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date: 23 May 2017

Honor Ideology, Dueling Culture, and Judicial Lies in 1920s Uruguay

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

Gunfire at the Old Cabildo

Juan Cat, director of Montevideo’s electric tramway company “La Comercial,” stood near his car outside the former Cabildo building where Uruguay’s Congress was in session, hand in his coat pocket nervously clutching a revolver.1 Some reliable accounts place his son Miguel Angel and a nephew alongside. It was the afternoon of March 15, 1923, and he was waiting for Celestino Mibelli, Communist diputado (representative), editor of the newspaper Justicia, and the man who Cat would say had destroyed his family’s honor. Upon catching sight of Mibelli entering the building, Cat followed, intercepted him in the vestibule, pulled out the gun and opened fire. Mibelli threw himself to the floor, reached for his own weapon, and as Cat ran out of bullets he stood up and began to shoot back. Luckily for Mibelli, Cat did not have great aim; only one bullet hit, causing a serious but not life-threatening injury. One of Mibelli’s shots grazed Cat in the leg. As a crowd gathered, Cat fled to the Club Uruguay, where according to some reports members greeted him with cheers and congratulations. He handed his gun over to the police and let them drive him to his doctor’s office. Back in the Cabildo, meanwhile, police had disarmed Mibelli and accompanied the ambulance to the Hospital Maciel, where his wounds were treated and he was placed under arrest.

Despite being a congressman and the target of an armed attack perpetrated in full view of eyewitnesses, it was Mibelli, not Cat, who police and prosecutor treated as the aggressor as the case proceeded over subsequent days and weeks. To understand why, it is important to highlight several unusual aspects of the drama, starting with its origins in Mibelli’s journalistic campaign to expose—some said defame—Montevideo’s social elite. Scandalous stories that had appeared in Justicia in the weeks prior to the assault led many to conclude that Cat was acting in justifiable defense of his family’s honor. And because Uruguay’s 1889 Criminal Code did not afford Cat an “honor defense” applicable to the circumstances of a premeditated shooting, the chief of police, the public prosecutor (fiscal), and ultimately the judge hearing the case dutifully provided that defense by crafting a biased-to-the-point-of-fantastical account of what happened.

In the introduction to their collection History from Crime, Edward Muir and Guido Ruggiero argue that judicial texts “serve as scripts in a theatre of authority,”2 a point on which they later elaborate:

It could well be argued that every judicial document in a case is a tissue of lies…. However, lies can often tell more about the past than apparent truths. The lies or distortions that permeate crime documents can … shear away the contingent and get at what matters, at least in the eyes of those creating the documents.3

When discussing lies in the criminal archive, Muir and Ruggiero may have been imagining the self-interested testimony of defendants and witnesses rather than tainted police reports and judges’ verdicts that disregarded evidence, law, and logic. But the Cat-Mibelli case centers upon a unique set of official falsehoods. Cat’s exoneration required that one category of action (armed attack) be rewritten as a different category of action (a gentlemanly demand for reparations to honor).

As in Italy, France, Argentina, Cuba, Mexico, and elsewhere in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, dueling was an accepted feature of Uruguayan public life. Its advocates believed that the gentlemanly lance de honor, with its rigid protocol of formal demands for satisfaction, mediation by seconds, strict regulation of combat conditions, and meticulous record-keeping, could prevent heat-of-the-moment violence in word and deed, or at least provide a dispute resolution mechanism when deterrence failed. Such was the faith in the civilizing, pacifying potential of the honor code if properly applied, that Uruguay in 1920 had passed a law decriminalizing all duels fought with the consent of a three-man honor tribunal. Even prior to legalization, well-publicized duels among politicians and journalists had run at an average rate of ten or so a year, with about one reported death a decade (though 1920–1921 had seen two fatalities).4

The Cat-Mibelli confrontation was clearly not a duel; indeed it was Exhibit A for the sort of violence that dueling was supposed to prevent. But police, prosecutor, and judge molded Cat’s actions to fit the required script, altering crucial details to bring the narrative into line with what they considered its deeper truth, that this was in essence a question of honor. Understanding how and why they, abetted by much of Montevideo society, reconfigured Cat’s action as a frustrated duel, shines a light on the ideology of honor, the situational justification of violence, and the duel’s key place in Uruguayan politics and journalism even when no one was actually dueling.

Antecedents: “Las Machonas en Montevideo”

When news of Cat’s attack on Mibelli hit the papers it was the talk of the city, and most agreed that a blowup like this had been imminent for some time. Over the previous month Mibelli had published in the pages of Justicia a series of exposés entitled “Las Machonas en Montevideo,” inspired by the French bestseller La Garçonne (“The Tomboy” or “The Flapper”). Mibelli began the campaign by running Victor Margueritte’s somewhat pornographic novella in installments, openly declaring his intent to “show readers the customs of the bourgeois world, apparently clean but in reality filthy.”5 He then followed up with stories about the excesses of the local Montevideo elite. “The aristocracy,” wrote Justicia:

has always artfully veiled its repugnant vices … in order that people would believe in their austerity and unstained rectitude … But vice exists, and with it, the depravation of customs among certain aristocratic circles of the most shining and exalted … Now it’s not only cocaine, ether, morphine, and opium dens that in the grey afternoons morbidly console the lethal tedium of our “distinguished.” Other perverted enjoyments, other inconfessable pleasures call imperiously to [their] senses, bereft of ideals and lacking even one healthy diversion … Details? We are in a position to give them in quantity. And we could provide lots of names, too, without fear of being proven wrong.6

The stories, some of them revealed to Justicia by hotel workers, others open secrets widely whispered about town, mostly involved drunken semipublic nudity and adulterous or group sex. Although omitting proper names, the reporting made sure that identities were easy to guess:

One [of the women] has three surnames: one of a now-deceased Argentine President that begins with Q and the other two, whose initials are R and L, that correspond to distinguished politicians of our country. Another is a relative of an ex-intendente of Buenos Aires, whose surname begins with A, known as “the little marquesa …”7

In addition to his front-page exposés of the wild Carnival parties of the rich, Mibelli opened his paper to other charges, from the comic to the disturbing. On the trivial side, Justicia publicized a taxi driver’s claim that a well-dressed man had stiffed him on a fare to the elegant Parque Hotel casino. The name of the offender did not appear in the paper, but his home address did.8 More seriously, the paper publicized the alleged sexual abuse of two domestic servants, both minors. One was an 11-year-old girl who claimed to have been raped by her employer’s brother-in-law.9 The other accused her employer’s son of beating her for refusing to have sex with him, and when she reported the case, the police treated her like the criminal and advised that she should have submitted to the young man.10 In both of these cases Justicia named names.

As Mibelli hoped and expected, the campaign scandalized Montevideo society, and other papers excoriated him and his publication. Dr. Alejandro Gallinal fulminated in the Senate against the diffusion of Margueritte’s novella in the pages of Justicia and asked for a new law to combat pornography.11El Diario del Plata called Justicia’s articles

an excess without precedents, that goes beyond all bounds, with no consideration for the most respectable sentiments. On occasion serious misconduct like this has occurred, but always in the heat of political battle, against those directly involved, and even then it has been universally condemned. That is not what is going on here. The aggression wounds people of spotless reputations, who are far removed from the sound and fury [of politics], and for whom there is no antecedent whatsoever to explain, let alone justify, the aggression.12

Mibelli welcomed the controversy because it illustrated precisely the two points he sought to drive home: first, that elites were two-faced hypocrites, puritanical in public but libertine in private, and second, that the mainstream press lived by a double standard, filling the police page with scandalized accounts of the transgressions of the poor while hushing up the indiscretions of the rich in the name of honor and privacy.

The rich press bombards us daily with moralistic sermons, designed to cover up the degrading scenes of the gilded riffraff. Corruption is only criticized in the poor, in the workers. He who gets drunk on cane liquor is perverted; but he who gets tipsy on champagne is a “gay” young man or a “liberal” young lady … Money closes all mouths, and the bourgeois dailies, so concerned about public morality, so ‘indiscrete’ when writing about a victim of hunger, [in this case] are not scandalized, but guard the silence of the tomb …13

The scandal also did not hurt Justicia’s sales. Mibelli described the frenzy caused by the paper’s appearance at the Carrasco beach and casino and reveled in the irony of a Communist paper being snatched up greedily by Montevideo’s high society, most hoping to read the latest juicy gossip, although one person allegedly bought 100-plus copies in order to remove them from circulation.14 Mibelli relished the hatred he incited. He described receiving a pale pink, perfumed envelope with the following note carefully written in a feminine hand:

Señores of La Justicia: If you continue publishing these ugly things about the aristocracy, you are a bunch of cowards. Because nobody has the right to stick his nose in others’ business, and if you keep doing it, it is possible that it might cost more than one of you your life.15

Five days later, Mibelli lay under arrest in a hospital bed with a gunshot wound. His attacker, Cat, whose daughter had been mentioned in one of Justicia’s exposés, was also under house arrest. As the case began to work through the criminal justice system, all of Montevideo had their opinion on who was responsible.

