New copies of my book Bowie Knife Fights, Fighters, and Fighting Techniques are now available from Amazon at $24.95.
This blog contains additional information about the bowie knife, as well as the fighting knives of other nations.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

An Old Hunter and the Bears

Another report of man-bear combat appeared in the Denver Tribune and was reprinted in the New York Times in 1884:
An Old Hunter and the Bears.

“Mountain Jim,” whose real name was James Nugent, was one of the old pioneers who antedated the '59ers by several years. He lived a hermit kind of life in Estes Park, making an occasional trapping and visiting trip to acquaintances of his own class in other parts of the State. He was a man of tremendous physical power, whose arm, shoulder, and back muscles stood out in rolls and balls, and he was, withal, as agile as a cat. On one of his trips to Middle Park he left camp at Hot Sulphur Springs one morning to kill a deer. Two or three hours afterward comrade found him lying in the woods, senseless, bleeding, and mangled. In one hand was a large bloody bowie knife, his gun lay close by but not discharged, and out of his revolver one shot had been fired. Across his legs lay a huge bear, and on either side was another, three in all, dead, cut, and slashed with the bowie knife. Jim was carried to camp, carefully nursed, saved, but horribly disfigured. His scalp as torn loose and hung over his face, his face was lacerated and the sight of one eye destroyed, one arm was broken and he was torn more or less all over his body. He gave the reporter an account of his fight. He said he was passing around the roots of a large pine tree which had blown down, its roots tearing up a large quantity of earth which had adhered to them, leaving a large hole. Just as he stepped around the roots he found himself face to face with a bear, which, surprised, immediately attacked him. He had no time to use his gun or to dodge away. He drew his knife and the fight began. He said he knew there were other bears there and that he was fighting more than one. He did not know how many--it seemed as though the woods were full of them. He had no distinct recollection of using his revolver, though it was evident that he had used it, for one cartridge was empty, and one of the bears had a bullet in his head. All that he could tell about it was that it was strike and dodge and stab and cut, and he did not know just how he was hurt.

Jim was never the same kind of a man after the fight that he was before. His brain was affected. He returned to his cabin in Estes Park and became possessed of the idea that that country was his. He resented any attempts to settle it. Griffith Evans, the first permanent settler in the Park, moved in there with his family, and one day, in a quarrel with Jim, was obliged to shoot him in self-defense. From the effects of the wound he died a few months afterward, in Fort Collins.
Here's another account from The Story of Estes Park, Grand Lake and Rocky Mountain National Park (1917), which reduces the body count of bears to one:
July 6, 1869, he lost an eye and very nearly lost his life, in a fight with a bear in Middle Park. While creeping upon some deer, near Grand Lake, armed with only a revolver and knife, his dog came running up, closely pursued by a bear and her cubs. The bear at once turned on Jim, who fired four shots into her before she downed him; then with his knife he continued fighting until he became unconscious. He was lying in a pool of blood when he came to, and near by was the dead bear. He was very weak and terribly "chawed up." His left arm was dislocated, his scalp nearly torn off, and one eye was missing. He crawled to his camp, mounted his faithful mule and started for Grand Lake. Twice he became unconscious and fell off. But each time, when he revived, the mule was found grazing near by, and remounting with great pain and difficulty, the journey was continued. At Grand Lake his yells for a time frightened the few settlers, who were expecting an Indian raid. When, at last, they ventured out and found Jim lying unconscious, one remarked: "Indians are 'round, sure; here is a man scalped."
That seems a bit more credible, but the other version appeared in the New York Times so it must be true.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Man vs. Bear Bowie-Knife Story

