Ben Miller

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Gladiator Combat in 19th Century San Francisco

In Antiquity, Dress and Fashion, Martial Arts, The Arts, Victorian Era, Weapons and Armor on September 28, 2016 at 3:45 pm

“Fought with almost perfect realism…”



In 1893, the city of San Francisco played host to the largest demonstration, in terms of both audience attendance and actual participation, of historical fencing reconstruction in the United States during the entire nineteenth century. Billed as a “Revival of Ancient Graeco-Roman Games,” the event comprised both entertainment and actual martial contests, and included exhibitions of swordsmanship, javelin-throwing, discus throwing, Pankration (a combination of boxing and grappling), wrestling, chariot racing, lance combat, and wrestling on horseback.

Most notable, however, was the inclusion of “gladiatorial combats,” involving more than fifty participants, which sought to demonstrate, with historical accuracy, the famous encounters of the Meridiani, Retiarii, and Murmillones of the ancient Roman Coliseum—reproducing, as the Olympic Club annals put it, “the combats of imperial Rome with scrupulous fidelity and wonderful spirit.”

This massive display of historical fencing reconstruction was the brainchild of William Greer Harrison, the president of the San Francisco Olympic Club, and was further conceived and realized under the direction of Louis Tronchet, the club’s French fencing master, with the steadfast assistance of Tronchet’s thirty-three year-old American-born protégé, Emilio Lastreto.

The Roman revival at San Francisco lasted more than a week, from April 17 to 29, 1893, and was repeated several months later at the California State Fair at Sacramento. To attempt to recount or even summarize the “Roman Fair” in its entirety would require a small book, and is beyond the scope of this article. Rather, the focus here will be to examine what is known about the approach, training, and techniques used by Tronchet and his team of gladiators. Those interested in reading about the entire event may be directed to an 1895 article written by Arthur Inkersley for Outing Magazine, entitled “Græco-Roman Games in California,” which is available at the Journal of Manly Arts.

SFC-4-18-1893 - header


The San Francisco Olympic Club, which supplied the fencers that would take part in the Games, had a long history of promoting the use of antiquated weapons in its fencing program. One of its co-founders, Colonel Thomas H. Monstery, had offered instruction in San Francisco in dagger, lance, and other “offensive and defensive arts,” and was known to have occasionally held demonstrations with a variety of other weapons, including the rapier and quarterstaff. Although Monstery had departed San Francisco for New York around 1870, the fencing club that he had helped found continued to flourish, spurred on by the enthusiasm of its members.

During the late 1880s, the club thrived under the leadership of William Greer Harrison, an Irish-born author, playwright, athlete, and physical culture enthusiast. Harrison, who became the club’s president in 1886, was deeply steeped in the history and lore of the classical world, and this knowledge heavily informed his vision for the Olympic Club, which can be seen in an excerpt from the following essay, “The Spirit of the Club,” written by Harrison and republished in the Olympian in March, 1914:

“The Greek idea of the athlete—the absolute amateur—is in its essence realized in The Olympic Club.

“Greece and Rome, the latter borrowing from the former, established athletic training schools for the young men of their respective nations. Rome adopted the Greek idea, and for a time submitted to restrictions. The Greek athlete trained for endurance and speed. No pecuniary reward influenced his purpose…The Greeks refused professionalism in every form and conserved the amateur spirit to such an extent that there was no place for professionals.

“The Greek loved his work. He found a rythmic joy in his training. He realized the daily growing force of his spirit as the controlling agency in his physical training. He became, mentally and physically, in the highest sense efficient.

“There was no sulking with the Greek athlete when defeated. He had given to the contest the very best that was in him, and this the Greek people fully understood, and honored him accordingly.

“The noblest blood in Greece entered on even terms with the peasant in all the varied forms of athletic work. The watch-word of all the athletes was “For honor.” Rome in her youth attempted to follow the Greek in art and science and in athletic sports. But as the Empire grew by leaps and bounds it developed into a military usurpation of nearly all Europe and a large portion of Africa. Athletics ceased to attract. Each year some successful commander returned from the scene of his victory, bringing into Rome prisoners of war by the thousands. These prisoners were given choice of slavery or enrollment in the gladiatorial ranks. The gladiators were brave men, hating slavery. They chose to die as gladiators whenever the depraved taste of the Romans called for an exhibition of their prowess…

“The Olympic Club has preserved the Greek ideal. Again and again efforts have been made to win the Club to other phases of athletics but unsuccessfully. So long as the Greek spirit is maintained in the Club its position in the hearts of the people where it holds sway will not change…”

1887 New York advertisement for Louis Tronchet

1887 New York advertisement for Louis Tronchet

In 1888, Harrison engaged the services of the New York-based maitre d’armes Louis Tronchet to serve as fencing master of the club’s gymnasium. Tronchet was an exponent of the French school of classical fencing, and had graduated from the military academy of Joinville-le-Pont at the head of his graduating class numbering six hundred.

