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This blog contains additional information about the bowie knife, as well as the fighting knives of other nations.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Inscriptions on Blades

There was an article in the New York Times on May 29, 1881, on inscriptions on sword and knife blades. It mentions several that have appeared in earlier posts at this blog, as well as a few new ones.
Inscriptions on Swords
In the Dresden Museum a sword bears, in an antiquated German, the tenderly swaggering advice: "Conrad, dear Schenk, remember me. Do not let Winterstetten the Brave leave one helm uncleft." The sword of Hugues de Chateaubriand flashed in the sunlight the noble motto won by his ancestor in the fight at Bouvines, "Mon sang teint les bannières de France" [My blood tints the banners of France]. In the Erbach collection is an old Ferrara blade, with the sage advice, "My value varies with the hand that holds me." A sword in the Paris Cabinet de Médailles is reverently inscribed, "There is no conqueror but God." The rapiers of Toledo were engraved in the hundreds with the wise council, "Do not draw me without reason, do not sheathe me without honor." The invocations of saints are very frequent, and so are the prayers, like "Do not abandon me, O faithful God," which is on a German sword in the Az collection at Linz; and ejaculations, like the Arabic,"With the help of Allah I hope to kill my enemy." There are vaunting mottoes, like the Spanish, "When this viper stings, there is no cure in the doctor's shop"; and pompous pronouncements, like the Sicilian, "I come"; and critical observations, like the Hungarian, "He that thinks not as I do thinks falsely"; and matter-of-fact declarations like "When I go up you go down," (only that is on an axe). This cutler poetry, as Shakespeare called it, presents itself all over Europe, in all languages, mixed up with the maker's address or the owner's arms. And so, if you go to Toledo now and buy a dozen blades for presentation to your friends at home, you have their names engraved upon the steel, with some sonorous Castillian phrase of friendship and gift-offering.
Of these, my favorite is "My value varies with the hand that holds me." However, it's hard to beat the inscription swordsmith Maestro Paul MacDonald reports having seen on a dirk in the National Museum of Scotland: "If yew would have me - then kiss my maisters arse and tak me."

By the way, the reference to "cutler poetry" comes from Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice:
Gratiano: About a hoop of gold, a paltry ring
That she did give me; whose posy was
For all the world, like cutler's poetry
Upon a knife, Love me, and leave me not.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Jim Beckwourth's Bowie Knife Adventure

James Pierson Beckwourth (1798 -- 1866)

Jim Beckwourth was born in Virginia to a white slave owner and a mulatto slave. He later moved to the West where he became a noted mountain man, fur trader, and explorer. He lived with the Crow Indians for a number of years, and is credited with the discovery of Beckwourth Pass through the Sierra Nevada Mountains during the gold rush years.

Late in life he related his recollections to Thomas D. Bonner, and his story was published as The Life and Adventures of James P. Beckwourth, Mountaineer, Scout, Pioneer (1856). In it he gives this description of a bowie-knife scrap, which stemmed from the fact that a large party of whites led by Thomas "Broken Hand" Fitzpatrick was looted by Crows when Beckwourth was living with the tribe, though he did his best to stop it:
It now comes in the order of relation to describe two or three unpleasant rencounters I had with various parties in St. Louis, growing out of the misunderstanding (already related) between the Crows and Mr. Fitzpatrick's party. I had already heard reports in the mountains detrimental to my character for my supposed action in the matter, but I had never paid much attention to them. Friends had cautioned me that there were large sums of money offered for my life, and that several men had even undertaken to earn the rewards. I could not credit such friendly intimations; still I thought, on the principle that there is never smoke but there is fire, that it would be as well to keep myself a little on my guard.

I had recovered from my sickness, and I spent much of my time about town. My friends repeatedly inquired of me if I had seen Fitzpatrick. Wondering how so much interest could attach to my meeting with that man, I asked one day what reason there was for making the inquiry. My friend answered, "I don't wish you to adduce me as authority; but there are strong threats of taking your life for an alleged robbery of Fitzpatrick by the Crow nation, in which you were deeply concerned."

I saw now what to prepare for, although I still inclined to doubt that any man, possessed of ordinary perceptions, could charge me with an offence of which I was so manifestly innocent. True, I had met Fitzpatrick several times, and, instead of his former cordial salutation it was with difficulty he addressed a civil word to me.

Shortly after this conversation with my friend I went to the St. Louis Theatre. Between the pieces I had stepped to the saloon to obtain some refreshments, and I saw Fitzpatrick enter, with four other not very respectable citizens. They advanced directly toward me. Fitzpatrick then pointed me out to them, saying, "There's the Crow."

"Then," said the others, "we are Black Feet, and let us have his scalp."

They immediately drew their knives and rushed on me.

I then thought of my friend's salutary counsel to be on my guard, but I had no weapon about me. With the agility of a cat I sprung over the counter, and commenced passing tumblers faster than they had been in the habit of receiving them. I had felled one or two of my assailants, and I saw I was in for a serious disturbance.

A friend (and he is still living in St. Louis, wealthy and influential) stepped behind the bar, and, slapping me on the shoulder, said, "Look out, Beckwourth, you will hurt some of your friends."

I replied that my friends did not appear to be very numerous just then.

"You have friends present," he added; and, passing an enormous bowie-knife into my hand, stepped out again.

Now I was all right, and felt myself a match for the five ruffians. My practice with the battle-axe [tomahawk], in a case where the quickness of thought required a corresponding rapidity of action, then came into play.

I made a sortie from my position on to the open floor, and challenged the five bullies to come on; at the same time (which, in my excited state, was natural enough) calling them by the hardest names.

My mind was fully made up to kill them if they had only come at me; my arm was nervous; and my friends, who knew me at that time, can tell whether I was quick-motioned or not. I had been in situations where I had to ply my battle-axe with rapidity and precision to redeem my own skull. I was still in full possession of my belligerent powers, and I had the feeling of justice to sustain me.

I stood at bay, with my huge bowie-knife drawn, momentarily hesitating whether to give the Crow war-whoop or not, when Sheriff Buzby laid hands on me, and requested me to be quiet. Although boiling with rage, I respected the officer's presence, and the assassins marched off to the body of the theatre. I followed them to the door, and defied them to descend to the street with me; but the sheriff becoming angry, and threatening me with the calaboose, I straightway left the theatre.

I stood upon the steps, and a friend coming up, I borrowed a well-loaded pistol of him, and moved slowly away, thinking that five men would surely never allow themselves to be cowed by one man. Shortly after, I perceived the whole party approaching, and, stepping back on the sidewalk in front of a high wall, I waited their coming up. On they came, swaggering along, assuming the appearance of intoxication, and talking with drunken incoherency. When they had approached near enough to suit me, I ordered them to halt, and cross over to the other side of the street.

"Who are you?" inquired one of them.

"I am he whom you are after, Jim Beckwourth; and if you advance one step farther, I will blow the tops of your heads off."

"You are drunk, aren't you?" said one of the party.

"No, I am not drunk," I replied; "I never drink anything to make a dog of me like yourselves."

I stood during this short colloquy in the middle of the sidewalk, with my pistol ready cocked in one hand and my huge bowie-knife in the other; one step forward would have been fatal to any one of them."

Oh, he's drunk," said one; "let's cross over to the other side." And all five actually did pass over, which, if any of them is still living and has any regard for truth, he must admit to this day.

I then proceeded home. My sister had been informed of the rencounter, and on my return home I found her frightened almost to death; for Forsyth (one of the party) had long been the terror of St. Louis, having badly maimed many men, and the information that he was after me led her to the conclusion that I would surely be killed.

A few days after I met two of the party (Forsyth and Kinney), when Forsyth accosted me, "Your name is Beckwourth, I believe?"

I answered, "That is my name."

“I understand that you have been circulating the report that I attempted to assassinate you?"

“I have told that you and your gang have been endeavouring to murder me," I replied, "and I repeat it here."

"I will teach you to repeat such tales about me," he said, fiercely, and drew his knife, which he called his Arkansas tooth-pick, from his pocket.

The knife I had provided myself with against any emergency was too large to carry about me conveniently, so I carried it at my back, having the handle within reach of my finger and thumb. Seeing his motion, I whipped it out in a second. "Now," said I, "you miserable ruffian, draw your knife and come on! I will not leave a piece of you big enough to choke a dog."

"Come," interposed Kinney, "let us not make blackguards of ourselves; let us be going." And they actually did pass on without drawing a weapon. I was much pleased that this happened in a public part of the city, and in open day; for the bully, whom it was believed the law could not humble, was visibly cowed, and in the presence of a large concourse of men. I had no more trouble from the party afterward.

