Apart from The World’s Strongest Man, the idea of watching feats of strength for entertainment seems faintly ridiculous, but strongmen were once great box office and one of the greatest was Alexander Zass.
Zass was born in Vilna, Poland, in 1888, but lived in Russia for most of his early life. He served in the Russian army in WWI and was wounded and taken prisoner by the Austrians in 1914.
He escaped three times, eventually returning home. In 1924 he left Russia for the last time and made his way to Britain where he was to make his name as ‘The Amazing Samson’.
He began at an early age using homemade dumbells and barbells and later trained under some of the great Russian strongmen, but his secret was his own system of isometrics.
Zass started by bending green branches and twigs to develop his grip strength and then the ‘maximum tension’ method still used in Russia today.
Putting his strength to good use on the stage, Zass lifted a 500-pound girder with his teeth, carried a small horse, caught a woman fired from a cannon and allowed professional boxers to hit him in the stomach. But his greatest talents were in bending steel bars and breaking chains which were the centrepiece of his music hall exhibitions.
As well as being a strongman, Zass was also an accomplished animal trainer and once worked for military intelligence in Russia.
Zass died in 1962 in Hockley, Essex, where he is also buried but he demonstrates his extraordinary skills in the British Pathé film below from 1934.