New copies of my book Bowie Knife Fights, Fighters, and Fighting Techniques are now available from Amazon at $24.95.
This blog contains additional information about the bowie knife, as well as the fighting knives of other nations.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Happy Halloween

Michael Myers avec butcher knife in "Halloween." Note that he holds it in the classic "Psycho" grip. When using a reverse grip, the more sophisticated knife fighter keeps the edge facing outward.

What do butcher knives have to do with bowie knives? Well, in every eyewitness account of the Sandbar Fight in which James Bowie made his name, his knife is described as a butcher knife. Keep in mind that while today we don't use a butcher knife for much more than slicing up a roast, in the 1820s and 1830s a butcher knife would be used to slaughter and dress game or lifestock, and thus had to be heavy enough to break up bones and joints. We even read of men carrying a butcher knife in a "case"--a sheath. So what was called a butcher knife was often a large sheath knife, intended to be worn on the belt.

The Sandbar Fight was publicized nationwide, and within a year or two the term "Bowie knife" came into common use to describe a large knife carried primarily as a weapon.

L. Vincent Poupard gave his thoughts on the "Symbolism of a Knife as a Weapon in Horror Movies and Horror Literature." Among his suggestions as to why the knife is so often seen as the weapon of the monster or maniac are:

--It produces a copious amount of blood.
--It is a weapon associated with human sacrifice, and thus has a ritualistic element.
--It has phallic symbolism, as it penetrates the body. Villains prefer a big knife.

Another reason was given by the Joker in "The Dark Knight Returns": "Do you want to know why I use a knife? Guns are too quick. You can't savor all the... little emotions."

Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Gaucho and His Knife

American knife technique was strongly influenced by techniques practiced south of the border. Argentinian gauchos often carried a long fighting knife called a facon. Ernest William White presents a fanciful view of the skills of the gaucho in Cameos from the Silver-land (1881).
Amongst his special powers however must be early enumerated, skill with the knife, by the aid of which he is more than a match for an Englishman with his revolver: of course the latter is unaware of the mode of attack, and this is the great source of danger. Formerly the Gaucho was afraid of the revolver, but not so now; perhaps the knife is up his sleeve and whilst addressing his victim with great politeness, it is allowed to run down into the hand and, before a revolver can be levelled, is plunged with lightning stroke into the heart of his adversary, no mistake is made, the aim is always deadly; sometimes the knife reposes in his long riding boot, and stooping down apparently to arrange that, is suddenly withdrawn and launched on its fatal mission; at others resting with the hilt on the curved middle finger and the blade along the forearm ready to be darted point first, and at a distance of ten yards it is winged with certain death. In fact it would take a good swordsman with his favourite weapon to obtain an advantage over a Gaucho with his facon; when they fight, they cover the left arm with two or three folds of the poncho, allowing the ends to hang down and form a shield which, kept in perpetual motion, effectually screens them and dazzles the eyes of their adversary, and so it is very difficult to see or get near them; they are stupendously quick with the arm and wrist but clumsy on the lower limbs: yet take his knife from him and the gaucho is helpless for business, pleasure or attack. With equal facility the Gaucho manages the bolas and the lasso and at the distance of thirty yards blunders are seldom committed; these instruments in his hands are really formidable, so that a European, whether on horseback or on foot, and engaged in a deadly struggle with him, is to a great degree helpless: if again in treachery a Gaucho hides behind a rock or tree for the passing traveller, his doom is pretty well sealed; his horse entangled with the bolas or himself with the lasso, there is no escape except perhaps by the instant severing of the latter with a very sharp knife, which many keep for the purpose.

Cane, Bowie Knife and Revolver Featured in NYC Dust-Up

One could be forgiven for thinking all bowie knife fights occurred in the South and West, but in fact New York City had its fair share. The following report is from the Los Angeles Times, May 15, 1885
Revolver and Bowie Knife
In the Hands of Two Desperate Men--They Do Some Damage.

New York, May 14. About 8:30 tonight an altercation occurred between Larry O'Brien, a well-known broker and politician, and George Truman, a sporting character, belonging to Chicago. The former was probably fatally stabbed, and the latter was shot twice. The affray was the outcome of a quarrel to-night. O'Brien met Truman on the corner of Broadway and Twenty-seventh streets and accused him of attempted blackmail. The remark enraged Truman, who gave utterance to some strong language. His remarks so exasperated O'Brien that he lifted his cane and struck the other man a heavy blow on the head. Without warning Truman drew a murderous-looking bowie-knife and plunged it into his opponent's abdomen, inflicting a gash eight inches long. A policeman immediately arrested Truman, and while in the custody of the officer a pistol shot was heard and a bullet from O'Brien's revolver lodged in the prisoner's back. He broke away from the officer and a second bullet from the same source lodged in Truman's left shoulder. Both men were taken to the Twenty-Ninth Precinct Police Station, and thence removed to the New York hospital. The excitement in the locality was intense. The cause of the quarrel is said to be an attempt on the part of Truman to blackmail a Wall street friend of O'Brien's. The friend is supposed to be Mr. Kelly of the firm of Kelly & Bliss, bookmakers. A charge of felonious assault was made against both men at the station house. The knife used has a blade a foot long and an inch and a quarter wide. O'Brien declined to take an anesthetic while his wound was being sewed up, and both men indulged in recriminations while their wounds were being dressed in the same ward in the hospital. To-night both men were resting quietly, but the result of the injuries is likely to be fatal in each case.
 The weapons appeared to grow as the story moved West. The New York Times described the knife as having a seven-inch blade, about an inch wide. The revolver was described as "an ornamented lady's pistol of light caliber."

Also, though the article states "the result of the injuries is likely to be fatal in each case," both men made a full recovery from their injuries and declined to press charges.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Left An Ear Behind

"LEFT AN EAR BEHIND"--an eye-catching headline for an article in the Atlanta Constitution, December 20, 1887:
Charleston, S.C., December 19. A Greenville special to the News and Courier says tht a daring attempt at robbery was made in Laurens county last week. John Dagnoll, a farmer, had $500 hidden in his house and happened to mention the fact to his brother-in-law. Dagnoll left home one day expecting to be absent over night, but for some reason returned the same afternoon. During the night he awoke and found three men in his room. He seized a large bowie knife and cut off the ear of one of the robbers and stabbed him in the cheek. The others escaped. The wounded man proved to be Dagnoll's brother-in-law, and he is now in Laurens jail.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Bowie Knife Fighter: John J. Styers

On August 5, 1951, the Galveston News published a profile of John J. Styers, author of Cold Steel, military knife instructor, and one of the big names of the knife-fighting art. His name is misspelled "Steyers" in the article.
Marine Perfects Deft Knife Killing
CAMP LEJEUNE. N. C.. Aug. 3.
(INS)-John J. Steyers is a student of the gentle joys of disemboweling, throat-slitting, back carving, mayhem and their allied arts.

With a few deft strokes of a keen blade, he is able to incapacitate an individual for a considerable length of time. There is nothing messy about his work-he is a craftsman who takes pride in doing a clean, efficient job.

Steyers, an ex-Marine, has made a thorough study of the steel blade and its none too subtle uses. His job is to teach some of its more terrifying refinements to young Marine recruits at Camp Lejeune.

The 34-year-old instructor learned his trade from Col. A. J. Drexel Biddle, a famed Marine combat teacher who brought the knife out of mothballs. Biddle's knife style was patterned after Col. Jim Bowie of Alamo fame, inventor of the Bowie knife.

Steyers carries a bizarre assortment of knives to his training classes and demonstrates the techniques preferred by different nationalities.

The Moro bolo knife, used in the Philippines, for example, is employed as a hacking blade. It is swung wildly, usually by fanatics, with little aim or direction.

The Arabian knife, shaped like the ancient Moslem scimitar. Is brought upward with a devastating disemboweling slash.

Tht Russians use an oversized stilletto without a handguard, similar to our bayonet-sharp on both sides.

Russian knife fighters usually are armed with a pair of these weapons. Their technique is to make a preliminary slash inside their opponent's guard and then to stab downward with two blades simultaneously in the shoulder and back.

Latins usually go for the throat after a quick slash at the body and the Portuguese use an upward stab to the ribs. The British favor a delicate cut at the arteries and the Orientals swing their broadswords crazily, like the Moros.

America's heritage with the blade is is descended from Bowie. The Bowie knife, a blade with a sharp cutting edge on one side and a partial cutting edge on the other, is the weapon Steyers uses.

His technique, which he believes to be far superior to any yet developed, is based on the handling of the blade rather than its direction. The Bowie knife is held close to the side of the body and is pushed forward rapidly like a boxer' s jab. As the blade reaches its victim, the hand gives it a sharp snap.

This snapping motion causes the blade to cut up and down, making a nasty wound.

"The other techniques can't touch this method," Steyers says. "Your opponent must come in close and when he does there is no defense for your attack."
I find it quaintly refreshing that Styers names a nationality and then pigeon-holes its knife-fighting style in a single phrase; i.e., the British, sounding rather twee, "favor a delicate cut at the arteries." Asian knife-fighting, particularly the fluid style of the Filipinos, which has strongly influenced Western technique, is analyzed thusly: "Orientals swing their broadswords crazily, like the Moros."

