November 29, 2012
The redistribution of wealth, it seems safe to say, is vital to the smooth operation of any functioning economy. Historians can point to plenty of examples of the disasters that follow whenever some privileged elite decides to seal itself off from the hoi-polloi and pull up the ladder that its members used to clamber to the top of the money tree. And while there always will be argument as to how that redistribution should occur (whether compulsorily, via high taxation and a state safety net, or voluntarily, via the hotly debated “trickle-down effect”), it can be acknowledged that whenever large quantities of surplus loot have been accumulated, the sniff of wealth tends to create fascinating history—and produce some remarkable characters as well.
Take William Crockford, who began his career as a London fishmonger and ended it, half a century later, as perhaps the wealthiest self-made man in England. Crockford managed this feat thanks to one extraordinary talent—an unmatched skill for gambling—and one simple piece of good fortune: to be alive early in the 19th century, when peace had returned to Europe after four decades of war and a generation of bored young aristocrats, who a few years earlier would have been gainfully employed in fighting Napoleon, found themselves with far too much time on their hands.
The result was a craze for heavy gambling that ran throughout the notoriously dissolute Regency period (c.1815-1838). The craze made Crockford rich and bankrupted a generation of the British aristocracy; at the height of his success, around 1830, the former fishmonger was worth the equivalent of perhaps $160 million today, and practically every cent of it had come straight from the pockets of the aristocrats whom “Crocky” had lured into the luxurious gambling hell that he had built on London’s fashionable St. James’s Street. So successful was Crockford at his self-appointed task of relieving his victims of their family fortunes that there are, even today, eminent British families that have never properly recovered from their ancestors’ encounters with him.
November 27, 2012
Victorian-era women experiencing “female trouble” could pick up a daily newspaper, scan the advertisements and translate the euphemisms. A dash of “uterine tonic,” an application of a “female wash,” a brushing of “carbolic purifying powder” or any product with “French” in the title promised to prevent conception, while a “female regulator,” “rose injections” or a dose of “cathartic pills” could alleviate “private difficulties” and “remove obstructions.” They knew the key ingredients—pennyroyal, savin, black draught, tansy tea, oil of cedar, ergot of rye, mallow, motherwort—as well as the most trusted name in the business: Ann Lohman, alias Madame Restell, whose 40-year career as a “female physician” made her a hero to desperate patients and “the Wickedest Woman in New York” to nearly everyone else.
Restell, like many self-proclaimed physicians of the time, had no real medical background. Born Ann Trow in May 1812 in Painswick, England, she had little formal education and began working as a maid at age 15. A year later she married a tailor named Henry Summers. They had a daughter, Caroline, in 1830, and the following year sailed for New York City, where they settled on William Street in Lower Manhattan. A few months after they arrived, in August 1831, Henry died of bilious fever. Ann supported herself as a seamstress, doing piecework at home so she could look after Caroline while she worked, all the while longing for something better. Around 1836, she met 27-year-old Charles Lohman, a printer at the New York Herald. He was well-educated and literate, a habitué of a bookstore on Chatham Street where the city’s radical philosophers and freethinkers gathered to debate, and he began publishing tracts about contraception and population control.
It’s unclear how Ann first embarked upon the patent-medicine business, but Charles encouraged her fledgling career. Together they concocted a story of a trip to Europe where Ann allegedly trained as a midwife with her grandmother, a renowned French physician named Restell. Upon her return, she assumed the moniker “Mrs. Restell” (soon tweaking it to “Madame Restell”), and Charles encouraged her to advertise in the newspapers. Her first notice ran in the New York Sun of March 18, 1839, and read, in part:
TO MARRIED WOMEN.—Is it not but too well known that the families of the married often increase beyond what the happiness of those who give them birth would dictate?… Is it moral for parents to increase their families, regardless of consequences to themselves, or the well being of their offspring, when a simple, easy, healthy, and certain remedy is within our control? The advertiser, feeling the importance of this subject, and estimating the vast benefit resulting to thousands by the adoption of means prescribed by her, has opened an office, where married females can obtain the desired information.
Clients arrived at her Greenwich Street office from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m., and if they couldn’t seek treatment in person, Restell responded by mail, sending Preventative Powder at $5 per package or Female Monthly Pills, $1 apiece. Her pills (as well as those of her competitors) simply commercialized traditional folk remedies that had been around for centuries, and were occasionally effective. Restell counted on clients returning for surgical abortions if the abortifacients failed—$20 for poor women, $100 for the rich.