A "man with bowie knife versus bear with claws" story from California was published in Baily's Magazine of Sports and Pastimes (1861):
A very dreadful occurrence took place whilst I was at these diggings. A splendid athletic negro, full six feet two inches tall, and of amazing strength, was at work here. One morning he went to a favourite spring in the forest for some clear water, armed only with a bowie knife; when passing carelessly along, a she-bear rose at him, and he had only time to draw his knife and throw up his arms, when she closed. With one hand he seized her throat in his giant grasp; held her at arm's length, and with his right hand plunged his knife again and again in her side; but the bear was mangling him horribly all the time, yet he never loosened his hold or relaxed his knife-thrusts, and so they fought on in dreadful conflict, the beast tearing off his flesh, and the man standing nobly to the fight, until both sank from loss of blood, and struggled on the ground for bare life; the bear's blood was welling from her wounds, and soddening the grass where they lay, making 'the green, one red.' The negro finding the bear growing feeble, and himself faint, exerted his remaining strength, and struck home his knife into her vitals; then relinquishing his throat-hold for the first time, he rolled over to escape her claws in her desperate death-throes. His cries for help had attracted some diggers working near, who arrived when it was over, and found the negro dying and the bear dead; and her two small spiteful cubs sitting amazed at their dead dam. The man still breathed, and tearing off their shirts, the diggers bound up his wounds: placing him on a litter made of branches, they conveyed him to camp, where he was attended by a digger doctor: and for the moment he rallied, so well indeed, as to give us briefly this account; but he gradually sank away, and in two days more we buried him on the hill side: a crowd of diggers followed, and we laid him down amongst others who had passed away in the wilderness, and set a cross over him, though he was certainly a black, and most likely not even a Christian.

Peace be to his ashes; he was a brave man.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Slim Stiletto: The Hatpin

An assortment of vintage hatpins.

Among the items women have carried for self-defense over the years the hatpin stands out as a unique dual-purpose implement. In the late 19th and early 20th century it was the fashion among women to wear really big hats secured to the hair with really big hatpins, which had a jeweled or decorative head and a pointed steel shaft that might be as long as 15 inches. Due to the small diameter of the shaft, as weapons hatpins were better suited to inflicting pain than serious injury, but there were cases in which they inflicted mortal wounds.

In 1900, the Chicago Tribune published a tabulation of the different weapons used by women in the previous year's assaults. The broom handle topped the list with 186 instances, and a baby bottle held last place, wielded as a weapon only once. Involved in 55 assaults, hatpins were ranked between thrown plates (73) and hair brushes and hand mirrors (48).

Legislation was eventually passed prohibiting excessively long hatpins, not only for their deadly potential but for the proverbial "you could put someone's eye out with that" problem. The pointy end of hatpins often extended well beyond the hat and, unless capped like a fencing foil, posed a risk to everyone nearby. In the end, it was mostly the change in women’s fashions that removed these slim stilettos from the streets.

Here are some reports of the hatpin’s employment as a weapon:

Daily Star, 1898:
Sadie Williams, of this city [Chicago], vindicated the reputation of the hatpin as a woman's most efficient weapon, and drove two robbers from a Blue Island avenue car, preventing them from robbing the conductor. Miss Williams then promptly went into hysterics of the usual sort.

At 8 A.M. recently she and another woman were the only passengers in the car when two men jumped upon it. Conductor Symington went inside to collect the women's fares, and while he was taking the money one of the men grabbed him around the waist while the other began rifling his pockets.

Miss Williams started up and drawing a long hatpin from her hat rushed to the rescue. She stuck the pin into each of the robbers, one of whom turned upon her and knocked her down, trying at the same time to seize her purse. She recovered herself and flew at him, sticking the pin into his neck.

With a yell he sprang back, and the plucky girl turned to the other man and plunged the long pin as far as it would go three times into the robber, and then flew at the first man again, stabbing him in the face.

The robbers retreated, still pursued by Miss Williams who struck them at every step until they finally took to their heels and escaped.

Symington says he surely would have been robbed if it had not been for the plucky girl. After the men had gone and the conductor went to congratulate Miss Williams she was found to have collapsed and had become hysterical, but she soon recovered.
San Francisco Call, 1905:
OAKLAND, July 24.— A courageous woman armed with a hatpin put a cowardly man to flight last night just as effectively as a policeman's club could have done. Miss Lillian Lundquist, a searcher of records, who lives with her mother at 2132 Adeline street, is the heroine. She was returning home from the theater last night and had left the car at Thirty-fourth and Adeline streets when she was accosted by a man, who, after following her for a few steps, caught her by the arm, exclaiming as he did so: "Now I have you; you are the one I want." With a scream the girl attempted to tear herself from the man's grasp, but he was too strong. Then she reached up and drew a hatpin from the back of her hat and drove it into the man's side. With a cry of pain the fellow released the young woman and ran down the street.

