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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.

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