In connection with this affair, it is but justice to myself to mention that, when Captain Sublet, Fitzpatrick, and myself happened to meet in the office of Mr. Chouteau, Captain Sublet interrogated Fitzpatrick upon the cause of his hostility toward me, and represented to him at length the open absurdity of his trumping up a charge of robbery of his party in the mountains against me.
I like Beckwourth's line, "I will not leave a piece of you big enough to choke a dog." Someone should put that in a Steven Seagal movie.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Bowie Knife Fight at the Racetrack

This is from by James Silk Buckingham's America, Historical, Statistic, and Descriptive (1841), one of those 19th-century travel books that cataloged the depredations of the American South for an English readership:
A fatal rencounter took place on the 18th inst. (Nov.) at the Opelousas racecourse, between Thomas Reeves and Samuel Fisher, the former a young man of about twenty-three years of age, and the latter an elderly gentleman of sixty. It appears that Reeves came armed to the place with a very large bowie-knife. By some means, his clothes were disarranged, and the knife became visible to the surrounding spectators. Mr. Fisher, noticing the appearance of the weapon, asked Mr. Reeves, playfully and in jest, for what purpose he carried such a deadly instrument. Reeves immediately answered, "To kill you, God d - n you": whereupon he instantly drew the knife, and was in the act of plunging it into the body of Fisher, when he was arrested in the act by a bystander, who, picking up a club that presented itself, told Reeves that if he did not desist he would strike him down with the club. This afforded Fisher a moment for reflection, after which he closed with Reeves, and succeeded in taking the knife from him, having his hand cut severely in the struggle. During the combat both fell to the ground, Reeves falling uppermost, who immediately commenced gouging his adversary. Fisher then ran him through the body with the knife. Reeves arose, remarking that he was "a dead man."
Fisher immediately gave himself up to the magistrate,who acquitted him. Public opinion, it appears, fully justifies him in the act. -- Planter's Intelligencer.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Another Note on Spanish Knife Fighting

The following short piece appeared in Appleton’s Journal, 1874.
CUCHILLOS. [Knives.]

The national weapon of the Spaniards is the knife, and certainly they know how to use it. Talking one day with a young man who seemed likely to know, I asked him what there was peculiar in the management of the knife.

"Why," said he, with a smile, "I could kill you, and you couldn't kill me."

"Well," said I, " please point out the difference between us. What would you do first?"

"Why, I'd make you wink, and stab you while you winked!"

"How would you make me wink?"

"Why, so," said he, throwing up his left hand near my eyes.

"Well, I could do the same."

"Try it," said he.

I tried, and found it impossible to make him wink, though I passed my hand up and down several times so as almost to touch his eyelashes.

His bright, black eyes looked out at me unflinchingly all the while. It was clear that his eyes were educated, and that mine were not.
NOTE: What the young man seems to be talking about is an eye flick, an extremely fast attack at the eye that causes an opponent to flinch. With practice, it can be delivered faster and less telegraphically than any other blow. Here is a video of how an eye flick is delivered.
I then asked if there was any possibility of an unarmed man's defending himself against one armed with a knife.

"Oh, yes," said he, "I'll show you"; and, in an instant, whipping off his coat, he held the end of one sleeve firmly in his left hand, wrapping the rest of the coat rapidly around his forearm, and, bringing the end of the other sleeve also into his left hand, where it was firmly held, binding together the whole mass, which formed a sufficient defense against the thrust of any ordinary knife.

I then recollected that one of the marks of the men of the Puerta del Sol, at Madrid--which answers to our Bowery [skid row]--was a slashed cloak, evidently not so honorable in its origin as a "slashed doublet" of the olden time.

The use of the knife appears to be so ingrained into Spanish history and habits that one mode of expressing the idea of being "lord of a manor" was tener horca y cuchillo -- "to hold the gallows and the knife."

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Cloak and Dagger in Spain

"The Spaniard in Paris," by Evenepoel. His cape is not quite as long as those described below.

The cloak, or capa, worn by men in 19th-century Spain was an integral part of the Spanish knife-fighting system. It was a circle or three-quarter circle of cloth, custom fitted to the height of the wearer. It enabled a man to hold his knife out of sight while at the ready, and through skilfull manipulation it could block an incoming attack, screen his actions from view, or wrap around his opponent's arm or legs.

Here is a description of the garment, from A Tour With Cook Through Spain (1873), by Sir John Benjamin Stone:
We feel a strange distrust of Spaniards as they approach, pass, or follow us, enveloped as they are in their capas or cloaks. In England we occasionally see representations of brigands or robbers dressed in these capas, the ample folds of which seem contrived for the purpose of disguise or for the concealment of weapons. The capa is a national costume, and is worn by every Spaniard. The upper classes have them made usually of black cloth, lined with costly furs or silk; the middle and lower classes wear proportionately less costly materials. The more expensive the cloak the greater extent of cloth is used in the making; the circumference at the bottom of those of superior make measures about seven yards. The wearer, by a peculiar swing of the arm, cleverly flings the capa over the opposite shoulder in such a manner as to have a double covering into the middle of the back, thus his arms are totally enveloped, and at the same time his face is half-buried in its folds—to complete the suspicious garb, the true Spaniard draws down his slouching hat over his eyes. It may be added, our uncomfortable suspicions are not altogether groundless, for the dress is indeed a cloak for mischief. Bad characters have an opportunity of hiding designs, which they fully avail themselves of, and we are frequently cautioned to avoid people who do not uncloak when addressing you—an act of courtesy well understood by the Spaniards themselves. thus obtained are worth noticing.
In Along Spain's River of Romance, the Guadalquivir (1912), author Ernest Slater describes his journey through Spain and the lessons he learned of its culture from his friend and guide, Angel Pizarro. In the following passage, Angel explains how the capa, or cape, is used in conjunction with the knife when fighting:
"Though every capa should be of the same proportionate length, just failing to reach the ankles, just measuring seven yards round the hem, the wearer who wishes to avoid the least slip will carry his capa fully six months before claiming its obedience. It is much like a horse; its qualities must be thoroughly well known. For instance, bear witness--"

Here Angel gave a sort of light skip towards one edge of the bull-ring, swirling his skirts so that the hem of the capa flew up and encircled his waist, just as his hand went down to catch it by one corner. "You here see me, senores, prepared not to run, but to retreat strategically, having been caught in an unguarded moment by a bailiff anxious to draw me into his dark confidence. You will notice that, through my not knowing this particular capa, it has arranged itself one inch too low, thus cutting off one mile an hour from my velocity. No matter, there is a remedy. If Don Miguel yonder will stand just behind me, you shall see."

The gentleman named having taken up his position to the rear of the supposed fugitive, and representing the importunate alguacil [policeman], in a flash Angel unwound his capa, and it flew to coil itself, like an angry boa-constrictor, round the ankles of the pursuer. Had the latter attempted to move forward he would have fallen prone.

"That involves the loss of the capa!" objected a critic.

"According to the alguacil's manner of falling," replied Angel, "and, at the worst, I have time to draw his own capa from his shoulders before I continue my retreat."

"Then you have a strange capa to manipulate."

"So has the alguacil. In addition, he has lost his temper. And foul humour is the very worst condition for the skilled play that now ensues."

"He will leave the capa behind him."

"Pouf ! he is not such a fool, mine being better than his own. Besides, it is his turn to try the chances of a cast. Then if you, senor, have not gathered from my mastery of the capa that I am not a man to be challenged, the worst comes to the worst. We draw. Ah! The chief excellence of the capa is in quarrelling. To fight, one puts the garment over the left arm, so; one bends the body from the perpendicular - thus; one plants the feet just so, and draws back the right arm to the rear, with the carving-knife held level in this manner. The eye is fixed upon the adversary, the gathered-up capa serves as a shield upon the left, the feet ready to leap you to right or left, like a flea, to evade the coming message and to speed the return of post. You menace the face, and just as your opponent prepares to parry a neck blow, your capa passes before his eyes, and you make to bury your knife below the belt. Received in his capa! Now, indeed, you are undone  unless your own capa flies hither and thither like Satanic serpent, not a single movement at random, every coil threatening to entrap his hand. Even let him be best man with the knife, if you are still better with the capa, his mass is said.

"Your knife has fallen. Thus must you manipulate to recover it." So saying, Angel let fall behind him his knife -- which he had drawn from his belt and opened to illustrate the pass -- and retreated, eyes fixed upon his imaginary aggressor, capa now made ready and motionless, now suddenly flying to intercept a lunge or to threaten the enemy's wrist.

"You notice that, though in a sense in extremis, I have two hands to my capa and he has only one. He presses me hard. I cannot stoop to regain the knife at this point, and so -- Zas! I do this!" With that he kicked the knife a few paces to the left, skipped unexpectedly in the same direction as he did so, and swung his cloak towards his enemy in such a manner that the latter could not possibly have intercepted his quick recovery of the knife. His movements were rapid as those of a lizard, and the cloak hid them so well and caught the eye, that he was standing crouching again and armed before I quite realised what had happened. I resolved there and then never to quarrel with Angel.

"Or let us suppose you happen to know that some gringo has sworn your life and is waiting for you with a revolver in his pocket. It is his life or yours. Very well, if he has an ounce of curiosity he is lost. You approach him with all the friendliness in the world, pronouncing some lady's name which you know will catch his ear. His finger in his pocket pauses on the trigger; he wishes to make out what it is you alluded to before you die. Smiling, you draw nearer, your capa thus, your intentions dissembled beneath it, and zas! Good-bye! A dirty, cowardly artifice, and worthy only of a bandit. Still, I show you the capa's dark chapters along with its glorious ones, its mean vices with its heroic virtues. It partakes of the man.
It is invaluable in defence of every kind, from steel of Albacete to the salute expectorate from a balcony. You pass down the street and note that a certain window is awaiting you, that some base-born cochino is gathering up his lips. You arrange the capa in this manner, looking straight before you, but pricking up your ears. Phut! Senores, sound travels more rapidly than saliva. Your arm, swiftly but gracefully, moves upwards thus, and the capa receives the gift, which afterwards may be returned very urgently to the giver or not, according to his age and circumstances. The motto of the capa is semper paratus [always prepared]."