As her practice flourished it attracted other aspiring “female physicians,” male and female, and Restell began warning prospective clients to “beware of imitators.” To remain competitive she began expanding her range of services. In addition to selling abortifacients, she opened a boardinghouse where clients with unwanted pregnancies could give birth in anonymity. For an additional fee, she facilitated the adoption of infants. Restell placed more newspaper ads, many referring to the thousands of letters she’d received from grateful customers.
When Madame Restell began her practice, New York State law regarding abortion reflected contemporary folk wisdom, which held that a fetus wasn’t technically alive until “quickening”—the moment when the mother felt it first move inside the womb, usually around the fourth month. An abortion before quickening was legal, but an abortion after quickening was considered to be second-degree manslaughter. Restell tried to determine how far along a patient was in her pregnancy before offering her services; if she intervened too late, she risked a $100 fine and one year in prison.
She had her first major brush with the law in 1840, when a 21-year-old woman named Maria Purdy lay on her deathbed, suffering from tuberculosis. She told her husband she wished to make a confession: While pregnant the previous year, she decided she didn’t want to give birth again; they had a ten-month-old child and she couldn’t handle another so soon. She had visited Restell’s office on Greenwich Street and joined several women waiting in the front parlor. When her turn came, Restell listened to her story and gave her a small vial of yellow medicine in exchange for a dollar.
Purdy took one dose that night and two the next day but then stopped, suddenly worried about the potential consequences. A doctor analyzed the medicine and concluded it contained oil of tansy and spirits of turpentine and advised her to never take it again. She returned to Restell, who told her that for $20 an operation could be performed without pain or inconvenience. Purdy had no cash, and instead offered a pawn ticket for a gold watch chain and a stack of rings, which Restell accepted. She led Purdy behind a curtain to a darkened room, where a strange man—not Restell’s husband—placed his hands on her abdomen and declared she was only three months along (if Purdy was past the first trimester, she didn’t correct him). She had the surgery, and was convinced that her present illness was a result. After hearing her deathbed confession her husband went to the police, who arrested Restell and charged her with “administering to Purdy certain noxious medicine… [and]… procuring her a miscarriage by the use of instruments, the same not being necessary to preserve her life.”
The case launched a debate that played out in the press, and the debate was as charged as it is today. One antiabortion advocate called Restell “the monster in human shape” responsible for “one of the most hellish acts ever perpetrated in a Christian land.” She was a threat to the institution of marriage, allowing women to “commit as many adulteries as there are hours in the year without the possibility of detection.” She encouraged prostitution by removing the consequences. She allowed wives to shirk the duties of motherhood. She insulted poor women by providing abortions when they could seek aid and solace from their church. She not only abetted immoral behavior but also harmed misguided and naïve women, acting as a “hag of misery” preying upon human weakness. The word “Restellism” became synonymous with abortion.
Restell decided to defend herself, placing an ad in the New York Herald in which she offered $100 to anyone who could prove that her medicine was harmful. “I cannot conceive,” she wrote, “how men who are husbands, brothers, or fathers can give utterance to an idea so intrinsically base and infamous, that their wives, their sisters or their daughters, want but the opportunity and ‘facility’ to be vicious, and if they are not so, it is not from an innate principle of virtue, but from fear. What is female virtue, then, a mere thing of circumstance and occasion?”
She was found guilty at trial, but the case was appealed on the ground that Maria Purdy’s deathbed statement was not admissible. The appellate court ruled that such depositions were admissible only in civil suits. Restell was retried, with Purdy’s statement removed from the evidence, and found not guilty. Emboldened, Restell opened branch offices in Boston and Philadelphia and increased her advertising, targeting “married ladies whose delicate or precarious health forbids a too rapid increase of family.”
In 1845, the New York State legislature passed a bill stipulating that providing abortions or abortifacients at any stage of pregnancy was a misdemeanor punishable by a mandatory year in prison. Women who sought abortions or attempted to self-abort would also be liable, subject to a $1,000 fine, a prison sentence of tree to 12 months, or both. The legislators apparently overlooked the possibility that this provision would discourage testimony from women who had undergone abortions, making it more difficult to prosecute abortionists.