According to his colleague (and occasional rival) Henri Ansot, Tronchet dismissed “wild fencing” in favor of “the more classic style of fencing,” which soon “took the supremacy, under his correct and graceful style of tuition.” This style had evidently served Tronchet well, for in 1887 he defeated the noted New York fencing master Regis Senac in a prominent contest at Cosmopolitan Hall, while adhering throughout to a “faultlessly classical position.”

Tronchet was also a known expert at French savate, and offered instruction in cane self-defense for use in the street. He was also familiar with the Italian style of fencing. Tronchet’s protege, Emilio Lastreto, described his master as a “classical swordsman” who had made a careful study of medieval and renaissance swordsmanship.


Emilio Lastreto

Lastreto himself, often described as Tronchet’s “best pupil,” would also become an important figure in the reconstruction of gladiatorial combat, assisting Tronchet in nearly every aspect of the event. According to John P. Young, Emilio Lastreto was was an American-born native of San Francisco, the son of Luigi Felix Lastreto and Charlotte (Parrain) Lastreto. The young Emilio would become a linguist, a writer, an interpreter of Shakespearean roles, and eventually engaged in more “different kinds of fencing than any other amateur in the West…In the early nineties he gave a series of exhibitions at the Olympic Club with Professor Tronchet.” Later in his career, Lastreto would be described as “a fencer of national reputation,” and would win for himself “a number of championship medals.”


Olympic Club president William Greer Harrison, in his writings, described California as “a land of romance,” with its very name “of romantic origin,” formerly connected with the chivalrous tales of the Spanish knight, Amadis of Gaul. Harrison regarded his adopted state as “another Italy,” which “exactly” fit the “Virgilian description of the old Italy.” What better place, then, for a recreation of ancient Rome?

Mechanic's Pavilion

Mechanic’s Pavilion

For the site of his revival, Harrison chose Mechanic’s Pavilion, the first major indoor arena to be built in San Francisco. Built in 1882 on Union Square, it was an impressive structure, described by a local guidebook as “one of the largest, if not the largest, wooden buildings now standing in America.” Covering two and one half acres of ground, and with a seating capacity of close to eleven thousand, the building was touted as the “Madison Square Garden of the West.” The building played host to everything from fairs, concerts, masquerade balls, political gatherings, “velocipede schools” and skating rinks. It was also the setting of prize fights involving noted pugilistic champions, including John L. Sullivan, and had hosted the famous mounted combat between the swordswoman Ella Hattan (“Jaguarina”) and Sergeant Owen Davis.


The organizers of the Circus Maximus, in refitting the Pavilion to resemble the original Coliseum, took great pains (and considerable cost) in their attention to detail, the final expenditure tallying close to twenty-thousand dollars. When interviewed about this process by the Call, Greer Harrison commented:

“The only thing that bothers me is that it is not the exact counterpart of the arena of the original Roman Coliseum. That was 300 feet long, whereas ours is only 290. If I had this to do all over again I’d have a regular Coliseum built straight from the ground and corresponding to the real one in every respect. But I guess it will do.”

The Call also noted that, “The roof of the coliseum being painted blue gives a very fair representation of an Italian sky, and when the whole 250 electric and the ten calcium lights are turned on, the spectator begins to wonder if it is not daylight after all.”

Interior of the Main Hall of the State Agricultural Pavillion, site of the Sacramento Circus Maximus

Interior of the Main Hall of the State Agricultural Pavillion, site of the Sacramento Circus Maximus



As previously stated, Louis Tronchet was given the task of reconstructing the gladiatorial combats that were to occur on foot, which would be performed by the Olympic Club fencers (combats on horseback, on the other hand, would be delegated to the expert riders of the Second United States Cavalry, Troop K, stationed at the nearby Presidio). For the Sacramento revival, gladiators would be portrayed by the fencers of the Sacramento Athletic Club. In January, a full three months before the event, the San Francisco Call noted that Tronchet was already busy training his team:

M. Tronchet, the fencing-master of the Olympic Cub, has already forty gladiators in training for the assault-at-arms…The combatants, distinguished by the color of their scarfs, will fight, to all appearances, to the death. As thrust and blow and parry are exchanged it is confidently expected that the interest of the spectator will rise with enthusiasm, particularly when victory inclines now to this side, now to that, white the ranks waver and reform and the gladiators, one after another, fall lifeless on the sand of the arena. (S.F. Call, 1/19/1893)


Maitre Tronchet and Lastreto with their San Francisco gladiators. Tronchet is kneeling on the left; Lastreto is standing behind him. Standing front and center (with shield) is Maestro Pietro Lanzilli.

