Here are two radio interviews with Tony Wolf, covering both the real history of the suffragette Amazons and the creation of the Suffrajitsu graphic novels:
BBC World Service:
A BBC News article by Camila Ruz & Justin Parkinson.
The film Suffragette, which is due for release, portrays the struggle by British women to win the vote. They were exposed to violence and intimidation as their campaign became more militant. So they taught themselves the martial art of jiu-jitsu.
Edith Garrud was a tiny woman. Measuring 4ft 11in (150cm) in height she appeared no match for the officers of the Metropolitan Police – required to be at least 5ft 10in (178cm) tall at the time. But she had a secret weapon.
In the run-up to World War One, Garrud became a jiu-jitsu instructor to the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), better known as the suffragettes, taking part in an increasingly violent campaign for votes for women.
Sick of the lack of progress, they resorted to civil disobedience, marches and illegal activities including assault and arson.
The struggle in the years before the war became increasingly bitter. Women were arrested and, when they went on hunger strike, were force-fed using rubber tubes. While out on marches, many complained of being manhandled and knocked to the ground. Things took a darker turn after “Black Friday” on 18 November 1910.
Black Friday protest, 1910: Suffragettes were assaulted by police and men in the crowd
A group of around 300 suffragettes met a wall of policemen outside Parliament. Heavily outnumbered, the women were assaulted by both police and male vigilantes in the crowd. Many sustained serious injuries and two women died as a result. More than 100 suffragettes were arrested.
“A lot said they had been groped by the police and male bystanders,” says Elizabeth Crawford, author of The Women’s Suffrage Movement: A Reference Guide. “After that, women didn’t go to these demonstrations unprepared.”
Some started putting cardboard over their ribs for protection. But Garrud was already teaching the WSPU to fight back. Her chosen method was the ancient Japanese martial art of jiu-jitsu. It emphasised using the attacker’s force against them, channelling their momentum and targeting their pressure points.
A suffragette’s guide to self-defence
The first connection between the suffragettes and jiu-jitsu was made at a WSPU meeting. Garrud and her husband William, who ran a martial arts school in London’s Golden Square together, had been booked to attend. But William was ill, so she went alone.
“Edith normally did the demonstrating, while William did the speaking,” says Tony Wolf, writer of Suffrajitsu, a trilogy of graphic novels about this aspect of the suffragette movement. “But the story goes that the WSPU’s leader, Emmeline Pankhurst, encouraged Edith to do the talking for once, which she did.”
Garrud began teaching some of the suffragettes. “At that time it was more about defending themselves against angry hecklers in the audience who got on stage, rather than police,” says Wolf. “There had been several attempted assaults.”
By about 1910 she was regularly running suffragette-only classes and had written for the WSPU’s newspaper, Votes for Women. Her article stressed the suitability of jiu-jitsu for the situation in which the WSPU found itself – that is, having to deal with a larger, more powerful force in the shape of the police and government.
The press noticed. Health and Strength magazine printed a satirical article called “Jiu-jitsuffragettes”. Punch magazine showed a cartoon of Garrud standing alone against several policemen, entitled “The suffragette that knew jiu-jitsu”. The term “suffrajitsu” soon came into common use.
“They wouldn’t have expected in those days that women could respond physically to that kind of action, let alone put up effective resistance,” says Martin Dixon, chairman of the British Jiu-Jitsu Association. “It was an ideal way for them to handle being grabbed while in a crowd situation.”
The Pankhursts agreed and encouraged all suffragettes to learn the martial art. “The police know jiu-jitsu. I advise you to learn jiu-jitsu. Women should practice it as well as men,” said Sylvia Pankhurst, daughter of Emmeline, in a 1913 speech.
As the years went on, confrontations between police and suffragettes became more intense. The so-called Cat and Mouse Act in 1913 allowed hunger-striking prisoners to be released and then re-incarcerated as soon as they had recovered their health.
“The WSPU felt that as Mrs Pankhurst had such a vital role to play as motivator and figurehead for the organisation that she was too important to be recaptured,” says Emelyne Godfrey, author of Femininity, Crime and Self-Defence in Victorian Literature and Society.
She needed protectors so Garrud formed a group called The Bodyguard. It consisted of up to 30 women who undertook “dangerous duties,” explains Godfrey. “Sometimes all they would get would be a phone call and instructions to follow a particular car.”
The Bodyguard, nicknamed “Amazons” by the press, armed themselves with clubs hidden in their dresses.
They came in handy during a famous confrontation known as the “Battle of Glasgow” in early 1914.
The Bodyguard travelled overnight from London by train, their concealed clubs making the journey uncomfortable. A crowd was waiting to see Emmeline Pankhurst speak at St Andrew’s Hall. But police had surrounded it, hoping to catch her.
Pankhurst evaded them on her way in by buying a ticket and pretending to be a spectator. The Bodyguard then got into position, sitting on a semi-circle of chairs behind the speaker’s podium.
Suddenly Pankhurst appeared and started speaking. She did so for half a minute before police tried to storm the stage.
But they became caught on barbed wire hidden in bouquets. “So about 30 suffragettes and 50 police were involved in a brawl on stage in front of 4,000 people for several minutes,” says Wolf.
Eventually police overwhelmed The Bodyguard and Pankhurst was once again arrested. But the difficulty they had in dragging her away showed just how effective her guards had become.
Garrud did not just teach them physical skills. They had also learnt to trick their opponents. In 1914, Emmeline Pankhurst gave a speech from a balcony in Camden Square.
When she emerged from the house in a veil, escorted by members of The Bodyguard, the police swooped in. Despite a fierce fight she was knocked to the ground and dragged away unconscious. But when the police triumphantly unveiled her, they realised she was a decoy. The real Pankhurst had been smuggled out in the commotion.
The emphasis on skill to defeat and outwit a larger opponent was what first impressed Garrud about jiu-jitsu. She came across it when her husband William attended a martial arts exhibition in 1899 and started taking lessons.
Garrud was soon teaching it herself and became one of the first female martial art instructors in the West. In exhibitions, she would wear a red gown and invite a martial arts enthusiast dressed as a policeman to attack her.
“As far as the suffragettes were concerned, she was very much in the right place at the right time,” says Wolf.
“Jiu-jitsu had become something of a society trend, with women hosting jiu-jitsu parties, where they and their friends underwent instruction.”
Garrud and her jiu-jitsu students continued their fight for the vote until a bigger battle engulfed them all. At the outbreak of WW1, the suffragettes concentrated on helping the war effort.
At the end of the war, in 1918, the Representation of the People Act was finally passed. More than eight million women in the UK were given the vote. But women would not get the same voting rights as men until 1928.
As time passed, The Bodyguard and their trainer began to be forgotten. “It was the leaders that wrote the books and set the history,” explains Crawford. The stories of those who helped them were less likely to be recorded.
Edith Garrud does not feature in the new film but one of its stars, Helena Bonham Carter, has paid her own tribute by changing her character’s name from Caroline to Edith in her honour.
She was “an amazing woman” whose fighting method was not about brute force, Bonham Carter has said. “It was about skill.”
Helena Bonham Carter’s character in the film Suffragette is named Edith in homage to Edith Garrud
It was this skill that helped the suffragettes take on powerful opponents. As Garrud recalled in an interview in 1965, a policeman once tried to prevent her from protesting outside Parliament. “Now then, move on, you can’t start causing an obstruction here,” he said. “Excuse me, it is you who are making an obstruction,” she replied, and tossed him over her shoulder.
The Suffrajitsu media blast continues with this excellent article by KUNG FU MAGAZINE journalist Lori Ann White …
Hark back to days of yore, and schoolbook pictures of the women who fought for the vote in the days leading up to the First World War. Ladies in long skirts with grim faces, marching through the city streets and wielding their weapons of choice: banners and pamphlets, signs and shouting. Motherly and grandmotherly types, in starched white shirts with lace at their throats, giving speeches and picketing City Hall. Maybe—if they were extra hard-core—being arrested and going on hunger strikes.
These women are all familiar images from both sides of the Atlantic. British and American suffragettes, who won a voice for their sisters and daughters almost 100 years ago. Noble. Uplifting.
But there’s a picture that’s missing from many accounts of the history of the suffrage movement in England. A picture of the women who were totally bad-ass, with training in grappling and throws and, tucked in their bustles, clubs they were not afraid to use on the men who were trying to shut them down.
The film SUFFRAGETTE (2015) is a study of why these women wanted the skills to defend themselves. It shows the brutality of the London bobbies, who waded into demonstrations and meetings with their own fists and truncheons. More than that, it shows the assaults and insults women had to deal with every day of their lives, from their bosses, their husbands, random men on the street.
One very short scene in the film shows the heroine, Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan, an Edwardian Everywoman) getting expertly dumped to the mat by Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter, a steely, seasoned soldier of the cause). This is a welcome hint, but only a hint of the martial training of London suffragettes.
The reality is fascinating: A group of dedicated women trained in a hybrid art called Bartitsu who served as bodyguards for wanted suffragettes, security detail for events, and de facto Secret Service detail for Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep in the film), the leader of the Women’s Social and Political Union, representing the more radical faction of the suffrage movement.
