“Now, what on earth am I to do—run away? Shall a man dodge, when pretty women crowd around him? It may be silly, but any man with any gallantry or decency in him would do just as I have done—kiss 'em all.”
On June 3, 1898, in the middle of the Spanish-American War, Lieutenant Richmond Pearson Hobson sailed the U.S. collier Merrimac into Santiago Harbor with a hand-picked skeleton crew. Hobson schemed to sink his vessel at the entrance to the Cuban bay, trapping the Spanish fleet. Though he failed to blockade the harbor, the Spanish guns finally sunk the ship just inside the bay, leaving the lieutenant and his crew bobbing in the water in their underwear to be picked up by Spanish Admiral Pascual Cervera. Though his mission was a failure, Hobson would soon become a national celebrity for another kind of mission—one ideally suited for the handsome young man.
Hobson and his crew of seven spent a month of genteel captivity under Admiral Cervera before being released to considerable excitement back in the United States. All seven of Hobson’s crew received Medals of Honor, but Hobson, an officer, was ineligible at the time. Journalists hastened to turn Hobson, a handsome young Southern war hero and bachelor, into a national celebrity. The Los Angeles Times declared him “the outstanding national hero of our war with Spain.” He was invited to high society gatherings and campaign events in New York, Chicago, and across the Midwest.
In New York, Hobson was approached by young socialite, Emma Arnold of St. Louis, who proclaimed she was jealous of kisses Hobson was giving little children who greeted him. The naval hero obliged her with a kiss—as it turns out, the first of many. Newspapers kept totals of his exploits across the nation, noting tallies of kisses and in how much time it took Lieutenant Hobson to manage such feats. After touring Kansas on the way to his next post, the St. Louis Dispatch declared that “a thousand women met his lips,” clamoring for their turn with “the champion kisser of the universe.”
In later years, Hobson parlayed this fame into a political career. After losing his first primary challenge to incumbent John Hollis Bankhead of Alabama, Hobson joined the House of Representatives for the 60th Congress (1907–1909). As an Alabama Congressman, Hobson was an ardent supporter of Prohibition and the expansion of the navy. Over his four terms in the House, he introduced more than 20 constitutional amendments to prohibit the use, manufacture, and transportation of alcohol. Representative Hobson's views were largely unpopular, and he lost his primary challenge to House Majority Leader and state option supporter Oscar Underwood of Alabama for an open Senate seat in 1914.
After Congress, Hobson made a living lecturing on the evils of alcohol. Once passage of the Volstead Act rendered the sale and possession of alcohol illegal, the press labeled him “the Father of American Prohibition.” The long-sought goal of Hobson's political career arrived as a double-edged sword, limiting his ability to secure a steady income from talks. Hobson shifted topics to the danger of narcotics, but failed to recapture the fervor of prohibition. The financial crash of 1929 left his estate in serious doubt.
Hobson’s congressional connections came through in the end, after a resolution passed on March 3, 1915, authorized the President to award the Medal of Honor to officers at last. Representative William B. Oliver of Alabama introduced a bill resulting in a now-eligible Hobson being awarded the Medal of Honor in 1933—35 years late. This inspired a 1934 act of Congress that promoted him to Rear Admiral and granted him retirement and a full pension. Hobson died on March 16, 1937, leaving behind a complicated legacy and “all previous osculatory records . . . shattered to smithereens.”
Sources: St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 21, 1898; Los Angeles Times, March 21, 1930; Richmond Pearson Hobson, The Sinking of the "Merrimac" (New York: The Century Co., 1899); David Poyer, "The Most Kissed Man in America: Part I," Shipmate, (January–February 2009): 22–25; David Poyer, "The Most Kissed Man in America: Part II," Shipmate, (March-April 2009): 38–42.