The Sacramento

A photograph that includes some of the Sacramento gladiators

Jewish fencing instructor Arthur Kelter

Jewish fencing instructor Arthur Kelter

The Wave observed that Tronchet’s swordsmen “exhibit, already, decided cleverness and dexterity, and enter with zest into the rehearsals.” As the months passed, Tronchet would add additional members to his team, swelling the total number of gladiators to fifty-three; his meridiani alone would comprise forty-one fencers. The latter group also culled members from the nearby Italian Athletic Club on Bay Street, including one Maestro Pietro Lanzilli, a local Neapolitan fencing master, and graduate of both the Scuola Magistrale and Scuola Militare of Rome. Tronchet’s assistant, Alfred de Smet, and Jewish-American fencing professor (also gymnastic instructor at the Olympic Club, and a noted wrestler) Arthur Kelter would also eventually take part.


Above: The San Francisco gladiators

Above: The

Above: The Sacramento gladiators

Although the event was being billed as a “circus,” it was evident from the outset that the fencing would be anything but circus-like. Numerous references in journalistic accounts make it clear that historical authenticity was considered a priority in the realization of these combats. Tronchet, Lastreto, Greer, and the leadership of the Olympic Club were all learned men—some of them scholars—and the evidence suggests that they took their work very seriously, feeling that the real “magic” in these combats—and hence the attraction for the public—would be their degree of realism and authenticity. Although it was noted that Tronchet—already well-studied in medieval swordsmanship—was engaged in research to reproduce his combats as accurately as possible, accounts of the Roman revival never mention which sources he studied. However, in performing a bit of historical detective work, two particular sources seem likely.

desmetOf the three gladiator types selected by Tronchet for representation, one was the Meridianus, or Meridiani, an obscure, lesser-trained gladiator, destined to fight at noon, and similar in attire to the more well-known Samnite. The only original sources in which we have been able to find mention of the term Meridiani are the works of Seutonius, and Tertullian’s De Spectaculis, which describes many aspects of the gladiatorial games. Nineteenth century literature contains very few references to the Meridiani–with the exception of a few dictionaries, as well as Alexander Adam’s Roman Antiquities, Or An Account of the Manners and Customs of the Romans (1872). Knowing this fact, it seems obvious that Tronchet was either indeed researching ancient sources, or was studying some of the few rare books published in his century that referenced such sources.

A number of details indicate that, at least in some respects, Tronchet’s reconstruction of gladiatorial combat may have been (though it is difficult to say with certainty) more accurate than that which would later be attempted during the early twentieth century–first, by Maitre George Dubois, and afterwards, by Hollywood fencing masters for use in motion pictures. Unlike these later attempts, Tronchet’s retiarii used a seven-foot trident wielded like a polearm (rather than as a missile weapon), and hurled their nets completely at their opponent, rather than throwing them still in hand, and then retracting. Both aspects of Tronchet’s reconstruction were closer to historical reality.

Tronchet demonstrates two-handed defense with the cane

Tronchet demonstrating two-handed defense with the cane

In March of 1893, the San Francisco Call informed the public that,

The gladiatorial affairs of the arena are not being neglected. The practice in swinging the pike, the staff and the halberd and getting around lively in fluttering togas and flat-bottomed sandal, is going on in great style. How to handle a helmet, thrust on a gauntlet glove, whack off a man’s head and smile sweetly on a vestal virgin all in one round are being learned with that rapidity with which the Olympic Club boys can master anything from polo to Circus Maximuses, while other folks sit around and grumble at the kind of world it is, getting no real enjoyment out of life. (SF Call, 3/25/1893)


And again, in April:

Yesterday afternoon was devoted to perfecting the retiarii and myrmillones in their gladiatorial duties. Concerning this part of the entertainment it is pretty generally opined that some one is going to get hurt. The savage energy with which the retiarius usually prods at his enemy in this mimic contest bodes no good to the unlucky wight who fails to catch the blow on the apparently very small shield he carries to defend himself with. Taking it all round, though, it will be a most realistic contest… (SF Call, 4/17/1893)


Caesar’s Imperial chariot, the net and trident used by the Retiarii, shields, helmets, swords, and pieces of armor used by the Meridiani and Murmillones, javelins, and the cesti used in boxing.