Public scrutiny of Restell continued unabated—she was accused in the press, on the basis of an anonymous letters, of performing a fatal abortion on Mary Rogers, the real-life inspiration for the title character in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Mystery of Marie Roget”—but she managed to avoid legal trouble for two years. In the fall of 1847, a woman named Maria Bodine visited her clinic, having been referred by an anonymous “sponsor.” Restell decided she was too far along for an abortion and suggested the woman stay and board instead, but Bodine’s lover insisted. Restell refused several times before allowing the surgery. Afterward, in pain, Bodine consulted a physician, who suspected an abortion and reported her to the police. She turned state’s evidence, and Restell was arrested for second-degree manslaughter.
Restell was found guilty of misdemeanor procurement and sentenced to a year on Blackwell’s Island (now Roosevelt Island). Upon her release she claimed she would no longer offer surgical abortions, but would still provide pills and stays in her boardinghouse. In an attempt to improve her image she applied for United States citizenship—one had to be a “person of good character” to be approved—and was naturalized in 1854. The mayor of New York, Jacob A. Westervelt, officiated at her daughter’s wedding.
But Restell wasn’t able to escape her reputation. Newspaper reports seemed as bothered by her wealth as by how she obtained it, detailing her collection of diamonds and pearls, her furs, her ostentatious carriage with four horses and a liveried coachman, her brownstone mansion on the corner of 52nd Street and 5th Avenue (built in part, it was said, to annoy the first Roman Catholic archbishop of New York, John Hughes, who had denounced her from his pulpit and who had bought the next block on which to build St. Patrick’s Cathedral). She was now so infamous nationwide that she was included in several guidebooks to the city, one of which dubbed her “the Wickedest Woman in New York.”
Anthony Comstock, the founder of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, likened pornography to cancer and drew no distinction between birth control and abortion. A federal passed in March 1873, which became known as the Comstock Law, made it a misdemeanor to sell or advertise obscene matter by mail, and made specific reference to “any article or thing designed or intended for the prevention of conception or procuring of abortion.” Telling someone where they could find such information carried a prison sentence of six months to five years and a fine of up to $2,000.
Comstock embarked on a personal campaign to hunt down violators. In 1878 he rang the bell of Madame Restell’s basement office on East 52nd Street, claiming to be a married man whose wife had already given him too many children. He was worried about her health and hoped Restell might be able to help, he said. She sold him some pills. Comstock returned the following day with a police officer and had her arrested. During a search he found pamphlets about birth control and some “instruments,” along with instructions for their use.
Once again Restell defended herself in the press. “He’s in this nasty detective business,” she said of Comstock. “There are a number of little doctors who are in the same business behind him. They think if they can get me in trouble and out of the way, they can make a fortune. If the public are determined to push this matter, they will have a good laugh when they learn the nature of the terrible items of the preventative prescriptions. Of course, if there’s a trial it will all come out.”
This time there was no trial. On April 1, 1878, Restell’s chambermaid found her nude body half-submerged in the bathtub, her throat slit from ear to ear. House servants told reporters that Restell had been restless and despondent, pacing her home and crying, “Why do they persecute me so? I have done nothing to harm anyone.” Since it was April Fool’s Day, Comstock initially believed the report to be a tasteless joke. When he realized it was true, he reached for his file on Ann Lohman and penned a final comment: “A bloody ending to a bloody life.”
Books: Clifford Browder, The Wickedest Woman in New York. Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1988; A. Cheree Carlson, The Crimes of Womanhood. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009; Louis J. Palmer, Encyclopedia of Abortion in the United States. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2002; Janet Farrell Brodie, Contraception and Abortion in 19th Century America. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994; Leslie J. Reagan, When Abortion Was a Crime: Women, Medicine, and the Law in the United States, 1867-1973. Berkeley, University of California Press, 1997.
Articles: “End of an Infamous Life.” New York Herald Tribune, April 2, 1878; “A Vile Business Stopped.” New York Herald Tribune, February 12, 1878; “Madame Restell and Her Furnace for Destroying Babies.” Washington (PA) Review and Examiner, January 16, 1867; “Madame Restell Repudiated.” Newport Mercury, March 24, 1855; “Case of Madam Restell.” Boston Evening Transcript, February 9, 1848; “Another Death by Female Physicians and Arrest of Madame Restell.” Boston Courier, April 18, 1844; “The Wickedest Woman in New York.” Helena (MT) Weekly, November 26, 1868.