Explaining Cat’s Innocence and Mibelli’s Guilt

Mibelli described the ensuing legal process as a predictable example of “bourgeois justice.” The initial police report, to begin with, described an exchange of gunshots, leaving the impression that it was impossible to know who had fired first, notwithstanding the dozens of witnesses who all agreed that Cat had discharged several rounds before Mibelli was able to reach for his own revolver.16 While Mibelli was detained immediately, Cat had been allowed to leave the scene of the crime without resistance from the authorities.17 Although Cat and Mibelli were both put under house arrest, Cat saw a steady stream of visitors, while Mibelli claimed he was permitted only a visit by his mother.18 And in the immediate aftermath of the attack, the fiscales met not to discuss the prosecution of the attacker Cat but to pursue the possibility of shutting down Justicia and preventing the publication of any further inflammatory articles.19 What Justicia called the “capitalist press” also appeared to blame the victim. Some papers argued that Cat was fully justified; others considered the attack misguided but understandable.20

Because all diputados enjoyed parliamentary immunity, the minister of interior was constitutionally required to communicate to the House of Representatives news of Mibelli’s arrest and to let them decide whether or not to expel him and allow prosecution to proceed.21 The House’s Commission on Legislation held an emergency meeting, and deep divisions soon became apparent. Members of the majority Colorado party concluded that Mibelli should be released from police custody while the investigation unfolded, and argued that they could always reconsider stripping his immunity if, in the end, the authorities remained intent on prosecuting him.22 It appears that the Colorados hoped the tempest would simply blow over. The minority Blanco party, led by Eduardo Rodríguez Larreta (coincidentally a distinguished politician with the initials R L), asked instead for an immediate vote on Mibelli’s expulsion. Although much of the debate revolved around process and precedent, Rodríguez Larreta made a forceful case for Mibelli’s guilt even if Cat had fired first, a fact he did not dispute:

It is evident that Diputado Mibelli has been the one who provoked events. No one can deny that Mr. Cat never would have come to the atrium of the Cabildo with a revolver in his hand had it not been for the systematic campaign by the daily of which Diputado Mibelli is director. Thus he [Mibelli] is not free of guilt. And indeed, for legitimate self-defense to exist, three conditions are necessary: that the aggression being defended against be an illegitimate aggression; that the means employed in self-defense be rational; and that there be no provocation on the part of the one who defends himself.

If the first of these conditions is, at least, in doubt; if people can reasonably disagree as to whether Cat’s aggression was legitimate or illegitimate—for my part I am inclined to believe that it is legitimate and I believe that all men of honorable heart think as I do—in regards to the third condition there is no doubt at all: I believe that there existed an initial provocation that was sufficiently grave on the part of Deputy Mibelli. Thus, it cannot be argued that he acted in legitimate self-defense.23

Cat, in contrast, could credibly invoke self-defense, according to Rodríguez Larreta, because self-defense extended not just to the defense of one’s physical body but equally to the defense of honor. On this he cited Argentine legal scholar Rodolfo Rivarola:

legitimate self-defense exists not only in defense of one’s person, but also in defense of the rights of the individual, and among those rights the first [Rivarola] cites is honor. Mr. Cat acted in defense of his honor, so he … can say that he acted in legitimate self-defense.24

By this logic, then, the only one who could claim self-defense was the man who had armed himself, deliberately sought out his antagonist, waited for him to arrive, pulled out a gun without warning, fired the first shot at close quarters, and continued shooting while his adversary threw himself to the floor. Small wonder Mibelli saw “bourgeois justice” at work.

Rodríguez Larreta’s views on legitimate self-defense did not decide the two legal cases, but they might as well have. On the one hand, the Colorado majority opinion prevailed in the House of Representatives and Mibelli retained his parliamentary immunity.25 The authorities dropped any further effort to inculpate Mibelli for his actions on the 15th of March. Presumably, cooler heads realized that prosecution of the victim of an attempted assassination might be construed as a miscarriage of justice, a point further driven home when Alfredo Villegas Márquez, another target of Justicia’s public morality campaign, marched into the Hospital Maciel on the afternoon of March 21 and tried to complete the job Cat had left unfinished. This brazen albeit cowardly assault on a bedridden hospital patient, frustrated only because someone noticed Villegas Márquez’s nervous demeanor and alerted the policeman on duty, seemed a case of tragedy trying to repeat itself as farce.26

But on the other hand, the authorities showed little interest in prosecuting Cat. Less than a week after the incident, the streetcar magnate regained his freedom. The release order from Judge Narciso Del Castillo was a finely crafted work of fiction that exaggerated the confusion in the original police report to arrive at conclusions not unlike Rodríguez Larreta’s:

Considering … that the newspaper Justicia has for some time been engaged in a persistent propaganda campaign, in which certain alleged vices are attributed to a part of our society …

That this propaganda, in keeping with the impressionable and changeable mentality of the multitudes, has exceeded all tolerable bounds, placing a certain young woman at the heart of a scandal, profoundly offending a respectable home, and thereby [also offending] all honest people of whatever social class….

Considering … that Juan Cat, the father of the young woman alluded to, considered himself profoundly aggrieved by this propaganda …

Considering … that [Cat], in such a state of mind, armed with a revolver, going out into the street in search of his presumed offender, found [Mibelli] equally armed, and after an exchange of words, both fired their respective weapons, with both men being wounded, we therefore arrive at the following hypotheses:

First … It is possible that [Cat] acted in legitimate self-defense. The intention that brought Cat to confront his adversary cannot be precisely determined, in its mysterious elaboration, as a persistent idea to take [Mibelli’s] life; therefore, it is necessary to discard the hypothesis of attempted homicide or the crime of frustrated homicide, given the lack of deliberate intent to kill.

Admittedly, the sentiment of offended honor, the profundity of the affront, and the widely-diffused public knowledge that the presumed aggressor was an opponent of the duel and indeed a partisan of ad hoc confrontations, lead us to suppose that the accused might have had the intention to kill when he approached his adversary. But this intention, in a spirit agitated by fundamental causes that prevent him from controlling his passions, could have varied according to the moment; this man, who is a father, a husband, who understands his legal responsibilities, may perhaps have thought twice about bringing pain to his family, and an apology (explicación) from his presumed aggressor would have been enough to make amends for the offense.

This explicación could have occurred had factors beyond the will of the two antagonists not intervened.

Mibelli, upon confronting Cat, must have noted his pallid face and agitated bearing, and knowing him to be a formidable enemy, might have had the natural instinct of self-preservation, putting himself in a defensive position, thereby preventing, perhaps involuntarily, the aforementioned explicaciones from occurring. Given the rapidity with which such scenes take place, Cat, believing that Mibelli’s actions were those of an attacker (which would not be surprising, given that he who would defend himself always takes on an aggressive appearance), must have believed that his life was in danger, and therefore reacted in self-defense….

It is therefore resolved to decree that Juan Cat be released.27

Justicia ridiculed Del Castillo’s ruling and brought in a legal analyst to point out its errors of fact, inconsistencies of logic, and misinterpretations of the Uruguayan Criminal Code.28 The paper compared the ruling to past cases argued by the judge and by Fiscal Pérez Maggiolo, when apparently similar confrontations had led to convictions and stiff prison sentences, based on quite different interpretations of statute.29 It concluded that had Cat been an ordinary poor defendant, the same judge would have applied sentencing guidelines leading to a prison term of twenty-three years.30 Mibelli contended that this was a predictable product of a legal system that mobilized the full force of the law against workers and the poor while coddling the wealthy and connected.

As much as Mibelli had a point, the decision not to prosecute Cat and the logic that runs through Judge Del Castillo’s ruling reveal much more about Uruguayan society than the mere existence of class privilege and inequality before the law. Mibelli’s “morality” campaign so enraged Uruguay’s political class that most genuinely believed Cat’s action to be justified. Furthermore, Cat’s impunity must be understood in the context of Uruguayans’ widespread acceptance of the gentlemanly honor code as a regulator of political discourse, and the severity of Mibelli’s perceived challenge to the unwritten rules of journalism and public life.

