Reviled as Man, Revered as Monster
by Jeffrey Dane
He precipitated the creation of a kind of historical petri dish in
culture for a desire for justice grew and flourished in the United
During his life he was alternately hated and revered, even by his own
countrymen: worshipped as a national hero by some, by others considered
abomination. He erected statues of himself in his own country, but not
Despite losing his left leg below the knee, he remained a strutting
with a Napoleonic power complex, prompting some to refer to him
"The Immortal Three-Fourths." He was vain enough to have his
placed in a crystal reliquary and interred in a gilded monument, that
be worshipped by others. At times cowardly, at others almost recklessly
brave, he reinforced his courage with opium.
Said to be a scoundrel, gambler, womanizer and lecher, conceited,
shrewd and conniving, he was also unprincipled and an opportunist.
after his wife died (he was nearly 50), he married a 15-year-old girl.
Different sources give conflicting data about the year of his birth.
A man of contradictions, complexities and paradoxes, in keeping with
magnitude of his most infamous deed, he could also be compassionate and
magnanimous. Like us, he had a full set of human weaknesses, which make
him more, not
less, of a human being. Erect of bearing, he could make an imposing
and he had that elusive quality of charisma, a trait impossible to
define, extremely difficult to explain, and hopeless to imitate - but
very easy to
With little formal education (he bragged he'd read only one book), he
eventually arrived, before he was 40, at the pinnacle he sought. His
bestrewn with treachery and betrayal of friends and causes for his own
advancement. Beneath the vanity and egotism, there was an underlying
desire to serve
An eyewitness described him in his 40s: ". . . a melancholy appearance,
decidedly the best-looking and most interesting figure in the group . .
. of sallow
complexion, fine dark eyes, soft and penetrating, an interesting
of face . . . Knowing nothing of his past history, one would have
thought him a
philosopher, living in dignified retirement . . . a veritable riddle in
character . . . How frequently this look of philosophic resignation, of
sadness, is seen on the countenances of the most cunning, ambitious,
most dangerous men . . . quiet and gentlemanly in his manners, yet here
he, with this air de philosophé, perhaps one of the worst men in
ambitious of power, greedy of money, and unprincipled, having feathered
at the expense of others. . ."
In the era of quills and inkwells, before the railroad, the revolver,
Industrial Revolution, and arts, sciences and entities we now take for
his personal traveling accouterments included silver teapots and cream
pitchers, monogrammed china, crystal glasses and decanters with gold
sheets and undergarments, and costly diamond studs. One of his coats
nearly 20 pounds, laden with enough silver for a set of spoons. Today
some of his
personal effects are displayed in a museum fittingly devoted to the
those he destroyed.
Washington was not yet our nation's capitol; France was in its Reign of
Terror; Beethoven was making his mark in Vienna; Bach was decades dead
was decades ahead. This was the age into which this man was born.
Unfortunately, the conduct of his own life and career reflects his
participation in the
darkest sides of the Age of Enlightenment.
Some, from heads of state to heads of companies, are drawn more to evil
to good. "Power corrupts" is a concept which manifests itself as an
unfortunate feature of many in positions of authority and influence. In
him, it found
its most worthy model. In his youth, his worship of his mentor
savage methods of the worst traits in his own character. Karl Marx
Some of us experiment with questionable practice at some point in our
usually in youth, and then outgrow it. Not this man. He made it a
his life. Paradoxically, his namesake is a significant saint, and his
named after him, became a Jesuit priest and lived into the sixth decade
Van Gogh's "Sunflowers." Brahms' "Lullaby." Dante's "Inferno." Da
"Mona Lisa." Michelangelo's "Moses." Tolstoy's "War and Peace," etc.,
infinitum. Mention now this man's name, and what invariably comes to
mind is one
infamous episode with which his name has become fused.
He became anathema to Americans after a now-historic incident, familiar
all of us, in which he was responsible for the death of scores of
were then living in his own country. Though only a couple of them were
famous, all of them became martyrs.
His name has become indelibly linked with that occurrence, which was
the greatest single traumatic event in our country's early culture
first presidential assassination. We tend to invest martyrs with
heroes with martyrdom: those who left life prematurely, at whatever
the most intriguing conjectures.
