My book Bowie Knife Fights, Fighters, and Fighting Techniques is available from Paladin Press. This blog contains additional information about the bowie knife, as well as the fighting knives of other nations.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Civil War Bowie-Knife Duel

The following account of a bowie-knife duel was included in The Pictorial Book of Anecdotes and Incidents of the War of the Rebellion (1867), by Richard Miller.
Bowie-Knife Conflict at the Battle of Pea-Ridge. 
While the fight was raging about Miser's farmhouse, at the battle of Pea-Ridge, on Friday morning, a Union soldier belonging to the Twenty-fifth Missouri regiment and a member of a rebel Mississippi company, became separated from their commands, and found each other climbing the same fence. The rebel had one of those long knives made of a file, which the South has so extensively paraded, but so rarely used, and the Missourian had one also, having picked it up on the field. The rebel challenged his enemy to a fair open combat with the knife, intending to bully him, no doubt, but the challenge was promptly accepted. The two removed their coats, rolled up their sleeves, and began. The Mississippian had more skill, but his opponent more strength, and consequently the latter could not strike his enemy, while he received several cuts on the head and breast. The blood began trickling rapidly down the Unionist's face and running into his eyes, almost blinding him. The Union man became desperate, for he saw the secessionist was unhurt. He made a feint; the rebel leaned forward to arrest the blow, but employing too much energy, he could not recover himself at once. The Missourian perceived his advantage, and knew he could not lose it. In five seconds more it would be too late. His enemy glared at him like a wild beast, and was on the eve of striking again. Another feint; another dodge on the rebel's part, and then the heavy blade of the Missourian hurtled through the air, and fell with tremendous force upon the Mississippian's neck. The blood spurted from the throat, and the head fell over, almost entirely severed from the body. Ghastly sight--too ghastly even for the doer of the deed! He fainted at the spectacle, weakened by the loss of his own blood, and was soon after butchered by a Seminole who saw him sink to the earth.
A great story, but one that I didn't include in my book, for several reasons. For one thing, it is told in Raymond Thorp's book,  Bowie Knife, and since I assume anyone interested in the subject is familiar with that book, I repeated as little of the material it contained as possible. Secondly, the story is so obviously made-up that I felt it would insult the reader's intelligence to waste his time with it. Who could have provided such a blow-by-blow account? A dead giveaway in phony accounts is the use of boiler-plate phrases like "His enemy glared at him like a wild beast," which writers of 19th-century fiction were not able to resist.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Newcomer to Austin, Texas, Unfavorably Impressed (1878)

The following is an excerpt from a collection of Tolles family correspondence held by the Duke University library.

Shortly after settling in Austin, Texas, in 1878, Jennie Tolles wrote to her older sister Katie, to report the alarming goings-on:
Yesterday there was a man murdered right down town just a littel [sic] ways from the office, he was an alderman, a Mr. Markley. He was killed by Alderman Wall. They are trying to have a big market built in the 6th ward. Mr Wall didn't like it because Mr (Markley) didn't vote the same as he did. So Mr Wall drew out a great long Bowie knife from his waistband and stabbed him twice through the heart. Mr Markley dropped right down dead on the sidewalk. They sent right off for his wife and... she came right down there where he was laying a-bleeding. Oh it is terrible, he leaves a poor wife and two little children. Their [sic] are just such things a-going on here all the time. It is the worst place we have ever got into. You can't express your opinions but what you are in danger of your lives.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Zouave Uses His Bowie Knife

Zouave troops in the Civil War

A report from the [Richmond] Daily Dispatch, June 20, 1861:
Monday morning early, four of the New Orleans Zouaves left camp without leave, and directed their steps towards Newport News, alleging as a reason that they desired to reconnoiter the fortifications at that place. Some five or six hours after their departure, one of the Zouaves returned to camp at Bethel, in a somewhat exhausted condition, and exhibited a bloody bowie-knife of appalling dimensions. He represents that his party extended their advance to within a mile and a half of Newport News, when they found themselves suddenly surrounded by a Yankee scouting party, numbering some twenty or thirty. They determined to cut their way out if possible, and being armed with nothing but bowie knives, went to work with a will. But one escaped, the other three having been taken prisoners. The one who returned declares that several of the Yankees were killed by himself and friends. His own assertion is all the evidence we have, but we give the story as he relates it.
Early in the war, poorly equipped Confederate troops were still investing great faith in the bowie knife, of which they had an ample supply. This report of a bowie-knife exploit may have been intended to boost morale.

The business of Zouave troops may require explanation. Originally,  Zouaves were natives of North Africa who served in the French Army in the 1830s.  Their distinctive uniforms, which were usually brightly colored, consisted of a fez and turban, very baggy pants, a vest, a short cutaway jacket, a sash, and lots of brass buttons and gold braid. This look became a fashion in the United States before the Civil War, with many local militia units dressing as Zouaves and competing in drill practice.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Bowie Knife vs. Nightstick

A news article from February 8, 1890, adds more data to the study of whether a knife or stick is the better weapon at close quarters. The New York City policeman's nightstick was about 20 inches long, 1.75-inches thick, and made of locust wood, which resists cracking and splintering.
Night Stick Against Bowie Knife

The expert handling of a night stick saved Policeman Andrew Hennelly’s life at one o’clock yesterday morning, when he encountered Arthur Murphy, a member of the “Pan” gang, armed with a murderous bowie knife. Murphy had sworn to get even with Hennelly for securing the conviction of his brother, Oscar Murphy, for stealing a watch from Henry Schmidt, of No. 567 First avenue, on New Year’s Day.

The two met on the corner of First avenue and Thirty-ninth street for the first time yesterday morning. The policeman, suspecting Murphy’s intention from his movements, ordered him off the corner. While pretending to move on, Murphy turned suddenly and made a lunge at Henelly’s breast with the ugly looking knife, but the weapon only cut a slit in the policeman’s rubber overcoat.

Before he could strike the second time Hennelly’s night stick came down upon Murphy’s head and he was stunned for a second. When he recovered he made several more vicious attacks with the knife and succeeded in cutting the overcoat in many places. A well directed blow from the club, however, took all the fight out of the tough.

Policeman O’Neil heard the scuffle from an adjoining post and he ran to his comrade’s assistance. It took the combined efforts of the policemen to haul Murphy to the Thirty-Fifth street station. Although severely clubbed he still resisted on the way to the station and continued his threats of vengeance. A few strips of plaster sufficed to bind up the wounds on his cranium, after which he slept quietly. At the Yorkville Police Court Murphy was held in $1,000 bail for his murderous attack.
Another news article describes the knife used:
The sword or dagger with which he tried to murder the officer will be preserved in the station house as a curiosity. It is made out of an old cavalry sword, apparently, with the old handle preserved intact. The blade is ground down to a needle point and the edges sharp as file can make them. One stab with it in the abdomen, at which he persistently aimed, would have meant certain death to the policeman.
The nit-picker may note that a cut-down sword is not a bowie knife. However, there is a persistent claim that the bowie knife originated as a cut-down sword. For example, this is from the Encyclopedia Americana (1918): "Colonel Bowie is said to have had his sword broken down to within about 20 inches of the hilt in a fight with some Mexicans, but he found that he did such good execution with his broken blade that he equipped all his followers with a similar weapon." Granted, this version of its origin is not taken too seriously by scholars.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., and Theodore Roosevelt on the Bowie Knife

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. (1809 – 1894), American physician, professor, lecturer, and author, and father of the Supreme Court justice, had this to say about the bowie knife in 1858:
We are the Romans of the modern world, the great assimilating people. Conflicts and conquests are of course necessary accidents with us, as with our prototypes. And so we come to their style of weapon. Our army sword is the short, stiff, pointed gladius of the Romans; and the American bowie-knife is the same tool, modified to meet the daily wants of civil society. I announce at this table an axiom not to be found in Montesquieu or the journals of Congress: -

The race that shortens its weapons lengthens its boundaries.

Corollary. It was the Polish lance that left Poland at last with nothing of her own to bound.

"Dropped from her nerveless grasp the shattered spear!"

What business had Sarmatia to be fighting for liberty with a fifteen-foot pole between her and the breasts of her enemies? If she had but clutched the old Roman and young American weapon, and come to close quarters, there might have been a chance for her. . .
When Holmes says "our army sword," he is referring to the Model 1832 Foot Artillery Sword.

Model 1832 Foot Artillery Sword.

Holmes's confidence in the bowie knife must have been rooted in America's success in the Texas War of Independence and the Mexican War, as well as the westward expansion. However, the notion that a nation seeking to expand its boundaries is hampered by a long spear is contradicted by the success of Philip of Macedonia's army with the sarissa, an unusually long spear which made its phalanx unbeatable. With these 13- to 21-foot spears the army of his son Alexander stretched the boundaries of his empire to hitherto unimagined lengths.