Honor/Virtue, Appearance/Reality: Mibelli’s Subversive Critique of Honor Ideology

Both Eduardo Rodríguez Larreta and Judge Del Castillo agreed that Mibelli’s journalistic campaign was a violent provocation and Cat’s armed attack an act of legitimate self-defense. The implication was that defense of family honor was no different from the defense of life itself. And although not everyone agreed with Cat’s actions, no one found them shocking or indefensible. El Día, a paper that was no friend of Cat’s, wrote:

In all social classes, an attack against the family, when it impugns the sexual honor … of the woman, generally ends up causing an armed confrontation between men. There is nothing that incites violent passions more than the hostile intromission of an outsider into intimate affairs of family. For this one does not have to be a bourgeois; it suffices to be a man. The recent campaign in the Communist paper was inevitably going to incite an excessive reaction. Without a doubt, no attempt against the life of another is ever justified; but it seems almost natural, when the offense deals with matters that cannot easily be talked about, that a violent aggression on the part of the offended party would occur.31

Diario del Plata measured its words even less, calling Mibelli’s stories “an aggression.”32 And despite the government’s reluctance to shut Justicia down completely, Fiscal Pérez Maggiolo and Judge Del Castillo were not alone in viewing Mibelli’s campaign to chronicle the excesses of the rich as a case of defamation if ever they had seen one.

Interestingly, however, while the general “Machonas en Montevideo” campaign was one thing, the particular offense against Cat’s family honor, the aggression that supposedly justified his use of a firearm, was surprisingly innocuous. What the story did was repeat a piece of gossip that had been floating around about a scandalous incident in a hotel ballroom. Cat’s daughter and her boyfriend had been confronted by a rich older woman, allegedly one of the young man’s ex-lovers, who said to him: “If you marry that one, I’ll shoot you.”33 The article described the boyfriend as a notorious womanizer out for Cat’s fortune, and portrayed the daughter in the role of innocent, naive victim. On the one hand, Cat could not have enjoyed reading the following words about his little girl: “She, an exquisite little doll, is a new and tasty morsel for the young sampler of succulent dishes….”34 On the other hand, nobody challenged the veracity of the account, and it was hard to make a case that it defamed her. One has to wonder whether Cat was motivated by those words about his daughter or whether he might instead have been inflamed by what Mibelli had written in the same piece about him: “The father of the girl enjoys a high position, and his fame as an anti-worker attack dog and breaker of strikes has earned him preeminence in the important firm he manages and that has gained him a fortune.”35

Those who defended Cat insisted that he acted in defense of family honor, and that it was the discussion of his daughter, not the phrase “anti-worker attack dog” that brought him to the Cabildo that day. Despite the essentially sympathetic (albeit snide) portrayal of Cat’s daughter in print, there are two reasons why so many Uruguayans might be willing to view Mibelli’s piece as a serious assault on family honor. For one thing, the fact that most of the Justicia articles involved bigger scandals, painting the protagonists as debauched libertines, possibly led them to overlook the fact that the revelations about Cat’s daughter were not of the same order. A second reason lay in the widespread belief that Mibelli, in publishing gossip about a young lady’s romantic life, had crossed an uncrossable line between public and private, between the rough-and-tumble world of political journalism, where insult and diatribe were expected, and the sacrosanct intimacy of the home, where women and children were off-limits and honor never questioned. This is what Eduardo Rodríguez Larreta said on the floor of Congress, debating Mibelli’s expulsion:

This citizen [Cat] has been slandered repeatedly by [Mibelli’s] paper, but for motives of a different type: political motives, public motives related to his high-profile job, which places him in constant conflict with the workers.

To those attacks, to those calumnies, this citizen has not responded but has kept silent, because it is human nature that the offenses that touch our public or political life do not offend us as deeply as those that seek to invade hearth and home. For this citizen to have acted as he did, the slander had to rise to a pitch that was no longer possible to accept.36

The line between public and private, moreover, was explicitly protected in Uruguayan law. According to Article 407 of the 1879 Código de Instrucción Criminal, an abuse of the press against an individual occurred “when family secrets are revealed or facts are presented that diminish [a family’s] honorability.”37 The law did not require that the imputations be deliberate fabrications or even that they be untrue; it merely required that they deal with matters “of no public relevance.”38

Mibelli knew the line he was pushing, and he had a crystal-clear understanding of the legal implications. His campaign was premeditated and well thought out; his intention was to show the hypocrisy of reigning elite conceptions of honor. On multiple occasions Mibelli used the pages of Justicia to explain and justify the “Machonas” series. First, he pointed out that without exception, the stories related events that had occurred before witnesses in ballrooms, clubs, casinos, beaches, or other public places, and as such were not “family secrets.”39 Second, Mibelli noted that Montevideo’s elites had no qualms about publicizing details of their private lives in the society pages, where it was common to find news items like these:

“Yesterday young man so-and-so made his first official visit to Señorita such-and-such.” “In the greatest intimacy the interesting Señorita so-and-so celebrated her engagement to the young Doctor such-and-such.” “Mr. N. M. has just departed for Buenos Aires.” “Celebrating her birthday yesterday in the home of the Señorita so-and-so were the following persons: …” “The bride wore an elegant chiffon dress, etc., etc.” “Among those in attendance we noted the presence of the following persons: So-and-so, dressed in silk …, diamond necklace and emerald rings.”

“Is this or is this not private life?” he asked rhetorically.40 Third, Mibelli denounced the fact that no one cared about the honor of the poor when details of their private lives appeared on the police pages of the very same newspapers that were so protective of the elites’ privacy.41El Sol, Montevideo’s Socialist paper (and a fierce critic of ex-Socialist Mibelli), put it this way:

We do not recognize the bourgeois press’s right to get indignant over [Mibelli’s] campaign, assuming the attitude … of the guardians of morality. They are in no position to blame another for exploiting for profit the hunger that a certain public has for titillating “social” gossip and slanderous tales … seasoned with pornography, [when these same] newspapers rely on the police pages as one of their most important sources of revenue, serving up to their readers … descriptions that lack for nothing: not the intense red tint of the most shocking details, nor the taste of obscenity, nor the dirty investigation of scandal, nor the revelation of the filthiest intimate facts or the most sickening antecedents of the case. Everything is brought out into the open, and generally highlighted by indiscrete and eye-catching photographs. Nothing is respected.42

But most important of all, Mibelli denounced bourgeois “honor” as a hypocritical preoccupation with appearance over reality. Time and again Mibelli pointed out that no one disputed the truth of his allegations, and noted that papers such as El Día had described the “Machonas” stories as tired gossip that everybody already knew.43 This being the case, Justicia’s only sin was to dignify in print truths that people voiced behind closed doors. In other words, Mibelli argued, while senators and the mainstream press denounced Justicia for corrupting the morals of society by publishing a “pornographic” French novella in installments, the sons and daughters of that same elite were living the corrupt life depicted in La Garconne, everyone knew it, and everyone hushed it up. While those same senators and newspapers denounced Mibelli for dragging innocent families through the mud, it was the behavior itself that deserved censure. An article from La Internacional of Buenos Aires, reprinted in Justicia, described the double standard especially well:

It is not the degeneration of its favorite sons that appalls bourgeois morality. It is something else: the publicity…. Bourgeois morality cannot tolerate, at any price, that its scandals become known. The commission of the most condemnable act is permissible—it can even be a mark of distinction, of gentlemanliness, of style—but public revelation [of such acts] is the object of the most absolute condemnation.