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Philadelphia Breast Surgeon Moonlights as Knife Thrower

I'm getting a lot of hits today because my post about knife-thrower Joe "Broken Feather" Darrah is linked at this article.
Philadelphia Breast Surgeon Moonlights as Knife Thrower
by Matthew Hall

Meet Dr. Ted Eisenberg, holder of the world record for the most breast surgeries performed in a lifetime.

Rest assured, ladies -- you're probably in safe hands.
I bet Matthew Hall wrote "Rest assured, ladies -- your breasts are in good hands" and the editor made him change it. But perhaps I am immature.

The rest of the article is here.

More on Spanish Knife Culture

 A 19th-century Spanish dagger.

A Handbook for Travellers in Spain (1855), by Richard Ford, has a commentary on the knife culture that prevailed in that country at the time. When we read an account of an exotic land written by an English traveler in the 19th century we have to take everything with a grain of salt, but it is interesting nonetheless. Ford assumes a level of erudition among his readers that is way beyond mine, but I have looked up as many references as I could and added them as bolded notes or endnotes.
Albacete, Abula, owing to its central position, from whence roads and rails branch to Aragon, Murcia, Valencia, and Madrid, is a place of great traffic, and is a town of locomotives, from the English rail, the French dilly, to the Spanish donkey. . . . Albacete is called the Sheffield of Spain [i.e., the knife-making capital], as Chatelherault is of France; but everything is by comparison, and the coarse cutlery turned out in each, at whose make and material an English artisan smiles, perfectly answers native ideas and wants. The object of a Spanish knife is to "chip bread and kill a man," and our readers are advised to have as little to do with them as may be.

The puñal or cuchillo, like the fan of the high-bred Andaluza, is part and parcel of all Spaniards of the lower class. Few are ever without this weapon of offence and defence, which is fashioned like a woman's tongue, being long, sharp, and pointed. The test of a bad knife is, that it won't cut a stick, but will cut a finger (Cuchillo malo, corta el dedo y no el palo). This knife, the precise daga of the Iberians, is the national weapon: hence Guerra á Cuchillo [War to the knife] is the modern war-cry, "Castile expects that every knife this day will do its duty;"[1] and such in fact was the truly Spanish war defiance which was returned at Zaragoza to the French summons to capitulate.

This "long double-edged" tool is either stuck, as the old dagger used to be, in the sash, or is worn in the breeches' side-pocket, or like the Greek heroes wore their [Greek lettering], down the "right thigh" (Judges 3:16)[2]; and so the anelace in Chaucer bore "a Shefeld thwitel in his hose,"[3] just as the Manolas, or Amazons of Madrid, las de Cuchillo en Hija, have the reputation of concealing a small knife -- steel traps set here -- in the garter of their right leg (boni soit qui mal y pense)[4]; for it long has been a notion that making a start with the left leg foremost boded ill-luck.

This "prostitute knife" is a little over six inches long.

This female trinket is also called a puñalico and higuela; the latter word strictly speaking, means a "petticoat bustle;" all these weapons, a sort of Skein Dhu, are Scotch cousins to the Mattucashlash dirk, which the Highlanders carried in their armpits: a feminine puñalico now before us has the motto, Sirbo á una dama, "I serve a lady" -- Ich dien [
"I serve."].
A Scottish sgian dubh, which is worn in the top of the stocking. This lovely one is available here.
Gentlemen's knives have also what Shakespeare calls their "cutler poetry;" this is also a Moorish custom, for, in what appeared to be a mere scrolly ornament on a modern Albacete cuchillo, these Arabic words have been read - "With the help of Allah! I hope to kill my enemy." As the mottoes of swords are various, so those on knives abound, couched in an humbler tone; e. g. Soy de mi Dueño y Señor, "I am the property of my lord and master." They say also -- Cuando esta víbora pica, No hay remedio en la botica,-- "When this viper stings, there's no remedy in any apothecary's shop." When the Sistema, or constitución of 1820, was put down, royalist knives were inscribed Peleo á gusto matando negros, and on the reverse, "I die for my King; killing blacks is my delight."[5] The words Negros and Carboneros have long been applied in Spain to political blackguards.

A classic navaja.

The term navaja means any blade, from a razor to a penknife, that shuts into a handle: the navajas of Guadix, which rival the puñales of Albacete, have frequently a muelle or catch by which the long pointed blade is fixed, and thus become a dagger or hand bayonet. The click which the cold steel makes when sharply caught in its catch, produces on Spanish ears the same pleasing sensation which the cocking a pistol does on ours. These spring and catch tools, always prohibited by law, have always been made, sold, and used openly. The gypsies, being great hole-in-corner men and cutpurses, since the times of the Rinconetes y Cortadillos of Cervantes, and the patrons also of slang, and flashmen, have furnished many cant names to the knife, e. g. glandi, chulo, churri (charri is pure Hindee for a knife). La Serdanie, Cachas, dos puñales á una vez; the Catalans call the instrument el gannivete, canif. It is termed in playful metaphor la tia, my aunt; corta pluma, a penknife; monda dientes, a tooth-pick; the best makers are generally well known. Thus Sancho Panza, when he hears that Montesinos had pierced a heart with a puñal, exclaims at once, "Then it was made by Ramon Hozes of Seville."

The handles are adorned in a barbaric semi-oriental style, often with much inlaid work, mother-of-pearl and coarse niello. There is a murderous, business-like intention in the shape, which runs to a point like a shark or a pirate felucca. A Spanish cutler, when praising his wares, will say, Es bueno para matar, "This is a capital article for killing." So the navajas del santo oleo kill a man dead before he can receive extreme unction.

However unskilled the regular surgeons and Sangrados may be in anatomy and the practice of the scalpel, the universal people know exactly how to use their knife, and where to plant its blow; nor is there any mistake, for the wound, although not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a church door, "will serve." It is not unseldom given after the treacherous fashion of their Oriental and Iberian ancestors, by a stab behind, of which the ancients were so fearful, "impacatos a tergo horrebis Iberos" (Virg. Geor. iii. 408)[6], and it is planted "under the fifth rib," and "one blow" is enough (2 Sam. 20:10)[7]. The blade, like the cognate Arkansas or Bowie knife of the Yankees, will "rip up a man right away," or like a ripe melon, as Sancho says (Don Quix. ii. 32)[8], or drill him until a surgeon can see through his body. As practice makes perfect, a true Baratero [knife fighter], is able to jerk his navaja into a door across the room, as surely and quickly as a good shot does a rifle-ball; a Spaniard, when armed with his cuchillo for attack, and with his capa for defence, is truly formidable and classical. 

Many of the murders in Spain must be attributed to the readiness of the weapon, which is always at hand when the blood is on fire: thus, where an unarmed Englishman closes his fist, a Spaniard opens his knife. Man, again, in this hot climate, is very inflammable and combustible; a small spark explodes the dry powder, which ignites less readily in damp England. No wonder, therefore, that the blow of this rascally instrument, a true puñalada de picaro, becomes fatal in jealous broils, when the lower classes light their anger at the torch of the furies, and prefer using to speaking daggers: then the thrust goes home, vitamque in valuere ponit. In jealous broils, which are not unfrequent, the common punishment is gashing the peccant one's cheek, which is called "marking," or painting - Ya estas señalada, Ta estas pintado, picaro! In legal language, pintado por la justicia means branded a rogue; in baker's lingo, "pan pintado," signifies bread ornamented with crosses and gashes. "Mira que te pego, mira que te mato," are fondling or furious expressions of a Maja to a Majo. The Seville phrase was "Mira que te pinto un jabeque;" "take care that I don't draw you a xebeck" (the sharp Mediterranean felucca). "They jest at wounds who never felt a scar," but whenever this jabeque has really been inflicted, the patient, but whenever this jabeque has really been inflicted, the patient, not having the face to show him or herself, and ashamed of the stigma, is naturally anxious to recover a good character and skin, the one cosmetic to remove such superfluous marks, in Philip IV's time, was cat's grease:

El sebo unto de gato,
Que en cara defienda los señales.

[1] This is a play on the signal Admiral Nelson sent his fleet before the Battle of Trafalgar: “England expects that every man shall do his duty.”
[2] Judges 3:16:
Now Ehud had made a double-edged sword about a cubit [about 18 inches] long, which he strapped to his right thigh under his clothing. He presented the tribute to Eglon king of Moab, who was a very fat man. After Ehud had presented the tribute, he sent on their way those who had carried it. But on reaching the stone images near Gilgal he himself went back to Eglon and said, “Your Majesty, I have a secret message for you.”
The king said to his attendants, “Leave us!” And they all left.

