In this week’s episode of Bustles & Broadswords, it’s another delve in the podcast pre-reboot archives. This time one from Summer 2021, all about a legendary rider who did countless duel shows on horseback against men with an unbeatable track record. Expect ambiguously queer sportswomen, absolutely devastating public challenges in the local newspaper and jaguar print hot pants. Also…Muchacho the horse.
Show notes and full transcript below!
Hello and welcome. To Bustles and Broadswords. This is a podcast about women with swords throughout history, fiction and the queer territory in between. I’m your sword-wielding and storytelling host, Claire Mead. And today’s episode is another one from the archives – of Summer 2021. Because it’s got everything. Performance wise yes but also queer vibes, brilliant outfits, a strenuous fencing training montage, and a horse called Muchacho. Amongst other things. So take it away, Summer 2021 Claire!
I haven’t been fencing in a while due to you know…the world outside. I’m very rusty. And when I return to fencing with fellow human beings – I’ll need my trusty foil blade for sure. But I’ll also need a good fencing instructor and a whole lot of training before fighting in any competition anytime soon. Because skill in sword fighting is not something you’re born with – it’s something you work at. Whatever your gender is. Then – and now.
Today’s sword lady knows that – as she rides across a dusty racetrack in the middle of nowhere in 1870s California, to the cheers of the crowd. Her armour is gleaming and her sword is poised, ready to strike as she picks up speed astride her steed, no doubt smiling with ferocious glee behind her mask. And as her opponent faces her relentless, skillful attacks – perhaps the public challenge she issued in the local newspaper to swordsmen like him is ringing in his ears. Maybe at this very moment another man is reading the very same challenge, with a disbelieving scoff or an angry scowl.
This woman is not only challenging champion swordsmen. She’s offering a handsome reward to the one who will beat her. Her current opponent maybe thinks – he’s different. He’s not like those other men. He’ll prove her wrong. And collect the reward. But in a few strikes, she cuts him down. As the cheers ring out she’s already added him to her list of victories. And crossed yet another champion swordsman off her hit list. Only one thing could stop her. Running out of men to fight. Because this is what she trained for. With the help of a fencing master who looked past the assumptions of his time.
This is the Queen of Swords of the 19th Californian duelling scene. The Amazon of the American race-tracks. The 19th century jouster with as much skill in sword fighting – as in showmanship. Or show…womanship. This is…Ella Hattan. Better known under her stage name – La Jaguarina.
The crowd cheers for her but this isn’t her first victory. These past few years sheùs risen up as a swordwielding celebrity. But like most celebrities the crowd knows her but they also don’t really know her. And maybe never will. Because that’s also the persona she cultivates.
She’s a swashbuckling mystery wrapped up in a kickass enigma. Born on the Old Continent of Europe of an English father and a Spanish mother. Learnt the noble art of the sword before arriving in the United States with one goal in mind…defeat every single swordsman who would dare challenge her…At least – that’s what Ella Hattan wanted you to believe. And that’s the legend that she built for herself to match her flamboyant stage name. So much so that legend and fact are mixed up in her story.
So let’s rewind a tiny bit. To Ella Hattan when she is not yet a legend and is still an American girl born in the 1850s, hailing from Ohio and more specifically Zanesville, the Pottery Capital of the world. Ella’s mother, Maria, isn’t really interested in teaching her pottery though. She’s not like other moms, she’s a cool mom. When young Ella is old enough – she teaches her how to fence and how to knife fight. At the age of eight. No Play-Doh or colouring books for this child, no. We’re going straight for the knives. And I must say…I’m really jealous.
So Ella at this stage is already a mini menace with a sword. But at 16 she’s also a drama queen. Who joins a travelling theatrical troupe and like every single starry-eyed protagonist at the start of a musical has her sights set on New York City to become a professional actress. I’d like to tell you it was a story of hardships and moral lessons filled with plucky side characters…but, well, basically, it took her two years and it wasn’t very difficult. By the age of 18 she’s in the 19th century Big Apple after putting in the work through theatrical touring. Musical’s over! And you like Ella, may be thinking – okay, now what?