Bourgeois morality takes care to ensure not that immorality does not exist, but that it is never voiced aloud….44

To drive this message home, Mibelli reprinted the society page of Diario del Plata, the paper of Juan Andrés Ramírez, one of the congressmen who most actively sought his expulsion from the House. Right in the middle of a story describing an elegant party in the Parque Hotel, Diario del Plata had placed a two-inch, two-column advertisement for the “Gran Hotel du Paradis,” according to Mibelli a well-known, high-priced casa de citas, the kind of place a man could discreetly take a woman who was not his wife.45 In case readers had missed the point, Mibelli made it more explicit a few days later:

These facts should serve to demonstrate how indecent the press of the rich is, and how it propagates, without any scruples, not only vices as repugnant as alcohol and gambling, but prostitution as well. And this is the press that dares to talk about morality?46

Scholars of the idea of honor in Mediterranean and other Western societies have identified the tension between two distinct conceptions: honor as inner virtue versus honor as public esteem. Peter Berger, among others, argues that scholars have long believed that one element of the West’s march toward modernity was the gradual abandonment of the latter in favor of the former.47 Such a perspective oversimplifies, but Mibelli’s campaign is hard to interpret through any other lens. Denouncing an elite obsessed with honor-as-reputation but lacking in honor-as-virtue, Mibelli painted himself as the lone truth-teller in a nation of hypocrites. In this way he was able to convince himself that publishing scandalous tidbits about Montevideo’s high society was both a blow against class privilege and an act of moral instruction. If it sold newspapers too, better still. In the end, Celestino Mibelli succeeded in earning the publicity for Justicia that he sought, along with general repudiation, the hostility of the authorities, and a gunshot wound. But the intense hatred Mibelli inspired, and which translated into sympathy for Cat, cannot be dismissed as mere defense of class privilege. Mibelli’s aggressive repudiation of reigning honor ideology did in fact pose a direct challenge to deeply held values.

Legal Fiction-Writing: Scripting a Duel

Mibelli ridiculed elite conceptions of honor in a way that was deliberately subversive. But to make sense of the Cat-Mibelli confrontation and its legal denouement, it is important to understand a further point: that the Communist diputado compounded his provocation by also rejecting the duel and the gentlemanly honor code that underpinned Uruguay’s dueling culture.

As noted at the outset, on the surface this premeditated attack had little to do with dueling, indeed it appeared to be the antithesis of a duel. Cat did not send seconds to demand that Mibelli apologize for his words. The two did not meet on the “field of honor” with equal weapons, march off twenty-five paces, and fire on command. But Cat’s defense depended to the last detail on constructing the encounter as a classic affair of gentlemanly honor. His family name having been impugned, Cat had but one legal and socially acceptable recourse: to name two seconds who would approach Mibelli to demand “gentlemanly explanations,” and if the apology was not forthcoming, to meet with Mibelli’s own seconds and negotiate the conditions of a duel. But because Mibelli joined other Socialists and Communists in rejecting the duel as an institution, Cat was denied the one avenue of redress available to him. Most Uruguayan elites, Judge Del Castillo included, believed that because Mibelli would have rebuffed any seconds that Cat might name, the streetcar executive was left no choice but to set out himself in armed pursuit of those “explicaciones.”

This reinvention of the Cat-Mibelli incident as an affair of honor, as a frustrated attempt to demand either an apology or a duel, requires further nuance. Mibelli was an accomplished fencer who had fought at least one duel in his lifetime, in 1916 with Diputado Washington Paullier. It is the businessman Cat who leaves no record of prior experience with seconds or challenges or swordplay. But it is also true that in 1916, the Socialist Party to which Mibelli then belonged had reprimanded him for dueling, and likely would have expelled him were it not for extenuating circumstances: the fact that Mibelli had ignored earlier provocations and agreed to duel only after Paullier assaulted him in public with a walking stick. From that time onward Mibelli was a vocal critic of the duel.48

His political enemies complained, over and over, that this doctrinal rejection of dueling unfairly freed Socialists and Communists from responsibility for their words and actions. If they did not accept dueling challenges, how could they be held to account when they insulted or attacked another’s honor?49 Mibelli responded by declaring his willingness to meet any opponent, but without seconds and without all the aristocratic ceremony. On February 11, 1920, a Congressman named Doria took him up on the offer and the two exchanged fisticuffs following an argument on the House floor.50 But more often Mibelli’s antagonists declined the invitation: in August of that same year a debate with Deputy Pablo María Minelli got so heated that Mibelli demanded they take it outside. Minelli responded instead by sending seconds, who received from the congressman the following message:

It is my pleasure to inform you, regarding the mission that Mr. Pablo María Minelli entrusted to you, that if he wishes any “reparation” from me, he can get it any place, any time, by coming for it in person, and to that end I am at his complete service.51

This is what Judge Del Castillo was referencing when he described Mibelli as “publicly known to be an enemy of the duel and more a partisan of ad hoc confrontations.”52 Arguably this is the most important sentence in the judge’s ruling, the key to his otherwise legally and factually dubious exoneration of Cat. Because the director of Justicia refused to accept seconds but still chose to offend people’s honor, Cat was compelled to confront him precisely as he had: face-to-face, pistol in hand. In effect, Mibelli’s notorious rejection of the duel provided the judge with a way to mentally reconfigure that March afternoon encounter not as the unsuccessful armed assault that it clearly was, but as the equivalent—morally, legally, and in every other way—of sending seconds to deliver a challenge. In other words, the culture of dueling predetermined how police and prosecutors narrated—and had to narrate—an event that bore little outward resemblance to a duel.

Discrepancies between the official story and alternative versions of what happened, even seemingly inconsequential details, take on profound significance when viewed in this light. First, not one of the official narratives mentioned the presence of Cat’s son and nephew, let alone the possibility that one of them may also have fired a weapon, as Mibelli alleged.53 If there had been a second shooter (on this point Mibelli’s charges were never independently confirmed, but neither was any effort made to gather ballistic evidence at the scene), it would have been an egregious violation of the spirit and “laws” of dueling. Second and more telling is the fact that the initial police report and Del Castillo’s verdict coincided in stating that Cat exchanged words with Mibelli before opening fire, a contention that also appeared in at least one of the newspaper accounts, but that Mibelli disputed.54 Chief of Police Juan Carlos Folle, in a letter sent to the minister of interior and forwarded to the House of Representatives, reported that Cat had “demanded an explanation in response to an article that had appeared in the daily Justicia.”55 By using those specific words—“demanded an explanation in response to an article …”—Folle reproduced verbatim the formulaic language that seconds routinely wrote into the official record of the negotiations that always preceded a duel. Following the script required to exonerate Cat, Folle ignored the inconvenient fact that every eyewitness agreed that Cat started shooting too quickly for there to have been a prior conversation about the article in Justicia or any formal demand for an apology, as the protocol of honor would have required. Yet following Folle’s lead, Judge Del Castillo described Cat as setting out not necessarily to shoot Mibelli but to “converse with him.”56 Embellishing the narrative to close off the possibility that the attack was premeditated, the judge speculated, again without corroborating witness testimony, that the only thing Cat wanted from Mibelli was an “explanation” to “repair the offense” to his honor. From a concocted police report to its magical transformation into a judge’s ruling, an armed attack became a “gentlemanly interview” gone sadly wrong.

Necessary Falsehoods

What deeper truths are revealed in the “tissue of lies” that resulted in Cat’s freedom? Sometimes the importance of certain cultural understandings and practices become apparent only when they are challenged, and March 15, 1923, may have been one such revealing moment. Surely there was, as Mibelli claimed, an element of bourgeois justice at work. Police, fiscal, and judge would not have treated Cat with such kid gloves had he not been a rich and well-connected businessman. It is also more than likely that in the tug-of-war between biases, the authorities’ contempt for Mibelli the Communist trumped their deference to Mibelli the congressman. Nevertheless, the outpouring of support for Cat the armed attacker and rebuke for Mibelli the gunshot victim cannot be explained away so easily. Those who rallied behind Cat saw an aggrieved father acting in defense of values they shared: honor, family, the sanctity of the home, and the iron separation between public and private life. Mibelli had a point when he denounced those values as empty and hypocritical, a concern for appearance over reality, outward esteem over inner virtue. Today most would agree with his critique. But Uruguay’s political class in 1923 did not.

Moreover, those who blamed Mibelli rather than Cat for the gunfight at the Cabildo believed that Justicia’s deliberate attack on “bourgeois” honor was compounded by its director’s irresponsibility in refusing to duel. By the early 20th century, Uruguayan elites, particularly those involved in politics and journalism, had developed what they considered a well-functioning system to deal with the conflicts that came with a free press. The system relied on seconds and sabers, not the courts, to enforce boundaries of acceptable discourse and to solve disputes when those boundaries were transgressed.57 These men sincerely believed that Mibelli’s repudiation of the aristocratic duel with its seconds and protocol undermined the last safeguard of a civilized public sphere, making Cat’s recourse to armed violence justified, inevitable, and entirely Mibelli’s fault. This logic explains why the congressman suffered doubly, first at Cat’s hand and later from official legal malpractice: although Mibelli’s transgressions might appear trivial or even humorous to modern eyes, for contemporaries they constituted a genuine, dangerous challenge to deeply held ways of thinking.

