Colonel Thomas Monstery, and the Training of Jaguarina, America’s Champion Swordswoman
“In the encounter with Monstery, at the end of a four hours’ bout neither of the parties had gained a point, and the combat was declared a draw.”
During the late nineteenth century, the field of women’s self-defense would be greatly advanced by two very special individuals—a fencing master and duelist, Colonel Thomas Hoyer Monstery, and his precocious student, Ella Hattan (popularly known as “Jaguarina”), who would go on to become regarded by many as one of the greatest swordswomen of the nineteenth century, and possibly of all time.
COLONEL THOMAS MONSTERY
“It is a great mistake to suppose that women cannot learn fencing as quickly as men…”
In 1870, one of America’s most distinguished martial arts masters opened a “School of Arms” in New York City. He was a fencing master, boxer, marksman, sailor, adventurer, street fighter, soldier of fortune, and world traveler. He was Colonel Thomas Hoyer Monstery.
When it came to combat, Monstery had an impressive resume. He had fought under twelve flags in numerous wars and revolutions, had survived participation in more than fifty duels with the sword, knife, and pistol, and had twenty-two scars on his body to prove it. In addition to being a “master of all arms” (which included the rapier, dagger, broadsword, Bowie knife, lance, bayonet, and quarterstaff, among others), Monstery was also a “professor of sparring,” and taught a special system of bare-knuckle self-defense that integrated punching, grappling, and kicking techniques, designed to be effective against a wide range of fighting styles.
One of Monstery’s most unusual traits, however, was that he encouraged women to take up fencing with a variety of weapons, as well as boxing, long before it was both popular and fashionable for them to do so. As early as the 1850s, Monstery was teaching fencing to the famous actress Lola Montez, and later, during the 1860s, to the equally famous Ada Isaacs Menken. In 1874, in New York City, his fencing advertisements offered “Private Instruction to Ladies and Misses” in both fencing and calisthenics. In an 1888 interview, Monstery expounded,
“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.”
Monstery claimed that he taught his female pupils no differently than he did men. This was a great point of distinction; typically, the scarce fencing instruction available to women during this period was limited to the use of the foil, an academic training tool. Monstery, however, did not limit his instruction to the art of the sword; in 1888, he was teaching “two classes of lady-boxers”; in New York City, he also held several ladies’ classes in stick self-defense. Evidence also suggests that to select female students, he also provided instruction in the rapier, dagger, knife, and bayonet. Additionally, Monstery included a special drill in his curriculum intended to prepare his female pupils for potential street encounters, teaching them to deliver a “bayonet thrust” with their parasols, which, he said, “would break a rib, or a one-handed thrust, that would put out an eye.” In his martial arts treatise, Self-Defense for Gentlemen and Ladies, Monstery noted:
“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.” (Chapter 11)
Monstery also insisted that his female students eschew the wearing of fashionable (but restrictive) corsets, and “any other of those modern inventions…wherewith the female human form divine is disguised as a human monstrosity.” Corsets, the habitual use of which would later be linked to health problems, were condemned by Monstery in favor of comfortable garments “loose enough to allow free-play to every muscle and sinew.”
Perhaps due to this progressive attitude, Monstery was able to attract a remarkable number of high-profile female students, securing the tuition of many notable actresses, including Mildred Holland—who, according to one account, became “one of the most expert fencers in America.”
ELLA HATTAN, a.k.a. “JAGUARINA”
“Strong and supple as steel, she presented an extraordinary picture … 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.”
Monstery’s greatest student, however, was a young female prodigy named Ella Hattan, who would popularly become known by her nom de guerre, “Jaguarina.” Under Monstery’s tutelage, Hattan would go on to become recognized as one of the greatest swordswomen of the nineteenth century, and perhaps of all time.
According to United States census records, Ella Hattan was born in 1859 in Zanesville, Ohio, to a Spanish American mother named Maria, and an Anglo-American father. The latter, William Hattan, would go on to be killed in the Civil War when Ella was still a child.
