ORDER POPULAR WHEN CANAL BEING BUILT
But Some Zonians Charged Group Averse To Law, Government; Drank Too Much
The Panama American - August, 1939
One of the most interesting organizations during construction days which disappeared with the completion of the Panama Canal was the Kangaroo Society, a social and charitable organization which was formed two years after work on the Canal was started.
The following historical sketch of the Kangaroos is found in an early year book (1909) published under the auspices of Cristobal Court No. 8. In the early days of the American occupation of the Canal Zone, there was no general form of amusement provided for the employees and the Independent Order of Panamanian Kangaroos was started by a few Americans who formed a habit of meeting at different places and holding mock trials for their own amusement at which time some unsuspecting party would be enticed to the rendezvous and put through a long trial, then fined a sufficent amount of refreshment to add zest to the trial of the next victim.
The first meeting was held in an old French house in Empire on October 10, 1906, where one of the hail-fellow-well-met was tried all night for leaving the ranks of the good fellows, he having just returned from the States with a bride. George G. Burnett was the judge of this court, H.C. Wertz, prosecuting attorney and W.L. Titus defending attorney. The next Sunday meeting was held in a wrecking car at Empire, and these meetings continued for a few weeks when it was decided to effect a permanent organization, about 25 men participating in same. Sixty-eight men joined at the first meeting thereafter in the old Municipal Hall in Empire. A bar-room keeper offered $250 gold as a reward to anyone who would break up the order. Empire Court later made application of a disused bakery and it was re-constructed for them, and this court is the only court on the Isthmus controlling its own building.
The spread of Kangarooism resulted in application from 23 members living in Tabernilla to form a Court at that place and same was installed October 2, 1907; from which it was decided that all future application for charters shall have 23 signers for same. A court was installed at Gorgona November 8, 1907, under the name of Burnett Court No. 3. The organization of these courts made necessary a supreme governing body and the officers of Empire No. 1 and Tabernilla No.2 met at the home of L.P. Worral in Empire November 14, 1907, formed a Supreme Court and elected officers ...
The Order has been the result of peculiar conditions existing on the Isthmus and the results of its works are told better in the hearts of men rather than in cold print. What the future may bring we cannot say; but the principles of fraternal brotherhood as taught by Kangarooism must ever remain the same.
What is "told in the hearts of men" depends largely on whether the teller is a former Kangaroo or not. Former members become almost inarticulate with reminiscences, the gist of which is largely, "But you should have been there the night we tried so and so" and little detail of what happened is ever given.
By 1909 the order seems to have reached its peak with a membership of 1100. Members were railroad men, clerks, general foremen, a few Canal officials and some who were proud of being "engineers with hairy ears."
Those non-members scornfully refered to the Kangaroos as a "bunch of rowdies."
Certainly they were not sissies and their philosophy is shown in the following verse of the "Song of the Kangaroos" which was written by Col. Bill Irwin and recited at a Kangaroo banquet on November 20, 1908 at which a party of congressmen was present:
By all the
gods of the Tropic Tramp'
To whom we humbly bow;
From Mazatlan to Panama,
And down to old Callao,
We know who's done this great work and
No matter what they say,
This mighty ditch will ne'er be dug
By a damned Y.M.C.A.
Some of the Kangaroo gatherings were historic. One at Las Cascadas which was held at the I.C.C. Hotle, Nove. 18, 1907, aroused the ire of the patrons of the dining room and the neighbors and resulted in the rule that all parties held in Commission Hotels must break up at midnight and prohibited the serving of intoxicating beverages.
Some of the residents of the Zone complained that the "Kangaroos are averse to law and government and always antagonistic to any effort to accomplish good among them," Other complaints stated that a meeting held November 24, 1908 involved "yellng and unnecessary pounding on tables," and stated that the men were "under the influence of liquor."
Another complaint caused an investigation of the organization and righteous eyebrows, were raised in indignation when it was found that two Canal Zone policemen, one of them a sergeant, were members of the Kangaroos.
There is no doubt but that the Kangaroos were largely rough diamonds, but one important reason for their being, and the one reason they were upheld by Colonel Goethals, was the fact that they were the one organization on the Isthmus which was devoted, at least in part, to charitable works.
The Isthmian Canal Commission had no money to spend on charity and whenever a case was brought before the Commission, the Colonel called on the Kangaroos for help. In one case, when a workman was killed in the line of duty, the Kangaroos sponsored a baseball game which raised $1500 for the destitute widow and her two small children. For five years the group paid all expenses of a group of Canal Zone orphans in a home in Louisiana.
When the organization was disbanded in December, 1914, the accounts were closed and the balance of the funds which amounted to several hundred dollars was turned over to Charlie Cantor, a member and proprietor of the old Metropole, with instructions that the money was to be used to feed and help any destitute American who needed help.
One of the largest Kangaroo gatherings was a Memorial service which was held at the National Theatre in Panama, Dec. 4, 1910, honoring Kangaroos who had died in Canal service. The high spot of the evening was a speech made by Colonel Goethals, one of the few public addresses he ever made. Other speakers of the evening were President Arosemena, Judge Gudger and Governor Maurice Thatcher, for whom Thatcher Highway is named. A band from Lt. Smedley Butler's Marine Camp in Bas Obispo furnished the music for the evening.
The organization was disbanded in 1914 when the need for such seemed to be over and the rough and tough Canal diggers began to use napkins and wear white collars. On May 9, 1925, a reunion of the society attended by several score members was held at Old Panama, but some of those attending stated that the boys seemed to have lost their verve with the coming of age of the Canal and maybe they were gettng old, but they didn't seem to be as peppy as they used to be. At any rate, no complaints were lodged for rowdy behavior as a result of the reunion.