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They made the history

Circus strongwomen and wrestlers

Maria Loorberg (Marina Lurs) and Anette Busch

Maria Loorberg and Anette Busch
Maria Loorberg (Kaire Vilgats, left) and Anette Busch (Triin Lepik)
Playbill from the show "She floored 100 men" of Pärnu Theater Edla.
Resource Delfi

Русская версия


The late nineteenth and the early twelfth centuries was a golden age of circus powerlifting and wrestling.

At the edge of the XIX and XX centuries circus wrestling became an exceptionally popular spectacle. Popularity of circus wrestlers would be compared just to the popularity of contemporary rock singers. Although many wrestling matches were staged, some of them were still real and ran in full strength. Big circus troupes sure had wrestler teams, which often included women as well. Wrestlers demonstrated techniques on each other and challenged daredevils from the audience. Wrestling championships and tournaments were often held those times. Women performances caused some piquancy to the rough male actions although some wrestling specialists were quite skeptical about female wrestling considering it as unskillful and even indecent. At those times brilliant assemblage of strong women had appeared. Many of them trained in wrestling as well. Challenging opponents of either sex from the audience for a competition with a female wrestler was extremely popular.

An 1890 spectacle in London featured a blonde female wrestler called Nellie, who offered 5 pounds to any man out of the audience who managed to defeat her in a wrestling match. In 1899 and 1900 female wrestling matches were held in "Les Folies Bergeres" in Paris. In 1891, the New York "Police Gazette" sponsored a "female wrestling championship match". Dressed in tights, with short hair (to prevent pulling), Miss Alice Williams took on Miss Sadie Morgan in the "Owney Geoghegan's Bastille of the Bowery".

In 1892 American strongwoman Josie (Josephina) Wahlford appeared on wrestling arenas and remained undefeated until the end of the century. She was the first really capable wrestler to emerge from the burlesque circuit. She is considered as the first oficial Women's World Wrestling Champion. Wahlford stood 5 feet 8 inches (173cm) and weighed 165lbs (75kg). Josie was powerful. She placed herself in the hands of Charley Blatt, who came from Hoboken and was a strongman more than a wrestler. Blatt taught Josie all the tricks of the trade and she became invincible. She became the first generally accepted champion among the fair wrestlers of the USA. Wahlford soon carved her way through the limited opposition available in those days and at age 24 began touring the vaudeville circuit as a strong-woman act. She called herself Minerva and would lift 700 pounds a foot off the floor and toy with 100-pound dumb bells. She also performed other feats of strength. Undefeated in wrestling, Josie was second only to the great female wrestler of the next generation, Laura Bennett. At the end of Josie's athletic career, when she was 36, she tried to return to wrestling, twice challenging the new champion of the 1900s. However, on both occasions Josie was defeated by Laura Bennett.

Josie (Josephina) Wahlford-Blatt (Minerva),
the first official wrestling championess
Photo from Wikipedia

Two more outstanding strongwomen must be mentioned here: Sandwina and Vulkana. Katie Brumbach (Sandwina) from Austria probably was the most powerful strongwoman of the epoch, she had outstanding physical parameters: 184 cm of height; 85 kg of weight; 44 turn cm of biceps; 20 turn cm of wrists and 67 turn cm of thigh (see the photo at right). She managed to surpass the famous Eugen Sandow (enthusiast in bodybuilding and powerlifting) himself in strength test – he was her idol and her nickname "Sandwina" was the female derivative of "Sandow". During years, Kate participated in circus spectacles with her family, and the most exciting point was when her father offered 100 marks to any man in the audience who would capable to defeat his daughter Kate in wrestling. According to the legend, nobody earned the 100 marks. Her future husband (they were married for 52 years), Max Heymann, was one of those daredevils who accepted the challenge and according to his own words, the following had happened with him: "As I have entered the ring I started thinking that if I earned the 100 marks it would be the most extravagant way to earn money I have ever had. All the sudden, these thoughts were interrupted and the only thing I recall is my sudden rotation in the air with the flashing blue sky in my eyes, and then free falling down. Eventually, I found myself on the floor panting and semi-unconscious, while the girl bent down to me and said, "Have I inflicted any damage to you?" Then she grabbed me in her arms as a dummy and carried me to her tent."