A young Theodore Roosevelt in cowboy garb with his Tiffany-made bowie knife in his belt.

In a visit to the Alamo after the Spanish-American War, Theodore Roosevelt quoted Holmes's sentiment approvingly:
Col. Roosevelt . . . . talked of Bowie and his old blacksmith’s file that, forged and sharpened, became the weapon par excellence of his generation.

“Do you remember what Holmes had to say about the Bowie knife and its relation to the Roman gladius?” he asked. “’The race that shortens its weapons lengthens its boundaries.’ There is undying truth in that axiom in spite of our adoption of the Krag-Jorgensen and other long-distance engines of destruction. I am glad that we are to have these machetes, for, after all, you have got to get back to first principles in the end; you can’t do much with a fifteen-foot pole between you and the breast of your adversary. You have got to get up close to him sooner or later.”

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

"Randall Knife," by Guy Clark



This is a live performance of Guy Clark singing "Randall Knife." I wouldn't have guessed there would be a song about the Randall #1 "All Purpose Fighting Knife," but YouTube offers us a world of wonders.

I'm a literal-minded person so my first reaction was, "Hmm, a plausible series of events set to music." Then I thought, "Wait, maybe there's some symbolism involved." So here's my best effort to interpret it: As an expensive, high quality weapon, hand-made by craftsman, the Randall knife is a precious object. The father carried it during World War II, so it fascinates his son. At home, now a family man, the father cuts himself when he tries to use the Randall as a tool; you could cut yourself with any knife, of course, but Clark makes the point that the Randall is a weapon, not intended for mundane tasks. Later, the father lets his son take it on a scouting trip. The son carelessly breaks the tip off the blade and is terrified of the punishment he will get from his father, to whom the knife seemed to mean so much. However, the father says nothing about it. He is a father now, not a warrior, and he has adjusted his priorities accordingly. Perhaps that's why the son wants the knife most of all out of all the possessions his father leaves: it represents not only his service as a warrior, but his readiness, as a father, to forgive.


The Randall Fighting Knife might not qualify as a bowie by modern-day criteria, but it certainly would by the criteria of the 19th century. By the way, if he chose to, Clark could probably get Randall to reshape the tip on that knife so it has a point. Or maybe they could just give him a new one in exchange for the free advertising.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Soldier's Bowie Knife Returned to Family

For centuries, the sword has been imbued with symbolism. It represented the soul of the warrior: he was dubbed with it upon his knighthood, he swore oaths on it, it might be taken from him and broken if he disgraced himself, or he might be buried with it if he lived and died with honor. Our army no longer carries swords, but a lot of the symbolism they carried has been transferred to the large fighting knife. Engraved KA-BAR knives are often used as presentation pieces in today's military. A soldier attaches a special significance to a personally owned fighting knife or pistol, as it is his last-ditch defense in the event that his primary weapon fails him.

The following article, about a small event, gives an idea of the symbolic importance attached to a bowie knife carried by a soldier killed in the Vietnam War.


Commercial bowie knives such as this model by Western model W49 were popular with troops in Vietnam. The knife in the story probably was of this type.
Lexington Herald-Leader (KY)
July 24, 2005
SOLDIER'S WISH IS HONORED
A PLEDGE MADE IN VIETNAM
35 YEARS LATER, BOWIE KNIFE IS RETURNED TO FAMILY
Author: Jim Warren, Herald-Leader Staff Writer

MOUNT VERNON -- A Vietnam soldier's pledge -- made and delayed, but never forgotten for 35 years -- finally was fulfilled yesterday in an emotional moment at a tiny rural cemetery in Rockcastle County.

"I made a promise," Richard Hines said softly, standing by David Chaney's grave, "and I'm here to keep that promise."

With that, Hines placed a battered scabbard containing an old Bowie knife in Steven Chaney's hands, while about 50 Chaney family members, friends and neighbors looked on and tried with little success to halt their tears.

David Chaney's knife was back home.

He bought it in 1969 and took to it with him to Vietnam, where he served in an Army tank unit. The Chaney family had always assumed the knife was destroyed in the attack that hit David's tank and killed him in 1970.

What the Chaneys didn't know, until recently, was that David had given the knife to Hines, his closest buddy, for safekeeping shortly before he died. David had a premonition that he might not get home.

A snapshot from the Vietnam War of a soldier with a Case bowie knife. 

Hines brought the knife back to the United States when his Vietnam tour ended, and it remained with him for years while he moved about the country. But he never forgot his pledge to David to keep the knife safe.

And yesterday, Hines and five other buddies from David Chaney's old outfit -- Troop A, 2nd Squadron, 1st Armored Cavalry -- came from cities scattered around the country to stand at Chaney's grave at the little McKinney Community Cemetery and present the knife to the Chaney family.

David's brothers, Steven, Stanley and Dennis Chaney, and his sister, Twila Luening, said they were both gratified and stunned, not only that their late brother's prized possession was returned, but by the unlikely story of how it happened.

Members of David's old unit used the Internet and some help from Myrna Childress of Rockcastle County to locate the family. They initially contacted Childress, who placed some information about David Chaney on a veterans' Web site. She then located Steven Chaney, and the two groups got together.

"I was totally shocked," said Steven Chaney, 45, who was 11 when his brother died. "It just amazed me that they would want to do this, and come all this way, after 35 years."

But David Chaney's former buddies -- Hines, of St. Helen, Mich.; Larry Drummond, of Overland Park, Kan.; Randy Teal, of Ocean Springs, Miss.; Vic Reyes, of Berwyn, Ill.; Tony Dodson, of Philadelphia; Jon "Brian" Kosteck of New Haven, Indiana -- said that returning the knife was something they had to do.

"It was our duty," Dodson said.

"It's a step in the healing process," said Teal, who was on the same tank with David Chaney the day he died. "There's not a day that David is not in our minds, not a single day."

David Glenn Chaney grew up in the Rockcastle County community of Bloss, the oldest son of Lewis and Georgia Chaney.

"He was a man of steel," said Bobby Phelps, of Mount Vernon, who went through basic and advanced training with David. When David was killed, Phelps escorted his body back home.

"I was with him when he bought the knife," Dennis Chaney recalled. "Just before hunting season in 1969, we each bought a Bowie knife at the Western Auto store in Mount Vernon. I still have mine; he took his to Vietnam."

David Chaney was killed when his tank was hit by rocket-propelled grenades while responding to a mortar attack in central South Vietnam on Aug. 31, 1970. Hines, known in the unit as "the Reverend," pulled Chaney's body out of the burning tank. "To this day, I don't know how I was able to do it," Hines said.

He said Chaney had given him the Bowie knife not long before.

"He told me he knew that I would respect it and care for it," Hines said. "He had a premonition that he wasn't coming home. My promise to him was that I would get him home, and give him the knife before we came home."

When that wasn't possible, Hines held onto the knife. Last year, during a unit reunion, he revealed to some buddies that he still had the knife. The former soldiers then began trying to reach the Chaney family with the intention of returning the knife.

They initially planned to deliver the knife quietly. But when the word spread here, a small memorial service was organized, with a color guard from Rockcastle County's American Legion Post 71. Harold Burdette, 18, for whom Vietnam is only a piece of history, played taps, and family members and friends from around the county turned out to be part of the moment.

David Chaney's parents died some years ago.

"I just wish they could have been here for this," Luening said yesterday.

Ricky Bullock, a cousin who was only 5 when David Chaney died but vividly remembers his funeral, perhaps summed up the day best: "This is not just about a knife. It's like getting a part of David back home."

