“Dr. Latson’s Method of Self Defense” (New York City, 1906) and the “God-Man” scandal of 1911

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.

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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.

Latson portrait

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.

12 thoughts on ““Dr. Latson’s Method of Self Defense” (New York City, 1906) and the “God-Man” scandal of 1911”

  1. What a fascinating tale! From searching the New York Times archives, I found that Gertie was Dr. Latson’s sister and that the handwriting in the note was verified as Latson’s own. Also, because he could not bend his right arm due to an old injury, the unusual position of the bullet was deemed by some experts to be a result of that. Others said that there was no way it could have been a suicide because of the lack of powder burns and position of the gun. And other suggested that theosophy, mesmerism, hypnotism were to blame – that the did not believe in death, and that Dr. Latson mesmerized Miss Rosenthal into murdering him. The truth will never be known.

  2. That’s another part of the mystery; if Latson couldn’t bend his right arm, he couldn’t possibly have shot himself in the way the coroner assumed, which requires a tight bend at the elbow to bring the revolver into position.

    There’s a lot of coverage of the scandal available in newspaper archives, including the content of some of the notes found in Miss Rosenthal’s apartment after her suicide attempt.

  3. People, I am the great grandson of Dr. Latson, and have only recently found these articles. My grandfather was one of his sons, and believed that he was deceased many years before he really died. I am trying to find any information as to the name of my great grandmother, who divorced him, apparently due to the affair with the lady in the pictures above. Sadly, my great grandmother was killed in the New York city area by a vehicle, but before she was killed, she had remarried a man named Harry Guthmuller, who was a widower with children. After my GGM died, my grandfather, and great Uncle, were put into an orphanage because Mr. Guthmuller was unable to raise both families. Can someone please help me get the information on these events??

  4. Thanks for making contact.

    According to an article in the New York Times dated May 12, 1911:

    “(Dr. Latson) had, however, been married to Miss Beatrice Cochrane Knountz, a niece of Mrs. Robert Seaman, the ‘Nelly Bly’ of newspaper fame. They were married on July 21, 1903, and lived together until 1906, first obtained a separation and then a divorce.”

    That name and spelling is confirmed in an article in the Sun dated May 13, 1911, which also offers the detail that they had divorced via the Supreme Court in Brooklyn.

    However, an alternative spelling (Kountze, rather than Knountz) and much more detail is offered in this article from the New York Sun of September 14, 1903. According to that report, which again confirms that Beatrice was the niece of “Mrs. Robert Seaman”, her parents were Elmer and Katharine M. Cochrane Kountze, both deceased by 1903.

    The name “Beatrice Cochrane Kountze” is listed on at least one genealogy website, which lists her year of birth as 1883; my best guess is that “Kountze” is the correct spelling of her maiden surname.

    If you or any other members of your family have any diaries or records of Dr. Latson’s life, please feel free to contact me at tonywolf@gmail.com .

  5. Folks, I must correct some information previously put on this comment site. Tony Wolf has been very helpful, and a friend who is a geneologist has taken up the search to try and confirm what I posted earlier. I now seems that W.R.C. Latson may NOT have been my great grandfather as originally believed based upon previous searches. However, in going back thru Dr. Latson’s family it seems that there is an unusual name repetition that connects up to my great Uncle and Grandfather, as every name of Dr. Latson’s male members is repeated down to my family. I have been notified that my Great Uncle and Grandfather carry the name of Dr. Latson’s brother, who cannot be found after the 1880 census, and was deemed to be deceased, however, my Great Uncle and Grandfather both swore on government documents that their father, with the same name as Dr. Latson’s brother, died in New Jersey, in 1905. I am hopefully receiving documents that will confirm these facts. I have found out for the first time that my grandfather had a middle name, and it happens to be that of the deceased(?) brothers name. stay tuned!

  6. Okay, here I am again. Found the birth certificate of my grandfather, and it is now established that he is George DeWolff Clinton Latson, who is probably the brother of Dr. William Richard Cunningham Latson, listed as “George C. Latson” in the geneology records. So, I am related to that famous (infamous)doctor with the harem, but just one step removed. The Doctor would be my Great, Great Uncle. Would still like to have any books or articles on that the Dr. wrote, so if anyone knows where to buy them please let me know. I assume that Amazon.com may have them? You may contact me if you have any info on any of the Latson people: latson5274@bellsouth.net. thanks Tony for your help

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