by Paul R. Spitzzeri
As American ascended higher into the ranks of world powers at the end of the 19th century, one of the manifestations was the launching of the Spanish-American War of 1898, the pretext for which was the mid-February sinking of the U.S.S. Maine in the harbor of Havana, Cuba and, while it was never established what caused the explosion that destroyed the ship, pro-war propaganda, including that fueled by the young newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst, fed public support for war.
In early June, it was decided to try and block the harbor at Havana by deliberately sinking the U.S.S. Merrimac and Captain Richmond Pearson Hobson, a 27-year old Navy officer, and seven others volunteered for the mission which put them directly in the line of Spanish fire and at the risk of death. While the effort was not entirely successful and Hobson and others were captured and kept for a month as prisoners of war, the incident made him a national hero when he returned to the United States. In fact, he was so well known for kissing women who flocked to him as he toured the country that he was jokingly called the “Hero of Merri-Smack.”
Hobson was born in 1870 Greensboro, Alabama on a family plantation only recently using slaves as labor. After graduating from what became Birmingham-Southern College, he secured an appointment, at just age 15, to the Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland, being the youngest midshipman in his class. He was an excellent student and orator and, when he graduated in 1889 he was at the top of his class.
The young man served two years as an assistant navigator on a vessel and then studied naval design for four years in France. Upon his return home, Hobson took a position at the Navy’s construction and repair bureau, overseeing the building of ships nationwide and set up a three-year postgraduate course on vessel construction. He also became an advocate for strengthening the American naval forces, believing that this would allow it to be a world power for peace.
With the outbreak of the war, the lieutenant, who’d previously served with Admiral William T. Sampson in the north Atlantic, continued as a junior officer for the admiral, with whom the plan for the Havana harbor blockade was developed. After the conflict concluded, Hobson was sent to the Philippines to salvage Spanish ships sunk at Manila and Santiago, but, while in the tropical environment came down with a major case of typhoid fever. Among his maladies were severe effects on his vision, which he insisted interfered with his duties, but, when he sought to retire, the request was denied.
Hobson blamed his home state representative John H. Bankhead (whose granddaughter was the famed actor Tallulah Bankhead) for preventing his retirement, so the 18-year veteran resigned early in 1903, with the Navy formally accepting it at the end of February, and then embarked on a speaking tour which included a stop in greater Los Angeles. The featured object from the Museum’s collection for this post is a complimentary pass issued by The Blanchard and Venter Lyceum and Musical Bureau, a booking agency led by Frederick W. Blanchard (1864-1928).
Blanchard came to the Angel City as the Boom of the 1880s came to an end at the close of that decade and ran a well-known music store, while he also built his namesake building, which was devoted to providing space for musicians and artists. A president of the musical society, the Gamut Club, and also a head of the city’s art commission, Blanchard formed the Brahms Quartet and was president of the Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra Association.
He was a founder of the entity that soon became the Hollywood Bowl Association and championed the civic center and Union Station projects in their early development. A proponent of the “good roads” campaign, Blanchard was also an investor in real estate developments like Hollywoodland and Dana Point with Sidney H. Woodruff.
The pass was issued to “Chief” (one wonders if this was city water engineer William Mulholland who was commonly known by that moniker) and allowed for three persons under an “usher” account to attend an event on 31 March 1903 at Simpson Auditorium on Hope Street, south of 7th Street. Though the event is not specified, it was an oration given by Hobson called “America, Mistress of the Sea.”
Early in March, the Los Angeles Record reported via a press report from Chicago that Hobson, on leaving the service, planned to write a novel “and devote all his time to lecturing and literary work.” As he passed through Chicago on his way to Des Moines, Iowa, he stated that “his mission would be to educate the American people; that this was the greatest nation in the world; that we controlled one-third of the world; and, therefore, ought to have the largest navy in the world and as much to say on international affairs as all of Europe together.”