Monday, November 22, 2010

Description of the Bowie Knife from 1847


Description of the bowie knife by Charles Hooton, an Englishman who visited Texas in the 1840s, from his book St. Louis’ Isle, or Texiana (1847):
Having already mentioned the bowie-knife, as not only so common but so formidable a weapon, both in Texas and the whole South, the reader will perhaps not be displeased to hear a little more of it,—the various tragical hand-to-hand exploits which have been from time to time performed, even amongst the "highest circles" of that quarter of the world, through its agency, having conferred upon it a degree of bloody and horrible distinction never yet acquired by many of its elder brethren of the same craft. Let it not, however, be regarded altogether in the light of an engine of human slaughter; since, in many other respects, it is one of the most useful of articles to the settler and frontierman. The same blade which this morning, perhaps, was buried to the hilt in the body of an enemy—or it may be of a friend, with whom its owner had a "difficulty"—will also serve to-night to carve the venison for supper; to skin and cut up the hunter's game; to extract hooks from the gullets of ponderous red-fish, when its master goes a-fishing; or to supply any other need, no matter how small (if not too small for its own size), for which a knife can possibly be required. In short, Butler has accurately predescribed its various uses—aided, no doubt, by a wonderful spirit of poetical prophecy—in the following charming portrait of the dagger of his "Sir Knight":—
It was a serviceable dudgeon,
Either for fighting or for drudging;
When it had stabb'd, or broke a head,
It would scrape trenchers, or chip bread;
Toast cheese or bacon, though it were
To bait a mouse-trap, 'twould not care.
To the best of my knowledge, this instrument was devised by Col. James Bowie, an American, and a man of desperate valour. He considered, and apparently with justice too, that in close fighting, a much shorter weapon than the sword ordinarily in use, but still heavy enough to give it sufficient force, and, at the same time, contrived to cut and thrust, would be far preferable, and more advantageous to the wearer. He accordingly invented the short sword, or knife, which has since gone under his name. It is made of various sizes; but the best, I may say, is about the length of a carving-knife,—cast perfectly straight in the first instance, but greatly rounded at the end on the edge side: the upper edge at the end, for the length of about two inches, is ground into the small segment of a circle and rendered sharp; thus leaving an apparent curve of the knife, although in reality the upturned point is not higher than the line of the back. The back itself gradually increases in weight of metal as it approaches the hilt, on which a small guard is placed. The bowie-knife, therefore, has a curved, keen point; is double-edged for the space of about a couple of inches of its length; and, when in use, falls with the weight of a bill-hook. I have heard it stated, that a blow from one well wielded is sufficient to break a man's arm. . . . Bowie went to Texas during the troubles which preceded the independence of that country, and was lying sick in bed at the Fortress of the Alamo, when, on the 6th of March, 1836, it was stormed by Santa Anna and taken. Bowie was murdered there upon his pillow. The hand that formed the dreadful knife could no longer wield it.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

A Western Pasttime

In Cow-boys and Colonels: Narrative of a Journey Across the Prairie and Over the Black Hills of South Dakota (1887), Baron Edmond Mandat-Grancey describes his many adventures while traveling the American West. For example, while staying in a hotel in Custer, South Dakota, he encounters practitioners of a bizarre American ritual.
After dinner, I go out to smoke a cigar: rows of smokers with their feet raised are already at their post, still I manage to find room on a wooden bench.

Hardly am I seated there, when one of my neighbours rises, draws from his pocket a formidable bowie-knife, and comes up to me brandishing the weapon. Monsieur de M's adventure comes to my mind at once. Has he sworn to make me quit the country? I clap my hand on the stock of my revolver, determined to sell my skin as dearly as possible, but my suspected aggressor looks at me so good naturedly that I at once lay down my arms. He approaches nearer, and, without saying a word, gives me a gentle push, carries away a large piece of the plank on which I am sitting, and then, resuming his own seat, commences cutting it up into chips. I am immediately reassured, and all the more on looking around and finding all the rest busy at the same kind of work: this is whittling, and these are the whittlers.

Whittling is a special malady of the American brain, developed particularly in the West, where there are few men who do not manifest these symptoms. Its diagnosis consists in an irresistible desire to take in the left hand a piece of wood, and to reduce it to morsels of the size of a match by a gentle and regular movement of the right hand armed with a pocket knife, a razor, or a bowie-knife. The indulgence of this propensity sometimes facilitates, but more frequently replaces, conversation, according to temperament; but the predisposition — quite as imperious as the passion for opium among the Chinese — is no more easily explained than a taste for olives, or dominoes, or rancid bacon, or why Schiller could not get on with his work without the smell of rotten apples under his nose. It seems that at Washington formerly they used to deliver to each senator or deputy, at the commencement of their sitting, a little block of cedar and a pen-knife, furnished by the questorship for this purpose: they had found this to be the most effective remedy for preserving the arms of the chairs, which, formerly, never lasted out a session. . .
When the Baron mentions "Monsieur de M's adventure," he is referring to the Marquis de Mores, a French nobleman who settled in South Dakota and established a large ranch and meat-packing facility. The Marquis was more or less challenged to a duel by a fellow South Dakota rancher, Theodore Roosevelt.

As far as the physician-poet Friedrich von Schiller and his rotten apples, this stems from an incident Goethe wrote about. Goethe had paid a visit to Schiller and finding him not at home, waited in his office. He noticed a terrible smell coming from his desk and discovered that one of its drawers was full of rotten apples. Schiller's wife explained that he required their decaying scent in order to be able to write.

Hunting Alligator With a Bowie Knife

In Shooting and Fishing in the Rivers, Prairies, and Backwoods of North America (1865), Benedict Henry Revoil mentions having met a man who required neither firearm nor ammunition to harvest alligator:
On the Texan coasts and about Lake Sabine there are vast salt marshes . . . where alligators abound, and where they grow to a size elsewhere unknown. Here you may see these enormous brutes stretched out in the sun and displaying their proportions as if they were perfectly at home.

One day I happened to be on the shore in a tavern, 
and near a landing-stage where a boat called for New 
Orleans, and there I met with a hunter named Allen, 
a man who lived on the Angolina River, and who 
came every year, from November to April, to employ 
his time in the catching of alligators. This Indian 
Nimrod had a companion named Jim, who was of 
the Bolaxis tribe. Jim was a better sportsman than 
his master, for he never needed anything but a lasso 
and a bowie-knife to get the better of an alligator. 
If he saw an alligator, he crawled cautiously towards 
him and lassoed him, and soon put an end to him 
with his bowie-knife.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

African American With Bowie Knife Not Intimidated, Apparently

In 1872, there was a congressional inquiry into "The Conditions in the Late Insurrectionary States," at which witnesses gave sworn testimony. The committee chairman asked one witness, William W. Humphries, Jr., a lawyer in Columbus, Mississippi, if the African Americans in his region were intimidated by the whites.
Answer. Not a particle; no more than you are. On the contrary, I consider them about as daring as anybody. And as further evidence of the fact, I witnessed on the streets of Columbus a negro, named Solomon Shaw, pull out his repeater and fire four or five times at a young gentleman named Fernandez Pope, here, in broad daylight. Another case of that sort occurred some four or five months ago. It was the case of a negro drawing his knife and chasing his employer and his brother out of the field; to use his own language, he made them “whoop for the landing." That was his expression in his statement of the facts. I might mention still another case, of George Triplet, who got mad with the manager of General Harris's plantation, took a club and beat him half to death. The manager's name was Winston. I saw him in town a few days ago, and on his head was a terrible gash. The negro had beat him senseless. The negro is in town now.
The chairman questioned the witness about the two other cases and then returned to the one involving the bowie knife, about which he seemed to have forgotten the details.
Question. What was done with the four or five men who made this attack upon the white men in the field and ran them off -- the case you mentioned after Shaw?

Answer. There was only one negro engaged in that; one negro ran two white men off. The case was tried and the jury acquitted the party on the ground that one of the white men had a pistol in his pocket, and if he was such an infamous coward as to allow that, he ought to have been killed. So one or two of the jury stated to me; that when a white man would permit a negro to run him out of his own field with a bowie-knife, and the fact was developed that the white man was at that time armed with a pistol, they had no sympathy with him, and the negro had been in jail for three or four months, and I think it was the sense of the jury that he was rather a plucky fellow, while the other was rather a coward, and the negro had done about right.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Bowie Knives Still Made in Sheffield

When the bowie knife came into vogue in the 1830s, America did not yet have the manufacturing capacity to meet the demand. However, the cutlers of Sheffield, England did, and soon flooded the market with their high quality bowies, available in a dazzling variety of styles. (I have noticed that many internet sources identify the 1850s as the time Sheffield knives were first introduced to the American market. This is incorrect. There were Sheffield imports here in the late 1830s.)
In the course of my research, I decided to buy myself a bowie knife that resembled as closely as possible one that a man might have taken with him to the California gold rush or the Civil War. After a lot of searching on the internet, and wistfully passing by the custom models that I couldn't afford, I settled on  this beauty from John Nowill & Sons in Sheffield, England, which has been in the cutlery business since 1700. It has a 10.5-inch blade, stag scales, a brass crossguard and pommel, and a very well-made sheath of harness leather. The stock is a quarter inch thick, with a full-length tang, and the knife weighs just under two pounds. I noticed that some of the models shown in advertisements had decorative filework on the back of the blade. To each his own, but I happen to hate filework, considering it superfluous, ugly, and inauthentic. I'm also not crazy about the fuller, or so-called "blood groove." When I phoned in my order for the knife I requested that both these features be omitted. As I completed my order, the woman on the other end of the line said "Loov-ley" in that charming English manner. The knife arrived a few weeks later, wrapped in cardboard and brown paper, in a plain box, with my address hand lettered. I liked that additional historical verisimilitude and the knife itself is a delight. The only problem was that it was as dull as a Merchant-Ivory film, so I took it to a professional sharpener in Meriden, Connecticut, who runs a small shop called The Sharper Edge. He did an excellent job. I realize I lowered the collector value by doing so, but a dull knife is an abomination in the eyes of god. (I think that's in Leviticus somewhere.)