To call it an event would be understatement epitomized. One of the most
significant and tragic of any era, the incident soon reached iconic
status in the
annals of American history, and has since literally become, in a word,
legendary. So complete is his identification with that tragedy that he
almost synonymous with it (with the appropriate negative connotation),
very mention of his name even today calls to mind that occasion and its
and extensive aftermath. We remember him more for that one incident
anything else, bad or good, in which he was involved during his
"The only thing we learn from history is that we do not learn." Thus
Chief Justice Earl Warren at the time of JFK's assassination. His
remark has an
application to what had transpired over a century earlier. The man
for that catastrophe and the ultimate martyrdom of those people
blunder which in its stupidity rivals that of the Stamp Act years
now remembered, and was even admired by some, for his despicability.
Wheels turn. Within weeks he was bested by a man after whom a large
city was later named. It's said that the tyrant might not have been
he not been "otherwise engaged" with a young servant girl, about whom a
popular song was later written. Even today a hotel named for her is
literally across the street from the site where that historic tragedy
Though he lived well into the photography era, he outlived most of his
counterparts and all those he vanquished in that notorious tragedy.
were never photographed: They all perished literally a few years before
advent of the camera. Americans saw the event as a massacre. He called
victory, saying, "It was but a small affair." Replied a colleague,
'victory' and we are ruined."
On his first visit to America he spent some time in Washington, DC,
conferring with our then-president. His second American stay, in exile
30 years later,
began in New Jersey when "Abraham Baez, a Jew, conducted me to his
Elizabeth Port," he wrote in his autobiography. That his ship docked
have prompted later contradictions about whether he actually lived in
state, and other factors compounded the confusion.
In his native country he had befriended a Hungarian who in New York
him to spend some time on Staten Island, where ". . . I had Baez rent
furnished house in New York." He's said to have operated a grocery and
store for a time, living first on St.Mark's Place and later at West New
on Manor Road, both on Staten Island. One source claims he had a
cock-fights and three-card monte, in keeping with his gambling
About his Hungarian friend, he later wrote, "He, with some other
deceived and robbed me" - a very determined accusation, considering
himself had done to others throughout his life.
It takes little imagination to envision him limping along Manhattan's
Square one day and entering a portrait studio to have his picture
photographic image of him made that day ultimately found its way to the
of Congress. It is a Carte de Visite portrait, dated 1866-1867 and made
Rockwood photographic studio, current during the 1860s & 1870s, and
located at 17 Union Square West in Manhattan.
According to tradition he was instrumental in introducing to the
public a popular habit, to the ultimate delight of youngsters and to
consternation of parents and teachers. He had brought with him a
chicle, which produced a whitish fluid. He told a group of businessmen,
you cure this liquid, it hardens and assumes a chewy character," adding
mixing it with sugar and mint gave it a sensational taste.
He had meanwhile hired a secretary and interpreter named James Adams
sources say Thomas Adams), who lived in Elizabeth Port. Adams saw how
employer enjoyed chewing the stuff and asked him about it. When the old
man, now in
his 70s, left for his native land, he gave Adams what remained of the
Adams soon experimented and eventually founded his own firm. Even today
confection has its own modern counterpart: the popular chewing gum
for decades made by The Adams Chewing Gum Co., takes its name from the
the old man had brought with him. Interestingly, the product
today in the USA is now manufactured in his native country.
Legend has it that he ultimately escaped from New York concealed in a
In and out of favor during the last three decades of his life, he spent
literally declining years in failing health, approaching senility and
blind. His compulsion to address the masses never left him, and what's
to us is the pathetic scene of his wife paying the indigent to listen
speak, and then pretend to cheer.
He lived into his 80s, dying infirm, in poverty and virtually unnoticed
Mexico City on June 21, 1876. Buried at Tepeyac Cemetery, near
Hidalgo, he survived by four decades those he had destroyed at dawn on
6, 1836 at the Alamo in San Antonio, Texas.
The obvious, by its nature, can easily escape our attention, so it may
worth noting that Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna y Peréz de
Lebrón was as alive then
as we are today.
Copyright © 2004 Jeffrey Dane
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( Author's Bio ) :
JEFFREY DANE is a historian, researcher and author whose work is
the USA and abroad in several languages, on subjects ranging from
George Washington, and from antiques to the Alamo. He was asked to
Foreward for "The Alamo Story: From Early History to Current Conflicts"
historian J.R. Edmondson (Republic of Texas Press, Plano, TX,
Feb.2000), and he has
contributed to several other books, including "Leonard Bernstein - A
Meryle Secrest (Alfred Knopf, New York, 1994).
If he could personally experience only one event in the entire recent
history of the United States, it would
be the siege and fall of the Alamo - ". . . but only as an 'observer,'
not as a participant."