When the police, Fiscal Perez Maggiolo, and Judge Del Castillo crafted their logic- and evidence-free narrative of events in the old Cabildo in order to make Cat’s case for “legitimate self-defense,” they doubtless understood what they were doing. Feeling in their hearts that Juan Cat was the innocent victim of an unprovoked attack on his family honor, they trusted that Cat would have followed proper dueling protocol, dispassionately sending his seconds to “demand explanations,” if only Mibelli had offered him that option. Never mind pesky facts: that Mibelli’s newspaper had written nothing untrue about Cat’s daughter nor had it spoken particularly ill of her; that the person Justicia had crudely insulted was Cat himself, but the insult to Cat had nothing to do with private life or family honor; that a two- or three-against-one confrontation in the Cabildo bore no resemblance whatsoever to the instructions in the dueling manuals; that Cat had no known experience with seconds, swords, or honor codes; that no eyewitness saw or heard the obligatory exchange of words that any “conversation” on matters of honor would have required. These were details that police, fiscal, and judge could agree to ignore or creatively fabricate, in order to “shear away the contingent and get at what matters.”58

Discussion of the Literature

A brief account of the incident appears in Carlos Manini Ríos’s Una nave en la tormenta.59 The narrative presented here is a composite based on newspaper accounts from March 16–19, 1923, keeping in mind that press versions dispute crucial details. Biographical information on Juan Cat is scarce, but a few of Mibelli’s political writings are compiled in Milton Vanger’s ¿Reforma o revolución? La polémica Batlle-Mibelli, 1917.60 English-language overviews of Uruguayan politics in the 1920s include classic texts by Göran Lindahl, George Pendle, and Martin Weinstein, and monographs by Christine Ehrick and Asunción Lavrin.61 For readers of Spanish, Gerardo Caetano’s body of work is the obligatory starting point.62

Two indispensable works on dueling and honor in Latin America are Pablo Piccato’s The Tyranny of Opinion63 and Sandra Gayol’s Honor y duelo en la Argentina moderna.64 Gayol and Piccato both emphasize the duel’s role in defining a masculine political elite whose jealously defended honor and reputation conferred upon them, and them alone, the right to rule, at a time when the traditional markers of aristocratic status were in flux. My own work, especially the article “‘Gentlemanly Responsibility’ and ‘Insults of a Woman’: Dueling and the Unwritten Rules of Public Life in Uruguay, 1860–1930,” focuses more on the Code of the Duel as a body of informal law governing the limits and etiquette of political and journalistic debate, in the face of press and libel laws perceived to be inadequate guarantors of civility. The willingness to accept challenges, and either to offer a gentlemanly apology or to duel if necessary, was not so much a requirement for elite status as it was the accepted price of admission to a rough-and-tumble public sphere. Although Uruguayan women could participate in debates about public policy, the ever-latent possibility that press polemics might escalate into duels ensured that the partisan political sphere would remain a masculine domain.65

Works on dueling in Europe and North America that similarly emphasize the duel’s role as a regulator of journalistic and political discourse include Steven Hughes, Politics of the Sword: Dueling, Honor, and Masculinity in Modern Italy; William Reddy, “Condottieri of the Pen: Journalists and the Public Sphere in Postrevolutionary France”; and Joanne Freeman, “Dueling as Politics: Re-interpreting the Burr-Hamilton Duel.”66 On the tension between honor as integrity versus honor as reputation, see Frank Henderson Stewart, Honor, chapter 2; Peter Berger, “On the Obsolescence of the Concept of Honor,” discussed previously; Julian Pitt-Rivers, “Honour and Social Status,” in Honour and Shame: The Values of Mediterranean Society, edited by J. G. Peristiany; and chapters 1–2 of Kenneth Greenberg, Honor and Slavery.67 Whitley Kaufman disputes this idea that “internal honor” and “external honor” should be seen as binary opposites.68 Discussion of how lies in judicial records, or “fiction in the archives,” can be particularly useful to historians appears in Muir and Ruggiero, History from Crime, discussed previously, and Natalie Zemon Davis, Fiction in the Archives: Pardon Tales and Their Tellers in Sixteenth-Century France.69

Primary Sources

El Día.

Diario del Plata.

Justicia.

El País.

El Sol.

La Tribuna Popular.

República Oriental del Uruguay. Diario de sesiones de la H. Cámara de Representantes. Vol. 305. Montevideo: Imprenta Nacional, 1923.Find this resource:

Camaño Rosa, Antonio. La legítima defensa en la jurisprudencia nacional. Montevideo, 1944.Find this resource:

Código Penal de la República Oriental del Uruguay. Montevideo: “El Siglo Ilustrado,” 1889.Find this resource:

Jiménez de Aréchaga, Eduardo. Código Penal y Código de Instrucción Criminal. 5th ed. Montevideo: A. Barreiro y Ramos, 1926.Find this resource:

Vásquez Acevedo, Alfredo. Concordancias y anotaciones del Código Penal de la República Oriental del Uruguay. Montevideo: Sierra y Antuña, 1893.Find this resource:

Further Reading

Caulfield, Sueann, Chambers, Sarah. C., and Putnam, Lara, eds. Honor, Status, and Law in Modern Latin America. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005.Find this resource:

Davis, Natalie Zemon. Fiction in the Archives: Pardon Tales and their Tellers in Sixteenth-Century France. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1987.Find this resource:

French William E., and Bliss, Katherine Elaine, eds. Gender, Sexuality, and Power in Latin America since Independence. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2007.Find this resource:

Gayol, Sandra. “‘Honor Moderno’: The Significance of Honor in Fin-de-Siècle Argentina.” Hispanic American Historical Review 84.3 (2004): 475–498.Find this resource:

Gayol, Sandra. Honor y duelo en la Argentina moderna. Buenos Aires: Siglo Veintiuno, 2008.Find this resource:

Gayol, Sandra, ed. “Pluralidad de honor y diversidad de honores.” Anuario del IEHS 14 (1999): 233–330.Find this resource:

Hughes, Steven C. Politics of the Sword: Dueling, Honor, and Masculinity in Modern Italy. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2007.Find this resource:

Johnson, Lyman L., and Lipsett-Rivera, Sonya, eds. Faces of Honor: Sex, Shame, and Violence in Colonial Latin America. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1998.Find this resource:

Muir, Edward, and Ruggiero, Guido, eds. History from Crime: Selections from Quaderni Storici. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.Find this resource:

Parker, David S. “Law, Honor, and Impunity in Spanish America: The Debate over Dueling, 1870–1920,” Law and History Review 19.2 (Summer 2001): 311–341.Find this resource:

Peristiany, J. G., ed. Honour and Shame: The Values of Mediterranean Society. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1965.Find this resource:

Piccato, Pablo. “Politics and the Technology of Honor: Dueling in Turn-of-the-Century Mexico.” Journal of Social History 33.2 (1999): 331–354.Find this resource:

Piccato, Pablo. The Tyranny of Opinion: Honor in the Construction of the Mexican Public Sphere. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010.Find this resource:

Stewart, Frank Henderson. Honor. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.Find this resource:

Strange, Carolyn, Cribb, Robert, and Forth, Christopher E., eds. Honour, Violence, and Emotions in History. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2014.Find this resource:

Notes:

(1.) Research in Uruguay was supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and facilitated by the Centro Latinoamericano de Economía Humana (CLAEH), Montevideo. Preliminary versions of this article were presented at the 6th Annual Woodrow Borah International Colloquium, Center for Latin American History and Culture, Tel Aviv University, Israel, June 14, 2010, and at Queen’s University, Canada, November 28, 2012. Thanks go to Gerardo Caetano, Sandra Gayol, Eduardo Zimmermann, Gerardo Leibner, Ori Preuss, and several anonymous referees. Details of the attack come from “El incidente de ayer en el Cabildo,” El País, March 16, 1923; “El incidente de ayer,” El Sol, March 16, 1923; “La agresión al diputado comunista,” El Sol, March 17, 1923; “El suceso de ayer,” Diario del Plata, March 16, 1923; “Ayer el entrar a la Cámara el compañero Mibelli es agredido a traición,” Justicia, March 16, 1923; “Más detalles sobre el vil atentado de anteayer,” Justicia, March 17, 1923; “Habla el compañero Mibelli,” Justicia, March 19, 1923.

(2.) Edward Muir and Guido Ruggiero, eds., History from Crime: Selections from Quaderni Storici (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994), ix.

(3.) Muir and Ruggiero, 230–231.

