Cartoon comment on T.R.'s "big stick."
|Long before there were suicide bombers, Osama bin Laden or chants of "Death to the Great Satan," a Trenton man named Ion Perdicaris became the 20th century's first American victim of Middle Eastern terrorism.
It all happened in 1904, when the 64-year-old Perdicaris and his stepson found themselves taken hostage from their villa in Tangier, Morocco by a scruffy band of rifle-toting Berber tribesmen on horseback.
The bandits' chieftain was flamboyant, black-bearded Mulai Ahmed er Raisuli, and he wanted to extort a heavy ransom from the Sultan of Morocco -- not to mention embarrass the sovereign by showing his powerlessness to protect foreign citizens.
This was more than a simple kidnapping in a distant land. For President Theodore Roosevelt, it was an opportunity to start waving his "big stick," sending battleships steaming toward the African coast to ensure Perdicaris' safe release.
It also gave Roosevelt the chance to issue one of his most blood-curdling proclamations, a statement that helped ensure his re-election while sending Americans wild with joy:
"Perdicaris alive or Raisuli dead!"
Still, for all the bluster contained in that ringing phrase, Roosevelt concealed a secret that Perdicaris wasn't even an American citizen.
The strange saga of Ion Hanford Perdicaris began in 1840, when he was born an American citizen in Greece, son of Gregory Perdicaris.
The elder Perdicaris was an Athenian who had emigrated to the United States, married a wealthy young woman from South Carolina and headed back to his native land to serve as American consul. When Ion was 6, the Perdicarises moved back to America and settled in the industrial boom town of Trenton.
There, Gregory Perdicaris built a mansion at East State Street and North Clinton Avenue, published a short-lived newspaper, and turned his wife's wealth into a fortune by creating the Trenton Gas Light company
Young Ion Perdicaris grew up with few cares in his luxurious life. He attended prestigious Trenton Academy, took on a dilettantish love of art and literature and wrote a verse play, "Tent Life," around one of his paintings. It bombed.
In 1862, in the middle of the Civil War, Ion Perdicaris secretly went back to Greece to forswear his American citizenship and be naturalized a Greek citizen. He made this rash move to prevent the Confederacy from confiscating his mother's huge estate there. But few even in his family knew about it.
On a later trip abroad, Ion Perdicaris fell in love with the warm, breezy climes of Tangier and built his own house there, calling it Place of Nightingales and filling it with a menagerie of dogs, monkeys and cranes.
Late in life, he married an English actress and became a fixture in the large diplomatic community in Morocco, who also included another Trentonian -- the American consul, Samuel R. Gummere.
Morocco was then the only independent country try in North Africa. But the sultan, Mulia Abdul-Aziz, was a weak puppet who played with his collection of grand pianos while rival bands of warlords tore his country apart and the European powers jockeyed for influence.
In this chaotic environment, western diplomats banded together and lived apart from the natives -- a situation that was later described by Gummere's niece, Mathilde Bedford.
"[Perdicaris'] villa, like most of the diplomats' homes, was outside the city walls," she wrote in 1964. "Morocco, at that time, had no roads, not even a carriage or wheel of any kind, so we went everywhere, even at night to dinners and dances, on horses and donkeys, and if it rained, I was carried in a sedan chair on the shoulders of four Jews. No Moor would carry 'a dog of a Christian,' so the Jews kindly helped us out."
This carefree existence was shattered the evening of May 18, 1904.
Perdicaris and his stepson, Cromwell Varley, were dining on their terrace when they heard shrieks and barked commands coming from their servants' quarters. As they ran to the scene of the commotion a gang of Berbers brazenly grabbed them, clubbed them with gun stocks and bound their arms.
A housekeeper shouted "Help!" into the telephone before the kidnappers clubbed her too, cut the wire and ordered the captive duo out of the house. Guns to their backs, curved daggers at their throats, they were ordered onto horses and driven off in a wild storm of dust.
After a daylong ride Perdicaris and Varley reached a tent deep in the desert. There, they rested on sheepskins, ate a dinner of couscous and came face to face with Raisuli.
Raisuli was a notorious brigand known as "Last of the Barbary Pirates." But for his admirers, he was a Robin Hood in white robes doing battle with a corrupt sultan.
The raid on Perdicaris' home it turned out, was only his latest and boldest power play against
that sultan. Raisuli issued the hated ruler a list of exorbitant demands for the hostages' release: $70,000 in gold, safe-conduct for all his tribesmen and, most outrageous of all, recognition as the sultan's bashaw, or governor, over two districts around Tangier.
How did Perdicaris, this heir to privilege, react upon meeting the desert warrior Raisuli? Incredibly, the two hit it off.
"I go so far as to say that I do not regret having been his prisoner for some time," Perdicaris would later write. "He is not a bandit, not a murderer, but a patriot forced into acts of brigandage to save his native soil and his people from the yoke of tyranny."
Roosevelt did not see it that way. He was, after all, the swinger of the big stick, the trust-buster, the man who, months earlier, engineered a Latin American revolution to dig the Panama Canal. And he wasn't going to let an obscure tribe of Berbers get away with kidnapping an American.
"Preposterous," said Roosevelt's Secretary of State, John Hay, responding to the ransom demands.
Seven battleships from the Atlantic fleet were dispatched to the Moroccan coast. But even with the public and press crying for blood, Roosevelt knew he couldn't send marines on a rescue mission on unfamiliar soil. And on June 1, he was faced with further trouble -- a confidential message from the U.S. embassy in Greece sending word that Perdicaris was not, as widely believed, an American citizen.
So the United States quietly enlisted Britain and France to put pressure on the tottering sultan and accept Raisuli's demands.
This the sultan agreed to do, on June 21. But to cover his tracks, Hay -- no doubt with some prodding from the hot-blooded commander in chief -- issued a stirring telegram to Gummere in Tangier.
"This government wants Perdicaris alive or Raisuli dead," went the telegram.
Read for the first time at the Republican national convention, the challenge turned a dull proceeding into a frenzy of all-American excitement.
A few days later, Perdicaris was free and safe, Raisuli was $70,000 richer and Roosevelt was renominated for another term, propelling him to easily win a second term in the November elections.
Forgotten in the excitement was the fact the U.S. government had, essentially, given in to all the kidnapper's demands. And the public was never told Perdicaris' secret that he wasn't even a citizen.
"It is a bad business," Hay wrote. “We must keep it excessively confidential."
And confidential it stayed. Not until 1933, long after all the players in the Perdicaris drama had died, would a historian uncover the truth in official documents.
Into his 70s, Perdicaris came back to Trenton from time to time and visited his substantial real estate holdings. Perdicaris Place, off West State Street, is named after him and his father. He died a wealthy figure in London in 1925.
Years later, the Perdicaris story would be rediscovered by Hollywood in a 1975 movie, "The Wind and the Lion." Sean Connery played Raisuli, but the scriptwriters apparently thought the balding, bearded Perdicaris wasn't a romantic enough character as a man.
So the screenwriters turned "Ion" Perdicaris into "Eden" Perdicaris and cast Candice Bergen in the part.
|1904: 'Perdicaris alive
or Raisuli dead!'
|By JON BLACKWELL / The Trentonian|