Ernest M Criss

Ernest M. Criss was born on September 24, 1880, in Lawrence, Kansas. He was the second child of Swaze and Minerva Criss.

Ernest Criss, circa 1900

In 1898, when the Spanish-American War broke out, Ernest enlisted in the US Army and served in the Philippines with the 20th Kansas Volunteer Infantry. Although the war ended by the end of that year, Ernest did not immediately return home. Instead, he joined other veterans to volunteer to fight on the side of the Boers in South Africa. He was shot in the shoulder soon after arriving but, after healing, remained in service until the end of the war in 1902.

Upon learning of the need for security at the upcoming 1904 World’s Fair in Saint Louis, and their desire to employ mostly honorably discharged soldiers from the Spanish-American War, Ernest signed up to serve in the Fair’s Jefferson Guards. He left Lawrence for Saint Louis in March 1904, arriving in time for training and to get fit for his uniform.

He served the Fair well until November 11 when, ironically, his assigned beat had him at the Boer War Exhibit (daily reenactments of key Boer War battles). A quarrel between a Boer and a Brit named John Backhouse turned into a violent scuffle. Criss charged in to break up the fight, but soon found himself entangled in the donnybrook, … and in danger. Ultimately and sadly, he shot Mr. Backhouse in the abdomen, resulting in his death two hours later. Mr. Backhouse was a newlywed, having met another fair employee, Kitty Tatch, on the fairgrounds that summer and marrying her soon thereafter. [1]

Boer War Reenactment Program (one of many formats)

Criss was arrested and detained to await action by the coroner. Two weeks later, a coroner’s jury exonerated him, determining that he had shot Mr. Backhouse in self-defense. [The Jefferson Guards were not generally issued firearms, but they were allowed to carry their own.]

The Spanish-American War had a significant impact on the US. The victory liberated Cuba (the main goal) as well as Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines from Spain. The US kept Puerto Rico and Guam as strategic territories, while setting Cuba and the Philippines on the path to independence. The Army and government administration staff were required to support, protect, and guide the Philippines, and Ernest re-enlisted and went over to help. He only occasionally returned home over the next few decades — to renew his passport and visit his family.

Along the way Criss met and married a Filipina named Isidra Quintos.  They had five children together, all girls. Isidra died in 1929.

Criss’s military record kind of dries up around 1919, yet he remained in Manila. I assume he left the military (age 39, and perhaps already having about a 20-year career). It seems he went to work for the US Government, helping the Philippines set up their government administration.  Ernest served in the Philippines until December 1941— December 8 to be exact — when the Japanese launched their surprise attacks all across the central and western Pacific Ocean. [2]

Ernest joined many Americans and Filipinos who fled to the Bataan Peninsula. They held out against the army of the Rising Sun until April 9, 1942. That’s when they ultimately surrendered, and the notorious Bataan Death March began. Ernest, weakened by the privations of months in the jungle at the age of 61, did not even survive until the end of the March’s first day. Unfortunately, his remains have not been found.


Joe Girard © 2023

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[1] (a) At least one newspaper source has the incident occurring when Criss was off duty, at around 4:30 PM.

(b)Among the reenactments, the Battle of the Transvaal was reenacted twice daily on a 15-acre for the War exhibit.  The Spanish-American War was represented also, with daily reenactments of the Battle of Manila Bay.

[2] Note that the Day of Infamy, December 7, was December 8 in the Philippines. Dateline.  The surprise there was nearly coincident with Pearl Harbor, occurring just a few hours later as dawn approached, as well as Wake Island, Hong Kong, Malaysia, and Midway.

Military record.  Sparse, but there are muster rolls that one can scroll through, if one has time.

[3] Boer is Afrikaans for farmer.  Closely related to the German word: Bauer.

Author notes: Back story: while perusing very old newspaper clippings in the reference section of the old and extraordinarily beautiful St Louis downtown library I came across the faintest thread of this story. Intrigued, I dug for more when I had time.  Then: I dug and dug and dug. Getting anything close to a full story was quite an adventure. This story has almost completely faded into history’s mists and fogs. Here’s what I could cobble together.