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.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Cassius Marcellus Clay: Kentucky Gladiator

Cassius Marcellus Clay (1810 – 1903)

Frank G. Carpenter, a distinguished 19th-century journalist and author, wrote a lengthy profile of the fighting abolitionist, Cassius Marcellus Clay, that was published in the Sacramento, California, Record-Union on November 14, 1891. Clay was probably the foremost bowie-knife fighter of the 19th century and figures prominently in my book. In this interview he describes two of his bowie-knife fights, as well as several other of his many affrays. He was to have another confrontation before his death, killing two men who broke into his house, one with his pistol and one with his knife.

NOTE: The term "rencounter" refers to a spontaneous fight, as opposed to a duel.

General Cassius M. Clay Talks of His Duels and Fights.
How He Caned Dr. Declarey, With General J. S. Rollins as Second--His Feud With Tom Marshall--Terrible Battle With. Sam Brown--A Narrow Escape.
Frank G. Carpenter, writing from Richmond, Ky., to the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, gives the following reminiscences of the life of a distinguished Kentuckian:

The life of General Cassius M. Clay has been one of constant fighting. Kentucky has always been a hot-blooded State. Here a word is always followed by a blow, and an insult has to be wiped out in death. Life is of less account here than in the North, and it was of still less value in the days of Gen. Clay's youth, nearly two generations ago. It is sixty years now since he delivered the Washington Centennial oration at Yale College, in which he espoused the cause of the negro and became the most hated man in Kentucky among the slaveholders. All his life he has had to fight for his ideas, and the stories of his personal encounters read like a romance. It was during the later part of my visit at "White Hall" this week, while we were sitting one evening before the coals of his library fire, that I drew General Clay on to talk of some of these fights, and I could almost see the combats in the coals as in cool, but graphic language he brought them back from the memories of the past.

Said he: "I have never courted trouble with anyone, but I have never gone out of the way to avoid it. I have had a number of rencounters, and I have never been whipped in my life, except by my mother and by my elder brother, I remember the first and only whipping I got from my brother. He was older than I was and a great deal stronger, and I was accustomed to tease him and play tricks upon him, until one day we were out trimming some trees in the orchard. The trees were rather high, and my brother had made a little ladder to enable him to get up into them. He took one row of trees and I took another, and I would put away his ladder and take it over to my row so that he had to jump down and get it when he wanted to go to a new tree. He objected several times. Notwithstanding this, I still kept at it, and he caught me and threw me down and whipped me with some of the long sprouts or trimmings of the trees. These sprouts were very supple, and I can almost feel their stings yet. I appreciated, however, the justice of the whipping, and did not cry. I rose laughing, but from that time I did not take my brother's ladder, and I stopped teasing him."

"When did you have your first duel, General?" I asked.

"My first duel," replied General Clay, "terminated without either party firing a shot. It occurred when I was 23, fifty-eight years ago. I was engaged to be married, and I had a rival suitor who, in spite of my success, wrote a letter to my sweetheart's mother, in which he made a number of very obnoxious charges concerning me. The letter should never have been shown me, but the mother of my affianced wife did hand it to me and asked me to explain it. I explained it by going to Louisville on a hunt for the man who had written it. He was a doctor, and his name was Declarey. A friend of mine went with me, and as soon as we got to the city I went into a cooper shop and got a good tough hickory cane about as big around as your finger. I saw Dr. Declarey on the street and went up to him and asked him if his name was Declarey. He replied that it was, and I then told him I would like to have a talk with him. This was on one of the main streets of Louisville, and though I intended to cane him I did not want to do it where a crowd would rush in and prevent my giving him the punishment he deserved, so I quietly turned our promenade off into a side street. In the meantime my friend, James S. Rollins, afterward noted during the war as General Rollins, walked along the other side of the street and watched me. When I had gotten Declarey into a cross street I said, 'Dr. Declarey. I am Cassius M. Clay, about whom you have taken the trouble to write in this letter, and I would like to know whether you can give me any explanation of your action.' I then showed him the letter, but he said nothing. I then raised my cane and began to cane him. He cried out and a crowd soon collected, but Rollins, by spreading out his arms and running in again and again, pretending to separate us, actually kept back the crowd until I was able to give him a good caning. I expected that Declarey would challenge me, and I had brought Rollins along to act as my second. I was not disappointed. A few hours after the caning I got a challenge. We fixed a place in Indiana, just over the river, and the time was the next day.When we got there we found that there was a great mob of Declarey's friends on the ground, and General Rollins refused to allow the fight to [go] on. We thereupon chose another place, but Declarey's mob followed us there. The next day was to have been my wedding day, and I had to go to meet it. Declarey wanted me to come back after I was married, but I decidedly objected to breaking up my honeymoon in this way. He afterward said that he intended to cowhide me the next time he saw me, and I went to Louisville to give him a chance. I went to his hotel, but he was not in the dining-room, and had not yet come into dinner. I waited for an hour, but he did not come, and I then went into the dining-room and leaned against the pillar, intending to wait for him. As I stood there I heard someone rise behind me. I turned and saw Declarey. He was as pale as death, and I saw the Dominick in him. [NOTE: I don’t know what that means. ] He did not hold my eye, but got up and went out. I staid for a short time longer, and finding that he did not intend to fight went back home. A man who acted in this way could not at that time be respected in Kentucky, and Declarey committed suicide the next evening by cutting his throat.

