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Saturday, February 26, 2011

Fighting With the Straight Razor

While I was researching bowie knife fighting, I came across a fair amount of material on another aspect of knife fighting in America, that of razor fighting.  A few representative news stories are reprinted below. As you will note, the use of the razor as a weapon was associated primarily with African Americans, for reasons I will attempt to explain. It is generally not my practice to censor racially insensitive language in primary source material, but I did replace a certain term with "n-----".
Dallas Morning News (October 18, 1887)
Texarkana, Ark. At a dance a few miles west of here Saturday night, given by Jim Young, colored, two negroes, named John C. Breckinridge and Monroe Ross, got into a difficulty over a woman whom Ross had carried there. Breckinridge wanted to dance with her, but Ross insisted on monopolizing her. Ross beat his antagonist severely on the head with a chair and broomstick, but Breckenridge finally got in his work with a razor and cut Ross, the blade entering behind the left ear and coming around to the front, making a gash five inches long, severing an artery and just missing the jugular vein. Breckenridge is in jail and Ross lies in a critical condition.
Dallas Morning News (May 20, 1893)
Brenham, Tex. At 4 o'clock this afternoon Jim Sutton, an officer of Austin county, whose home is said to be at Sealy, while walking down the street came upon Henry Lee, a negro, who was standing near the corner of Sandy and Ant streets. Sutton hauled away and cuffed the negro in the face. Lee then pulled out a razor and began carving Sutton, and Sutton reached in his hip pocket to pull his pistol, but Lee caught his wrist with his left hand and prevented him from drawing it, while with his right he slashed Sutton pretty severely, cutting his throat to rags and making three long deep gashes across the back and left side, and also cutting his left ear nearly off his head.     
At this juncture bystanders interfered and took their weapons away. After this they continued fighting with rocks, chasing one another up and down the street, the white man hitting the negro in the face one time and the negro returning the compliment until both were as bloody as beeves. This amusement was kept up about ten minutes or more before any officer arrived, when finally Constable Boyd reached the scene and arrested them. The negro was locked in jail and Sutton was carried to Luhn's drug store, where Drs. Styles and Young dressed his wounds. Sutton, being asked why he slapped the negro, replied that he (Lee) had been monkeying with his affairs and interfering with his business for several years and he had got tired of it.

Brooklyn Eagle (July 10, 1897)
Greenwood, Ark. A dance was hold at the home of Frank Finn, a miner, near the Austrian camp, last night, at which beer flowed freely. Tom Sturgai and Anthony Dollar became involved in a difficulty over a woman. When the dance was over Sturgai followed Dollar to his room and a bloody fight began. Sturgai used a long knife and Dollar defended himself with his razor. The candle was extinguished and the deadly combat continued in the dark until Sturgai lay dead, literally cut to pieces, and Dollar was fatally wounded, having received fifteen knife thrusts. The room in which the fight took place presented a gruesome sight when the duel was over, blood being spattered all over the floor, walls and furniture. Dollar's razor blade was found embedded in the body of his victim.

Brooklyn Eagle (July 20, 1901)
During a race riot that took place last night on the Bowery, Coney Island, several colored men and one white man were severely slashed with razors and knives and another negro was rendered unconscious with a brick. The police were called out to quell the riot and several of them found it a difficult undertaking, as they had to pick their way between the negroes who were running about armed with razors. The white man who was cut is Paul Matley, a special policeman who is employed at Lawrence's concert hall, at the corner of Bowery and Jones' walk, and in front of which place most of the cutting was done. Lots of blood was spilled and the boardwalks are well sprinkled with it.     
The row was started by two negroes who began to fight, it is said, over one of the colored soubrettes [dancers] employed in the concert hall. One of these men named Cook drew a razor and commenced to slash the other fellow and then the latter's friends went to his rescue. Matley and another special policeman employed at the place soon heard the noise outside the pavilion and they ran out in time to see several negroes brandishing razors. Cook soon received his quietus by being cut in the neck with a razor and Matley was then set upon by a crowd of negroes, who downed him and cut him about the head and face. His hand was also badly slashed near the wrist.      
The regular police were all this time busily engaged in trying to break some heads and they were somewhat successful. A waiter named Sullivan was badly hurt and it was said his skull was fractured. Matley was attended to at the Emergency Hospital, where it is said fourteen stitches were taken in his face and head.

Dallas Morning News (August 20, 1908)
Corsicana, Tex. Last night Will Morris and Lee Evans, negro section hands on the Trinity and Brazos Valley [Railroad], fought desperately, one using a knife and the other a razor. When hostilities had ceased both were terribly slashed and bloody. The fight occurred some distance from town and Evans walked to town, where he received medical aid, thirty-six stitches being necessary to close the wounds he had received. Morris also left the scene, saying he, too, was coming to town to a physician, but he has not been seen or heard from.

