Bartitsu founder E.W. Barton-Wright once expressed the wish to export his “New Art of Self Defence” to the United States, and several of his articles for London magazines were subsequently re-published in American newspapers. While Bartitsu itself was not, as it happened, exported to the USA, a small number of somewhat similar self defence systems did arise in North America during the early years of the 20th century. This article deals with evidence for one of those methods, and more particularly with the mystery and extraordinary scandal that enveloped the proponents of that method in the year 1911.
In 1906, the famed New York City photographer Percy C. Byron was commissioned to take a series of studio photographs depicting “Dr. Latson’s Method of Self Defense”. The pictures show an athletic young woman demonstrating an unarmed combat stance, several techniques of self defence with an umbrella and a stamping side kick to the attacker’s knee. There is also one picture that appears to show a dance or calisthenic posture.
Dr. W.R.C. Latson
New Yorker William Richard Cunningham Latson had graduated from the Eclectic Medical College of New York City in 1904 and quickly became something of a self-help celebrity. The editor of Health-Culture, an influential magazine, he was also a prolific author of health and fitness books and his articles appeared in newspapers all across America. As a keen physical culturist with a particular passion for boxing, Latson’s subjects ranged from correct posture to natural diet and from the moral benefits of athletic training to the physiology of knock-out punches.
The 1906 self defence pictures eventually appeared as illustrations in a June 11, 1911 Denver Post article titled “When a Thug Attacks You”:
… and they were much later featured as historical curiosities in the book Once Upon a City: New York 1890 to 1910 (1958) and then in the June, 1972 issue of American Heritage magazine. The apparent absence of any references to “Latson self defense method” classes, demonstrations, etc. during the early 1900s may suggest either that the method remained undeveloped, or simply that it was not taught publicly.
During the first decade of the 20th century, Latson’s writing increasingly tended towards self-improvement in the psychological and even spiritual senses.
Scandal and mystery
On May 11, 1911 Dr. Latson’s body was discovered in the library of his well-appointed apartment at 660 Riverside Drive. He had been killed by a single shot from a revolver, which was found underneath his body; also nearby was a note reading “Gertie and Mother, I have done my best – death.”
The subsequent investigation by coroners and police aroused a storm of media controversy that included allegations of “sex cult” activity, murder, hypnotism, a suicide pact gone awry and “mystical psychology”. The controversy focused on the relationship between the late Dr. Latson and his 21 year old secretary, protégée and lover Ida Rosenthal, who used the name “Alta Marhevka” (also rendered by journalists as “Marhezka”, “Marhelka” and numerous other spellings). She was seen climbing out of the window of Dr. Latson’s apartment several hours before his body was discovered and, incidentally, is also believed to have been the woman who posed for the Latson self defence method photographs in 1906.
Several days after the shooting Miss Rosenthal, who had been named as a co-respondent in Dr. Latson’s divorce several years earlier, attempted suicide by gas poisoning in her bathroom. The room strewn with note papers bearing scraps of poetry and philosophical musings. Rescued by her landlady, Rosenthal spent the next several days in hospital. She made a number of statements to reporters, describing Dr. Latson as “a theosophist and Buddhist, learned in the occult”, expressing the belief that Latson’s spirit had risen to a higher plane of existence and referring to him as her “gourah” (guru). The latter word was typically translated by reporters as “god-man”, leading the scandal to be referred to in newspaper headlines as “the God-Man Mystery”.
On June 29, despite a stark disagreement between the coroner in charge of the investigation and his associate – one was convinced that the gunshot that killed Latson was self-inflicted, the other insisted that it could not have been because of the lack of powder burns around the fatal wound – a coroner’s court jury quickly found that Dr. Latson had committed suicide and no charges in connection to his death were ever laid against Ida Rosenthal.