Sometimes you have a dream and then once you reach it you wonder – is my life calling somewhere else? Well, turns out my life calling is researching and drawing and writing about sword lesbians so I’m in a pretty good place right now, doing this podcast. But what about Ella? Turns out performing remained central to Ella’s life in many ways. But her soul-searching led her to the doorstep of a person who’s really going to fulfill her emotional and spiritual needs. And those emotional and spiritual needs were to hit as many people with a sword as possible. And that person was Colonel Monstery.
A fencing master who was head of the School of Arms in New York. Now this podcast is all about destroying assumptions. But let’s be honest. It’s safe to say that a lot of 19th century American men as products of their time had pretty messed up views about femininity and masculinity and what men and women supposedly could and could not do. Including fighting. Especially fighting. That’s why we’re here right? Because even now, some men are under the fascinating assumption that women didn’t fight or are inherently peaceful, nurturing creatures.
[Evil feminist giggle] That’s cute.
A lot of these men do enjoy flaunting their masculinity as a way of somehow imposing that specific expression of it on all other men and preventing people who are not men from accessing certain activities. So imagine a towering, muscular, mustachioed 19th century dude whose body is covered by the twenty two scars of the countless duels he’s fought. He’s fought with sword, he’s fought with pistol, fought with lance and knife. And when he didn’t have those you still wouldn’t be safe, he’d beat you with his bare fists. On the ring, on the streets – doesn’t matter. So this guy takes one look at Ella – and welcomes her inside.
Because this is what he had to say about women fencing:
“It is a great mistake to suppose that women cannot learn fencing as quickly as men…the fact is the women are much the quicker pupils. They are more flexible of body; their limbs are more supple and elastic—that’s one advantage. Their mental brightness enables them to pick up the strategy of the art quicker—that’s a second advantage. And, thirdly, they have more nerve—it’s a fact; I don’t know why, but it’s a fact.”
Monastery doesn’t give a damn about your misogyny. Granted, the supple and elastic limb thing based on gender is kind of weird but we can still give him an A for overall good effort for not being a sexist weirdo who thinks women inherently can’t fight. For him women have charisma, uniqueness, nerve and talent. For not only fencing but also boxing and other forms of fighting. In 1874 his “Private Instruction to Ladies and Misses” offered classes for exercise and fencing alike. And like he did with men, he taught his women students how to use a range of military weapons, not just practice foils! He also offered classes for self-defense specifically made to equip women against any aggression or harassment they may encounter in the streets. With the most dangerous, dainty and discreet weapon – the parasol:
“An umbrella is a fearful weapon if used with both hands like a bayonet. It will parry the blows of a big bully, and you can return him a stab in the face or breast or stomach that will settle him. A lady can defend herself from outrage with her parasol in the same way…I remember a certain girl who killed a ruffian who assaulted her by a stab with the point of her parasol.”
And you know that whoever this certain girl is, he was VERY proud of her. He boasts that his bayonet-thrust technique applied to a parasol could, according to him, “break a rib” or “put out an eye.”
And Monstery was not just jumping on an end of century trend of fencing being a more accepted mainstream sport for women. So much so that fencing would become more popularized and even lead to women being able to fence in the Olympic Games in 1924. Monstery was doing this from at least the 1850s onwards. His pupils included Lola Montez, the famous actress, dancer and one-time Countess of Landsfeld when she was the mistress of King Ludwig I of Bavaria as well as Ada Isaacs Menken in the 1860s – an actress, poet and performer who was apparently most well known for her performance in a play in which she rode nude on a horse – scandalous stuff for the mid 1800s.
In fact a lot of Monstery’s pupils, at least the high-profile ones we know of today were actresses, like Ella Hattan. Kind of weird but kind of makes sense. The way fencing for women was justified at the time for women was often for acting purposes. In Europe, Johann Hartl’s women’s fencing class in Vienna, founded in 1873, aimed to train dancers and actresses in the proper use of weapons as props in fight choreographies. Incidentally, they turned out to be so good at it that the Viennese Fencing Women’s group ended up touring across Europe and America doing demonstrations! And will actually pop up later in this story, stay tuned. This also honestly feels like an excuse for women to engage with a practice they found interesting but would not have been able to justify in any other context.
