January 2, 1893|
|Died||October 8, 1977
Cause of death
|Known for||Strongman (strength athlete)|
Life and work
Greenstein was born in Suvalk, Poland in 1893. As a child he suffered from respiratory ailments, and at age 14, a team of doctors predicted he would die from tuberculosis. Around that time, he became acquainted with a Russian circus strongman called "Champion Volanko," who took Greenstein under his wing. Greenstein traveled with Volanko and the Issakoff Brothers' Circus for eighteen months, learning the strongman's training regimen. After this, he returned to Poland and married his wife, Leah, and began a career as a wrestler. Due in part to rising anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe, he then left for the United States.
Greenstein first went to Galveston, Texas, working as a dockworker and oil field worker. Greenstein wrestled professionally at this time under the alias of "Kid Greenstein." In 1914, a local Texas man who was obsessed with Greenstein's wife shot him between the eyebrows from a distance of 30 feet. Amazingly, Greenstein left the hospital on the same day - the bullet did not enter his skull, but was flattened by the impact. This experience sparked Greenstein's interest in the mental powers associated with strength, and he gradually developed an array of strongman feats.
Despite standing only 5'4" and weighing 140 pounds, Greenstein became one of the 20th century's leading strongmen. Some of his alleged feats of strength included:
- Driving 20 penny nails through a 2½ inch board with his bare hands.
- Lying on a bed of nails while supporting a 14-man Dixieland band on his chest.
- Changing a tire on a car without any tools.
- Breaking as many as three chains by chest expansion.
- Bending an iron bar or horseshoe by holding one end with his teeth while one end of the bar was held fixed in a vise.
- Bending half-inch steel bars with his hair.
- Biting nails in half with his teeth (he could perform this feat with a 25-cent coin).
- Resisting the pull of an airplane with his hair. This feat was performed at the Buffalo Airport and was documented in the Buffalo Evening Times on September 29, 1928.
In 1939, Greenstein was charged with aggravated assault, grievous bodily harm, and mass mayhem against 18 members of the German American Bund (he allegedly beat them with a baseball bat, while suffering no personal injuries). Allegedly, when the judge asked him about the fight, he replied "It wasn't a fight, your honor. It was a pleasure". Out of sheer disbelief, anti-Nazi sentiment, and lack of evidence (many witnesses against him were too injured to testify) the case against him was dismissed.
Greenstein continued performing his strongman feats well into his eighties, giving his last performance at his great-grandchild's first birthday on May 11, 1977 at Madison Square Garden. He was featured several times in Ripley's Believe It Or Not and in the 1976 Guinness Book of World Records. Later in life he sold coconut oil soaps and health elixirs at fairs and farmers' markets. He traveled in an old Model A truck with panels that opened to show his extensive collection of newsclippings and citations from civic leaders and organizations. NYC Mayor LaGuardia issued a proclamation thanking Greenstein for showing his skills to the NYC police department. Greenstein had volunteered to teach jujutsu techniques to members of the New York City auxiliary police during World War II. It was many years before the technique was known to most Americans. At the age of 81, Greenstein was still performing. He dazzled an audience at Madison Square Garden by bending horseshoes and driving spikes through metal with the palm of his hand. He succumbed to cancer five years later. Greenstein died on October 8, 1977. The story of his life has been told by Ed Spielman in the book The Mighty Atom. The life story of Greenstein seems to be the inspiration for the fictional character of Al Pratt, a costumed crime-fighter who went by the alias of "The Atom".
Joe's son Mike Greenstein appeared as a 93-year-old on America's Got Talent in 2014 and successfully pulled a 3500 pound car with his teeth. He wore a t-shirt promoting Mighty Atom & Sons (1940).
- Harvin, Al (1974-06-02), "Martial Artists Hold Exhibition Today", New York Times: 1
- Boff, Victor (1962), "THE MIGHTY ATOM: HIS PHILOSOPHY OF HEALTH", Natural Strength
- "Mighty Atom, Super-Strong Man, Pits Brawn Against Plane, Wins", Buffalo Evening Times, 29 September 1928: 1
- Spielman, Ed (1998), The Spiritual Journey of Joseph L. Greenstein, Cobb, California: First Glance Books, p. 234, ISBN 978-1-885440-30-3
- "America's Got Talent". Event occurs at 1:03. NBC. WGBA-TV.