Queen of the Sword
Ella Hattan was born in Zanesville, Ohio in 1859. The exact date is unknown, at least to me. She was the tenth child of Maria Hinman and William Hattan, who was a tailor. Her mother, of proud Spanish blood, began teaching her some rudimentary moves with a knife and sword when she was young. When she was three or four, her father died fighting in the Civil War. In 1875 they moved to Cleveland. Ella joined a theater company and by 1880 was a professional actress living in New York, and performing with some of the best and most well known actors of the time.
Between 1884 and 1900, blending her acting talents with her well hones fencing skills, she became an audience favorite with the sword and the broadsword on horseback. She was known as “LaJaguarina”, Champion Amazon of the World”, and “Ideal Amazon of the Age”.
In 1884 she seriously launched her career when she publicly challenged the #1 broadsword master in the United States to a duel and calling him a wimp. He said he didn’t want to lower himself to fight a woman, that he was extremely busy with things that she most certainly could not understand, then he turned tail and left town, not to be seen again.
On the 4th of July in 1886 when she soundly defeated Captain J. H. Marshall. In April of 1896 and Ella clearly beat the stuffing out of a hardened military veteran, U.S. Sergeant Charles Walsh. The crowd was around 4,000 people. He was hit so hard he nearly fell from his horse - so hard that his opponent’s sword was permanently bent backwards in a U shape. Walsh, trying to recover his breath, jumped fro his horse, shouted that the judge was cheating and he fled the scene to the jeers of this massive crowd.
By 1887, Ella had defeated sixty men in contests on foot as well as on horseback, and was declared “the only women in the world who has been able to wrest championship honors from men of the greatest skill in the use of all chivalric weapons.” The Boston Daily Globe stated on May 31, 1897, that “…for the past twelve years, she met all comers in mounted contests, and has never been defeated in a battle for general points.” Of these opponents, twenty seven were masters at arms.
Although she was the unrivaled master of foil, epee, saber and knife fighting, beating every swordsman she could find, many times both mounted and on foot, she was forced into retirement because she ran out of opponents! She went so far as to take out newspaper ads offering up to $5,000 (probably about $150,000 by todays standards) to anyone who could defeat her. She was ready! No one took her up on her offer.
Hattan carried scars on her face, arms and body as a result of her combats. More than one male reporter was prepared to meet a fierce faced Amazon when interviewing her. A reporter fromThe Cleveland Plain Deal on April 10, 1898, was well and truly shocked to find that she exuded grace, refinement and perfect self control and great sweetness. She 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. self-control and sweetness”
When she took her forced retirement she opened a finishing school and taught the young women in attendance to fence. She fell back on her acting career and modeled for a number of real life enactments of famous paintings, she sang on stage. She married at one point but the marriage ended in divorce.
Even in retirement it seems she was quite a firebrand. A rather ardent young suitor whom she said was a cat calling buffoon got in her face she didn’t hesitate to act. The Washington D.C. Evening Star describes it very well:
“In the 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 his teeth played a castanet obligato to the solo of good advice that was rapidly breathed into his vibrating ears.”
Eventually she let him go and when asked why, she shook her head and replied “didn’t wan to be prosecuted for manslaughter”.
Her prowess at arms was a given but she also possessed a profound eloquence and intellect as shown particularly well in her own words to the Los Angeles Herald on November 28th 1890: “If the people of the world were, all at once, transformed into original beings, as intended by nature, there would be little left to do for doctors and instructors in physical development. The so-called advancements in civilization have obliterated our natural selves to such a degree that the first requisites of nature to a healthful condition of the body are so obscured that by the time a man or woman of the present has fairly entered upon life they are so artificial, so unreal in their existence that they require teaching how to live. The whole secret of good health, and a fair physical development, is in returning to the first principles of nature . . . The very simplicity of the thing constitutes its chief mystery. It is only because we have outlived all plainness and all that is simple and natural that we are forced to resort to complicated expedients to undo the evils resulting from unnatural and artificial living.”
According to the US Fencing Hall of Fame, if she had only been born 25 years later she certainly would have been recognized as the world’s first great women fencer.