Ehud then approached him while he was sitting alone in the upper room of his palace and said, “I have a message from God for you.” As the king rose from his seat, Ehud reached with his left hand, drew the sword from his right thigh and plunged it into the king’s belly. Even the handle sank in after the blade, and his bowels discharged. Ehud did not pull the sword out, and the fat closed in over it. Then Ehud went out to the porch; he shut the doors of the upper room behind him and locked them.
[3] Geoffrey Chaucer. "The Reeve’s Tale," Canterbury Tales:
Ther was no man, for peril, dorste hym touche.
A Sheffeld thwitel baar he in his hose.
Round was his face, and camus was his nose;
A thwitel, or thwittle, was a small knife; a "whittle."

[4] “Evil be to him who evil thinks.”
[5] "Blacks" refers to anti-royalists in this context.
[6] Virgil, Georgics, 3.408: Virgil advises travelers to keep guard dogs:
Nor let the care of dogs be last in your thoughts, but feed swift Spartan whelps and fierce Molossians alike on fattening whey. Never, with them on guard, need you fear for your stalls a midnight thief, or onslaught of wolves, or restless Spaniards [brigands] in your rear.
[7] 2 Samuel 20:10:
But Amasa took no heed to the sword that was in Joab's hand: so he smote him therewith in the fifth rib, and shed out his bowels to the ground, and struck him not again; and he died. So Joab and Abishai his brother pursued after Sheba the son of Bichri.
[8] Sancho Pancho: "[T]hey would have given him a slash that would have slit him down from top to toe like a pomegranate or a ripe melon; they were likely fellows to put up with jokes of that sort!" 

Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Pen--Almost as Mighty as the Sword

"The pen is mightier than the sword," as the old saying goes, but early on the pen itself was a sort of sword--or at least, a dagger.

A Roman stylus.

The Romans kept notes on panels of wood on which a layer of wax was poured as a writing surface. Two of the tablets would be hinged so that the wax surfaces could be closed against each other, protecting them; these were called pugillares, or table-books. Notes were inscribed on the wax with a cylindrical bar of iron or bronze, on which one end was sharp and the other flattened, so it could be used to rub out errors. The tool was called a stylus, plural styli, which gave us the root of the word stiletto.

The pugillare, used with a stylus, looks very much like a laptop computer.

The stylus made a fair dagger. When Caesar was surrounded by the senators who would assassinate him, he grabbed the arm of Casca and pierced it through with his stylus before being cut down by the others. According to the historian Suetonius, Caligula persuaded his followers to use their styli to stab to death one of his enemies in the senate. Seneca wrote that a Roman knight named Erixo, who had beaten his son to death, was attacked by an outraged mob whose members stabbed him nearly to death with their styli.

As no weapons were allowed to be worn in Rome, styli were intentionally made large to serve in that capacity. In an attempt to control the menace, the Romans passed "stylus control" legislation, banning the use of iron in their manufacture in favor of ivory or bone.

Cassianus, a 4th-century schoolteacher, was condemned to death for refusing to honor the Roman gods. He was turned over to his students, who bound him to a stake and executed him by stabbing him with their iron styli and beating him with their pugillares. (He was later made a saint.)

Johannes Scotus, a teacher in a medieval monastery, suffered a similar death. He was so severe with his students that they spontaneously rose against him and brought the semester to a premature close with their styli.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

"The Story of the Sword" (As Well as a Few Knives and Daggers)

I have transcribed the following article from Munsey's Magazine, January 1901. Despite a number of small factual errors, it is of considerable interest, wonderfully illustrated, and offers occasional examples of the dry Victorian wit.


AFTER three thousand years of honor and glory, the sword is about to join the battle ax and the javelin in obscurity. It has always been a weapon for use and for show. It has always been a badge of rank. Within a little time it will be forbidden in the field. Already an order has been issued by Lord Roberts, commander in chief of the British forces in South Africa, instructing line officers in the field to wear the same uniform as the private, and to carry only revolvers as side arms. In the Philippines, too, our army officers have come to look upon the sword as useless baggage when there is any fighting to be done, or on a long march. It is of no earthly use as a weapon, for hand to hand conflicts are a thing of the past; and it is a positive evil, because it enables sharpshooters to pick out the officers and bring them down.

It is not likely, as yet, that the sword will be laid aside on state occasions. There is too much romance surrounding it. Mankind has been accustomed to look upon it as emblematic ever since war began. But as a useful weapon, the sword is a candidate for the museum.

It is impossible to separate the sword from the knife. Probably the first knife was a weapon, and its utilitarian possibilities were developed afterwards. Roughly speaking, the swords or knives of the world can be divided into two classes—the hackers and the stickers. The earliest weapons were of the former variety. In fact, it wasn't until the sixteenth century that the gentle art of killing a man without unnecessary bloodshed became popular. Before that time, it was good for to chop him to pieces, if you could.

Whenever hard-digging scientists have succeeded in finding the remains of the prehistoric man, his knife of some flinty stone has not been far away. Those early men must have had a deal of time on their hands, because the fashioning of knife blades out of hard stone is a difficult process. But this was accomplished at express speed, compared with the first method of attaching a handle. Having made the blade, our ancestors fitted it into an incision he made in the limb of a tree, and then sat down to enjoy life until the weapon was ready for use, unless some other inconsiderate gentleman killed him in the mean time.
This isn’t a book, and it would take too long to trace the knife from the early man’s weapon with the natural wood handle to the gorgeous presentation affair, like that given to Admiral Dewey. Many years before the Christian era, the Norsemen, Romans, and Greeks began fashioning knives and swords of metal. The Romans made them of copper, which they tempered by a process whose secret has been lost, while the Greeks preferred hardened bronze. The Norsemen had the better of it, for they used iron, and wondrous weapons were made for those powerful warriors.

The Greeks, however, were the ones to set the fashion in sword modeling, as in everything else, and the Romans were quick to change their thick and awkward blade for the longer and more shapely weapon of their more cultured neighbors. In the early days the Roman smiths made their swords thick and short, in order to strengthen them, as it was not until later that they learned how to temper. Their weapons were always marked, even among the other nations of their day, by their peculiar shape. The sword of the Greeks was a long, narrow blade with a square guard and a short, thick wooden grip. Sometimes, in the case of an aristocrat, the grip was inlaid with plates of gold, and the blades were often elegantly etched or engraved.

It was not until the return of the first Crusaders that the influence of the eastern models began to make itself felt on the forging of swords in Europe. This was early in the twelfth century. Up to that time the weapons in use in France and England were improvements on the old Roman and Greek models, with a few variations, such as the broad sword, battle ax, and mace. When the orientals took up the art of making swords and knives is not quite clear, but it is certain that they far outstripped their western neighbors in the design and quality of their weapons. Their principal specialties were the dagger and the scimitar, the latter of which is a sort of slicing weapon, and has served as a model for all the sabers that have since been made. The old crescent shaped scimitar is a good weapon of its kind even today. The Crusaders had some marvelous illustrations of what the infidels could do with these wonderfully tempered instruments. There is a story, and it is accepted as perfectly authentic, of skirmishers from the crusading army being attacked in a rocky defile. So vigorous was the assault that they were compelled to retreat to the main body, leaving their dead behind them. When they returned to the spot where the fight had taken place they saw their companions apparently lying just as they had fallen. each victim had had his head cut off, and it had been replaced in a natural position. So clean and skilful was the cut that at first only a thin red line showed where the scimitar had passed.

The various forms of daggers and poniards have been more or less popular with peoples the world over, but the eastern races, particularly the Malays evolved peculiarly devilish weapons. The worst of these is the creese [kris]. It is a wavy sort of an affair, and it makes a frightful wound, whether used as a slasher or a sticker. [Why would a serpentine blade make a more dangerous wound? It seems to be designed for psychological rather than physiological effect.] Sometimes it has the usual straight hilt, and sometimes a handle which is at right angles with the blade, designed for use on the saw principle.

It may as well be remarked at this point that the popular conception of the manner of handling a dagger or poniard or knife is all wrong. This is due to pictures drawn by artists who knew nothing about it, and to actors equally ignorant. So far as I can recall, I never saw an actor handle a dagger or knife properly. They have always grasped it so that the hilt rested against the little finger. It would be just as sensible to hold a dagger that way as it would a table knife, so far as doing anything with it is concerned. All dagger and knife fighters grasp the weapon so that the hilt is next to the thumb or forefinger.

The Malays have always had a reputation for bloodthirstiness and deadly execution with their creepy knives. It goes back for about four centuries. Now and then they were worsted. There is a yarn told of Artenio, a pirate of the southern seas, who was a credit to his profession. About the year 1633, Artenio's vessel was overhauled by a Malay craft in eastern waters. The latter was crowded with men, twice as many as Artenio's crew. Furthermore, the Malays had a reputation that made the pirates' evil prestige look like downy innocence. There was nothing to do but fight. Artenio bad an inspiration. He armed his men with capstan bars and anything in the shape of a club he could find, and these proved more effective weapons than cutlasses, for the clubs broke the dreaded creeses, and the Malays were beaten off.

