Waves of female circus and vaudeville performers emerged as equals in strength to their male counterparts in the late 1800s. The likes of human cannonballs, human arrows, trapeze artists, horseback riders and jaws of steel performers became audience favorites at a time when the concept of the New Woman was still being defined. Many of these performers carved out careers that won them celebrity along with top salaries. Among them, a unique category of “strong women” confounded audiences with their seemingly supernatural strength. These were the Victorian Georgia Wonders.
They were known by many other names including magnetic girls, electric girls and human magnets. Their acts involved demonstrations of extreme strength that often involved lifting or resisting the force of one or more men. They often used props like chairs, pool cues, umbrellas and canes in their demonstrations. Several of the Victorian Georgia Wonders claimed to possessed a mysterious electrical magnetic force that gave them strength.
Skeptics including Harry Houdini later deconstructed their various acts. It was evident that the Victorian Georgia Wonders utilized some combination of hypnotism, power of suggestion and the ideomotor effect. Clearly, all of them had mastered principles of the laws of physics. They utilized principles of ever and fulcrum, deflection of forces, and subtle biomechanics–impressive accomplishments unto themselves.
The Victorian Georgia Wonders might not have had the supernatural powers that many people attributed to them, but they definitely had a profound understanding of the laws of physics, human nature and the power of good publicity. Despite their numerous debunkers who showed how physical tricks made their acts possible, their popularity and success seemed unstoppable.
Many of these performers came from small towns in the state of Georgia. Following are just three of the most successful.
Lulu Hurst born in Polk County, Georgia in 1869. At the age of fifteen she gave her first performance in her hometown. According to her autobiography published in 1897, she suddenly gained her powers after an intense storm that sent electricity through her family home.
She began demonstrating her newfound powers to locals in her town. Her father, a Baptist minister, did not want her to perform and was not interested in the money that could be made from her performances. Still, her parents travelled with her on the vaudeville circuit after a few months of local engagements. Sanford H. Cohen Hurst’s theatrical manager, helped her rise to fame on the vaudeville circuit across Georgia. Later they expanded their tour to other states. She quickly became one of the most demanded acts, earning astounding sums for every performance.
Hurst’s personal account in her best-selling autobiography published in 1897 reveals her personal experience of her first large performance:
“The night of our first public exhibition was auspicious for me, in that the hall where I exhibited was crowded to its utmost capacity. … Here I was, looked upon as the “Wonder” of the age, believed to possess powers allied to the supernatural, if not the miraculous. That crowd expected me to perform miracles. My fame had gone forth in all that region as a Wonder-Worker. Those present, who had seen me before, told everybody what they had seen with their own eyes and heard with their own ears. If there was anything they had really not seen or heard, their imagination came to their aid and supplied the deficiency. …”
“They were “seeking for a sign,” as it were, from the supernal realms. A young girl, in a short silk frock and blue waist, was expected to set aside the eternal laws of gravitation, reverse the order of nature, paralyze the muscular energy of any number of strong men, and by her touch impart incarnate life to dead matter, such as chairs, tables, canes, umbrellas, etc. I was that girl, and I was there to demonstrate and exemplify this great “Unknown Force.”
In one of her demonstrations, Hurst asked a strong male volunteer to hold a cane horizontally in his hands. When she placed her hands on the cane, he could no longer hold it steady. In some performances she would pull the man across the stage, by a force people called her mysterious power. Sometimes audience volunteers were tossed on the floor.
As their tour progressed, audiences became more difficult and skeptical. Hurst quickly had multiple imitators, some better than others. Critics were attempting to reveal the stage secrets of the Victorian Georgia Wonders. After earning a huge sum of money for the time, Hurst cancelled her European tour in the fall of 1885 and retired from the stage.
Martie Lee Price was born in Bartow County Georgia, in 1869–the same year as Lulu Hurst. Dixie Haygood’s act was nearly identical to Hurst’s, exhibiting fulcrum and leverage techniques to lift heavy men. Since she lived only a few miles from Hurst who performed before her, it is assumed she was “inspired” by her neighbor.