Moberly Daily Monitor (August 5, 1915)
But for the fact that the point of the razor being wielded by his antagonist caught on the point of his chin, there would have been a dead negro in Moberly today, and a murder to chronicle in the news.

The negro came here from Mexico yesterday to celebrate Emancipation Day. Late yesterday evening he visited a house on East Rollins street where the Moberly negroes congregate and became engaged in an argument with a strange darkey. The latter pulled out a razor and started to work. He cut the Mexican man's throat from a point under the left ear to a point on his left cheek bone. Had he not given the razor an artistic upward thrust, the Mexico man would have been killed. But the razor stuck into the point of his cheek bone, and the negro's assailant fled. He has not since been found by the police.    The injured negro was given medical treatment and it is said will recover from his wound.
So stereotypical was the image of African Americans fighting with the razor that it seemed to startle journalists when other groups utilized that weapon. In 1893, in New York, when an Irishman named Timothy McDermott murdered George Clancy with a straight razor, the incongruity was deemed worthy of note by the Brooklyn Eagle, which reported:
It is not often that an Irishman commits murder with a razor. The negro is supposed to have a monopoly of that weapon for purposes of bloodshed, just as the Italian is understood to have a monopoly of the stiletto, the American of the pistol and the Frenchman of the garrotte. Race characteristics and prejudices may be easily traced in the weapons which ornament the offices of our public prosecuting officers, and assassination with a sword cane or razor by an Irishman is as much of a novelty as murder with a club in the hands of an inhabitant of Chili or Peru. McDermott's use of the razor was extremely dexterous. He slashed the victim five times, every cut being on the hips and three of them going to the bone.
In 1902, the Brooklyn Eagle revisited this theme in a tongue-in-cheek report of another case involving an Irishman and the razor:
Sylvester Hanley of 422 Chauncey street accused his brother George in the Gates Avenue Court this morning of flourishing a razor and threatening him.
“Are you boys Irish?” asked Magistrate Watson.
“Aye,” responded Sylvester, “we are of Irish descent.”
“I thought the colored race had a monopoly in the razor line,” commented the magistrate. “A person with Irish blood in his veins using a razor for fighting purposes! Isn't that an anomaly?” continued the magistrate, turning to Court Officer Sheedy.

“Axes would be more in order,” responded the officer.

“Will your honor allow me to withdraw the charge?” asked the complainant at this juncture.
“For the honor of a noble race I will,” said the magistrate as he dismissed the proceedings.
So routinely were African Americans believed to be equipped with a razor that an article in an 1871 issue of the Fort Wayne Daily Sentinel demonstrated the point with the following, probably apocryphal, anecdote:
Two gentlemen were uptown in a [street]car, when they got to talking about the habit negroes had of carrying razors. One gentleman offered to bet that a negro sitting near him had a razor in his pocket. The bet was taken, and to find out, the gentleman sitting next to the negro pretended that something was the matter with his boot. Turning to the darkey, he said, “Johnny, let me take your razor a minute to cut off this piece of loose leather.”

The n----- pulled out a murderous looking razor and handed it to the gentleman, who won the bet. It is best not to step on a n-----'s heel, if you don't want a Suez canal cut into you.
Want a straight razor of your own? There's a company named Zowada Custom Knives that makes exquisite Damascus-steel straight razors (for shaving only, of course!).

That the African American seemed to gravitate to the razor is not hard to understand. After the Civil War, laws were passed throughout the South that limited the rights of blacks to keep or bear arms legally. For example, in Mississippi the law stated that "any freedman, free Negro, or mulatto, not in the military service of the United States nor having a specified license, who should keep or carry firearms of any kind or any ammunition, dirk, or bowie-knife should be punished by a fine of not over ten dollars, and all such arms, etc., should be forfeited to the informer." The law further provided that, "if any white person lent or gave a freedman, free Negro, or mulatto any firearms, ammunition, dirk, or bowie-knife, such white person should be fined not over fifty dollars, or imprisoned not over thirty days."

However, the razor, an indispensable tool of personal hygiene, could not realistically be banned as a weapon. A black man could buy one without arousing suspicion and it was so flat as to be undetectable when kept in a pocket. Later, this oversight would be addressed by making it illegal to carry a razor unless one was also carrying a shaving brush--an item much more difficult to conceal.

 The razor can be held in such a way as to expose only a small amount of the cutting edge.

The razor made a less-than-ideal weapon due to its blunt tip, non-locking blade, and the temper of its steel which, while it held a good edge, was brittle.  However, it did have certain qualities to recommend it, such as its small size, its concealability, the ease with which it could be hidden in the hand until brought into action,  and finally, the fact that the user could exercise some control over the seriousness of the wounds he inflicted depending on how he held the blade.

