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Alexander Zass - The World's Strongest Man and his Lost Lewisham Love

Whilst poring over cemetery burial records on Deceased Online, I lighted on the scant archival details of what appeared a sad early death from August 1928 and became intrigued by what later turned out to be a misspelt surname. The burial record is that of a Blanche Minnie Millicent Zars (nee Leach) of Devonshire road, Forest Hill who died aged 19 and was buried in Ladywell cemetery, wife of Alexander, she is described as an artiste. The daughter of Music Hall performers, with links to Camberwell, some accounts record her death as due to being bitten by a baboon during a circus act in Manchester. It seems that Alexander was truly besotted by Blanche and after her untimely death never talked about his wife or even allowed the name Blanche to pass his lips. A number of people who knew him also mentioned an undercurrent of sadness seemed to hang about this generally sunny man, and speculated that it might have had something to do with his wife.Whatever the answer, he took the story with him to the grave. The seal seemed to have been set for ever on the mystery of Mrs Zass.

Blanche fated to die young was indeed the first wife of the world famous Russian strongman Alexander Ivanovich Zass, hailed as the 'Amazing Samson' as well as a number of other stage names, 'The Iron Samson' or simply 'Samson'. Alexander was born in 1888 in Czarist Russia at Vilna, (now Vilnius, Lithuania) and broke away from his stern father, Ivan Petrovich Zass, who had paternal for him becoming a locomotive driver, to enter the circus as a strongman. In so doing he acquired skills in wrestling, aerial gymnastics and virtuoso horse riding. Such was his impressive reputation as a strongman, that the renowned Russian animal trainer, Anatoly Durov was quoted as saying that inspite of Alexander's small height and weight that' One day, my child you will be a very famous strongman', much like the epic Bogatyr ( courageous hero ) figure of Russian folk legend.

It appears that horse carrying was part of his circus act. During the First World War he served in the Imperial Russian Army in the Vindavsky cavalry regiment ( as befitted his passion for equestrian feats perhaps!) and whilst a prisoner of war succeeded in escaping from his Austrian captors, no less than four times, it seems his last escape bid to Budapest was in cartoon fantasy fashion, effected by him being able to bend his cell bars! Which feats of superhuman escapology and phenomenal strength laid the foundations for his development of and early promotion of the use of isometric exercises which proved useful in aiding his escapes.

Following the war he toured internationally as a circus performer (there was a story that he worked for British Intelligence over this period) and in 1924, having been brought to England by the Theatre impresario, Sir Oswald Stoll, he appeared in the English magazine ,' Health and Strength ' next to his idol,
the German bodybuider Eugen Sandow.  In one of his multiple public athletic lifts a young Winston Churchill was one of those elevated!  The circumstances surrounding his romance with Blanche are a little unclear, but it seems that it was most likely a circus connection. How long Alexander lived in Forest Hill is presently unclear , but it appears that Blanche may have died of a miscarriage (rather than due to any simian bite), three years after they were married in 1925, and her tragic early death left him a devastated widower.

He made a living selling mail order courses on his innovative muscle toning methods (isometrics) from the 'Samson Institute' in London. In 1926, and wrote an autobiography in Russian 'The Amazing Samson' (which is still in print) and continued to perform extraordinarily bold feats of strength in 'road shows' across the country, much in the fashion of his biblical namesake, such as the one described below from the Nelson Leader in 1938.

After the Second World War he worked as a circus animal trainer as well as performing his Music Hall strongman stunts. In 1954 he appeared on an early BBC TV programme , effortlessly bending bars with a lilting commentary from the TV presenter Eamonn Andrews. Away from strongman stunts, he found a home in Rochford, Essex described as a ' popular over-wintering place for circus performers' and lived out his final years living with his pre-war assistant, Betty Tilbury and her husband, Stan (also a stage performer) until his death in 1962.

The first Russian champion of weightlifting in the pre-Revolutionary era, Alexander Ivanovich Zass, followed in the circus tradition of having at his request for an early morning interment and now lies buried in the parish churchyard of St Peter and St. Paul, Hockley, Essex. In 2008 to mark the centenary of his first public appearance, after joining the circus, a bronze statue was erected to the Russian Samson in Orenburg,Russia,

A British Pathe newsreel from 1934 below shows Alexander performing some of strongman stunts.