This post, published in 2014 is by far the most popular on my blog. It has been viewed thousands of times and gets a hit virtually every day. I have no idea why.
Soon it will be a full hundred years since that fateful July 1914 when Imperial Russia mobilized its armies to confront the Central Powers in what would become World War I. It was the beginning of the end of the Romanov dynasty and the court of the last Tsar.
The Romanov court required a staggering number of servants. At the Winter Palace alone over 1,000 were in constant attendance; when the Tsar and the Empress were in actual residence as many as 6,000 were needed.
Now being “in service” to the royal family wasn’t too bad a gig for the time. Most of those employed at Court came to service through family connections as descendants of earlier employees. Most male servants were taken from the military, their unquestioning allegiance making them fit for service. There was some glamour to the job no matter how menial. There were hundreds of coachmen, chauffeurs, footmen, maids, court runners, stable boys, kennel boys, veterinarians, mechanics, artisans, cooks, pastry chefs, wine stewards. Many servants enjoyed a close proximity to the Imperial family.
Wages were minimal, but uniforms, housing and meals were usually included. In addition, service jobs at Court meant an education for your children, regular gifts at Easter and Christmas and a pension in your old age.
Servants were usually invisible – with one exception – The Abyssinian Guards.
The Abyssinian Guards were black men who worked in pairs, standing at attention in front of the doors to the Tsar’s private apartments, waiting to admit the Imperial couple. The guards were one of the most famous fixtures at the Court.
They were not soldiers – “they had no other function except to open and close doors and to signal by a sudden noiseless entrance into the room that one of their Imperial Majesties was about to appear.”
The Guards formed a part of the Court since Peter the Great. The Russian Consul to Ethiopia recruited the Guards or they were given as “human gifts” by the Ethiopian Emperor. The only requirement was that they be Christian and that they stand immensely tall.
But not all of these men were from Ethiopia. Two of them were American.
One of these men was “Sam” and had come from the Riggs Plantation in Georgia. Little is known of Sam or how he got to Russia.
The more well known guard was Jim Hercules (pronounced “Her-ka-lis”), born to former slaves somewhere in the South in 1867. Taking advantage of freedom, Jim moved to New York and became a boxer. After touring Europe fighting in the ring he settled in London and took British citizenship. There he was seen by Empress Marie Feodorovna and invited to Russia where Alexander III offered him a job as an Abyssinian Guard. He stayed on under Nicholas II.
It is said that every couple of years Jim would return to America to visit family and return to Russia with gifts of homemade guava jellies for the imperial children.
The guards stood out from the rest of the servants not only for being black and imposingly tall but also for their unique attire. They wore coats of black wool embroidered with double headed eagles in gold thread over short white jackets, waistcoats of crimson velvet with wide woolen trousers. A red turban or velvet fez with gold tassel completed the ensemble.
Prince Christopher of Greece wrote “Tall, splendidly built in their wide trousers and scarlet turbans, they stood immobile as though they had been cast in bronze.”
No one knows what happen to Jim and Sam after the Revolution – they no longer had jobs after abdication. It has been reported that Jim stayed with the Tsar right up until his abdication.
A few years later on, in the early twenties, an American visitor to Russia was stunned to see a tall black man walking through the streets, dressed poorly but with a tattered imperial uniform coat. This visitor was told that the man, along with other “lost souls” of the Imperial period were common enough sights in the city and that the authorities treated them as harmless eccentrics.
Does he have any relatives or family still living? Who knows. Good basis for a novel.
Much of the historical background here is from “The Court of the Last Tsar”
by Greg King
A sumptuous book for those into this sort of thing
“Memories of the Russian court”
by Anna Bubovna.
What a fascinating story! It would indeed be a good basis for a novel. I can understand why it’s a popular post.
One of my top three posts, viewed at least once a day, was shared on Facebook which could explain its popularity. Perhaps the same happened with your post.
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I can see this as a film too! Lots of potential leading men spring to mind.
Maybe this is a bit like my ‘Jamiroquai’ post, Frank. Viewed every day, without fail, and consistently one of my best weekly figures too. I also wonder…
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Great post. Maybe people are searching for the word ‘Hercules’.
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This is a fascinating story. No wonder it is one of your most popular blog posts. Thank you so much for sharing it again. Much appreciated and very much enjoyed.
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I’m glad you reposted this since I missed it earlier. Very exceptional information which makes me wonder what ever happened to these guards (slaves)?
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I think I may know where the doorman known as Sam born on the Riggs plantation was from. I live in SE GA just outside of Savannah and the county to my north is Bulloch Co, home of Statesboro, yes Statesboro Blues Statesboro. All of my family is from there. Anyhow, the only Riggs plantation I know of that was here in GA was in the southern part of that county. According to this page on the Riggs family, https://struggleandprogress.com/2020/02/28/the-riggs-family-new-kin-part-1/, there are several lists of people born on the plantation and one of the lists, I believe it is the one of the children born to Cain and Isabella, is a Samuel born 1844 I believe. I’m wanting to do some research on this and if I can come up with enough info maybe write an article for the Statesboro Herald or Savannah Morning News to bring his story to light, so if anyone can do anything to help please reply to this post!