This will sound familiar…

This letter in the New York Times from 1906 was found by Thomas Lawson. I’d kind of like to see the previous letter that prompted it — it seems that men have been denying sexism for over a century.



The “Caruso incident” was almost certainly the Monkey House Incident, in which Enrico Caruso was arrested for wandering about in the New York Zoo, fondling women, including one Hannah Graham.

On the one hand, the incident triggered a public discussion about the daily harassment of women in New York. When a man wrote in to the New York Times to say he had never seen any improper treatment of women in public places in New York, numerous women quickly responded with assertions to the contrary. Typical were letters claiming that inappropriate behavior by well-dressed men was far from unusual and praising the police prosecution of the case. According to one letter about harassment on elevated trains, “these detestable practices do not seem to be confined to any particular line of cars nor any one class of men.”

On the other hand, few who were concerned about women’s virtue and security were likely to be comforted by the legal proceedings. For one thing, the charge against Caruso was not personal assault but rather disorderly conduct, which was only a defense of women in an indirect way. For another, part of Caruso’s defense strategy was to impugn Hannah Graham’s character as a virtuous, “respectable” woman, asserting that, whoever the woman was, she had initiated contact with Caruso with a flirtatious glance. Such a strategy only confirmed women’s fears about the hazards of taking legal action against a harasser. Finally and most importantly, Cain’s testimony that he watched Caruso commit four incidents of harassment before he could intervene would have reassured no one. If his was a battle for the protection of women, the results suggest a Pyrrhic victory.

By the way, the case was a complicated mess, tangled by casual anti-Italian bigotry and the reluctance of the victim to step forward and be slimed. Caruso was convicted, fined $10, and went on to popular acclaim at the opera, despite being an ass.

So did Caruso do it? Did he molest the woman who called herself Hannah Graham—or anyone else in the Monkey House that day? As problematic as the case against him was, and as suggestive as the claims of police blackmail, circumstantial evidence suggests that this kind of behavior toward women might not have been out of character for Caruso. A 1903 newspaper profile remarked that Caruso’s first love was garlic, and his second was young American women. A 1905 article noted, “Right here it might be apropos to chronicle that Signor Caruso likes our American oysters.… And the American women!… Same as the oysters. Loves ’em.” Then, a 1906 profile focused on Caruso’s playful penchant for chasing women, which included running around backstage at the Metropolitan Opera. “It is said that you kiss all the beautiful girls that let you!” the reporter said to Caruso. “‘I kiss the homely ones, too,’ he replied, ‘to do penance.’” The lighthearted report concluded, “He runs after Nordica, Fremstad, Marion Weed, at rehearsals, and behind the scenes at plays. He tries to kiss them, but they do not let him.” These accounts probably have as much to do with the emerging emphasis on male opera stars as with Caruso’s behavior, but they do cast the entire incident in a slightly different light.

Ick. A “light-hearted report” about a man blithely violating women’s spaces.


  1. Illuminata, Genie in the Beer Bottle says

    Well, how about that. Proof that evolution is a lie! if you’re a sexist, or sexual assaulter. Cuz dudes now sound just like Mr. Walker then, just less verbose. Sometimes.

  2. The Mellow Monkey says

    That’s what women get for having eyes and being out in public, amiright?


  3. Beatrice says

    Now that I think about it, (accidentally) making eye contact can get you an annoying shadow quite easily. I am hoping though, that it wouldn’t pass as a defense in court these days.

  4. Esteleth, Ultra-PC Feminist Harpy Out To Destroy Secularism says

    When I read that letter, all I could think of is that with some slight modernization of language (including, perhaps, replacing her reference to reading the paper to paying attention to her phone and/or wearing headphones), that letter could so easily be about events today.

  5. Beatrice says

    If seeing a woman’s eyes makes men do bad things they wouldn’t do otherwise, I have a few suggestions for them and they don’t include me staring at my shoes timidly (not that it helps, since a timid woman can be assumed to be timid because she wants the man to pursue her more actively).

    You [general female human you] just never win.

  6. profpedant says

    “I’d kind of like to see the previous letter that prompted it — it seems that men have been denying sexism for over a century.”

    Voicing a request for information within the hearing of a librarian is sort of like King Henry saying “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?”.

    Here you go:

    “Police the Real Culprits”

  7. jnorris says

    she had initiated contact with Caruso with a flirtatious glance.

    Do we know if she was a pretty bread-and-butter miss? And what an interesting phrase that is.

    Too bad these women were never taught and encouraged to use a solid jab with the knee to what would probably be a small useless organ.

  8. Beatrice says

    Too bad these women were never taught and encouraged to use a solid jab with the knee to what would probably be a small useless organ.


    Too bad those men were never taught and encouraged not to harass women.

    Too bad you can’t find a better insult than “you have a small cock, har har”.

  9. Scr... Archivist says

    Looking at related coverage in the New York Times in late November 1906, I found some interesting articles. The city’s Third Deputy Police Commissioner James L. Mathot told reporters on November 26 that…

    “…a Bishop, clergymen, a priest, lawyers, musicians, actors, managers, and other men of business prominence and high social position have been caught doing very much the same thing that Caruso did.”

    Caruso groped a woman in Central Park.