Another option for learning more about these “jiujitsuffragettes,” as dubbed by the press of the day (and having fun doing it), is the graphic novel trilogy, “SUFFRAJITSU: MRS. PANKHURST’S AMAZONS” (2015), written by Tony Wolf, with art by Joao Vieira.
Set in early 1914, at the height of the suffragette movement in London, SUFFRAJITSU introduces us to the Bartitsu-trained women who protect Emmeline Pankhurst, and two of their real-life instructors, Edith Garrud, the women’s jiujitsu instructor at the Bartitsu Club, and the mysterious Miss Sanderson, who was actually Marguerite Vigny, the wife of Pierre Vigny, the cane and savate instructor at the Bartitsu Club.
“The first part of the story is very closely based on real history,” says author Wolf, “as the Amazons engage in escalating confrontations with the police. The strategies of jiujitsu were seen as a metaphor for the womens’ fight to get the vote, and the Amazons served as symbols of women’s defiance against the state’s authority as well as functional bodyguards. Both sides were really engaged in an all-out, hearts-and-minds propaganda battle by that point.”
Wolf is a martial artist, martial arts scholar, fight choreographer and stuntman whose credits include developing the different styles used by the various races in Peter Jackson’s LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy (2001, 2002, 2003). He got his start in eastern styles such as Taekwondo, but became intrigued by the history of martial arts in Europe. His researches led him to Bartitsu, a hybrid style developed by E. W. Barton-Wright (hence the name), a British engineer who spent three years in Japan, which he introduced in London in 1898, according to Wolf.
“Bartitsu was an eccentric ‘mixed martial art‘ combining boxing, jiujitsu, kicking and the Vigny method of self-defense with a walking stick,” says Wolf. It is quite probably the source of Sherlock Holmes’ “Baritsu” style.
In about 2002 Wolf used what he calls “historical detective work and practical pressure-testing” to bring back the lost art of Bartitsu. “Reviving Bartitsu as a sort of gentlemanly Jeet Kune Do, or maybe ‘Edwardian Dog Brothers,’ has been my main martial arts interest since then,” he says.
Wolf’s first exposure to Mrs. Pankhurst’s Amazons happened much earlier, though.
“I remember first coming across an anecdote about the ‘jiujitsuffragettes’ in a martial arts history book when I was a teenager,” he says. “Apparently, young, middle-class London suffragettes would shinny down the drainpipes and sneak off to secret self-defense classes in the dead of night.”
An appealing image to a rebellious teen, but Wolf did not begin to study them in earnest until he was researching the history of Bartitsu. “I came across more and more information about the suffragette Amazons. Eventually I incorporated that information into some Bartitsu-themed books and a documentary I co-produced in 2010.”
Then well-known science fiction and fantasy author Neal Stephenson, a Bartitsu aficionado, approached Wolf to write the story of the Edwardian Amazons for Stephenson’s vast shared-world project, the Foreworld Saga.
“I think [Stephenson] was really taken by the idea of a group of bad-ass Edwardian ladies and wanted to see that happen somewhere in the Foreworld,” Wolf says.
With more experience in non-fiction than fiction, Wolf approached the project with some hesitation. “It was a bit of a leap of faith for Neal to get me involved in the Foreworld project,” Wolf says. “I’m very grateful that he did, though, because it was a blast to get to work creatively with all the jiujitsuffragette material I’d been gathering for years.”
The truth is almost as strange, though, and provides a fascinating glimpse into women in the martial arts in the early 20th century. A number of circumstances—some positive, some less so—had begun to open up the pursuit of martial arts to women.
“Women who wanted to learn jiujitsu weren’t typically considered to be less than ladylike,” Wolf says. “It dovetailed nicely with several other popular trends, including ‘physical culture’ or exercise training, which was generally looked on with good favor, and there was also a lot of popular enthusiasm for Japanese culture at the time.”
On a darker note, says Wolf, “There was a growing awareness of assaults in public spaces, on board trains, and so on, especially as more and more women went into employment and started to travel in cities without chaperones.”
It’s probable that both Marguerite Vigny and Edith Garrud developed new techniques for the women under their tutelage, says Wolf. “Madame Vigny’s system was a pragmatic adaptation of her husband’s method, based on using the umbrella or parasol as a combination of rapier and short spear,” he says, while the women learned some interesting and very effective techniques with Indian clubs, either from Garrud or through trial and error.
“There are very few specific records of how the clubs were used, but the Amazons did learn to target police constables’ helmets, because if the constables lost their helmets, they had to pay for them to be replaced,” Wolf says. Knocking a helmet off a bobby’s head generally sent him scrambling after.
The women also found a useful technique for dealing with the mounted police. “One of the suffragettes figured out that, if you struck a police horse on the back of its knee with an Indian club, the horse would sit down quickly and dump a mounted constable off its back. The horse wouldn’t be hurt, so that was a great counter-move.”
According to Wolf, the suffrage movement in the US did not employ similar tactics. “The US suffrage movement was nowhere near as radical as the suffragettes in the UK,” he says. By some accounts, the violence employed by the more radical suffragettes in London set their cause back by a few years. But following World War I the men of England realized that the women of England deserved a voice and a vote.
After all, there’s only so much you can say with your fists.
This new Atlas Obscura article by writer Tao Tao Holmes highlights both the Suffrajitsu graphic novels and the real history of the suffragette Amazons, including an interview with Suffrajitsu author Tony Wolf. Here’s an excerpt:
“Wolf describes himself as a ‘very staunchly feminist sort of guy,’ and while writing Suffrajitsu, he approached the women as a group of professionals, political radicals committed to an ideological goal. “The fact that they were female was third or fourth in the list of priorities in terms of how I wanted to present them,” he explains.
At the same time, he didn’t want it to be ‘women: good; men: bad.’ There were many men who very assiduously supported the radical suffrage movement to the point that they earned their own nickname: suffragents. Suffragents supported these women while they engaged in very aggressive, though non-violent civil disobedience. ‘These women were very careful and also very lucky that no one was physically harmed in their protests—even the extreme stuff like bombing,’ says Wolf.”
Suffragette is literally the first feature film to offer a dramatic representation of the radical women’s suffrage movement in England. As the movie has already been extensively reviewed elsewhere, and because this is Suffrajitsu.com, this review will concentrate on those areas where the plot intersects with motifs and events also represented in the Suffrajitsu graphic novel trilogy.
Most especially, we’ll focus on the events of Suffrajitsu Issue #1, which is closely based on the real history of the Bodyguard team who were assigned to protect members of the Women’s Social and Political Union from arrest and assault.
Before diving in to the review, however, we should address the “whitewashing” controversy that has arisen in the wake of the film’s opening, especially in the USA. Some critics have conflated the demographics of the American and English suffrage movements and thereby jumped to the conclusion that the Suffragette filmmakers are guilty of having misrepresented racial diversity.
In reality, according to the very best historical records available, only two women of color are known to have been counted among the English suffragettes. One was a famous Sikh princess named Sophia Duleep Singh, who was a god-daughter of Queen Victoria’s and who is to be the subject of an upcoming filmed biography; the other was a friend of Singh’s who was more peripherally involved in the radical movement.
It’s possible that, given the degree to which the “whitewashing” controversy has hijacked popular and critical discourse concerning Suffragette, writer Abi Morgan and director Sarah Gavron are now regretting not having included Princess Sophia in their story. However, it is irresponsible for critics to casually assume that there “must have been” a large contingent of women of color who were callously not represented in the film.
There was, in fact, great diversity within the English women’s suffrage movement, but it was a diversity of social classes at a time when London was racially homogeneous to a degree that would deeply startle people who only know the modern city.
That noted, the film introduces protagonist Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan), a 24 year old East End laundress whose only joy in life is her family – husband Sonny (Ben Whishaw) and young son George (Adam Michael Dodd). Maud was born in the laundry; her mother died there when Maud was a young girl, the victim of an industrial accident, and Maud herself now bears the scars of a lifetime’s labor in that dangerous environment.
The first major action scene takes place near the beginning of the story. Maud is sent by her boorish boss to deliver a package in the central city and finds herself accidentally caught up in one of the radical suffragettes’ mass shop window-smashing protests. The scene accurately captures the “Argument of the Broken Pane”, including shocked spectators and the police pursuit of fleeing protesters, as is also represented in Suffrajitsu Issue #1:
Reluctantly at first, the previously apolitical Maud finds herself drawing closer to the radical movement. After Maud is induced to give her testimony before a committee of politicians who are considering the suffrage question, she and her new comrades then gather outside Parliament and are bitterly disappointed to learn that women will not be granted the vote.
The police then violently disperse the suffragette crowd, striking women down with their truncheons and dragging them off to prison. The level of violence depicted is on the very extreme end of the scale of reported police action against suffragette protesters. The impression given is that the police assault was virtually unprovoked; this scene may have been inspired by the infamous “Black Friday” riot of 1910.