Miss Lundquist on her arrival home told her brother, Theodore J. Lundquist, of what had taken place. The latter at once started out to find the man who had made the attack, but after a long search he was forced to give up the quest.

Miss Lundquist is certain that she inflicted a severe wound on her assailant.
Big hats need big hatpins.

Middletown Daily News-Signal, 1907
Chicago. --A hand-to-hand battle, in which an 18-year-old girl fought off a man who attacked her, took place on a lonely bit of railroad track between Indiana Harbor and Clarke, Ind. The heroine of the occasion was Miss Grace Stults, daughter of P.M. Stults, general superintendent of the Illinois Steel company yards at South Chicago. The villain was a heavy-browed, bewhiskered individual. When attacked the girl brought her hatpin into play, stabbing her assailant in the face and stomach. The man slipped and, striking his head against the rail, was stunned. Realizing her advantage, the girl knelt on his chest and, seizing the man by the throat, repeatedly bumped his head on the steel rail. He became unconscious and she fled down the track.
New York Times, 1908:
With a hatpin in each hand Mrs. Mary E. Markey of 117 Sands Street, Brooklyn, stood off four men who attacked her in East New York last night in a lonely street. She stabbed one of them several times and each of his companions received at least one thrust of the woman's weapons.

The woman was returning home when, in Vesta Avenue, near Glenmore Avenue, the men attacked her. They demanded her purse and whatever jewelry she wore. One of them seized her by the arm with a grasp so strong that his fingers bruised the flesh.

The rough treatment and her peril suddenly inspired the victim with daring. Like a flash she drew two hatpins and drove the shaft of one deep into the shoulder of the man who held her. The other men endeavored to hold her, but she was too quick for them. Her attack on the four with the hatpins was too much and they ran. Policeman James Brown of the Brownsville Station heard her shrieks and ran up. Three of the men escaped. The fourth, Andrew Antrun, 29 years, of 753 Liberty Avenue, was locked up in the Brownsville Station charged by Mrs. Markey with assault and attempted robbery.
Clifford Griffith Roe’s Panders and Their White Slaves (1910) tells the story of a 15-year-old immigrant in Chicago who was lured into the den of a prostitution ring:
She was taken into a levee resort and when her companion escorted her into a room, where there were five men, rough of aspect and powerful of stature, they leaped at the victim and bore her into an inner room. The girl struggled violently and finally freed one arm. She drew her long hat pin from her hat and with it stabbed two of her captors, who released their hold sufficiently to permit her feet to reach the floor. She sprang towards the door. The men followed. Again the girl faced them with the uplifted hat pin, and they stood back and cowered in fear. She sprang for the door and escaped, screaming.

Upon reaching the street she ran into a policeman and fell into his arms, but as she could speak no English he could not understand. Finally detectives were found who could speak her language and they hunted down the panderess, who was well known to the police, and also caught two of the men.
One of the most interesting stories I came across in which the hatpin was featured as a weapon involved German-born singer and movie star Marlene Dietrich (1901-1992). According to a new biography of Dietrich, at the onset of World War II she told fellow actor Douglas Fairbanks Jr. of a plan she had to seduce and assassinate Adolph Hitler. She claimed she did not pursue the idea because she couldn't figure out how to smuggle in a murder weapon, although she did consider using a poisoned hatpin. Her plan was to agree to make one film in Germany, on the condition that she could have a meeting with the Fuhrer alone. She told Fairbanks, “I would gush over how I feel about him, intimating that I am desperately in love with him. I've heard Hitler likes me and I'm certain he would agree.”

Realizing she would be searched, she was prepared to go into Hitler's bedroom naked if necessary, armed only with a poisoned hairpin. Not certain that would be adequate, she asked Fairbanks if he had a better idea. “I never thought of anything,” he said.

I can't really see this plan working out, but still, a Hitler assassination plot, a naked Marlene Dietrich, and a poisoned hatpin. . . sounds like box-office gold!