    “It has always been the policy of the Police Department to have as little publicity about such cases as possible. Our experience has been that women will not appear as complainants in cases of this sort except in rare instances. It has been proved time and again that it is better to keep such cases quiet and hold over the offender a threat of publicity if he transgresses again. That is the most effective manner of keeping these perverts from offending. All the fines in the world would not have the effect that a threat of exposure has on a man of high standing.”

    See “Mr. Mathot’s Remarkable Statement”, November 28, 1906.

    So why not expose them in the first place?

    Unfortunately, keeping it quiet allowed these people to continue to be respected. I wonder what the effect on the clergy (in particular) would have been later in the century if normal legal proceedings had been used in the nineteen-aughts. It’s difficult to read these articles from our perspective a century on without wondering if there was a bigger story there, and how it might have changed things if it had been reported.

    Meanwhile, it gets even worse because the police could then be accused of corruption, as we see in Albert Walker’s comments. Those fines are about $250 in today’s dollars. The police should have just treated those arrested men the same as any others, a much better deterrent.

    Mathot was forced to resign less than two weeks later. I have to wonder if he was covering up corruption in the NYPD, or was a ham-fisted whistle-blower about sexual harassment in New York Society.

    What’s more, all this political and legal conflict buries the common situation that women such as “Long Suffering” faced then, and continue to face today.

  10. Sven says

    ‘I am innocent! Her glance made me do it!’
    This is every bit as silly as ‘the devil made me do it’. Probably sillier, since nobody is claiming that women have supernatural powers.

  11. Gnumann+, Radfem shotgunner of inhuman concepts says

    Probably sillier, since nobody is claiming that women have supernatural powers.

    Arabic folklore (and quite possibly the Quran, I never can remember which is which) disagrees.

  12. Wowbagger, Designated Snarker says

    Yeah, but but but we live in a post-sexist society! That stuff never happens anymore, ever ever ever ever!!!1!!

    Related: If you’re on Twitter, follow EverydaySexism. It’s a (sickening) eye-opener.

  13. psocoptera says

    Mr. Walker clearly had poor observational skills, but he may not have been wrong about the arrest being a shakedown. The best way to get a bribe is to actually catch someone breaking the law, and the New York police department was extremely skilled at collecting bribes around the turn of the century. Teddy Roosevelt made a passing attempt at reform while he was a police commissioner, but they apparently when right back to a system of graft and bribes after he left.

  14. says

    Arabic folklore (and quite possibly the Quran, I never can remember which is which) disagrees.

    I’m pretty sure witches and the evil eye exist in many different cultures, including pre-Industrial Britain.

  15. says

    Dear Turkish Lady of the Gentle Sex,

    It is with deep regret that I observe the Oriental Man confining you to the Harem, compelling you to attire yourself in the Niqaab on pain of Death, subjecting you to thrashings on a daily basis as prescribed by the false prophet Mahomet in your heathen Scripture, and forcibly depriving you of the womanly rights which are assigned to you under the Civilizing Influence of Christendom. However, consider the Plight of your American Sisters.

    Are you aware that at this very moment, American women, who are entitled to own property and manage businesses, are free to travel in elevated cars full of Men who stare at them in Indecent Ways? Further, that these aforementioned Men occasionally venture to speak several words to American Women, and occasionally touch them on the Elbow or Knee? Oh, the horror! Perhaps, O Turkish Woman, before you immolate yourself on your husband’s funeral pyre in the Hindoo Tradition, you will utter a prayer to your false god Al-lah and beg Him to spare your American Sisters from the torment of their lives in the West.

    I remain yours faithfully &c.,

    Richmond Hawkins, Esq.

  16. Holms says

    …it seems that men have been denying sexism for over a century.

    Errrr my guess is more like ‘for as long as there has been sexism’.

  17. Antares42 says

    …their advances are unwelcome – to this particular woman at least.

    What a prude.

    …she had initiated contact with Caruso with a flirtatious glance.

    What a slut.


  18. carlie says

    Too bad these women were never taught and encouraged to use a solid jab with the knee to what would probably be a small useless organ.

    Just issue every woman an assault rifle at the age of, oh, when does the jeering start? Let’s say 10.

  19. frog says


    A heel on the instep is far more effective in a subway car. It has the added benefit of like-vs-like: With the swaying the car and all, who can really control where their feet land? It was entirely an accident that she broke his foot, honest, Officer!

  20. Pteryxx says

    Another example via Libby Anne: from Pride and Prejudice, first published in 1813.

    “You are too hasty, sir,” she cried. “You forget that I have made no answer. Let me do it without further loss of time. Accept my thanks for the compliment you are paying me. I am very sensible of the honour of your proposals, but it is impossible for me to do otherwise than to decline them.”

    “I am not now to learn,” replied Mr. Collins, with a formal wave of the hand, “that it is usual with young ladies to reject the addresses of the man whom they secretly mean to accept, when he first applies for their favour; and that sometimes the refusal is repeated a second, or even a third time. I am therefore by no means discouraged by what you have just said, and shall hope to lead you to the altar ere long.”

    “Upon my word, sir,” cried Elizabeth, “your hope is a rather extraordinary one after my declaration. I do assure you that I am not one of those young ladies (if such young ladies there are) who are so daring as to risk their happiness on the chance of being asked a second time. I am perfectly serious in my refusal.