Ah, well.  More articles on Styers here, here, and here.
Cold Steel

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

A Slight Misunderstanding

Dr. George Engelmann (1809 – 1884) was a German-American botanist who traveled through Arkansas in the 1830s in search of specimens. From an obituary:
He departed on his scientific tour through Arkansas and the western bank of the Mississippi. Upon this trip he had a large, heavy knife, made like a huge bowie-knife, which has accompanied him ever since upon all his botanical excursions, serving to dig out roots, to cut down saplings and vines. Whilst resting one night in an Arkansas farm house, he was cleaning the blade which had served to dig out roots and some specimens. This rather stirred up the old trapper, who stood watching him. Finally, the backwoodsman could not longer conceal his annoyance, and tapping Dr. Engelmann on the shoulder, said, in the belief that it was a piece of bravado to draw him out: "I say, stranger, this is a mighty big knife, but I have got one as good, and if you like, we will just try knives."

It was with some trouble that the man was pacified and made to understand that it was a scientific instrument and not an Arkansas tooth-pick.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Custom Bowie by Mountain Hollow

A beautiful custom bowie made by J. Neilson of Mountain Hollow.

High School Made Bowie Knives for WW II Troops

During the early days of World War II, a call went out for bowie knives from troops serving in the Pacific. Americans donated personally owned knives, and several high schools manufactured them in their machine shops, most notably the Crozier Technical High School in Dallas which shipped more than a thousand. The story was first covered in February 1943:
Texas Bowie Knives Making New History In Solomons
DALLAS - Dark night in a Pacific jungle .... patrols .... the slither of steel .... one less Jap, then the blade of a knife wiped clean.

Perhaps a knife of the sort Jim Bowie used and made famous with his name, or one modelled after those the Sioux Indians handled, so well.

Both kinds, fashioned from discarded hacksaw blades and files by a group of Dallas boys, are going to war to prove worth as weapons or utility as tools.

The boys -- students at Crozier Technical High School here -- shaped a few by hand, sent them to Soldiers, Sailors, and Marines. This week they set up a regular factory production line. They've been getting letters such as that from a soldier in Guadalcanal: "I need something to slash off my pack when we're surprised. Something, too, to use at close quarters."

Ed Thatcher, a retired mechanical engineer whose hobby is metallurgy, and the school's machine shop instructor, P. W. Loucks, put their heads together. Hacksaw blades were the first available material.

From his private edged weapons collection Thatcher took a Sioux knife for a pattern, but went a bit further; left one edge sharp enough to shave; the other with its hacksaw teeth.

"They slice right through barbed wire, and are useful for ripping containers," says Thatcher. The first supply of hacksaws, which had come from war plants, ran short. An air craft plant offered all the files the boys could use.

Thatcher dug into his collection again, found a Texas Bowie Knife. Delicately balanced. Heavy enough to swing with vicious hiss. Now the knifemakers turn out both styles, but more of the Bowies.
There was a follow-up story in August of that year:
Knives Made by High School Boys At Dallas in Great .Demand Among Men in Armed Forces Overseas

Dallas, Tex.. Aug. I. AP "Thanks for the knife. First chance I get to use it. I'll send you back a couple of Jap teeth for souvenirs."

Crozier Technical High-School Principal Walter J. E. Schiebel penciled "ugh!" in the margin of Marine E. L. Moore's letter and sent it to his machine shop boys. The boys grinned. Then they spit on their hands and returned to their grinding wheels and furnaces.

It was one of several hundred letters received since they began making steel combat knives from defense plant scrap for servicemen in months ago. To date, Principal Schiebel said today, the boys, assisted by a half dozen business men who work at the shop occasional evenings, have made and mailed 929 knives.

Vicious, tempered weapons patterned after the traditional Texas Bowie that sang in battle song at .the Alamo, the knives have been sent to servicemen in every battle area except China, proper.

"And," appended Schiebel, whose pilot son is in Burma, "some of the airmen who asked for our knives may be in China by now."

Men of every service branch have requested the knives, Schiebel said, although most have gone to the navy and the marines.. One went to an army nurse embarking for the southwest Pacific. An other to a WAC already overseas.

Thank-yon letters include many from buck privates, one from a marine general now somewhere in the Pacific, and another from Col. Clayton P. Kerr, chief of staff for the 36th Infantry Division. "If is the best balanced knife that I have seen and will undoubtedly stand a lot of hard use," wrote the colonel.

While the boys get special pleasure from sending knives to Texans, Schiebel said, most of their knives have gone to out-of-staters.

"Well, pal, and I mean pal," Pfc. Milton Henderson wrote Schiebel upon receiving his knife at Camp Roberts, "I am not from Texas, but from Tennessee. And, don't forget, all the Tennessee and Texas boys all stick together. We say: T stands for Texas and T stands for Tennessee. If you fight him, you got to fight me.”

Ed Thatcher, retired mechanical engineer who presented the project to the boys and has been serving as adviser, plans increased production.

'We're going to keep making more and more knives as long as we get letters like this," he said, exhibiting one from Capt. Martin W, Roberts, stationed at an Eastern port of embarkation.
"We have seen two of the knives that you so kindly sent Lt. Lowry and Lt. Besser of our section at this port," Capt. Roberts wrote. “We are sure that both Lt. Besser and Lt. Lowry will find these knives very useful. In fact, there are six other officers here who would like to have a knife of this type before leaving for foreign service ..."
These were not beautifully crafted knives like Randalls, nor were they comparable to commercially available knives from Western or KA-BAR. They were crude, functional, heavy-duty knives that could do the job expected of them. There was an excellent article on the Crozier bowies by Frank Trzaska, published in Knife World.

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Christian and the Bowie-Knife Salesman

The following is an account of an encounter between a Christian traveler and a bowie-knife salesman, from Life-incidents of Home, School and Church (1874), by Richard Cecil Stone.
I was on the track of two barges, which our company had sent down the Alleghany and Ohio rivers, loaded with manufactured lumber, destined for the St. Louis and Western trade. They had wintered at Cincinnati, and at the opening of the river had started on. My stay in this city was short, though I learned a few lessons of Western life. Stepping to a stall, kept by a German near the levee, I took in my hand, for the first time, a bowie knife. The trader very courteously said, "You vish buy de bowie knife?" 
I replied, "I think not; I was looking from curiosity; it is the first I ever saw." 
"Ah! dey goot for travel; are you travel?"    
"Yes, I am going on the steamer to Louisville."     
"Ah! den you vants de bowie knife."     
"O no, I think not."     
"No, vy? you meets bad men, ver bad men; dey insult, booze, hit you; vat you do den?"     
"I shall treat everyman honestly, kindly, and with Christian courtesy."
"Ah, yaw, dat all ver goot, ver goot; but 'spose you gets in corner, vat you do den? - how you gets out?"     
“Well, I do not think the bowie knife would help me; I can fight bad men better with honesty and Christian love, than with that instrument.”     
“Ah, noo, noo! mischtake, mischtake."     
I bade him a kind good-bye and went on board the boat.
Having lived to tell the tale, the narrator finds his pacifism vindicated.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Profile of Cassius Marcellus Clay

I would rank Cassius Marcellus Clay (1810-1903) foremost among bowie-knife fighters.  Clay was in a number of fights in the course of his long life, involving everything from fists to pistols. He fought three times with the bowie knife, his weapon of choice. Two of Clay's knife fights arose from his stance as an Emancipationist, an anti-slavery position he distinguished from Abolitionism. Abolitionists believed in the immediate freeing of slaves, while Clay felt it must be a gradual and controlled process. This distinction did not placate his opponents much.

The following is an obituary of Clay published shortly after his death:
Reminiscences of General Clay
It was the peculiarity of the late Cassius M. Clay's career that he was a fire-eating antislavery man and a Southerner. He used as haughty and threatening a manner in attacking slavery and slaveholders as the most violent had employed in its defence. In one of his earliest outbursts he made it plain to his opponents that an odd and formidable enemy had appeared among them.

“This is not the first time I have heard the cry of abolition. It has no terrors to my ear. Bowie- knives, and belted pistols. and the imprecations of maddened mobs have not driven me from my country's cause. My blood, and the blood of all whom I hold most dear, is ready when she calls for the sacrifice.”

Clay suited his actions to his words. He constantly wore a bowie-knife in his belt, and when he made a political speech there was always a brace of pistols in the mouth of his carpet bag, which he ostentatiously placed at his feet. He went prepared to let his opponents make their choice of arguments. Though he adopted the Northern view of slavery, he strictly adhered to the Kentucky view of “honor” and good-breeding. He made it a rule of his daily life to argue with the reasonable, to refer his differences with “gentlemen” to the great unknown god of duels, and to stab every cutthroat and kick every coward that crossed his path.
Clay desired an audience larger than any that could come within the hearing of his deep voice, and therefore he established at Lexington, in 1845, an antislavery weekly journal which he called The True American. Its tone was very violent and personal; but it was doubtless pleasing to his antislavery readers in Kentucky. He continued his attacks upon slavery and its champions in Kentucky as if the power were all on his side. His physical and moral courage were marvellous. As in every case where an anti-slavery agitator raised his head in the South, “a number of the respectable citizens” assembled; it was resolved that The True American was “dangerous to the peace of our community, and the safety of our homes and families.”