Indeed, a number of accounts attest to the great attention to detail shown by the organizers with respect to both techniques, clothing, and weaponry. Outing Magazine noted that, “a complete array of Roman dresses, weapons, armor and chariots had to be provided, so that seven thousand dollars was spent in the purchase of properties.” Another article in The Wave observed: “One brilliant characteristic of the spectacle was the quality of the accessories. There was nothing pinchback about it…Togas are expensive luxuries, and so are helmets, tridents, and short swords, especially when they are compounded of veritable metal.” As the Argonaut of April 24 enthused,

The originality and effectiveness which mark the entire performance is not more remarkable than the exactness and precision with which the details have been arranged. The designing of the costumes must have been a tremendous labor. Every detail of the gladiators’ armament has been studied from pictures and sculptures, that no fault in the historical accuracy of their make-up might detract from the vivid realism of the scene. Mr. Harrison and the Olympic Club may congratulate themselves on the success of the venture. It was a credit to the managers, to the club, and to the city.


A report written prior to the Sacramento revival gives some insight into the training methods used by Tronchet and his captains:

The gladiators who are to slay each other in the arena of the colliseum were raining blows upon each others’ shields and armor, making such a racket that people on the street thought a new boiler shop had been started up. Wooden swords are being used at present to prevent accidents, but when the show takes place and the men become proficient with their weapons, the regulation heavy steel short-sword will be used. The net and trident retiarii and myrmillones were also at practice under the direction of their Captain, Charles Gorman. They are becoming very clever at throwing the net, handling the “fork” and also the sword. The javelin-throwers were “plugging” at a bale of hay for exercise, the discus-throwers were also hard at work, and here and there could be seen the wrestlers, boxers, runners leapers and others all at work. (S.D.U., 8/11/1893).

In looking at numerous accounts of both the training leading up to the event, and the actual combats themselves, it is clear that the gladiators used a combination of rigorously rehearsed techniques, as well as improvisation. The Annals of the Olympic Club recounted that Tronchet and Lastreto “rehearsed a series of 240 moves for three months; yet their combat had all the thrill of an impromptu bout.” In fact, despite such careful rehearsal, a number of unexpected accidents (such as weapons breaking in the midst of combat) would require the gladiators to improvise to a great degree, and the record shows that the audience was quite impressed by the skill and techniques demonstrated in these improvisations.



As April 17th finally arrived, thousands of spectators packed Mechanic’s Pavilion, which had been transformed into a near-perfect replica of a Roman Circus Maximus. One attending journalist noted the strange contrast between some of the 19th century spectators and the participants attired in the style of ancient Rome:

A young lady in leg-o’-mutton sleeves, a revived form of poke bonnet, parted hair, small waist, white gloves scented with a cunningly compounded perfume of orris and violet, looking through a lorgnette at a gladiator, armed with a small shield and flat short-sword, whacking and jabbing at a pikeman with a trident and a net, is a sight not usually to be met with even at a century end which, for lack of novelty, has to resuscitate old fashions of dress and old forms of Roman holiday sports. But in the arena itself there was no inappropriate intrusion of the nineteenth century. Here was Rome, and Rome enough…upon the sand and the sawdust, Caesar’s loyal subjects, and thirsty henchmen, and captives, and slaves, danced, and fought, and triumphed, and died as became Romans and Romans’ captives in the brave days of old.


After a Grand March, and huge parade and display of pageantry, the various combatants gathered before Caesar:

SFCall-4-11-1893The gathering and grouping of the gladiators has been taken from Gerome’s famous picture of this awful moment, when, with swords, and pikes, and tridents uplifted, the brawny captives — men of iron muscle and superb physique — make their gruesome salutation to the emperor: “Hail Caesar, those about to die, salute thee!” …The throng of gladiators, with their round iron helmets, their strange armor, their three-pronged tridents, short broadswords, and long pikes, their upraised, muscular arms, their strong, athletic figures, are a wonderfully accurate copy of the group in Gerome’s painting. As one looked at them, the sharp ends of pikes and tridents splintering the light, the melancholy refrain, “Morituri te Salutant,” dying away in the high tones of a tenor voice, one could not but be struck by the careful realism of the scene. No tableau could have been more artistically planned, more accurately carried out. The spectator, seeing real gladiators greeting the emperor with the famous salutation, could, for the first time, realize what this scene must have been. (The Argonaut, April 24, 1893)