The greatest event in the history of sword making occurred in the sixteenth century, when a humble peasant on the outskirts of Toledo, in Spain, designed the long, slender rapier, which, after its adoption by the Duke of Granada, attained world wide fame. All sorts of superior qualities have been ascribed to the Toledo blades, but the truth of the matter is that, aside from their lightness and convenience, they had nothing to recommend them over the swords which had been manufactured in England, France, and Germany for fifty years. The quality of the metal of which they were made was just the same as that used in other nations, and, if anything, the Spaniards were a little behind the English and French in the art of tempering metals. There is no doubt however, that, after its adoption by the court of Spain, the Toledo model had a tremendous influence upon the weapons in use by the gallants of other nations. Its fame spread like wild fire throughout the other civilized countries, and knights journeyed from far and wide to Seville for lessons in the art of fencing under the new code.

The rapier was not only light and easily handled, but permitted a clean thrust through the body, a thing impossible with the thick, broad swords previously in use. From the date of its adoption in Europe, the real era of skill in fence began. Before that time, the victory in sword combat depended more upon the strength of the antagonists than their skill. [It is a Victorian-era misconception that there was little technique to medieval swordsmanship.] The broad sword, battle ax, and javelin left little room for delicacy of touch, and only such a giant among men as Richard Coeur de Lion could hope to achieve high reputation as a swordsman. The rapier did away with all this, and case after case is on record where men of comparatively small stature have held vastly superior numbers at bay by sheer skill at the game of fence and foil.

The original Toledo blade was about one inch wide at the hilt, running down a length of about three and a quarter feet to a needle-like point. As soon as the French caught the advantages of this model, it was improved upon, until by the middle of the seventeenth century, when chivalry was at its height, the sword of the dandy was little larger than the fencing foil of today. It was from this peculiarity in the character of their weapons that the French were dubbed "toad stickers" by the English.

Despite the frailty of their swords, the chevaliers of the great Louis were able to accomplish wonders in a fight. Just about this time, the use of the dagger as an accessory to the guard in a sword duel became popular, and a short hanger was added to the equipment of a gentleman at arms. These hangers were much the same as the old Roman swords in form, except that they terminated in a sharp point. They were shorter than the weapon of the Romans, but like them in all other essential points.

The dagger, or hanger, was not entirely new. The Crusaders carried a short knife called a coup de grâce [probably means a misericorde; the coup de grâce was the blow, not the weapon], a truly Christian weapon, which was used to despatch an enemy when he was down. Having fought with punctilious observance of the laws of chivalry, and having placed an enemy hors de combat, the Crusader could fling himself on his knees before the fallen one, cut his throat, and offer up prayers of thanksgiving without changing position.

The time of the rapier and the dagger was a truly romantic age—from this distance. The knife was the arbiter of all disputes. As La Hire, a celebrated courtier and swordsman of Louis XIV's time, put it: "The sword of a gallant punctures the breast of a good man and a rogue alike, and represents justice and mercy, or tyranny and oppression, according to the temper of one who controls it." It is told of La Hire that once, while in a restaurant with a companion, he was annoyed by sneering remarks made by a group of men who belonged to a rival political faction. La Hire walked quietly over to them, and beckoned one aside.

"Monsieur," he said, "I have not the honor of an acquaintanceship with your friends. Will you be good enough to introduce me?"

Thus did he pave the way to challenging each of them to fight him in turn. The party sought the courtyard. La Hire killed two, and seriously wounded four others.

The survivors then apologized.

In fighting with daggers and rapiers, the popular method of dueling at this period, it was customary for the swordsmen to bind their left arms in their cloaks, holding the dagger in the left hand. The short weapon was depended upon principally as a guard, the rapier being reserved until the moment arrived for a direct attack. Then it was sent forward like a flash, usually in a straight thrust for the throat. If a wound of this kind was inflicted, it was usually regarded as fatal, as little or nothing was known of antiseptic treatment in those days. There has been little advance in the making of swords or knives for two hundred years, which shows as plainly as anything could that these weapons have passed the period of pronounced usefulness. America's only contribution to fighting blades — that is, the only one of any real note—is design which bears the name Bowie. He is always spoken of as Colonel Jim Bowie, of Texas. As a matter of fact, Bowie was born in Georgia, about 1790, but the greater part of his life was passed in Texas [wrong, wrong, and wrong]. He gained his reputation in a duel which resulted in a general melee, and in which he killed Major Morris [sic] Wright with a knife that had been fashioned out of a file or rasp at Bowie's direction. Afterwards, a cutler improved upon the general design, but the name clung to it.

Those were the days when the derringer was the popular weapon in America. That could fire only as many shots as it had barrels—usually two. As a rule, the bullets were of large caliber, and it was effective only at short range, so combatants were likely to be pretty close to each other when the shooting was over. If both escaped serious injury, there was fine opportunity for knife play. Some men gained remarkable skill in fighting with bowie knives. A certain science in fence was developed; but as a rule it was the man who could strike first. [This is true.]

The bowie was carried in all manner of places. One of the most effective plans was to put it behind the shoulder, which enabled a man to draw it without exciting suspicion, for there is no more innocent motion than that of putting one's hand to one's face. [Actually, the self-defense trainer Southnarc has noted that putting one's hand to one's face--a so-called "grooming gesture"--is one of the most common pre-attack signals.]

Wondrous stories of bowie knife fights are related, for the weapon gained great popularity. The Indians adopted it, and used it as a scalping knife. There is an account of an all day fight between a cowboy and an Indian, who shot at each other until their ammunition was exhausted, and their ponies were almost ready to drop. Then the white man closed in on the red one. Each had a bowie, and they kept up the fight until the Indian was slashed to ribbons. The cowboy was so badly injured that he died a few days later.

The term "bowie" came to mean almost any kind of a knife carried in a sheath. The real bowie is from nine to ten inches long, with one edge. The back is straight for about three fourths of its length, and then it curves towards the edge in a slightly concave sweep, the edge finishing towards the point in a convex sweep. The guard is very small, and the tongue [tang] is the full breadth of the grip or barrel, which is formed by two rounded pieces of wood and bone. It was equally good as a weapon, a table knife, a substitute for a small ax, and for pretty nearly anything that a knife can be used for. But finally the improvement in firearms made the bowie of little value as a weapon, and the big jackknife was found to be more convenient. Nowadays the cowboy's "messer," as he calls his knife, is principally for cutting "chuck.'"

But the knife plays a part in many modern crimes. So far as this country is concerned, the poorer Italians almost monopolize it as a weapon. The police say that every Italian carries a knife of some sort. They range from a made over file to a butcher knife; from a beautifully adorned stiletto of the finest workmanship to a cutlass. Of course the police exaggerate; but it is true that a certain class of Italians is always armed with dangerous knives, which they seldom use except on enemies of their own race.
Due to the format, I couldn't include all the illustrations, but they can be viewed at the source.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

A Renaissance Depiction of a Knife Fight

Now for some high culture.

Antonio del Pollaiolo (b.1429/1433, d. 1498) was an Italian painter, sculptor, engraver and goldsmith during the Renaissance, renowned for his understanding of anatomy. He created a remarkable bas-relief panel of a knife fight involving twelve participants, of which below is a line drawing taken from Italian Sculpture of the Middle Ages and Period of the Revival of Art (1862), by John Charles Robinson.

Antonio Pollaiuolo, Relievo, in Terra-cotta; "A Combat of Nude Figures." Length 1 foot 10 inches, height 1 foot 4 inches. (Gigli-Campana Collection.)

One of the pairs of fighters is holding a length of chain, in the manner of the duelists holding a sash in the bowie-knife duel in The Long Riders. Another pair has shields but are also connected by a chain; whether they are holding it or are shackled to it is not clear. Robinson gives this description of the scene:
In front of the composition, towards the right, the principal group is of two young warriors fighting with daggers, and protecting themselves with oval or kite-shaped shields; in the lower corner, on the same side, a more aged bearded man is slaying a prostrate foe: and on the left, also in the principal plane of the composition, another man is killing his vanquished enemy, whom he grasps by the hair. In the upper part of the composition, represented as in a second or more distant plane, and consequently in somewhat lower relief, are three other groups, as follow, viz. :—On the right, two men grasping a chain with their left hands, whilst they fight with daggers held in their right; in the centre, a combatant is striking his wounded enemy, who is forced with one knee on the ground, and is endeavouring to ward oft the blow with his shield; and on the extreme left a man is tying his prisoner to a tree in the attitude of a Marsyas or St. Sebastian. The weapon used is the stiletto or pugnale in use at the period in Italy; and the group who are holding the chain are evidently fighting a duel, in a method probably sanctioned by contemporary usage; each combatant grasps one end of the chain firmly with his left hand, the two keeping it strained horizontally betwixt them, so that it obviously serves as a means of parrying the blows,—a method of defence evidently mutually agreed upon by the combatants.
Robinson uses the Italian word pugnale for the dagger. In Latin it would be known as the pugio, the dagger the Roman soldier wore at his left side as a last-ditch weapon, or when in such close combat that even his gladius was too long. It derives from the Latin pugio, pugnus, the fist.