“Oh, swordfighting – Yes, you see I’m researching the role of Joan of Arc so I simply MUST learn how to wield a sword properly!” For sword lady accuracy. And I can tell you, having once upon a time learnt how to stagefight with a sword – it’s no joke. To know how to represent something accurately, you need at least the basics in terms of rules and in terms of movements. And then well – you’re hooked. At least that’s what happened to me.
Maybe Ella Hattan was in that situation. Maybe she wanted to use swordfighting as a bit of a career pivot. But either way her life would change because it’s time for a training montage. And this isn’t a crash course that lasts a few weeks. This is a full on, years long commitment. This is what she says about it later on:
“I fenced three hours a day with foil and sabre for three years before I was considered really qualified as a fencer… The road to success as a sabre fencer is paved by aching muscles and bruises from cuts from a sword.”
So Ella gets cut down. But she gets up again. And again. And her power grows. Monstery sees her potential. So he throws at her everything he’s got. And what he’s got is an armoury’s worth of weapons. She does fence the traditional way – with a foil. The same one she may have learnt to fence with as a child. For most traditional fencing – a foil would have been the way. A foil is not meant to cause damage. Its tip is capped at the end and it’s not sharp. It’s what is still used in fencing today. She also trains with a saber – a curved sword used for cutting and thrusting. Sabres were used in academic fencing in the 19th century and then they inspired a new addition to fencing tools – unsurprisingly the fencing sabre. The sabre has a long and interesting history but the main takeaway for our story here is that it was hugely favoured by cavalry because it was really great for anyone on horseback to enact swift cutting motions. Just like the broadsword. It is characterised by its basket-hilt, meant to protect the whole hand from attacks. Always handy. Handled with one…hand, it was also used by cavalry.
Ella also learns how to use the rapier which would have had long-standing use as a military weapon but also as a civilian one, especially in the context of duelling and was a long-standing staple of fencing from the 16th century onwards.
So that’s already…a lot. Monstery has a lot to teach and Hattan just says…bring it on. Which brings us to our next lot of weapons. Never-ending.
The bayonet – because if you can’t learn how to fight with a dagger meant to fit on the end of a rifle to end up with some kind of murderous hybrid spear, what are you even doing with your life? And perhaps true to her childhood knife-fighting training roots, Hattan also learnt how to fight with the Spanish knife – a folding blade knife which can have dual purposes, like cutting some salami or stabbing your enemy – and the Bowie knife which is actually a lot less glam rock than it sounds and is more like a fighting knife with a fixed blade. And just to round it all off nicely, she also learns how to fight with a lance – which is a polearm – which basically means that the nasty pointy bit is on the end of a long shaft, which is great when you want to strike down your enemy but also not get too close to them. Social distanced murder basically. And it’s also good for, you guessed it, horseback. I wonder what this is building up to. It’s not like we mention it in the intro!
But sometimes the least flashy tools can also be the most deadly. She also fights with the singlestick which is…get ready for this…a stick. It would have been used instead of a sword to enact fencing moves and its practice originated, I can only imagine, with severe military training budget cuts. Seriously though it would have been really useful in self-defense if you were attacked in the street and only had a walking stick. Or a parasol. And we’ve seen how strongly Monstery believes in the murderous potential of the parasol. Or even a good pair of fists. As this snippet documented by a newspaper gleefully demonstrates when Ella Hattan is confronted by harassment on the streets:
“As soon as she comprehended what his words meant, bang, biff! she landed right and left, and he fell to the ground. ‘Get up, you coward,’ she commanded, and he, overcome by the ringing tones, very foolishly crawled to his knees. Biff! Bang! Right and left landed again, and down he went, and this time he refused to get up and sprawled on the ground, calling for help.” In the anecdote then goes on to show everyone how she just punched this dude without damaging her, and I quote, “rosy little knuckles.” Going for the jugular – just like her jaguar namesake. Even after the fight is done.
Everything about her exudes confidence – in her power and skills. Perhaps because for so long, during those three years, she was completely in the dark about how skilled she actually was. Monstery doesn’t go for a lot of positive reinforcment or praise. So when Hattan actually starts duelling other people she quickly realises she can beat them. She’s ready. And she’s unstoppable. With a sword and without a sword. On foot – and on horseback. Because in addition to this three-year stint into becoming a one-woman threat in all the bladed weapons ever, she also learns horseriding – to do it all on a horse. Because hey, why not. Why ever the hell not.
