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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."

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