That said, the riot scene also tends to reinforce the modern misconception that women were arrested simply for being suffragettes, which was not the case. Militant suffragettes were, in fact, arrested because they had committed crimes, ranging from vandalism and assault to sedition.
In response to the politicians’ latest failure to grant suffrage, Maud and her comrades, including the militant suffragette insurgent Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter), become more committed and more organized. The point is effectively made that, since forty years of peaceful petitioning has failed to gain women the right to vote, radical tactics will now be required. Meanwhile, police Inspector Arthur Steed (Brendan Gleeson) assumes responsibility for monitoring and attempting to contain the women’s rights movement.
In a very brief training scene, Maud is shown taking part in Mrs. Ellyn’s jiujitsu class; a reference to the “Suffragette Self Defence” courses actually run by Edith Garrud during this period. Helena Bonham Carter has confirmed that her character was partly inspired by Edith Garrud and that more extensive jiujitsu scenes were shot, but did not make it into the final cut of the movie.
The women then attend a secret rally and speech by WSPU leader Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep, in an effectively stirring cameo). Mrs. Pankhurst is, by this stage, a fugitive from the law, and her escape from the police after the rally – involving the clever use of a body double, allowing the real Mrs. Pankhurst to escape by cab – is clearly based on a real-life strategy also represented in Suffrajitsu #1:
Gratifyingly, Maud and Edith are among a small party who form an informal bodyguard for Mrs. Pankhurst as she escapes, successfully running interference against the police. The women also engage in a campaign of bombing attacks – strictly against property, rather than risking human lives. They target post boxes to disrupt the communication system, and escalate to destroying the under-construction home of a Member of Parliament.
This action, however, results in the two of them being imprisoned again, and this time they go on hunger strike and are subjected to forced feeding – events that, in real history, directly led to the formation of the WSPU Bodyguard team.
The tactic of hunger striking was extremely controversial. Prisons were considered to have an ethical duty of care towards preserving the lives of inmates, so they had no choice but to force feed those who starved themselves. Politicians recognized that, if an imprisoned suffragette died, the women’s suffrage movement would gain its first martyr; the WSPU, meanwhile, successfully represented forced feeding as being akin to torture. Thus, both sides became engaged in a dangerous propaganda battle for the hearts and minds of the British public.
Although not portrayed in the movie, this high-stakes situation led to the institution of the so-called Cat and Mouse Act; an unprecedented amendment to the law that allowed prisons to release hunger striking suffragettes until they had recovered their health and strength, at which point they would be re-arrested and re-imprisoned on the original charge. That policy led the WSPU to create the Bodyguard society, in order to keep fugitive suffragettes free for as long as possible.
Maud’s increasing radicalism comes at a very heavy personal cost. Her husband uneasily tolerates her political action at first, but succumbs to shame when she is imprisoned and effectively bans her from their home, also cutting off her access from their son.
Eventually, in one heart-wrenching scene, Maud learns that Sonny has arranged for young George to be adopted by another couple; she has no say in the matter, underscoring the very inequalities that she has been fighting to change. As a result, Maud becomes even more committed to the radical cause.
It’s worth mentioning here that, to the filmmakers’ credit, neither Sonny nor Inspector Steed are portrayed as villains (though Maud’s laundry boss represents the worst of bullying, predatory male chauvinism). Sonny is basically a pitiable character, a naive young man whose simple inability to understand how or why his wife is changing dooms their family to tragedy, whereas the more sophisticated Steed clearly has some sympathy with, and even admiration for Maud’s convictions. Edith Ellyn’s husband, meanwhile, is a staunch “suffragent”, a progressive man who supports his wife and her political cause.
In the climactic scene, suffragette Emily Wilding Davison is struck down by a charging horse while attempting to protest “in front of the world’s cameras” at the Epsom Derby. At the time, Davison’s action was attributed to “hysteria” and it is still frequently popularly recalled as an act of deliberate self-sacrifice. The filmmakers, however, successfully represent her death as having been, essentially, a tragic accident, which matches the prevailing scholarly opinion.
Thus, Emily Davison became the WSPU’s first martyr, and as Maud Watts joins the massive funeral procession through the streets of London, the film segues into archival footage of the actual event. A caption notes that newsreel film of Davison’s death propelled the English suffragettes’ struggle onto the international stage and, as the credits roll, a list of dates also appear on screen, recording when various countries finally did grant women’s suffrage (albeit strictly limited, in some cases).
In sum, we unreservedly recommend the film to fans of the graphic novel. The cast is uniformly excellent and the evocation of London circa 1912/13 is beautifully executed. To some extent, in fact, the events of Suffragette can be viewed as an immediate prequel to those of the Suffrajitsu trilogy; it’s very easy to imagine Maud Watts as one of Mrs. Pankhurst’s Amazons.
“Welcome to New York!” went up the cry from the docks, and I gratefully returned my feet to terra firma after a choppy week-long Atlantic crossing aboard the R.M.S. Olympic; unknowing that, within a few days, I should be plunged into one of my very strangest adventures.
In clearing customs, I enjoyed the novelty of being interrogated by a charming young agent whose Brooklyn accent was so impenetrable that I resorted to reading his lips. We shared a joke about my unusually sturdy umbrella, he stamped my passport and that was that. After being formally admitted to the United States, I made my way by taxi-cab to the Gilsey House at 3671 Broadway. This eight-story hotel was to be my base for the next seven days, during which time I would deliver a lecture at an international symposium, convened by the New York State School for the Deaf.
I am, as you may already know, a teacher of the deaf by profession. It affords me great satisfaction as well the opportunity to travel widely and to meet people from all walks of life. Sometimes, of course, the new people whom one meets are not so very nice, and then I feel morally bound to intervene, especially when not-so-very-nice people interfere with the lives of the blameless.
People have called me a detective, and I suppose that is accurate as far as it goes. More recently, some have also called me a suffragette, which is a name I bear proudly, especially when it is offered as an insult. Precious few, however, know that I am a member of Mrs. Emmeline Pankhurst’s clandestine vanguard, popularly known as the “Amazons”.
It was due to this association, incidentally, that I now habitually carry the umbrella that had amused the young customs agent. We call them “Sanderson specials” and they are cleverly contrived of spring steel, baleen and malacca cane. To the casual gaze, these are the same staid brollies that protect all Londoners in drizzle and downpour alike, but those in the know wield them as combination bayonets, rapiers, daggers and maces, as may befit the urgent needs of a given moment.
Needless to say, this is not something that one explains to American customs men, no matter how charming.
The next morning I found that I had over-slept and so quickly repaired downstairs to the busy dining room. There I was presented with a breakfast of fruit salad and crumpets, which my hosts, the Washingtons, referred to as “English muffins” and insisted on smothering with butter and a treacly syrup called “molasses”. I did not ask whether this was a local delicacy or simply what they assumed an exotic visitor would enjoy.
Because I am Chinese to outward appearance but speak English with a pronounced Kensington accent, Americans are often a little unsure of what to offer in these situations. In any case, I enjoyed the fruit and the treacle crumpets washed down tolerably well with some milky mint tea.
As I ate, I was joined at the table by a slender, dark-haired girl a few years younger than myself, who introduced herself as Alta Marhevka. It transpired that she lived in the hotel, in the room right next to mine, and was employed at some kind of medical clinic on Riverside Drive.
Miss Marhevka quickly impressed me as being very bright indeed, and also very intense, her large, dark brown eyes gleaming as she described her interest in Chinese philosophies. Candidly, I felt it was a bit early in the day for such earnest conversation, but I indulged her with some Taoist anecdotes, which seemed to please her very much.
Just then a large guest – German, from her bearing and accent – accidentally bumped into our table, causing some hot tea to spill into Miss Marhevka’s lap. The German lady apologised profusely and petted at her, but Miss Marhevka graciously waved her away and set about mopping up the tea with her napkin.
“You poor dear – doesn’t that hurt?” I asked. She replied simply, but with an enigmatically rueful smile, “I would rather be abused than pitied, Miss Lee.”
“A curious girl,” I thought as I bade her farewell, but of course I’m sure I leave the same impression upon many people. I retrieved my Sanderson special from the umbrella-stand and sallied forth for a day of sight-seeing.
It was later than I’d intended when I finally returned to the Gilsey House, for I had been rather turned around after dinner at the White Horse in Greenwich Village and had walked for a considerable distance in the wrong direction. New York City streets are so long and so straight, and I confess that the grid pattern took more getting used to that I might have thought.
I made my way upstairs to the third floor and was fiddling with my room key when I smelt the unmistakable odour of gas. A cold chill ran down my spine as I realised that the smell was emanating from under the door of Room 303 – Miss Marhevka’s room. I knocked on her door, then called out her name, then pounded and called again, but there was no response. Meanwhile, I fancied that the smell was getting stronger and that, when I placed my ear to the keyhole, I could hear the faint hiss of gas jets.
Fearing the worst, I set my right foot back and then thrust it with all my strength at the door. I was rewarded with a cracking noise, but the lock held fast. Two more savate kicks and the door burst inwards, followed instantly by an invisible wash of escaping gas that was almost enough to send me staggering.