(4.) David S. Parker, “‘Gentlemanly Responsibility’ and ‘Insults of a Woman’: Dueling and the Unwritten Rules of Public Life in Uruguay, 1860–1920,” in Gender, Sexuality, and Power in Latin America since Independence, ed. William E. French and Katherine Elaine Bliss (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2007), 109–132. On the 1920 decriminalization law, David S. Parker, “La ley penal y las ‘leyes caballerescas’: Hacia el duelo legal en el Uruguay, 1880–1920,” Anuario IEHS 14 (1999): 295–311; and David S. Parker, “Law, Honor, and Impunity in Spanish America: The Debate over Dueling, 1870–1920,” Law and History Review 19.2 (Summer 2001): 331–335.

(5.) “La machona: Iniciamos hoy su publicación,” Justicia, February 12, 1923. All translations by the author. The original Spanish is as follows: “Al ofrecer ‘La Machona’ a nuestros lectores, hemos querido proporcionarles el medio de conocer las costumbres del mundo burgués, aparentemente limpias y realmente sucias.”

(6.) “La farras de los ricos. Algo más sobre lo ocurrido en Carrasco,” Justicia, February 24, 1922. “La ‘aristocracia’ ha siempre disfrazado, con arteros velos, sus vicios repugnantes y ha sabido presentarse a los ojos ingénuos de la multitud con el tono grave y el ademán severo que usa corrientemente en la vida de relación, para que se crea en su austeridad y en su pundonor sin mancha…. Pero el vicio existe y con él, la depravación de costumbres entre ciertos círculos aristocráticos de los más copetudos y deslumbrantes…. Ya no son sólo la ‘cocaína,’ el eter, la morfina y los fumadores de opio, los que en las tardes grises consuela morbosamente el letal tedio de nuestras ‘distinguidas.’ Otros goces sádicos, otros placeres inconfesables llaman imperiosamente a los sentidos, faltos de ideal y carentes de una sola alegría sana… . ¿Detalles? Estamos en situacion de darlos a porrillo. Y podríamos dar nombres propios a montones sin temor de ser desmentidos.”

(7.) “Las machonas en Montevideo: Una excursión en traje de baño,” Justicia, March 12, 1923. “Una lleva tres apellidos: el de un presidente argentino ya fallecido que empieza con Q, y otros dos, cuyas iniciales son R y L que corresponden a encumbrados políticos de nuestro país. Otra de las jóvenes es la parienta de un ex intendente porteño cuyo apellido empieza con A., conocida por ‘La Marquesita …’”

(8.) “Abusos e injusticias: Un caballero que no sabe pagar,” Justicia, February 19, 1923.

(9.) “Una niña de 11 años violada por su patrón,” Justicia, February 17, 1923.

(10.) “Un cobarde atropello,” Justicia, February 14, 1923; “Cruel hazaña de un niño ‘bien,’” Justicia, February 16, 1923; “Sobre una denuncia grave: A. Formica Corsi se defiende de las acusaciones que ha hecho la joven sirvienta Maria Andrade,” Justicia, February 19, 1923.

(11.) “Contra la pornografía: El Dr. Alejandro Gallinal desde su banca del Senado,” Diario del Plata, March 14, 1923.

(12.) “Lo previsto,” Diario del Plata, March 16, 1923. “un desborde sin precedentes, que salva todas las vallas, sin consideración a los sentimientos más respetables. Extravío semejante ha surgido alguna vez, pero en el desenfreno de la lucha, contra los directamente interesados en ella, y asimismo, ha merecido la reprobación general. Y aquí no se trata de eso. La agresión hiere a personas intachables, completamente extrañas al estrépito de la lucha, respecto de las cuales no existe antecedente alguno que explique, ya que no justifique la agresión.”

(13.) “‘La Machona’ en Montevideo,” Justicia, March 7, 1923. “la prensa rica nos aturde diariamente con sendos sermones moralistas destinados a encubrir las escenas degradantes de la canalla dorada. La corrupción solo es criticada en los pobres, en los trabajadores. El que se emborracha con caña es un pervertido; pero el que se embriaga con champán es un mozo ‘alegre’ o una señorita ‘liberal’…. Con el dinero se tapan todas las bocas, y los diarios burgueses, tan celosos de la moral pública, tan ‘indiscretos’ cuando se trata de una víctima de hambre, lejos de escandalizarse, callan tambien como muertos …”

(14.) “La Ba-ta-clán en Carrasco: Formidable sensación causada por nuestras revelaciones: Justicia leida en plena rambla aristocrática,” Justicia, February 26, 1923.

(15.) “Las muñecas amenazan,” Justicia, March 10, 1923. “Señores de La Justicia: si siguen ustedes publicando esas cosas feas de la aristocracia, son ustedes unos cobarde. Porque nadie tiene derecho a meterse en las cosas de los demás, y si siguen haciendo eso, es possible que le cueste la vida a más de uno.” It is always possible that the perfumed death warning was the paper’s invention, but Justicia later reproduced a second anonymous threat letter on the front page. Justicia, March 14, 1923.

(16.) “Un parte infame,” Justicia, March 16, 1923; “Más detalles de cómo se produjo el atentado: Una patraña innoble urdida por la policía,” Justicia, March 17, 1923; and República Oriental del Uruguay, Diario de sesiones de la H. Cámara de Representantes, Vol. 305 (Montevideo: Imprenta Nacional, 1923), 385.

(17.) “Más detalles de cómo se produjo el atentado: Una patraña innoble urdida por la policía,” Justicia, March 17, 1923.

(18.) “La justicia burguesa en su papel,” Justicia, March 17, 1923; and “Justicia de clases,” El Sol, March 19, 1923.

(19.) “Una formidable reacción gubernamental y periodística se manifiesta amenazante contra Justicia,” Justicia, March 19, 1923; “Ante la justicia,” El País, March 19, 1923; and “El delito de difamación: Criterio de los fiscales,” Diario del Plata, March 18, 1923.

(20.) “La prensa capitalista defiende el crimen de Cat y su patota,” Justicia, March 17, 1923; and “El suceso del jueves,” El Día, March 17, 1923.

(21.) República Oriental del Uruguay, Diario de sesiones de la H. Cámara de Representantes, Vol. 305, pp. 356–357.

(22.) Ibid., 357–359.

(23.) Ibid., 362. “Es evidente que el diputado Mibelli ha sido el provocador de la escena. Nadie podrá negar que el señor Cat no hubiera llegado al atrio del Cabildo con un revólver en la mano si no lo hubiera precedido la campaña sistemática del diario que dirige el señor diputado Mibelli.

De manera que [Mibelli] no está limpio de pecado.

Y bien: para que exista la legítima defensa es necesario que la rodeen estas tres condiciones: que la agresión que se contesta sea una agresión ilegítima; que sea racional el medio empleado para defenderse; y que exista, a su favor, la falta de provocación suficiente por parte del que se defiende.

Si el primero de los requisitos puede, por lo menos, ser dudoso; si puede discutirse si la agresión del señor Cat es legítima o ilegítima,—por más que yo me inclino a creer que es legítima y creo que todos los hombres de corazón bien puesto piensan como yo,—en cuanto al tercer requisito no cabe ninguna duda: creo que existía la provocación inicial suficientemente grave por parte del señor diputado Mibelli. De modo que no puede pretender que ha obrado en legítima defensa.”

(24.) República Oriental del Uruguay, Diario de sesiones de la H. Cámara de Representantes, Vol. 305, p. 363. “la legítima defensa existe no solo en defensa de la persona, sino de los derechos del individuo, y entre estos derechos del individuo, el primero que cita es el honor. En defensa de su honor procedió el señor Cat, de manera que él sí puede decir que procedió en legítima defensa.”

(25.) Ibid., 357–361, 388. “El parlamento rechaza el desafuero del diputado Comunista,” Justicia, March 17, 1923.

(26.) “Nueva tentativa de asesinato contra el camarada Mibelli,” Justicia, March 22, 1923; and “El cobarde y grotesco atentado de ayer,” El Sol, March 22, 1923. For a different take on the attack, see “Extraordinario,” El País, March 23, 1923, which argues that the real barbarity lies not in the predictable action of Villegas Márquez but in the passivity of the authorities, who permit Justicia to continue publishing scandal and pornography.

(27.) “Incidente Cat-Mibelli: El Sr. Cat en libertad bajo fianza,” Diario del Plata, March 23, 1923. “Resultando, … que el periódico Justicia se ha venido sindicando de un tiempo a esta parte, por una persistente propaganda, en la que se ponen de relieve vicios que atribuye a parte de nuestra sociedad.

