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Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Pros and Cons of the Bowie Among Gentlemen

Senator Benjamin Tillman; as a young man his left eye was removed after an illness.

In April 1902, Sen. Hernando D. Money of Mississippi got in an altercation with a streetcar conductor in Washington, DC, and stuck him with a pocket knife. He inflicted no serious injury but was charged with assault. To get a comment on the matter a journalist purportedly interviewed Money’s colleague, Sen. Benjamin Tillman of South Carolina. Why Tillman? The senator had made news only two months earlier for punching his state's junior senator in the jaw on the senate floor during an altercation, and was known for his bombastic style.
An Expert Opinion On Senator Money's Belligerency
Asked for an expert opinion on Senator Money's fight with the street car conductor, Senator Tillman to-day said: "I do not regard it as a creditable performance. If a man fights his inferior in social standing, he must lick him. Society tolerates no excuse. Inferiority in social standing presupposes inferiority all along the line. If a man fights his social equal and gets licked, he can still hold his head up, that is, if it has not been knocked clean off his shoulders, and plead that nature hasn't so extravagantly endowed him with the qualifications of a prize fighter as she has his opponent. It is perfectly permissible under such circumstances to lay your licking onto nature. The court of public opinion smiles as it accepts the plea and discharges the defendant, but that is the end of the case.

"If your social inferior jumps onto you and licks you, the fight not being of your own choosing, you can call it a murderous assault by a vicious brute, and that line of defense goes, too. But when you are the aggressor and deliberately fight an inferior, you have got to lick him, and lick him with emphasis and particularity, or your prestige as a gentleman looks rather worse than you yourself do at the end of the fight.

"If you can't lick him any other way, draw a gun. The idea of Senator Money drawing a common clasp knife! And Money calling himself a gentleman and a southerner! There might be some excuse for a bowie knife, although bowie knives as a feature of gentlemanly encounters are obsolete in all but the rural districts of Kentucky. The bowie knife is analogous to the tomahawk. To modern eyes it is simply grotesque. Yet it possesses obvious merits if one knows how to use it. If you stick it into your antagonist at the right spot, it is long enough for you to twist it round and round in his spurting bowels, greatly to his pain, discomfort, and disadvantage.

"The work of the common pocket knife, on the other hand, is superficial and valueless. There are only one or two vital spots it can reach under the most favoring circumstances. In the thick of an engagement it is preposterous for you to ask your antagonist to stretch out his neck and hold it still long enough for you to locate the jugular vein find make the necessary incision, with absolute accuracy."
I suspect that Tillman's response was imagined rather than transcribed, and that some Yankee rascal was responsible.

Mark Twain also tweaked the South Carolina senator, writing, "I don't like Tillman. His second cousin killed an editor, three years ago, without giving that editor a chance to defend himself. I recognize that it is almost always wise, and is often in a manner necessary, to kill an editor, but I think that when a man is a United States Senator he ought to require his second cousin to refrain as long as he can, and then do it in a handsome way, running some personal risk himself."


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