Throughout his career Siegmund Brietbart displayed a talent and panache that few vaudeville muscle-men of the 1920s could match. Because he twisted, bent and bit through iron of all types, he
was dubbed Der Eisenkonig, "The Iron King." There was hardly a theater in Europe or America where he did not play to tremendous ovations. At the height of his career he commanded high fees
for his popular performances. Despite the glory and success, however, his was also a life of tragic reversals and dashed hopes.
The Iron King was born in 1883 into a Jewish family living in the Polish town of Lodz. His father was the local blacksmith, and it was reported that little Siegmund's only toys were the nails and horseshoes around his father's shop. Breitbart was always cognizant of his family, his country and most of all his religion. It was a steadfast faith that would give him an inner strength to match his strength of sinews.
The Iron King was considered a born showman, and his spectacular act bore this out. With seemingly little effort Breitbart would twist and bend iron rods into inconceivable shapes as easily as his audiences might twist a coat hanger.
Once he had impressed the crowd with his strength of arm, he would show them that his biceps were not the only mighty muscles he possessed. Incredibly, the Iron King would take a sturdy chain in his mouth and bite through the individual links quickly and cleanly. Many old-time strongmen resorted to skulduggery when they performed some of their tricks, so it is important to remember this when we look at their feats. Breitbart, however, apparently had the genuine ability to chew through metal chains. Numerous experts - both dental and metallurgical - testified to his remarkable ability, so perhaps we can believe the accounts of his performances.
Another of his amazing feats was to take an iron spike in his bare hand and, using the power of his arm, jab the point through a thick wooden plank. Sometimes he even put several thicknesses of sheet metal over the plank to make the job more spectacular. Little wonder that the "Jewish Samson," as he was also called, was one of the greatest box office draws in the age of vaudeville.
Toward the end of his life all did not go well for the Iron King. Despite the trouble that it caused him in an increasingly intolerant world, the strongman refused to compromise his beliefs. The blue and white Star of David, which he often used as a stage backdrop, had the effect of waving a red flag in front of the charging bull of rising anti-Semitism in pre-Nazi Germany.
Breitbart had created a theatrical triumph, but anti-Semites managed to grab much of his money through nagging lawsuits. (His once successful mail order business was to fold in 1926, after his death, largely because Breitbart simply was not a very good money manager.) The vast profits he had garnered in previous years dwindled to almost nothing. Still, he had his physical strength and his charismatic showmanship, so there was every expectation that he would rise again.
Sadly, the Iron King did not have the strength to combat the forces of history that were set to work against him and his people. The strongman's proud adherence to his religion inevitably caused him trouble, and he was ultimately forced to hire a bodyguard to protect himself from the hooligans.
Ironically, it was not intolerance that caused the great man's death in 1925. It was something completely unexpected. While in the act of piercing a wooden board with a nail in a Berlin variety theater, Breitbart missed his mark and stabbed his leg instead. Because the nail was corroded, he contracted blood poisoning and died one day later at the age of 42 in a charity hospital. Ironically, the Iron King had been killed by rust.