Another famous strongwoman, Irish Kate Roberts (Miss Vulcana) who lived in England appeared on stage with acrobatic and power exercises and sometimes participated in circus wrestling. At the age of 30 she had the following anthropometrical data: height – 5’7"; weight – 161Lbs; the following circumferences: chest – 3’6", waist - 2’3", biceps – 1’3", thighs – 2’1", forearm - 1’, neck – 1’3". She was able to lift a weight 181Lbs by one arm. She performed power acts very easily and gracefully.

There are many legends about Vulkana’s exploits.

A legendary incident happened on a circus show in Bristol when volunteers were called to wrestle a local male wrestler. Being incognito among spectators Miss Vulcana dressed as an ordinary woman volunteered for the wrestling. The wrestler was embarrassed and attempted to refuse but the audience demanded the match so zealously that the circus owner ordered him to go and to pretend wrestling. However, unexpectedly the femininely looking woman grabbed the luckless wrestler by waist, threw him over her head and dropped to the mat remaining on foot…

Since 1900 until WWI many female wrestling team emerged which particiapted in so-called World and European Championships. Many postcards and photographs remain since that time depicing groups of female wrestlers.

Russian Empire (and especially Estonia) was also famous for strongwomen and female wrestlers. Perhaps, one wrestler should be mentioned first – Masha (Maria) Poddubnaya (her married name was Matlash and the scenic nickname Matlos), the sister of the great wrestler Ivan Poddubny (she are mistakenly considered as his wife who happened to have the same popular Russian name). Six times between 1889 and 1910, Masha Poddubnaya was proclaimed as the "lady world wrestling champion". Circus bills said: "Inviting everyone to get his piece of luck in wrestling against Masha Poddubnaya, after she finishes off all wrestlers in her troupe." Unfortunately, very little is known about Maria Poddubnaya who always was under the shade of great Ivan Poddubny (too little is known about him either).

At the edge of centuries these female wrestler names were famous: Anna Znamenskaya, Frieda Damberg (Tamberg), Allice Williams, Laura Bennett, Hazel Parker, Mary Harris.

There is no doubt that Maria Loorberg (scenic name Marina Lurs) was one of the brightest stars among strongwomen and wrestlers as her friend and compatriot Anette Busch is remembered as an outstanding wrestler and pioneer in female Sumo.

Maria Loorberg

Maria Loorberg (Mari Loorbek by birth, nickname Marina Lurs, or Mary Loors) was an outstanding Estonian athlete, circus artist, strongwoman and wrestler.

Photo from Geni

She was born on January 11, 1881, in a farm near the village Velise, region Raplamaa, West Estonia (at that time Russian Empire province), and untimely passed away on March 30, 1922 not far away from her birthplace. Accustomed to hard farmer labor since her childhood and inherited a strong constitution (she weighed 176 Lbs and 5’6” tall at the age of 20), Maria dreamt to be a circus star. Since teenage time she travelled around Baltic provinces with local circus troupes as a maintenance worker and took an opportunity to develop skills in various circus professions: trapeze acrobatics, juggling and weight exercise which at that time was exclusively men’s profession.

The talk about a young talented girl reached the ears of famous Estonian athlete and wrestler Georg Lurich who took her to the “Club of amateur athletes” in Revel (now Tallinn) established in 1890s by powerlifting enthusiast Adolph Andrushkevich. It happened in the end of 1902 when Lurich returned from his successful tour in Europe. In November he became a world wrestling champion in the tournament in Riga defeating in the final famous German wrestler Heinrich Eberle. At that moment Maria was going to turn 22. Besides Lurich, other famous strongmen had trained by Andrushkevich, such as Georg Hackenshmidt and Alexander Aberg. Owing to her purposefulness Maria Loorberg quickly achieved much success in her profession and two years later, in 1905, she already appeared in carnivals and circuses in Estonia and other provinces of Russia as a circus artist and strongwoman and a few years later – as a wrestler.

Marina Lurs became famous by craftily handling heavy weights. She easily juggled with two 35lbs/16kg dumbbells, pushed up 176lbs/90kg with two arms, and snatched 106lbs/48kg by one hand. She carried three people on her back; lying on back she 32 times lifted by legs a bar with two people on its tips (with total weight 406lbs/184kg); she held 9 people on erect legs. On August, 1913 Lurs established the record: she planted her arms firmly on the knees and maintained 13 people on her legs. The total weight – 1940lbs/880kg – almost a ton! The audience was dazzled by the act in which Marina was spinning a yoke with "human loads" on its – the stunt was called "Live Carousel" - things were flashing before spectators' eyes when Lurs rotated a yoke with live load.