Que esta propaganda, comentado en los tonos más diversos y opuestos, conforme con la mentalidad impresionable, multiforme y cambiante de las multitudes, rebasó los límites de lo tolerable, al poner en la picota del escándalo, a determinada joven, ofendiendo profundamente a un hogar respetable, y con ello, a todo el pueblo honesto sin distinción de clase alguna.

Resultando: … que por tanto, debe tenérsela en cuenta a efecto de poder apreciar la responsabilidad del procesado Juan Cat, quien, por ser padre de la joven aludida, se consideró profundamente agraviado, a causa de aquella propaganda,

Resultando: Que el prevenido, en tal estado de espíritu, armado de un revólver, salió a la calle en busca de su presunto agraviante, se encontró con él, éste se hallaba igualmente armado y luego, tras un cambio de palabras, ambos dispararon sus respectivas armas, quedando los dos heridos…. surge las hipótesis siguientes:

Primera, El procesado pudo haber procedido en uso de legítima defensa.

La intención que llevó a Cat, a entrevistarse con su adversario, no puede precisarse en su misteriosa elaboración, como una idea persistente de quitarle la vida; y siendo así, hay que desechar las hipótesis de la tentativa o del delito de homicidio frustrado, por falta … de … una decidida voluntad de matar.

Es cierto que el sentimiento de honor del ofendido, la profundidad del agravio; la voz pública, señalando al presunto agraviante, como adversario al duelo y partidario más bien de los encuentros de improviso, hacen suponer, que el procesado llevara la intención de matar, cuando se acercó al adversario; pero esa intención en un espíritu agitado por causas fundamentales, que le impiden controlar las pasiones, puede haber variado, en más de un momento, ese hombre, que es un padre de familia; un esposo; que comprende el alcance de las responsabilidades legales; ha pensado tal vez, que no debía llevar el dolo a su familia; y que una explicación de su presunto agraviante, habría bastado para reparar la ofensa.

Esa explicación, pudo haber tenido lugar si factores extraños a la voluntad de los contendores, no hubieran intervenido.

Mibelli, al enfrentarse con Cat, ha de haberle notado la faz demudada y agitado el porte, y sabiéndolo un enemigo y enemigo fuerte, ha tenido natural instinto de conservación, que ponerse en actitud de defensa, e impedir así, involuntariamente quizá, que se produjeron las explicaciones aludidas. En la rapidez con que se desarrollan de ordinario estas escenas, Cat, creyendo que la actitud de Mibelli fuera de ataque, lo que no es de extreñar; pues siempre el que se defiende, ofrece una apariencia agresiva; ha pensado, que su vida se hallaba en peligro; y de ahí su reacción también, de defensa…. Se resuelve, decretar la excarcelación de Juan Cat, bajo fianza….”

(28.) “Como se comenta la vergonzante sentencia del juez del Castillo,” Justicia, March 26, 1923; “Una lección para quienes creen en la justicia burguesa,” Justicia, March 28, 1923; “El disparate jurídica del juez del Castillo,” Justicia, March 29, 1923; “El juez que libró a Cat de la cárcel tiene mucho que aprender,” Justicia, April 4, 1923; and “El triste papelón de un juez,” Justicia, April 5, 1923.

(29.) “Justicia de clase,” Justicia, March 27, 1923; and “Lo que va de ayer a hoy,” Justicia, April 2, 1923.

(30.) “Una lección para quienes creen en la justicia burguesa,” Justicia, March 28, 1923.

(31.) “El suceso del jueves,” El Día, March 17, 1923. “En todas las clases sociales un ataque a la familia, cuando roza el honor sexual—llamémosle así—de la mujer, concluye generalmente con un choque a mano armada entre hombres. No hay hada que desate tanto la violencia de las pasiones como la injerencia hostil de un extraño en los asuntos de la vida íntima. Y para esto no es necesario ser burgués ni capitalista; basta con ser hombre. La propaganda de los últimos días del diario comunista tenía que producir excesos como él que comentamos. Sin duda alguna, jamás se justifica un ataque contra la vida de otro; pero parece casi completamente natural que, cuando la ofensa versa sobre hechos respeto de los que es difícil hablar y discutir, la agresión violenta se produzca por parte del ofendido.”

(32.) “Lo previsto,” Diario del Plata, March 16, 1923.

(33.) “Si tú te casas con esa te pego un balazo.”

(34.) “Ella, muñequita exquisita, es un bocado nuevo y fragante para el joven catador de presas suculentas.”

(35.) “Las ‘machonas’ de Montevideo: Las miserias doradas,” Justicia, March 15, 1921. “El padre de la chica goza de excelente posición, y su fama de perro perseguidor de obreros y vencedor de huelgas, le ha dado preeminencia en la fuerte empresa que dirige y le ha labrado una fortuna.”

(36.) República Oriental del Uruguay, Diario de sesiones de la H. Cámara de Representantes, Vol. 305, pp. 363–364. “este ciudadano ha sido injuriado repetidamente por ese diario, pero injuriado por motivos de otro índole: por motives politicos, por motivos públicos, por causas notorias del cargo que ejerce, que lo ponen en constante conflicto con los obreros.

Y bien: este ciudadano, a esos ataques, a esas injurias no ha respondido, ha guardado silencio, porque es humano que las ofensas que solo tocan nuestra vida pública, nuestra vida política no nos ofendan tan hondamente como las ofensas que quieren llegar al seno del hogar. Cuando este ciudadano ha procedido en esta forma, es que la diapason de la injuria había llegado a un tono que no es possible aceptar.”

(37.) “El tema del día,” Diario del Plata, March 18, 1923. “Cuando se revelan secretos de familia o se denuncian hechos que menoscaban su honorabilidad, siempre que no interesen al órden público.”

(38.) On the juridical history of the “truth defense” in libel and defamation cases, Fernando Bayardo Bengoa, Derecho penal uruguayo, Tomo VIII parte especial vol. V, 2nd. ed. (Montevideo: Ediciones Jurídicas Amalio M. Fernández, 1963), 283–289.

(39.) “Los verdaderos corruptores de la moral,” Justicia, March 20, 1923.

(40.) “La vida privada y los burgueses,” Justicia, March 27, 1923. “Ayer hizo su primer visita official a la señorita Tal el joven Cual.” “En la mayor intimidad se realizó anoche el enlace e la interesante señorita Fulana con el joven doctor Mengano.” “Festejando su onomástico se reunieron ayer en la casa de la Señora Tal las siguientes personas …” “La novia vestía un elegante traje de charmeusse etc. etc.” “Entre la concurrencia notamos la presencia de las siguientes personas: Fulana de Tal, vestida de seda con enorme escote, pendantif de brillantes y anillos con Esmeraldas …” “¿Es eso vida privada o no?”

(41.) “Razonando,” Justicia, March 27, 1923.

(42.) “La paja en el ojo ajeno,” El Sol, March 17, 1923. “[E]stamos lejos de reconocer a la prensa burguesa el derecho de indignarse ante esa campaña, asumiendo frente a ella austeras actitudes de paladin de la moral. Mal pueden, en efecto, culpar a nadie de explotar con fines de lucro la torpe afición de cierto público por chismes “socials” de subido color y los relatos infamantes o malignos con mucha salsa de pornográfico, diarios que hacen de la crónica policial una de sus mas importantes fuentes de recursos, sirviendo a sus lectores … descripciones en las que a menudo no falta nada: ni el intenso tinte rojo de los detalles más espeluznantes, ni el rasgo obsceno, ni la sucia investigación escandalosa, ni la revelación de las más puercas interioridades o de los más asquerosos antecedentes del suceso. Todo se saca a la luz generalmente con el subrayado de una indiscreta e impresionante información gráfica. Nada se respeta.”

(43.) “Lo de las machonas no es difamación,” Justicia, March 29, 1923; and “Razonando,” Justicia, March 27, 1923.

(44.) “Un comentario de ‘La Internacional,’” Justicia, March 23, 1923. “No es la degeneración de sus hijos predilectos, pues, lo que espanta a la moral burguesa. Es otra cosa…la publicidad, el conocimiento. La moral burguesa no puede tolerar a ningún precio que sus escándalos sean conocidos. La comisión del hecho más condenable es admirable, y hasta suele ser el índice que señala el grado de distinción, de caballerosidad, de buen tono de las personas; pero su divulgación pública es el objeto de la condenación más absoluta. La moral burguesa se cuida no de que la inmoralidad no exista, sino de que no se sepa en alta voz …

(45.) “La ‘moralidad’ de la prensa rica,” Justicia, March 21, 1923.

