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date: 26 September 2017

Summary and Keywords

In Montevideo in 1923, streetcar company executive Juan Cat shot at journalist and Communist parliamentarian Celestino Mibelli in the atrium of the Uruguayan Congress. Despite this premeditated assassination attempt in front of numerous witnesses, Cat was released, the judge accepting the possibility that his actions were in legitimate self-defense. The logic that led police, prosecutor, and judge to arrive at conclusions that seemed to contradict both the evidence and the law hinged upon, and in the process reveals, deeply conflicting ideas of honor, family, the public versus the private sphere, and the unwritten laws that governed journalism in 1920s Uruguay. Mibelli had published a series of scandalous newspaper stories, one involving Cat’s young daughter, and many Uruguayans identified with the aggrieved father, arguing that an attack on family honor was no different from a physical assault. The only legally and socially acceptable remedy for Cat was to challenge his slanderer to a duel, but Mibelli refused to accept challenges because he considered dueling elitist. In the end, the police report, the prosecutor’s brief, and the judge’s ruling each subtly distorted the details of the encounter to construct Cat’s attack as a quasi-duel, a frustrated attempt to “demand explanations” from Mibelli, following a ritualized script set down in the dueling codes of the era. Factually, Cat’s actions were no such thing, but by crafting the narrative of an “affair of honor” gone wrong, official lies reflected deeper cultural truths.

Keywords: dueling, honor, journalism, Communism, Celestino Mibelli, violence, public sphere, Uruguay

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