November 21, 2012
President Barack Obama pardoned his fourth turkey today, in what many believe is a Thanksgiving tradition dating back to 1947, when President Harry Truman, standing outside the White House, was presented with a holiday bird by the National Turkey Federation. But there’s no evidence that Truman did anything different from his successor, President Dwight Eisenhower, who, with his family, consumed all eight birds the NTF presented them.
In 1963, President John F. Kennedy became the first president to see the word “pardon” used with reference to a Thanksgiving turkey, but he did not officially spare a bird in a pre-Thanksgiving ceremony in the Rose Garden. Kennedy simply announced that he would not eat the bird, and newspapers reported that the president had “pardoned” the gobbler given to him by the California Turkey Advisory Board. Just days before that year’s Thanksgiving, he was assassinated in Dallas.
Ronald Reagan was the first president to use the word “pardon” in connection with a Thanksgiving turkey, in 1987, in response to media queries about whether he might pardon Lt. Col. Oliver North or any of the other figures involved in the Iran-Contra scandal. Reagan joked that if that year’s turkey had not already been destined for a petting farm, “I would have pardoned him.”
In fact, it was President George H.W. Bush who began the tradition, in 1989. “Not this guy,” Bush said when a holiday turkey was presented. “He’s been granted a presidential pardon as of right now, allowing him to live out his days on a farm not far from here.”
Bush pardoned a turkey in each remaining year of his presidency, as has every president since. However, the earliest known sparing of a holiday bird can be traced to 1863, when Abraham Lincoln was presented with a Christmas turkey destined for the dinner table and his young, precocious son Tad intervened.
Thomas “Tad” Lincoln was just 8 years old when he arrived in Washington, D.C., to live at the White House after his father was sworn into office in March 1861. The youngest of four sons born to Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln, Tad was born after Edward “Eddie” Lincoln died in the winter of 1850 at the age of 11, most likely of tuberculosis. Both Tad and his brother William “Willie” Lincoln were believed to have contracted typhoid fever in Washington, and while Tad recovered, Willie succumbed in February of 1862. He was 11.
With the eldest Lincoln son, Robert, away at Harvard College, young Tad became the only child living at in the White House, and by all accounts, the boy was indomitable—charismatic and full of life at a time when his family, and the nation, were experiencing tremendous grief. Born with a cleft palate that gave him a lisp and dental impairments that made it almost impossible for him to eat solid food, Tad was easily distracted, full of energy, highly emotional and, unlike his father and brother, none too focused on academics.
“He had a very bad opinion of books and no opinion of discipline,” wrote John Hay, Lincoln’s secretary. Both Lincoln parents, Hay observed, seemed to be content to let Tad “have a good time.” Devastated by the loss of Willie, and both proud and relieved by Robert’s fastidious efforts at Harvard, the first couple gave their rambunctious young son free rein at the executive mansion. The boy was known to have sprayed dignitaries with fire hoses, burst into cabinet meetings, tried to sell some of the first couple’s clothing at a “yard sale” on the White House lawn, and marched White House servants around the grounds like infantry.
On one occasion, a politician leaving the White House told a companion he had “just had an interview with the tyrant of the White House,” then made it clear he was referring to Tad.
Tad took it upon himself to raise money for the United States Sanitary Commission—the Civil War equivalent of the Red Cross—by charging White House guests a nickel to be introduced to his father, the president, in his office. Lincoln tolerated his son’s daily interruptions until he learned what the boy was up to, and then quickly put an end to Tad’s charity work. But the boy still saw commercial opportunity in the countless visitors to the White House, and it wasn’t long before he had set up a food vendor’s stand in the lobby, selling beef jerky and fruit for those waiting for an audience with his father. The profits, of course, were marked for the boy’s favorite relief organization.
The Lincolns allowed Tad to keep two ponies in the White House stables, which he would ride while wearing a military uniform, and when the Lincolns were given two goats, Nanko and Nannie, Tad caused quite the stir by hitching them to a chair and driving them, as if on a sled, through a crowded reception in the East Room hosted by the First Lady.
