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Need a Lift?

Elvira Sansoni always had the perfect pick-me-up.

Powerful women scare many men, but if a girl is pretty enough, she can sometimes calm those shattered male nerves and still flex her muscles a little. Such was the lesson Elvira Sansoni learned more than 100 years ago.

We know little about Elvira’s early years except that she was born in Germany sometime around 1870. In 1892 she teamed up with another woman as The Sansoni Sisters, and they traveled around Europe performing their strength feats wherever they could. We know next to nothing about Elvira’s so-called sister, but a few descriptions of their feats have survived.

In January 1893 the German International Illustrated Athletic Journal reported that the two women were performing in the French city of Lyons at the Circus Rancy. They were described lifting and juggling with 30-to-50-pound cannonballs, swinging and exercising with steel bars weighing 80 to 150 pounds and supporting a small orchestra on their upturned bodies. ‘It is a rarity in athletic art to see specialities featuring ‘the weaker sex,’ the reporter declared. ‘Their entire performance is graceful, noble and striking.’

To round out their act’and to add a bit of spice’the ladies also engaged in wrestling matches with other women. There’s no mention of The Sansoni Sisters’ prowess as athletes but plenty about their beauty and allure. ‘Thanks largely to their feminine charms, these skillful and graceful creatures are near the pinnacle of their field. Under these circumstances it is easy to understand that The Sansoni Sisters are constantly engaged, are very well paid and have become favorites around the world.’ Unfortunately, this situation would not last.

The sisters toured England in 1895. There they were billed as The Female Sandows. By that time Elvira had developed one of her most spectacular stunts. ‘Without brace or support, she sustains on her chest and knees a platform on which rests a 600-pound upright piano.’ Sometime around the turn of the century Elvira parted company with her sister and performed on her own. Business must not have been good, since she advertised in more than one theatrical paper, announcing that she was ‘Open for engagement for the winter season.’ After that poor Elvira dropped out of sight forever.

Today all that remains are a few tattered photographs, a poster or two and some yellowing clippings. ‘The Greatest Female Hercules of Modern Times,’ as her poster proudly identified her, is as forgotten as yesterday’s headlines. IM

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