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Monday, November 15, 2010

Bowie-Knife Fighter: Anthony J. Drexel Biddle

Unfortunately, I can't find a copy of the picture taken two seconds after this one, when Colonel Biddle knocked all those Marines flat on their asses.

Anthony J. Drexel Biddle, Sr. (1874–1948) was one of the most interesting characters in the history of American knife-fighting. He was a member of Philadelphia's upper crust, an amateur boxer who sparred with many top professionals, evangelist of "muscular Christianity," Marine officer, friend of Theodore Roosevelt, and hand-to-hand trainer for the USMC until age 70. In addition to several children's books, Biddle wrote the hand-to-hand combat manual "Do or Die," still available from Paladin Press. He was the subject of a Walt Disney film, "The Happiest Millionaire."

Here is a short article about Biddle published in April 1914:
Drexel Biddle, the millionaire amateur boxer and organizer of Bible classes is back from a trip through the Canadian wilds, where he organized six Bible classes. One of the innovations introduced by Biddle in all these classes is friendly boxing. In the course of his bouts with the Canadian lumberjacks he had three of his teeth knocked out.
Here is an article published in March 1942:
Great Granddaddy Biddle -- A Tough Guy
And That's Something You Don't Have To Tell To The Marines

When the marine corps wanted to teach its toughest troops the finer points of hand-to-hand killing, America's deadliest great-grandfather was called back to active duty.

Col. A. J. Drexel Biddle, M.D.-- doctor of mayhem--is teaching this war's crop of leathernecks the three B's--bayonet, bowie knife and bare hands, and there's nothing great-grandfatherly about the way he explains the better methods of fracturing arms, legs and skulls.

"Now here's a nice way of breaking a leg if you're unarmed and a man comes at you with a bayonet," he says, throwing himself on the ground. With a faster-than-eye flip of his feet he demonstrates a simple job of knee-cracking.

Bone-breaking, though, is considered rather crude in the three B's. Precise military workmen prefer bayonet and bowie knife technique. "Very discouraging, a cut throat," the colonel explains.

Col. Biddle, an internationally known swordsman for 50 years, has adapted the classic strokes of fencing to bayonet fighting. His knife-fighting research goes back to the days of gladiators in the Roman coliseum. His "inquartarta" thrust, taught to the marines, was introduced 3,000 years ago by Gallic knife fighters.

There's a certain delicacy about the Biddle technique. He explains carefully that the bayonet should be held flat for a Grade-A ventilating job.

"It comes out easily if it's held flat," he tells his boys. "If you hold it upright, it sometimes sticks between the ribs. Very messy.”

This Col. Biddle is a many-sided man. He springs from an aristocratic clan that practically invented staid old Philadelphia.

On his "correct," or Philadelphia, side, he has written books like "A Froggy Fairy Tale" and travel volumes suited for young Philadelphia gentlemen. What he's done on the "active" side probably would make moss-backed "Main Line" dowagers throw conniption fits.

He went to grade school in Spain. That’s where he first became interested in knife fighting. “You had to learn to stab your little friends, or they stabbed you," he recalls, "Sometimes, if you cut a playmate very badly, the teacher sent you home."

He was a sparring partner of Heavyweight Champion Bob Fitzsimmons. He's one of the few men alive who knows the famous Fitzsimmons shift and solar plexus wallop. [See below.]  Ruby Robert, Biddle declares, was every inch a gentleman--"Whenever he put a man in hospital, he always sent flowers and a nice note.” 
The colonel learned Jiu Jitsu after he was 50. He's an authority on Cossack, Spanish and other knife techniques, but thinks Col. Bowie of American frontier fame evolved the best method, because it follows closely the conventions of fencing.

Mrs. Biddle, slim, trim and vivacious, is her husband's best pupil and the "active" Biddle tradition is carried on by their children. Anthony, jr., is now ambassador to the United Nations in exile. As American minister to Poland when the Germans came, he led an historic trek of Americans out of the beleagured country. A grandson is a naval officer in the Atlantic. Now there are great-grandchildren to carry on the tradition.

What a thrill for the kiddies to hear him say, “Climb up on great-granddaddy’s knee and he’ll show you how to break it.”
Biddle's knife-fighting methods are considered out-dated, as they rely too heavily on the conventions of fencing. There is a good article on Biddle here.

Biddle demonstrated the Fitzsimmons Shift and Solar Plexus Wallop to Robert Myers, a reporter for Leatherneck Magazine, who wrote about it for the March 1943 issue: "He showed it to me, but luckily he pulled his punches. He threw a right that was almost a hook. If it landed, well and good. If it doesn't-follow on through, your right foot stepping forward and somewhat behind your opponent's left leg, virtually pinning it momentarily. Your left hand, meanwhile, held close to the body, is well down, almost to the floor. Come up quickly, your right elbow barely missing your opponent's face and your left-a terrific punch following the momentum of the shoulder movement-lauds in the solar plexus. This ought to drop your opponent dead as a sack of cement, but if you lower your left and come up again quickly, you can smash him on the point of the jaw as his body falls toward you. 'This drives the jaw bones into the brain and you can kill a man,' the colonel explained lightly."
By the way, if the Biddle name sounds familiar, you may be recalling his relative Sidney Biddle Barrows, the so-called "Mayflower Madam," procuress to the rich and powerful who hit the news in the 1980s.

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