Years later in 1903 this is what she remembered of it:
“When I took up mounted fencing what I suffered no woman will ever know, for I do not think any other woman will ever try it. I was put on a horse and kept on that horse, astride like a man, from 7 0’clock in the morning to noon every day. During that time I worked with my trainer, fencing mounted. At 12 o’clock I was taken off my horse stiff and sore, and almost carried to my house. Then came the agony of taking off my riding clothes.”
In this extract Ella describes the pain she sustained, and the bandages she wrapped around her arms as her body was blistered and bruised from the effort. She doesn’t shy away from the graphic details (though I’ll spare you because it’s pretty graphic). Point is, Ella doesn’t want to come across as an effortless “this comes naturally” kind of student. She wants to show us that she’s worked hard for this. Although she was wrong on women not following in her footsteps. Many had done so before her. And she’d pave the way for many more to do so.
Which brings us to three years later. We’re in the 1880s. And a crowd is gathering for a popular pastime. Seeing two people duel one another – not just on foot, but most crucially – on horseback. It had already been decades since these fights became popular. They channelled the glitz and glamour of medieval jousting tournaments or the way 19th century people imagined medieval tournaments were like with the excited atmosphere of a boxing match and the weird hybrid mashup result was this – competitive fencing duels. So on a pale winter California day in a dusty racetrack, a man is waiting for his opponent to emerge. That man is Captain Jennings. Formerly part of the British Army’s Royal Hussars and the best master-at-arms in the country. Hard to imagine what he’s feeling at the time. Nervous? Confident? His opponent had already beaten several swordsmen across California. Her first challenge was to the sword champion Duncan C. Ross. But he’d refused. Out of fear? Out of disdain? We don’t know. But she hadn’t wasted any time in finding new opponents to accept her challenge.
She emerges – and at the beginning of her career it’s hard to tell what reaction she would have faced from the grandstands. Confusion? Booing? Cheering? Either way, she keeps going, with a sharp, confident gaze. She’s rocking some tight, cream breeches with knee-length leather boots and a white vest, over which are layered arm protections and a shining bronze breastplate.
Ella Hattan the student is no more.
Only one name would be available to the curious crowd, her enemies and the press documenting the whole thing.
Perhaps Jennings is surprised to see that she is relatively short, and would have had a thicker build than the typical image of a dainty stick-thin model of femininity at the time – packing a punch and taking up space, her muscles sharply defined. It’s kind weird to think that when we don’t know what these women look like, we imagine them as slim yet super fit models and not people with actual hips and stomachs and thighs who have the muscle to pack a punch. But we have La Jaguarina staring out from the photographs of the time as proof, with thick thighs that can crush a watermelon – and misogyny. Here to show that women of any size can, regardless of weird values around beauty and attractiveness, do what’s most important – take a sword and beat up some men. She runs her fingers through her dark, elegantly cropped hair before donning her mask – not before the crowd gets to see her graceful features. Jaguarina must have known, even by then, that people would be surprised by her appearance – expecting her to fit some kind of masculine or feminine stereotype and finding that she challenges both ends of that spectrum. Newspapers would describe her “perfect self-control and sweetness” as if her being more masculine would have in any way invalidated her womanhood or exploits. Spoilers, it would not have. Yet these some newspapers recount with admiration her daily routine – in which she maintains her arms of steel by lifting the heaviest swords she can find.
But what really counts is what Jaguarina thinks. And she says it herself to the press better than anyone else: “I’m a firm believer in the philosophy that women were meant to be just as robust and hardy as men—and they can be without losing any of their womanliness.”
Was she about to prove it? Or would this be the one day she was proven wrong? As salutes were made and the crowd held its breath, no doubt others who hadn’t been able to buy a ticket were anxiously waiting for the next best thing – reading all about it the next day. And the Daily Alta of that following day, on 21st February 1887 provided:
“When the signal was given the heavy blades cut through the air like flashes of lightning, and steel rang on steel in a series of movements so rapid in execution as to defy being followed by the eye. (…) until finally the Captain’s arm bent slightly, and the next moment a sounding thwack on his breastplate betokened a point for Jaguarina… The doughty Captain perspired freely, and the gallantry he intended to show the lady had to be thrown away. When he became warmed up the struggle was most exciting, and the scores alternated until the close, when Jaguarina had counted 12 times and he 11.”
