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Monday, February 28, 2011

Edwin Forrest and James Bowie

Edwin Forrest (1806-1872) 

A celebrated 19th-century stage actor, Edwin Forrest, claimed to have been a close friend of James Bowie when both lived in New Orleans; in fact, Forrest claimed that Bowie gave him the knife he had used at the Sandbar fight. Forrest made his claim at a time when the Bowie name had become famous and there is no independent evidence that the two ever knew each other. Perusing my copy of The Bowie Knife: Unsheathing an American Legend, I note that its author, Norm Flayderman, shares my suspicion that Forrest concocted his relationship with Bowie for purposes of self-aggrandizement. The "relationship" was described in several sycophantic biographies of Forrest. The following is from Edwin Forrest (1881), by Lawrence Barrett:
His associates, if we may trust his biographers, were not of a character to purify his nature or refine his manners. While an awful curiosity hovers about the inventor who gave his name to the bowie-knife, it seems unreasonable to attach any great importance to the friendship of the man upon that ground alone. He may have had qualities mitigating the ferocity which characterized his many bloody contests at arms, but these are not dwelt upon, and the only advantage which Forrest ever reaped from this intimacy was the possession of the identical knife which had played so prominent a part in the hands of Colonel Bowie. At least this is all the benefit which his biographers have shown as growing out of their friendship. At no time of Edwin Forrest's life did he need masculine or barbarian influence, — he always had a surplus in that direction, — and it would have been better for him could he have drawn his inspiration from the gentle and refining spirits which have ever animated the audiences and society of the Crescent City. He made his choice, and selected the coterie which was most congenial to him. We see in this no natural outcropping of a "Democratic" spirit; rather the haughty conceit of the self-made man who scorned to submit to judicious training. With Bowie, with a large-hearted, powerfully built, fighting steamboat captain (whose best exploit was not in conquering a crowd of loafers by his muscle, but in the tenderness of his care of Forrest when ill of the fever), with Push-ma-ta-ha, the Indian who is said to have suggested the production of "Metamora," and with other original spirits like these, Forrest passed his unoccupied time in New Orleans. They charmed the young athlete by their novel freedom, and he was too full of the warm blood of the barbarian himself to resist their fascination.
Bowie was a "steamboat captain"? Methinks the biographer had him confused with Mike Fink of flatboat fame. Also, Bowie tenderly nursed Forrest back to health when he was ill with a fever? Sounds unlikely, somehow.

The "original bowie knife" Forrest claimed was given to him by Bowie himself.

The following is from Life of Edwin Forrest, the American Tragedian, Volume 1 (1877), by William Rounseville Alger:
The one of Forrest's New Orleans friends first to be named is James Bowie, inventor and unrivalled wielder of that terrible weapon for hand-to-hand fights named from him the bowie-knife. He was a member of the aristocratic class of the South, planter, gentleman, traveller, adventurer, sweet-spoken, soft-mannered, poetic, and chivalrous, and possessed of a strength and a courage, a cool audacity and an untamable will, which seemed, when compared with any ordinary standard, superhuman. These qualities in a hundred conflicts never failed to bring him off conqueror. In heart, when not roused by some sinister influence, he was as open as a child and as loving as a woman. In soul high-strung, rich and free, in physical condition like a racing thoroughbred or a pugilist ready for the ring, an eloquent talker, thoroughly acquainted with the world from his point of view, he was a charming associate for those of such tastes, equally fascinating to friends and formidable to foes. As a personal competitor, taken nakedly front to front, few more ominous and magnificent specimens of man have walked on this continent.

His favorite knife, used by him awfully in many an awful fray, he presented as a token of his love to Forrest, who carefully preserved it among his treasured keepsakes. It was a long and ugly thing, clustering with fearful associations in its very look; plain and cheap for real work, utterly unadorned, but the blade exquisitely tempered so as not to bend or break too easily, and the handle corrugated with braids of steel, that it might not slip when the hand got bloody. Journeying in a stage-coach, in cold weather, after stopping for a change of horses a huge swaggering fellow usurped a seat belonging to an invalid lady, leaving her to ride on the outside. In vain the lady expostulated with him; in vain several others tried to persuade him to give up the place to her. At last a man who sat in front of the offender, so muffled and curled up in a great cloak that he looked very small, dropped the cloak down his shoulders, took his watch in his left hand, lifted a knife in his right, and, straightening himself up slowly till it seemed as if his head was going through the top of the coach, planted his unmoving eyes full on those of the intruder, and said, in a perfectly soft and level tone which gave the words redoubled power, "Sir, if within two minutes you are not out of that seat, by the living God I will cut your ears off!"

The man paused a few seconds to take in the situation. He then cried, "Driver, let me out! I won't ride with such a set of damned murderers!"

That was Bowie with his knife. Fearful, yet not without something admirable. Another anecdote of him will illustrate still better the atmosphere of the class of men under whose patronizing influence Forrest came in the company of his friend Bowie.

The plantations of Bowie and a very quarrelsome Spaniard joined each other. The proprietors naturally fell out. The Spaniard swore he would shoot Bowie on the first chance. The latter, not liking to live with such an account on his hands, challenged his neighbor, who was a very powerful and skilful fighter with all sorts of weapons and had in his time killed a good many men. The Spaniard accepted the challenge, and fixed the following conditions for the combat. An oak bench six feet long, two feet high, and one foot wide should be firmly fastened in the earth. The combatants, stark naked, each with a knife in his right hand, its blade twelve inches in length, should be securely strapped to the bench, face to face, their knees touching. Then, at a signal, they should go at it, and no one should interfere till the fight was done. The murderous temper of the arrangements was not more evident than the horrible death of one of the men or of both was sure. But Bowie did not shrink. He said to himself, "If the Spaniard's hate is so fiendish, why, he shall have his bellyful before we end."

All was ready, and a crowd stood by. Bowie may tell the rest himself, as he related it a dozen years after to Forrest, whose blood curdled while he listened:
"We confronted each other with mutual watch, motionless, for a minute or two. I felt that it was all over with me, and a slight chill went through my breast, but my heart was hot and my brain was steady, and I resolved that at all events he should die too. Every fight is won in the eye first. Well, as I held my look rooted in his eye, I suddenly saw in it a slight quiver, an almost imperceptible sign of giving way. A thrill of joy shot through my heart, and I knew that he was mine. At that instant he stabbed at me. I took his blade right through my left arm, and at the same time, by an upward stroke, as swift as lightning and reaching to his very spine, I ripped him open from the abdomen to the chin. He gave a hoarse grunt, the whole of his insides gushed out, and he tumbled into my lap, dead."
If Bowie told Forrest this story a dozen years afterward, one wonders when it could have occurred. It would have had to have predated the Sandbar Fight by four or five years, yet that would not correspond to the account of Bowie's life given by his brothers John and Rezin.


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  2. I Do like Both the Bowie and the Khukuri knife. Both have fascinating history

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  12. It's quite possible that Forrest was making up the story that he was a 'friend' of James Bowie, being a famous actor and raconteur it would be beneficial to be a friend of someone with as much legend and notoriety surrounding them as James Bowie.
    Forrest was an acknowledged collector of militaria and military blades, many of the characters he played and roles he became famous for were men of action including the fictional Indian Chief 'Metamora'.
    So this Edwin Forrest knife may or may not have come from James Bowie at all - but it could still be a genuine Shiveley built Bowie as Forrest was known to have visited many cities in the south including Natchez where Bowie was known to frequent as well as Philidelphia where Shiveley had his cutlery works.

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