Maria Loorberg-Lurs was justly named the best female athlete and the strongest woman of the Russian Empire in the early XX century. Russian sport magazine "Hercules" in 1913 reported: "Marina Lurs attracts a special attention of the audience. Having perfect splendid build with massive but fine outlined muscular forms, Lurs performs unbelievable stunts which are just right for a good male athlete." Enthusiast and propagandist of powerlifting, editor-in-chief of the magazine, Ivan Lebedev, wrote about her: "She works as Hercules of the good old circus. Every her stunt is polished, full of strength, yet Maria Lurs’ figure is not at all rough but amazes with its soft and supple lines… City ladies should see this Eve’s daughter, rightfully proud of her strength and the harmony of her shape harmony." Maria Loorberg weighed 80 kilograms and was 1.68 cm in height. Not without reason she was listed in the reference book "100 years of Estonian Heavyweights: 1888-1988.". However when she started training with Adrushkevich the 22-year-old young woman looked delicate and fragile, weighing just about 64 kilograms. It is easy to imagine how much muscle mass she had grown during her practicing athletics.

During his visit to the Andrushkevich’s athletic school in 1904 Georg Lurich convinced Maria to start practicing wrestling along with powerlifting. In consideration of his care she made her new scenic nickname deriving it from Lurich’s original name – Luuri and became Marina Lurs. Since then she began mastering wrestling techniques with help and under the supervision of Andrushkevich and other strongmen. She was trained not just in the most popular French wrestling techniques but also in different techniques of new wrestling styles. Such as freestyle and ‘catch-as-catch-can’. As a result of those invaluable lessons, in a couple of years Maria managed to successfully compete on various arenas against professional wrestlers and volunteers of both sexes. After a few years of training and procticing wrestling, she began participating in wrestling championships. Later, St. Petersburg’s newspapers wrote: "In the circus of Richter brothers Marina Lurs challenged for wrestling both men and women".

In the middle of 1900s, Marina Lurs participated in the female wrestling team in St. Petersburg which had been established and led by Estonian wrestling trainer and promoter Alex Müller. Best female wrestlers of the Russian Empire trained in this team participating in wrestling tournaments all over the country. There were about 20 girls in the team from Estonia, including Anette Busch, Rosalie Peltmann (Reiter), Linda Belling, Augusta Jost, Trowellus (Offenbacher) and Frieda Damberg (Tamberg). There Maria Loorberg get along with the most powerful wrestler in the team, Anette Busch with whom she later traveled in Asia. By the way a galaxy of strongmen and male wrestlers also appeared in tiny quiet Estonia, including the three celebrated names: Georg Hackenschmidt, Georg Lurich and Alex Aberg.

In her epoch she enjoyed an enormous popularity, and went known as Nais-Kalev (female Kalev; Kalev is an epic hero of Estonia). And she is still honored in Estonia as a strongwoman and a great wrestler. Unfortunately very little is known about her short but bright life.

Maria Loorberg. Illustrations

Anette Busch

Another outstanding Estonian female wrestler Anette Busch (1882-1969) was Maria Loorberg's close friend and companion.

Anette Busch (supposedly) -
best wrestler
in the Müller's team.
Photo by an unknown author

Anette Busch was born in the 1882 in Rapla County, in a rural Estonian village. Being a teenager, she moved to Tallinn and began training in a local athletic club where she learned fundamentals of sports. Then she moved to Russia, where joined a circus troupe.

Anette became the troupe's strongest woman, who performed the most difficult stunts and tricks: she tore iron chains, bent iron bars around the arm and torso and broke copper coins it two – everything with her bare hands. And she performed all of those with ease, without applying any noticeable effort.

Anette possessed unprecedented capabilities for a woman. Her crowning trick was so-called bull-fighting, in which she held a bull by its horns and turned back the strong animal.

Anette Busch. Poster Ок. 1907г.

Since 1907, Maria Loorberg and Anette Busch had the glorious joint competition tour which lasted many months – the women visited many towns and villages in Tsarist Russia, including Siberia, Central Asia, Russian Far East, Japan and China. They demonstrated powerlifting stunts and challenged local wrestlers and volunteers for wrestling. People everywhere enjoyed women wandering around and challenging men to wrestling. A great scandal erupted in Georgian city of Poti where Anette pinned the strongest local man. The hot-blooded son of the Caucasus Mountains became a laughingstock for his fellows. He was out for blood and chased her. Her friends managed to save her though. The Estonian athletes demonstrated exceptional strength, courage and excellent wrestling skills pinning lot of men. Estonian writer Andres Ehin wrote a novel about these uncommon women with the self explanatory title "She Floored A Hundred Men".