The boy also spent a great of time listening to the tales of White House visitors who would come to meet his father, and if Tad found the stories particularly moving (one woman’s husband was in prison, her children hungry and cold), he would insist that his father snap into immediate action. Lincoln, unwilling to disappoint him, agreed to free one such prisoner, and when Tad returned to the woman with the good news of a promised release, the two “openly wept” with joy together.
Thanksgiving was first celebrated as a national holiday in 1863, after Abraham Lincoln’s presidential proclamation, which set the date as the last Thursday in November. Because of the Civil War, however, the Confederate States of America refused to recognize Lincoln’s authority, and Thanksgiving wouldn’t be celebrated nationally until years after the war.
It was, however, in late 1863, when the Lincolns received a live turkey for the family to feast on at Christmas. Tad, ever fond of animals, quickly adopted the bird as a pet, naming him Jack and teaching him to follow behind as he hiked around the White House grounds. On Christmas Eve, Lincoln told his son that the pet would no longer be a pet. “Jack was sent here to be killed and eaten for this very Christmas,” he told Tad, who answered, “I can’t help it. He’s a good turkey, and I don’t want him killed.” The boy argued that the bird had every right to live, and as always, the president gave in to his son, writing a reprieve for the turkey on a card and handing it to Tad.
The boy kept Jack for another year, and on election day in 1864, Abraham Lincoln spotted the bird among soldiers who were lining up to vote. Lincoln playfully asked his son if the turkey would be voting too, and Tad answered, “O, no; he isn’t of age yet.”
On the night, five months later, when the president and first lady went to see Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theater, 12-year-old Tad was taken by his tutor to see Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp nearby. Just minutes into the children’s show, a theater official burst down the aisle, shouting that the president had been shot. The stunned silence was soon broken by the sobs of a young boy pining for his father. “They’ve killed him,” Tad cried. “They’ve killed him.”
The boy was taken back to the White House and did not see his father again until Lincoln’s embalmed body was displayed in an East Room ceremony, attended by General Ulysses S. Grant and the new president, Andrew Johnson.
“Pa is dead,” Tad told a nurse. “I can hardly believe that I shall never see him again… I am only Tad Lincoln now, little Tad, like other little boys. I am not a president’s son now. I won’t have many presents anymore. Well, I will try and be a good boy, and will hope to go someday to Pa and brother Willie, in heaven.”
Mary Todd Lincoln moved with him to Chicago, where boarding schools tried to make up for his practical illiteracy. The two traveled to Germany, where Tad attended a school in Frankfurt. On a trip back to the United States in 1871, he became severely ill, most likely with tuberculosis, and never recovered. He was just 18. Tad Lincoln, the “tyrant” of the White House and tireless advocate for turkey rights, was buried in Springfield, Illinois, beside his father and two brothers.
Articles: “What Was Tad Lincoln’s Speech Problem?” by John M. Hutchinson, Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, Vol., 30, No. 1 (Winter 2009), University of Illinois Press. “Tad Lincoln: The Not-so-Famous Son of A Most-Famous President,” By R.J. Brown, HistoryBuff.com, http://www.historybuff.com/library/reftad.html “The Death of Willie Lincoln,” Abraham Lincoln Online, http://showcase.netins.net/web/creative/lincoln/education/williedeath.htm “Tyrant Tad: The Boy in the White House,” Ten Boys From History by K.D. Sweetser, http://www.heritage-history.com/www/heritage-books.php?Dir=books&author=sweetser&book=tenboys&story=tyrant “Tad Lincoln,” Lincoln Bicentennial 1809-2009, http://www.abrahamlincoln200.org/lincolns-life/lincolns-family/tad-lincoln/default.aspx “Pets,” Mr. Lincoln’s White House, The Lincoln Institute, http://www.mrlincolnswhitehouse.org/content_inside.asp?ID=82&subjectID=1 “Young Tad Lincoln Saved the Life of Jack, the White House Turkey!” by Roger Norton, Abraham Lincoln Research Site, http://rogerjnorton.com/Lincoln65.html
Books: Doug Wead, All the Presidents Children: Triumph and Tragedy in the Lives of America’s First Families, Atria, 2003. Julia Taft and Mary Decradico, Tad Lincoln’s Father, Bison Books, 2001.