(46.) “Cómo moraliza la prensa de la burguesía,” Justicia, March 26, 1923. “Creemos que estos hechos suficientemente claros, concretos, terminantes, han de servir para demostrar cuán indecente es la prensa de los ricos, y como ella propaga sin ningun escrúpulo no solo los vicios tan repugnantes como el alcohol y el juego, sino que también la prostitución. ¿Y esa prensa es la que se atreve a hablar de moral?”

(47.) Peter Berger, “On the Obsolescence of the Concept of Honor,” Archives Européennes de Sociologie 11 (1970): 339–347.

(48.) On the reprimand, “El incidente Mibelli-Paullier,” El Socialista, February 29, 1916. On the duel itself, “Lance Mibelli-Paullier: Su resultado,” La Razón, February 12, 1916; and “El lance Mibelli-Paullier,” El Día, February 12, 1916. On the preliminaries leading up to the duel, El Día, February 9 and 10, 1916; Diario del Plata, February 8 and 10, 1916; and La Tribuna Popular, February 8 and 9, 1916. For Mibelli’s arguments against the 1920 decriminalization of dueling, República Oriental del Uruguay, Diario de sesiones de la H. Cámara de Representantes. Vol. 283, pp. 205–212. Socialist opposition to dueling is well documented for both Uruguay and Argentina. Leaders such as Emilio Frugoni and Juan B. Justo not only opposed the double standard that treated elite and plebeian violence so differently, but also particularly abhorred the honor codes’ stipulation that a criticism or accusation, once “settled” on the “field of honor,” could never be aired again. They argued that this aristocratic convention allowed the corrupt to evade public scrutiny. Emilio Frugoni, Selección de discursos años 1920–1921 (Montevideo: Ediciones de la Banda Oriental, 1989), 237–246, 281–285. On the famous case of the expulsion of Alfredo Palacios from the Argentine Socialist Party for dueling, El Diputado Palacios: Su separación del Partido Socialista (Buenos Aires: n.p, 1915).

(49.) This argument appears repeatedly in the press. See, for example, “El suceso del jueves,” El Día, March 17, 1923.

(50.) En la Cámara: El incidente de anoche,” Justicia, February 12, 1920.

(51.) Justicia, August 4, 1920. “Tengo el agrado de hacerles saber, a los efectos de la gestión que les encomendó el Sr. Pablo M[aria] Minelli, que si éste desea de mí alguna “reparación” puede obtenerla en todo tiempo y lugar reclamandomela personalmente, a cuyo efecto estoy a su disposición.” The exchange had started when Mibelli used the word “dishonest” to characterize a particular legislative proposal:

Minelli —Only coming from a socialist deputy could the expression “dishonest” be admitted to the record, because as everyone knows, they are irresponsible in such matters.

Mibelli —I warn you that I am responsible, en cualquier terreno, and you know it.

Minelli —If you are responsible, we’ll find out soon enough.

Mibelli —We’ll find out right now (he rises from his chair and heads toward the exit).

Minelli —Do you actually think I fight mano a mano, like some lowlife (como cualquier vil persona)?

Mr. President —Order, señores diputados!

Mibelli —Come outside! (He leaves the hall).

Minelli —We’ll see, Mr. President, if he is responsible, when I send my seconds.

“Parlamento,” El Día, August 3, 1920.

(52.) “Incidente Cat-Mibelli: El Sr. Cat en libertad bajo fianza,” Diario del Plata, March 23, 1923.

(53.) Mibelli described a second attacker in a blue suit, possibly Cat’s son, who took two shots at him from behind as he was standing up, once Cat had expended his bullets. “Habla el compañero Mibelli,” Justicia, March 19, 1923. Two pro-Cat papers, El País and Diario del Plata, made no mention of anyone accompanying Cat. “El incidente de ayer en el Cabildo,” El País, March 16, 1923; and “El suceso de ayer,” Diario del Plata, March 16, 1923. The source with least cause for bias, because it treated Mibelli and Cat with equal contempt, was Socialist Emilio Frugoni’s El Sol, which identified two men with Cat, his son Miguel Angel and a nephew, and noted that eyewitness accounts disputed whether the two were armed or not. “El incidente de ayer,” El Sol, March 16, 1923; and “La agresión al diputado comunista,” El Sol, March 17, 1923.

(54.) El País quoted an eyewitness who reported that Cat said: “Are you Mibelli? The director of Justicia? Defend yourself because I’m going to kill you.” This version thus constructs the confrontation as a quasi-duel in one sense, inasmuch as Cat gave Mibelli advance warning to defend himself in a one-to-one fight, but not in another sense, because the words “because I’m going to kill you” demonstrate premeditated homicidal intent rather than a demand for gentlemanly “explanations.” “El incidente de ayer en el Cabildo,” El País, March 16, 1923. In Mibelli’s version, his back was turned to Cat when he heard the words “Are you Mibelli?,” and the first shot came point blank as he turned to see who had addressed him. “Habla el compañero Mibelli,” Justicia, March 19, 1923.

(55.) República Oriental del Uruguay, Diario de sesiones de la H. Cámara de Representantes. Vol. 305, p. 356.

(56.) “Incidente Cat-Mibelli: El Sr. Cat en libertad bajo fianza,” Diario del Plata, March 23, 1923, “entrevistarse con él.”

(57.) Parker, “Gentlemanly Responsibility,” esp. pp. 111–117.

(58.) Muir and Ruggiero, History from Crime, 231.

(59.) Carlos Manini Ríos, Una nave en la tormenta: una etapa de transición 1919–1923 (Montevideo: Letras, 1972), 233–234.

(60.) Milton I. Vanger, ¿Reforma o revolución? La polémica Batlle-Mibelli, 1917 (Montevideo: Banda Oriental, 1989).

(61.) Göran G. Lindahl, Uruguay’s New Path: A Study of Politics During the First Colegiado, 1919–33 (Gothenburg, Sweden: Library and Institute of Ibero American Studies, 1962); George Pendle, Uruguay, 3d ed. (London: Oxford University Press, 1963); Martin Weinstein, Uruguay: The Politics of Failure (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1975); Christine Ehrick, The Shield of the Weak: Feminism and the State in Uruguay, 1903–1933 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2005); and Asunción Lavrin, Women, Feminism and Social Change in Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay, 1890–1940 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995).

(62.) Gerardo Caetano, La República Conservadora (1916-1929), 2 vols. (Montevideo: Fin de Siglo, 1992–1993); Gerardo Caetano, La República Batllista (Montevideo: Ediciones de la Banda Oriental, 2011).

(63.) Pablo Piccato, The Tyranny of Opinion: Honor in the Construction of the Mexican Public Sphere (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010).

(64.) Sandra Gayol, Honor y duelo en la Argentina moderna (Buenos Aires: Siglo Veintiuno, 2008). See also Sandra Gayol, “‘Honor Moderno’: The Significance of Honor in Fin-de-Siècle Argentina,” Hispanic American Historical Review 84.3 (2004): 475–498.

(65.) Parker, “Gentlemanly Responsibility.”

(66.) Steven C. Hughes, Politics of the Sword: Dueling, Honor, and Masculinity in Modern Italy (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2007); William Reddy, “Condottieri of the Pen: Journalists and the Public Sphere in Postrevolutionary France (1814–1850),” American Historical Review 99.5 (December 1994): 1546–1570; Joanne B. Freeman, “Dueling as Politics: Re-interpreting the Burr-Hamilton Duel,” William and Mary Quarterly 53.2 (April 1996): 289–318.

(67.) Frank Henderson Stewart, Honor (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994); Peter Berger, “On the Obsolescence of the Concept of Honor,” Archives Européennes de Sociologie 11 (1970): 339–347; Julian Pitt-Rivers, “Honour and Social Status,” in Honour and Shame: The Values of Mediterranean Society, ed. J. G. Peristiany (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1965), 21–77; and Kenneth Greenberg, Honor and Slavery (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996). Also Marie Gautheron, ed., El honor: Imagen de sí o don de sí, un ideal equívoco, trans. Raquel Herrera (Madrid: Ediciones Cátedra, 1992).

(68.) Whitley Kaufman, “Understanding Honor: Beyond the Shame/Guilt Dichotomy,” Social Theory and Practice 37.4 (2011): 557–573.

(69.) Natalie Zemon Davis, Fiction in the Archives: Pardon Tales and Their Tellers in Sixteenth-Century France (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1987).