The usual committee was sent to demand the discontinuance of his paper. Clay likened the “respectable citizens” to “assassins, pirates, and highway-robbers.” To their demands he replied: “I treat them with the burning contempt of a brave heart and a loyal citizen.… Your advice with regard to my personal safety is worthy of the source whence it emanated, and meets with the same contempt from me which the purposes of your mission excite. Go tell your secret conclave of cowardly assassins that C. M. Clay knows his rights and how to defend them.”

Although he had previously made elaborate preparations to protect his office against violence, he had not sufficiently recovered from a serious illness to defend his rights. His press was seized and sent away to Cincinnati. This was a serious check to Clay's growing power. Nevertheless, he continued the publication of his paper in Cincinnati, and even edited it in Lexington, as before. Clay's fearless independence of party shows that he was no mere self-seeker. History will not go wrong in honoring him as the fighting Garrison of the South.
 The last sentence compares Clay reference to William Lloyd Garrison, a prominent abolitionist in Boston and publisher of the anti-slavery newspaper, The LiberatorThe Liberator constantly inveighed against what it called the "bowie-knife culture" of the South, though the bowie knife played a role in hands of the anti-slavery movement, just as it did in the hands of those who supported "the peculiar institution."

A Bowie-Knife Toting Police Officer

Martin Aguirre was a famed Los Angeles County sheriff in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Though he rode all over the county tracking down cattle rustlers, and made numerous high-risk arrests, he never carried a pistol, preferring a well-honed bowie knife, which he kept in a sheath slung in the armhole of his vest. To one interviewer, he explained, “You see, if anything starts I don't know where bullets might go or whom they might hit, but I know where this knife is going.”
Aguirre served as deputy sheriff under Sheriff William A. Hammel. According to the Los Angeles Times:
Martin and Hammel had one curious fracas. Martin had a warrant to serve on a man who as known as a bad hombre. He happened to come across him on Spring street, just below First.
Martin pulled the big razor-sharp bowie that he always carried; backed the crook off into a door way and handed him the warrant.
"Stick up your hands," said Martin.
Suddenly he felt the muzzle of a gun poked into his own back. "Stick 'em up," said the crook's pal to Martin.
Suddenly the pal felt the muzzle of a gun in his spine and Billie Hammel's voice said to him, "Stick 'em up yourself."
They stood there for a moment; then the crook who had the point of Martin's knife in his tum-tum stuck up his hands and the group dissolved.

Friday, October 22, 2010

One-Armed Man With a Bowie Knife

A story about an incident that occurred on September 17, 1905, appeared in newspapers under headlines reading  “Mexican With One Arm Kills Both His Callers” and  “Whittled to Pieces: Three Men Are Chopped to Mincement in Free-for-All Fight.” Here is the most detailed account, in its entirety:
A special to the Eagle from Anadarko, Okla., states that two men were killed and a third dangerously wounded at Eakly, a small town near there, yesterday.

The wounded man is a one-armed Mexican named Rone Gonzales. His story is that the two men, who were strangers, came to his home and asked for work. When told there was no work they demanded food and shelter. A fight ensued, in which pocket-knives and a big bowie knife were used. One of the strangers was killed outright with a stab in the heart.
I'd like to think that Gonzales, the one-armed combatant, recovered from his wounds. He definitely came out of this one with bragging rights.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

An Unwelcome Visitor

Joseph Goldsborough left a diary of his overland journey to California in 1849-1850. His cabin was visited by a man named White, who was a member of another group of travelers. Goldsborough was disturbed by the presence of White, who seemed mentally ill and was armed with a bowie knife.
At dusk White returned to our lodge, said the oldest son of Elliot struck him, and he was afraid for his life, with them, and wished to sleep by our fire. I told him we had no room, but I could fix him comfortably in a wagon. “Well,” he said, “let me cook my supper here.” I told him to go ahead. He held in his hand a very large and sharp Bowie-knife, took a seat near my left, and commenced mincing up a piece of the ox-meat, on a small piece of board, on his knee. He minced the meat very slowly, chopping it over and over, very fine, and ever and anon, looking askance at me from under his slouched hat, and feeling the edge of his large bloody blade. Now and then he'd pause, and barely cut at all, -- seem'd absorbed in meditations. - Evidently deeply abstracted in mind. He thus sat about hour, cutting up his meat. During this queer performance, I cautiously put a pistol in my bosom, and moved off a little from him. He then put the minced beef in a small tin-kettle of water, & set it on the fire, after which he put a handful of wet ground coffee, from an old dirty handkerchief, in another small tin kettle, with water, and sat that also on the fire to cook. He then laid his knife very carefully on the chair at his right, dropped his chin on his hands, with his elbows on his knees, and asked me many questions, without looking at me at all . . . [He] kept us up quite late, asking information we could not give, muttering inarticulate sentences, mingled with oaths & imprecations . . . . I intimated our desire to retire, several times, and at last had to tell him, he must go, and I would conduct him to a wagon. . . . I then closed out frail house as well as I could, and set a chair with tin ware in it, at the entrance so that it could not be entered without alarming us. We slept on our arms.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Alan Ladd as Jim Bowie

Alan Ladd as Jim Bowie in "The Iron Mistress" (1952). There's something to be said for the edge-upward blade position, but the hand-barely-closed-around-the-hilt grip is not recommended.

Alan Ladd is credited as author of a newspaper article about his experience playing Bowie, which I reprint below. I would guess it's not Ladd's work but that of some press flack, but it does provide some background to the movie.
I like to make action pictures and I like them to have plenty of action. As a result, I guess I've got as many scars as any man in Hollywood, because it's up to the star of an action film to do as many of his own stunts as he can. This doesn't mean I'd look forward to parachuting out of a plane for the cameras or taking on any really hazardous stunt that might leave me in a plaster cast for a long time. But when it comes to fist fights, sword fights, leaps and plunges and all the various types of muscular activity that go into a good bang-up picture, I like to do the job myself.

This does not stem from vanity. There are a lot of stunts that either I can't do or the studio won't let me do. They won't let me take a fall from a fast-moving horse because the chances are that I'd break my neck, which would do neither the picture, the studio nor me any good. But I'm an actor and if the script calls for me to fight, duel, jump or climb, then I want to do it if I possibly can. The primary reason is that when you do your own stunts you're going to give a better performance. You can change, you can improvise, you can improve during the course of the action itself, both in rehearsal and before the camera. When I do a stunt myself it has a real value to me. If someone else should do it, it would seem a synthetic thing as far as my own ability and desire to act are concerned. In other words, I'm more of an actor when I do the acting myself, even though my back's to the camera.

Of course you pay a price for this sort of artistic integrity--and I hope that doesn't sound pompous because I don't mean it to be. Every once in a while you'll take a sock in the jaw or a bump on the head or some sort of injury from a sprained ankle to a concussion. I got more than my usual share of cuts, scratches, bumps, bruises and contusions on "The Iron Mistress" at Warner Bros.

In this picture I play Jim Bowie, the famous knife fighter, pioneer, adventurer and all-around tough cookie who invented the Bowie knife. I was involved in more than a dozen fights of one kind or another in this picture and I was right in the middle of all of them. "The Iron Mistress" is chock-full of action and we might use it as an example of what an actor in an action picture goes through. About the second day of the picture I dueled with Ned Young. It took place in a dark room, illuminated only by a skylight, and I fought with a knife while Ned used a sword. The hazards of this kind of jousting with cold steel are bad enough on a well-lighted set. In a pretty dark room, it is wise to be mighty careful. Well, I was, but not careful enough. I got nicked on the ear and the right arm. I progressed through a few fist fights and then came a brawl with Richard Carlyle and Dick Paxton. They play my brothers in the picture but the scene had us playing a little rough back on the old farm. Before we go through, I banged my knee on a tree and had to be taken to a doctor's office for X-rays. It wasn't broken but I limped for a few days, during which time they shot around me. Out on location at the Warner ranch, we had to do a scene which involved my leaping from a river bank onto the backs of two heavies who are looking for me with murderous intent. Now I could have scrambled down the bank, but Jim Bowie wouldn't have done it that way. I flew out into the air and down on the villains. I guess I was about the last of the three to get my breath back, but I was proud of that stunt. By the time the last day of the picture arrived, I was in pretty bad shape. I was cut and bruised, my knee hurt, my back hurt and so did my side. That last injury was received during what I thought would be a pretty simple stunt, which just goes to show. I fell down when someone shot me. Somehow, in trying to break my fall, I put my hand under me. Only I had it doubled up into a fist and my ribs were the first to make contact with it. Off to the doctor's again for another X-ray, but again, fortunately, nothing broken. Anyway, the last day of the picture arrived and I thought I'd get by without any further damage. It was a scene in which I stick a knife into a tree. The knife caromed off the tree and I whacked it with my fist. Back to the doctor's again and more X-rays. This time I wasn't so lucky. My hand was really broken and required a cast for several weeks. So I can truthfully say "The Iron Mistress" was a three X-ray picture for me.    

