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Thursday, December 23, 2010

Check Your Bowie Knife at the Door

Sir Edward R. Sullivan, an Englishman who visited America in 1850, left an account of "quadroon balls" in New Orleans in his 1852 book Rambles and Scrambles in North and South America. (Quadroon balls were social events, usually requiring paid admission, at which white men could meet and socialize with mixed-race women. There is a lengthy Wikipedia article on the subject here.)
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.

I made a point of going to some of the quadroon balls. . . . These balls take place in a large saloon: at the entrance, where you pay half a dollar, you are requested to leave your implements, by which is meant your bowie-knifes and revolvers; and you leave them as you would your overcoat on going into the opera, and get a ticket with their number, and on your way out they are returned to you. You hear the pistol and bowie-knife keeper in the arms-room call out, "No. 46 - a six-barrelled repeater."

"No. 100 - one eight-barrelled revolver, and bowie knife with a death's-head and cross-bones cut on the handle."

"No. 95- a brace of double-barrels."

All this is done as naturally as possible, and you see fellows fasten on their knives and pistols as coolly as if they were tying on a comforter or putting on a coat.
As I was going upstairs, after getting my ticket, and replying to the quiet request, "whether I would leave my arms" that I had none to leave, I was stopped and searched from head to foot by a policeman, who, I suppose, fancied it impossible that I should be altogether without arms. Notwithstanding all this care murders and duels are of weekly occurrence at these balls, and during my stay at New Orleans there were three. There are more murders here than in any other city in the Union. In the first place, everybody drinks hard, and every man is armed; and a man who does not avenge an insult on the spot is despised. It is a word and a blow, and not unfrequently the blow without the word.
In his 1839 travelogue, A Diary in America: With Remarks on its Institutions, Frederick Marryat commented on how easily the security at the New Orleans dancehalls was sidestepped:
To shew, however, how difficult it is to eradicate bad habits, a gentleman told me that it being the custom when the Quadroon balls were given at New Orleans, for the police to search every person on entering and take away his bowie-knife, the young men would resort to the following contrivance. The knives of a dozen perhaps were confided to one, who remained outside; the others entered, and being searched, were passed; they then opened one of the ballroom windows, and let down a string, to which the party left outside fastened all their knives as well as his own; they were hauled up; he then entered himself, and each person regained his knife. The reason for these precautions being taken by the police was, that the women being all of colour, their evidence was not admissible in a court of justice; and no evidence could be obtained from the young men, should a murder have been committed. 

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