November 19, 2012
Who first thought of building a pyramid, or of using gunpowder as a weapon? Who invented the wheel? Who, for that matter, came up with the idea of taking a movie camera into battle and turning a profit from the horrible realities of war? History offers no firm guidance on the first three questions, and is not entirely certain even on the fourth, although the earliest war films cannot have been shot much earlier than 1900. What we can say, fairly definitely, is that most of this pioneer footage tells us little about war as it was actually waged back then, and quite a lot about the enduring ingenuity of filmmakers. That is because almost all of it was either staged or faked, setting a template that was followed for years afterwards with varying degrees of success.
I tried to show in last week’s essay how newsreel cameramen took on the challenge of filming the Mexican Revolution of 1910-20—a challenge they met, at one point, by signing the celebrated rebel leader Pancho Villa to an exclusive contract. What I did not explain, for lack of space, was that the Mutual Film teams embedded with Villa were not the first cinematographers to tussle with the problems of capturing live action with bulky cameras in dangerous situations. Nor were they the first to conclude that it was easier and safer to fake their footage—and that fraud in any case produced far more saleable results. Indeed, the early history of newsreel cinema is replete with examples of cameramen responding in precisely the same way to the same set of challenges. Pretty much the earliest “war” footage ever shot, in fact, was created in circumstances that broadly mirror those prevailing in Mexico.
November 15, 2012
Despite the promoters’ best efforts, the 1922 light-heavyweight fight between the popular European champion Georges Carpentier and an obscure Senegalese brawler named Amadou Mbarick Fall, better known as “Battling Siki,” wasn’t supposed to be much of a fight. In the run-up to the September 22 event, newspapers confidently reported that fight fans could “expect to see the French idol win inside of six rounds.”
And yet more than 50,000 Parisians flocked to the Buffalo Velodrome, creating the first “million-franc” boxing match. Carpentier was a war hero beloved by his countrymen, and even though he had a lackluster record, Battling Siki was more than willing to help stir up interest in the fight. He was billed as the “Jungle Hercules,” and reporters described him as a man who fought “like a leopard,” with “great muscles” rippling under his dark skin and “perfect white teeth so typical of the negroid.” Siki had taken a hit on the head with a hammer, one paper stated, “and scarcely felt it.”
Even Siki’s own manager, Charlie Hellers was quick to point out the fighter’s “gorilla’s skill and manners” to reporters. “He’s a scientific ape,” Hellers said. “Just imagine an ape that has learned to box and you have Battling Siki.”
For his part, Siki told reporters that he was going to knock Carpentier out in the first round because he had plans to fight the world heavyweight champion next. “Tell Jack Dempsey he’s my next meat,” Siki was quoted as saying.
In truth, the fighter was born and raised in the Senegalese city of Saint-Louis and moved to France as a teen. “I have never even seen a jungle,” he would say later. He was often spotted around Paris dressed in expensive suits and fancy hats, sometimes with his pet monkey perched on his shoulder. His training, it was said, consisted of “caviar and cognac,” and he preferred doing his “roadwork on a dance floor.”
On the afternoon of September 22, fight fans packed the velodrome to see Carpentier defend his title. Nicknamed the “Orchid Man” for the corsages he often wore with his tailored suits, Carpentier had been fighting professionally since he was 14. Although he was coming off a failed attempt to win Dempsey’s heavyweight title, he’d helped secure boxing’s first million-dollar gate. Fighting again as a light-heavyweight, the Frenchman’s future was still bright—so bright that Carpentier’s handlers were taking no chances. They offered Battling Siki a bribe to throw the fight. Siki agreed, under the condition that he “didn’t want to get hurt.” What followed was one of the strangest bouts in boxing history.
Although Siki later admitted that the fight was rigged, there’s some question as to whether Carpentier knew it. Early in the first of 20 scheduled rounds, Siki dropped to a knee after Carpentier grazed him, and then rose and began to throw wild, showy punches with little behind them. In the third, Carpentier landed a powerful blow, and Siki went down again; when he got back on his feet, he lunged at his opponent head first, hands low, as if inviting Carpentier to hit him again. Carpentier obliged, sending Siki to the canvas once more.