 White Hall, Clay's stately home.

"It was a curious thing," mused General Clay, as he poked up the dying embers of the fire into a glow, "that a man will have the bravery to commit suicide, and still not have enough physical courage to fight. I have had a "number of such instances in my life. It was so with Tom Marshall, who was so famous as an orator in Kentucky. There had been for a year a feud between the Clays and the Marshalls. Henry Clay, you know, had a duel with Humphrey Marshall, and Tom Marshall and myself were enemies for years. My first trouble with him was at the time I was the editor of the True American, and Marshall headed the mob which was raised to kill me and demolish the paper. I got two four-pound brass cannons and put them up in my office, and loaded them with shot and nails. I had them on a table, and their mouths were just as high as a man's breast and they faced the door. If a mob attempted to enter I expected to shoot right into it, and I had inside of the office also a keg of powder which I expected to blow up with a match and send my enemies into eternity if they succeeded in capturing the office. Well, the mob attacked me, but I was not killed. Some time after this I went to the Mexican war as a Captain of a company. Tom Marshall was a Captain of another company of the same regiment, and I decided to settle my trouble with him before I got through the war. He was drunk about half the time, and I believe he often cultivated drunkenness in order to enable him to say mean things and not to be called to account for them. I expected to have a duel with him, and I got a stone and sharpened my sword until it shone like silver and had an edge like a razor. I gave him one or two chances to challenge me, but he did not do so, and at last, one day when we were pitching camp, Marshall rode down into my quarters. He may have been drunk--he may have mistaken my company for his. At any rate he came up to me and made some insulting remark. I rose and said: 'Tom Marshall, we may as well settle our feud, and now is as good, a time as any. Get down from your horse and we will fight it out.' He replied: 'Not now. Some other time.' I here drew my sword and said: 'The time for men who wear swords is now. You chose your own time to mob me at Lexington, and you are a coward if you refrain on account of your surroundings.' Marshall hereupon rode over to his tent. In a few moments he came back with his pistol. I saw him and went into my tent and got mine. I came one with one in each hand. They were cocked, and I said: 'I am ready for you.'

"He was a coward, and he was afraid to fire. He turned his horse and rode back to his tent. That same evening he tried to drown himself in the Rio Grande River, but the men saw him and prevented him. He was afraid to fight, but he was not afraid to commit suicide. Had we fought with swords I would have carved him like a pancake."

"Do you remember any other instances?"
"Yes," replied General Clay. "I suppose I could give others. It is curious that even a brave man when he is once beaten hates to encounter the same man again. I can only explain the fact that I was not challenged by Sam Brown after our terrible fight on these grounds."

"What was the fight, General?"

"It arose out of a Congressional contest," replied General Clay. "I was a candidate against a man named Wickliffe, and Wickliffe introduced my wife's name into one of his speeches. I challenged him, and we fired at ten paces. Both of us missed, and I raised my pistol up into the air and demanded a second fire. The seconds would not permit this, and we left the ground without reconciliation or an apology on either side. As I look over the matter now I don't believe that our seconds had loaded our pistols with balls, and I did not see how I could have missed. I was an excellent shot, and was accustomed to shooting with a rifle and a revolver. One of my favorite amusements was squirrel shooting, and I could shoot the heads off of eleven out of twelve squirrels when out hunting. You know if a squirrel sees you and runs up a tree, and you remain quiet, as soon as he gets into whatever he considers a safe place, he will poke bis head out and look to see where you are, and the skill in squirrel shooting is to shoot off the head of the squirrel.

"Well, Wickliffe here had the worst of the fight, and during the canvass for Congress I was making a very good opposition to him, much to the disgust of the pro-slavery party. He had a hand-bill which he read during his speech. We had our speeches together, and when he brought this bill I always rose and asked if I might interrupt him. He would politely consent, and I would then say the hand-bill he had read was untrue and had been proven so. The pro-slavery men got tired of this, and they decided to kill me. They sent for Sam Brown, who was one of the most noted bullies of Kentucky. It is said that he had had forty fights, and had never lost a battle. Brown came, and he and Wickliffe, a fellow named Jacob Ashton and Ben Wood, a police bully, held a consultation, at which they loaded a pistol which Brown was to use upon me the next day. I knew nothing of this and I had not my dueling pistols with me. I interrupted Wickliffe, as usual, and as I did so Brown struck me with his umbrella, and told me that my statement was a damned lie.