The miasma dissipated in moments, so I took a deep breath and sprang forth into the moonlit room, beholding Miss Marhevka reeling to her feet from the couch. The grey carpet was littered with scraps of notepaper, dozens upon dozens of them, and all three gas lamps had been torn from the walls, their jets hissing like cobras. The expression on Miss Marhevka’s face was one of stricken fury.
“No!” she cried, her voice harshly strained. Her hands sprang up and curled into claws. “No, get out, get out of here!” Just then she was overcome by a bout of violent coughing, swayed and nearly swooned.
I would not waste breath on arguing and ran to her, seizing her sleeve so as to pull her out of that gas chamber. But she would have none of that, slipping beneath my arm and wrenching free. The rapidity and skill of her movement so surprised me that I was caught off-guard when she twisted about and struck a stunning blow across the side of my neck, knocking me headfirst into a large bookcase, whereupon a shelf collapsed. Books tumbled about me and I gasped in pain, but there was precious little air in that gasp and my head swam.
“Get out, I am warning you!” she whispered, then sank against the wall.
With no time to ponder where she might have learned such a trick, I leaped at her again and secured a firm grip of her collar and sleeve, employing the jujitsu “waltz” to swing her again towards the door. She attempted to trip me; by reflex, I countered the trip with a hip throw. We crashed to the carpet, sending fragments of paper fluttering up around us like gypsy moths, and rolled, each of us struggling for the dominant position. Alta Marhevka was far stronger than she looked. My heart pounding like a trip-hammer, my lips and fingertips tingling, I could not help but snatch another gasp, which set me choking.
As we fought I was desperately aware that no ordinary jiujitsu lock would avail, for if I simply held Alta helpless then the gas would surely overcome us both.
Fortunately, she was weakening even faster than I. As we rolled against the wall I became able, with considerable effort, to brace against it and so regain my stance, half-dragging the girl up with me. Grasping her left wrist in my right hand, I entwined my left arm over and under hers, achieving the elbow lock that Mr. Barton-Wright advises for removing troublesome persons. Via this leverage advantage I propelled her across the room and through the open door, and not an instant too soon, for my head was pounding and purple spots flared and popped before my eyes like Hong Kong fireworks.
I hustled her down the hall until I could not possibly hold my breath any longer and then released her, drawing in a great, whooping gulp of fresh air and then falling back against a neighbouring door, stricken with another coughing fit. Alta staggered and fell to her hands and knees, likewise coughing and almost insensible. Though I could scarcely make one thought follow another, I tried to be alert to any attempt on her part to rally, for if she made it past me and back into that death-room again, all would be lost.
Just then the sound of heavy boots issued from the stairwell, and a door burst open to reveal two New York constables. I’ve had decidedly mixed experiences with their London counterparts in recent times, but I confess that I was very glad to see these two fellows.
“Which of you is Alta Marhevka?” demanded the taller of the pair, a lanky chap with gimlets for eyes.
Gaze downcast, frighteningly pale of complexion and completely exhausted, she tremblingly raised her right hand, at which, to my astonishment, they dragged her up from the floor and clapped her in handcuffs!
The shorter constable, or “officer” I should say, was built like a wrestler or prizefighter, with a ruddy complexion and a down-turned mouth beneath bristling moustaches. “Miss Marhevka,” he began, “you are hereby placed under arrest on suspicion of having murdered Doctor William Latson. Have you anything to say for yourself?”
Alta simply muttered something that sounded like “my gourah”, over and over again, “my gourah”, as they bundled her through the stairwell door and down the stairs. Scarcely believing my eyes, I tried to call after them –
“Wait! Wait, that girl has just tried to commit suicide by gas!”
– but my voice was so weakened by coughing that I could not hope to make them hear me, and they were gone before I could gather the strength to follow.
By about mid-day, assisted by the concerned ministrations of our hostess, Mrs. Washington, I had sufficiently recovered my wits and equilibrium to be able to help attend to Miss Marhevka’s room. I had explained the morning’s events and both Mrs. Washington and her husband were quite taken aback by it all. After Mr. Washington had turned off the gas and opened all the windows, the room soon seemed ordinary once again, save for the three broken lamps, the collapsed bookshelf and the scraps of notepaper strewn about the floor.
“In all my days I’ve never seen such a thing,” he remarked as he picked up a ragged piece of notepaper. “Listen to this; ‘Even if I have not succeeded, at least I have known life to the utmost’. What’s that all about?”
“‘If you want to be good, be dead – you cannot be good without'”, read Mrs. Washington from another scrap. “For Heaven’s sake, what was the poor girl thinking?”
Indeed, upon every scrap of paper was written, in a careful, educated hand, some snatch of poetry or odd aphorism:
“A woman should be like a flame – dainty, exquisite and fine, high and strong – strong – strong.”
“As you think, so you become.”
“The sinful painter drapes his goddess because she is still naked, being dust. The godlike painter will not so deform.”
And, repeated over and over again, on many papers in both ink and pencil, one phrase:
“Forth speed the strong to the pulse of the day.”
Here, indeed, was a mystery worthy of my mettle! After we had gathered the scraps and replaced the books upon the shelf, Mr. Washington set about replacing the lamps. I then asked them for their impressions of Alta Marhevka.
“Oh, she’s a very clever girl,” said Mrs. Washington. “See all these books? I’m sure she’s read every one, and could quote you chapter and verse.”
“Do you know where she worked?”
“Yes, she was secretary to a medical man on Riverside Drive,” she replied. “I think it was that Dr. Latson that you mentioned, the man who was murdered – oh, it’s so awful!”
She became teary and so I lent her my handkerchief. That Miss Marhevka was a devotee of the New Thought movement, or perhaps some branch of Theosophy, was quite apparent, going by her library. Titles included The Secrets of Mental Supremacy, The Enlightened Life, The Attainment of Efficiency, A Catechism of Health and dozens more in a similar vein, each and every one of them written or edited by Dr. William R.C. Latson. Was he the “gourah” whose name she had invoked as she was being dragged away in irons? I knew that gourah, or guru, was a Hindoo term, meaning a teacher of spirituality; I associated it with the occult practice of yoga.
Mysteries upon mysteries … but at that moment, the same two constables who had hustled Miss Marhevka away appeared in the doorway.
“You!” the shorter one began, glaring and pointing at me most rudely. “Why did you not tell us that the other girl had tried to do herself in?”
“Well, I would have done, had you given me a chance!” I snapped back. “I was weakened by the gas fumes – surely you must have smelled it when you entered the hall?”
He eyed me suspiciously, then turned and whispered to his colleague. Although I could not hear him, I could easily read his lips – “Say, Frank, she must be one of these ‘bee girls’.”
At this, the taller officer – Frank, apparently – nodded and whispered back, “See what she knows, Eddie.” Then, politely but firmly, he ushered Mr. and Mrs. Washington out of the room.
“Look here, Miss, you may as well come clean,” the shorter constable said, as Frank closed the door behind the Washingtons and began to gather up the scraps of notepaper.
“Just be honest and save us all some time and trouble, there’s a good girl.”
In such situations, I have always found it best to speak forthrightly, for men often expect women to be timorous and flustered and many will exploit those responses if it serves their own interests. I introduced myself, sustaining candid eye contact with each of them in turn, and then calmly and truthfully explained my circumstances. I gave them partial credit for not interrupting.
“So you claim you had no acquaintance of Alta Marhevka or Dr. William Latson prior to your arrival here?”, Officer Eddie demanded when I was done. “No correspondence? Nothing at all?”
I gazed at him evenly.
“I was Alta’s neighbour for two days and that is the extent of our association,” I replied. “I have no other knowledge of this Latson.”
They exchanged a glance and I sensed that they believed me.
“Now,” I pressed, “what is going on here?”
“Well, never you mind about that,” Officer Frank replied firmly, as he stuffed Alta’s notes into a large brown folder. “If what you say is true, then the less you know about that business, the better for you.”
They turned as if to leave, but I spoke sharply:
“Will you at least tell me – is the poor girl recovered from her ordeal?”
“She’s in a bad way, Miss Lee,” Eddie replied. “In Washington Heights hospital and under guard, and she’ll go straight to Bellevue … if she lives.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Bellevue – that’s the nut-house, Miss.”
My lecture that evening was well-received, though I confess that I was distracted throughout by the puzzling events into which I had been thrown. Afterwards, I excused myself as soon as I could from the academic chat and set out for Greenwich Village alone.
En route, I purchased a number of newspapers; as I had surmised, they were full of the story of my erstwhile neighbour and the mysterious death of her former employer, which had evidently occurred the previous day. I returned to the White Horse tavern, sat down in a booth with a stiff brandy and tried to make sense of it all.
Apparently, a young eyewitness – the son of Dr. Latson’s landlord – had observed Miss Marhevka climbing out of the window of the doctor’s apartment on Riverside Drive, before she fled the scene in what seemed to be a confused and agitated state. Alarmed, the boy had alerted his father, who, unable to contact Dr. Latson either by telephone or by knocking at his door, had let himself in – only to discover his tenant’s body, dead of a gunshot wound up under the right side of his jaw and kneeling before the couch in his clinic.