Below is another fight scene by  Pollaiolo, this time showing the use of the sword. Double click on the image for a larger version.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Bowie Knives in Early Day Helena, Arkansas

Steamboat Sultana at Helena, 1865

I liked the description of life in early-day Helena, Arkansas, from Baily's Magazine (1893):
I remember striking the little town of Helena, in Arkansas, in one of my steamboat voyages down the Mississippi. . .  I had been told that Helena was "the hottest and most villainous city in the United States"; and anything "hotter" I never wish to see. It was difficult to find man or woman who was not under the influence of "forty-rod whisky"; and not a man, from boys of sixteen who called themselves adults, to patriarchs of seventy, was to be seen on the street without a bowie knife —otherwise called "an Arkansas toothpick "—and sometimes with one, sometimes with two, revolvers stuck in his belt. To approach one of the crowded barrooms was as dangerous as to go into battle, and I remember that a tall old man, dressed in rusty black clothes, to whom I was introduced as Judge somebody, kept on proudly whispering in my ear, "Our boys, sir, have got plenty of snap, and our girls of jingle." . . . . Altogether, there was so much "jingle and snap" in the Helena of that now remote day that I was by no means sorry when I escaped from it with a whole skin.
The term “forty-rod whisky” refers to whisky of such high proof that, after he drank it, a man would be dead before he could walk forty rods (660 feet). (Sounds like the "Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique" in Kill Bill, which kills a man after he walks five steps.)

It is odd that the writer refers to boys having "plenty of snap"; that term was generally applied to a saucy girl, who was often said to have "plenty of snap in her garter."

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Cassius Clay-Sam Brown Fight; An Eyewitness Account

After the publication of the interview with Cassius M. Clay reprinted here, the newspaper received a copy of a letter which had an eyewitness account of Clay's fight with Sam Brown, reprinted below.
Description of the Most Ghastly Encounter Ever Witnessed in Kentucky.

Lexington, Ky., special to St. Louis Globe-Democrat.
Mrs. John M. Clay, daughter-in-law of Henry Clay, furnishes the Leader, apropos of the reminiscences of General Cassius M. Clay by Frank G. Carpenter, a letter written in 1843 by her uncle. T.A. Russell, to his brother and her father, Colonel William H. Russell, then a resident of Missouri, in which the famous fight between General Clay and Sam Brown, at Russell Cave, this county, was discussed at some length. Mr. Russell in this letter writes most affectionately concerning Henry Clay, and tells of his departure for New Orleans, Mobile, and other Southern cities in December of 1843, preparatory to the Baltimore convention of 1844, where he received the Presidential nomination of the Whig party. After discussing Clay’s prospects for the Presidency the following year, Mr. Russell recalls a meeting a few days before with Cassius M. Clay on the streets, at which the fight with Brown was mentioned.

“In a former letter,” wrote Mr. Russell to his brother, “you seem to express surprise why Clay’s friends, in his encounter with Brown, suffered Ashton to strike with the chair. I will tell you, nobody saw the chair until it came down upon Clay’s head and shoulders. At this moment they were clinched, lying side by side on the low plank fence, nearly poised as to which side they would go. For the purpose of parting them I sprang in and seized Clay by the waist. At this juncture, the chair was thrown, by whom I know not. My own head made a narrow escape. While I was holding on to Clay someone seized Brown and the outside of the yard and dragged him across the fence. He fell to the ground like a dead hod thrown out of the pen for the purpose of scalding. Thus ended the most desperate personal encounter I have ever witnessed. Brown about the head, face, and shoulders was literally cut to pieces, the blood running in every direction from every wound down his body. Imagine a butcher’s shirt steeped in blood and you will see him. Having seen where Brown’s pistol ball took effect on Clay’s clothing, I thought he was a dead man. Brown was carried up stairs in the little room in Uncle Russell’s old house. Clay sitting on one of the benches on the front porch, still holding his bloody bowie knife firmly grasped in his hand. He appeared sick. It was with great difficulty I could prevail on him to let me examine where the ball had taken effect. On unbuttoning his pantaloons I immediately discovered that the ball had struck the scabbard of his knife, about four inches from the top. On raising his shirt and examining his body I found, to my great gratification, it had not passed through the inner side of the scabbard. Thus, almost by a miracle, was his life saved. In a short time he left for town. He did not lack for friends, for he had five where the other had one. As you have understood, old Prince Hal appeared for Cassius on his trial.”

By Prince Hal the writer meant the great Commoner, Henry Clay.
Henry Clay, of course, was the prominent congressman and later senator from Kentucky. Henry Clay successfully defended his cousin Cassius Clay at his trial for mayhem.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Who Owns Cassius M. Clay's Bowie Knives?

When a historical figure is famed for his use of weapons, those weapons are of great interest. People will go to a museum to see guns owned by famous fighters such as Wild Bill Hickok, Theodore Roosevelt, John Dillinger, and George S. Patton. Certainly there is tremendous interest in "the original bowie knife," though it is not known to exist. Bowie knives owned or used by Cassius Marcellus Clay would also be of considerable interest.

I have in my files a newspaper article published shortly before Clay's death, which seems intended to establish the provenance of a knife owned by someone who knew him. It reads:

Wm. Preston Kimball in conversation with a reporter for The Herald yesterday said:

The Herald of this morning in speaking of the removal of Gen. Cassius M. Clay’s weapons from his room by his committee said, 'The knife which he had was the same knife he used in the famous fight with Sam Brown at Russell Cave and in the equally famous and more fatal fight with Cy Turner at Foxtown, in the latter of which he killed Turner after being wounded himself so that his life was despaired of for some time.'

“I have always understood that the knife used by Mr. Clay in his fight with Brown belonged to the late Dr. J. M. Bush, father of Hon. T. J. Bush, and was loaned to him by Dr. Bush just before he started to Russell Cave to debate with Mr. Wickliffe. Mr. Clay in his memoirs says that the point of the scabbard of his bowie knife was struck by the bullet from Brown’s pistol thus saving his life. I assume that it is safe to conclude that Mr. Clay returned Dr. Bush’s knife to him after the difficulty.

“The bowie knife with which Cyrus Turner was killed was given by Mr. Clay to my father a few days after the Foxtown tragedy, and while Mr. Clay was still confined to his bed from his wounds. My father gave the knife to me some years before his death and I now have it in my possession. A relative of Mr. Clay came to my house a few years ago for the purpose of seeing the knife. It is a splendid piece of steel with a German silver handle and ornaments.

“About three years ago I visited Mr. Clay in response to an urgent invitation from him, and I mentioned the fact that I still had the famous knife used by him in the Foxtown fight in 1849 and he expressed himself as gratified that the son of his old friend was thoughtful enough to preserve it.”

Gen. Clay, whose mind probably is not clear about events which happened over fifty years ago, stated to the physicians who visited that the knife he had in his room was the same he used in both the fights referred to and that he had the cannon which he brought back from Mexico with him in the house, loaded and ready to repel an attack. It is a mistake, so old citizens state, that he brought any cannon from Mexico with him. The cannon which he had in the newspaper office in Lexington, of which he had only one, he purchased in Cincinnati, so those who remember the circumstances stated on yesterday.
What to make of this? Clay was a wealthy man and had a lifelong affection for the bowie knife, so why would he have had to borrow one? It is likely that he owned several--they were not particularly expensive.

William Henry Townsend (1890 - 1964) wrote a biography of Clay, The Lion of White Hall. He also gave a lecture with that title in 1953, and it was in that lecture that he put forth the claim that Clay had written a manual on bowie-knife fighting. Clay mentions writing no such manual in his autobiography, and there is no record of anyone having seen such a thing, though Townsend "quoted" from it in his speech. Townsend had a reputation as a raconteur, implying that his audience expected him to deliver a good story rather than a dry recitation of fact.

Townsend also wrote Lincoln and the Bluegrass: Slavery and Civil War in Kentucky, and in that book he has photographs of several knives in his personal collection that he says belonged to Clay.
It is certainly plausible that the above knives belonged to Clay. The silver-handled knife resembles the "dress-up bowie" described in the newspaper article above, as well as in Clay's autobiography. The folder is a large Henckels lock-blade knife from the late 19th century. The same type of knife was used by Clay's nephew, Col. William Cassius Goodloe, in his knife-vs.-pistol fight with Col. Armstead Swope in 1889, in which both men were killed. Learning of Goodloe's performance,  Clay is reported to have said, "I couldn't have done better myself."
Here is a picture of a Henckels knife similar to the own shown above. It has a corkscrew and a single damascened blade. I find it very handsome, and if some reputable firm were to make a modern day replica, with good steel, I don't think I could resist buying one. (Please make the corkscrew optional.)
The knife shown above was said to have been designed by Clay, who had it constructed by a silversmith and presented to his fellow abolitionist, Rev. Robert J. Breckinridge, for self defense. It was designed to be worn upside-down in a shoulder rig. A release on the handle causes it to jump from its metal sheath under spring pressure. Here's another knife design that surely would find a foothold in today's market!

I admit I'm a little skeptical about the provenance of this knife, which is from Townsend's collection. How do we know Clay had anything to do with its design and construction? We only know because Townsend said so in his book. Clay never mentioned anything about this knife and as far as I know there is no other evidence supporting Townsend's claim. It is not unusual for people who own an unusual old artifact to try to boost its value by linking it to some famous figure.