It was a close one. But when the cheers erupted, they did so for Jaguarina. And she might have issued a slight smirk, thinking about the first man who had refused her challenge, our friend No-Duel Duncan. Because she had just one upped him – by beating the very man who had once defeated him. And as she gracefully walked away, sword at her side, the cheers of the crowd in her ears, she was perhaps already thinking of the formulation her next challenge. The one that would appear, amongst countless others, in the pages of the Los Angeles Herald as she continued her glorious, flamboyant ascension to gain the title of Master Swordswoman of the United States:
“Let it be clearly understood that no man need hesitate to challenge me because I am a woman, or think he will be called on to show me any consideration for that reason. I grant no favors and I certainly ask none. It is said that this is the day of the ‘new woman.’ If it be so, I hope someone who desires to sustain the reputation of his sex will challenge me before I get to be an old woman and give the ‘new woman’ another chance to prove she is the superior of man.”
And she would get to prove this time and time again. Because Jennings was not her first victory – and it certainly wasn’nt her last. And as her popularity grew, so did the crowds of fans that would follow her at every match. So did the interviews from the fascinated press. And so did the money. How much money? Well, every match may have earned her upwards of $1000 at the time – and by the time she was at the end of her career, her money rewards for whoever could beat her would have proposed $5000 – or $150 000 in today’s money. She was raking in the cash. And she was also clever about her own image and status as a celebrity. Jaguarina to the world. And Rina even to her close friends. Not Ella.
Because remember she’s an actress – the duelling arena was her stage. And the show must always go on. As the nicknames for her grew – Queen of the Sword, Ideal Amazon of the Age and Champion Amazon of the World – so did her story. The story of a swashbuckling swordswoman who had travelled the world and drew her fighting spirit from her Spanish heritage. She understood the power of a narrative – of a persona. You don’t just beat your opponent – you put on a show. And she would have fully taken advantage of the fascination of a crowd drawn in by a woman swordfighter going up against men. Drawn in out of fascination, out of admiration and out of a strange mix of dread and anticipation – could one woman beat all these men? Would this time be the one time she lost? She kept people guessing – and kept on winning. And by the time 1888 rolls around, just a few years after she started duelling swordsmen, the Jaguarina brand is a well oiled machine – with a manager and high demand for duels coming across her desk from eager duelling tournament organisers. And that’s how her most famous duel happens. Against Conrad Wiedermann.
Wiedermann is a legendary German sword master – a towering giant of a man, a gymnast and the director of the German-American Turnverein gymnastic club which promoted German culture in the US. He’s originally a bit reluctant to fight La Jaguarina – reportedly out of, according to the press, chivalric concerns in terms of wounding a lady. Which…dude. Spare us. The damsel’s already beaten all your colleagues. I think she’ll be okay. It’s likely Conrad Wiedemann thought as much in the end, because he gets over his insecurities and accepts.
La Jaguarina gets the word from the peaceful little California town she lives in, in between matches. She thinks – finally – a real challenge. Get me my horse. I ride at dawn. Yes that’s right. In an age of locomotives, Jaguarina does it old school like some flamboyant travelling knight – and rides to San Diego, a day’s journey away, astride her beloved horse Muchacho. Muchacho had been a good boy – and a very resilient boy, accompanying his mistress in her duelling fights on horseback. She wanted to make sure he could build up resilience during this long trip. And as the match prepared itself and the anticipation built up she would train a second horse in San Diego as a reserve – just in case Muchacho is hurt.
Listeners, I know what you’re thinking. It’s okay – Muchacho doesn’t get hurt. But I can’t say as much about one of our opponents’ egos following their fight.
And now it’s time – for California duelling on such a beautiful autumn’s day. At the Pacific Beach race-track at the foot of Rose Canyon. Sunday October 28th 1888. As people crowded in to watch after having forked out a dollar for the most expensive seat in the grandstands, and a few cents to stand – they’re not a few hundred, not even a few thousand. 7000 people are eagerly waiting for the duel to begin. They know it’s going to be a fight using the broadsword. It’s going to be on horseback. And at the very most this fight will last 44 minutes. With 11 rounds of 3 minutes each, with one minute to rest between attacks. Each of the fighters had a second – on horseback as well, who could follow them around and count the points. A point score above the waist – would end the round. The opponents would each have their own corner at either side of the enclosure. And then they would rush at each other as soon as the referee gave the word at the start of each round. So a jousting tournament – but make it 19th century California.