The Estonian athletes demonstrated outstanding strength, courage and excellent wrestling skills pinning a lot of men. Estonian writer Andres Ehin wrote a novel about these uncommon women with the self explanatory title "She Floored A Hundred Men".

The fame of two exceptionally strong girls reached the Japanese emperor and the Emir of Bukhara. Both sovereigns desired to see them with their own eyes to make sure the girls are as strong as they had heard. Unlike other places where usually commoners admired Maria and Anette feats, in Bukhara and Japan they performed mostly for the elite. Blue-blooded daughters of noble families were so excited about the power of the two that they showered them with more than expensive gifts.

While the life of Maria Loorberg was bitterly short, Anette Busch lived long life far away from her motherhood. When the Revolution and the Civil War (1917-1920) broke out, Anette Busch found herself in Siberia. Having realized the situation, she decided to leave Russia and crossed the border river and moved to China where many Russians moved at that time in order to save themselves from the war and the Bolsheviks. On the ferry boat, she met a Czech officer, Jozef Hlinowsky, who escaped the Bolsheviks' captivity. They became friends and then married.

After living in Shanghai for a short while, the couple went to Japan where they were very successful. Josef became her manager and they started to scoop a lot of money. The secret of her success in Japan was understandable - she was the first female wrestler from outside of Japan. Circus directors fiercely competed each other in attempts to recruit Anette.

In addition to her great wresting skills, Anette become famous for her outstanding stunt: she placed herself in the bridge position, a large plank was put on her breasts and ten members of an orchestra made themselves comfortable and played music upon the woman's breasts. Enthused the audience rose to heaven. The couple took several tours to China, Korea, Philippines and Taiwan. Wherever they were, Anette performed with great success.

Long before Sumo became widely known in Europe, the Estonian Sumo wrestler rejoiced Japanese Sumo fans. As early as in 1920-1930s, the Japanese knew female giant, Anette (Anna) Busch. Being in Japan, Anette studied Japanese language and mastered in sumo. Her opponents were only male wrestlers, whom she stroke with awe by her solid build (130kg) and perfect wrestling techniques. She was regarded as a demigod. Sumo girl was able to enjoy the whole of Japan, the land of lust, as he drove to the island several times in the transverse cross-over.

Working for fifteen years in circuses, Anette earned good money which she partially spent for a great collection of pearls.

At the end of 1930 Busch was planning to come back to Estonia to spend her days in retirement, but the intention of the Second World War drew lines. He remained in Japan and spent a peaceful retirement. Busch died in 1969 being 87 years old.

Actually, at that time, many circus shows based on fake tricks and fraud of audience; the most of wrestling matches were staged with predetermined outcome. Not in vain, the wrestling legend appeared about the "Hamburg score" - wrestlers met in a Hamburg tavern, far from public and employers - for their own, fair battle to find out who was the truly strongest, "without fools". As to women's circus wrestling, technical and athletic levels of the most of matches were so low, that sport specialists didn't take them seriously. However, such things don't pertain to Marina Lurs – she was one of few real female athlete of her time (in the contemporary sense) – if she worked with loads, those loads were real, if she wrestled, she wrestled without odds.

Anette Busch. Illustrations

July 30, 2008
Updated in May 2011 and April 2015


Maria Loorberg - strong and feminine (in Estonian). Eesti Ekspress

Century before Baruto (in Estonian). Eesti Ekspress

She Floored A Hundred Men by Andres Ehin (Seljatas sada meest)

Sila z minulosti: Maria Lurs (czech.)

Women on the arena by Lev Livshits (in Russian)

Women's Sports: A History by Allen Guttmann

Girevichka's: Lady kettlebellers in Tsarist Russia

Editorial board of the Kehakultuur sports magazine from 1900-1989)

Itching for Eestimaa. Forum

An Estonian woman wrestled Sumo in Japan (in Estonian)

Patriotic culture in Russia during World War by John Hubertus.

Women of Saint Petersburg in XIX century (in Russian).

"Maria Loorberg: Female Kalev, who teached men a lesson" by Heili Reinart (in Estonian).

Miss Blanche Whitney, the World’s Champion Lady Wrestler (1911).



All images are reprinted in accordance with the "Fair Use" concept and the international copyright law

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