Ave Caesar Morituri te Salutant, by Jean-Léon Gérôme (1859)

Ave Caesar Morituri te Salutant, by Jean-Léon Gérôme (1859)

Outing Magazine noted that,

The gladiators were followed by the president of the club [William Greer Harisson], as Magister Arena, with a staff in his hand. Under his direction they grouped themselves in front of the Emperor’s box and sang the Ode of the Gladiators, written expressly for the club by Mrs. Douglas Adam. It consisted of four stanzas, entitled, Salutation, Life, Love and Fate. Each stanza ended with the pathetic words, Morituri te salutant-“those about to die salute thee!” Singers stationed at either end of the arena echoed the refrain in a very effective manner.

The gladiators’ “ode,” written “expressly for the occasion” by Mrs. Douglas Adam, was set to music by opera director W. H. Kinross. The lyrics were printed in their entirety in the August 14, 1893 issue of the Sacramento Record Union, and are shown below:



The forty-one Meridiani were the first to fight. Outing described the combatants thus:

The Meridiani were a kind of light-armed gladiators who fought in the Roman arena at midday, after the conclusion of the combats with wild beasts. They wore simple tunics and no body armor, carrying only a round buckler, a helmet with a visor and a short sword.


Painting of the 1893 Circus Maximus for Outing Magazine

The combat between the Meridiani was a massive spectacle, a full-scale battle pitting twenty gladiators versus another twenty. It was described by the Call as a “general slaughter,” and by Outing as “a clash of sword on buckler.” As the gladiators paired off, one was slain after the other, until only two remained:

C. A. Strobel

The single combat between the captains of the two bodies of meridiani was one of the grandest spectacles ever witnessed. C A. Strobel and I. F. Morris were the performers. They fought as though their lives were really at stake, and the killing was enacted in such a manner as to simply stagger the spectators. They battled desperately until both had lost their helmets and shields, and then one broke the other’s sword by a vicious blow. This left the disarmed fighter at his opponent’s mercy and the latter was not slow to take advantage of it, for he plunged his sword into the other’s breast cruelly. (SDU, 9/18/1893)

Detail of Meridiani, from Outing Magazine

Detail of Meridiani, from Outing Magazine


Outing Magazine explained:

This agreeable interlude was succeeded by boxers using the cestus, a terrible weapon, consisting of a series of thongs bound round the wrist and hands, and rendered heavy and dangerous by the addition of bosses of metal.

The Call noted, however, that “the ‘cestus’ instead of being of any hard material will merely be of rubber.”

On alternate evenings the Pancratium, or Greek contest of boxing and wrestling combined, was exhibited. This was a most deadly combat, in which every kind of violence, except biting and kicking, was permissible.

The Argonaut included the best description of the mounted combat:

SFCall-4-27-1893Six horses from the Presidio, mounted by six gallant soldier boys, rouse a storm of applause by a gladiatorial combat. Three go to one end of the arena, three to the other. The herald blows a clear, long blast on his trumpet, and away, like a tempest, scattering the dust and sand, go the horsemen, to meet in mid-arena with a clash of sword striking on shield. The fight is fast and furious, the unsaddled horses, plunging and rearing, unseat their riders, and the brave barbarians from the Danube’s reedy shores bite the dust. The short-swords flash in the light that pours in slantwise over the edge of the awning, and all Rome gives forth a joyous cry to see the red blood flow.

Such combats were not without their dangers, as the Chronicle noted that on the night of the 19th, a horseman “did a backfall” landing in the arena hard enough “to split open his sheet-iron vest.”

On the 21st, the Chronicle also reported that, “Before the grand climax, two of the gladiators removed their helmets and fought with clubs wielded in both hands. Just what the combat is styled is not on the programme…” 



Outing recounted this combat as follows:

Glad_Retarius_2-19-1893_SFChronAfter the mounted contests came the combat between the Retiarii and the Mirmillones. This combat was exceedingly popular among the spectators at the Circus or Amphitheater of Imperial Rome. The Retiarius wore a helmet, but no body-armor; he carried in his right hand a trident, and in his left the rete, or net, from which he took his name. His object was to entangle his adversary in the folds of his net, and, before he could extricate himself, to pierce him with the prongs of his trident. The Mirmillo, who was commonly opposed to the Retiarius, wore greaves, a breastplate, a helmet provided with a visor, and a metal or leathern sheath upon his right arm.