Ten days before his talk, the Los Angeles Express noted that his oration would be the auspices of the Y.M.C.A. and it related that “Captain Hobson will go down in history as one of the American naval heroes” because of his efforts to seal off the Spanish fleet at Havana. It added that “the world has applauded Hobson and his place is secure among those who offered up their lives at the call of duty.” Notably, it concluded by observing that he was the son of a Confederate veteran and this, therefore, meant that his heroism “typified the perfect units that exists between north and south” as well as “signalled the reunion of all sections and the indestructability of the states.”
As a prelude to his Simpson Auditorium address, Hobson was feted at a Y.M.C.A. banquet, where it was said by the Express that “his commanding air and pleasing manner fascinated those who attended.” It was added that his reputation for his “alleged kissing exploits” preceded him, as well as recognition of his wartime heroism along with sympathy on his “forced retirement from the Navy” and the paper noted “there is not one who heard him that did not leave with profound admiration for the man.”
This “was a distinct surprise” and his oration was greeted with frequent applause for his patriotic utterances, while the fact that “he carried himself with dignity” was duly recorded. Mayor Meredith P. Snyder welcomed the guest, stating, “Los Angeles will ever cherish the memory of Captain Hobson’s visit” and that “the city is delighted to honor him.” In addition, Superior Court Judge Curtis Wilbur toasted President Theodore Roosevelt and calling for his election in 1904 (Roosevelt succeeded to the office upon the assassination of William McKinley two years prior.)
Hobson’s address was on “America’s Supremacy” and he told the assemblage that the sinking of the Merrimac was a group effort and that anyone in the room would have done the same thing. He then opined that:
America, holding the seas, will stand as the advocate of human liberties. She will stand [as] the exponent of this new era of brotherhood, of good will toward men, and herein lies the glory of American supremacy. More, America stands for the welfare, prosperity and the happiness of, the whole human race.
In its coverage of the dinner, the Los Angeles Times called the event “about the strangest banquet ever held” because it “opened with a prayer, proceeded to the time of popular music, and closed with a real sermon.” From time-to-time, the function featured “enthusiastic patriotism, religious fervor, witty exchanges and pondering on plain business.” While the food was excellent, the decorations fine, and the music entertaining, there was no alcohol or tobacco present, though “notwithstanding this, not a guest departed until the close.”
The paper agreed with its contemporary about the surprising effect Hobson had, but added that “Nature made Capt. Hobson just like a story-book hero . . . he had a figure like a Grecian god . . . his features are finely cut and his smile broad and radiant,” though he had a tendency to squint because of his eye problems. Still, he was described as polished, eloquent and magnetic in his address “and his ringing utterances aroused the assemblage to the highest pitches of patriotic enthusiasm.”
He was treated to multiple renditions of “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” before his 15-minute speech and he reminded the audience that “there are twice as many Americans as there are people in almost any of the European nations” and that each resident produced “between three and a half and four times as much of the world’s necessities as the average European.” In his calculations, the United States was equal to seven world powers or to all of Europe and was one-third of the world in power, so that it was in a class by itself.
Hobson went on:
This country can no longer be compared with other countries, she must be compared with continents. We are the whale in the world’s millpond and we don’t know it.
The speaker added that “it will not do for Americans [any] longer to neglect this question of an adequate navy for the United States.” He averred that, even if all other nations invaded the country, such an attack could not destroy it, but other navies could set the U.S. back generations. He ended with “our greatest weakness and danger is in the individual becoming engrossed in the private conquests of peace as to be neglectful of public affairs. It is the bounden duty of every citizen to take an active interest in good government.”
Yet, when it came to his address at the Simpson the next evening, the Times was decidedly disappointed in his address, though part of the problem may have been that a heavy rain limited attendance, though those in the auditorium gave Hobson “a hearty reception” and “enthusiastically applauded” his oration. The problem was that the speaker “is handicapped by an array of cold statistics and facts, which, perhaps, do not give play to his personal charm and magnetism.” Someone lesser known and liked would have found the talk not “particularly striking.”
In presenting a roster of facts about what was obvious concerning America’s place in the world and its greatness, Hobson’s choice of presentation method was such that “an address of this character, in order to become effective and entertaining, requires the touch and power of an orator, whose natural gifts have been subjected to the tricks of his trade, and a training of this kind is not usual with men brought up in military or naval careers.”
