Joseph Greenstein, better known as The Mighty Atom, was a strongman from Poland born in 1893. He weighed only 4 pounds at birth, born prematurely with additional health issues which made doctors believe he won’t live longer than a couple of hours. Against all odds, Greenstein survived this ordeal, only to to contract tuberculosis at the age of 14. Once again, doctors believed that young boy won’t be able to fight off the infection. He proved them wrong, again.
Joe Greenstein was born into a poor family, so he couldn’t afford to pay a fee for circus performances which were very popular back then. That’s when he decided to try and sneak in to the Iskoff Brothers’ Circus, featuring popular Russian strongman Champion Volanko. Unfortunately, Greenstein was caught and beat until Champion Volanco himself saw what was going on, and practically saved him from further beating. Volanco felt sorry for the little guy and offered to teach him how to become stronger through proper diet and exercising. Coming from a personal hero, Greenstein immediately accepted the offer. For the next 18 months, two of them traveled together with the circus and Joe improved his body and strength in such a way that his family could barely recognize him when he came back home.
During next couple of years Joseph became heavily involved in wrestling, performing under the name Kid Greenstein. This was around 1914, when antisemitism was on the rise across Europe. For this and other reasons, Joe left Europe and went to the USA to live with his wife Leah, whom he married a year before. Working as an oil field and dock worker, Joseph also found spare time to continue with wrestle performances. That same year a jealous guy who fell in love with Joe’s wife shot him between eyes from a distance of around 30 feet. According to various sources, the bullet actually flattened on the impact without penetration, leaving Greenstein with only a superficial wound. Joseph was enlightened by this experience, waking up his mental powers and allowing him to perform incredible feats, as he said. This is where his strongman career actually began.
The Mighty Atom derived from the fact that he stood only 5’4″, weighing 140 pounds but still had an incredible amount of strength. Some of reported feats Greenstein was capable of are impressive, and some are downright scary. For instance, The Mighty Atom could hold the airplane from taking off with a rope tied to his hair. Another scary feat include supporting a weight of fourteen men while lying on a bed filled with nails. Greenstein could change a tire using his bare hands, bite through a 25 cent coin, break three chains tied to his chest and bend a steel bar with his powerful hair. One of his most popular feats was driving a 20 penny nail through a thick wooden board, but scrolling steel rods into various shapes was also praised by his audience.
He continued his strongman career even as an eighty year old man. His last public performance took place at Madison Square Garden in 1977, driving nails and bending spikes for the first birthday of his great grandchild. The Mighty Atom appeared in Ripley’s Believe It Or Not and even made it into Guinness Book of World Records in 1976. He never became rich, though. In his later years, Greenstein and his wife sold health elixirs and various oil soaps at fairs. Even though he never truly made the real bucks, perhaps he lived that kind of lifestyle by choice. People say that he was very happy and content spiritually even at an old age, which is something all of us should aim for. The Mighty Atom died at the age of 84 from cancer.
There is a great book on The Mighty Atom, entitled “The Spiritual Journey of Joseph L. Greenstein” which is out of print, but not impossible to find on Amazon and similar websites.