The police were called and found a pistol beneath the dead man’s body, along with a note in his handwriting, which read, rather cryptically: “Gertie and Mother, I have done my best – death.”
Investigation at the scene had revealed half-empty vials of morphine and also hyoscine, which I understood to be a particularly nasty hallucinogen, often associated with cases of poisoning. This, despite Dr. Latson’s reputation as a clean-living man – indeed, as a staunch advocate of temperance and self-improvement, via his many books and articles.
The papers also revealed that Dr. Latson had been in financial difficulties and had, just the day before his death, been served with a “summons of dispossess proceedings” – effectively, an eviction notice.
On the face of it, everything seemed to point towards a tragic suicide, aside from the bizarre behaviour of Miss Alta Marhevka. The newspapermen could not agree on the spelling of her surname, rendering it as “Marhezka”, “Merhelka” and yet other variants, but most took a lurid delight in speculating as to the nature of her relationship with the deceased doctor. The reporters had obviously seen at least some of her would-be death notes, for several were quoted verbatim, and much remarked upon – “Weird with awful possibilities of a strange Oriental code”, indeed!
These reports offered no clues, however, as to what the police officer might have meant by accusing me of being “one of these bee girls”.
Having several free days before my return voyage on the Olympic, and the feeling that there was even more to the Latson/Marhevka affair than met the eye, I begged off my colleagues’ offers of sightseeing tours and set about investigating the mystery.
As much as the newspapermen were making of the “god-man scandal”, it seemed evident to me that some intersection of prosaic reality and “mystical psychology” might well provide the key to this strange case. Despite his outward-seeming success as an author and medical practitioner, Latson had been in dire financial straits and was about to lose his home. His reason had been clouded by drink and drugs. Under such pressures, what might motivate a man whose every waking hour seemed to have been devoted to his strange philosophies?
I had an inkling that his storied penthouse might yield a clue or three.
Girl Complains Because She Isn’t Permitted to Die.
As luck would have it, the evening was stormy. Dead leaves and paper rubbish swirled and scudded forebodingly about the streets as I made my way by Taxi cab to the late Dr. Latson’s surgery and apartment on Riverside Drive. The surgery door was clearly marked with a small brass plaque announcing Dr. Latson’s name and business hours, but I could not locate a separate door for his apartment.
The surgery door was now locked, of course, and a notice pasted to it prohibited any disturbance, by orders of the New York City police department. Still, it was a simple lock, and I am adept with hairpins. I checked in both directions, up and down the street, then tucked my ball-handled Sanderson special under my arm and set to work; in a few moments the door swung open and I stepped inside.
The light of my electric lantern swept the walls, revealing nothing but a nicely-appointed vestibule, typical of any moderately prosperous doctor’s office apart from its vaguely Oriental ambiance. There was a neat reception area, including the desk where, presumably, Miss Marhevka had fulfilled the duties of her office; a fine-looking rug of possibly Egyptian origin and a small suite of comfortable-looking chairs, all polished leather and brass studs.
I tipped the lantern upwards – risking the slight chance that a passer-by, braving the downpour, might spot its beam through the windows – and saw that a large, fantastically decorated lantern of paper and bamboo hung from the ceiling – a Korean ornament, unless I was much mistaken.
I was surprised to find that the next room, which had obviously served as Dr. Latson’s clinic, was scarcely larger than the vestibule – an intimate chamber, indeed, and presumably the site of the doctor’s death.
I had gathered from the newspaper reports that his professional specialties had shifted over the years, from naturopathy to dermatology and most recently to psychiatry. Three windowless walls were draped with rich, dark green and burgundy fabrics, while the fourth was a bookcase from floor to ceiling. The only furniture was an ottoman couch, a small side-table bearing a stained glass lamp and a large armchair, whose darkly colourful embroidery style I recognised as Tibetan.
Evidently, whatever the precise nature of the ministrations the doctor had provided in this close room, they had been of a primarily psychological nature.
Shining my lantern upon the ottoman I saw an ominous dark stain that confirmed my previous intuition; this was where the fatal bullet had been fired. Otherwise, the room seemed free of any clues … but I have never been easily dissuaded.
Clearly, there must be more to the apartment than the vestibule and this odd chamber, for this had been Latson’s home as well as his clinic and office. Therefore, logic suggested, there must be a hidden exit. Crossing to the bookshelf, I commenced the requisite proddings, tuggings and twistings and was soon rewarded by a soft click. I pressed forward and the heavy shelves swung smoothly back, revealing a short corridor leading into the doctor’s well-appointed, but quite ordinary living room. As I entered I noted only one somewhat unusual feature – a spiral staircase leading up through a circular gap in the ceiling.
As I approached the staircase, though, I perceived the sound of music, very faint but almost familiar, and the closer I went, the more familiar it became. By the time I had a hand on the railing, I knew the music for what it was. At the summit of this strange vertical tunnel, somewhere up above me in this staid Riverside Drive apartment building, was being played the haunting gamelan music of exotic Java, and if that was not somehow connected to the mystery of Miss Marhevka’s “god-man”, then I would eat my hat with molasses.
The hypnotically rhythmic chiming and drumming increased in volume as I crept cat-footed up the winding steps. I judged that I had climbed some four stories up that dim spiral before reaching the top floor, whereupon I was faced with a billowy hanging fabric, gauzy in texture and honey-gold in hue, that completely obscured whatever might be seen in the room beyond. Fortunately, the room was brightly lit, so the fabric also served to conceal me from whomever might be in there.
Very cautiously, I pressed my eye to the hanging gauze and, beyond, I beheld an extraordinary scene. The chamber was decorated as was the downstairs clinic, its walls entirely covered in heavy green and burgundy draperies. At the far end, directly opposite my hiding place, was a great, unoccupied throne upon a dais, both immaculately carved of some dark wood in the Javanese fashion, with gold highlights. The throne was surmounted by hangings of red velvet topped with a bulbous, conical wickerwork structure that I recognized as a skep – an artificial beehive.
Against the western wall was a broad lower dais, upon which sat three young women; barefoot, corsetless and dressed in simple white shifts, playing the gongs and metallophones of gamelan tradition. As they played, a group of five more women, similarly dressed and unshod, danced upon the polished floorboards before the throne. The dancers’ shifts were girded at the waists with cords, whose tassels swung as they stepped and spun, and each of them bore a shining keris, a long dagger with a wavy blade.
Their dancing was marvelously skilled, combining precise gestural symbolism with the athletic grace of ballet, punctuated by grotesque postures recalling the mythology of Rangda, the cannibal “Witch Queen” of the Indonesian islands. In all, it was evocative of the ceremonial dancing I had seen in Balinese villages during my girlhood travels with my parents; yet it was not exactly that. For one thing, in Indonesia, only men were permitted to dance with the keris.
Suddenly, just as the music reached a crescendo, the three musicians stopped playing, and the only sound in the room was the deep, long, reverberating note of a large gong. At that instant, the dancers all froze in mid-movement, with scarcely a tremble to betray the effort of holding their strenuous poses, and then, as one, they turned their keris daggers upon themselves! I came very close to crying out in alarm, but their movement was so swift that it was accomplished before I had the chance to draw breath.
Each woman’s face was a mask of fierce concentration as she bore the lethal point of her weapon against her chest, seemingly with all the strength of both arms; and yet the deadly blades did not pierce them. Not a one screamed in pain, and I saw no blood. It was as if the daggers could not penetrate their skin.
Then the music started again, and they re-entered their dance. Still, no-one fainted, nor did blood flow. During my months of training with Persephone and her Amazons in Mr. Barton-Wright’s London gymnasium, I had grown accustomed to seeing young women execute feats of great calisthenic daring and antagonistic skill, but I had never seen anything like that.
So entranced was I, in fact, that I entirely failed to notice that I was no longer alone in my hiding spot behind the gauzy curtain until I felt myself shoved bodily from behind. I staggered forward violently, my hands coming up to guard my face and ensnarling themselves in the gauze, which tore free and wafted down to envelop my upper body.
The music stopped again and the dancers leapt away in startled confusion as I plunged into their midst, wrenching around to face whoever had pushed me while trying to disengage from the entangling gauze.
I found myself facing a furious woman, her blond hair streaming back as she rushed at me, her hands outstretched as claws. Reflexively I met her charge with the jiujitsu “stomach throw”, simultaneously falling back and leveraging one foot into her abdomen. The momentum of her attack propelled her over my head in a dangerous somersault, but she responded skilfully, rolling with the fall rather than crashing. I scrambled back to my feet, pulling free of the curtain fabric and raising my umbrella in what my cohort and instructress Miss Sanderson was pleased to call the “rear guard”, my left hand outstretched before me.