There is more information on hatpins as weapons at the Bartitsu website.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

A Corset Knife

 An antique gilt bronze sculpture of a nude dancer with knife.

Revelations of Spain in 1845, by T. M. Hughes, contains a description of a corset knife carried by a Spanish woman:
It was a perfect model, that, of a dangerous cuchillo, a blade six inches long, worn in the bosom of a high dress, standing longitudinally like a whalebone, or its steel substitute. In this sultry climate stays are very little worn, and not at all by the common people. Jacinta never wore such a thing, and would have despised the encumbrance. It was for no coquettish purpose that she wore this steel support, but for needful protection; and, if required, to strike in revenge. A strong shagreen [leather] case was sewn into the bosom of her dress, where the poniard rested as in a sheath; and at the point, to prevent any accidental puncturing of the skin, was strongly stitched a small plate, likewise of steel. The handle was of ebony, bound round with brass wire to impart firmness to the grasp; and on the end was a plate of hollowed brass, to give purchase to the ball of the thumb, and assist its muscular energy, in the act familiar to all Spaniards of striking with the little finger towards the antagonist, and striking upwards.

The blade was from Toledo, which still retains its "trusty" reputation, neither inlaid nor damasked, but of the purest steel and finest temper; it was as sharp at both edges as at the point, and transpierced a dollar without bending. Such was the familiar plaything of Jacinta of San Salvador's — the dangerous toy which dwelt habitually in her bosom, and whose presence there no one would have ever suspected — so uniformly erect was her figure, so firm her aplomb, so shapely her contour, and so sustained her movements. The perfect elasticity of the steel which composed the blade made it bend to the slightest pressure when she stooped; and thus, while it would protect her in case of need, it served the graceful uses of a corset. To think that death should repose so near the source of life! That so rigid and terrible a weapon should be enshrined on that charming wave — those throbbing pulses of delight!

Except amongst the higher classes, many women are as regularly provided with a knife as a rosario [rosary beads], and prepared to stab (if needful) as well as pray. The knives of the men here are of a peculiar make. When shut they are of great length, and open they are like a sabre. The name of this weapon is navaja; and the aim, when used, is invariably to rip up the entrails. I have already described Jacinta's cuchillo, which was worn in a peculiar manner. The Triana women and lower classes of Sevillians carry their knives, for the most part, like the Manolas of Madrid, in their garter. So attached do they become to this mode, that even Lola Montés, the dancer, was found to carry a knife thus the other day at Warsaw.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Dirk-Fighter: Michael Dunbar

An account of Scotsman Michael Dunbar (1622-1722) in Alexander Laing's The Donean Tourist (1828) tells of his use of the dirk:
In this parish [Auchindoir] lived the eccentric Michael Dunbar, in the latter end of the 17th and beginning of the 18th century, who lived by plunder and murder. He was always held out as a weakly person, and when any stranger inquired the way to the castle of Kildrummy, he feigned his weakness, and was often mounted on horseback behind the person; at the first opportunity, Michael never failed to dispatch the stranger, with a dirk which he wore concealed under his white flannel jerkin, and lighting from the horse, plundered the stranger, and walked nimbly home. This truly Caledonian Nero used to say at night, when his dirk was not stained with blood, Diem perdidit, (“I have lost a day”).

When Michael was on his deathbed, the parochial clergyman, Rev. William Thain, made him a visit, and asked, if he was not grieved at a retrospection of his life? To which no answer was returned, he feigning deafness and blindness. After a short prayer, which was to him as an untold tale, the clergyman withdrew to a company in the other end, when the dying man vociferated, “Is the bastard gone?”

And being answered in the negative, he turned round and remained quiet for some minutes, when he again repeated the question; the divine, willing to know the result, desired them to answer in the affirmative; which being done, the Cateran [robber] moved to his elbow, and said, “O the Hounds of Hell go with the bastard”; then turning round, took up his dirk, which lay beside him in the bed, turned it round, surveying some marks of blood on the blade, brandished it and said, “Here is the arm and dirk which let seven souls out of their bodies in one night.”