Naturally, I don't like to banged around and hurt any more than the next fellow. But it's all part of the business. It probably isn't any more dangerous than taking a jaunt by car through Los Angeles traffic.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Bowie-Knife Pistol

In 1837, George Elgin received a patent for a bowie knife-pistol, a single-shot caliber .34 percussion pistol with a 8.5-inch bowie-knife blade mounted under the barrel. In 1838, the US Navy ordered 150 of them from manufacturer C.B. Allen of Springfield, Massachusetts. The knife figured in several incidents during the South Seas Exploring Expedition of 1838-1842, led by Charles Wilkes, who left an account.

While on the coast of California, he wrote: "On the morning when the party were breaking up camp to embark, an Indian boldly seized the bowie-knife-pistol of Dr. Pickering, and made at once for the woods. He had chosen his time well, for no arms were at hand. Several of the men pursued him, but by his alertness he eluded all pursuit; and having gained the bushes, escaped with his prize."

While in the Fiji Islands, they were attacked by natives, and Mr. Henry, a crewman armed with the bowie-knife pistol, was killed. Wilkes described the circumstances: "Lieutenant Underwood also called upon Midshipman Henry to assist in covering the retreat of the men to the boats, to which Mr. Henry replied, that he had just received a blow from the club of a native, and would first have a crack at him. He then pursued the native a few steps, and cut him down with his bowie-knife pistol, and had again reached the water's edge, when he was struck with a short club on the back of the head, just as he fired his pistol and shot a native. The blow stunned him, and he fell with his face in the water, when he was instantly surrounded by the natives, who stripped him."

One of the bowie-knife pistols was stolen by a Moro prince in the Philippines, but the navy was able to effect its return.

In 1847, Lt. William F. Lynch of the US Navy applied for permission to mount an expedition to survey the Dead Sea. The 14-man expedition was supplied with arms including a blunderbuss, 14 carbines with long bayonets, 14 pistols—four of them with six revolving barrels, and ten with bowie-knife blades attached—and swords with pistol-barrels near the hilt. These last were declared by an Arab to be "the devil's invention."

In Miscellany: Consisting of Essays, Biographical Sketches, and Notes of Travel (1852), Thomas Asbury Morris includes a letter from a traveler written in 1841:
Brother Elliott, -- My last letter was dated at Manning's, Louisiana, December 13th. We left that place the same day, and immediately after passed out of Claiborne into Natchitoches parish, and in the afternoon reached brother Randolph's house of entertainment, south of the Big Bayou, having traveled seventeen miles over a country so poor that it is entirely desolate. While at Randolph's, we met with three men on their return from Texas, whose observations had been chiefly confined to Jasper county, and reported that the land there was rich in spots, and the balance poor. These appeared to be civil men, and conformed very respectfully to the rules of the family at evening and morning prayers; but one of them carried a deadly weapon, such as we had not seen before--a pistol and Bowie-knife in one solid piece; the back of the knife was welded to the under side of the barrel, and the blade projected some seven inches beyond the muzzle, and the butt of the pistol answered for the knife-handle. It had a percussion lock, and the whole was carried in a case made to suit its form, and worn on the side under the vest. When the owner of it undressed for sleeping, John Emory Clark, who had been put to bed in the same room, saw the instrument taken out and examined, and concluding that he was in dangerous company, slipped out of bed, opened the door, and, in his night clothes, ran across the porch and entry to the door of his father's bed-room, and called for quarters; and, when taken in, was evidently much agitated, being only nine years old, and having never seen the like before. Next morning he very shrewdly remarked, that he did not like the looks of that thing; it would kill a man twice, first shoot and then stab him. It is to be regretted that public sentiment does in any part of the United States tolerate the savage practice of carrying frightful instruments made on purpose to destroy human life, such as pistols, dirks, and Bowie-knives.

Well Armed

From The Scalp Hunters, Or, Romantic Adventures in Northern Mexico, by Mayne Reid, a memoir published in 1851:
We are all somewhat similarly armed and 
equipped. For my part, I may say that I am "armed to the teeth." In my holsters I 
carry a pair of Colt's large-sized revolvers, 
six shots each. In my belt is another pair 
of the small size, with five shots each. In 
addition, I have a light rifle, making in all 
twenty-three shots, which I have learnt to 
deliver in as many seconds of time. Failing 
with all these, I carry in my belt a long 
shining blade known as a "bowie knife." 
This last is my hunting knife, my dining 
knife, and, in short, my knife of "all work."

Monday, October 18, 2010

Bowie Knife vs. Pistol: A Gold Rush Incident

The following story was published in 1855:
MURDER IN CALIFORNIA. This day, a murder took place in Tuolumne county, Cal., at Cherokee Camp, by which William Rice was killed by one Lewis Carley. It appears that the parties had been shooting at a mark and drinking fighting-whiskey. A quarrel arose, and Carley, who was known as Grizzly, advanced on Rice with his gun and a large bowie-knife. Rice, who had a loaded gun in his hand at the time, told him to keep off, or he would shoot him. Carley continued to advance, and Rice snapped his gun at him. Carley then knocked Rice's gun aside with his own, and also knocked him down and got on him, and with his knife inflicted several wounds, one in the region of the heart, another between the seventh and eighth ribs, one on the left side of the bend, and several flesh-wounds. Mr. John Mallory ran to the assistance of Rice, and struck Carley with his fist. The latter then left Rice and ran after Mallory, and was in the act of stabbing him, when Mr. A. Ripley ran up and knocked Carley down with a gun. He was then bound and kept in custody till the sheriff arrived.
This story not only provides us with another data point in the knife vs. gun debate, but acquaints us with the handy term "fighting-whiskey." According to David Maurer's Kentucky Moonshine, "In areas where both illicit and licit whiskey are available, moonshine is quaintly described as "fighting whiskey," while legal liquor is referred to as "courting whiskey."

Sunday, October 17, 2010

"Colonel Bowie and His Knife"

The following excerpts are from a lengthy article published in the journal Temple Bar in July 1861, giving an Englishman's impression of the use of the bowie knife and other personal weapons in America in the period before the Civil War. The article contains some interesting and amusing observations as well as the usual exaggerations. Due to its length and the amount of tangential material it included, I chose to edit it down to those sections most relevant to this site's focus.
Colonel Bowie and his Knife
[Author not identified]
I had never had the pleasure of being personally introduced in America to that very great man Colonel Bowie. He was, I believe, a  "first-class screamer," as they say in the Southern States; and these States owe a large debt of gratitude to that truly ingenious, truly original inventor, to that Columbus of cutlery, to that facilitator of justifiable homicide. I had always heard the Colonel was what the rowdies or unemployed chivalry of Louisiana and Missouri beautifully denominated, with all the fervour of southern poetry, "a riglar ripper"; but I never thoroughly understood the great debt the human species owed the dead hero, till I had scientifically discussed the invention by which he acquired his immortality in a cutler's shop, or a "store," as the Americans call it, in the city of Richmond in the State of Virginia.

I had spent some days in that pleasant city, so redolent of tobacco, whose brown and spear-shaped leaves tapestry, indeed, every wall and every roof. I had been to the agricultural show-fair, and stared my fill at bear-baiting, the performing mice from Japan, and the smallest man in the world from Madagascar. I had beheld with, I trust, sufficient admiration the large bulbous sweet potatoes, the rosy "Buffum" apples, the brandy peaches, and the gigantic orange globes of pumpkins.

Tired of these not unsatiating pleasures, and desirous to possess myself of that "young man's best companion" in a wild country, a good bowie-knife, I that day entered about noon the shop of Hiram Peabody, in the High Street of the Virginia City.

I had long since found that nearly every one I met carried, or "toted," as they phrase it, either a bowie-knife or a "five-shooter." I had been assured that in case of a dispute, however trifling (say about the slave question, or the then pending Presidential election), if I travelled without arms, I should be certainly shot down before I could strike a blow. Though having myself a strong opinion that the practice of carrying arms, unless in the time of immediate peril, is unwise in the traveller, as provoking him to rather seek than avoid quarrels, I gave way at last to the repeated urgings of prudence, and, entering Peabody's shop, asked to look at some of his best bowie-knives.

"Take a seat, mister," said Hiram blandly, as if he was going to sell me only cosmetics and soft soap; "and I'll look out the sort of bowie I think you would like to 'tote.' Hannibal, get down that A4 case from the third shelf."

Hannibal, rising from a dime novel which the Syracuse Daily Avalanche insufficiently concealed, rose, and brought me the case of weapons.

Imagine a rather short and broad carving-knife, with a buckhorn handle and a dagger-hilt of the ordinary cross form. But, reshaping it partly on the forge of your fancy, do not leave it a thin polished slip of steel so high tempered and brittle that it would snap like glass if you prized open with it the lid of a jewel-box, or dabbed it with an oblique stab into the soft deal of a kitchen-dresser; no, but rather weld two or three such knives together until you have a backbone to it massive as that of a woodman's bill-hook; so that, if camping out in the woods, you could lop in two with it at a stroke the aromatic boughs of the red cypress, the knotted shafts of swamp-canes, or cleave in two like carrots young hickory or maple saplings thick as the wrist of your boy at Eton.