In his hand he carried a short sword. If the Retiarius made a bad or unsuccessful cast with the net, he ran off pursued round the arena by the Mirmillo (who was also called a Secutor, or pursuer), and tried to gather up his net for a fresh cast. I do not know what the result of the combats between Retiarii and Mirmillones usually was in the Roman amphitheater, but at the Olympic reproduction, the Retiarius almost invariably succeeded in keeping off his adversary, whom he finally enmeshed and dispatched.

The Mirmillones wore a Gallic helmet, with the figure of a fish as a crest, and are supposed to have been originally Gauls.

The Call further described the tactics used by the opposing sides:

Tronchet's "Myrmillone" pictured in the S.F. Chronicle

Tronchet’s “Myrmillone” pictured in the S.F. Chronicle

The retiarius, armed with net and helmet, endeavors to entrap his adversary with the former, either by flinging it over his head or wrapping it round his legs, the while he jabs at him with the trident. The smaller and supposedly more active myrmillon has all his work cut out to spring and duck out of the way of the net, his object being to seize a favorable moment to run in and stab his opponent, the trident being an awkward weapon to guard with. Soon all lay dead save two, and these engaged in desperate conflict, so realistic was the scene that when the vanquished felt the fatal thrust and uttered a choking gurgle as he fell, one lady in the large audience fainted. She soon recovered, happily. Meanwhile the victor, placing his foot upon his prostrate foe, looked up at the Emperor’s box. In an instant all the women thrust their hinds out, thumbs downward. Pollice verso! So the victim was given the coup de grace and sent to his long home. Vae victis!  (S.F. Call, 4/18/1893)

Another account mentions the occurrence of an accident between two fencers that gave rise to a dramatic and successful improvisation:

Charles Gorman

Charles F. Gorman

The gladiatorial contests were given in a most realistic manner—one in particular between a net and trident man against a myrmillone. In this case the retiari’s trident was cut in twain by his opponent, but he continued to fight desperately with the stump of his weapon until he was finally exhausted and then slain. These characters were enacted by Charles Gorman and John Berger. (Sacramento Daily Union, 9/14/1893)




Tronchet, as a Murmillone

The gladiatorial portion of the event was concluded with a single combat between the two leaders of the Murmillones, Tronchet and Lastreto–the very combat for which they had rehearsed “a series of 240 moves” over a period of three months. Somewhat shockingly, several reports indicate that the men were using sharp blades. The San Francisco Chronicle recounted:

They fought with the sharpest of swords, and had they not been extremely quick and scientific in their guarding and attacks, one or the other might have been seriously injured at any time. It was by far the most realistic performance in the great show.

While the use of sharps may seem shocking or foolhardy to a modern reader, the evidence indicates that Tronchet and Lastreto had done as much before, holding fencing demonstrations before large audiences, while each wielding a sharp épée de combat. One particular reason for their use of sharps in the Circus Maximus may have been for the execution of a theatrical effect used to conclude the combat: hidden on one of the men was a specially concealed bladder filled with fake blood, that would burst upon being pierced.

The most detailed account of this combat was committed to print that September, when Tronchet and Lastreto reprised their combat for the opening of the Sacramento Circus Maximus:

Emilio Lastreto (on left)

Tronchet and Lastreto repeated their single short-sword combat, and worked the audience up to a high pitch of excitement. This is one of the most interesting and realistic performances ever witnessed in Sacramento, and gives the audience something of an idea of what the ancients considered sport. The men appear to fight desperately, and it seems as if only the dextrous parrying with shield and sword saves their lives dozens of times. But presently one is seen to tire. His blows become weaker, while those of his opponent come thicker and faster, staggering him. The doomed man defends himself feebly, but finally drops his hands, the other gladiator instantly stabs him in the breast. Blood begins to flow down the man’s body, and those of the audience who had been wearing smiles (so sure were they that only a show was going on) began to look serious. Another cruel cut over the heart and the gladiator falls, while the victor places his foot upon the prostrate form and salutes the Emperor. (SDU – 9/9/1893)

At one San Francisco performance, the fight between Tronchet and Lastreto–and its “bloody” effects–were so vivid that a journalist noted:

“In the last gladiatorial fight to a finish, it was so realistic that when the warrior fell and theatrical blood was seen on his body a woman screamed, and Mr. Harrison had to make him get up and bow to show that he was not dead.” (S. F. Call, April 19, 1893)

"Caesar, Livia, and Page." From the Sacramento Programme.

“Caesar, Livia, and Page.” From the Sacramento Programme.