Price was illiterate and had never traveled until her “show” went on the road with her manager and her father who represented her. She was one of the most successful of the Victorian Georgia Wonders. Unlike Lulu Hurst, Price performed for several years. She took her show to Europe from 1891 to 1892. In 1894 she became known as the Mysterious GAZA and later as GAZA the Strongwoman. Her advertising poster read:
“The Magnetic Wonder a Human Magnet of Strength and Weight, the phenomenon of the 19th century, lifting hundreds of pounds of dead weight by just placing her hands on it, twisting bars of iron, resisting as much force as can push on a 12 foot pole by simply placing her hands at one end. It cannot be justly pictured, no words adequate to describe it.”
In 1898, Price performed in London with Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show on Earth. Harry Houdini, described her opening performance at the Alhambra Theatre as one of the three big sensations of the London vaudeville stage.
Dixie Haygood was born in Milledgeville, Georgia in 1861. She developed her own strong woman act after seeing Lulu Hurst perform in 1884. A small woman who weighed less than 100 pounds, Haygood’s act mimicked Hurst’s. involved resisting the efforts of several large men who tried to lift her to no avail.
Haygood was a brilliant self-promoter like the other Victorian Georgia Wonders. Newspapers could not resist her sensational stories.
The Fielding Star, October 25 1899:
“Annie Abbott is only a small person weighing 100 lbs and yet strong men were unable to lift her whenever she desired to offer resistance – a resistance which evidently was not mere physical strength, but a wonderful power which she possesses. On the other hand she was able to raise men with a mere touch of the hand. One of her most extraordinary feats was where seven men were piled on a chair and Miss Abbott raised the mass of humanity a few inches off the stage by a mere touch of the hand.
Experiments with boys were also extraordinary. A boy from the audience was asked to stand in the centre of the aisle, half way down the hall, and a gentleman in the audience was asked to lift him off his feet. Under ordinary circumstances this could easily have been done, but Miss Abbott exercised some unknown power over the boy and the gentleman was unable to lift him off his feet. Various other tests were given by Miss Abbott, and in all she successfully resisted the forces pitted against her, giving an astounding manifestation of some force other than that making up the ordinary phenomena of nature.”
In the 1890s Haygood travelled through Europe where she became a favorite act in top venues. She performed for many famous people including Kaiser Wilhelm II, Tsar Alexander III and Emperor Franz Josef. She also mystified scientists such as Dr. Oliver Lodge and Professors Crookes, Perry and others. She was a frequent subject of newspaper articles and magazines including prominent English electrical journals. Many attributed her powers to electromagnetism, which was a popular subject.
Lulu Hurst’s best-selling autobiography published in 1897 revealed the scientific principles behind her acts and of course, the “secrets” of her imitators. Lulu Hurst herself seemed to be telling the world to be careful about what you read, because fake news is everywhere. She and the Victorian Georgia Wonders took it one step further to say don’t believe everything you see.
In the Psychic Publishing Company introduction to Lulu Hurst’s book:
“The book is a commentary on Human Nature that will be lasting and far-reaching in its effects… It will strengthen the minds of thousands of people on lines where they need toning up very much. The reason for such a volume as this was never greater than at this time.”
Just One example from Hurst’s book:
Hundreds of learned men and trained investigators into the laws of phenomena of all known natural forces, critically made and observed this test, and pronounced it a mystery they could not solve. They saw the position of the parties and the direction of the exertion of their pressure just as well as, or better than, I did. They also saw and knew that standing perfectly erect on one foot with a billiard cue held out in front of me, that it was absolutely impossible for me to exert even 1/100th of the amount of muscular force that was brought to bear against me. How were two or more powerful men, capable of exerting pressure say, of 500 pounds or more, shoving with all the power of their mighty muscular strength directly against a billiard cue held in my hands, and there I stood on one foot, unmoved and apparently as immovable as a wall of granite. Now, there could not possibly be but two explanations” Either all this force brought against me was annihilated in some unseen and inexplicable way, or I exerted a counteracting force equal to it.
“That girl standing on one foot, in an erect position, could push as hard as two strong men, was, of course, too absurd an idea to be entertained for a moment. Then said these learned men and these lynx-eyed newspaper reporters all over the continent, this counter-acting force of hers by which she accomplishes this wonder is of a “physic” or “odic” or “spiritualistic” character, or it is a “will force,” that in some mysterious way is conducted along her nerves, and manifests itself in a form of muscular energy without the accompanying visible muscular exertion.”
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