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Saturday, January 8, 2011

Bowie Knife Murder in Brooklyn

The following account of a vicious bowie knife murder in Brooklyn in 1872 is from Recollections of a New York Chief of Police (1887), by George Washington Walling. Contrary to popular opinion, use of the bowie knife was not restricted to the South and West.
I do not remember a bloodier assassination than that of Nicholas W. Duryea by John E. Simmons, outside Sutherland's restaurant on Liberty Street, on the 16th of December, 1872. Duryea represented a Brooklyn clique of policy players. Simmons was one of the Simmons Brothers -- "Eph," John E. and William C. -- who conducted a Kentucky lottery at No. 17 Liberty Street. There had been bad blood between Duryea and Simmons for some time. On the evening in question they were to have a business talk, and settle some important matters.

What really occurred at this interview will never fully be known. It was certainly not satisfactory to Simmons, for when the two men left the office they came to blows. In the struggle both men fell, Simmons being the "under dog." They rolled on the sidewalk for half a minute, when Duryea cried out: "G-d d--- you, fight fair! Let me up!"

Simmons's only response was to draw a huge, glittering bowie-knife, sharp as a razor on both edges. With a pumping motion, he thrust the shining weapon into Duryea's body as often as the nervous motion of the assassin's arm would permit.

"Golly! It was red hot!" said a little boot-black afterward, who was asked to describe the fight to the coroner's jury.

After the first lunge of the knife Duryea said little. When his opponent continued to stab, there was a muffled groan of "murder!" and Duryea offered no further resistance. Simmons tried to rise, but the stabbing had been so fierce and so promiscuous that nearly all the life-blood in Duryea's body had been let out, and the sidewalk was covered with the slippery crimson fluid. In rising, Simmons slipped in his foe's blood and fell and fractured one of his ankles. This did not prevent him from shrieking exultingly over his bleeding victim: "Now I've got the best of you!"

He was led to a chair in Sutherland's restaurant, sat down and calmly awaited arrest. The horrible tragedy and his own personal peril did not appear to affect him nearly as much as the condition of his ankle. He repeatedly asked when the surgeon would come, and when an officer walked into the restaurant and made him a prisoner, he asked whiningly when he could be attended to. He had to be carried to the Second Precinct station-house, where Captain Caffrey was in command. Duryea's body had been taken there, and was a hideous sight. Before the combat he had been splendidly attired in the finest linen, with diamonds in his shirt front, a $100 overcoat with a fur collar on his back and patent leather boots on his feet. Now he was one mass of gore. Blood flowed from sixteen wounds.

Dr. F. Le Roy Satterlee attended Simmons's foot, and sent him to the Park Hospital under guard. The knife with which the deed was committed was not found until lanterns were procured; and it was then discovered that Simmons's energy had been so great that the keen point of the weapon had been broken off in Duryea's body.

Simmons had many daring friends, and a plot was arranged to take him by force from the Park Hospital. This plan was frustrated by his being removed to Bellevue under a strong guard. By no means discouraged, his friends influenced Coroner Patsy Keenan to hold a mock inquest at the hospital. Simmons, however, was not smart enough to get out of town, possibly because the bones of his ankle were not entirely knitted. So District Attorney Samuel B. Garvin was able to override the coroner and get the murderer re-arrested. He was tried, convicted and served an inadequate term in the State prison. He is now a gambler in this city.
The New York Times, which gave ample coverage to the crime and subsequent trial, provided this interesting detail:
When the officer reached the scene of the tragedy, a search was made for the weapon, resulting in its being found in the front cellarway, having evidently been coolly dropped through the iron grating. It proved to be a bowie-knife made by Rodgers, of Birmingham, England, the blade of which was six inches long. Near the spot where Duryea's body had lain was a scabbard of scarlet Russian leather, fitting the knife exactly. The blade of the knife was covered with blood, and the point was broken off. . . . The brass tip of the scabbard was off when the sheath was found at the scene of the murder by Officer Webber. Simmons may have carried the knife for months before and never dreamed that the little brass tip of the scabbard would prove him a murderer. On returning to the Station-house with the knife and scabbard, Officer Webber handed them to Capt. Caffrey. Simmons, who was in the rear room of the Station-house, was at once searched. His watch and chain, and pocket-knife were taken from him. And just as the search was being given over, down in the pocket of his overcoat was found the little brass tip of the scabbard. It fitted the scabbard perfectly and completed the chain of evidence.
Hmm, what the Police Chief described as "a huge, glittering bowie-knife" had a blade six-inches long. I would regard six inches as the bare minimum length for a knife to be called a bowie. As far as I'm concerned,  huge bowies start at ten inches and above. An average person would describe a Cold Steel Natchez Bowie as huge.

The Cold Steel Natchez Bowie, top, is "huge." The Cold Steel Laredo Bowie, below, is "large."


  1. The tip of the scabbard inside the overcoat pocket ?? How was Simmons carrying a fixed blade knife with a 6" blade and an overall length of about 11" in the pocket of the overcoat ? How could he draw the knife, during a struggle, from that location, with one hand, without drawing also the scabbard on the blade ??

  2. The blade was strapped to his hip and thigh ( gunfighter style) an opening in the bottom of the pocket allowed the handle to pass through into the pocket.. a good fall / winter fighting rig.