I was so pleased with the big bowie that I had to buy a little brother for it. With an eight-inch blade, it's a large knife but doesn't give you the charge you get from the super-sized model. The one pictured above has faux ivory scales, but I ordered mine with stag. Since it was shown in the ad with a plain back edge, I didn't think to specify "no filework," so naturally it came with filework. I sent it all the way back to Sheffield to exchange it for a plain version. (When did this execrable filework become the norm?)

Nowill sells another bowie that appeals to me, but my self-allocated research budget had run out. It has a nine-inch blade, a traditional coffin grip,  genuine buffalo-horn scales, and a Spanish choil. The choil is defined as the area between the cutting edge and the tang. Sometimes there is a small notch at that point, which helps separate the part of the blade you're supposed to sharpen from the part you're not. What makes it a Spanish choil (or Spanish notch) is the little teardrop-shaped inlet into the blade at that point, whose purpose is not exactly clear. Is it merely a stylistic touch? Can it be used to trap an opponent's blade and perhaps break it? Does it allow blood to drip from the blade before it reaches the hand, as a similar choil on the kukri is said to do? Bowie-knife expert Bernard Levine theorized that it could be used to pry used percussion caps off the firearms of the day.

Here is a close-up of a Spanish choil on a knife made by Dean Oliver of Oregon:


The Sheffield knives can be seen and ordered through the website of John Nowill & Sons. Just be sure to tell them you don't want the f---ing filework! (unless you do).

UPDATE: Below is an example of a bowie with extensive filework, for those who don't know what I'm talking about. To me, it looks like it was gnawed by gerbils.


UPDATE 2: I got a message from Vin Malone of Sheffield, England. He writes, "You mention your dislike of what you call decorative filework. Having worked in the Sheffield cutlery industry for fifty years we never call it “decorative filework”; it's known throughout the trade as “Jimp and Bevel.”

I found that interesting and wanted to add it to this post. Thank you, Mr. Malone.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Western Man, as Observed by a Lady

An Englishwoman, Mrs. Matilda C. Houstoun, tut-tutted her way through America during the early 1840s and wrote about it in Hesperos (1850). Here are her comments on the locals she observed from the steamboat as she traveled down the Mississippi:
As we descended the river, the state of Arkansas was on our right hand for several hundred miles. The general character of its inhabitants is none of the best, and it is acknowledged to be the refuge and head-quarters of loafers and lawless characters of all kinds. In Arkansaw (as it is pronounced here) are also to be found the most numerous and accomplished professors in the art of using the bowie knife, and also of the ingenious one of gouging. We saw some curious specimens of the 'western men' at several of the wooding places; they are generally tall, lanky, unwashed men, with clay-coloured faces, looking for all the world as though they had been made out of the same mud that dyes the Mississippi waters. Their hair is commonly of a reddish flaxen hue, and hangs in uncombed masses over the coat collars; add to this, an old broad brimmed hat, with the crown half out, and boots of untanned leather, with the pantaloons tucked down in the inside of them, and a 'western man' is before you. These curious and original beings were generally accompanied by two or three dogs, and they are never known to move without a rifle and a bowie knife. 
Here is a subsequent comment on some of the ruffians with whom she shared her boat:
Such characters as these, men essentially 'rowdy,' and 'loafers' by profession, are . .  found in great numbers on the smaller river steamers, particularly on those which are bound for the Red River. These men are looked upon with great suspicion, and are always avoided as much as possible by the respectable portion of the community who happen to be on board; they are to be found (at least I am told so) always in the fore part of the vessel, and are loud and violent in their discourse, never without their cigars or quids in their mouths, and around them is an atmosphere of vice, dirt, and degradation. Another distinguishing mark of these men is, that when not engaged in swearing, boasting, and blaspheming, they are sure to be either whittling on their chair, or picking their teeth with a bowie knife.
The "gouging" that Houston refers to was an unarmed fighting style on the frontier. It was utterly without rules, and featured eye-gouging, scrotum tearing, and the biting off of fingers, noses, and ears; the disfigurement of one's opponent was the object. A less brutal type of fight was called "rough and tumble," and proscribed those techniques. The prevalence of gouging is subject to some academic skepticism; it may have been greatly exaggerated to ├ępater les bourgeois (French for "bug the squares").
There's an excellent article on the subject here: "Gouge and Bite, Pull Hair and Scratch: The Social Significance of Fighting in the Southern Backcountry".

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Bowie Knife Duel in San Antonio Recalled

Even a century ago, newspapers would sometimes run an interview with an old timer who would talk about colorful episodes of the past. In almost every case I've come across, the old-timers were great storytellers and the stories are not to be believed. The following, published in the Galveston Daily News in 1907, is typical.
OLD SETTLER DESCRIBES A BLOODY FIGHT IN SAN ANTONIO MANY YEARS AGO.
Mr. A. H. Neal, who came to Galveston sixty years ago, when he was only a  child, and who is at present living in the city, although a considerable portion of his life has been spent in San Antonio and in West Texas, where he was for a long time a member of the Texas Rangers, related some interesting reminiscences to a News reporter yesterday of the time when Texas was just as wild and woolly in reality as the most lurid blood-and-thunder novels ever pictured it.

“Bill Heart was one of the worst desperadoes in West Texas years ago,” he said, “and killed more men than anyone knows before he was finally killed  himself by a mob In San Antonio. The first time that I ever saw the man was when I was a little boy in the Alamo City. I was sitting on a doorstep one afternoon and saw two men coming down the sidewalk by me. Across the street two Mexicans were walking. As the men passed me one of them said: ‘I’ll bet the whisky that I can kill one of those greasers and he’ll never kick.’
   
“‘You're on,’ said the other and the first speaker, whom I afterward learned was Bill Heart, pulled out his sixshooter and cracked down. The Mexican fell, and it is a solemn fact that he dropped like a log and never moved. The men laughed and joked about the winning of the bet, and stepped into the saloon to settle the wager.

“That is the kind of a man Heart was, and his life is filled with episodes just as strange and unusual as this. His life was one of bloodshed, and the entire Southwest knew him well. There was a gambler in San Antonio in those days known as Bricktop, who was just as noted a character, and just as bad a man, as Heart. One day in the Bull’s Head gambling hall these two desperadoes became engaged in an argument regarding their prowess and bravery. Finally Bricktop proposed that they fight a Bowie knife duel then and there, the loser, if living, to buy the whisky for the house, and the winner to be the acknowledged best man. The challenge was accepted. The spectators climbed upon the bar and the gambling tables, the two men drew their Bowie knives and began the fight. That combat was the bloodiest exhibition of brute bravery and endurance that I have over seen in a land of reckless men. They fought for a long time in the cleared space of that gambling hall, cheered on by the gamblers upon the tables, and were finally slipping upon the blood-covered floor in their lunges at each other. Each was cut and slashed terribly, and finally Bricktop sank to the floor, but although too weak to rise and continue the struggle in body his spirit was just as game as ever. ‘I’m the best man, Bill, and you know it,’ he said as he lay on the bloodstained barroom floor, with his own wounded body the center of a rapidly spreading pool of gore. ‘I am too weak from bleeding to get up, but I am not whipped, and you can’t whip me.’

“They took Bricktop to a saddlery and harness shop across the street, sewed him up a bit, and left him with his head in a window that he might possibly be strengthened a little by what breeze there was. As he lay there one of Heart’s friends slipped up, and sticking a pistol in the window, blew the wounded man’s brains out. So great was the dread of Heart that no one had the nerve to touch the body of Bricktop and give it decent burial until Heart himself stated that it would be all right and he would not harm the man who buried him.

“Finally one night in the Bull’s Head gambling house Heart became engaged in a difficulty and killed four men. The murder was unprovoked and aroused the public indignation, which had about gone to the limit of human forbearance. A mob surrounded the Bull’s Head, and every one got out except Heart. He made a gallant stand and was game to the last, but he was finally overcome when his ammunition gave out and was pounced upon by the mob as by a pack of hungry wolves. He died as he had lived, fighting, and it must he said that he never met his equal in single combat, and death came to him from overpowering numbers.”

Mr. Neal tells a number or interesting stories of Ranger deeds in the early days when a Texas Ranger carried his life in his hands at all times, and the enforcement of the law was regulated by the quickness with which an officer could draw his gun. He finally left the Rangers and came to Galveston to live, and from fighting took to sailing as a livelihood. Until the storm [hurricane of 1900] he was master of a sloop in these waters, but since that time he has retired from the sea.
The story about the gunfighters betting on whether or not one can hit a Mexican walking on the other side of the street is usually told about John Wesley Hardin (and probably not true of him either). The Bull’s Head was a famous saloon in Abilene, but there is no record of such a saloon in San Antonio. I have come across no record of a desperado named Bill Heart other than from Mr. Neal's account.

