- Originally published on the Bartitsu.org site on Saturday, 19th May 2018
In common with most athlete/showmen of his time and place, John Clempert (1878-1940) was not averse to spinning some tall tales about his past exploits. He claimed, among other things, to have served as an enforcer in the Russian Army and to have escaped three times from the confines of a transportation van after having been exiled to Siberia for a political infraction.
Clempert arrived in England circa 1899 and quickly began to establish a reputation as an itinerant strongman, escape artist and wrestler on the music hall circuit. Inevitably his trajectory crossed that of E.W. Barton-Wright and his jiujitsu champions, Tani and Uyenishi, who were likewise gaining fame in the music halls.
At that time, Clempert’s signature feat was as “The Man They Cannot Hang”; a stunt which apparently involved hanging by his knees beneath a trapeze suspended over the stage, only then to release his hold on the trapeze and drop some 15 feet, his descent halted by a noose looped around his neck. Whether or not there was some showbiz trickery associated with this stunt, photographs clearly show that Clempert’s neck muscles were, in fact, unusually well-developed.
Swiss grappler Armand Cherpillod was, along with Tani and Uyenishi, employed by Barton-Wright as a challenge wrestler and instructor on behalf of the Bartitsu School of Arms. In his 1933 autobiography, Cherpillod – who seems to have had consistent difficulty in recalling personal names – offered an exciting account of “Klemsky’s” bout with “Yanichi” (Sadakazu Uyenishi):
As quick as a flash, the Japanese leaped onto the Russian and seized him by the collar of the jacket, one hand on each side of his neck, by crossing the wrists, and learnedly exerted the famous pressure on the carotid arteries, which brings choking, and even unconsciousness. The hold did not seem to have any effect on the Russian, who simply smiled at the audience.
Astonished by this resistance, the Japanese wrestler’s eyes gleamed with malice. He rolled across the ground past the Russian while preserving his hold and, to increase the force of the pressure on the neck, planted his two feet in the pit of Klemsky’s stomach. This tightened the grip so extremely that a net of blood escaped from the mouth of Klemsky and sprinkled his face. It was only then that Yanichi [Uyenishi] released his hold and let fall beside him the apparently lifeless body of the Russian.
The public believed that Klemsky had died. They howled their anger and their disapproval of Yanichi. This latter, triumphant, appeared to be insensitive to the hostile remonstrations of the public. He went to sit down on the sidelines, beside his compatriot, in the manner of the tailors at work, by crossing his legs beneath him.
While the spectators redoubled their cries, our two Japanese entered into an animated conversation and even laughed together, contemplating the victim who did not give any sign of life. Suddenly, one of them rose, as if driven by a spring, and approached Klemsky. He leaned on the body of the Russian and gave some sort of vibration or massage to the cardiac area, which revived the victim gradually.
Then, to the great astonishment of the audience who were now gasping, Klemsky opened his eyes and asked where he was. This seemed magical, and even more than before, Jiu-jitsu appeared to be a most mysterious form of fighting.
When someone asked Klemsky for his impression of the event, he said that while losing consciousness, he had heard the sound of bells.
This account is especially interesting in that it’s one of the few records of a Bartitsu Club champion actually rendering a wrestling opponent unconscious, and one of the very first records of kuatsu (Japanese manual resuscitation techniques) in any non-Japanese media.
Clempert himself later recalled his encounter with Uyenishi in a letter published in the October 17th issue of The Encore:
The first time I ever met anybody under 12 stone was when I took on one of Mr. Barton-Wright’s Japs at the Empire. Beat him in the first five seconds in Greco-Roman style, putting him fairly on his back. He felt as though he was a baby. After that he put me to sleep – not from his strength, but by some sort of magnetism he used. I did not feel any pain. I do not know exactly understand what sort of wrestlers they are. According to my idea, they are not wrestlers but magicians.
I challenge them on the following conditions; Greco-Roman, catch-as-catch-can style or Straps. I put down five pounds if I don’t beat one of them within 10 minutes. But if they want to wrestle in their own way, which is called “self-defence”, I will undertake to defend myself in my own way. This means I shall try to disable my opponent before he can disable me. Some money must be staked, as it is their own style of wrestling. I will not take any responsibility about accidents. Of course, this kind of contest would have to take place where there are no ladies, such as at Wonderland or a sporting club.
Yours truly, John Clempert
Despite this bold challenge, there seems to be no further record of John Clempert taking on a jiujitsu-trained opponent.
In February of 1903, Clempert suffered a serious injury while performing his hanging stunt and was taken to hospital suffering from a “concussion of the spinal cord”. He recovered, but seems to have retired that stunt from his repertoire, thereafter continuing his career as a wrestler and an escape artist in the manner of Harry Houdini. Circa 1909, he also produced a pitchbook, the gloriously-titled Thrilling Episodes of John Clempert, The Shining Star of the Realms of Mystery.
Houdini, however, did not suffer imitators gladly and put legal pressure on Clempert to stop performing several escapes that were a little too directly inspired by Houdini’s own. Clempert apologised and promised to desist, although he did briefly come out of retirement after Houdini’s untimely death in 1926.