This man lived to the advanced age of 101, and was buried in the church-yard of Kildrummy, with a flat stone over his grave, on which his name and age can be traced.
A Guide to Donside (1852) puts a different slant on the story--now the men he killed in one night are hated British troops and their number has grown to 26:
When on his death-bead, the parochial clergyman, the Rev. William Thain, paid him a visit, and asked if he was grieved at his past life. On this he turned round and took up his dirk, that was lying in the bed beside him, and said, "Here is the arm and dirk that sent six and-twenty red coats to eternity in one night, and surely that will make up for some of my misdeeds."

It seems that a party of the soldiers stationed at Corgarff had been drinking in a public house in the neighbourhood; and on Dunbar learning it, he took his station at the outer door, and, one by one, as the soldiers came out, dispatched them with his dirk. It is believed that this dirk is now in the possession of a reverend gentleman, near Kildrummy. He died at the advanced age of one hundred and one, and a flat stone in the churchyard of Kildrummy, bearing his name and age, marks his grave.
In yet another version of Dunbar's career, from Epitaphs & Inscriptions from Burial Grounds & Old Buildings in the North-East of Scotland, the dead are now cattle thieves and their number is 15:
According to tradition, Michael Dunbar was a sort of brigand, who lived by murder and plunder; but inquiry shows that this was not the fact. Being a man of great bodily strength and daring, he was made Captain of the parish of Kildrummy, or the leader of those who, as was essential in these times, combined to protect their lives and property against the incursions of the Cateran, or Highland robbers, in the course of which, Michael had doubtless led a rough enough life. Michael, who was a Roman Catholic, and a keen supporter of the Stuarts, dwelt in the Den of Kildrummy; and it is told that, when upon his death-bed, Mr. Miln, the parish minister, paid him a visit; and, while exhorting Michael upon the rough life he had led, and that he had much need to repent of his sins, Michael replied—" Repent o' my sins! What the deevil cou'd I dee whan thae Heelan' thieves cam' doun to take awa' our nowt?" [What the devil could I do when those Highland thieves came down to take away our cattle?]

"Ah, but Michael," said the parson, "that 'll a' stand against them at the Day o' Judgment."

"Weel, weel," quo' Michael, "ilka chiel' 'll get's ain then!" [Well, well, every fellow will get his own then!]

And, grasping a dirk which lay beside him in the bed, he exclaimed, to the terror of the minister, who, it is said, made a quick retreat— "That's the hand, an' that's the dirk that loot oot fifteen sauls o' them a' in ae nicht!" [That's the hand and that's the dirk that let out fifteen souls of them in one night!]

Monday, April 18, 2011

Movie Knife Fights

When people discuss the most memorable knife fights in movies, one that always comes up is the climactic one in "Hunted."

My problem with this scene, as well as most movie knife fights, is that not only is the technique poor, but the participants continue to fight way long after suffering what would appear to be disabling wounds. It reminds me of movie fistfights in which repeated solid punches to the face seem to have zero effect on the man hit or the man hitting (no broken bones in the hand).

When I spoke with Mike Janich recently, I asked him if he'd ever seen a good knife fight in a movie. He thought a moment and said, "The one in the nightclub in Collateral."

While Collateral contains some of the best choreographed gunfights I've ever seen, I didn't remember the Tom Cruise character using a knife in the movie. Here it is, starting at about 3:30:

Very quick and effective.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Bowie-Knife Fighter: Gustavus von Tempsky

One of the characters whom I found fascinating when I was researching bowie knives was Gustavus Ferdinand von Tempsky, a globe-trotting soldier of fortune who packed quite a life into his 40 years. There is an entry on him in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, which I reprint below in slightly abbreviated form, followed by some discussion of his introduction of the bowie knife to New Zealand.

 Von Tempsky, looking way cooler than Che.
Gustavus Ferdinand von Tempsky (1828–1868)

Gustavus Ferdinand von Tempsky was born at Königsberg (Kaliningrad), East Prussia, on February 15, 1828, into a Prussian military family. He attended the junior cadet school at Potsdam and the cadet school at Berlin. These institutions concentrated mainly on military subjects, but students also received a thorough grounding in the Classics, modern languages, history, geography, drawing and music. On leaving school in 1845 Von Tempsky joined his father's regiment but served for only nine months. In May 1846 he left Prussia for the Mosquito Coast of Central America, where a colonization society was intent on founding a Prussian settlement.