But this is show buisness – and this was the middle of a major entertainment show of which this duel was the crown jewel but not the only attraction. So before the duel – anyone lucky enough to be at the grandstand since morning would have seen a horse race. And just before the duel then – a blindfold wheelbarrow race. But now it’s time for our very serious event.
Jaguarina shows up to face off Wiedermann – To the cheers of the crowd, astride Muchacho. Looking flamboyant – and fashion fabulous. She’s rocking fawn-coloured breeches, top boots and a white flowing shirt, riding around the arena to the cheers of the crowd. And only after that, with great bravado, she puts on her armour. Including her gleaming bronze breastplate which must have been shining in the autumn California sun. Its surface is not smooth – it bears scratches and indentations like battle scars. The ones that she got from her previous opponents. And as she lifts her face towards the grandstand, onlookers would notice that like the battle scars that proudly adorn her breastplate, a pale raised scar cuts across the bridge of her nose, from the time a heavy blow from an opponent caved in her fencing mask. She bears it proudly and defiantly. After all – didn’t she also win that duel?
Jaguarina and Wiedermann face off. They salute. And it begins. And for those not lucky enough to be part of the 7000-strong crowd, The San Diego Union gives us all the juicy details. There were only meant to be 11 rounds. And yet, perhaps an inaccuracy, perhaps a sign that the fight was so enthralling and so close it continued past its assigned timeframe, we are thrown into the excitement of a frenzied twelfth round:
“In the twelfth attack Jaguarina dashed to Wiedemann’s corner, there was a crash of arms, a prolonged ring of steel, a blade was seen to flash through the air, and Jaguarina threw the fragments of a broken sword from her to the ground. In an instant another sword was put into her hand, and again she dashed towards her opponent and slashed right and left, and a moment later the referee announced a point for Jaguarina…the score this time five to five. Jaguarina’s friends urged her to be cautious, but she, heeding nothing, rushed at her opponent and cut right and left, Weidemann parrying with all his might and skill. Recovering himself from the first shock, he aimed a cut at Jaguarina in high carte which was met by a strong parry which threw his sword arm out of line, and before he could return his weapon to protect himself, the sound of Jaguarina’s blade was heard on his cuirasse from a vigorous and unmistakable cut in carte, ending the contest with a score of six to five in favor of Jaguarina. The victor at once doffed her helmet and cuirasse and received round after round of applause from those present, many of her more enthusiastic friends throwing their caps high in the air…”
Wiedermann stands defeated. And he reaches out his hand in sober acknowledgement. And maybe Wiedermann wanted to settle the score or maybe just enjoyed fighting La Jaguarina and recognised that she was a real challenge. Because their second duel happens. This time with foils. Except I’m sorry to say La Jaguarina this time isn’t just as good as she was the first time…
She’s even better. She wins by a higher margin.
This is a hit show. There was an attempt to bring them back. Jaguarina vs Wiedermann, one last time. But this time, Weidermann said no. For whatever reason, he’s done.
But for Jaguarina, the party had only just begun. She basks in the glory in San Diego. She’s invited to take part in shows in which she sings and performs her fencing moves for the crowd. And she’s delighted when she meets the travelling troupe of Viennese women who had come all the way from Europe. There they are! And the story doesn’t say if they got drunk together and partied in San Diego but…I kind of hope they did.
By 1897 our heroic jaguar had defeated 60 men with only a few defeats under her belt that were – usually – swept under the rug or even often dismissed as cheating. After all – she did have a reputation to uphold. But all good things come to an end. As in…she eventually ran out of men to fight. So what does a semi-retired swordswoman who still possesses her flair for the dramatic do, when she’s run out of men to fight? Well, she turns back to her first love – the theatre.
This involves a vaudeville tour throughout California in which La Jaguarina teaches the crowds about fencing – and then poses semi-nude for “tableaux vivants” – a static scene containing one or more actors or models. Because Jaguarina doesn’t just enjoy the performance of her fighting – she also enjoys ways in which she can display it in more seductive ways. Use her femininity once again to make a statement.
