Everybody knows that Enrico Caruso, born 150 years ago this weekend, was a great singer. Less well remembered is that he was once also the subject of allegations foreshadowing the “Me Too” movement. Indeed, this fact might be entirely forgotten now had it not been immortalised by James Joyce in not one but two literary masterpieces.
The Caruso indecency trial of 1903 would have been a media sensation even if the events in question had not taken place in the monkey house of New York’s Central Park Zoo. There, one day, a policeman allegedly observed him for 45 minutes making unwanted contact with a series of females. But the subsequent charges centred on one named complainant, a Mrs Hannah Graham from the Bronx, whose posterior he was said to have pinched.
Unfortunately for the prosecution, she could not be produced in court. And despite intense press interest, nobody of her name was found to be living at the specified address.
Even so, Caruso was convicted and fined $10, under bitter protest. By telegram to his father in Naples, as widely reported, he wrote: “I swear on your sacred white hairs that I am innocent.”
A young Joyce, himself a tenor, was indignant on Caruso’s behalf, predicting the American police would be arresting the monkeys themselves next.
But he later referenced the trial comically in both Ulysses, where Leopold Bloom’s Nighttown fantasy includes similar accusations from “Mrs Hanna Tallboys”, and Finnegans Wake. In the latter, the scene becomes Dublin’s “Fiendish Park”, and the protagonist is said to have committed vague but sexual improprieties “while admiring the monkeys”.
An unwitting victim of the New York case was a chimpanzee named “Knocko”. Already a zoo favourite, he became a celebrity as a result of the trial and, while playing to greatly increased galleries, overexerted himself fatally within days.
As for Caruso, his career survived the humiliation. Audiences believed or forgave him. And according to an essay by the late Joycean scholar Ruth Bauerle, there are grounds for seeing the trial as in part “a battle between a largely Irish immigrant police” and an emerging, rival Italian population.
In this context, a comment from the deputy police commissioner afterwards, recorded in this newspaper’s coverage, seems telling. In what may or may not have been a euphemism for Italians, he said that police were determined to end “the insulting of women by fashionably dressed men” in Central Park.
This weekend also marks the 208th anniversary of Napoleon’s escape from Elba, which launched the so-called “Hundred Days”. It’s not an important-sounding milestone, I know, unless you round it down. As indeed they did with the “Hundred Days”, which was actually 110 days, even by the official count.
That doesn’t begin until March 20th, when Bonaparte entered Paris. And it extends well beyond the Battle of Waterloo, to when King Louis XVIII was restored.
Even so, the latest anniversary is an excuse to recall a famous (and 208-year-old) example of the media shamelessly accommodating itself to the will of the powerful, a theme more popular than ever these days, especially on Twitter.
It’s a series of headlines, originally credited to the French state newspaper, reporting Napoleon’s progress as follows:
“9th March, the cannibal has quitted his den. 10th, the Corsican Ogre has landed at Cape Juan. 11th, the Tiger has arrived at Gap. 12th, the Monster slept at Grenoble. 13th, the Tyrant has passed through Lyons; 14th the Usurper is directing his steps towards Dijon, but the brave and loyal Burgundians have risen en masse and surrounded him on all sides. 18th, Bonaparte is only sixty leagues from the capital; he has been fortunate enough to escape the hands of his pursuers. 19th, Bonaparte is advancing with rapid steps, but he will never enter Paris. 20th, Napoleon will, tomorrow, be under our ramparts. 21st, the Emperor is at Fontainebleau. 22nd, His Imperial and Royal Majesty, yesterday evening, arrived at the Tuileries, amidst the joyful acclamations of his devoted and faithful subjects.”
This blow-by-Fontainebleau summary has been endlessly repeated ever since, by writers including Alexandre Dumas, as actual press history. But according to intrepid American journalist David Montgomery, and his French history podcast The Siècle, it never happened.
Montgomery knows this because (a) he took the trouble of reading every issue of the state newspaper for the dates in question and (b) because he also found the true original. That was a satirical piece in a different French paper, dated March 25th, 1815, deliberately lampooning the royalists’ climb-down.
Among the many commentators taken in by the joke in subsequent centuries, it seems, was this paper’s own comic genius, Myles na gCopaleen. He quoted it twice as a commentary on censorship, once in 1944, from an unspecified source, and again, in 1957, crediting a book by Isaac Disraeli.
Maybe it’s even worse than people say.
Not only is satire dead, the funeral was 208 years ago.