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Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Enrico Caruso and the Monkey House Incident

Enrico Caruso made his operatic debut in New York on November 23, 1903, to great acclaim; exactly three years later, he was back in the news for a more infamous reason--on November 23, 1906, he was convicted of inappropriately touching a young woman named Hannah Graham in the monkey house at the Central Park Zoo.

Caruso had been arrested a week earlier after being watched for three-quarters of an hour by police officer James J. Cain. As Cain later testified at the trial, he allegedly observed Caruso going up to a number of women in the monkey house; sometimes he stood close behind them so that his legs touched theirs; sometimes he touched women by reaching his hands out through slits cut in his coat's pockets. However, for reasons unknown, Cain did nothing to intervene until Caruso harassed Mrs. Graham. The singer was arrested and quickly brought to trial.

Other than Cain's testimony, the prosecution had very little to go on. They were unable to produce Mrs. Graham and a quick search of her address in the Bronx revealed no Hannah Graham in residence. Cain's excuses for not arresting Caruso sooner seemed flimsy and some observers wrote off the trial as yet another attempt to harass the Italian population. (When Italian New Yorkers flocked to the courthouse to support Caruso, the prosecution argued that their very presence is what had deterred Mrs. Graham from appearing in court.)

In the end, however, the judge sided with the prosecution and fined Caruso ten dollars--the maximum fine for disorderly conduct. Though Caruso vowed to appeal, he eventually let the matter drop, perhaps fearing that any additional publicity would not work in his favor. Five days after the verdict, he appeared on stage at the Metropolitan Opera to a chorus of cheers; he may have lost at trial, but he had surely won in the court of public opinion.

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