The American sports fan had been subjected to countless bizarre promotions, even before Muhammad Ali came on the scene, but few have compared with Angel Fernandez' scheme to bring bullfights to New York City.
It was the summer of 1880 when the garish advertisements first appeared. They promised excitement to the lucky New Yorkers, who were advised they could anticipate toreadores "among the most celebrated and applauded in all the Spanish cities." It was an enchanting promise, though Henry Bergh, a leading force with the local SPCA, announced that his organization would not allow a typical Spanish corrida de toros to take place. Fernandez responded that there would be no cruelty to animals. Instead of stabbing the bulls with lance and banderilla, the matadores would affix gummed ribbon rosettes to their foreheads. Thus the combat would be skillful but "extremely agreeable to the ladies," and presumably to Mr. Bergh as well.
The site of Fernandez' attraction was a rented piece of ground at 116th Street and Sixth Avenue (now Lenox), where a circular board wall approximately 100 feet in diameter was constructed as the arena. Outside the main circle were two additional fences, five feet apart, between which the bulls could be led. The corridor also would serve as a buffer between the combatants and spectators. General admission to the great event was to be $1.50 for adults, 75¢ for children under eight.
The week before the first battle, Fernandez and company made a trip to a nearby stockyard to procure their "ferocious beasts." According to The New York Times, the animals turned out to be a dozen Texas steers that had been "packed in cars for some days and were pretty well worn out."
On July 31 the elevated trains on the West Side road were jammed. Outside the makeshift arena the crush included private equipages with liveried servants, as well as common hacks, and long lines of ticket seekers. Bergh, with a dozen officers of the SPCA, was also in attendance. "There seems to be an appetite among men for anything that savors of cruelty..." he told a New York Herald reporter. "If this sport should become popular here we would soon be reduced to the level of Spanish character, and nothing would satisfy the public but blood." So much for Spanish-American relations in 1880.
Bergh needn't have worried. It was obvious that Angel Fernandez' promotional ability had exceeded his product. Shortly after 5 p.m. on the 31st, eight Spaniards entered the arena in costumes "as gorgeous and graceful as the holiday attire of a sunflower," the Times noted, but "No one of them had been shaved, apparently, since the death of the late Pope.... They were as bad a looking set of men as ever picked a pocket, and looked as if, while they would fight a steer for a dollar and a half, they would cut a throat for a quarter."
When the first steer entered the ring, the spectacle degenerated even further. The toreros waved their capes in the manner expected of them, but when Steer No. 1, a large black-and-white fellow, made a sudden movement toward one of the Spaniards, he "wheeled suddenly, made a beeline for the fence and sprang over it. The fence was very conveniently arranged for this purpose," the Times explained. "It was about six feet high, and about two feet above the ground was nailed a wide cleat to enable the 'fighter' to jump over quickly. Anybody but a one-legged man or a blind man could get over this fence in something less than two seconds."
It soon became apparent to the crowd that Fernandez' magnificent bullfighters had few skills besides fence jumping. Although the steers had leather pads, rather like boxing gloves, on the tips of their horns, even the slightest movement toward the Spaniards caused flight. One large yellow steer that obviously meant business emptied the ring. "There were eight gorgeous Spaniards in the ring when the Texican entered," one reporter wrote. "In just about 20 seconds by the watch the steer had the ring to himself and the Spaniards were on the other side of the fence."
One brave bullfighter did get close enough to a steer to stick some rosettes on its forehead, but the attempt had so infuriated the animal that it jumped the fence three times before the Spaniard could succeed, and so exhausted itself that it became hung up with two legs on either side. Another steer caught a cloak on its horns and ripped it in half. One piece fell over the animal's eyes, causing it to race around blindly, eventually charging headfirst into the fence. Bergh began to show signs of nervousness. The crowd, meanwhile, began to drift off. "Driving a frightened steer into a ring," editorialized the Herald immediately following the event, "and then daubing him all over with bunches of ribbons fastened to adhesive plasters is not an exhilarating sight, even when the two-legged performers prance about in tinsel dresses."
By mid-August Fernandez was hopelessly in debt, owing large sums to his fighters, an interpreter and the owner of a boardinghouse. His gate receipts for the first match had been attached as a result of two judgments filed against him, and charges and countercharges soon overshadowed all other aspects of New York bullfighting.
While some excitement attended Fernandez' difficulties in the courts, more attention followed his Texas steers. In an effort to recoup some of his losses, the promoter sold the animals to an East Side butcher. While being loaded onto a large cattle truck that was to take them to a 45th Street abattoir, however, three steers managed to escape. After wallowing in goose ponds at Seventh and 117th, they wandered into Central Park and splashed about in the lake. Their next stop was the 23rd Precinct, which they visited just long enough to precipitate a Keystone Cops chase across town. Two of the three steers were driven into enclosures at 84th and 89th streets early the next morning, but they broke away again, one having destroyed about 300 feet of fencing that it tossed about in sport. Both animals eventually were shot and trucked off to become sirloins. History does not record the fate of the third escaped steer, but Fernandez quietly went bankrupt.
Four years later, at an Independence Day fair, a bullfight held in Dodge City, Kans. was hailed by the local newspapers as the first such entertainment ever seen in the entire United States. Given the quality of Angel Fernandez' exhibitions, they probably were right.