August 05, 2016
Yes, it’s that time of the week again, the short minute or two that you give over to reading our wonderful series of fascinating facts from the world of entertainment. This week, we are heading over to the Soviet Union to tell you about the circus strongman Alexander Zass, who certainly had a life-well-lived!
Alexander Zass was born in Vilnius in 1888. Rather than concentrate purely on his work as a strongman, Alexander was also a professional wrestler and an animal trainer, which certainly helped with later feats during World War I.
Credited as ‘the first Russian champion in weightlifting in the pre-Revolutionary era’, Zass was known by a variety of biblical stage names that exaggerated his feats of strength – The Amazing Samson, Iron Samson or even just Samson. He was known for a variety of circus tricks that showed off his immense talent including ‘bending green branches’, which is presumably a lot harder to do than it sounds.
Alexander’s real heroics were to be found during World War I, a time where he was held as a Prisoner of War no less than four times. What could possibly go wrong with keeping a man known as Iron Samson in a cell that has been strengthened with iron bars? If you can remember the various cartoons of your youth whereby the hero or villain is able to bend the iron bars of his prison cell and walk back to freedom, then you have some idea of what Zass was able to do. That being said, it’s hard to know if he intended to escape the first time he achieved the accomplishment; as a prisoner, Zass would push and pull the bars as part of his strength training, pulling them apart over time. Incredibly, his method of escape was quickly taken up as an example of the effectiveness of isometric exercises!
At least one of Zass’ escapes definitely included breaking his chains before the escape, which definitely puts him in contention for a comic book series, whilst he also carried his injured horse back from the frontlines during a battle. Far from turning into a superhero with colourful costume however, after the war Zass merely retreated from the limelight and became a teacher of isometrics… Oh wait, no he didn’t. He joined a circus and toured internationally with a fair few people believing him to be a Russian spy and secret agent, using his circus schedule as cover.
Whether or not he was a spy is unknown, but one can certainly read about his circus exploits and assume there must have been an easier job to attain if he were passing on information to Russian intelligence. These include carrying two lions on his shoulders; carrying a pianist, dancer and grand piano at the same time; catching a woman fired from a cannon; suspending a piano from his teeth; bending an iron bar with his spare hands (surely a walk in the park by this point?) and being able to ‘pound a 5 inch spike through a 2 inch thick plank using only the palm of his bare hand.’
Upon his retirement from the showbiz world, Zass moved to Hockley in Essex, where he lived in a bungalow along with other former circus acts, which sounds a lot to us like a sitcom premise just waiting to be made. After his death in 1962, one might fear that Zass would have been forgotten. Not so; he has been honoured with a statue as mark of his heroic war efforts in the city of Orenburg, Russia.
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By Henry Fosdike