In later years, the Olympic Club Annals noted that the Circus Maximus was “the most notable event in which the fencers of the club ever participated.” Despite this fact, and the event’s immense popularity, the Circus was ultimately a financial failure–owing, no doubt, to the incredible expense incurred by its production. As a result, in the months following the event, club President William Greer Harrison resigned his position. However, the respect he commanded among club members continued to endure, and in 1899, bowing to popular demand, he ran and was once again elected as President of the Olympic Club.  Also, despite its financial failure, the Roman revival would long live revered in the memory of San Franciscans. More than thirty years later, one former spectator reminisced:

“Do you remember the Circus Maximus? Say, that was one of the greatest sports events ever staged, bar none. Some day, you want to look up old-time records and newspapers and read how a week-long carnival of sports was held in San Francisco. Every sport, boxing, wrestling, running, field athletics and others was represented. The event was a wow! Too bad we have nothing like it now.” (The Olympian, September 1925)


Gladiatorial reconstruction in Italy. From “La Scherma Attraverso i Secoli,” Milan, 1905.

In the subsequent decades, other individuals such as Maitre George Dubois, Milan fencing masters, and Hollywood fight choreographers would attempt to reconstruct ancient gladiatorial combat as well–though none, perhaps, in such a grandiose manner as executed by Tronchet and the Olympic Club fencers. Later in life, Emilio Lastreto himself fondly summarized his memories of the grand event:

Lastreto, in later years

Emilio Lastreto, in later years

More picturesque than [all other events], was the occasion of the reproduction of the Circus Maximus, under the direction of Mr. William Greer Harrison, as president of the Olympic Club, when the combats between the short-sword and buckler fighters, and also “the net and trident men,” or “retiarii” were fought with almost perfect realism.

And thereby was it demonstrated that these athletes who had made a careful study of the foils had thereby become able swordsmen of the ponderous muscle-requiring styles of Rome and of the lighter and more dexterous schools of the Middle Ages, and these fencers won more glory for the Olympic Club in those two memorable weeks in April, 1893, in the old Mechanics’ Pavilion, than did the crack athletes of any of the other branches of sports. And thus will it ever be, for, in all the realms of athletics, swordsmanship is the nonpareil.



Theodore F. Bonnet, Annals of the Olympic Club, San Francisco (San Francisco: Printed by the F.H. Abbott Co., 1914).

William Greer Harrison, “The Spirit of the Club” in The Olympian, March, 1914.

Emilio Lastreto, “Fencing,” in The Making of a Man (San Francisco: H.S. Crocker, 1915).

Official Programme. The Olympic Club Fair and Circus Maximus; revival of ancient Graeco-Roman games, Caesar’s Court, a Roman holiday, to be produced and the fair held in the new Olympic Club building, on Post Street, from Monday, April seventeenth to Saturday, April twenty-second, MDCCCXCIII [San Francisco, 1893].

Official Programme. The circus maximus of Caesar Augustus, reproduced by the Sacramento Athletic Club at the California State Fair, Sept. 4th to Sept. 16th, 1893 [Sacramento, Calif., 1893].

H. Ansot, “The Metamorphosis of Fencing” in Overland Monthly and Out West Magazine, Volume 24, Issue 144, December 1894.

Arthur Inkersley, “Græco-Roman Games in California,” in Outing Magazine, February, 1895, 409-416.

John P. Young, Journalism in California (San Francisco: Chronicle Publishing Co., 1915).

San Francisco Daily Call.

San Francisco Chronicle.

Sacramento Daily Union.

The Argonaut.

The Olympian.

The Wave.

Ben Miller, “Classical Fencing Defeats “Wild and Irregular” Fencing: The Tronchet-Senac Contest of 1887,”, May 31, 2016.

Ben Miller, “A History of Cane Self-Defense in America: 1798-1930,”, August 16, 2016.


Benjamin Franklin’s Madness-Inducing Machine

In Bizarre and Unusual, Colonial (American) Period, The Arts on February 10, 2010 at 2:08 am

In 1761, Benjamin Franklin unveiled a new musical instrument the like of which few Americans had ever seen. The genesis of Franklin’s invention took place several years earlier, during one of his visits to England. After seeing a performer play water-filled wine glasses with moistened fingers, Franklin rethought the instrument and invented a new version, consisting of 37 bowls mounted on an iron axis. Franklin’s design notably improved upon previous versions in the sense that it was possible to play ten glasses, and hence ten notes, simultaneously. This machine Franklin dubbed the “armonica,” or glass harmonica.


