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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]

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