At that point, the action in the ring turned serious. Siki later told a friend that during the fight, he had reminded Carpentier, “You aren’t supposed to hit me,” but the Frenchman “kept doing it. He thought he could beat me without our deal, and he kept on hitting me.”
Suddenly, Battling Siki’s punches had a lot more power to them. He pounded away at Carpentier in the fourth round, then dropped him with a vicious combination and stood menacingly over him. Through the fourth and into the fifth, the fighters stood head to head, trading punches, but it was clear that Siki was getting the better of the champion. Frustrated, Carpentier charged in and head-butted Siki, knocking him to the floor. Rising to his feet, Siki tried to protest to the referee, but Carpentier charged again, backing him into a corner. The Frenchman slipped and fell to the canvas—and Siki, seemingly confused, helped him get to his feet. Seeing Siki’s guard down, Carpentier showed his gratitude by launching a hard left hook to Siki’s head just before the bell ended the round. The Senegalese tried to follow Carpentier back to his corner, but handlers pulled him back onto his stool.
At the start of round six, Battling Siki pounced. Furious, he spun Carpentier around and delivered an illegal knee to his midsection, which dropped the Frenchman for good. Enraged, Siki stood above him and shouted down at his fallen foe. With his right eye swollen shut and his nose broken, the Orchid Man was splayed awkwardly on his side, his left leg resting on the lower rope.
Siki returned to his corner. His manager, Charlie Hellers, blurted out, “My God. What have you done?”
“He hit me,” Siki answered.
Referee M. Henri Bernstein didn’t even bother counting. Believed by some to be in on the fix, Bernstein tried to explain that he was disqualifying Siki for fouling Carpentier, who was then being carried to his corner. Upon hearing of the disqualification, the crowd unleashed a “great chorus of hoots and jeers and even threaten[ed] the referee with bodily harm.” Carpentier, they believed, had been “beaten squarely by a better man.”
Amid the pandemonium, the judges quickly conferred, and an hour later, reversed the disqualification. Battling Siki was the new champion.
Siki was embraced, just as Carpentier had been, and he quickly became the toast of Paris. He was a late-night fixture in bars around the city, surrounded by women, and he could often be seen walking the Champs-Elysees in a top hat and tuxedo, with a pet lion cub on a leash.
Carpentier fought for a few more years but never never reclaimed his title. Retiring from the ring, he toured the vaudeville circuits of the United States and England as a song-and-dance man. Battling Siki turned down several big fights in the United States to face Mike McTigue in Ireland. That the bout was held on St. Patrick’s Day in Dublin was likely a factor in Siki’s losing a controversial decision. He moved to New York City in 1923 and began a downward spiral of alcohol abuse that led to countless confrontations with the police. By 1925, he was regularly sleeping in jail cells after being picked up for public intoxication, fighting and skipping out on bar debts.
In the early hours of December 15, 1925, Amadou Mbarick Fall, aka Battling Siki, was wandering through the Hell’s Kitchen section of New York’s West Side when he took two bullets in his back and died on the street. Just 28 years old, Siki was believed to have been killed over some unpaid debts, but the homicide remains unsolved. Adam Clayton Powell presided over Siki’s funeral in Harlem, and in 1991, the pugilist’s remains were brought back to Senegal.
Books: Peter Benson, Battling Siki: A tale of ring fixes, race & murder in the 1920s, The University of Arkansas Press, 2006.
Articles: “Dempsey’s My Meat,” Chicago Daily Tribune, September 18, 1922, “Knocked Out, Battling Siki is Borne From Ring of Life Forever,” The New Amsterdam News, December 29, 1925. “Siki Scientific Ape, Says Manager,” The Atlanta Constitution, October 1, 1922. “Siki Like a Leopard,” Boston Daily Globe, September 25, 1922. “Million Franc Gate For Carpenter’s Bout with Battling Siki,” Boston Daily Globe, September 22, 1922. “The Sidewalks of New York,” Boston Daily Globe, November 29, 1925. “Saki is a Gorilla, Says Manager,” New York Times, September 26, 1922. “Carpentier Crumbles Before Negro Wonder; Flattened in Sixth,” The Hartford Courant, September 25, 1922. “Negro Tumbles Idol of France,” Boston Daily Globe, September 25, 1922. “The Fix Was In—but Then Battling Siki Got Mad,” by Roy McHugh, Sports Illustrated, April 24, 1989.