Ah, the story of Haitian president Louis Mondéstin Florvil Hyppolite and his Panama hat. Do you know it? First let’s discuss a Panama hat and what it is, and afterwards we will discuss the esteemed Hyppolite and his story. Shall we begin?
Panama hats were very stylish in the 1800s, and were viewed as a necessary accessory to a shèlbè gentleman’s abiman! And we all know heads of state have to look their best. As for Louis Mondéstin Florvil (spelled Florville in some places) Hyppolite, or just Florvil Hyppolite, he was born on March 2, 1828 in Cap Haitian. Historians maintain that Hyppolite was involved in a power struggle with François-Denys (spelled Denis in some records) Légitime. In his book, James G. Blaine and Latin America, David Healy affirms that William P. Clyde, an American businessman and shipliner impresario supplied Hyppolite with arms and supplies to defeat Légitime, in exchange for trade monopoly once Hyppolite became president.
Hyppolite eventually overthrew Légitime (who went to Jamaica, which by now had become a really great hiding/exile spot, and hospitable island for lots and lots of Haiti’s former heads of state). Haiti’s famed historian Jacques Nicolas Léger credits Hyppolite with establishing telephone lines in Haiti (so Haiti wasn’t far behind with the technology), and setting up a diligent Ministry of Public Works, under which Haiti’s famed Iron Market was built.
According to Michael Larder, one of Frederick Douglass’s biographers (Douglass was Consul-General to Haiti during Hyppolite’s presidency): “Hyppolite wore white suits and blue-tinted glasses. He was an educated person, a member of the black elite, but was soon to be revealed a cold and ruthless man.”
According to historians, in March of 1896, Prez Hyppolite was on his way to Jacmel (against the advice of his private doctor) to squash a rebellion, spearheaded by his old nemesis Mérisier Jeannis, when he fell off his horse and died.
Being the creative folks that Haitians are, of course the President’s death inspired a song, that has been passed on to generations after:
Mwen soti lavi-l Jakmèl
An arivan kafou Benè
Panama-m tonbe, Panama-m tonbe
Sa ki vle a ranmase li pou mwen
I just came from the city of Jacmel
My Panama hat fell off my head
Arriving at the corner street in Bainet
My Panama hat fell off
My Panama hat fell off, My Panama hat fell off
My Panama hat fell off
Whoever wants can go ‘head and pick it up for me
People said that he fell off his horse, after he suffered a heart attack. Some maintained that he was poisoned. A British traveler would later write in an installation of The World’s work, Volume 24, a sort of yearly almanac, that he had spoken to Hypolite’s secretary in later years (the volume itself was published in 1922), and the secretary had told him that he had found some really, um, strange stuff sewn inside Hypolite’s coat, that included the dried remains of a human liver (woy!), a cock’s head, a red rag, among other odd assortments.
And the hat falling part? His hat fell off 5 years before the actual horse falling accident, so it was viewed as an omen—that something terrible would befall him.
As for Légitime, he returned from exile that same year, and lived a relatively peaceful life in Haiti until his death in the summer of 1935 in Port-au-Prince.