Franklin’s instrument was popular in its day, and was played by celebrities such as Marie Antionette and Franz Mesmer, the founder of mesmerism. At this time, legends began to arise pertaining to its power to affect the mental state of those who heard its dulcet, ethereal tones. An early medical book stated that listening to the sounds produced by the glasses was “sure to cure certain maladies of the blood”. In the spring of 1772, Franklin visited Prince Adam Czartoryski, heir to the throne of Poland, whose wife had been afflicted by ‘melancholia.’ Her account relates:

“I was ill, in a state of melancholia, and writing my testament and farewell letters. Wishing to distract me, my husband explained to me who Franklin was and to what he owed his fame… Franklin had a noble face with an expression of engaging kindness. Surprised by my immobility, he took my hands and gazed at me saying: pauvre jeune femme [“poor young lady”]. He then opened an armonica, sat down and played long. The music made a strong impression on me and tears began flowing from my eyes. Then Franklin sat by my side and looking with compassion said, “Madam, you are cured.” Indeed in that moment I was cured of my melancholia. Franklin offered to teach me how to play the armonica — I accepted without hesitation, hence he gave me twelve lessons.”

Several years later, the Prince’s unfortunate wife relapsed. Legends of the instrument’s healing powers continued, however. Between 1778 and 1779, an army surgeon paid a visit to Mesmer’s clinic for treatment of the gout. A witness described what happened next:

“After several turns around the room, Mr. Mesmer unbuttoned the patient’s shirt and, moving back somewhat, placed his finger against the part affected. My friend felt a tickling pain. Mr. Mesmer then moved his finger perpendicularly across his abdomen and chest, and the pain followed the finger exactly. He then asked the patient to extend his index finger and pointed his own finger toward it at a distance of three or four steps, whereupon my friend felt an electric tingling at the tip of his finger, which penetrated the whole finger toward the palm. Mr. Mesmer then seated him near the armonica; he had hardly begun to play when my friend was affected emotionally, trembled, lost his breath, changed color, and felt pulled toward the floor. In this state of anxiety, Mr. Mesmer placed him on a couch so that he was in less danger of falling, and he brought in a maid who he said was antimagnetic. When her hand approached my friend’s chest, everything stopped with lightning speed, and my colleague touched and examined his stomach with astonishment…. The sharp pain had suddenly ceased. Mr. Mesmer told us that a dog or a cat would have stopped the pain as well as the maid did.”


Such popularity was not to last. The armonica eventually sank into obscurity after rumors arose that the music produced by the machine induced madness in those who heard it. In 1798 Friedrich Rochlitz wrote,

“There may be various reasons for the scarcity of armonica players, principally the almost universally shared opinion that playing it is damaging to the health, that it excessively stimulates the nerves, plunges the player into a nagging depression and hence into a dark and melancholy mood, that it is an apt method for slow self-annihilation… Many (physicians with whom I have discussed this matter) say the sharp penetrating tone runs like a spark through the entire nervous system, forcibly shaking it up and causing nervous disorders.”

He goes on to give some warnings:

“If you are suffering from any nervous disorder you should not play it,
If you are not yet ill you should not play it excessively
If you are feeling melancholy you should not play it or else play uplifting pieces
If tired, avoid playing it late at night.”

Armonica 2

J.C. Muller warned in his instructional manual of 1788:

“If you have been upset by harmful novels, false friends, or perhaps a deceiving girl then abstain from playing the armonica — it will only upset you even more. There are people of this kind — of both sexes — who must be advised not to study the instrument, in order that their state of mind should not be aggravated.”

J.M. Roger’s Treatise on the Effects of Music on the Human Body (Paris, 1803) describes the melancholic timbre of the instrument as “plunging us into a profound detachment, relaxing all the nerves of the body”, while the author Chateaubriand writes of the musical glass that “the ear of a mortal can perceive in its plaintive tones the echoes of a divine harmony.”

When rumor began to spread that such maladies could be attributed to the instrument, panic erupted. The instrument was blamed for domestic disputes, premature births, even convulsions in dogs and cats. The instrument soon fell out of favor and was forgotten by all but a sundry few.

Listening to the modern French artist Thomas Bloch play Franklin’s instrument, it is not difficult to understand why early Americans might think that such music could cause insanity:

For more information, check out the primary source for this blog post, William Zeitler’s amazing site:

And if you enjoyed this post, and all things historically fascinating, you may also enjoy

The Victorian Gentleman’s Self-Defense Toolkit.