I have found no other mention of knives believed to have belonged to Clay.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Cassius Marcellus Clay: Kentucky Gladiator

Cassius Marcellus Clay (1810 – 1903)

Frank G. Carpenter, a distinguished 19th-century journalist and author, wrote a lengthy profile of the fighting abolitionist, Cassius Marcellus Clay, that was published in the Sacramento, California, Record-Union on November 14, 1891. Clay was probably the foremost bowie-knife fighter of the 19th century and figures prominently in my book. In this interview he describes two of his bowie-knife fights, as well as several other of his many affrays. He was to have another confrontation before his death, killing two men who broke into his house, one with his pistol and one with his knife.

NOTE: The term "rencounter" refers to a spontaneous fight, as opposed to a duel.

General Cassius M. Clay Talks of His Duels and Fights.
How He Caned Dr. Declarey, With General J. S. Rollins as Second--His Feud With Tom Marshall--Terrible Battle With. Sam Brown--A Narrow Escape.
Frank G. Carpenter, writing from Richmond, Ky., to the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, gives the following reminiscences of the life of a distinguished Kentuckian:

The life of General Cassius M. Clay has been one of constant fighting. Kentucky has always been a hot-blooded State. Here a word is always followed by a blow, and an insult has to be wiped out in death. Life is of less account here than in the North, and it was of still less value in the days of Gen. Clay's youth, nearly two generations ago. It is sixty years now since he delivered the Washington Centennial oration at Yale College, in which he espoused the cause of the negro and became the most hated man in Kentucky among the slaveholders. All his life he has had to fight for his ideas, and the stories of his personal encounters read like a romance. It was during the later part of my visit at "White Hall" this week, while we were sitting one evening before the coals of his library fire, that I drew General Clay on to talk of some of these fights, and I could almost see the combats in the coals as in cool, but graphic language he brought them back from the memories of the past.

Said he: "I have never courted trouble with anyone, but I have never gone out of the way to avoid it. I have had a number of rencounters, and I have never been whipped in my life, except by my mother and by my elder brother, I remember the first and only whipping I got from my brother. He was older than I was and a great deal stronger, and I was accustomed to tease him and play tricks upon him, until one day we were out trimming some trees in the orchard. The trees were rather high, and my brother had made a little ladder to enable him to get up into them. He took one row of trees and I took another, and I would put away his ladder and take it over to my row so that he had to jump down and get it when he wanted to go to a new tree. He objected several times. Notwithstanding this, I still kept at it, and he caught me and threw me down and whipped me with some of the long sprouts or trimmings of the trees. These sprouts were very supple, and I can almost feel their stings yet. I appreciated, however, the justice of the whipping, and did not cry. I rose laughing, but from that time I did not take my brother's ladder, and I stopped teasing him."

"When did you have your first duel, General?" I asked.

"My first duel," replied General Clay, "terminated without either party firing a shot. It occurred when I was 23, fifty-eight years ago. I was engaged to be married, and I had a rival suitor who, in spite of my success, wrote a letter to my sweetheart's mother, in which he made a number of very obnoxious charges concerning me. The letter should never have been shown me, but the mother of my affianced wife did hand it to me and asked me to explain it. I explained it by going to Louisville on a hunt for the man who had written it. He was a doctor, and his name was Declarey. A friend of mine went with me, and as soon as we got to the city I went into a cooper shop and got a good tough hickory cane about as big around as your finger. I saw Dr. Declarey on the street and went up to him and asked him if his name was Declarey. He replied that it was, and I then told him I would like to have a talk with him. This was on one of the main streets of Louisville, and though I intended to cane him I did not want to do it where a crowd would rush in and prevent my giving him the punishment he deserved, so I quietly turned our promenade off into a side street. In the meantime my friend, James S. Rollins, afterward noted during the war as General Rollins, walked along the other side of the street and watched me. When I had gotten Declarey into a cross street I said, 'Dr. Declarey. I am Cassius M. Clay, about whom you have taken the trouble to write in this letter, and I would like to know whether you can give me any explanation of your action.' I then showed him the letter, but he said nothing. I then raised my cane and began to cane him. He cried out and a crowd soon collected, but Rollins, by spreading out his arms and running in again and again, pretending to separate us, actually kept back the crowd until I was able to give him a good caning. I expected that Declarey would challenge me, and I had brought Rollins along to act as my second. I was not disappointed. A few hours after the caning I got a challenge. We fixed a place in Indiana, just over the river, and the time was the next day.When we got there we found that there was a great mob of Declarey's friends on the ground, and General Rollins refused to allow the fight to [go] on. We thereupon chose another place, but Declarey's mob followed us there. The next day was to have been my wedding day, and I had to go to meet it. Declarey wanted me to come back after I was married, but I decidedly objected to breaking up my honeymoon in this way. He afterward said that he intended to cowhide me the next time he saw me, and I went to Louisville to give him a chance. I went to his hotel, but he was not in the dining-room, and had not yet come into dinner. I waited for an hour, but he did not come, and I then went into the dining-room and leaned against the pillar, intending to wait for him. As I stood there I heard someone rise behind me. I turned and saw Declarey. He was as pale as death, and I saw the Dominick in him. [NOTE: I don’t know what that means. ] He did not hold my eye, but got up and went out. I staid for a short time longer, and finding that he did not intend to fight went back home. A man who acted in this way could not at that time be respected in Kentucky, and Declarey committed suicide the next evening by cutting his throat.

 White Hall, Clay's stately home.

"It was a curious thing," mused General Clay, as he poked up the dying embers of the fire into a glow, "that a man will have the bravery to commit suicide, and still not have enough physical courage to fight. I have had a "number of such instances in my life. It was so with Tom Marshall, who was so famous as an orator in Kentucky. There had been for a year a feud between the Clays and the Marshalls. Henry Clay, you know, had a duel with Humphrey Marshall, and Tom Marshall and myself were enemies for years. My first trouble with him was at the time I was the editor of the True American, and Marshall headed the mob which was raised to kill me and demolish the paper. I got two four-pound brass cannons and put them up in my office, and loaded them with shot and nails. I had them on a table, and their mouths were just as high as a man's breast and they faced the door. If a mob attempted to enter I expected to shoot right into it, and I had inside of the office also a keg of powder which I expected to blow up with a match and send my enemies into eternity if they succeeded in capturing the office. Well, the mob attacked me, but I was not killed. Some time after this I went to the Mexican war as a Captain of a company. Tom Marshall was a Captain of another company of the same regiment, and I decided to settle my trouble with him before I got through the war. He was drunk about half the time, and I believe he often cultivated drunkenness in order to enable him to say mean things and not to be called to account for them. I expected to have a duel with him, and I got a stone and sharpened my sword until it shone like silver and had an edge like a razor. I gave him one or two chances to challenge me, but he did not do so, and at last, one day when we were pitching camp, Marshall rode down into my quarters. He may have been drunk--he may have mistaken my company for his. At any rate he came up to me and made some insulting remark. I rose and said: 'Tom Marshall, we may as well settle our feud, and now is as good, a time as any. Get down from your horse and we will fight it out.' He replied: 'Not now. Some other time.' I here drew my sword and said: 'The time for men who wear swords is now. You chose your own time to mob me at Lexington, and you are a coward if you refrain on account of your surroundings.' Marshall hereupon rode over to his tent. In a few moments he came back with his pistol. I saw him and went into my tent and got mine. I came one with one in each hand. They were cocked, and I said: 'I am ready for you.'

"He was a coward, and he was afraid to fire. He turned his horse and rode back to his tent. That same evening he tried to drown himself in the Rio Grande River, but the men saw him and prevented him. He was afraid to fight, but he was not afraid to commit suicide. Had we fought with swords I would have carved him like a pancake."

"Do you remember any other instances?"
"Yes," replied General Clay. "I suppose I could give others. It is curious that even a brave man when he is once beaten hates to encounter the same man again. I can only explain the fact that I was not challenged by Sam Brown after our terrible fight on these grounds."

"What was the fight, General?"

"It arose out of a Congressional contest," replied General Clay. "I was a candidate against a man named Wickliffe, and Wickliffe introduced my wife's name into one of his speeches. I challenged him, and we fired at ten paces. Both of us missed, and I raised my pistol up into the air and demanded a second fire. The seconds would not permit this, and we left the ground without reconciliation or an apology on either side. As I look over the matter now I don't believe that our seconds had loaded our pistols with balls, and I did not see how I could have missed. I was an excellent shot, and was accustomed to shooting with a rifle and a revolver. One of my favorite amusements was squirrel shooting, and I could shoot the heads off of eleven out of twelve squirrels when out hunting. You know if a squirrel sees you and runs up a tree, and you remain quiet, as soon as he gets into whatever he considers a safe place, he will poke bis head out and look to see where you are, and the skill in squirrel shooting is to shoot off the head of the squirrel.