Although it is not certain how she and Monstery first met, when Hattan was still in her teens, she began performing with a Cleveland theatrical troupe (John Ellsler’s stock company) that eventually made its way to New York, and it seems likely that this was the circumstance by which she first came into contact with the Colonel. According to most accounts, when Hattan was eighteen years old (around the year 1877), she became a pupil of Monstery at his New York school of arms. Some later sources declare¸ contrarily, that Hattan began training with Monstery at age twenty in Chicago (see, for instance, Macon Telegraph, May 27, 1906). However, given Hattan’s year of birth, whether she began training at age eighteen or twenty, or even twenty-three, Monstery would still have been living and teaching at his academy in New York City (the Colonel not having departed for Chicago until 1883). According to the Chicago Tribune,
“When but 18 years of age she became a pupil of Col. Monstery in New York, but three years later left there, and has since traveled through countries where the sword is still a principal weapon of offense and defense.” (Chicago Daily Tribune, Apr. 19, 1885)
The New York Times reported,
“The Colonel declared he would make the little girl the greatest woman fencer of her time, and from him she learned all she knew of the art.”
Actually, Hattan had begun training at eight years of age, having first learned to fence with the foil and knife from her mother. Still, it was from Monstery that Hattan acquired proficiency with the saber and broadsword—the weapons she would use to win the vast majority of her contests. Regarding her training, Hattan recalled that Monstery “knew her ability, but was determined that she should learn confidence by experience and hard knocks.” Hattan further recounted,
“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.”
Hattan also stated that for several years she received “a thorough military training in the use of the foil, rapier, knife, sabre and bayonet and in horsemanship.” Although she did not specify the teacher from whom she learned these weapons, considering that Hattan was known to fence several unusual weapons that Monstery was also known to have taught or exhibited (such as the dagger and the Bowie knife), it seems likely that Hattan learned the use of these weapons from the Colonel as well.
According to Hattan’s own account, Monstery was so rigorous in his instruction, and withholding of praise, that when she finally began contesting with other experienced swordsmen she was shocked to discover that she could beat them all.
“Let it be clearly understood that no man need hesitate to challenge me because I am a woman…”
After training for three years under Monstery, Hattan left to travel the world, and became a sensation with the foil, saber, broadsword, singlestick, rapier, dagger, bayonet, lance, Spanish knife, and Bowie knife, defeating fencing heavyweights such as Sergeant Owen Davis of the U.S. Cavalry, the famed knife duelist Charles Engelbrecht of the Danish Royal Guard, and the fencing master E. N. Jennings of the Royal Irish Hussars. One of her challenges, posted in the Los Angeles Herald, stated:
“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.”
The following 1886 account of Hattan’s combat versus Captain Jennings gives an idea of her prowess with the sword:
“Lithe as the animal she takes her cognomen from, and strong and supple as steel, she presented an extraordinary picture as she awaited the onset. 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. Backward and forward in single steps the combatants retreated and advanced, 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.”
Another exciting account of Hattan’s fencing, this time in a contest against the German master-at-arms, Captain Conrad Wiedemann, appeared in the October 29, 1888 issue of the San Diego Union:
“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 stood 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…”
By 1897, Hattan had defeated sixty men in contests on foot as well as on horseback, and was declared “the only woman in the world who has…been able to wrest championship honors from men of the greatest skill in the use of all chivalric weapons.” For the past twelve years, asserted the Boston Daily Globe, she had “met all comers in mounted contests, and has never been defeated in a battle for general points.” Of these opponents, twenty-seven were said to have been masters-at-arms—a statistic verified by at least one major newspaper. Although there were some who might take issue with Hattan’s “undefeated” status (such as one Captain Xavier Orlofsky, who technically defeated her in a controversial New York contest in which he was accused of “deliberately committing” four fouls), the fact is, that even with such exceptions taken into account, Hattan’s fencing record was extraordinary.
“As soon as she comprehended what his words meant, bang, biff! she landed right and left, and he fell to the ground…”
Hattan could also defend herself well with her bare hands, and there is every evidence that she benefited from Monstery’s system of bare-knuckle self-defense. Once, after being cornered by a rude, presumptuous man, her fists went into action:
“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. It was several days before he was presentable, while Jaguarina laughingly showed her friends in this city the next day that she knocked the fellow down twice without even taking the skin from her rosy little knuckles.” (Los Angeles Herald)
Despite such accounts, more than one reporter who met her, expecting to meet a “fierce faced Amazon,” was shocked to find that Hattan exuded grace, refinement, and, as one put it, “perfect self-control and sweetness.” As Hattan herself explained,
“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. In fact, physical culture gives grace, beauty, self-reliance—while taking nothing but aches and dyspepsia.”
