Mary Arniotis: World’s Strongest Woman

From the early 1890s onward, Mary Arniotis was an internationally-recognized athletic performer. Born into a circus family, Arniotis was initially part of a horse riding act.

From the early 1890s onward, Mary Arniotis was an internationally-recognized athletic performer. Born into a circus family, Arniotis was initially part of a horse riding act. While it is typically noted that from an early age she exhibited exceptional physical strength, her exact transition into a professional strongwoman is never explained. Nonetheless, more than enough evidence exists to follow, if somewhat irregularly, Arniotis’ career as she appeared, the world over, in circuses, vaudeville theaters and leading variety venues.

When Arniotis first stepped out onto the world stage she was billed as the “female Sandow” and soon afterwards the “strongest woman on earth.” Eugen Sandow (1867-1925), born Friedrich Wilhelm Müller, was a German pioneering bodybuilder, now recognized, as the father of modern bodybuilding. Sandow frequently claimed, as was duly noted in the international press of the day, that he took the Ancient Greek and Roman statues as models of perfect fitness. More than that, Sandow was the first of the modern bodybuilders to appear on stages, on the newly emerged medium of the cabinet card photograph and even performed elements of his act in Thomas Edison’s first motion pictures. Arniotis was not the first or the last of the female strong women performers but she was certainly within the initial wave of such individuals.

Another point that must be emphasized is that in the 1890s the very concept of the perfect human physical form was unlike current notions. Following the Greek and Roman statues men and women involved in bodybuilding, were in the 1890s, much slimmer than the hyper-defined musculature and huge muscle mass of today’s bodybuilders. True, women of this period had what was referred to as an hour-glass figure with the ideal being an exceptionally tiny waist. During this era the ideal female form attended toward those found in paintings of say Peter Paul Rubens than to the willow-like figures of later fashion.

Again in the 1890s, these individuals whether men or women were required to exhibit feats of strength, then thought, to be near impossible. Finally, all such persons of strength were expected to execute their unique abilities with, what was then called, grace. One published account after another stresses this last point. The implication being that real strength was controlled and therefore always offered, by these professional strongmen/women, with flowing gestures. All in all contemporary bodybuilding, whether one considers it an exhibition or a competitive sport, has a much longer and complicated history that one can now find in current popular accounts.

In 1894, when Arniotis first burst onto the American stage she was already a sensation in Germany and France. Long stories of Arniotis soon appeared in newspapers across the United States. As a case in point, on July 21, 1894, the front page of The Cook County Herald published out of Grand Marias Minnesota ran the following account under the title, “She’s A Strong One.” “She is a strong woman pure and simple, and has really performed feats which put many of the efforts of the professional strong men in the shade. She does not claim to possess any supernatural or otherwise magnetic power, but says she puts her trust solely in her muscle…Her strength is the result of a careful attention to hygienic laws. She has a matchless figure and is the essence of suppleness and very graceful…Her exhibition of strength differs from the ordinary performances of such nature, insomuch as she has no special numbers put down on the programme. When she appears on the stage any member or members of the audience is at liberty to put her strength to test in any way that he may choose. One very amusing incident occurred on this account. An aristocratic “high roller” and a lot of his followers were present at one of Miss Arniotis’ performances and was rash enough to challenge her to throw the upright piano from the orchestra into the ring. The manager demurred, but the youth put up the price of the piano and added a couple of hundred francs to be given to the lady if she succeeded. Nobody dreamt that she would be able to do it, but, much to the amazement and delight of the audience, save the gilded youth, Miss Arniotis, without a word, sprang nimbly upon the music platform, grabbed the piano and hurled it into the ring, of course shivering the instrument into atoms. When she laughingly offered to treat the rash better and his friends the same way her kindness was declined with thanks.

“Then she was asked to carry two men, seated astride of a barrel, with one hand, a feat which she executed with ease and grace. She is inclined to be roughly mischievous if any of her subjects attempt to guy her (e.g. be a smart aleck). She took one luckless youth by the nape of the neck and slammed him in an empty barrel, which she then used as a baseball, scaring the life out of the young fellow as she tossed him in the air, all this because the man said he thought she was but a trickster.”

From our perspective in time we always need to be mindful of the locations in which Arniotis performed and in which publicity about her appeared. Descriptive accounts of her act as well as advertisements of her engagements can be found in major metropolitan area newspapers such as New York City, Chicago, San Francisco, and many others. Wire services carried news of the strongest women on earth to not simply major cities but small towns, villages and hamlets all across the country. Arniotis performed on the Orpheum circuit for at least four full years in theaters and other venues in as many small towns, villages and hamlets as she did metropolitan arenas.

This last point strikes at the heart of Greek American history. For we must ever be concerned with how persons identified as Greek were/are presented in the public press or other mass media. This image has changed numerous times over the decades. So we must always be ready to ask “why did this news account appear?” and then “was the person cited portrayed as a Greek and if so how so?”

In Arniotis’ case her ethnicity did not seem to enter into her public persona. True, no end of advertising cites her as “a beautiful Greek” but nothing else of her ethnic background, that I have managed to locate so far, enters public accounts.

Again, the paper trail on Arniotis is a scattered one. After her triumphant tour of 1894 Arniotis must have left the United States not to return until 1897. But then we find she toured the nation uninterrupted one season after another finishing out at the end of 1899. However, during these last three seasons Arniotis always appeared along with Professor Leonidas Arniotis and his dog and cat act. The billing of the couple is odd. Mary Arniotis is predominately offered as simply “Arniotis” while Leonidas Arniotis is most often rendered as “Prof. Leonidas.”

On March 22, 1897, Leonidas Arniotis and Lydie Arniotis are noted as arriving in New York City aboard the SS La Champagne. Leonidas Arniotis’ credited profession is “artist” and he is but 34 years old. His wife is cited as “Mrs. Lydie Arniotis” and she is 23 years old. Other sources credit Leonidas Arniotis as being married to a Greek woman named Mary or Maro so we must assume, at least for the moment that Lydie and Mary were the same person.

One publicity blurb should serve for all the rest as to how these two were known, at least from 1897 until 1899 to the American audience: “The special attraction at the Orpheum this evening is Prof. Leonidas with his cats and dogs, which is declared to be the most unique show ever offered to an American audience. Arniotis, the strongest woman in the world, is also to appear in conjunction with a number of first-class specialists (San Francisco Call August 2, 1897).”

Without question Arniotis, during her lifetime, was a performer with a world-wide reputation. It is also stated in the public press, which we should not dismiss out of hand, that Arniotis was given “medals granted her by royal favor (Omaha Daily Bee December 18, 1898).” Within Greek and Greek-American history Arniotis holds other distinctions as well. In November 1897, Leonidas and Arniotis arrived in Chicago with their own circus troupe. With the Arniotis couple as the headliners the ‘Leonidas Winter Theater,’ opened at the Strand Theater with a troupe composed of 22 different acts. Although the Arniotis couple were also among the very first Greeks to operate as promoters on an international basis the history of Greek promoters and entertainers who traveled the globe from the 1870s well into 1900s has yet to be even surveyed let alone studied. The direct and lasting influence of Greeks on the entertainment forms of the world have yet to be fully understood.