And that is why, though a helluva story, this did not make it into the book.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Heyrosa De Cuerdas Knife Techniques



Interesting video showing eskrima knife techniques demonstrated by instructor Raylan Cubcuban of the Heyrosa De Cuerdas School in the Philippines.What makes this video especially interesting is that as the eskrima masters hone their deadly art in the foreground, life goes on busily in the alley behind them, where people watch from their stoops, laundry dries, dogs bark, a rooster crows and an unseen child laughs gleefully.

More on Col. Anthony J. Drexel Biddle

The following article on Colonel Biddle, WW II hand-to-hand combat instructor, is from the June 17, 1942, issue of Yank: The Army Weekly. It focuses on bayonet training, but is worth a read if only for the "Dead-End Kids"-style dialog between the recruits.
THE BITTER BAYONET OF COLONEL BIDDLE
By Pvt. Lloyd Shearer

Sixteen inches of steel at the end of a rifle can be a lease on life when "Assault Fire" comes and men fight hand-to-hand, no holds barred. The bayonet is the last souvenir of days when men slugged it out with sword and battle-axe. Artillery and automatic weapons kill at a distance, chemicals sometimes inflict casualties days after first released.

There is nothing delicate or deceiving about a bayonet. Grooved for blood letting and cast for bitter service, it is a fearful weapon in the hands of a trained fighter.

It is the weapon of the individual soldier, it is vicious. And it is still important in warfare of tanks and mechanized equipment. Today we fight not in masses but in combat teams in which every man is a unit within himself.
The supposedly-expert Jap felt American steel burn on Bataan. Those same Japs have been accused by Chiang Kai-Shek's guerillas of refusing the challenge of man-to-man fight. But if the Jap's courage to face steel is questioned, his training in the weapon is not. He is drilled incessantly in its use.

British Commandos have developed the bayonet and a dozen variations of it. Their use of steel is as great as the German's aversion to it. The long, thin blade of the Russian soldier has helped withstand Hitler on the Eastern Front.

The bayonet cannot and does not pretend to be more effective than fire power. But as long as there are armies there will be bayonets, because where there are armies men will come together in personal combat.

In that kind of fight steel wins.

From time immemorial, it has been the same. Caesar had his battle pikes, and what were they but bayonets when you come to think of it. In the Middle Ages, they had their swords, and swords slash like bayonets.

You know the part the bayonet played in the World War. The part it played in China.

A pot-bellied fellow with eagles on his shoulders and store teeth up-stairs pointed his bayonetted rifle toward a hard-boiled regiment at Ft. Bragg.

"All right, now," he shouted, "kill me."

Nobody moved.

The chicken-claws pointed to the ranks.

"You, come and get me." But the kid he singled out was scared. "Dammit, I want you to cut my throat."

The Private made a half-hearted bayonet thrust.

"You're yellow," the Colonel yelled, prancing up and down in his black sneakers. "I want a man who's not afraid to kill. Step out, you there," he commanded a tough-looking 30-year-old sergeant. The buck stepped from the ranks.

"Now come running at me with your bayonet," he ordered, "and go for my throat."

The sergeant wet his lips. He clenched his gun and lunged full speed at the Colonel's neck.

Col. Anthony J. Drexel Biddle, who knows more about bayonets, knives and jiujitsu than any other man, parried the thrust with his own bayonet. Before the sergeant could mumble, "Holy smoke," Biddle had his own bayonet alongside the sergeant's throat, and the big buck was sweating.

"That's how it's done," the Colonel said. "Now let's all try it."

Ever since World War I, in which he saw actual service on a half dozen fronts, Marine Corps Colonel Biddle, now 67, has been risking his Adam's Apple on behalf of recruit training. Loaned to the Army by the Marines, the former world's amateur heavyweight boxing champion has taught the fundamentals of in-fighting to parachutists at Lakehurst, raider battalions at Quantico, and thousands of camp trainees along the Eastern seaboard.

Of the scores of ambitious recruits who've tried to beat the old boy, either in jiujitsu, wrestling, boxing, or bayoneting, only one succeeded. A marine at Quantico supposedly got him in the groin with a knife. Thus far no one has been able to locate a witness to the event or find out the marine's name. Marine Headquarters says, "So far as we can determine, it never happened."

The present crop of Army men he's trained swear by the Colonel. "Biddle is the real McCoy," they say. "In one hour this old guy teaches us more about bayonets and self-defense than we've learned in a whole year. He really knows how to kill. Some of us who've been in the artillery shooting shells five miles away never realized that death could be dished out to us six inches away."

Private Joe Hill of Ft. Bragg, N. C., said: "I tried to get him myself today. You know what the old geezer did? He knocked the damn gun outa my hand. I think this Biddle is nuts."

"Nuts?" another yardbird asked.

"Yeah," Hill answered. "Look at him. He's a Philadelphia Biddle. He's got more money than you could shake a stick at. He's old enough to be our grandfather. And still he wantsa risk his neck. I tell you he's nuts. Only trouble with Army is that we ain't got more nuts just like him."

At the other end of the pole, Biddle, despite his outward leatherneck hard-heartedness, is sentimental about his charges. "All the men in this new Army," he says, "are a great bunch of fellows, fine boys to teach."

"Do you find many of them gun-shy," we asked, "or reluctant to use a bayonet?"

Biddle reflected for a moment, closing his right eye. "Not many of them. They're not like Mussolini's soldiers. When I come across a man who looks as if he might hesitate to use the knife on the enemy, I tell him, 'Son, when you meet a Jap in battle, say to him real fast, "How is your dear old mother?" Then cut his throat.'"

"Does that help any?"

"Don't know exactly," replied the Colonel. "But it's good for their conscience... specially on Mother's Day."
The Yank article says that only one man succeeded in getting his blade into Biddle, but in fact the old man had been wounded numerous times during his decades of bowie and bayonet sparring. In her book My Philadelphia Father, his daughter said that Biddle had 23 wounds in his chest and abdomen and his forearms were covered with scars. An article from 1929 reported a knife wound Biddle suffered in the left arm while training troops.
Major A. J. Drexel Biddle Wounded in Bayonet Contest

PITMAN, N.J., July 28.--Major A. J. Drexel Biddle of Philadelphia, head of the junior and senior marine camp here, received a dagger wound in the left arm during an exhibition engagement with First Sergeant E. J. Snell today.

Armed with bayonet-tipped rifles, the major and sergeant were going through the thrust and parry. The form of combat in which they were engaged permits either combatant to use a dagger lying on the ground in front of him. The sergeant, who was being bested, suddenly dropped his rifle, seized the dagger and lunged inside Major Biddle's guard. Despite the wound, Major Biddle continued the combat until his wife begged him to stop.

"It's all for the good of the cause," he commented, smilingly, as a nurse applied a dressing.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Bowie-Knife Fighter: Anthony J. Drexel Biddle

Unfortunately, I can't find a copy of the picture taken two seconds after this one, when Colonel Biddle knocked all those Marines flat on their asses.

Anthony J. Drexel Biddle, Sr. (1874–1948) was one of the most interesting characters in the history of American knife-fighting. He was a member of Philadelphia's upper crust, an amateur boxer who sparred with many top professionals, evangelist of "muscular Christianity," Marine officer, friend of Theodore Roosevelt, and hand-to-hand trainer for the USMC until age 70. In addition to several children's books, Biddle wrote the hand-to-hand combat manual "Do or Die," still available from Paladin Press. He was the subject of a Walt Disney film, "The Happiest Millionaire."

Here is a short article about Biddle published in April 1914:
Drexel Biddle, the millionaire amateur boxer and organizer of Bible classes is back from a trip through the Canadian wilds, where he organized six Bible classes. One of the innovations introduced by Biddle in all these classes is friendly boxing. In the course of his bouts with the Canadian lumberjacks he had three of his teeth knocked out.
Here is an article published in March 1942:
Great Granddaddy Biddle -- A Tough Guy
And That's Something You Don't Have To Tell To The Marines

By JOHN GROVER
When the marine corps wanted to teach its toughest troops the finer points of hand-to-hand killing, America's deadliest great-grandfather was called back to active duty.

Col. A. J. Drexel Biddle, M.D.-- doctor of mayhem--is teaching this war's crop of leathernecks the three B's--bayonet, bowie knife and bare hands, and there's nothing great-grandfatherly about the way he explains the better methods of fracturing arms, legs and skulls.

"Now here's a nice way of breaking a leg if you're unarmed and a man comes at you with a bayonet," he says, throwing himself on the ground. With a faster-than-eye flip of his feet he demonstrates a simple job of knee-cracking.

Bone-breaking, though, is considered rather crude in the three B's. Precise military workmen prefer bayonet and bowie knife technique. "Very discouraging, a cut throat," the colonel explains.

