The Worlds greatest strongman


By Len Bickford

Taken from a copy of The Echo dated 2006 by Tom King. 

Russian strongman's south Essex grave.

Few in England will recognise the name any longer, yet he can still justifiably be called one of the most famous heroes in the world.

Millions of schoolboys across the lands of the former USSR have been brought up on tales of Alexander Zass, a Cossack universally recognised as "the strongest man in the world".

He was even more widely known as Samson, and never did anybody carry that name with more justice. Zass made even the original, biblical, Samson look like a relative wimp.

For the peoples of Russia and the Steppes, Samson is something of a combination of Robin Hood and Superman, the difference being that Zass and his feats were for real, not mythical or fictional. The tales are legion.

When Samson's horse was shot from under him on a First World War battlefield, he scooped up the animal and carried it off the battlefield to the nearest army vet.

Captured by the Germans, he escaped no fewer than three times by the simple expedient of bending the prison bars and walking out through the gap.

After the Great War, Zass toured Europe and the USA as a celebrated circus performer, the king of professional he-men, the strong man's strongman. It was still a golden age for circus, and millions of people gasped at Samson's feats of strength.

His legend was compounded by the books written by and about him, including his autobiography, amazing Samson As Told by Himself.

Thousands of men, inspired by his example, followed his training methods to develop he-man bodies. And then the mists closed around the man of muscle. The mighty bulk evaporated from the scene.

Unlike his biblical counterpart, there was to be no last, dramatic climax and exit for the 20th century Samson. The figure that had occupied so many spotlights simply disappeared into the shadows beyond the circus tent.

What became of Samson? Until recently, that question was hard to answer.

Plenty in his homeland wanted to know.

But although the legends were numerous, the evidence was thin on the ground.

As an expat, who had chosen to spend his life beyond the Soviet borders, he became a non-person.

Yet the life of Communism prove to be finite, while the legend of Alexander Zass was enduring.

In the post-Communist era, one sleuth in particular was determined to find the answers. His name: Igor Khramov.

Igor is the director of the Orenburg Historical Museum, devoted to the feats of the Eurasian peoples and in particular to their great circus traditions.

The museum wanted to erect a statue to the world's strongest man, along with an accompanying exhibition. With the doggedness of the true scholar-detective, Igor traced his man to the end of the trail.

Astonishingly, the spot on the map he arrived at, the place where the world's strongest man ended his days, lies here, in south Essex.

In February 2006, Richard Vingoe, then chairman of Hockley Parish Council, received a strange, but memorable phone call. The thickly-accented voice sounded like a Russian spy in a film.

Dismissing his immediate instincts that the communication was some sort of hoax, Mr Vingoe took in what the voice had to say.

Man called Khramov, director of some museum, another man called Samson. Samson? Meet up in Hockley graveyard.

It was all very cloak and dagger.

Richard and his author wife Lesley then did some quick research and discovered not only the tale was for real, but their parish was about to have its profile distinctly raised.

Alexander Zass died in Hockley in 1962, and was interred in the churchyard of St Peter and St Paul's Church. At his own request, he was given a morning burial.

This is the circus tradition, because the morning is the time when circuses strike camp and head off for the horizon and the next adventure.

Samson spent his final years, the Hockley period, living in a curious little menage of three, a family of circus waifs who, their travels finally over, had somehow washed up together in this Essex town.

His twilight companions sound like figures from a storybook. They were Betty, a one-time Tiller girl who seems to have copped all the most dangerous jobs in the circus, including being the one fired from a cannon, and the lady on the high trapeze.

Eventually she took a tumble and ended up a cripple. Sharing the bungalow in Plumberow Avenue with her and Samson was Betty's husband, variously dubbed Bert and Sid.

All that is known about Bert/Sid is he had worked as a clown in the famous Bertram Mills Circus.

The Hockley bungalow and the quiet residential road were a long way, in distance and character, from the places Samson knew in his youth.

He was born in 1888, and like most central European children, he spent many hours at the edge of the circus ring, caught up in the magic of the surroundings and the grace and athleticism of the performers.

At home, he trained himself, using whatever nature provided.

The young man who was to become the world master of metal bending began to develop his strength by twisting the branches of trees.

Almost any object could be commandeered to his purpose.

Later, he developed a system of muscle-developing isometrics, straining against impossible forces.

These exercises were to form the basis of the mail-order course that, after the war, was to help make him wealthy.

In the early 1920s he was talent-spotted by the great impresario Oswold Stoll and his international career began in earnest.

He performed a wide range of feats, but the best- known were his metal-bending and rearranging exploits, a sort of origami with iron bars.

The mystery about Samson, of course, is how he ended in Hockley.

Even the resourceful Igor hasn't been able to answer this question.

But he and the Vingoes are hoping there are those still alive in the town who will recall Samson and his friends Betty and Bert.

Perhaps they can even throw some light on why Alexander Zass chose Hockley as the place to rest his bones.

It is good Samson's own people are now to honour him. Yet here we now have a claim on his memory as well.

To the roster of Essex heroes, ranging from Boudicea to Winston Churchill, we can now add that of Alexander Zass, the strongest man in the world, now resting that mighty torso in Hockley churchyard.

This page was added by Len Bickford on 05/09/2017.
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