The blond woman raised her own hands in a defensive posture that I did not recognise, but which bespoke training in the antagonistic arts. I quickly assessed my situation. The erstwhile dancers had somewhat recovered their collective composure and were now circled about me, all seeming poised to attack if need be. Their musician companions had left their dais and added to their number. I was not here to fight and could not hope to defeat nine women, in any case; discretion would be the better part of valor.
“Wait!” I called out, raising my stance and lowering my arms. “There is no need for further violence!”
“Take her, sisters!” cried the blond woman, and I did not resist as they seized me, confiscated my umbrella and bound my wrists tightly behind my back with one of the tasseled cords. I was then forced to my knees before the woman who had attacked me from behind. She glared at me.
“Who are you and why are you here?” she demanded.
It did not take terribly long for me to explain myself, including details that proved my first-hand acquaintance with Alta Marhevka and the events of her attempted suicide – details that I could not have guessed at, nor gleaned from that day’s newspapers. As I explained my role in her rescue, the heated atmosphere in that strange room evened considerably, and the women began to glance at each other uncertainly, now seeming less like vengeful witch-queens and more like the gaggle of New York society girls that they undoubtedly were in daily life; though I could not account for their feat with the daggers.
I concluded by apologizing for interrupting their ritual and my blond interrogator seemed satisfied with my story.
“Release her,” she commanded imperiously, and so I found myself gratefully free and rubbing some feeling back into my numbed hands.
“I’m sorry for attacking you, Miss Lee,” she said, “but we have occasionally had to deal with hostile outsiders in the past, and I took you for a lurking spy or even assassin.” Her accent was not quite American – some Swedish, perhaps? – and her manner was somehow both slightly debauched and haughty. She seemed only a few years older than I.
“My name is Alma Hirsig,” she continued, “and, in Alta’s absence, I have assumed the role of Queen Bee. I know that you must have many questions and I may be able to answer some of them, but our immediate concern is for Alta’s well-being. That was the purpose of our rite this evening, to shore up resolve and lend her strength on the astral plane.”
(If I may be permitted an aside here, I have never had much truck with spiritualism. Indeed, I have occasionally been invited to delve into the doings of professional spiritualists. Every man jack of them has been either a cynical fraud, using legerdemain to prey upon their clients’ vulnerabilities and superstitions, or a sincere but deluded crank who has somehow become convinced of their own powers to communicate with the dearly departed.)
“Alma,” ventured one of the girls – a petite and wide-eyed brunette – “do you suppose it worked? We didn’t quite finish.”
“Even assuming that it did, Alta is in a precarious state of being,” Miss Hirsig replied. “At worst, she will find a way to use all that borrowed strength towards her final purpose.”
Some of the women gasped at this, and others shook their heads sorrowfully.
“I take it that you believe she still intends suicide?”, I asked.
“Undoubtedly so,” said Alma Hirsig. “Any one of us might do the same, were we in her position.”
With an elaborate bow and wave of the hand, she dismissed the now-grieving dancers and musicians, who offered a graceful, ritualistic bow in return, and all intoned a phrase that I recalled from one of Miss Marhevka’s notes – “Forth speed the strong”. They then obediently filed out through the doorway leading to the spiral staircase.
Miss Hirsig invited me to sit at a low table surrounded with colorful cushions, glanced towards the door and, seemingly satisfied that we were not to be disturbed, began to speak in low, urgent tones.
“As you must have gathered, Miss Lee, we are a select and secretive group. I won’t attempt to explain the details of our theology – they never make sense to outsiders anyway – so it will suffice to say that Dr. Latson was a genius, but that he was also very human. We – well, he and Alta, really – have been compiling a new religion, as it were, for this new century, drawing in all that is best from modern American soul-science and from the ancient traditions of the Orient.”
Privately, I marked Latson down as a spiritualistic Edward Barton-Wright; each man an eclecticist and iconoclast, making his mark via an experimental union of Asian and European elements. The main difference being that Mr. Barton-Wright was an eminently practical fellow. Neither as a fighter, nor as a healer, had he any time for mystical foofaraw; in fact, he had written an expose of certain tricks of leverage that were commonly passed off as evidence of superhuman strength by charlatans in the music halls. Dr. Latson, by way of contrast, had clearly tread a more occult path.
Miss Hirsig looked at me appraisingly and then inquired, “Do you mind if I ask after your ancestry?”
“My father is Chinese and my mother is English,” I replied.
“Ah, Chinese – so that explains your jiujitsu,” she observed knowingly, with the air of someone who rather delights in the dropping of names and hinting at occult knowledge.
“Actually, no – I’ve learned some self-defense recently, but that has been through the agency of friends in London,” I clarified. “My father is a businessman and a pacifist.”
I did not trouble to add further that, as jiujitsu is a Japanese art, my father was rather doubly unlikely to have been my teacher in this area. In fact, the closest he had ever come to antagonistics was to have hired some shway jao wrestlers as bodyguards during our time in Hong Kong.
Something passed behind Miss Hirsig’s eyes, but I could not tell what it was, and she shook it off forthwith.
“Well, in any case, you’re clearly a woman of action and of some shrewdness,” she continued, “to have come this far in your investigation. Also, of course, we should be grateful to you for saving young Alta’s life. Have you any knowledge of her present state?”
“The officer who arrested her mentioned that she was taken to Washington Heights Hospital,” I replied. “He thought she’d be taken to Bellvue, if she survived.”
Miss Hirsig sighed and briefly closed her eyes.
“I’ve been at the the station all day,” she confided, “and, as far as I could make out from the babbling of journalists and patrolmen, Alta regained consciousness this afternoon. She’s probably locked up in Bellvue as we speak. Damn it, we must get to her before she recovers enough to finish herself off!”
“She’ll surely be kept restrained and under close watch,” I offered.
“No doubt, and that makes our cause all the more urgent,” Miss Hirsig replied. “Alta has many gifts, but she is beset by a horror for any form of confinement. To be strapped to a hospital bed and observed night and day … that will be torture enough to drive her mad, if she is not there already. She is something of a genius herself and if she can’t out-wit a suicide watchman, I’d be much surprised. For that matter, she’s well-trained in Dr. Latson’s method of self defense, so even if she can’t out-wit her guard, she can probably out-match him.”
I well recalled Miss Marhevka’s startling speed and skill in antagonistics.
“She must have loved the doctor very much,” I observed.
“Oh, yes, Miss Lee. They have been lovers for a long time – longer than has been at all healthy for Alta, if you want my candid opinion. It’s all so very complicated … but, as I’ve said, Dr. Latson was very human.”
Alma Hirsig sighed again and seemed to be waiting for me to prompt her. I found her theatrical affectations irritating, but young Alta was clearly in danger, so I obliged by asking, “Do you doubt that he killed himself?”
“No, not at all. His medical practice was failing and he was about to be evicted. What the police have said about finding morphine and hyoscine – well, I never actually saw him partake of drugs, but I wouldn’t be surprised. He put up a very good front – good enough to fool the other Hive girls – but I’ve seen the signs before, in other men.”
Miss Hirsig leant forward.
“What most troubles me right now, though, is the fact that Dr. Latson was shot under his right jaw!”
She paused as if to let me draw my own conclusions, but I impatiently shook my head, having no way of knowing what she was driving at.
“The doctor had suffered a break of his right arm while playing football in college, and it healed badly” she continued. “He could barely bend that arm at all, certainly not far enough to bring a pistol into that position!” She mimed the action for dramatic effect. “It is simply impossible for him to have done so.”
“Then I don’t take your meaning,” I replied. “If he could not have fired the fatal shot …”
“Our, well, ‘religion’, if that is how one wishes to think of it, makes much of certain secret powers of the mind and body,” said Miss Hirsig. “As you saw earlier, it is possible to enter such a trance as to be impervious to sharp knives. The doctor and Alta did much private experimentation in that sphere, delving deeply into hypnotism and altered states of consciousness.
In sum, Miss Lee, yes, I very much believe that Dr. Latson killed himself – but I think that Alta Marhevka was his weapon!”
Alma Hirsig, evidently being much given to hinting at the ineffable – or simply the distasteful – then paused for dramatic effect, her eyes wide open.
As far as I knew, no entranced subject could be compelled to carry out an action that was truly against their best judgment. But perhaps a young girl, in thrall to a charismatic older man – her God-Man – could be so compelled. Perhaps especially if he was desperate … if he begged her … might such a woman be mesmerically induced to kill out of mercy?
Miss Hirsig went on to explain that Alta was utterly devoted to Latson’s strange creed, which held that death was simply the stepping stone to a kind of etheric, blissful state of being she called Samadhi. Finding herself bereft, Alta would have no qualms about joining him in that state. The police, meanwhile, would be interrogating her, sifting the evidence, and might well conclude that she had committed murder out of some womanish spite, then attempted to take her own life in remorse, or to escape the misery of life-long imprisonment.
In any case, it was clear that Alta Marhevka was living her personal version of Hell, and that her future looked grim indeed.
“We must get to her, and very soon, Miss Lee,” Alma concluded. “Alta trusts us as sisters and we will be able to persuade her that life is still worth living. If all else fails, she is susceptible to certain mantras …” she trailed off and glanced at me, and I intuited that she had spoken out of turn, forgetting my status as an outsider to their cult.
