Mike Guilfoyle, vice-chair of the Friends of Brockley and Ladywell Cemeteries, tells the story of Russia’s amazing Samson and his first wife who is buried in Ladywell cemetery.
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. She was the first wife of world famous Russian strongman Alexander Ivanovich Zass, hailed as the ‘Amazing Samson’.
She is described as an artiste and was 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.
Alexander was born in 1888 in Czarist Russia at Vilna, (now Vilnius, Lithuania) and broke away from his stern father to enter the circus as a strongman. In the circus he acquired skills in wrestling, aerial gymnastics and virtuoso horse riding.
But such was his reputation as a strongman, that the renowned Russian animal trainer, Anatoly Durov was quoted as saying that in spite of Alexander’s small height and weight: “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!). He became a prisoner of war but 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 – he was able to bend his cell bars!
These feats of 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 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 bodybuilder 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 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, he wrote an autobiography in Russian ‘The Amazing Samson’ (which is still in print) and continued to perform extraordinary feats of strength in roadshows across the country. This one, described right, is 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.
Alexander 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.
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 with his pre-war assistant, Betty Tilbury and her husband, Stan (also a stage performer) until his death in 1962.