Burnley Civic Trust Heritage Image Collection

Strong Man Run Over by 30cwt. Motor Truck


Nelson cutting(Cutting from The Nelson Leader on 1st July 1938) "People who have seen feats of strength on the music halls often argue that there is some deception on the stage unseen by the eye and safe from discovery by reason of distance from the observer. The "strongest man on earth," Samson, is eager to prove that his performances are entirely free from trickery, and prior to his first performance at the Burnley Palace Theatre, where he heads a variety bill this week, he gave a public demonstration on the cattle Market last Monday,. The large crowd which gathered could scarcely credit that Mr. Alexander Zass, short and stocky, an apparently unobtrusive pedestrian who hurried on to the market ground, was the great Samson, but he speedily dispelled their doubts. Laying on the ground, with the only protection a thin carpet to protect his clothes, he allowed a 30-cwt. Bedford truck to run over him. As seen in the picture, where the front wheel of the truck is just passing over his body, he seemed unperturbed by this experience, and after the rear wheel had proceeded over him, he jumped up and strode away as jaunty as ever, and oblivious of the sensation he had caused by his strange loosening up practice."

That was how the Burnley Express on 6 July 1938 reported Alexander Zass's publicity stunt, but he was no doubt completely aware of the sensation he had caused.

An Internet and Newspaper Archive search tells of his amazing life, not all of which is to be believed. Zass (1888-26 September 1962) was a Polish Russian strongman, and animal trainer. He was known as The Amazing Samson, Iron Samson, or simply Samson, "The Strongest Man in the World". YouTube has a British Pathe film from 1934, showing him dressed like a gladiator, bending metal rods into knots, snapping chains around his chest, and many more truly amazing feats of strength. Being run over by a bus or truck was a regular publicity stunt.

Inspired as a child by travelling fairground and circus strongmen, he worked out a way of toning his muscles by using calisthenics/isometrics. There are various stories about what he did during WW1. One version, often repeated, is that, fighting for the Russian Army, he was taken prisoner, but escaped several times, using his ability to bend metal bars. Another more dashing version says he was a Cossack Cavalry officer, whose horse was shot from underneath him. Another perhaps more plausibly says that having escaped once, or possibly just cleared off, he joined a circus in Budapest, under an assumed name until it was all over.

He brought his strongman act to England in 1924, and stayed until his death, possibly because in 1925, he married 16 year-old Blanche Leach, a girl half his age, also from show people, who died only three years later, aged 19.

Extremely well known and at his peak around the time he visited Burnley, he sold mail order courses in his muscle toning methods (Isometrics) from the "Samson Institute in London, and wrote a book about his life and methods, in Russian.

After the Second World War he worked mostly as an animal trainer for circuses, and zoos but even in his later years, he was able to do strongman stunts, as shown in a short film done for BBC TV in 1954, which shows him bending a girder over his neck and being run over. The commentary by Eamonn Andrews, says he is 71, but when he died in 1962, he was said to be 75.

When he wasn't touring, he lived in a bungalow in Rochford, Essex, with land for his animals. The area was then a popular over-wintering place for circus performers. His pre-war assistant, Betty (Martha Ellen) Tilbury and her husband Sid, also a variety and stage performer, looked after the bungalow for him when he was away. They were probably the closest he had to family, and when he retired in the mid 1950s, they lived together until he died in 1962. He left his estate to Betty.

Betty at some point had become severely disabled. Pre-war, she had assisted Zass in several dare-devil stunts, including one where, dangling upside down, he lifted her and a grand piano, on a cable by his teeth. Until the time when the cable snapped or slipped out of his mouth, and she fell, the piano landed on top of her and she was left with a broken spine. Did this happen? It does not seem to have received the press coverage you would expect for such a tragedy, bearing in mind Zass was so well known, but the story was repeated in the Daily Mirror when it reported on his death, on 27 September 1962, the day after he died, The Mirror quoted Betty as saying "The strongest thing he ever did was to try and make it up to me and my husband by providing us with our home".

Her husband died in 1967, she died in 1979, and when the Southend Echo "discovered" Zass in 2006, and invited readers' memories, there were people who remembered Betty, and her little blue disabled carriage.

There was also speculation about the death of his young wife and a lady, who claimed her mother had been Blanche's pal, told the newspaper Blanche died after being bitten by a baboon during a performance in Manchester. The truth is more mundanely tragic, she died in Lewisham after having a miscarriage.

Zass was rumoured to also have worked for Russian and/or British Intelligence between the wars. Be that as it may, he seems to be well known and popular in Russia. In 2008, to mark the centenary of his first public performance, a bronze statue was erected to him in Orenberg, Russia, where he was sent in 1908 to become an apprentice on the railways, but where he joined a circus instead and launched his long career. In November 2019, a Russian film crew visited Rochford where he is buried, to make a documentary about him.

So the story of his life is still being told, fact and fiction. A real showman.