Have you ever come across a true story and thought “If I wrote that people would say it was too far fetched to be believable”? I have, probably a couple of times a month. But this one is very close to home, so I thought I’d write about it.
The lady in the picture is called Vulcana, but started life as Miriam Kate Williams. Her father was a preacher and she worked in the local tannery. Maybe lugging wet hides about sharpened up her physique because she started hanging around the boxing saloon in Castle Street and met a body builder called William Roberts – a small but handsome man with an astonishing moustache and the stage name Mr Atlas. Despite already being married, William took a shine to 15 yr old Kate and they ran off together.
She seems to have been a bit of a heroine. When she was thirteen she halted a runaway horse in its tracks. In July 1901 she rescued a drowning boy from the River Usk when he fell from the bridge.
The stage act that Vulcana and Atlas put on was of a type that was all the rage in music halls and theatres. Billed as brother and sister, although they were living as man and wife, they performed feats of strength and agility. One of Vulcana’s tricks was to lift a grown man from the ground with the strength of one arm. A shrewd show woman, Vulcana once seized the opportunity to lift a wagon that had a jammed wheel, and took care that the audience knew who she was and where she would be performing.
There is some doubt that Atlas was as strong as he claimed – one of his assertions was challenged and his weights proved to be much lighter that stated – but Vulcana is acknowledged as having been one of the strongest women in the world.
She is credited with having achieved a bent press of 125 lb with her right arm, and could perform an overhead lift with a 56lb weight in each hand. In 1912 at a theatre in Llanelli, Vulcana out-lifted the female world champion [though I have to wonder if there wasn't an element of showmanship involved - you let me win on my home turf and I'll make sure that you win on yours?]
Atlas took her to France where Vulcana impressed the Halterophile Society with her strength and charm. She won many weight-lifting medals, including one awarded by the Queen of the Netherlands. She is described as 5 feet 4 inches tall with a beautiful complexion and shapely figure. Roberts played on her attractive appearance and many photos exist, in private collections, of her posing with her hair down looking soulful.
Atlas and Vulcana were joined in their stage act by their children, all of whom had Atlas as their middle names. They continued to perform until the 1930s despite Vulcana being injured in a terrible accident in 1921. They were performing at the Garrick Theatre in Edinburgh when a fire broke out and Vulcana saved trained horses belonging to another act, losing all her hair in the process.
In 1939, Vulcana was run over by a car and taken to hospital where, it is claimed, she heard her own death pronounced. Giving the doctors the lie, she recovered and lived until 1946.
Now, ladies and gentlemen, if you read all that about a heroine, or hero, in a book wouldn’t you describe her [or him] as a Mary Sue? Yep me too, but it just goes to show that real lives can be odder than anything we writers can dream up.