Col. Biddle, an internationally known swordsman for 50 years, has adapted the classic strokes of fencing to bayonet fighting. His knife-fighting research goes back to the days of gladiators in the Roman coliseum. His "inquartarta" thrust, taught to the marines, was introduced 3,000 years ago by Gallic knife fighters.

There's a certain delicacy about the Biddle technique. He explains carefully that the bayonet should be held flat for a Grade-A ventilating job.

"It comes out easily if it's held flat," he tells his boys. "If you hold it upright, it sometimes sticks between the ribs. Very messy.”

This Col. Biddle is a many-sided man. He springs from an aristocratic clan that practically invented staid old Philadelphia.

On his "correct," or Philadelphia, side, he has written books like "A Froggy Fairy Tale" and travel volumes suited for young Philadelphia gentlemen. What he's done on the "active" side probably would make moss-backed "Main Line" dowagers throw conniption fits.

He went to grade school in Spain. That’s where he first became interested in knife fighting. “You had to learn to stab your little friends, or they stabbed you," he recalls, "Sometimes, if you cut a playmate very badly, the teacher sent you home."

He was a sparring partner of Heavyweight Champion Bob Fitzsimmons. He's one of the few men alive who knows the famous Fitzsimmons shift and solar plexus wallop. [See below.]  Ruby Robert, Biddle declares, was every inch a gentleman--"Whenever he put a man in hospital, he always sent flowers and a nice note.” 
The colonel learned Jiu Jitsu after he was 50. He's an authority on Cossack, Spanish and other knife techniques, but thinks Col. Bowie of American frontier fame evolved the best method, because it follows closely the conventions of fencing.

Mrs. Biddle, slim, trim and vivacious, is her husband's best pupil and the "active" Biddle tradition is carried on by their children. Anthony, jr., is now ambassador to the United Nations in exile. As American minister to Poland when the Germans came, he led an historic trek of Americans out of the beleagured country. A grandson is a naval officer in the Atlantic. Now there are great-grandchildren to carry on the tradition.

What a thrill for the kiddies to hear him say, “Climb up on great-granddaddy’s knee and he’ll show you how to break it.”
Biddle's knife-fighting methods are considered out-dated, as they rely too heavily on the conventions of fencing. There is a good article on Biddle here.

Biddle demonstrated the Fitzsimmons Shift and Solar Plexus Wallop to Robert Myers, a reporter for Leatherneck Magazine, who wrote about it for the March 1943 issue: "He showed it to me, but luckily he pulled his punches. He threw a right that was almost a hook. If it landed, well and good. If it doesn't-follow on through, your right foot stepping forward and somewhat behind your opponent's left leg, virtually pinning it momentarily. Your left hand, meanwhile, held close to the body, is well down, almost to the floor. Come up quickly, your right elbow barely missing your opponent's face and your left-a terrific punch following the momentum of the shoulder movement-lauds in the solar plexus. This ought to drop your opponent dead as a sack of cement, but if you lower your left and come up again quickly, you can smash him on the point of the jaw as his body falls toward you. 'This drives the jaw bones into the brain and you can kill a man,' the colonel explained lightly."
 
By the way, if the Biddle name sounds familiar, you may be recalling his relative Sidney Biddle Barrows, the so-called "Mayflower Madam," procuress to the rich and powerful who hit the news in the 1980s.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Follow-Up on the "Iron Mistress" Bowie

Though it was said to be inspired by an early bowie knife in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution, the bowie knife designed for "The Iron Mistress" (1952) is not representative of any authentic example that we know of. Nevertheless, its design appealed to many people and it remains available from various makers today. Gil Hibben said he was inspired to become a knife maker by the 1952 film and still makes several versions of the bowie in that style.

Above: Gil Hibben

Knifemaker Bo Randall anticipated a market for a bowie-style knife after the film and decided to make his own version. He contacted a friend who ran a theater in Orlando and got a frame from "The Iron Mistress" from which he made a 5” x 7” print for reference. That print is still on display at the Randall museum, and the knife designed from it is called the Smithsonian Bowie.

In 1957, Randall contacted Alan Ladd requesting the actual dimensions of the movie knife. Ladd responded personally, and gave the measurements as “Total length of knife -- 16 inches, blade -- 10-1/2 inches, handle -- 5 inches, width of blade -- 2-1/2 inches, blade thickness -- 3/8 inch, and guard between blade and handle -- 3-1/2 inches.” These measurements were close to what Randall had extrapolated from the movie scene he had worked from.
Above: The Randall Smithsonian Bowie. It differs from the original movie knife in that the blade widens near the tip and the upper curve of the clip point is closer to that of the traditional bowie. The handle is of the typical Randall style, with stacked leather washers.

The "Iron Mistress" continues to inspire knife makers, as evidenced by these examples created by Steve Voorhis:

Above: A Voorhis bowie that replicates the Iron Mistress knife. (Click on image to make it larger.)

Above: A similar Voorhis bowie but with a more traditional clip point and decorative fittings that give it a touch of barbarian splendor. (Click on image to make it larger.)

There is more information on the Iron Mistress bowie in a 2007 thread at Blade Forums.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

"The Iron Mistress" Bowie Knife


A brief, well-done video showing the creation of the distinctively styled bowie knife used in "The Iron Mistress" (1952) and its use in several subsequent films about the Alamo as well as the pilot episode of "The Adventures of Jim Bowie" television program.
 John Wayne, as Davy Crockett, gives Jim Bowie's knife his nod of approval in this scene from "The Alamo" (1960). Richard Widmark played Bowie in the film.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Bowie Knife Stabbing in Chinatown (1892)

The start of the California gold rush saw the arrival of thousands of immigrants from China, who either worked in the gold fields or provided goods and services to those who did. In 1849 there were 54 Chinese inhabitants of California; by 1871 there were 116,000.

Language and cultural differences, as well as racial prejudice, kept the Chinese a community apart. There was only one section of San Francisco in which the Chinese were allowed to bequeath property to their heirs--this became Chinatown. The first wave of Chinese immigration was almost entirely men, and along with it came a criminal element that ran brothels, opium dens, and gambling halls.

News coverage of activities in Chinatown was scanty, and generally presented with an element of "ethnic humor" as in the following from the San Francisco Chronicle of February 16, 1892. The term "highbinders" refers to Chinese gangsters.
A MURDEROUS MONGOL
Luie Fook Stabs Leong Chuen -- The Dagger Left Sticking in the Wound -- War Again Declared by the Chinese Highbinders and More Blood to Flow.

War was renewed among the Chinese highbinders last night, and the first victim was Leong Chuen, who was severely stabbed by Luie Fook. The murderous highbinder was arrested, and his victim was taken to the receiving hospital. The wound is an inch wide and six inches deep. The knife entered just above the hipbone on the left side and ploughed its way inward and upward among the intestines. The surgeons said that the sufferer was likely to die.
   
The stabbing took place at 6:40 o'clock on the stairway at 1016 Stockton Street. Chuen, who was employed at that place as a workman on overalls for Sam Kee, was walking upstairs with a large bundle of overalls on his shoulder. He stepped aside to allow a man to pass. This man, however, instead of going by peacefully, plunged a six-inch bowie knife into Chuen's side, left the knife sticking in and fled into the street. Chuen drew the blood-covered blade from his side and started in pursuit of his assailant. Charles Reardon, James White and A. Brazziolars were passing at the time the fugitive emerged from the door, and to them Chuen cried, “Stop, catchee! Him man he cuttee me!”

The three citizens joined in the chase, and one blew a police whistle. The fleeing Chinese turned down Washington street and ran into the arms of Officers Conway and Adams, who were attracted by the whistle. Chuen handed them the knife and explained what had taken place. They all started to the Chinatown police station. On the corner of Waverly Place the prisoner slipped his hand under his blouse and drew a pistol which he tried to drop on the street to avoid being charged with carrying a concealed weapon. In so doing the hammer became caught in his clothing and exploded a cartridge in the weapon. The bullet struck his left leg and ploughed a deep furrow along the calf and struck and struck the sidewalk within an inch of Officer Adams' foot. Both officers were so frightened that they jumped almost as high as their prisoner's head, and when they returned to mother earth they found the prisoner's pistol at their feet in the gutter.
   