The first weapon Hiram handed to me was double-edged towards the point, which did not resemble that of a spear-head, but rather that of a Turkish scimitar, or the crusader's falchion, the type of which our armourers probably derived from the East. It was a weapon to cleave a bear's head with, to stab a dying panther still dangerous with his claws, to slit open an alligator, or with which to break up a dead deer as he lay crimsoning the dun leaves of a Carolina pine-wood. In weight it was heavier than the heaviest Oriental handjar or poniard, and in its whole character it strongly reminded me of the short heavy Roman gladius with which Caesar's soldiers probably fought in Gaul and Spain.

I objected that it was too heavy, upon which Hiram said solemnly: "No, mister; I guess it is a mere toothpick to the bowie a Missouri gentleman, who was in here yesterday to buy a revolver, 'toted.'"

"You must have substance in these articles," struck in the quick-eyed journal-loving Hannibal, "or what use are they in a fuss? Yes, sir, when your turn comes to sail in -- "

[. . . ]

"Yes, sir," said Peabody, "Colonel Augustus Twiggs, who led on the Palmetto regiment at the battle of Chapultepec, in the Mexican war, bought his bowie-knife in this identical store, and no European could wish for a better article than that."

Upon this we fell into a conversation about bowie-knives in general, and the various attempts to improve them for close conflict, in which they have been found so deadly. The most ingenious of these was one in which the back of the knife was hollowed and partly filled with quicksilver. This fluid of course fell to the handle when the weapon was raised, and when it struck it ran down towards the point, weighting it at the end, and giving greater impetus to the blow. This invention, I at once observed to Peabody, was not original. The mediaeval armourers, for the same purpose, attached a running weight to their two-handed swords, -- a sort of steel apple, as far as I remember, -- that when the weapon was in its sheath remained near the pommel, but in striking ran down the blade. [Oddly enough, there really was such a knife. Norm Flayderman has a photograph of two in his book The Bowie Knife: Unsheathing an American Legend. They were made by the Hassam Brothers, Boston.]

But the true Yankee, with many virtues, is not modest in his self-assertiveness; so Peabody only spat twice, cut a fresh plug of niggerhead, and waived the objection, observing that most of the best bowie-knives came from Sheffield, and remarking that after some of the Mexican battles the "Greasers," as the Yankees call them, who had fallen by the bowie-knife, were found with their skulls cloven almost to their teeth.

[ . . . ]

But to the Colonel. In some temporary reverse of the American arms, Bowie and a mere handful of soldiers were surrounded in a mountain fort, a mere breastwork of stones that could not hold out long against the swarming multitude of Greasers, hungry for Yankee lives. The place was at length stormed, after a desperate hand-to-hand, inch-by-inch resistance. Through hurricanes of grape and sweeping storms of musket-bullets the Mexicans poured up the breach. Colonel Bowie at the time was off guard; wearied by long marches and hard fighting, he was sleeping, in his room, his knife beside his pillow. The bayonets poured in through the door, shivered by blows of the musket; but the grim man in a moment was on his legs, a raging wolf. The curtains torn down and rolled round his left arm, served for a buckler. To work went the terrible knife, --down went the thin black-haired men like sheep before a Christmas butcher. There was a terrible whooping and scramble, a cursing, a tumble of chairs and tables, some groans, some shots, and the brave Colonel lay dead, surrounded by nine of his Mexican enemies, half of them with gaping stabs, with room enough for a dozen lives to flood out, the rest with skulls clean cloven by the heavy knife.

No wonder, then, that the Colonel's grateful Southern countrymen have since "toted" such knives in all times of peril -- during slave insurrections and Indian wars. That quiet New-York gentlemen often carried revolvers under their coats, and that New-York hackney-coachmen carried life-preservers under their cushions, to subdue refractory passengers, I had only been assured by reliable witnesses and natives of the country; but that Southern men, not merely bullies by profession, or slave-overseers, but quiet tradesmen, who might be supposed to be, by age and profession, of a pacific temperament, did the same, I had long ago learned, beyond all doubt, from the evidence of my own eyes. I had seen the long sheath down thigh and down the back, used to conceal weapons; I had seen the small pistol for the waistcoat pocket, and the little pistol that, in close struggles, was to be fired from the coat-sleeve. Of such and such things, indeed, spoke Hiram Peabody to me, as I weighed his glittering knives, like a reluctant juggler intent on a new trick, and rather afraid of his implements; and I went home to my hotel to see if, by reading the Daily Avalanche, I could ascertain for myself if the bowie-knife was still an article much in request among a highly civilised people.
Impartially, and with all love and admiration for the finer chivalry of our American brothers, I cannot conceal the fact, that I found, in the Avalanche, many, quite too many, indications that Colonel Bowie and his terrible invention were far from being forgotten. Among dismal paragraphs, carelessly related without sympathy and comment, of negro overseers chopped to pieces by negroes, of steamers burst and burnt up, of deadly duels and revengeful murders, I found too often such narratives as the following. The place and name I carefully suppress.
"A FUSS IN CARTHAGE. - There were lively times in this place last week, writes our correspondent, Colonel Horatio Otis, from this place. On Tuesday last, Major Jones, coming to the bar of the Monongahela Hotel for a glass of Roman punch, became irritated at the bar-keeper's first helping a coloured man to a brandy cock-tail, which he had just ordered. Words ensued, when the major, drawing out a bowie-knife, exclaimed, 'I'll see if a darned nigger is to be helped before a white man,' and stabbed the coloured man in the stomach. The unfortunate victim of the major's hasty temper died the same night."

In a subsequent Avalanche I read that the major was found guilty of a mild form of manslaughter, reprimanded (as foolish mothers chide spoiled children), and sent forth again, into a nigger-hating world, doubtless to rip up other coloured men, and generally advance Christian civilisation.

A little further on I would read a bolder, less fatal use of the knife of Bowie -- to wit, how one Ezra Giraud, at an election tumult at St. Louis, being a good deal nudged and elbowed, his somewhat choleric temper being rather ruffled by Bell and Everett [candidates of the Constitutional Union Party], and other political and antagonistic demonstrations, had drawn out his bowie-knife, and scored and slashed all he could meet, till some American Hercules knocked this small Python on the head, and quieted him by a mild form of concussion of the brain.

In a third place I found a young man of New Orleans boldly planting his knife in the breast of an election bully who had interrupted a pro-Douglas speaker, doing it with all the energy and calm self-approval of Cassius when he stabbed Caesar, and manifesting such self-command, that he even walked off from the election-room, and tried to elude the police by bold denials of the --must we write it? --murder.

So certain, indeed, is the bowie-knife to appear in a quarrel, that the great anxiety of a disputant in the South seems to be, always to strike the first blow. So much so is this the case, that, in a violent argument with a Memphis or Vicksburg man, it would be unsafe to scratch the back of your neck, for it is down the back that the bowie-knife is often kept; to pull out your watch, for in the waistcoat pocket often lurks the miniature Derringer pistol; to take out your pocket-handkerchief from your coat-tail pocket, because there is the den of the "five shooter." Indeed, it is the rule, when you quarrel with suspicious characters, rowdies or gamblers, as one of them himself told me, to fire the Derringer from the trouser-pocket the very instant you have called your opponent "darned thief," or  "scoundrel," or flung whatever mud of curses and abuse you chose to pelt at him. If you do not, ten to one three bullets and a bowie-knife will be in you before you can draw your pistol and fire, and there you will be dead and gouged on the bar-room floor. To draw the Derringer would be dangerous, but by firing it from the trouser or paletot pocket you gain a move in the game; and if the "blue pill" go right through brain or artery, the result to your enemy is unmistakably "checkmate," or, as a rowdy would say in billiard-room jargon, "one love."

And this very warning is no invention of English prejudice, but was delivered to me with solemn and nasal utterance by Major Osias Bluff, on a Mississippi high-pressure steamer, as he shuffled some greasy cards for a tenth game at "poker."
[ . . . ]
[The entire article is available at Google Books]

Saturday, October 16, 2010

A Preposterous Duel Reported as Fact

I present the following article from an 1883 issue of the New York Sun  as an example of the sort of stories about the Wild West that were circulated in the East. Though entertaining, it is so obviously fabricated that I didn't consider including it in my book.
One of the most desperate duels ever engaged in by any of these fellows was that fought by a Mexican cowboy named Jesus Garcia and a young Philadelphian named Gus Davis at a camp on the river Pecos (New Mexico), August 7, 1883, and which has been described by a correspondent of the New York Sun, as follows:

Gus Davis, of Philadelphia, came here several months ago, and was engaged as a cattle-herder by Mr. John Shure, a wealthy stock-owner. Davis soon showed himself to be a useful man, and gained the esteem of his employer and the envy of the other herders. In less than three months he  had resisted so many temptations to quarrel with his associates that he was nicknamed "The Northern Coward." One morning, about three weeks ago, while Davis was on duty looking after his cattle, Jesus Garcia, a Mexican, saluted him, as usual, with "Good-morning, Northern Coward."