"Well, Wickliffe here had the worst of the fight, and during the canvass for Congress I was making a very good opposition to him, much to the disgust of the pro-slavery party. He had a hand-bill which he read during his speech. We had our speeches together, and when he brought this bill I always rose and asked if I might interrupt him. He would politely consent, and I would then say the hand-bill he had read was untrue and had been proven so. The pro-slavery men got tired of this, and they decided to kill me. They sent for Sam Brown, who was one of the most noted bullies of Kentucky. It is said that he had had forty fights, and had never lost a battle. Brown came, and he and Wickliffe, a fellow named Jacob Ashton and Ben Wood, a police bully, held a consultation, at which they loaded a pistol which Brown was to use upon me the next day. I knew nothing of this and I had not my dueling pistols with me. I interrupted Wickliffe, as usual, and as I did so Brown struck me with his umbrella, and told me that my statement was a damned lie.

I saw at once that it meant fight, and when I recognized Brown I knew it meant fight to the death. I had a long, sharp bowie-knife in the breast of my coat, and I jerked this out, and before I could strike Brown's friends grabbed my arms from behind and hauled me about fifteen feet from Brown. Brown now pulled his revolver and told them to get out of the way and to let him kill me. The crowd got back and I stood alone. Brown had his pistol pointed at me, and I started toward him. I could see him looking along the barrel of the revolver. He took aim and waited until he thought I was close enough to give him a sure shot, and then fired. I felt the ball strike me in the breast, and I thought it had gone through me, and I determined to kill him if I could before I died. I came down on his head with a tremendous blow with the bowie-knife, but did not split open his skull. I struck again and again, and stunned him so that he was not able to fire. With one cut of the knife I sliced his nose right in two, so that it separated right in the middle and came out as flat as a pancake. With another blow I cut off his ear so that it hung by a shred, and with a third I put out his eye. The conspirators now seized me, and I was struck with hickory sticks and chairs, some of the blows of which I still feel. I broke loose from my captors and again made for Brown, and they, to keep him out of my way, picked him up and threw him over a stone fence about seven feet high, and thus ended the fight. Though I was the assaulted party, they afterward tried me for mayhem, and at this trial Brown confessed the conspiracy, and Henry Clay defended me. Of course I was not convicted, but I felt very friendly to Brown, and wrote him a note thanking him for his evidence and telling him I was willing to be friends with him if he cared to be so. He refused, however, to bury the hatchet, and when I remembered his condition I did not wonder at it. The doctors had patched him up pretty well, but he was a horrible looking object, and I expected that he would insist upon a duel with me, or would attack me and have his revenge. I met him several times afterward, however, and he never touched me. I have no doubt that he staid in Lexington intending to kill me, but the probability is that he had not the courage to attack me."

"Where did Brown's ball strike you, General?" said I.

"It struck me just over the heart," replied General Clay, "and I would have been killed but for one thing. The scabbard of my bowie-knife was tipped with silver, and in jerking the knife I pulled this scabbard up so that it was just over my heart. Brown's bullet struck the scabbard, and imbedded itself in the silver, and we found the ball there. There was a red spot just over my heart, and the whole seemed almost providential."

After General Clay said this he leaned his head on his hand anil looked for some moments into the fire in deep thought. He was apparently living the fight over again, and I interrupted him and asked him if he had ever been so close to death since that time. He replied: "I don't know, but I think I have been within an ace of death a half dozen times since my fight with Brown. I was nearly killed within a mile of this house at Foxtown, the cross roads where you turned off from the pike to come into White Hall. This was during one of the political campaigns in 1849, and when I was I having a sort of a political discussion with a man named Turner. We spoke together, and I was against slavery and Turner was for it. All the slaveholders were with Turner, and knew that my situation was a dangerous one. I carried my pistols with me everywhere, but at Foxtown I left them in my carpetbag and was armed only with a bowie-knife. At this meeting our debate grew very hot, and Turner's son rushed in and struck me and told me I lied. I knew this meant fight, and that there was a conspiracy against me. I drew my bowie knife, but was seized by about twenty of the conspirators and hauled back, and my knife was jerked from me. I first thought that the men were only trying to prevent a light, and I did not make much resistance. But as soon as I lost my knife they began to pound me with clubs, and some one behind me stabbed me in the breast, reaching around in front. The knife entered my lung. It cut apart my breast bone, and I bled like a stuck pig. I thought I was killed, and determined to kill the man who had incited the mob. I grabbed my bowie knife in my fingers, catching it by the blade and the handle, and cutting the flesh through to the bone. You can see the scars now,'' and with that General Clay held out his hand, on the two fingers of which were seen great white scars where the bowie knife had cut them.

"Well, I got the knife and I flourished it around my head with my bloody hand. The crowd disappeared as I cried out, 'Get out of the way,' and I rushed for Turner. I cut him in the abdomen, but as I drew the knife from him I almost fainted from the loss of blood, and fell saying I died for the liberties of my country. At this time my boy ran in with my revolvers, but it was too late and I could not use them. The crowd thought that I was dead, and this saved my life. They carried me home and I lay between life and death for some days. I did not think I was going to die, and I would not let the doctor touch me. I would not let them change my clothes, and I lay for days drenched in blood. After sometime, however, I began to mend, my wounds healed and I got well again. As for Turner, he died. This affray caused much discussion among the abolitionists of the North, and not a few of them criticised me not a little severely for fighting. They thought I ought to have submitted and let them kill me, and Dr. Bailey, an editor of a paper in Washington, said I would have done a great deal of good to the cause if I had died, and remarked, 'That the blood of the faithful is the seed of the Church.'"

As he said this, rather a humorous but vindictive smile spread over General Clay's face, and he paid his respects to the New England abolitionists in language that was both emphatic and graphic. He referred also to the ingratitude of the negroes for the kindness which were done to them by the whites, and I asked him as to the killing of Perry White.

General Clay has, perhaps, done more for the negro than any other man in the South. He freed his slaves and fought for the abolition of slavery when no other man dared to speak or act for them. After the war was over he came back to Kentucky and lived quietly at White Hall, devoting his chief time to study. He had with him his adopted son, Launey Clay, a little boy of 4, whom he had brought with him from Russia, and he lived alone with Launey and his servants at White Hall. His servants robbed him, right and left. They stole his silver and his furniture, and systematically plundered his plantation. They poisoned his son and attempted to poison him, and when he discharged them one of them threatened to murder him. Clay warned him to keep off of the place. White left, but sent letters saying he intended to kill Clay. One morning while out riding General Clay saw him on his plantation concealed in the woods. General Clay jumped from his horse, and, believing that the negro intended to kill him, drew his revolver, got the drop on him and told him to throw up his hands. He then began to give him a lecture, and to ask him why he had threatened his life, when Perry White put down his hands and jerked out his pistol. General Clay then fired and struck the negro in the neck. He fired a second time and shot him through the heart. He was tried for the shooting, but was acquitted on the ground of self-defense. I walked with General Clay over the place where the shooting occurred. It was within a stone's throw of the house, and the General said that he had no doubt that he would have been a dead man if he had not killed White.

General Clay is now nearly 82 years of age. But he is still a dangerous man to fool with. Quiet in his mien and gentle in his conversation, he would resent an insult as quickly to-day as when he was in his prime, and, in self-defense, I am sure, would be equal to the average men of half his years. It is now only a few years ago since he came very near having a duel with Julian Hawthorne, the novelist. Hawthorne had reviewed a copy of General Clay's memoirs, and in his review had criticised Clay severely, and had discussed the subject of the chastity of his wife. Said General Clay: "I was very angry. I did not believe that I could make anything out of the man by suing him, and I determined to make him apologize or fight. I wrote to Colonel W. G. Terrill of Washington, asking him to act as my second, and I also wrote to Whitelaw Reid, inclosing a letter to Hawthorne, which I asked him to publish if his relations toward Hawthorne were such that he could do so without affecting them. In this letter I told Mr. Hawthorne that the article which he had published concerning me, in which he had used the name of my wife was false, and that he had attributed language in that article to me which I had never uttered, and that I demanded an unequivocal retraction of everything he had said about her in the article, and that this retraction should be so published that it would have as wide a circulation as his article had had. I told him that I would give him an opportunity of withdrawing his allegations, and my letter was so written that between the lines you could sec that I meant he would have to fight if he did not withdraw them. Well, I sent this letter to Mr. Reid. He replied that he was a friend to Hawthorne, and that he could not publish the letter, but that he would refer the matter to Hawthorne. Hawthorne got the letter and appreciated the situation. He wrote a retraction that was perfectly satisfactory and published it. This ended the matter. Had he not done so I would have challenged him, and if he had refused to accept the challenge I would have shot him in the streets. As to what this article said about me I did not care. It was bitter and unjust, but I am accustomed to such attacks. I did object, however, to what he said about my family, and I made him retract his remarks
concerning my wife."

By this time the fire had burned low in the great open fireplace. The hands of the clock on the mantel pointed to the hour of 12, and the General arose and gave me a light, telling me that he thought it was time for us to retire. Before leaving I asked bim what he thought of the code duello. He replied: "I am opposed to it on principle, and I think it is a savage way of settling a difficulty, but there are some cases for which it seems to be the only remedy, and I don't know whether it is a good thing or not. In all my life I have never courted a quarrel, and in the case of Tom Marshall he began the feud by attacking me at Lexington. I believe it is a man's duty to defend himself when attacked, and such rencounters as I have had have been brought about by my enemies."