The decades following Mexico’s independence from Spain in 1821 were plagued by political dysfunction. Both violent and nonviolent coups were regular occurrences, and the opportunistic Santa Anna took advantage of the instability. He constantly changed with the political winds and declared himself at various times to be both conservative and liberal, democrat and dictator. From 1833 to 1835, he served as Mexico’s president four times before becoming a military-backed dictator. Although disgraced after the Texas Revolution, Santa Anna staged a political resurrection and served as president seven more times between 1839 and 1855.
Santa Anna idolized another 19th-century figure who straddled the military and political spheres—French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. The Mexican general was a devout reader of Napoleonic biographies and an avid collector of Napoleonic artifacts. Portraits of the French emperor adorned the walls of his estates, and his military regiments sported uniforms inspired by the French Army. Having seen a portrait of Napoleon riding heroically ahead of his troops, Santa Anna decided to also lead his troops from the front, and he mimicked his hero’s tactics, even making his troops march in the same manner as Napoleon’s army, down to the precise inch. When Santa Anna sought to mirror Napoleon’s sweep across Europe in his offensive against the Texas rebels in 1836, however, he encountered the same disastrous fate suffered by his idol in his Russian campaign of 1812.
Two years after the 1836 Battle of the Alamo, Santa Anna led a makeshift army against French forces who had invaded Veracruz, Mexico, in what has been called the “Pastry War.” After the general was severely wounded by grapeshot fired from a French cannon, doctors were forced to amputate his leg, which Santa Anna buried at his Veracruz hacienda. After he once again assumed the presidency in 1842, Santa Anna exhumed his shriveled leg, paraded it to Mexico City in an ornate coach and buried it beneath a cemetery monument in an elaborate state funeral that included cannon salvos, poetry and lofty orations. Santa Anna’s severed leg did not remain in the ground for long, however. In 1844, public opinion turned on the president, and rioters tore down his statues and dug up his leg. A mob tied the severed appendage to a rope and dragged it through the streets of Mexico City while shouting, “Death to the cripple!”
During the 1847 Battle of Cerro Gordo in the Mexican-American War, the 4th Illinois Infantry surprised Santa Anna, who fled without something quite important—his prosthetic cork and wooden leg. The Illinois soldiers seized the leg as a trophy piece that they brought back to their home state, where it toured at country fairs before falling into the possession of the Illinois State Military Museum. The Mexican government’s repeated requests to repatriate Santa Anna’s fake limb have been denied.
Like his idol Napoleon, Santa Anna found himself exiled on several occasions after being deposed from power. His banishment following his last stint as dictator brought the former Mexican leader to an unlikely location—the future New York City borough of Staten Island. After Santa Anna met with U.S. Secretary of State William Seward on the Caribbean island of St. Thomas in 1866, con men convinced him that the United States—the country against which he had fought during the Mexican-American War—would back his attempt to return to power in Mexico and depose Emperor Maximilian, the ruler hand-picked by Napoleon’s nephew, French Emperor Napoleon III. When Santa Anna arrived in New York City in May 1866, however, he learned that he had been duped. After spending years on Staten Island, Santa Anna returned to Mexico shortly before his death in 1876.
During his forced retirement in Staten Island, Santa Anna imported a chewy, rubber-like substance harvested from Mexican sapodilla trees—chicle. When Santa Anna’s personal secretary and interpreter showed the material to friend Thomas Adams, the amateur inventor was intrigued and thought he could use it to produce a rubber substitute. With the help of Santa Anna, who hoped the experiments would result in a windfall that could finance a return to power, Adams spent $30,000 in an unsuccessful attempt to vulcanize the chicle. While that venture failed, however, Adams successfully added flavorings and sweeteners to the plant to create “rubber chewing gum.” The chewing gum company started by Adams would become one of the largest in the country, rivaled only by that of William Wrigley Jr., and the developer of Chiclets.