Human endurance has its limit, and Mr. Davis thought he had been insulted long enough. The Mexican was at first surprised at the stand taken by the Philadelphian, but word brought on word, until each determined that the other must die. The quarrel soon brought all the neighboring cowboys to the spot. The mode of combat was speedily arranged. A chain thirty inches long was securely locked about their necks. A Mexican dagger (a two-edged knife six inches long) was given to each of the duellists. The obliging cowboys then lowered the men into a dog-canyon, a descent of seventy-five feet. There they were to remain until one killed the other. A key to the lock was given to each, and no one was allowed to interfere further. The rest of the cowboys then went to work, as if nothing unusual had occurred.
For some days nothing was known as to the result of the encounter. Yesterday, however, Davis, weak and emaciated, returned to camp, dragging after him the lifeless body of Jesus Garcia. The story Mr. Davis tells is as follows: "The fight began as soon as we reached the bottom of the canon. Being locked together, each was always within reach of the other's knife. After such deliberation as the few moments during our descent permitted, I decided that unless the first blow was fatal the chances were decidedly in favor of the party assailed. I accordingly allowed the Mexican to strike the first blow. He plunged his knife into my side. As soon as I found his arm thus stretched forward I cut the muscles of his right arm near the shoulder. Immediately his knife dropped. While he was stooping to pick up his knife I sent my blade into his body from the back. Before I could strike again he had p1cked up his knife and cut the cords of my arms, so as to render them both useless. Here we both stood for a few seconds, when I discovered that his heart had been reached. His body soon fell in the death-struggle to the ground.

The chain was so short that he brought me down with him. In a few minutes he was dead. I was so weak from loss of blood that I lay down by his side. We lay there for five days and nights, until hunger drove me to make a last effort. I climbed the steep incline of the walls of the canon and reached the camp, carrying Garcia on my back."

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Writers and Their Bowie Knives

Beat-generation writer and junkie William S. Burroughs brandishes an impressive bowie knife, possibly the one given him by Chris Stein, lead guitarist of Blondie. A fascinating discussion of Burrough's obsession with weapons can be found at Reality Studio, a website devoted to Burroughs. I quote:
William’s knives ranged from switchblades to scimitars to huge Bowie knives, and he was liable to whip one out at any given moment for a variety of reasons. There were frequent instructional demonstrations, of course. And he loved getting packages in the mail because it gave him an excuse to slash open the box with some nasty knife. Even when he was engaged in peaceful activities like making tea or reading a book William’s body movements were jerky, erratic, and fast, let alone when he was gleefully hacking open cardboard boxes. It was a little bit nerve-wracking watching him. He’d already cut off one pinky, and nobody wanted to watch him to lose the other. 
More than once there weren’t enough steak knives to go around at dinner because he had hoarded them as weapons. I’d look in the silverware drawer, and there’d be only one steak knife. He had the rest of them stashed all over the house, in desk drawers, bookshelves, mixed in with the Main Knife Cache, all over.
Hunter Thompson, journalist, gun nut, and friend of William S. Burroughs, is said to have armed himself with a bowie knife when confronting trespassers on his Aspen property. According to Gene McGarr, who knew him, "He liked the idea of showing a big blade."

John Oates, of Hall & Oates, attended one of Thompson's notorious Monday Night Football parties. He recalled, “Hunter kept jabbing me with a bowie knife while shouting, ‘That’s top-notch! That’s top-notch!’”

Chris Parry, who visited Thompson at his home, noted "the line of about fifty bowie knives on the coffee table, all gifts from previous visitors."

James Jones, WW II veteran and author of From Here to Eternity and other best-sellers, rhapsodized about Randall custom knives in Some Came Running.
[Wally Dennis] began thinking about his knives. There was something a man could trust. And be proud of.  --And there was a real honest-to-god artist; that Randall. Wally wondered what kind of a person he must be, a man who made his living just making knives--and yet who could make them such beautiful objects as these knives were. They were lethal, he thought, absolutely lethal, with the beauty of the absolutely lethal. Like sharks. And they had lines like sharks. That same streamlined lethal shape. 
Wally (a stand-in for Jones) ordered four Randall knives as soon as he got his first large royalty check. He had intended to order only the # 1 "All-Purpose Fighting Knife," but ended up also ordering the # 5 "Camper and Yachtsman," # 7 "Fisherman-Hunter," and # 8 "Trout and Bird Knife." He rationalized the expenditure by telling himself it was a good investment. At $93.50 for all four, he was right about that--the No. 1 that cost him $28.50 would be worth close to $2,000 today.
He loved them all, of course--but of them all, he loved that #1 the best. When you held that balanced, tempered blade in your hand you were touching hands, in a direct line, with Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie and Sam Houston, and all the men who had fought the Indians on the plains, or the Japs on Guadalcanal. As soon as the knives had come in he had got out his book on knife fighting and started practicing. Horizontal cuts, and vertical cuts, and the in quartata thrust, head cuts and hand cuts, all of it.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Naked Bowie Knife Fighters?

In an article on Stonewall Jackson published in Putnam’s Monthly in December 1868, E. A. Pollard wrote:
Jackson had only the idea of the soldier--to fight, and to fight in the most terrible manner. It is a curious circumstance that he once recommended a night-attack to be made by assailants stripped naked and armed with bowie-knives, suggesting that the novelty and terror of such an apparition would paralyze the enemy. The writer was disposed to doubt an anecdote so remarkable, until it was confirmed to him by the testimony of a well-known and most truthful gentleman; and he must confess that he perceives in it something characteristic of Jacksons gloom and fierceness. It was not a natural cruelty, a constitutional harshness, but a stern conception of war and its dread realities--the soldiers disposition for quick, decisive, destructive work.
In July 1870, the magazine published a letter from  General J. A. "Jubal" Early, CSA, who took it upon himself to set the record straight:
I can undertake to assert, 
with the most perfect confidence, that 
General Jackson could not have made such a 
proposition as that mentioned by Pollard, because 
it was a moral impossibility for him to 
have done it. Gladiators, in ancient times, or 
the members of the prize-ring, in modern times, 
might strip for their brutal contests; but there 
is a sentiment among all civilized, Christian 
people, which would prevent a decent man 
from being as brave, when stripped naked, as 
when his nakedness is concealed by his usual 
covering. A naked sword is more terrible than 
a sheathed one; but there is no reason why a 
naked man should be more terrible than a well-
clad one; and, certainly, at the battle of Fred
ericksburg, in the middle of December, a body 
of naked assailants would soon have become so 
paralyzed by the cold, that the enemy would 
have had no trouble in dealing with them. 
General Jackson not only could not have 
made so foolish, so absurd, a proposition, at 
Fredericksburg, or anywhere else, for these 
reasons; but he could not have done it for the 
simple and conclusive reason that, at no time, 
were the Bowie-knives to be had. In the very 
beginning of the War, some men carried with 
them, into the service, Bowie-knives; but they 
were never very plenty, and the only military 
use I ever knew to be made of them, was in 
aiding to throw up a slight entrenchment, the 
day after the fight at Blackburn's-ford, on Bull Run. After that time, they were generally 
abandoned, or, if used at all, used only for 
chopping beef. I don't think that, in General 
Jackson's entire Corps, enough could have been 
found to arm one Company; and there were 
certainly none in the Ordnance Department.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Backwoods Bowie-Knife Humor

Eastern newspapers allowed themselves some latitude when reporting activities among backwoods types. The Brooklyn Eagle published the following in 1884:
Sixteen years ago “Old man” Jim Hardison, of Richilieu, Logan County, Ky., killed “Old man” Bob Bronson with an ax at a log rolling. Last Wednesday afternoon old man Jim’s boy George met old man Bob’s boy Harry, and the two young men interviewed each other upon the subject of their ancestors with bowie knives. George cut Harry’s heart in two and Harry opened a passage through which George’s intestines sought the daylight. It is a common saying among married people in Kentucky that it is a great advantage to have boys.
 The Atlanta Constitution ran the following short item in 1874:
A woman’s college has been founded in Little Rock. The scholastic day is perhaps divided among the fair pupils as follows: They rise at 6:30, take a morning snifter of gin and bitters, and practice with bowie knives till breakfast. Then comes revolver practice till dinner. The afternoon is devoted to poker. The evening is whiled away in a little more bowie knife practice, and finished with a whisky straight for a night cap. A young lady’s education is warranted complete in six months. Washing and Choctaw extra.
 (I'm not sure what "Choctaw" referred to.  Possibly chewing tobacco?)

NOTE: Reader Lyman Lyon suggests Choctaw beer. This from the Journal of Cultural Geography: "Originally a drink of the Choctaw Indians, Choctaw beer was a concoction composed of hops, barley, tobacco, fishberries, and a small amount of alcohol. When thousands of com miners found work in the Choctaw Nation in the 1880s, they quickly adopted "choc" as their favorite libation."

Harper's New Monthly Magazine published the following conversation between Parson Jones and a rustic fellow named Joab, from Alabama, who was prone to fighting: 
        “Joab,” said Parson Jones, “you are a good fellow at heart: why don't you leave off drinking and fighting, and be a Christian?”
        “Well, I can’t say, parson; seems like I jist can't do it, that’s all,” replied Joab, solemnly.
        “Just think of it, my friend,” continued Parson Jones, much encouraged by Joab’s apparent concern. “Don’t you ever get frightened at the idea of being killed in a fight, and going before your Maker fresh from a disgraceful, murderous scene?”
        “Well, parson,” drawled Joab, whittling away at a stick, and growing still more solemn, “in one of these here ordinary little fights a feller don't take no consarn about religious matters, ‘cause, you know, he don’t see no r’al danger in it; but when he gits into one of them ‘ere old tussles down in Alabam, and he feels the feller what’s a-fightin’ him stick his bowie-knife through his heart all up amongst his lungs and a-ticklin’ of his neck j’int with the p’int of it, things does begin to take on a sort o’ religious aspect—they does, parson, for a fact!”