In The Field of Honor (1883), by Ben Truman, the use of the razor is described by a black policeman:
How is an attack made with a razor? Rough-and-tumble, any way to get there. If the man who is attacked doesn't turn and run, he gets slashed in the face and arms, or both. If he tries to run away he is likely to get a rake in the back which will lay open the flesh so wide that the surgeon can look through the man's ribs into his interior like a small boy peeping through the pickets of an orchard fence. A razor is a terrible weapon. I would rather face a revolver than one of them any day.
Though African Americans were forced to rely on a weapon far less effective than the bowie knife, their purported skill with it soon became legendary.  Two old racial jokes relied on the listener being familiar with the black man’s reputed expertise with the razor. One goes like this:
During the trench warfare of World War I, there was a Negro soldier who begged for permission to go into action armed with his razor "What chance would you have with a razor against a Boche?" asked his captain.
"I'll take ma chances, boss," replied the Negro soldier. 
"The Boche'll get you, sure as shootin'," said the captain, but at last he gave his permission. During the next trench raid, the Negro took a mighty swipe at a German with his razor. "Ha, ha," laughed the German, "you never touched me!"

"Oh, yeah?" answered the Negro. "Just try shakin' yoah head."
Another story:
A black man in a shiny new Cadillac pulls into an Alabama gas station during the worst days of Jim Crow and says, "Fill 'er up." 
Sitting on a bench out front, the gas station owner, drawls, “We don’t serve yoah kind heah.”
With that, he takes an apple off a tray beside him, throws it in the air, and draws and fires his pistol, putting a hole through it.

The black man then walks over, takes another apple from the tray, throws it in the air, and tosses his razor after it. In a few seconds the razor drops back into his hand and the apple lands back on the tray--peeled, cored, and cut into eight neat slices.

The gas station owner stands up and says, “Will that be regular or high test, suh?”
Oddly enough, in his  memoir Luck on the Wing (1920), an American WW I veteran,  Elmer Haslett, describes meeting a German veteran whose war-time experience seems to validate the first joke.
There was one real character on the train -- a hard-boiled Feldwebel, which was the German name for Sergeant-Major, and corresponding pretty largely to our First Sergeant of the line. . . . With great pride he told us of all the battles he had been in since the beginning of the war . . . . He, himself, had specialized in bayonet fighting and proudly stated that he was one of the best bayonet fighters in the whole German Army, to which fact all the others agreed. He said that with his blade he had whipped four Russians single handed; that unassisted he had cleaned up on four Italians, and he pointed to a coveted ribbon as a recognition of his feat; that at Arras he had gotten the better of three Englishmen, and he pointed to still another ribbon; and that at Verdun, in the early days, he had even bested three Frenchmen in a deadly bayonet combat; and he had individual bayonet victories galore; "but," he said, throwing up his hands and laughing good naturedly, "an American gave me this -- a negro," and he showed me a bronze button that he wore for having been wounded in defense of the Fatherland. He opened his blouse and shirt collar and showed us a long scar along his neck and shoulder. I had heard conflicting stories as to the fighting qualities of the American negro, so I asked him to explain how it happened. He said it was during a raid near Verdun; the negroes were, undoubtedly, in training with the French Foreign Legion in that sector. It started with a regular bayonet fight in which he quickly knocked the bayonet and rifle from the negro's hands, but as the Feldwebel was just about to give the final fatal stab the negro pulled out the proverbial razor from somewhere. The scar was the final result. He dramatically summed it up by telling us that he would willingly fight the Russians, the Italians, the Englishmen and the Frenchmen at unequal odds, at any time or place, but he was absolutely through with all Americans because they were crazy; they didn't care whether they got killed or not. "The colored troops, as a whole, are poor fighters," he said, in words to that effect, "but the American negro is the exception -- he fights, and fights dirty."
For more information on razor-fighting technique, see James Keating's excellent on-line article "Razor Fighting."


  1. Thank you for the fantastic article. The place else
    could anyone get that kind of info in such a perfect means
    of writing? I have a presentation next week, and I am at
    the search for such information.

  2. Check out the James Keating link. Beyond that, I don't know what you're looking for.

  3. Straight Razor shaving is the most traditional way to get your shave smooth and shine and give you a unique look. For more information about straight razors
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  4. A Men Razor is a bladed tool primarily used in the removal of unwanted body hair through the act of shaving.

  5. Following the same line of thought that associated black people to the razor,americans to the pistol ,italians to the stiletto and french with the garrotte, what would be the others weapons associated with certains nationlities? I am sincerely curious,especially about the russians,the english ,the irish and the spanish-mexicans