I saw at once that it meant fight, and when I recognized Brown I knew it meant fight to the death. I had a long, sharp bowie-knife in the breast of my coat, and I jerked this out, and before I could strike Brown's friends grabbed my arms from behind and hauled me about fifteen feet from Brown. Brown now pulled his revolver and told them to get out of the way and to let him kill me. The crowd got back and I stood alone. Brown had his pistol pointed at me, and I started toward him. I could see him looking along the barrel of the revolver. He took aim and waited until he thought I was close enough to give him a sure shot, and then fired. I felt the ball strike me in the breast, and I thought it had gone through me, and I determined to kill him if I could before I died. I came down on his head with a tremendous blow with the bowie-knife, but did not split open his skull. I struck again and again, and stunned him so that he was not able to fire. With one cut of the knife I sliced his nose right in two, so that it separated right in the middle and came out as flat as a pancake. With another blow I cut off his ear so that it hung by a shred, and with a third I put out his eye. The conspirators now seized me, and I was struck with hickory sticks and chairs, some of the blows of which I still feel. I broke loose from my captors and again made for Brown, and they, to keep him out of my way, picked him up and threw him over a stone fence about seven feet high, and thus ended the fight. Though I was the assaulted party, they afterward tried me for mayhem, and at this trial Brown confessed the conspiracy, and Henry Clay defended me. Of course I was not convicted, but I felt very friendly to Brown, and wrote him a note thanking him for his evidence and telling him I was willing to be friends with him if he cared to be so. He refused, however, to bury the hatchet, and when I remembered his condition I did not wonder at it. The doctors had patched him up pretty well, but he was a horrible looking object, and I expected that he would insist upon a duel with me, or would attack me and have his revenge. I met him several times afterward, however, and he never touched me. I have no doubt that he staid in Lexington intending to kill me, but the probability is that he had not the courage to attack me."

"Where did Brown's ball strike you, General?" said I.

"It struck me just over the heart," replied General Clay, "and I would have been killed but for one thing. The scabbard of my bowie-knife was tipped with silver, and in jerking the knife I pulled this scabbard up so that it was just over my heart. Brown's bullet struck the scabbard, and imbedded itself in the silver, and we found the ball there. There was a red spot just over my heart, and the whole seemed almost providential."

After General Clay said this he leaned his head on his hand anil looked for some moments into the fire in deep thought. He was apparently living the fight over again, and I interrupted him and asked him if he had ever been so close to death since that time. He replied: "I don't know, but I think I have been within an ace of death a half dozen times since my fight with Brown. I was nearly killed within a mile of this house at Foxtown, the cross roads where you turned off from the pike to come into White Hall. This was during one of the political campaigns in 1849, and when I was I having a sort of a political discussion with a man named Turner. We spoke together, and I was against slavery and Turner was for it. All the slaveholders were with Turner, and knew that my situation was a dangerous one. I carried my pistols with me everywhere, but at Foxtown I left them in my carpetbag and was armed only with a bowie-knife. At this meeting our debate grew very hot, and Turner's son rushed in and struck me and told me I lied. I knew this meant fight, and that there was a conspiracy against me. I drew my bowie knife, but was seized by about twenty of the conspirators and hauled back, and my knife was jerked from me. I first thought that the men were only trying to prevent a light, and I did not make much resistance. But as soon as I lost my knife they began to pound me with clubs, and some one behind me stabbed me in the breast, reaching around in front. The knife entered my lung. It cut apart my breast bone, and I bled like a stuck pig. I thought I was killed, and determined to kill the man who had incited the mob. I grabbed my bowie knife in my fingers, catching it by the blade and the handle, and cutting the flesh through to the bone. You can see the scars now,'' and with that General Clay held out his hand, on the two fingers of which were seen great white scars where the bowie knife had cut them.

"Well, I got the knife and I flourished it around my head with my bloody hand. The crowd disappeared as I cried out, 'Get out of the way,' and I rushed for Turner. I cut him in the abdomen, but as I drew the knife from him I almost fainted from the loss of blood, and fell saying I died for the liberties of my country. At this time my boy ran in with my revolvers, but it was too late and I could not use them. The crowd thought that I was dead, and this saved my life. They carried me home and I lay between life and death for some days. I did not think I was going to die, and I would not let the doctor touch me. I would not let them change my clothes, and I lay for days drenched in blood. After sometime, however, I began to mend, my wounds healed and I got well again. As for Turner, he died. This affray caused much discussion among the abolitionists of the North, and not a few of them criticised me not a little severely for fighting. They thought I ought to have submitted and let them kill me, and Dr. Bailey, an editor of a paper in Washington, said I would have done a great deal of good to the cause if I had died, and remarked, 'That the blood of the faithful is the seed of the Church.'"