Monday, October 11, 2010

Nixon Curry, Killed with His Own Bowie Knife

In 1822, in  North Carolina, Nixon Curry was convicted of the crime of Negro stealing. Curry broke out of jail and fled to the mountains, killing several members of the posse that pursued him. A price of $5,000 was put on his head.

Curry escaped capture and eventually settled in St. Francis County, Arkansas. Going by the name “Joe Hill,” he married and became a popular and respected citizen. He was elected to the state legislature in 1833 and 1835.

In 1836, a party of emigrants traveling through St. Francis County recognized Curry and reported him as a fugitive. He was arrested, but was soon broken out of jail by his friends, who did not believe that their law-abiding neighbor could be a wanted criminal. Curry was again arrested, and again his friends freed him. Possibly due to the length of time that had elapsed since his crimes, and his honorable behavior during that period, there was no further attempt to pursue his case. Nevertheless, Curry remained on his guard and was always armed with a bowie knife. "He now became a very hard drinker and quarrelsome," wrote Arkansas historian William F. Pope.

One day in the spring of 1841, Curry went to Norristown to purchase farm supplies. He was accompanied by his young farmhand, Vincent L. Hutton, who was engaged to his daughter.

Before they left, Mrs. Curry, always uneasy about the safety of her husband, said to Hutton, "Take good care of him, and be sure and bring him back tonight."

"Never fear," Hutton replied, jokingly, "He will never die until I kill him."

From Pope’s Early Days in Arkansas:
There was a crowd in the tavern when they reached Norristown, and the customary good-natured banter was in progress. The two joined in. Curry, to demonstrate the weight of his fist and his partner's resisting power, began to pound the young man over the lungs. Hutton swelled out his massive chest and bore the sledge hammer blows right manfully until the sport began to pall on him and he called a halt. Curry responded with a blow which felled Hutton. From the floor Hutton reached out, grasped Curry by the ankles and overturned him. The two grappled on the floor with Hutton on top. Perhaps Curry had been fired by the raw liquor of the day. Perhaps they both had, for as Hutton held his adversary down he saw him reaching for his bowie knife. Curry wore the knife in a leather sheath on his belt, and the knife had slipped down into the sheath so far that it could not be grasped by the handle. He was trying to work it up from the end of the sheath when Hutton first noticed it. Maintaining his grip on Curry, Hutton watched the knife until the hilt appeared above the sheath and then he grasped it and stabbed Curry to the heart. And so ended Nixon Curry, alias John Hill.
Hutton fled the scene. Two years later, the family got word that he had been spotted in Texas. Local lore has it that Curry's 16-year-old son took his father's long rifle off its pegs, set off for Texas, returned in a year, nodded in response to a questioning look from his mother, and hung the rifle back up on its pegs.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Cold Steel Natchez Bowie

This promotional video for Cold Steel's Natchez Bowie Knife vividly illustrates the capabilities of a large blade. Cold Steel president Lynn Thompson demonstrates the knife's temper with a test often used in the 19th century--he stabs through a silver dollar without damaging its tip.

The card-cutting trick is also impressive. There are several stories of high-stakes poker games in mining towns in which a player who had to leave the room secured a good hand he had been dealt by pinning it face-down to the table with his bowie knife. I'd never heard of anyone chopping an entire deck in half, though.

Though hefty, the Natchez is well balanced and feels lively in the hand. Knife master James Keating says it is his favorite bowie currently on the market.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

How Many Men Carried a Bowie?

How many men actually carried a bowie? Reports from the Southern and Western states in the 19th century suggest that the practice was widespread, though we may assume that many of the reports were dramatized for effect. After an American tour in the 1840s, Francis Wyse wrote:
Almost every individual in America, more particularly in the Southern States, carries some deadly instrument, or weapon about his person. The stiletto, the dirk, or the bowie knife; some, perhaps, for the murderous and secret purpose of assassination; whilst many no doubt are compelled to adopt this usage . . . as their best and almost only defence from personal injury and violation.
In 1840, a British visitor to Texas, Captain Hamilton, had these observations:
Many murders were committed in the Island of Galveston and in the Country during my stay on the Coast, and I could never learn that one offender was brought to justice. It is considered  unsafe to walk through the Streets of the principal towns without  being armed.  The Bowie Knife is the weapon most in vogue . . .
A phrenologist who visited Mississippi in 1840 made far more conservative estimate as to the percentage of men armed with the bowie knife:
About one in forty of all the western people go thus armed. A law recently enacted, renders it criminal to draw a Bowie-knife, although it be not used. 
This is nearly the reverse of the estimate offered by the English traveler Edward Robert Sullivan:
There is hardly one man out of fifty from St. Louis right  down south, that does not always carry a bowie-knife or a revolver. 
In 1846,  English traveler George Warburton wrote:
The custom of carrying the bowie knife is universal in these southern States; even boys at school are not exceptions, and they not unfrequently have been known to use it for the settlement of their disputes.
Accounts by English visitors cannot be entirely trusted. They wrote for an audience that was fascinated by the violence and coarseness of the American South and West, and it's hard to believe some of these stories were not  exaggerated for effect.

We do know that immigrant parties heading West were well-armed---often to every man, woman, and boy. Frank King, who described his family's trip West in Wranglin' the Past, wrote: 
Our men were well-armed for those days. Father, Mr. Horn, and the man Richardson carried the long rim-fire 16-shot Henry rifles. Uncle Bud, James, and the “Dutchman” (that’s the only name I ever heard him called) were equipped with 50-caliber needle guns. All carried Bowie knives, and all wore 44-caliber cap-and-ball Colt six-shooters. Mother always had a big number ten muzzle-loading shotgun by her, well crammed with buckshot. Father gave me a Remington 38-caliber five-shooter pistol and a dirk knife.He told me, if we ever got into it, to die fighting like the rest intended doing. He said the men would look after the women and little girls. They had no intention of permitting any hostiles to capture the women and children alive.

In 1865, King's uncle Jack King fought with Robert Carlisle in a hotel lobby in Los Angeles. King wrote, “before my uncle Jack King and Carlisle were separated that night, Carlisle had cut my uncle seriously with one of those Bowie knives most men carried in those days. . . “
A settler in Nebraska in 1866 wrote that, “Everybody, (even, of  course, I) wears a revolver or so upon his person, usually  in plain sight in a belt. I do not mean they do at their  daily work, but no one thinks of going many miles in any  direction without pistols, and often bowie knives.” 

An account was published in 1870 once again suggested that nearly everyone was armed with either pistols, knives, or both:
Another custom which is queer enough at a proper distance is that of carrying arms. Such a thing is  scarcely known in New England or the settled Northern States, but in some parts of the South and South-west it seemed to me that almost everybody  carried some murderous weapon about with him.
Describing the arms commonly carried in Tombstone during his sojourn there, from 1879 to 1882, Wyatt Earp said, "Bowie knives were worn largely for utility's sake in a belt sheath back of the hip; when I came on the scene their popularity for purposes of offense was on the wane."

So what percentage of men carried bowie knives? Hard to say. Certainly more men carried and used them in fights than one would imagine from western movies, in which they're almost never shown.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Man With Bowie Knife Kills Eight?!

In History of the Oklahoma City Police Department, by Ed Hill and Ron Owen, we read:
In 1896 the Territorial Legislature passed a law making the Chief's post an elective one. The first elected Chief was Edward F. Cochran, serving his second term. Cochran had a force of 8 men and 3 bloodhounds to maintain some semblance of order.

Probably the highlight of his term occurred within a single week in 1897. The first incident occurred at Traylor's Saloon at 16 West California. Patrolman Ike Ashburn and two other officers got in a "free-for-all shootout" with a house full of drunks, leaving 6 dead. Chief Cochran strongly defended his officers and refused to "fire" them. A few days later, a repeat performance took place at The Bucket of Blood in the 800 block of East 1st. A berserk Mexican, brandishing a Bowie knife, killed 8 razor-toting patrons before being killed by an unnamed police officer.
This is the kind of throwaway line that drives the conscientious researcher crazy. If, in fact, a berserk Mexican killed 8 razor-toting patrons of the Bucket of Blood saloon in the course of a brawl, it would be one of the most remarkable feats of personal combat on record. Even in the waning years of the Old West, this would qualify as national news. However, my research in on-line newspaper archives turned up nothing to support this story, so I can't give it much credibility.

Ron Owen, the co-author of the book, has written several excellent books on law enforcement in Oklahoma, including a biography, Legendary Lawman: The Story of Quick Draw Jelly Bryce.

