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