As he said this, rather a humorous but vindictive smile spread over General Clay's face, and he paid his respects to the New England abolitionists in language that was both emphatic and graphic. He referred also to the ingratitude of the negroes for the kindness which were done to them by the whites, and I asked him as to the killing of Perry White.

General Clay has, perhaps, done more for the negro than any other man in the South. He freed his slaves and fought for the abolition of slavery when no other man dared to speak or act for them. After the war was over he came back to Kentucky and lived quietly at White Hall, devoting his chief time to study. He had with him his adopted son, Launey Clay, a little boy of 4, whom he had brought with him from Russia, and he lived alone with Launey and his servants at White Hall. His servants robbed him, right and left. They stole his silver and his furniture, and systematically plundered his plantation. They poisoned his son and attempted to poison him, and when he discharged them one of them threatened to murder him. Clay warned him to keep off of the place. White left, but sent letters saying he intended to kill Clay. One morning while out riding General Clay saw him on his plantation concealed in the woods. General Clay jumped from his horse, and, believing that the negro intended to kill him, drew his revolver, got the drop on him and told him to throw up his hands. He then began to give him a lecture, and to ask him why he had threatened his life, when Perry White put down his hands and jerked out his pistol. General Clay then fired and struck the negro in the neck. He fired a second time and shot him through the heart. He was tried for the shooting, but was acquitted on the ground of self-defense. I walked with General Clay over the place where the shooting occurred. It was within a stone's throw of the house, and the General said that he had no doubt that he would have been a dead man if he had not killed White.

General Clay is now nearly 82 years of age. But he is still a dangerous man to fool with. Quiet in his mien and gentle in his conversation, he would resent an insult as quickly to-day as when he was in his prime, and, in self-defense, I am sure, would be equal to the average men of half his years. It is now only a few years ago since he came very near having a duel with Julian Hawthorne, the novelist. Hawthorne had reviewed a copy of General Clay's memoirs, and in his review had criticised Clay severely, and had discussed the subject of the chastity of his wife. Said General Clay: "I was very angry. I did not believe that I could make anything out of the man by suing him, and I determined to make him apologize or fight. I wrote to Colonel W. G. Terrill of Washington, asking him to act as my second, and I also wrote to Whitelaw Reid, inclosing a letter to Hawthorne, which I asked him to publish if his relations toward Hawthorne were such that he could do so without affecting them. In this letter I told Mr. Hawthorne that the article which he had published concerning me, in which he had used the name of my wife was false, and that he had attributed language in that article to me which I had never uttered, and that I demanded an unequivocal retraction of everything he had said about her in the article, and that this retraction should be so published that it would have as wide a circulation as his article had had. I told him that I would give him an opportunity of withdrawing his allegations, and my letter was so written that between the lines you could sec that I meant he would have to fight if he did not withdraw them. Well, I sent this letter to Mr. Reid. He replied that he was a friend to Hawthorne, and that he could not publish the letter, but that he would refer the matter to Hawthorne. Hawthorne got the letter and appreciated the situation. He wrote a retraction that was perfectly satisfactory and published it. This ended the matter. Had he not done so I would have challenged him, and if he had refused to accept the challenge I would have shot him in the streets. As to what this article said about me I did not care. It was bitter and unjust, but I am accustomed to such attacks. I did object, however, to what he said about my family, and I made him retract his remarks
concerning my wife."

By this time the fire had burned low in the great open fireplace. The hands of the clock on the mantel pointed to the hour of 12, and the General arose and gave me a light, telling me that he thought it was time for us to retire. Before leaving I asked bim what he thought of the code duello. He replied: "I am opposed to it on principle, and I think it is a savage way of settling a difficulty, but there are some cases for which it seems to be the only remedy, and I don't know whether it is a good thing or not. In all my life I have never courted a quarrel, and in the case of Tom Marshall he began the feud by attacking me at Lexington. I believe it is a man's duty to defend himself when attacked, and such rencounters as I have had have been brought about by my enemies."


  1. When Clay called Declarey a Dominick he was basically calling him a coward. A Dominick is egg laying breed of fowl. They are not bred for fighting such as game fowl which are bred for fighting.

  2. I am direct descendant of cassius; my brother is named "Clay" after him. Can anyone guide me to obtain a reproduction or original of the actual bowie knife Cassius carried? Many thanks in advance for any kind reply.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.