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.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Kentuckians And Their Knives


During his visit to Kentucky in the 1830s, Sir Charles Augustus Murray, a Scotsman, was dismayed at seeing the residents there carrying knives. In Travels in North America During the Years 1834, 1835, & 1836 (1841), he expressed concerns similar to what we still hear from the British today regarding knives, which are illegal to carry in those isles.
The character of the Kentuckians has greater merits, and greater faults; their moral features are more broadly and distinctly marked. Descended, as I before said, from the western hunters, and some of them from the more wealthy planters of Virginia and North Carolina, they are brave, generous, proud, frank, and hospitable, but apt at the same time to be rough, overbearing, and quarrelsome. They are extremely vain of their State, and inclined to play the braggart, as well in her praises as their own; the former fault, I, for one, can freely forgive them, as the want of local or home attachment is one of the least agreeable features of American character. They are, moreover, pretty strongly imbued (probably through their Virginian descent) with a taste for gambling, horse-racing, &c., which is perhaps strengthened by their frequent intercourse on their northern and western frontier with the numerous gamblers, or "sportsmen," who come up the river in spring and summer to avoid the heat and malaria of New Orleans and the adjacent country.

In addition to the above traits of character, there is one of which I cannot speak otherwise than with unqualified reprobation — I mean the cowardly and almost universal practice of carrying a dirk-knife. This instrument, which, like the Italian stiletto, is only fit for the hand of an assassin, is displayed upon every occasion. It has ordinarily a blade about six or eight inches long, sharp on both sides towards the point, and comes out of the handle by a spring, which also prevents its closing on the hand of the owner. I have seen several well-dressed Kentuckians, who would probably think themselves much injured if they were not considered gentlemen of the first grade, picking their teeth with these elegant pocket-companions, in public; and I have repeatedly seen them while engaged in conversation employ their hands in opening and shutting this dirk-spring, as a London dandy on the stage raps his boots and shakes his watch-seals, or sometimes in real life, for want of manual employment, draws his glove on and off, or smooths down the felt of his hat.

Now, I would ask any candid Kentuckian, from what "chivalrous" precedent (which epithet they are very fond of applying to themselves), or from what principle, just, noble, or Christian, is this habit derivable? Man is sufficiently irascible, and when angry, prone enough to inflict injury on his fellow-creature, without deliberately furnishing himself with a weapon calculated to occasion death, or permanent mutilation, upon the occasion of the slightest dispute or ebullition of temper. I believe it is Virgil who, in describing a savage popular tumult, says, "Furor arma ministrat" ["Their rage supplies them with weapons"], and surely experience attests its truth; but this people determine, that the voice of reason or reflection shall not have one moment to whisper a suggestion, but that their passions (naturally hot and ungovernable) shall never want a sudden and deadly minister. It might be supposed, that the coarse and brutal method of fighting, still frequently adopted in this State under the name of "rough and tumble," is sufficiently savage to satisfy the parties concerned. In this, as is well known, they tear one another's hair, bite off noses and ears, gouge out eyes, and, in short, endeavour to destroy or mutilate each other; but this is not considered sufficient, and Birmingham and Pittsburgh are obliged to complete by the dirk-knife the equipment of the "chivalric Kentuckian." ....

They may formerly have had an excuse for constantly carrying a weapon, when their houses and families were hourly liable to be surprised by the war-whoop of the Indian: but against whom is the dirk-knife now sharpened? against brothers, cousins, and neighbours!

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