“If the art of fencing ever becomes general in America,” wrote Claxton Wilstach in GODET’S MAGAZINE of March, 1896, “…its champion may properly be found, mirabile dictu, in a woman.”
He had in mind a very specific woman, one who, “…has been selected by some wealthy Californians as the sole representative of the sword for America in the Olympic games at Athens, Greece, this spring.”
There may be no record of a woman fencing for America in those first modern games, but Wilstach was just one of many who fantasized of a world sword-fighting championship won by the athlete-actress known as Jaguarina.
She had, for years, defeated just about every male opponent she could find, usually with broadswords. On horseback.
Born in 1859 at Zanesville, Ohio, this fantastic, enigmatic athlete was known for the first two decades of her life as Ella Hattan, the eighth of 10 children whose father, a tailor named William Hattan, died in the Civil War. Ella moved to Cleveland with her mother and one brother in 1875. Still in her teens, she began appearing in plays with Cleveland’s famed Ellsler stock company, where she performed with Laurence Barrett, Edwin Booth and Dion Boucicault, among others. By 1880 she had moved on and was playing small roles in New York, Philadelphia and on tour. Then came one of several completely unknown periods in Ella Hattan’s life. Much of it probably was spent in Chicago, where she studied fencing with Col. Thomas Monstery, a colorful master-at-arms who had taught for many years in Manhattan, following a gaudy career as an adventurer in South American revolutions, a friend of Mark Twain in Gold-Rush California and both the subject and the author of dime novels.Apparently, Col. Monstery taught Miss Hattan well because, in the spring of 1886 she turned up in San Francisco as “The World-Renowned Jaguarine, the Ideal Amazon of the Age.”At that time, San Francisco, probably inspired by the popularity of medieval romances such as Walter Scott’s “Ivanhoe,” was flocking to see a series of weekend jousts and sword conflicts between an assortment of captains, colonels, barons and other bully heroes from various 19th Century wars. The dominant champion of these events was one Duncan C. Ross, a professional wrestler and sword-fighter in an era when the gifted amateur was the ideal.Ross, who had defeated nearly every opponent since (according to HARPER’S WEEKLY of 22 May 1886) he and “Col. Lenon, a Texas Ranger” had invented the sport six years earlier in Louisville, Ky., promptly announced that he had no intention of fighting against a woman … and left town on an Eastern tour.Jaguarine, under the shrewd management of Fred J. Engelhardt, quickly became the toast of San Francisco, winning bouts with all weapons against all comers, first afoot and eventually on horseback. The Olympic Club of San Francisco presented her with a special gold medal on May 20, 1886. She appeared in plays and participated in benefits. Her biggest victory came against Sgt. Owen Davis of the U.S. Cavalry, whom she defeated 9 Feb. 1887 in a combat covered extensively by all the San Francisco papers.Then, apparently, she ran out of willing opponents. So Engelhardt arranged a vaudeville tour through California, pairing her with a magician named MacAllister. He and Jaguarine would fight an exhibition match before MacAllister’s act, then follow with “living pictures,” a series of classic poses by Jaguarine and other actresses from the company, scantily clad in order to illustrate classical sculpture. The show was successful everywhere but the bulk of the coverage dealt with Jaguarine’s physical beauty.By the end of 1887, Engelhardt and his star retired to Ensenada, on the west coast of Mexico, then in the midst of a land boom. Both of them ultimately bought property there and they didn’t really emerge again until mid-1888, when Jaguarina (as she then became known) agreed to fight a major combat in San Diego against a German master-at-arms, Capt. Conrad Wiedemann. She was again the toast of the town and the betting was heavy. After she won the mounted contest, she agreed to a more conventional match with her opponent at a local theatre and won that one too.For the next couple of years, Jaguarina split time between Ensenada, San Diego and Los Angeles, where Engelhardt struggled to launch a mounted combat scene such as the one in San Francisco. But, though fencing was growing in popularity, the broadswords on horseback seem to have lost the public’s attention. And it didn’t help that few opponents could be found for the woman who always won. The swan song of that sport probably came in late 1893 with an international tournament at Madison Square Gardens won Dec. 3 by Duncan Ross. (A football game between Yale and Princeton was part of the program, according to THE NEW YORK TIMES.) Jaguarina obviously was not invited. Engelhardt returned to his wife and family in Manhattan while Jaguarina, over the next decade, toured the country in shows such as “The Spider and the Fly,” “The Fairy Well” and “The Devil’s Auction.” She also presented exhibitions of mounted combat against a variety of opponents, mainly in Eastern cities, including Baltimore, where she established a school; Chicago, where she met again with Col, Monstery; and Washington, where she was presented by her new husband, a Broadway promoter.Although periodic interviews such as the one in GODEY’S MAGAZINE appeared over the turn of the century, Jaguarina apparently did indeed retire. When she re-emerged, after her marriage failed, she was cast in a Broadway musical “The Vanderbilt Cap,” using her real name in public for the first time in 23 years.Newspapers, magazines and publicists quickly found out about her past and, although she was merely a supporting comic actress in a show starring the popular Elsie Janis, she gathered a considerable load of publicity including conflicting reports about her fencing career and whether or not she was in fact retired.The last trace of Ella Hattan is a clipping from the TOLEDO BLADE in Ohio, 27 Dec., 1907. She was a featured actress in a second-rate tour of something called “Lottie, the Poor Saleslady, or, Death Before Dishonor.” No certain trace of her has been found after that date.Despite what might be considered a spectacular career, very little is known about Ella Hattan. What information there is comes mainly from newspaper reports and some scraps of public records. Not only was she retiring in private life but she seemed actually to delight in telling conflicting stories in her many public interviews. At various times she said she was learned knife-fighting from gypsies, that her father was English and her mother Spanish, that she grew up on a ranch in Mexico and that she had served as a “military rough rider.” She never seems to have returned to, or even mentioned, Ohio.Professor Lynne Emery of California State Polytechnic University in Pomona, one of the few people who has done research on Ella Hattan, considers her one of the premiere professional athletes in American history prior to the 20th Century and probably the best-paid. (Mounted bouts often were fought for winner-take-all purses of $1,000 but it was the betting where the real money was to be made.)But Prof. Emery also believes that many, if not the majority, of Jaguarina’s bouts were fixed.However, if this is so, then a lot of people had to be in on the conspiracy: promoters, other athletes, referees and judges, reporters and, of course, the gamblers. Considering the length and breadth of her sword career, this seems unlikely.Apparently, Jaguarina was adept with knife, rapier, foil, saber and broadsword. She seems to have been a superior horsewoman in an era when nice girls still rode side-saddle. Her personal beauty, at least early in her career, seems beyond doubt; her acting talent, less so.The unmistakable conclusion is that Ella Hattan was the very talented student of Col. Thomas S. Monstery, considered to be one of the country’s leading fencers prior to 1880, and that she left Monstery to find a career as a professional swordswoman under the management of Fred Engelhardt. But her timing, like that of her teacher, was unfortunate. Had she been born 25 years later, she might have been the world’s first great woman fencer.