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Friday, October 1, 2010

Riverboat Knife Fight

In 1897 an account of a knife fight on a Mississippi riverboat was published in a New Zealand newspaper, the Grey River Argus. New Zealand newspapers often reprinted lurid stories from America, New Zealand apparently suffering a shortage of lurid news of its own. There is no indication of where the article originally appeared and no author is listed. It was published in the form of a letter to the editor.

The correspondent claimed to have witnessed it on his first trip South, years before, as the boat was taking on freight in Helena, Arkansas.

I quote:
Tragic Affair in Arkansas

A man who has seen much of the rough life in America frontier settlements writes: -- “The first time I ever saw a man killed was killed was in a knife fight. I was standing on the upper deck of a Misissippi steamboat, some few years ago, on my first trip South. The boat had stopped at Helena, Ark., to take on freight, and I was watching the roustabouts bringing it aboard. It was a tremendously hot day in the late summer, and I, standing in the shade of an awning on the upper deck, looked down over the gangway and the lower deck in amazement to see how the poor devils could work as they did, for they ran to and fro like ants, while the mate of the boat stood shouting his orders and cursing them for their laziness. They didn’t seem to me to be lazy, but it is the fashion to call a roustabout so and to curse at him pretty steadily while he orks, just as a mule driver curses at his train on general principles.
            Most of the rousters were black, or partly negro, though there were a few who looked like white men, and probably were, and there was one fellow I thought had both Indian and negro blood in his veins. He was a strapping big man, and I noticed that while he carried as heavy a load each time as any of the others, he carried it without any perceptible effort and without the strain of muscle that the others showed. They were all stripped to the waist for the work, as ‘rousters’ generally are, or were then, in the hottest weather, and I noticed his physique with admiration. He looked the most powerful man in the gang.
            Suddenly he bumped against another man who was going off the boat for a fresh load as he was coming on with his. I could not see whose fault it was, or whether it was a pure accident, but in an instant he had thrown his load to the deck and struck at the other with his fist. The other man was a very black negro, and considerably smaller than the half-breed, but he was as quick as a cat and jumping backward he avoided the blow and stood on the defensive.
            He was very much on the defensive, too, for as he jumped he put his hand to his belt, and as he struck his attitude he held out a murderous knife with a blade almost if not quite ten inches long. It was a peculiar shaped knife, too, for a weapon, for I was straight and narrow, with a tapering point and only one edge, but the back was almost half an inch thick, and, of course, very heavy. It was almost like a chopping knife. I noticed, too, that he held it with the blade out from the thumb, as a man holds a sword. It is not the way a knife-fighter usually holds his weapon, and I understood, when I had time to think it over, why he wanted so heavy a knife, for some of his blows were delivered broadsword fashion, while others were thrusts.
            As I say, it was afterwards that I understood this. I had not time to reason it out until the affair was all over, for the half-breed whipped out his knife as quickly as the other, and jumped forward like a cat, in attack. His knife was a regular bowie, shorter of course, than the other man’s and much lighter, and he held it in the approved style, with the blade at the little finger side of the hand. They were together on the instant, and there was an instantaneous babel around them, for the other men yelled savagely as they crowded round, and the mate roared like a bull as he jumped toward them with the evident intention of separating them, or perhaps of knocking them down, lower deck fashion. Whatever his intention was, he abandoned it before getting between the two men, and I thought very wisely. From where I stood, just above them, I could see every motion, and I would as soon have jumped into the railroad collision as to have tried to interfere in that fight. It was very short, but while it lasted it was about the most exciting thing I ever saw.
            It was impossible for me, and I think it would have been for anyone, to follow all the motions of the two men, though I watched closely, for they were both skilful fighters, and their thrusts and parries were as quick as the finger of a prestidigitateur. It must have been less than a minute before it was all over, though it seemed a quarter of an hour as I watched. The half-breed made a feint at the other’s neck, as he jumped forward, but changed the direction of a blow as he delivered it, so that the thrust was really at his right side. The negro, however, parried it so well that the sparks flew as the two knives clashed. He parried with a downward stroke, and, swinging his arm round in a quick return, twisted his wrist over so as to bring his edge forward in a back-handed awkward-looking slash at the other’s jugular.
            Awkward as it looked, it was the wickedest blow I ever saw struck, and must have either been an inspiration or the result of long study and practice. His elbow was raised in bringing the knife back as he did, and the half-breed, unable to get his knife back quickly enough to parry after it had been struck downward, ducked just in time to save his neck, but got a glancing blow across the scalp that laid it open. Closing in, after this frightful beginning, they broke each other’s guard and stabbed and slashed till both fell. The half-breed’s knife was driven squarely into the negro’s heart, and his victim never moved after he fell. ‘Twas a victory, however, for the negro, as he got his death blow, avenged himself with a terrific slash across the throat and half beheaded his enemy, and after a few seconds and one or two convulsive shudders, he, too, was dead.
I'm not sure what to make of this story. The odd details give it an aura of authenticity--why would the author make up the “chopping knife” described, rather than make it a dagger or bowie, and why try to describe the awkward-looking backhand slash? On the other hand, there is that telltale Ned Buntline-ism, “sparks flew as the two knives clashed.” Also, why does the writer find it odd that the black man held his knife “as a man holds a sword”? He claims this “is not the way a knife-fighter usually holds his weapon,” while the one he calls the half-breed held his “in the approved style,” that is, in a reverse grip. This was the opposite of the conventional wisdom at the time.

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