Which is why we find her in photographs, boobs and blade bared…absolutely owning it. With as much commanding presence in those pictures than in the ones in which she is posing in slightly less revealing but just as fanciful battle gear. My favourite of these is a photograph in which she stands, sword at her side, in what looks like a circus performance outfit – a far cry away from her breeches and protective bronze breastplate. The outfit is a pair of black tights and a tight top under a waistcoat and what I can only describe as 19th century hot pants. And the waistcoat and 19th hot pants bear the spots of her performance namesake – the jaguar.
So Jaguarina’s having a good time and taking advantage of her fame – branching out towards modelling and performing. But she’s probably facing the pressure many celebrities who slowly see their popularity dwindle must feel. She was barely in her mid-30s so she had time to reconvert back into fighting. No men? No problem! Her manager says – her, why not bullfighting? Cut to a bullfighting ring in Los Angeles. At every single attack of the bull, she dashes out of the way. She plays with fire – teasing the animal and dodging just when its horns are about to impale her. But when the time comes for her to strike, instead of raising her sword, she leaps out of the way and out of the bullring, with a playful laugh. She looks back and declares with a smile: “I couldn’t kill him…why should I? He has as much right to live as I have. Please see that he has plenty of good hay and water.” Jaguarina knows her strength – but she’s not a sadist. Neither with beasts – nor with men.
At the time, Jaguarina was still part of a vaudeville tour, taking part in a night of theatrical extravaganza spearheaded by singer and actress May Howard. That night has everything – burlesque, dancing and, apparently – Tyrolean songs with our friend Jaguarina. Another New York article shows us that she puts on duels as well. But one Monday night in Washington DC, May and Rina, as May might have called her, are leaving the Lyceum theatre. There is no one else around – as the showrunner perhaps May was expected to wrap things up and Jaguarina hung around waiting for her so they could get back to their hotel. (Oh don’t worry – we’ll get back to that detail).
So our gal pals are walking to the hotel. But they soon realise…they are being followed. May is worried but her friend Rina thinks fast – and does the exact opposite of what anyone in that situation would usually do. She leads them down the darkened path of a park – away from the street, away from witnesses. Soon, the man catches up with them – and grabs Jaguarina’s arm. Exactly as she planned. She spins around – and…
“In telegraph time she had him by the collar and was shaking him with all the enthusiasm of a terrier over a newly captured rat. His hat went one way and his cane went the other, and his teeth played a castanet obligato to the solo of good advice that was rapidly breathed into his vibrating ears.”
According to the report from the Washington DC newspaper, her would-be stalker screams for help before finding a way of escaping her grip – leaving his overcoat behind. Jaguarina reveals not only her nerve but also her sense of humour when she’s asked whether she kept the coat:
“No, I did think of adding it to my collection of relics, you know, but the fact was it smelt of cigarettes and moth balls, so I hung it on the shrubbery to air and left it.” When asked whether she hit the man, she shakes her head as well: “I was tempted for a minute to try a half hook on him. I know a little about boxing myself, but on second thoughts I didn’t want to be prosecuted for manslaughter, so I took it out in shaking him and then let him go. Even the sternest justice, you know, should be tempered with mercy.” A laugh accompanied these words – perhaps with the easygoing confidence of someone who knows her strength – and when not to use it.
And after that laugh – presumably – Jaguarina proceeded to return to her hotel – with May Howard. And…look. I know what you’re thinking. Were they…you know…more than just gals being pals? I would love to be able to tell you for sure. But just like this anecdote is open to interpretation…so is their relationship. And so are May and Jaguarina. All we have are fragments – and codes of what may have been. Jaguarina married years later – though no other relationships with men seem to emerge throughout her career.
As for May Howard? Well…I stumbled upon a lithograph from 1898 for May Howard’s Extravaganza – the name of her company. It’s for a production of a show called the Ladies’ Alimony Club. May’s character is at the centre – flanked by two men, but wearing a men’s boating hat – and eyeing the room around her, which looks like a typical men’s club – but, plot twist, full of ladies. Some wearing dresses – and others in men’s clothing, smoking and talking. With the exception of one Black man in waitstaff clothing – represented in a demeaning way as a racist caricature, the other staff is of white women, in men’s clothes as well. And in the background, two shocked men are prevented from entering the club as this crossdressing debauchery is taking place. Now. Does this say anything about May? Or, inherently, about Ella? Maybe so…but maybe not.