About five minutes after the stabbing Officer Gibson of the Chinatown squad visited the premises at 1016 Stockton Street and found at the head of the stairs another large bowie knife. It is suspected that one of the prisoner's friends threw this knife where it was found, so that a plea of self-defense could be set up when the case comes up for trial.
Due to the relatively narrow width of the wound described, it is likely that the crime was committed with the ubiquitous bowie knife. However, Chinese gangsters might occasionally be armed with the traditional Chinese butterfly sword, which would likely be described as a bowie knife by Westerners.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Perils of Gold-Rush California, Bowie Knives Among Them


When gold was discovered in California, footloose fortune-seeking men from all over the world converged on that undeveloped territory. Great Britain had only terminated Australia's status as a penal colony a year before, and many Australians, among them ex-convicts, flocked to the port of San Francisco. Perhaps out of concern that the land down under might quickly depopulate, an article appeared in the Hobart, Tasmania Courier on August 1, 1849, exaggerating the perils of California:
A WORD OF ADVICE CONCERNING THE NEW GOLD REGIONS.
Mr. Ross Cox, the author of the amusing adventures on the Columbia River, writes as follows to a friend in Ireland touching California, a country in which he is well acquainted:--"I am strongly opposed to any of our countrymen proceeding to California. If the country were in a settled state, and that law and order prevailed, their knowledge, sobriety, and industry might undoubtedly soon realise their dreams; but the contrary is notoriously the fact. The territory has been only lately acquired by the United States, and there is no protection for either life or property in it. I know the reckless and daring character of the American back woodsmen; many of them have made their way to the golden valley of the Sacramento. They are all dead shots with the rifle, and when that fails, their close quarters with the bowie knife generally prove fatal. Every native of our islands who should think of going thither should be armed with a rifle, a brace of pistols, a dirk, and a couple of bowie knives. They should go in bands of from 60 to 100--appoint a captain and subalterns--keep watch and ward--study all species of fighting, offensive and, defensive—make themselves perfect masters of the rifle, and provide a good commissariat, with chests for their treasure, etc. Such parties may succeed, but I have no hesitation in saying that straggling adventurers or small isolated parties, ignorant of the country, and of the mode of fighting or robbing practised there, will be shot down like deer or prairie hens."
It's a wonder that anyone made it out of there alive! Actually, the facts suggest that gold-rush era California was not such a dangerous place as long as one stayed out of saloons, avoided mean drunks and psychos, and didn't flash your cash, pick fights, or act like a sore loser in poker games. In other words, observe the Rule of the Three Stupids:
Don't go to stupid places. 
Don't hang out with stupid people.
Don't do stupid things.

Making Fire With a Bowie Knife

Charles Goodnight (1836 – 1929) was a cowboy, Texas Ranger, Civil War veteran, and one of the great cattlemen of the Old West. Among the many accounts he left of life on the range is this explanation of how to start a fire with powder, primer, spurs and a bowie knife:
Like other outdoor men, the rangers were sometimes soaked from head to foot, and a fire became a matter of serious concern. As a last resort the scout rubbed a dampened calico rag through powder, held in the palm of his hand, until it was saturated with half-melted explosive. Then he placed a percussion cap upon one spoke of a rowel of his Mexican spurs, wrapped the powder-laden rag below it, and 'busted the cap' with the back of his Bowie knife. The rag caught the sparks and flashed into a blaze as the powder burned.
Goodnight also described a type of sheath for the bowie knife that I have never seen depicted:
In their belts [Texas Rangers] carried Bowie knives often sheathed in scabbards made from the tails of buffalo calves, slipped whole from the bone and dried over a whittled stick, exactly the shape of the blade.
Goodnight appeared as a character  in several of Larry McMurtry's western novels, and his friendship with Oliver Loving is said to have inspired the relationship of Gus McCrae and Woodrow Call in Lonesome Dove and its sequels.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

John Brown's Bowie Knife


Click on the picture for a higher resolution image.

This bowie knife was worn by John Brown during his 1859 raid on the arsenal at Harper's Ferry. President Buchanan sent federal troops led by Gen. Robert E. Lee to quell the insurrection. A young lieutenant, J.E.B. Stuart, carried a note offering terms of surrender to Brown, who had barricaded himself into a section of the arsenal with a party of followers. When Brown refused the offer, his redoubt was quickly overwhelmed. Stuart kept Brown's bowie knife as a souvenir and it is now in the collection of the Virginia Historical Society.

The knife was manufactured in Sheffield, England, by the company of G. Wostenholm & Son, one of the foremost producers of bowie knives. It is called "The Hunter's Companion" and has the famous "I*XL" (I excel) stamp. The blade is about seven inches in length.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

A Man Averse to Compromise

In The Argonauts of California (1890), author Charles Warren Haskins gives accounts of some of the rough types who frequented the saloons in mining towns:
One of these brave frontier ruffians made his stopping place and home at a way station, or bar-room, located upon the emigrant road a few miles from Hangtown, and was very frequently in the habit of accosting miners and strangers who had occasion to stop at the place, in a very rough and barbarous manner. He would draw a weapon, and ask if they had said their prayers and were ready to die, getting, of course, his whiskey free as a compromise, upon condition of putting up his weapons. Upon one occasion, however, he struck a customer, a regular old-fashioned, Jacksonian Democrat from Kentucky, who did not believe in compromising. As the latter stood at the bar enjoying his beverage, the border ruffian approached him with an immense bowie knife raised above his head, and inquired if the stranger had said his prayers that morning, at the same time making a motion as if to strike. The old Kentuckian remarked that he had not, as he had done all his praying in his younger days, and enough, he reckoned, to last him the rest of his life, at the same time drawing his pistol from his belt, and sending a ball crashing through the brain of the desperado. No inquest, as the coroner did not think it was necessary.

"PISTOLS AND BOWIE KNIVES AGAIN."

A news article fom the 1880s:
The Cincinatti Commercial of the 5th inst. states that a most disastrous fight took place in the bar-room of the Farmers' Hotel, in Covington, on Tuesday night last. Mr. Hiram Kleat, a respectable citizen of Kenton County, while under the influence of liquor indulged in some abusive epithets against foreigners, several of whom were sitting in the bar-room at the time. One man named Cummings, who is a contractor on the Covington and Lexington Railroad, replied sharply, and was himself replied to in turn, by several who were present. The conversation at length became became general and violent and a young brother of Cummings, in the height of passion, struck a man named Wilson. This was the signal for a general fight, chairs, tables, pistols and bowie knives were at once brought into requisition.
Mr. Jackson, the proprietor of the house, did all in his power to stay the affray, but without success. The combatants, consisting of about a dozen men, drunk with liquor and passion, dealt blows promiscuously, and were deaf alike to reason and consequences. Wilson was shot in the thigh, and is severely wounded. Another man named Waddle, was cut in the abdomen with a bowie knife, and is doubtless mortally wounded. His bowels came out and presented a most horrible spectacle. There is no chance of his recovery. Another man, named Bowen was stabbed in the left side, also with a bowie knife. The wound is very deep and in a most fatal part. At our last advices the physicians thought he could survive but a few hours longer. This is the most distressing affair, distressing to all parties concerned, and we hope will be properly investigated. Edward Cummings and a man named Wood have been arrested and committed. All the rest we hope will soon be apprehended.
I find crime articles from the 19th century so much more interesting than those of the present day. No use of the term "alleged," for example, and moral opprobrium abounds. Why can't the New York Times ever serve up prose like this: ". . . a dozen men, drunk with liquor and passion, dealt blows promiscuously, and were deaf alike to reason and consequences."

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Bowie Knife to the Rescue

Writing for Confederate Veteran magazine in 1903, W. H. Davis, of Company F, Fourth Tennessee Cavalry, tells of a time when he used his bowie knife for something other than blood-letting:
A very amusing incident which I cannot resist describing took place as we were retiring from our second assault. Lieut. Charles A. Baird, while we were passing through the woodland, was caught under the chin by a vine and dragged from his horse. In falling the vine was twisted into a loop, suspending him about two feet from the ground, making a comical picture. The writer, seeing his predicament, rushed to his assistance with a large Bowie knife, clipped the vine, and thereby saved him from a most absurd hanging. Meanwhile the shells and solid shot were pruning the pine and cypress trees about us, but we had a good laugh and the experience made us lifelong friends.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Bowie Knife Fight from "The Last Command"



Bowie knife duel from "The Last Command," 1955, set at the Alamo and starring Sterling Hayden as Jim Bowie and Ernest Borgnine as the fictional Mike Radin. The portly Borgnine, wielding what appears to be an oversized butter knife, is clearly at a disadvantage against the powerfully built, 6-foot 5-inch Hayden.

Borgnine is the most famous person ever to hail (McHale?) from my hometown of Hamden, Connecticut. (His closest rival would be Thornton Wilder, the writer.) In 2010, 55 years after he filmed this scene, Borgnine starred in "RED" at age 93. He revealed the secret of his longevity to Fox News.

Sterling Hayden (1916-1986) was a real-life adventurer who disdained his career as a movie star. A few snippets from his IMDb bio: Ran away to sea at 17; sailed around the world a number of times; became a ship's captain; met producer Edward H. Griffith who signed him to a Paramount contract; abandoned Hollywood prior to Pearl Harbor to become a commando with the COI (later the OSS); joined the Marines; ran guns to Yugoslav partisans; was awarded Silver Star; joined the Communist Party due to his friendship with Yugoslav Communists, but later testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee; returned to film work in order to pay for a succession of sailing vessels; and ended up with 70 film and TV credits, working for such directors as Kubrick, Coppola, and Bertolucci. "Incredible, really - how I got away with it; parlaying nine years at sea into two decades of posturing," he said of his acting; also: "If I had the dough I'd buy up the negative of every film I ever made . . . and start one hell of a fire."

