Into the lions’ cage | adman wins a champagne bet

On 11th October 1890, The Oxford Journal reported that Mr James Dillon, an Irish ‘advertising agent’ had wagered £100 that he could enter the lions’ cage and “drink his share of a bottle of champagne before leaving.”

Thanks to the assistance of Muccomo (described as the ‘coloured lion tamer’) with both the lions and the champagne he succeeded.

Champagne was often part of 19th century wagers. If it wasn’t the ‘fumes’ of the drink that provoked some extravagant or intemperate behaviour, it was often the prize at stake. In February 1880, the South Shields Gazette featured a bet (for a sum unrecorded) that turned on the ability to drink a glass of champagne from an unopened bottle without piercing the cork or breaking the glass. It was won by the simple expedient of turning the bottle upside down and drinking from the punt (described here as “the hollow at the bottom”).

19th century French champagne bottles showing the depth of the 'punt'

19th century French champagne bottles showing the depth of the ‘punt’. Thanks to the Naked Winery for this image

Another, apparently popular wager among military men (particularly Austrians for some reason) was drinking a bottle of champagne in one go. One story recorded that there was a delay before the feat was done and the bet won. The reason? The officer in question had returned to his lodgings to practise the feat with another bottle just to make sure he could do it.

And in February 1870, a young man won a bet that Agnes Chudworth’s eyelashes (which don’t otherwise trouble the historian) were both ‘black as silk’ and over ‘half an inch long’. His prize was a bottle of champagne.

But back to Mr Dillon and Muccomo. James Dillon was a theatre manager in Dublin in the 1860s but by the 1890s was working with his sons and billing themselves as ‘Billposters, Theatrical, Advertising Agents’. Perhaps he was in need of publicity himself…

The mystery is Muccomo. Or was it Maccomo? And was he Liverpudlian, Angolan, West India, Zulu or ‘negro’ – all descriptions during and after his lifetime?

Martini Maccomo, thanks to Jeffry Green

Martini Maccomo, thanks to Jeffrey Green

Jeffrey Green (from whose website I have taken this great picture) has written on Maccomo and describes the controversy over his origins and the bravado of his feats. Once a hot iron had to be applied to a lion’s’s tooth (sounds risky in itself) to get the animal to release Maccomo’s hand after four minutes (the audience thought it was all part of the act). The poor lion needed dentistry in 1871 to deal with the effects of this rescue. It didn’t enjoy the dentistry either and, according to an article on the National Fairgrounds Archive,  had to be revived after the extraction with “beef tea and claret”.

But, there’s a small mystery here. According to Jeffry Green, Maccomo died in 1871. So what was he doing in Dublin twenty years later? And was James Dillon, flourishing as a theatre manager in the late 1860s really up to entering a lion’s cage over 20 years later? Did Maccomo have a son or heir, or was it simply just someone who ‘borrowed’a name with significant brand value? Or is this a ‘re-invented’ story? 19th century newspapers did tend to have a magpie habit – possibly supported by their London agents (the forerunners of today’s ad men). If so, the story comes to a neat circle.

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