and “The World’s Strongest-Haired Man.”

The latter stage name referred to his amazing strength, which he demonstrated by pulling things with his hair or bending horseshoes and iron bars with his bare hands. Oh, and he could bite chains, 20-penny nails and coins in half with is teeth. At his performances, he gave away quarters he had bitten in half. Then he would do something like attaching his hair to a string of three trucks full of children and pulling the convoy down a street. He did the same thing with airplanes.

With the nation nearing its involvement in World War II, in 1939 Greenstein demonstrated his capacity to use his great strength for more than performance purposes. Seeing a sign at an American German Bund rally in New York that read, “No Dogs or Jews Allowed!” he employed a hastily purchased baseball bat to destroy the sign and then used it on 18 Nazi sympathizers. (A judge later dismissed the aggravated assault charges filed against him.) During the war, he taught self-defense classes, receiving a key to the city from City Hall.

In addition to making money off his body thanks to his showmanship, Greenstein became an apostle for good health. He lectured on the benefits of proper diet and exercise long before healthy living became a popular concept. Often, all he asked of his audiences was to “remain quiet and orderly.”

Practicing what he preached by eating well and working out regularly, Greenstein kept fit well into old age. The Mighty Atom – a man who survived a gunshot wound in Galveston that would have killed most men -- lived to be 84, dying in New York on Oct. 8, 1977.



© Mike Cox March 26, 2015 column
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