It was a Friday night in the early 1970s and William Thrush, as he often did, had taken his family to Zern’s Farmers Market, a large indoor-outdoor market near Boyertown, now closed. ”I would take the kids to have a cheese steak and buy some penny candy,” he recalls. While they went shopping, Thrush would wander off to the outside to see some of the vendors. One got his attention. “He was an old man in his 70s who would be standing on the back of an old 1938 Dodge Truck bending horseshoes and other feats of strength – with his shirt off,’’ he recalled. This was Thrush’s first encounter with strongman The Mighty Atom, aka Joseph Greenstein. Thrush would come back several times. He saw Greenstein’s wife, Leah, at the back of the truck selling special soaps and food supplements. “I was mesmerized by his strength,” Thrush recalled recently. “He once tied a chain to the bumpers of two automobiles and had them drive in opposite directions with him in the middle-stopping their progress.”
Although Greenstein died in 1977, Thrush never forgot him. Then, walking through the many booths at a Petersburg Days event, Thrush saw a poster advertising an upcoming lecture on The Mighty Atom by the Life-Long Learning Group. “I signed up immediately,” he recalled. During the talk the lecturer included a slide that showed the remains of The Mighty Atom’s truck. Abandoned in a field, it had seen better days. Wondering if it was possible to restore the truck, Thrush was referred to Dr. Elliott Menkowitz, an orthopedic surgeon. He had treated Atom and his strongman friend, Slim the Hammer Man. Together both men decided that their “barn find” of the truck was worth restoring. Together the pair began the task that some would have found a mission impossible. Recently Thrush announced sadly that Dr. Menkowitz passed away in the hospital due to complications from Covid-19.
The question might be asked, who was The Mighty Atom that he brought out such devotion and attention? Wasn’t he just another circus strongman of the type that were many in his day? To those who saw him in his 20th century heyday, Greenstein, who often appeared at the Allentown Fair and other locations in the Lehigh Valley, was a human phenomenon, apparently able to perform feats of strength that no one else could. But what was even more important was Joseph Greenstein, the man behind the magic. His story as a member of Russia’s persecuted Jewish minority and a sufferer of TB that the doctors said would kill him before he got out of his teens, and how he overcame it all to create with his body and will a form of entertainment that thrilled millions in his lifetime, was and is compelling.
Greenstein was born in 1893 in what is now Suvalk, then Suwalki, Poland. At that time there was no Polish state, its various sections having been divided up in the 18th century by the Austrian, Prussian and Russian Empires. Under Czarist Russian control Jews were barely tolerated. And when a disaster struck, be it a defeat during a war or a plague, rulers used a pogrom of persecution against the Jews to direct their subjects away from the true problem.
Although there were some relatively prosperous Jewish families in Suwalki, Greenstein’s family was not among them. His father was trained as a rabbi but was forced to make his living as a tanner. The story is told that the future Mighty Atom was born prematurely (only 3.5 pounds at birth) when his mother was 8 months pregnant. He grew up a sickly child, suffering many respiratory ailments. Tuberculous was rampant at that time and the doctors were convinced he would not live beyond his 14th birthday. But the boy would not believe it. So little 5’4” “Yosselle,” as he was better known, decided he was going to run away to join the Issakoff Brothers Circus. The event that changed Greenstein’s life came about one afternoon when some of the circus workers were picking on the boy. Suddenly Champion Volanko, the circus strongman, saw what was happening and rescued him. He told Greenstein that he would be his personal valet.
Over the next 18 months Greenstein traveled as far as India with the circus and learned from the strongman. Volanko shared his training secrets and diet. Along the way he told the boy that he, too, was Jewish. Perhaps most important was something Volanko told Greenstein- the relationship between mind and spirit. “Yosselle” he said, “before you begin a task you must first exceed up here (pointing to his head)…mind and spirit…then action.” While traveling with the circus Greenstein had been training with its excellent wrestling staff. So he decided to embark on his career as a wrestler. But first he returned to Suwalki to marry Leah. Eventually they would go on to have 10 children. At the time of his death in 1977 Greenstein would have four daughters, four sons, 24 grandchildren and 24 great grandchildren.
The Jewish Gen website KehilaLinks notes that at that time in the early 20th century many Jews in Suwalki had begun emigrating to America. Greenstein and his wife joined them in 1911. Arriving in New York, they found it difficult to win acceptance in the Jewish community there and so relocated to Galveston, Texas. At that time, the port town was still trying to recover from the 1900 hurricane and flood. Greenstein quickly found a job at the docks, amazing the other workers with his ability to skillfully handle heavy loads. In 1913 Greenstein had his first professional wrestling match, fighting under the name of “Kid Greenstein” against a 270-pound opponent. After 30 minutes he won $50. The following year he fought against the lightweight world champion. After two hours it was called a draw.
A life-changing event occurred for Greenstein in 1915 when a crazed neighbor took a shot at him only 30 feet away, hitting his forehead. Putting his thumb on the wound he walked to a hospital in Houston. The doctor removed the bullet, “flattened like a nickel” and gave it to Greenstein. He left the hospital the same day. He later recalled the experience to his wife this way:
“I was on the ground. I knew I was shot… a burning pain between my eyes …and then somehow wasn’t myself … but something much more…And I knew in that instant that I wouldn’t die. Couldn’t. Not even the bullet between the eyes could kill me. It has all been for a reason, Leah. Everything, Volanko… the bullet…everything. All for a purpose.”
This was the beginning of The Mighty Atom. The name had nothing to do with atomic energy, a concept that did not exist in 1915. An atom was the smallest thing known at the time, and Greenstein was small, hence “Mighty Atom.”
Following a run-in with the KKK the couple relocated to New York. Here Greenstein developed his Mighty Atom persona. He grew his hair and beard long, and a variety of costumes was created to enhance his strongman mystic. His costume is said to have included a large Star of David. One source states that in the 1930s he had encounters with American followers of Hitler. Newsreel cameramen flocked to see him lift a Model A Ford with his teeth, chew iron nails and prevent a small plane from flying by using his beard. Some called it a stunt. Others said it was just “trick photography.” But the Mighty Atom knew and felt that it was a part of his inner strength.
In the 1940s New York’s Mayor LaGuardia issued a proclamation thanking Greenstein for showing his skills to the city’s police department. During World War II he volunteered to teach jujutsu techniques to police forces, something that was largely unknown to most Americans. It was in the post-World War II era that Greenstein became a fixture at local fairs, preforming by bending horseshoes with his bare hands and chewing nails. More and more the Mighty Atom encouraged the use of food supplements and exercise. In that he was ahead of his time, many believe.
Joseph Greenstein, aka the Mighty Atom, died of cancer at age 84 on October 11, 1977. But to judge from the numerous websites and chatrooms about him, the fascination with the Jewish boy who became the Mighty Atom continues. And someday soon his truck may once more be on display.