Yet, the paper posited that, being new to the rostrum he would improve with time and experience “until he has acquired the same ease in his studied efforts that marks his extemporaneous and after-dinner utterances.” The piece ended with the statement that a second speech at the venue was to be given at a later date and tickets honored from this first oration.
Hobson did take his show on the road regionally, including stops at Spurgeon’s Hall in the Orange County seat of Santa Ana, where a large attendance was enthusiastic and frequently applauded his remarks; the Armory opera house at Pomona, where the Pomona Progress praised his patriotism and logical force and called his address masterful and thrilling; and the Loring Theater at Riverside, though this latter was before a small crowd. He also spoke to the prominent Friday Morning Club, comprised of eminent (white) women in the Angel City, telling the ladies that his mother was president of a similar organization back home in Alabama. Notably, he told the gathering that “sociology is the great question of the day, and women, who are less burdened with the affairs of government, have more time than men to look into these matters.”
He continued that the present day was the most important since the beginning of the world and that “the United States has a gigantic roll [sic] to play in the development of the nation’s [world’s] history” with the current generation “to have more influence than any other in shaping the political policy of the world.” Therefore, he concluded, “it is an opportune time for women to take up the question of sociology.”
Hobson offered that women were also in the forefront of aesthetics and the arts and claimed that, while he did not plan on getting political, told the assembled “after all, who should be greatest in power than the noblest—the women!” He surmised that groups like the Friday Morning Club might be a vessel for better understanding “a broad sociology, politics in its broadest sense” and that “it might make a specialty of the United States and its foreign policy.”
In its 6 April edition, the Express ran a feature highlighting a letter sent by Hobson to Judge Wilbur, a classmate at the naval academy, which sought to fully explain the issues behind the officer’s resignation when retirement was rejected, purportedly because of concerns about precedent. Representative Bankhead, he alleged, opposed the request when a House committee heard the matter and this action was such that Hobson “virtually has been forced into the political arena . . . to compete with him for the congressional nomination” for Alabama’s 6th District seat.
Sure enough, in the 1906 election, Hobson unseated Bankhead, who, however, was later appointed to a Senate seat, and the former naval officer and hero served four terms though 1915. He was a Progressive and supported better roads in rural areas of his state; improving education for farmers; the increased regulation of railroads; the imposition of a graduated income tax (which came in 1913 as the threat of national prohibition of alcohol loomed); and the direct election of senators, which also soon was enacted, state legislatures having previously voted for them. He also actively supported the right of women to vote—however, Alabama did not ratify the 19th Amendment until 1953!
A teetotaler in the service, which definitely made him stand out among his peers, Hobson enthusiastically took up the cause of national prohibition and was considered by some to be a “father of the 18th Amendment” by being a contributor to the writing of the Volstead Act, the enabling legislation for Prohibition, which constitutional amendment was ratified in 1919. Hobson was a prominent speaker for the national ban and was paid considerable sums by the powerful Anti-Saloon League for his work.
Moving with his wife and three children to Los Angeles by 1920, Hobson then took up the cause of fighting narcotics use and addiction and formed the International Narcotics Education Association, based in Pasadena and then in the Angel City. He remained a resident of the area through the Roaring Twenties, leading his organization and regularly giving orations, for which he was widely known after his early halting efforts two decades or so prior.
A meeting of major figures in the association was held in 1924 at the palatial residence of Henry E. Huntington, a director of the group, the location now being the main art gallery at the Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens. Local attorney Will D. Gould, a long-time temperance advocate and who helped Walter P. Temple secure a safe, bricks and other materials for the Temple Block, where the lawyer kept offices during the life of the structure from 1871 to 1925, left a third of his $2 million estate to the association upon his death in 1926.
In 1930, Hobson and his family moved to New York City, where he continued his anti-drug efforts including with the World Narcotic Defense Association, formed a few years prior. In 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt presented him and his fellow Merrimac crew members with the Congressional Medal of Honor and, the following year, Hobson was promoted to Rear Admiral, both for his wartime heroism and his work in Congress on behalf of the Navy. A destroyer, built just before America’s entry into World War II, was named for him as are two towns in Alabama, while his family home is a state landmark.