At least 1,500 men gathered around the 20×20-foot temporary stage built at the hot springs north of Salt Lake City on June 1, 1886. One man entered the square wearing a face mask and armor over ordinary street clothes. The other was even more conspicuous, his protective gear worn over white tights and blue trunks. Both men carried fencing foils.
They advanced to the center of the square, saluted each other courteously, then drew back and raised their swords as referee Gen. Patrick Edward Connor, former commander of Camp Douglas, shouted his call to begin. The pair circled, parried, and lunged. The man in the blue trunks scored the first strike on the other’s chest as the crowd roared, “Ross! Ross!” to be answered by men betting on the other side, “Agramonte! Agramonte!”
Ross, the man in the blue trunks, was Duncan C. Ross, nationally known athlete and martial arts champion – which in 1886 meant boxing and swordplay. He had come to Salt Lake looking for challengers and betting men, and found them in Clarence Horace Montgomery y Agramonte and his supporters.
Agramonte, the man in street clothes, was …
Well, Agramonte was something of a mystery, then and now. He claimed to have been born in Cuba of royal blood, forced to flee his native land after an abortive attempt to win Cuba’s independence from Spain. Some thought he was really a Spanish prince who patriotically claimed Cuban birth after he adopted Cuba’s cause. Others, more jaundiced, said he was just Clarence Montgomery from New York City, a con-man with an invented romantic past.
Agramonte brought other claims – so brash that Utahns believed him, because who could make up such things? – when he came to Utah in 1879. There he introduced himself as “Gen. Agramonte,” Cuban patriot, veteran of the Crimean War who had witnessed the charge of the Light Brigade, and soldier of fortune captured by “a fierce tribe of almost cannibals” during a war in New Zealand. Somehow he had found time to be a hero of the American Civil War, too.
In Utah, his battlefield gallantry was less conspicuous: In 1883, he beat up Main Street butcher M. Goldsticker over a $3 meat bill. He evaded another bill by claiming it had been incurred by someone else named Agramonte. He married, then separated from, Clara Stenhouse Young, a widowed daughter-in-law of Brigham Young and daughter of Thomas B.H. Stenhouse. Baptized as a Mormon early in his Utah career, he found the anti-Mormon lecture circuit more beneficial to his interests.
Whatever his background, he did have some unusual skills. Fencing was one; photography another. Attached to the U.S. Marshal’s service, Agramonte photographed imprisoned polygamists for a rogue’s gallery. He recorded the execution of a murderer, and although his pictures may have been good, it is a mark of how his legend tended to grow that a 1904 newspaper reporter recalled that Agramonte’s photo had captured the view “at the moment the fatal shot was fired, and above could be seen the man’s soul ascending.”
Agramonte left Utah in 1888 for a short stay in San Diego and retirement in Mexico City, where reports of his exploits continued to grow. In an interview shortly before his 1929 death, Agramonte claimed a role for himself in Mexican history as grand as any tales he had spun earlier, including a sword battle for the right to fight as an old man in the Spanish-American War.
But in 1886 the first day’s swordplay ended when Ross bruised Agramonte’s elbow, and Agramonte could not answer the call for another round. So many hundreds of dollars being at stake, the combatants were persuaded to meet again the second day, using broadswords. Then it was Ross who failed to respond to a call when, midway through the match, he protested an unsportsmanlike blow from Agramonte, took off his armor, and refused to continue. Agramonte claimed victory, and the purse – and, no doubt, another legendary tale was born, to be embroidered for new audiences after Agramonte left Salt Lake.
Since publishing this as a Tribune column, I have received a vast amount of Agramonte material from a generous descendant. While I know far more about Agramonte’s later life — the family has done an astounding amount of difficult research — Agramonte himself remains the single source of information about his origins, which are, for the time being, as ambiguous as ever.