Bowie Knife Attack at the Racetrack

In the 19th century, there arose a popular form of literature in which English writers, after traveling around the American South, would regale their readers with tales of the wanton violence that occurred in that region. Most of these reports were clipped from local newspapers. The following news item appeared originally in the Planter's Intelligencer, and was reprinted in America, Historical, Statistic, and Descriptive, vol. 1, 1841, by James Silk Buckingham.
A FATAL RENCOUNTER.
A fatal rencounter took place on the 18th inst. (Nov.) at the Opelousas [New Orleans] racecourse, between Thomas Reeves and Samuel Fisher, the former a young man of about twenty-three years of age, and the latter an elderly gentleman of sixty. It appears that Reeves came armed to the place with a very large bowie-knife. By some means, his clothes were disarranged, and the knife became visible to the surrounding spectators. Mr. Fisher, noticing the appearance of the weapon, asked Mr. Reeves, playfully and in jest, for what purpose he carried such a deadly instrument. Reeves immediately answered, “To kill you, God d--n you”: whereupon he instantly drew the knife, and was in the act of plunging it into the body of Fisher, when he was arrested in the act by a bystander, who, picking up a club that presented itself, told Reeves that if he did not desist he would strike him down with the club. 
This afforded Fisher a moment for reflection, after which he closed with Reeves, and succeeded in taking the knife from him, having his hand cut severely in the struggle. During the combat both fell to the ground, Reeves falling uppermost, who immediately commenced gouging his adversary. Fisher then ran him through the body with the knife. Reeves arose, remarking that he was 'a dead man.'
  
Fisher immediately gave himself up to the magistrate, who acquitted him. Public opinion, it appears, fully justifies him in the act.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Clay Allison's Rules for a Fair Fight

Clay Allison at 45 years old.

Allison (1840-1887) was a Civil War veteran (CSA) and Old West gunfighter.

The following is from The Red-blooded Heroes of the Frontier (1910), by Edgar Beecher Bronson:
"Some think it fair to give a man warnin' you intend to kill him on sight, an' then get right down to business as soon as you meet. But that ain't no equal chance for both. The man that sees his enemy first has the advantage, for the other is sure to be more or less rattled.

"Others consider it a square deal to stan' back to back with drawn pistols, to walk five paces apart an' then swing and shoot. But even this way is open to objections. While both may be equally brave an' determined, one may be blamed nervous, like, an' excitable, while the other is cool and deliberate; one may be a better shot than the other, or one may have bad eyes.

"I tell you, gentlemen, none o' these deals are fair; they are murderous. If you want to kill a man in a neat an' gentlemanly way that will give both a perfectly equal show for life, let both be put in a narrow hole in the ground that they can't git out of, their left arms securely tied together, their right hands holdin' bowie knives, an' let them cut, an' cut an' cut till one is down."

His heavy brow contracted into a fierce frown; his black eyes narrowed and glittered balefully; his surging blood reddened the bronzed cheeks. "Let them cut, I say, cut to a finish. That's fightin', an' fightin' dead fair. Ah!" and the hard lines of the scarred face softened into a look of infinite longing and regret, "if only I could find another man with nerve enough to fight me that way!"

The speaker was Mr. Clay Allison, formerly of Cimarron, later domiciled at Pope's Crossing. His listeners were cowboys. The scene was a round-up camp on the banks of the Pecos River near the mouth of Rocky Arroyo. Mr. Allison was not dilating upon a theory. On the contrary, he was eminently a man of practice, especially in the matters of which he was speaking. Indeed he was probably the most expert taker of human life that ever heightened the prevailing dull colors of a frontier community. Early in his career the impression became general that his favorite tint was crimson. And yet Mr. Allison was in no sense an assassin. I never knew him to kill a man whom the community could not very well spare. While engaged as a ranchman in raising cattle, he found more agreeable occupation for the greater part of his time in thinning out the social weeds that are apt to grow quite too luxuriantly for the general good in new Western settlements.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

A Knife Duel in Mexico

General J.O. Shelby

At the end of the Civil War, General J.O. Shelby, CSA, refused to surrender and instead led his army into Mexico. His story was told in Noted Guerrillas, or, The Warfare of the Border (1877), by John N. Edwards.

While Shelby's army was camped outside Lampasas, three of his men went to a fandango in town. One of the men, Crockett Ralston, a veteran of Quantrill's guerrillas, created an incident when he tried to snatch a kiss from a Mexican girl. Reaching for her face, he grabbed her sebosa, a garment which covers the head and upper body, and in pulling it off he exposed her bare breasts. This provoked a mob attack on the Americans, two of whom were wounded, though Crockett made it back to the camp unscathed.

The brother of the girl walked to the camp, approached Shelby, and pointed at Crockett. He said, "That man has outraged my sister. I could have killed him, but 1 did not. You Americans are brave, I know; will you be generous as well, and give me satisfaction?"
Shelby looked at Crockett, whose bronzed face, made sterner in the moonlight, had upon it a look of curiosity. He at least did not understand what was coming. "Does the Mexican speak the truth, Crockett?" was the question asked by the commander of his soldier.

"Partly; but I meant no harm to the woman. I am incapable of that. Drunk, I know I was, and reckless, but not willfully guilty, General."

Shelby regarded him coldly. His voice was so stern when he spoke again that the brave soldier hung his head:

"What business had you to lay your hands upon her at all? How often must I repeat to you that the man who does these things is no follower of mine ? Will you give her brother satisfaction?"

He drew his revolver almost joyfully and stood proudly up, facing his accuser. "No! no! not the pistol!" cried the Mexican; "I do not understand the pistol. The knife, Senor General; is the American afraid of the knife?"

He displayed as he spoke a keen, glittering knife, and held it up in the moonlight. It was white, and lithe, and shone in contrast with the dusky hand which grasped it.

Not a muscle of Crockett's face moved. He spoke almost gently as he turned to his General: "The knife, oh! well, so be it. Will some of you give me a knife?"

A knife was handed to him and a ring was made. About four hundred soldiers formed the outside circle of this ring. These, bearing torches in their hands, cast a red glare of light upon the arena, already flooded with the softer beaming of the moon. The ground under foot was as velvet. The moon not yet full, and the sky without a cloud, rose over all, calm and peaceful in the summer night. A hush as of expectancy fell upon the camp. Those who were asleep slept on; those who were awake seemed as under the influence of an intangible dream. Shelby did not forbid the fight. He knew it was a duel to the death, and some of the desperate spirit of the combatants passed into his own. He merely spoke to an aide: "Go for [Doctor] Tisdale. When the steel has finished, the surgeon may begin."

Both men stepped fearlessly into the arena. A third form was there, unseen, invisible, and even in his presence the traits of the two nations were uppermost. The Mexican made the sign of the cross, the American tightened his sabre belt. Both may have prayed, neither, however, audibly.

They had no seconds—perhaps none were needed. The Mexican took his stand about midway of the arena, and waited. Crockett grasped his knife firmly and advanced upon him. Of the two, he was taller by a head and physically the strongest. Constant familiarity with danger for four years had given him a confidence the Mexican may not have felt. He had been wounded three times, one of which wounds was scarcely healed. This took none of his manhood from him, however.

Neither spoke. The torches flared a little in the night wind, now beginning to rise, and the long grass rustled curtly under foot. Afterwards its green had become crimson.

Between them some twelve inches of space now intervened, the men had fallen back upon the right and the left for their commander to see, and he stood looking fixedly at the two as he would upon a line of battle. Never before had he gazed upon so strange a sight. That great circle of bronzed faces, eager and fierce in the flare of torches, had something monstrous yet grotesque about it. The civilization of the century had been rolled back, and they were in a Roman circus, looking down upon the arena, crowded with gladiators and jubilant with that strangest of war-cries: Morituri te salutant!

The attack was as the lightning's flash. The Mexican lowered his head, set his teeth hard, and struck fairly at Crockett's breast. The American made a half-face to the right, threw his left arm forward as a shield, gathered the deadly steel in his shoulder to the hilt and struck home. How pitiful! A great stream of blood spurted in his face. The tense form of the Mexican bent as a willow wand in the wind, swayed helplessly, and fell backward lifeless, the knife rising up as a terrible protest above the corpse. The man's heart was found.

Cover him up from sight! No need of Dr. Tisdale here. There was a wail of women on the still night air, a shudder of regret among the soldiers, a dead man on the grass, a sister broken-hearted and alone forevermore, and a freed spirit somewhere out in eternity with the unknown and the infinite.

Crockett was afterwards killed in a desperate night attack upon a hacienda. . .