1922: ‘Kissing Hero’ visited Louisiana

By Wesley Harris

In April 1922, a former U.S. Navy officer visited several Louisiana cities as part of a speaking tour across America. Twenty-four years earlier, Richmond Pearson Hobson achieved fame as a hero of the Spanish-American War. He used that fame, and notoriety as a prolific kisser, to promote several causes, including the ones that brought him to Louisiana.

During the war that made Hobson a hero, the Spanish maintained a large fleet at Santiago Harbor, Cuba. Rear Admiral William T. Sampson ordered the U.S.S. Merrimac, a Navy cargo ship, to be sunk to block the harbor entrance to trap the Spanish ships. On the night of June 2-3, 1898, Hobson and seven volunteers attempted the mission. Spanish cannon fire disabled the Merrimac’s steering gear and the ship sunk without obstructing the harbor. After surviving withering fire from land and ships in the harbor, the crewmen fell prisoner to the Spanish. After the Battle of Santiago de Cuba destroyed the Spanish fleet a month later, Hobson and his seven men were released. They received Medals of Honor for the suicidal mission.

Overnight this obscure naval officer evolved into a national idol. Many labeled his deed the most daring in American history, while others hailed it as the boldest act in all Modern times. Statements calling it “one of the most remarkable feats in the history of the American Navy” were typical in news reports.

Nicknamed “Hero-Hobson” and the “Modest Hero,” his portrait and life story appeared in hundreds of newspapers. Parents named their newborns after him. A new cigar, “Hobson’s Choice,” was created to honor the hero. Though Hobson hailed from Alabama, the Raleigh News and Observer claimed him as a native North Carolinian because his parents had been born in the state.

Verses commemorating Hobson and the Merrimac filled newspapers. Requests were made for autographs, photographs, or just a few words in a letter. Women adored him.  One woman, “who thinks you King among men,” called Hobson “My Dearest Hero.” Another lady confessed, “your eyes appeal to me in some strange way.” 

Though he refused many speaking engagements, Hobson accepted an invitation to speak at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City. On the evening of August 4, 1898, thunderous applause roared through the packed house even before his arrival. When the hero appeared and tried to speak, the cheering mob interrupted his words repeatedly. After the speech, the throng stampeded over the footlights to greet him. One woman even asked for a kiss. When Hobson finally escaped his admirers, he found his hotel room packed with hundreds of letters, many pledging love.

The next day, Hobson went to Long Island to rest, but he was met by crowds and gave a speech. A young lady, Emma Arnold of St. Louis, observed the hero kissing children and mused, “I almost wish I was a child again.” Hobson asked if he might treat her as one and kissed her. The next day the story appeared in the press, the St. Louis Post Dispatch memorializing the incident in a poem entitled “The Hobson-Arnold Kiss.”

Hobson traveled west intending to reach San Francisco to sail to a new assignment in the Philippines. A police officer stated he saw Hobson kiss 163 women in Chicago. A day later, reports spread that Hobson had kissed 419 women in Kansas City and was kissing his way across Kansas. Soon word came that the hero managed to kiss 350 women in Topeka and 1,000 Kansas women in all.

Asked if he was tiring from his constant exertions, Hobson supposedly responded, “No, haven’t yet: have thoroughly enjoyed it so far. I suppose if I had kissed one woman as often as I have kissed different women, I would be thoroughly exhausted. But the constant change is delightfully exhilarating.”  

The attention embarrassed Hobson. The newspapers had often exaggerated or lied about the craze. The colossal kissing binges in Topeka and across Kansas were completely contrived. When asked for an explanation of his conduct, he told the press he was simply the victim of “pure patriotic enthusiasm on the part of others.” He said he had kissed only a few relatives and some children.   

By the time Hobson arrived in San Francisco, he had been attacked by numerous newspapers and countless people over the unseemly behavior. But thousands of admirers appeared to hear him speak and to shake his hand or acquire an autograph. Though only one woman tried to kiss him, the police had to muscle their way through the crowd to get Hobson to his carriage. 

Hobson probably kissed just a few hundred women, yet in the Victorian Age, such conduct was scandalous. No doubt the newspapers, the war, the daring nature of the Merrimac exploit, and Hobson’s personal allure contributed to the craze. America in the late 19th century hungered for heroes. Hobson was like a knight out of a fairy tale. The failure of the Merrimac mission did not seem to bother Hobson’s admirers in the least.

After his naval service, from 1907 to 1915, Hobson represented Alabama in Congress from 1907 to 1915. He advocated for a large navy and railed against the dangers of alcohol. He warned about the Japanese, whom he believed were going to stage a sneak attack on the Pacific Fleet. 

Hobson sponsored a bill to allow Filipinos to attend the naval and military academies. He authored a bill to make it illegal to discriminate against the military in Washington, D.C., regardless of the color of the skin beneath the uniform. Again his critics went berserk, charging this was one step away from integration. Not surprisingly, Alabama voters rejected him when he ran for the Senate in 1914. 

Though out of Congress, Hobson continued his fight against alcohol until the passage of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution. Then he added a crusade against addictive drugs and communism. His visit to speak in Louisiana was part of that campaign.

Hobson spoke at Opelousas, Lake Charles, Mansfield, Monroe, Homer, and several towns in Mississippi during April 1922. He came through Lincoln Parish on the train but did not have an engagement here.

Hobson told a crowd at Homer’s Baptist church during his 1922 visit that alcohol “destroys the Godlike spiritual part of man and leaves him like a beast with the social forces all at war with each other.” He also declared communists and anarchists were “sowing seeds to defy the American Constitution and overthrow this government,” an announcement that stirred the audience.

Hobson led the life of a crusader. Whether the nemesis was the Spanish, alcohol, drugs, or communism, Hobson always played the knight on a white horse. Kissing damsels was simply part of the role.

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