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.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Isaiah Rynders: New York Pol and Bowie-Knife Man

 This image came up for Isaiah Rynders--however, it may be another man by the same name. I can find no authenticated portraits.

A profile of Captain Isaiah Rynders (1804-1885) at Wikipedia opens with this capsule description: "An American businessman, sportsman, underworld figure and political organizer for Tammany Hall. Founder of the Empire Club, a powerful political organization in New York during the mid-19th century, his 'sluggers' committed voter intimidation and election fraud on behalf of Tammany Hall throughout the 1840s and 1850s."

A page-one article in the New York Times on January 14, 1885, claims that a facility with the bowie knife was among the skills Rynders brought to politics:
In 1832, Capt. Rynders had his first difficulty of a serious nature. It happened at Natchez, Miss. He became involved in a quarrel with a fellow sporting man over a game of cards. Hot words passé between the two, and blows would have resulted but for the fact that in chivalric Mississippi little differences of his kind were settled in a more expeditious and decisive manner. Capt. Rynders and his opponent met beneath the hill of Natchez, each armed with a bowie knife, and the fight in which one or both must die began. Capt. Ryders proved the more expert of the two in the use of his weapon and he left his opponent dead on the field. He then fled, for although chivalry applauded the duel in those days, the laws of Mississippi prohibited it.

He continued to turn his “sporting” accomplishments to good account, and finally opened a public house at No. 27 Park-row, in the Spring of 1844, which served as a gathering place for the Democratic leaders, and later as the headquarters of his “Empire Club.” The formation of this club had been one of his pet schemes since the defeat of Van Buren, and he proceeded to organize it before the campaign of 1844 began. The Democratic Convention assembled that year in Baltimore, and Capt. Rynders, the President, and John S, Austin, the Vice-President, with a number of the first members of the Empire Club, went to that city to use their peculiar influence in the convention. In the barroom of Barnum's Hotel a crowd of politicians started an argument with Capt. Rynders in regard to the merits of Van Buren as a candidate. The Captain tok exception to some of the criticisms passed on his friend, hot words followed, and very soon Capt. Rynders's bowie knife and revolver flashed in the gaslight. Austin was by his side in an instant, with a knife in one hand and a pistol in the other. A desperate fight ensued, in which several ugly wounds were given, but nobody was killed. The odds were three to one against Rynders and Austin, but they cleared the barroom in a remarkably short time, and gave to the country an evidence of the mettle of the two leading officers of the “Empire Club.”
The History of Tammany Hall, by Gustavus Myers, further polishes the image:
[The Empire Club's chief] was Captain Isaiah Rynders, and its membership was made up of a choice variety of picked worthies who could argue a mooted point to a finish with knuckles. Rynders had a most varied career before entering New York politics. A gambler in New Orleans, he mixed in some bowie and pistol fights there in which he was cut severely on the head and elsewhere, and his hat was perforated by a bullet. On a Mississippi steamboat he drove O'Rourke, a pugilist, out of the saloon with a red-hot poker, after O'Rourke had lost at faro and had attempted to kill the winner.
Ten years after his death, McClure's Magazine gave an unflattering account of Rynder's valor--in this tale the hero is Mike Walsh, the founder of the "Subterranean Club," implacable foe of the Rynders' Empire Club. (No hint as to who supposedly transcribed the dialog between the two men when they were alone in the room.)
Mr. Parke Godwin, then one of the editors of the "Evening Post," had been very outspoken in his newspaper writings and also in public speech, in denunciation of the political methods in common practice. Thereby Mr. Godwin had aroused the hatred of Isaiah Rynders and his associates. His denunciation of Tammany in particular, and its methods, had greatly angered the whole organization, but he had incurred the especial hostility of Rynders, and one day word was brought to him that Rynders and his associates were threatening to kill him, and he should have a care.

One afternoon, having left his office to go home, Mr. Godwin stopped, as was his custom, in Florence's restaurant for some oysters. As he stood at the oyster-stand, he saw in the remote part of the room Rynders and some of his men. He at once suspected that they proposed to assault him before he could leave the building. He realized that it would not do for him to run, however; so he began to eat his oysters, while deliberating upon his course in case he should be attacked. Suddenly he noticed that a man stood beside him, and looking up he saw "Mike" Walsh, who said to him: "Go on eating your oysters, Mr. Godwin, but do it as quickly as you can, and then go away. Rynders and his men have been waiting here for you and intend to kill you, but they won't attack you as long as I am by your side."

The advice was followed. After Mr. Godwin, having finished his oysters, had gone out, Rynders stepped up to Walsh and said: "What do you mean by interfering in this matter? It is none of your affair."

"Well, Godwin did me a good turn once, and I don't propose to see him stabbed in the back. You were going to do a sneaking thing; you were going to assassinate him, and any man who will do that is a coward.

"No man ever called me a coward, Mike Walsh, and you can't."

"But I do, and I will prove that you are a coward. If you are not one, come upstairs with me now. We will lock ourselves into a room; I will take a knife and you take one; and the man who is alive after we have got through, will unlock the door and go out."

Rynders accepted the challenge. They went to an upper room. Walsh locked the door, gave Rynders a large bowie-knife, took one himself, and said: "You stand in that corner, and I'll stand in this. Then we will walk toward the centre of the room, and we won't stop until one or the other of us is finished."

Each took his corner. Then Walsh turned and approached the centre of the room. But Rynders did not stir. "Why don't you come out?" said Walsh.

Rynders, turning in his corner, faced his antagonist, and said : "Mike, you and I have always been friends; what is the use of our fighting now? If we get at it, we shall both be killed, and there is no good in that."

Walsh for a moment said not a word; but his lip curled, and he looked upon Rynders with an expression of utter contempt. Then he said: "I told you you were a coward, and now I prove it. Never speak to me again."
I think we can safely take all three of these accounts as unsubstantiated political puffery, which is why I left Rynders out of my book. They serve as a useful reminder that 19th-century newspapers were at least as unscrupulous about confining themselves to the facts as are newspapers today.

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