“The trouble is,” Miss Hirsig continued, “we can’t reach her. The other girls are looking to me for leadership, being the eldest and, shall we say, the most experienced in the ways of the world, but I confess that I have no idea how to get past the guards at Bellvue.” She gazed at me for a moment, then looked down, her shoulders slumped, and shook her head sadly.
“We were once rivals, Alta and I,” she confessed, “but this … I can’t bear the thought …”
“Miss Hirsig,” I began, “I think that I may be able to help you.”
A few words will suffice to describe what remains of this odd adventure. Having successfully employed a tactic much-used by my Amazon friends in smuggling fugitive suffragettes to and from various secure locations, I felt that I had done what I could to assist Alma, Alta – or Ida, as it seemed – and the “Bee Girls”. In any case, I had the next morning to depart again for England, and so passed a distracted week aboard the R.M.S. Olympic, pleased that Alta/Ida seemed to have returned to herself again but unknowing as to her fate at the hands of the law.
Upon our berth at Southampton I immediately checked The Times for any news. I was surprised to discover that the coroners had been unable to agree on the circumstances of Latson’s death – one insisted that it must have been suicide, while his colleague insisted the opposite.
The judge, nevertheless, found that Ida Rosenthal would not be held on suspicion of Dr. Latson’s murder. A few days later, the court gave a final verdict of “death by suicide”, and so ended the mysterious case of the God-Man of Riverside Drive; though, like the Bellvue doctors, I found myself startled by the sudden transformation from Alta Marhevka back to Ida Rosenthal. I could not help but wonder if, perhaps, she was not the greater mystery.
I still wondered, also, about the Bee Girls’ feat with their keris daggers, and the next time I took exercise at Mr. Barton-Wright’s Bartitsu Club, I asked if he could explain it. Smiling (a little grimly, I thought), he retired momentarily to his office, and then emerged bearing a wickedly sharp-looking bayonet. Placing it against his chest, he assumed the same posture as had the Bee Girls and, just as they had, appeared to bear mightily upon the blade, but of course it did him no harm.
“The trick, Miss Lee, is largely of the mind,” he explained. “An entranced dancer is typically in a highly suggestible state and they can easily believe that they really are trying to stab themselves. Though it looks and feels dangerous, in fact they are simply tensing all their muscles against each other. It is almost a self-induced paralysis.”
He pondered the bayonet for a moment and then, spinning on his heel, sent it flashing through the air and directly into the thick dart-board Mr. Uyenishi used for shuriken practice. It stuck into the target with a fearsome thunk and vibrated for a moment. Mr. Barton-Wright then turned back to me and noted somberly, “Of course, the Boxer rebels of the Righteous and Harmonious Fist Society in China believed that they were invulnerable to attack by blade, gunshot and cannon-fire. Their belief made them courageous, but so many died …”
Some weeks later I was encouraged to receive a letter from Ida, who apologised profusely for having fought me in her apartment – “I was quite out of my mind with grief and religious fervour”, she noted – and thanked me for helping her friends to reach her. She also mentioned that she intended to go sub rosa for some time, having had more than her fill of occult scandals and newspaper-men.
I have just this morning received a telegram from Ida Rosenthal, which reads:
MISS LEE. EN ROUTE TO LONDON. SEEK DETECTIVE TRAINING FROM THE BEST RE NEW POSITION WITH MAGICIAN H.HOUDINI. FORTH SPEED THE STRONG. REGARDS IDA R.
How very intriguing …
Journalist Kate Lismore of Konbini recently interviewed Tony Wolf on the inspirations and process behind the Suffrajitsu graphic novel trilogy:
Kate Lismore: What inspired you about the Suffragettes to create your comic/graphic novel?
Tony Wolf: I’d been fascinated by the real-life history of Mrs. Pankhurst’s Amazons for many years, so when Neal Stephenson and Mark Teppo asked me to contribute a graphic novel story to their Foreworld Saga franchise, I jumped at the chance to get creative with that theme.
Given that I’d never actually written a graphic novel before, it was a bit of a leap of faith on Neal’s part to get me involved, and I’m very grateful for the opportunity. He actually makes a guest appearance in the first story, as a well-dressed villain …
Beyond that, though, I just think it’s awesome that a group of women in Edwardian England – “King Edward’s on the throne, it’s the age of men!” as Mr. Banks sings in Mary Poppins – actually risked their safety and freedom, over and over again, to improve the lives of future generations. The fact that some of them were also kick-ass martial arts-trained bodyguards is the icing on the cake.
Lismore: What is it about comic book genre that makes moments in history more accessible/engaging for people?
Wolf: I think it’s the appeal of a dramatic character-based narrative over “dry”, academic history, although I love the genres of modern, popular historical nonfiction that are bringing so many amazing stories to light. History is everything that ever happened before now – there’s a lot of very cool stuff in there.
I’m hoping that the Suffrajitsu trilogy, along with the new Suffragette movie, will serve as a kind of edutainment. It’s astounds me that so few people know about the radical suffragette movement. It was an incredibly complex, dramatic and interesting period in recent British history, and yet women’s suffrage is mostly remembered as meek ladies waving placards, Emily Davison being hit by a racehorse and a funny song, also from Mary Poppins.
Obviously, there was a huge amount that, with the best will in the world, I simply couldn’t fit in to a 66-page action-adventure graphic novel, but I tried to communicate certain key points. For one thing, lots of progressive men supported the suffragettes – the newspapers nicknamed them “suffragents” – and lots of conservative women vehemently opposed them, especially as the protest campaigns became more militant. Two male supporting characters, Edward Barton-Wright and Vernon Kell, represent the suffragent perspective in my stories.
There was also a great diversity of opinion among the suffragettes themselves. For example, Christabel Pankhurst, the daughter of Emmeline Pankhurst who led the radical Women’s Social and Political Union, became a strident nationalist during the First World War.
She was a very fierce and intelligent strategist and she campaigned for young men to be shamed into entering the armed forces, by having young women hand them white feathers, symbolic of cowardice. That was extremely controversial at the time, similar to Internet shaming campaigns today. In the Suffrajitsu stories, Persephone Wright, who has been one of Christabel’s loyal bodyguards, takes serious ethical issue with the white feather business.
Lismore: Your series focusses on the Amazons and their work protecting the other Suffragettes, how much were you able to take from real life accounts and how much were you able to create for Suffrajitsu?
Wolf: Almost all of the main events in the first issue are very closely based on real-life accounts. Sometimes people hear that Suffrajitsu is an “alternate history” story and jump to the conclusion that the central premise is fictional, but no – there really was a secret society of martial arts-trained women who protected the leaders of the radical English suffragettes!
I think a lot of people are surprised to hear about this because they assume that, if something that awesome really happened, it would be common knowledge by now. Unfortunately, though, as with many interesting social phenomena of the very early 20th century, the Amazons were virtually forgotten in the cultural chaos of the First World War.
It sometimes also happens that people go the other way and assume that Suffrajitsu is supposed to be a verbatim documentary, but the reality is that the story was always intended to combine history and fiction at many levels.
Almost all of the characters are fictional representations of historically real people, the major exception being my main protagonist, Persephone Wright, who is the leader of the Amazon team. Persi is partly inspired by a number of real women, including Gert Harding – the young Canadian who led the Amazons in real life – and Edith Garrud, who was the team’s martial arts instructor. Edith also makes a cameo appearance in the graphic novel, and she’s received quite a lot of press over the past couple of years.
Persi is her own woman, though. She’s what would have been called a “bohemienne”, basically an artistic, free-thinking Edwardian hippie chick, who also happens to be highly trained in the martial arts. She’s bisexual and, like many people during the early 20th century, she’s heavily addicted to cocaine, which was prescribed by doctors as a wonder-cure for all kinds of ailments. In Persi’s case, it was “melancholia”, or what we’d think of as depression, arising from a trauma that occurred when she was seventeen. So, all together she has a pretty complicated life, but fundamentally she’s a person with a very strong drive to protect other people and to fight for what she believes in. Literally, when necessary.
Our representations of the Amazons’ confrontations with the police are very faithful to the historical record, with only minor tweaks for storytelling purposes. That includes the spectacular “Battle of Glasgow”, in which 30 suffragettes brawled with squads of police constables on the St. Andrew’s Hall auditorium stage, in front of an audience of 4000 shocked spectators. Again, yes, that really happened. However, there’s an event at the end of the first story that is a radical departure from history, and that event really spins the adventure off into the Foreworld universe.
That said, the second and third stories are also shot through with historically real characters and locations. Even our main villain was directly based on a real person, although he’s much more powerful and successful in the story than he was in reality – which is a very good thing!
Lismore: Often the term “feminism” is considered a very loaded term; how do you think young men and women can reclaim this and make it more positive?