Either way – there’s some serious lesbian subtext going on in that picture. Alongside blatant racism and antisemitism. So in terms of the lesbian subtext, by the end of the century, many women would see the reclaiming of traditionally male clothing and activities as a way to reclaim space and agency. This was the “modern woman” Ella was talking about in her public challenge. And more often than not this intersected with women loving women finding new ways to signal their identity and preferences to one another. Through crossdressing, pipe smoking and other traditionally masculine activities. They challenged the gender norms of their time – just like Jaguarina did. And whether or not her gender non-conformity was also a code for lesbian affinities or not – no doubt Ella found herself at home amongst women who could also subvert assumptions and threaten sexist men in doing so. And a good reminder that queer history – in its codes and fragments – is everywhere. Even when you’re not looking for it.
Whatever the truth – when the theatrical tours come to an end – in a way, so does Jaguarina, at the turn of the 20th century. When the star of the Broadway musical The Vanderbilt Cap is talked about in the press years later – it’s not La Jaguarina who is mentioned like she was mentioned in the vaudeville tours she did before. It’s a name we haven’t heard in a while: Ella Hattan. And although journalists make the connection between Hattan and Jaguarina – that ship has sailed. Jaguarina is no longer a theatrical persona. And perhaps fittingly, her last mention of Hattan is in none other than the Toledo Blade newspaper in Ohio for a play called Death before Dishonour. Before she disappeared without a trace.
In many ways this is a story of Hattan making several encounters whose outcomes she determined drastically, in the space of a few sword cuts. But the one encounter that changed the outcome of her life was her training with Monstery. They keep in touch and hold each other up as sources of inspiration. We know that in 1884 they faced off against each other for a public fencing duel – after four hours, it’s declared a tie. In an 1895 duel where she faced off against the Scotsman Jean Gordon, Monstery is one of the judges. And a year later they duelled one another once again. We do not know who won. Perhaps a winning streak for La Jaguarina, perhaps a defeat (since regardless of her overwhelming majority of victories she still did suffer a few of these!), or perhaps another tie. Even outside of this – Monastery cites La Jaguarina as one of his best pupils. And when La Jaguarina is interviewed after his death, her advice feels like it sums up the core of what made this encounter special and life-changing. Her parting words were this: “My advice to people who wish to learn to fence is to go to a good master.”
Ella didn’t just hoard the limelight to herself or see herself as an exceptional swordswoman – she passed her skill on so that she could become a good master of arms on her own terms for any woman who wanted to learn how to fence. She would end up teaching her own fencing classes for women in LA as early as 1890. A reporter says this of her school, as much a reflection of her life as of the passion for swordfighting she wanted to share: “Swords in racks and arranged in trophy groupings, armor and fencing paraphernalia of all descriptions, composed the ornamentation and utility of this quaint apartment, which comes nearer the realization of a hall of the mediaeval period than anything else existing in this part of the world…” But at the centre of it is her and her energy and drive. She was a committed pupil – and now she was a star teacher. Using her power as a master swordswoman to pass this on to a generation of new Amazons.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this episode researched, narrated and produced by me, Claire Mead. You can find all the sources and recommended reading for this episode in the show notes.
Awkward transition back from archival Claire to present podcast Claire!
Just here to add that any questions or your own sword lady story…write in at email@example.com. In the meantime you can follow the podcast at @bustleswordpod on social media. And you can find me on most social media platforms trying to procrastinate from writing, narrating and producing this podcast at @carmineclaire. Stay safe sword lady lovers and see you in a future episode!
Back into the saddle with Jaguarina! I had a blast researching this one because it had SO. MANY. PRESS SOURCES! And I love 19th century newspapers’ quirky sensationalist style.
Sources and Recommended Reading:
Journal of Manly Arts (Yes, really – lowkey love it – I am calling all my drag performances the Manly Arts now)
May Howard extravaganza – digital file from color film copy transparency, Library of Congress – before clicking, please be aware that this image depicts racist and antisemitic caricatures.
Filmography & Imagery