Hattan also began training for bullfights in Los Angeles—-but in the end, her humanistic side got the better of her. During her first day of training, after dexterously evading numerous “lighting-like” charges of the bull, Hattan leapt out of the ring and refused to hurt the creature, insisting “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.”
REUNIONS WITH COLONEL MONSTERY
“My advice to people who wish to learn to fence is to go to a good master.” – Ella Hattan, “Jaguarina,” 1903.
In 1884, after Monstery had moved his School of Arms to Chicago, Hattan reunited with her old mentor for a lively public fencing contest. In the resulting encounter between the two, one master and the other student, it was recorded that
“In the encounter with Monstery, at the end of a four hours’ bout neither of the parties had gained a point, and the combat was declared a draw.”
Hattan would continue to reunite with Monstery throughout the years. More than a decade later, in 1895, during her proposed contest with Jean Gordon (a Scottish swordswoman), it was noted that “Colonel Monstery and others will act as judges.” (Daily Inter Ocean, July 14, 1895)
The next year, in Milwaukee, prior to one of Jaguarina’s mounted sword contests, it was noted that
“The mounted combat will not be called until 9 o’clock. At 8:30 o’clock Jaguarina will fence with foils with Col. Thomas H. Monstery of Chicago, the chamption master-at-arms of the world, who lately defeated Pini, the champion of Europe.” (Milwaukee Sentinel, Apr. 17, 1896)
Whether this fencing bout between Monstery and Hattan was to be a warm-up for her mounted combat, or was an actual fencing exhibition, is unclear. It is, however, additional evidence of a long-lasting, nearly two decades-long relationship between the old master and his precocious student. For although Hattan gave credit to various other fencing teachers (such as an “old actor,” and a Mexican cavalry officer), it is telling that in all of her interviews, Monstery is the only instructor Hattan ever mentioned by name—and repeatedly. In 1898, she stated simply that “Colonel Monstery of Chicago, a famous old Danish swordsman who had fought in the Mexican war, was my teacher. He is now living, and though advanced in [years] is healthy and alert.” Later, in a 1903 interview (given after Monstery was deceased), Hattan’s advice on how to attain proficiency in fencing can be seen as a partial tribute to the Colonel: “My advice to people who wish to learn to fence is to go to a good master.”
MONSTERY AND HATTAN’S LEGACY
Several of Monstery’s female students would go on to become prominent fencing and self-defense instructors in their own right—including Ella Hattan, who led classes comprised of “beautiful southern women, daughters of old confederate officers.” Hattan would become a widely-regarded authority on physical culture, especially as it pertained to women. A reporter visiting Hattan’s Los Angeles school in November, 1890 noted:
“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….Jaguarina is the personification of health and grace, and possesses much magnetic force as well. She is capable of illustrating every individual movement that she teaches, and to give an intelligent and satisfactory reason for the especial object thereof.”
Monstery must have been proud of his former pupil, for his official biography, published in Chicago of Today (1891), stated:
“The Colonel has had among his gentlemen and lady pupils the champions of America, both in fencing and boxing, among whom were…Miss Jaguarina.”
During the late 1890s, a flurry of American newspaper articles announced fencing as the new “fashionable” activity for women, and the number of female fencers literally exploded. Even Monstery’s professional rivals, who had formerly taught few women, began holding numerous self-defense classes specifically catering to “ladies.” Monstery, however, proudly claimed to be the first master of the period to hold public exhibitions featuring groups of female fencers.
One can only wonder if Monstery’s faith in, and encouragement of, the female martial artist was instrumental in fostering a trend which would continue into the twentieth century.
Although he passed away in 1901, Colonel Monstery‘s martial wisdom survives in Self-Defense for Gentlemen and Ladies: A Nineteenth Century Treatise on Boxing, Kicking, Grappling, and Fencing with the Cane and Quarterstaff, which was recently published by North Atlantic Books in book form for the first time. This volume contains a new, detailed biography of Monstery, and includes additional writings by the Colonel.
NOTE: The sources for the quotations in this article (appearing without citations) can be found in the Introduction to Self-Defense for Gentlemen and Ladies.
This article © 2015 by Ben Miller.
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