Wolf: I think that feminism is ideally a position of positive advocacy. For literally as long as I can remember, I’ve understood that all people deserve equal rights and responsibilities, regardless of race, religion, gender, etc. I worked for several years as a women’s self-defence instructor, which enlightened me to some extent as to the power imbalances that still play out every day, everywhere, and I do what I can to redress those imbalances when I have the chance.
The serious risk with any “-ism” is that it mutates over time into a parody of itself. The worst case is that an originally positive, dare-I-say common sense position can degenerate into a kind of dogmatic, conformist control mechanism that supplants individuality, open-mindedness and critical thinking. “Be careful what you hate”, and so-on.
I’m about half a century old now, so young people should feel free to ignore my opinions, but it does give me pause to hear about student activists agitating for “trigger warnings”, “safe spaces” and so-on. I appreciate the sentiment, but I have to say that previous generations, from the suffragettes through to the women’s liberationists and other social activists of the ’60s and ’70s, did not typically portray themselves as victims, except as a tactical choice.
Frankly, students should be seeking out challenges rather than demanding to be protected from ideas that they don’t like. These trends trouble me because I want to be able to respect and support these young men and women as the next generation of social progressives.
So, that’s me being all curmudgeonly. My best advice for the younger generation is to be skeptical, imaginative, curious and honest.
Lismore: How did you learn about the Amazons? Despite learning about women’s suffrage in school I’d never heard of them before.
Wolf: I first learned about the Amazons as a teenager, reading a book on martial arts history which included an anecdote about young London “society girls” shinnying down drainpipes and sneaking off to secret suffragette jiujitsu classes in the dead of night.
The “secret society” aspect – the idea of this cat-and-mouse game between guerilla suffragettes and the police, playing out in the streets at the height of what was almost a state of civil war – struck a very romantic and transgressive chord. I experienced something similar a few years later, during the massive and frequently violent social unrest that erupted during the South African Springbok rugby team tour of New Zealand, when anti-apartheid protesters clashed with rugby fans and police.
When the Internet came along I became seriously involved in reviving Bartitsu, which is an eccentric “mixed martial art” for ladies and gentlemen that was founded in London right at the turn of the 20th century. As I was researching Bartitsu I started to come across more and more information about the suffragette bodyguards.
I included chapters on the Amazons in several Bartitsu-themed books I produced between 2005-2008, and then I wrote the book Edith Garrud: The Suffragette Who Knew Jujutsu, which was intended to interest young teenagers in herstory and in learning self defence. The Amazons were also featured in a Bartitsu documentary that I co-produced in 2011, and I’ve advised on quite a number of articles and academic theses about them over the past few years.
Lismore: You’ve released the trio of Suffrajitsu comics, are there any more adventures in the works?
Wolf: I’d love to do more, and I’ll never say never, but Suffrajitsu was commissioned as a stand-alone, self-contained trilogy. That said, the idea of Mrs. Pankhurst’s Amazon team obviously cries out for expansion beyond what I was able to do in one graphic novel.
Last year I organised a project that brought together four other writers who have produced further adventures set in the Suffrajitsu milieu, incorporating many characters from my stories. I gave the writers advance access to the graphic novel scripts plus a detailed “world guide”, as well as editorial feedback. Their short stories and novellas are now available as e-books via Amazon.com’s Kindle Worlds, which is a platform for licensed fan fiction set in numerous fictional universes, including the Foreworld Saga.
Incidentally, we have an open invitation for writers to contribute their own Suffrajitsu stories via the same scheme, and I hope more people do join in. I enjoyed every bit of the process of developing the Kindle Worlds stories – it was both humbling and deeply satisfying to have others playing in my sandbox!
Lismore: Is there much collaboration between your storylines and Joao’s illustration? How did you decide on your strong visual aesthetic?
Wolf: There was a great deal of collaboration over about 12 months, all by email as Joao lives in Brazil and I’m currently based in Chicago, USA. I wrote the graphic novel script as if it were a screenplay, with detailed “stage directions”, etc., anticipating a close collaboration with the artist. Likewise, there was a lot of email collaboration with BOOM! Studio in Seattle, who handled the colouring, lettering etc.
The visual aesthetic was very much a team effort. Joao Vieira has a superb sense of dynamic action and a real flair for illustrating the Edwardian period, plus expertise in framing and “camera angles”, and our colourist, Josan Gonzales, found exactly the right palette. I had strong ideas about certain things – the Art Nouveau covers, etc. – and, because I also work as a fight choreographer for theatre, TV, feature films and video games, I had definite opinions about the Bartitsu action scenes.
I sent Joao a large number of character, item and location reference photographs, which I’d compiled during my years of academic research. Some of those are just little personal touches, like a brandy flask which is shown at one point, which is based on a flask I inherited from my grandfather.
Myself and my wife, Kathrynne, who is an actress, posed for some further reference photographs, and there are also “guest appearances” by my parents and my son Josh, who appears as a back-alley Soho hooligan in the third story.
I also had the chance to revise the script in certain areas, in response to what the art team was doing. I was delighted with the look of the comics. I’m sure this is old hat to experienced graphic novel writers, but there was something magical about having the scenes that I’d been visualising brought to life on the page.
Lismore: If there’s one lesson that today’s society, particularly young women, could learn from the Suffragettes and the Amazons, what do you think it is?
Wolf: To have the courage of their convictions. The group of domestic violence protesters who creatively disrupted the red carpet premiere of Suffragette had the right idea. “Deeds, not words” was the suffragette battle-cry, and I think that has a particular resonance today, when so much of our daily lives are lived in virtual space, bouncing tweets and likes and shares back and forth. The Internet is a fantastic tool, but if you want real-world change, you have to get out there and do it.
Thanks to the recent BBC News article about the radical suffragettes’ use of the martial arts, which featured Tony Wolf’s Suffrajitsu graphic novel trilogy, popular awareness of the suffragette Amazons has reached an all-time high.
The article and subsequent BBC World Service radio interview with Tony have generated over 15,000 tweets and Facebook posts over the past two days, plus numerous articles in other media.
Emelyne Godfrey, the author of two books on self-defence during the “long Victorian era”, has also recently been interviewed on this subject for BBC Wales radio.
Along with rave reviews for the recent world premiere of Sarah Gavron’s Suffragette feature film comes the surprising news that Helena Bonham Carter’s character was actually named in honor of real-life suffragette jiujitsu instructor Edith Garrud.
Edith Garrud makes cameo appearances in the Suffrajitsu graphic novel trilogy and is a supporting character in several of the short stories and novellas inspired by that trilogy. Suffrajitsu was largely inspired by the adventures of the secret society of bodyguards known as the Amazons, who defended suffragette leaders against arrest and assault. Edith Garrud was their chief trainer.
Bonham Carter’s movie character, Edith Ellyn – representing the most radical of the suffragette activists – is also portrayed as a jujitsu instructor in the movie, although, as the actress notes, a number of the jiujitsu scenes have been removed for story reasons. Hopefully they may re-appear in some form when the movie is released on DVD.
Click here to read the full interview by Hayley Weiss for Interview Magazine, from which the following comments are excerpted:
WEISS: Did you feel pressure portraying Edith because she’s a historical figure?
BONHAM CARTER: No, it was only tangential to the fact that she was historical. Originally the character I was asked [to play] was somebody called Caroline, and then I found out about this character called Edith [Margaret] Garrud, who was 4’11” and taught the suffragettes jiu-jitsu—basically self-defense—against the police.
I based a lot of this character on Edith, but having said that, for story reasons, a lot of the jiu-jitsu has been cut. But no, I didn’t feel pressure, because no one knows about her anyway. She’s a real inspiration and, I thought, an amazing story; this woman who is literally 5’1″ or even 4’11” and could defend herself against these men twice her weight and twice her size. One of the big arguments against women getting the vote, which was such a stupid one, was that they couldn’t fight for their country. They can fight.
WEISS: Edith speaks of the need for action rather than words for change to happen, and the fight in this film isn’t a quiet one. Was the filming process intense?
BONHAM CARTER: We had riots, obviously not real riots, but we had proper fights. Anne-Marie [Duff] got hurt at one point. If you’re having a riot, and the police are restraining you, and you say “Stop,” the stunt men didn’t realize she was saying stop as an actress. So it ended up being quite complicated at first, but then luckily she wasn’t really badly hurt. It was extraordinary, actually, being in the middle, as I’ve certainly never experienced any physical violence. I learned lots of jiu-jitsu, too, so that was fun. So it wasn’t peaceful, it was extraordinary.
WEISS: I actually grew up doing jiu-jitsu.
BONHAM CARTER: Did you enjoy it?
WEISS: I loved it. I liked that you could be small, and it’s about using the right moves to find your power, versus brute strength.
BONHAM CARTER: That’s exactly the method that I wanted to get across. That’s what I thought was so potent for Edith: it wasn’t about brute force; it was about skill. Women can hold their own against men.
The stirring new trailer for Suffragette, the upcoming feature film (releasing in October, 2015) starring Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter and Meryl Streep. The story is set during the height of the women’s suffrage protests and a little bird tells us that it will include representatives of Mrs. Pankhurst’s martial arts-trained bodyguard team …