An Armed Society is a Polite Society

Stephen Johnson Field (1816 – 1899) was an associate justice of the United States Supreme Court from 1863 to 1897, and prior to that, the 5th Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court. In his autobiography, Personal Reminiscences of Early Days in California,  Judge Field described his habit of carrying arms in California in the early 1850s:
I have said that in those days everyone went armed; it would be more correct to say that this was true in the mining regions of the State and when travelling. I, myself, carried a Derringer pistol and a Bowie-knife until the Summer of 1854, though of course out of sight. I did so by the advice of Judge Mott, of the District Court, who remarked that, though I never abused a witness or a juror, or was discourteous to any one in court, there were desperate men in the country, and no one could know to what extremity they might go, as I would not be deterred by any considerations from the discharge of my whole duty to my clients. So, until the Summer of 1854, I carried weapons. And yet they were not such provocatives of difficulty as some of our Eastern friends are accustomed to think. On the contrary, I found that a knowledge that they were worn generally created a wholesome courtesy of manner and language.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Proper Ponunciation of "Bowie"

When I began my research on the bowie knife, I learned that, like many people, I had been mispronouncing the name of this iconic American weapon most of my life. “Bowie” rhymes with Louie, not with Joey. I suspect the confusion began in the mid 1960s, when an up-and-coming pop singer named David Jones had to give himself a stage name so as not to be confused with the lead singer of the Monkees. He was a fan of Mick Jagger, and, having heard that a Jagger (or Jaeger) was a type of knife, he decided to name himself after a knife as well.  David Jones became David Bowie. He just didn't bother to find out how his new name should be pronounced.

The proper pronunciation of the name was not in doubt in the late 1950s, when the short-lived television series “The Adventures of Jim Bowie” had the theme song, “Jim Boo-ie, Jim Boo-ie, he was a bold adventurin' man. . . ”

(BTW, notice that the opening shot of a thrown knife hitting a door was obviously faked: the knife travels straight across the screen, not turning an iota. The shot must have been matted together as a special effect, with a photograph of the knife being slid across the background. )

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Bowie Knife in Africa

Mary Henrietta Kingsley (1862-1900) was a British explorer who made two pioneering trips to West and Central Africa. She was the first European to enter remote parts of Gabon. In her book Travels in West Africa (1897) she had this to say about her choice of personal armament:
Always have your revolver ready loaded in good order, and have your hand on it when things are getting warm, and in addition have an exceedingly good bowie knife, not a hinge knife, because with a hinge knife you have got to get it open--hard work in a country where all things go rusty in the joints--and hinge knives are liable to close on your own fingers. The best form of knife is the bowie, with a shallow half moon cut out of the back at the point end, and this depression sharpened to a cutting edge. A knife is essential, because after wading neck deep in a swamp your revolver is neither use nor ornament until you have had time to clean it. But the chances are you may go across Africa, or live years in it, and require neither. It is just the case of the gentleman who asked if one required a revolver in Carolina and was answered, "You may be here one year, and you may be here two and never want it; but when you do want it you'll want it very bad."
Kingsley notes the problem with the folding knife, or "hinge knife" as she calls it: it's hard to open when you need it and it's prone to closing on your fingers. She mentions the importance of sharpening the false edge of the clip point of the bowie, but unfortunately doesn't give a reason. Among modern bowie knife aficionados, the sharpened false edge is considered to be a major feature, as it allows the knife-fighter to make a back cut. I have wondered whether people thought much about the back cut in the 19th century, and the accounts we have of fights are not sufficient detailed to determine this. Arms expert Norm Flayderman has examined hundreds--possibly thousands--of antique bowie knives, and recalls fewer than half having a sharpened false edge, so evidently its value was not obvious to everyone.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Madman With a Bowie Knife

In an article on the bowie knife in the Galveston Daily News (March 21, 1920), J. O. Dyer discounted the idea that James Bowie’s knife had some special property, writing: “Given a blade sharp enough to cut; long enough to penetrate; strong enough not to break readily; given also a hand strong enough to dexterously wield such a simple weapon, and it requires no Bowie record; such a one in the hands of a madman has often wreaked terrible execution.”

To illustrate his point, we have the case of a Mr. Jenkins, of Cairo, Illinois, who “went postal” one day January 1853, demonstrating that a madman with a bowie knife in each hand is not to be taken lightly. The article, from the Dixon Telegraph (January 22, 1853) states:
Yesterday was “estimate day,” with the hands laboring on the Cairo levees—Mr. Ellis, contractor, commenced making settlements, but his office soon became so completely jammed with creditors that he found it impossible to proceed unless he could clear it. He therefore requested the crowd to leave remarking that he would call them in and settle singly. They did not go. A Mr. Jenkins now ordered them out, and not having his orders properly noticed, rushed among them with a bowie knife in each hand, cutting right and left in an earnest and indiscriminate manner. He had seriously wounded two persons, and still was at his murderous work when an axe was buried in his head up to the helve, cleaving open his brains. He died soon afterwards. It is well perhaps that Mr. Jenkins was killed so soon, for his early death, no doubt, prevented him from taking a half dozen lives, so fierce and determined was his onslaught on the crowd. One of the persons he wounded will probably die. Mr. Jenkins was in the employ of Ellis, Jenkins & Co., and professed to be a doctor.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Bowie Duel from "The Long Riders"

A cinematic depiction of a bowie-knife duel from "The Long Riders," with David Carradine as Cole Younger. This type of duel, in which men fought tethered with a sash, like here, or with their left wrists tied together, was referred to as a "Mexican" or a "Helena" duel (for Helena, Texas, where they supposedly were frequent). They are popular with writers of fiction and screenplays, but if they ever occurred in real life I have yet to find credible evidence.

Sunday, October 3, 2010


By 1838, so great was the concern about the deadly bowie knife that it was banned in several Southern states. The hysteria surrounding the weapon amused more sober-minded people, as evidenced by the following satirical article published in the Vermont U.S. Gazette. Under the headline "SHOCKING ACCIDENT--TWO MEN KILLED"  it describes the tragic denouement of Mr. John Adams' attempt to cut open a wheel of cheese. His initial efforts to penetrate its hard wax rind having failed, he adopted a new strategy:

[Adams] therefore placed it edgeways on his breast, and taking a strong Bowy knife, on putting his right hand on the handle, and his left on the back near the point, he pulled with all his might; the knife slipped from the flinty surface of the cheese, cut John in halves, also his son, a lad of eighteen, who from fear got behind his father!

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Bowie-Knife Fighter: Byron Potter

Byron Potter, 27, had been working as a guard at the Freight Depot of the Michigan Southern Railroad for 14 months when, on April 5, 1857, he became involved in a desperate fight.
That evening a woman approached Potter and asked him to direct her to a respectable lodging, and he recommended the Exchange Hotel. There were a number of  “hotel runners” present, men whose job it was to persuade travelers to got to the hotel they worked for, and then take them there with their baggage. Such work was fiercely competitive, and at the time was dominated by Irish immigrants. One of the runners, Morris Geary, who worked for the Limerick House, berated Potter for presuming to direct the woman to a competing hotel, using “the most vulgar and profane language.”
As Geary continued his abuse, threatening to knock Potter's brains out, Potter arrested him and started to take him to the watch house. Geary resisted and struck Potter in the face, and a crowd of Irish runners came to his assistance. Jerry Shiner, keeper of the Limerick House and “a notorious rowdy,” seized Potter by the arms as the mob rescued the prisoner.
Potter then headed towards the freight house, but had not gotten far when Geary came up to him, grabbed him by the whiskers, and attempted to hit him in the face. At the same time, another runner, Patrick Brown, struck at Potter with a stick, and another, William Galvin, punched him above the eye. Meanwhile, a crowd of runners surrounded Potter, shouting, “Kill him! Kill him!”

The Chicago Daily Tribune reported, “Finding it impossible to beat off his assailants, the officer drew a large heavy bowie knife, and stabbed the three men who were nearest him - inflicting frightful wounds. This prompt and efficient action on the part of the officer so frightened the Irish that they fell back for a moment, enabling Potter to get so far in advance of his assailants that he reached the Exchange Hotel ahead of them. They followed after him, shouting, 'Catch him! Kill him! Cut his heart out!' etc.” 
Potter went directly through the hotel and out the back door, and then went to the First District Station House for assistance. The rioters cursed and yelled in front of the hotel for a while, but finding that Potter was gone, they went back to the Limerick House. Accompanied by four or five policemen, Potter went up to the Limerick House to learn the condition of the wounded men and arrest some of the rioters, but the crowd would permit no arrests to be made, and again tried to kill Potter. It was with difficulty that the officers protected him from the crowd.
The wounds Potter had inflicted were reported as follows: “Patrick Brown received a stab upon the right side of his body, about three inches in length and two and a half to three inches in depth. This wound was between the false and true ribs, just below the breast bone, the knife wounding the lower lobe of the lung and liver. He died in about three minutes after reaching the house, some five or six minutes after receiving the wound. . . Morris Geary, who commenced the fracas, received a terrible gash just below and a little to the left of the navel, through which his intestines protruded, and also a severe cut upon the wrist which severed the arteries. It is probable he will die. . . . William Galvin is wounded in the right side between the fifth and sixth ribs, the cut being an inch and a half wide by two inches deep. He will probably recover.”  
As it happened, Geary as well as Galvin recovered from his wounds. Potter was not charged with Brown's death, as it was determined that he had acted entirely in self-defense.