The Mosquito Kingdom had been established with British support before the arrival of the Prussian colonists, and when it came under attack from Nicaraguan forces Von Tempsky saw action for the first time as an officer in the local militia. A facile linguist, Tempsky had an excellent command of English and was a constant visitor to the British settlement at Bluefields. Here he met Emelia Ross Bell, the daughter of James Stanislaus Bell, a British government official. He intended to marry her, but her father did not approve of the match, probably because of Von Tempsky's youth and his lack of prospects.

When news of the Californian gold rush reached Von Tempsky in 1849, he set out for San Francisco, arriving in July 1850. He failed to make his fortune on the diggings, but while in California he became proficient in the use of the bowie knife. In July 1853, in the company of a German doctor, Von Tempsky decided to return to Bluefields through Mexico, Guatemala and San Salvador. The pair experienced a number of exciting adventures on the 18-month journey. Von Tempsky kept a record of these events, which later formed the substance of his book, Mitla, published in London in 1858 and illustrated with his own watercolors. (Mitla can be read at Google books.)

On his return to Bluefields, Von Tempsky married Emelia Bell, on 9 July 1855, her father having apparently relented. By early 1857 the British position on the Mosquito Coast had become untenable and the Von Tempskys left for Scotland, Emelia von Tempsky's birthplace. They spent a year there, during which time Tempsky visited his parents in Prussia and made arrangements for the publication of his book.

In August 1858 Von Tempsky and his growing family arrived in Australia, which was then having a gold rush of its own. He worked on the Bendigo diggings and at a variety of other occupations. He also applied for the leadership of an expedition being formed to explore the interior of Victoria but was passed over in favour of Robert O'Hara Burke who, along with his co-leader, William John Wills, and three others, perished in the desert.

Having failed to make money in Australia, Von Tempsky was lured to New Zealand by the news of the Coromandel gold field, and arrived at Auckland on March 10, 1862. He spent about a year working at Coromandel, and the letters which he wrote to the Daily Southern Cross describing activities on the diggings so impressed the editor that he was appointed Coromandel correspondent. His gold mining venture, however, was unprofitable.

The outbreak of the Maori uprising in 1863 led to the formation of volunteer units to supplement British regiments. Von Tempsky applied for and received a commission in the Forest Rangers, an irregular colonial force which the authorities believed could match the bush fighting skills of the Maori. British regulars had shown little aptitude for this type of warfare and consequently were at a disadvantage.

Von Tempsky took part in the actions at Hairini, Waiari, Rangiaowhia, Kihikihi and Orakau, establishing a reputation as an intrepid leader. He was a strong disciplinarian who was popular with his men. When the defenders broke out of the Orakau Pa, he led his men in a ruthless pursuit but strongly disapproved when the British troops killed some of the wounded and women. He encouraged his men to intervene in order to prevent these atrocities.

For his part at Orakau Von Tempsky was promoted to major in April 1864. He next saw action at Wanganui. He led a successful attack on Kakaramea on May 13, 1865 and was subsequently praised by the premier, Frederick Weld, as 'the great bulwark of the self-reliant policy'.

In late 1865 and early 1866 Von Tempsky took part in Major General Trevor Chute's march to New Plymouth. The march is depicted in an evocative watercolor which Tempsky completed later. (This can be viewed here.)

Von Tempsky's "Officer of a military train cutting down a rebel at Nukumaru."

Then came a temporary lull in hostilities and he returned to Auckland, where he remained during 1866 and 1867. While in Auckland he wrote Memoranda of the New Zealand Campaign, painted watercolors to illustrate events in the war and worked for a time in Governor George Grey's office. He was prominent in Auckland social life. Endowed with a fine singing voice, he was much in demand at musical gatherings. He also helped to establish a gymnastic club.

In January 1868 Von Tempsky was appointed inspector (the equivalent of major) in the Armed Constabulary and was placed in command of the 5th Division. After serving in Waikato and Wanganui he was placed under the general command of Thomas McDonnell for the Taranaki campaign against Titokowaru and his followers.

On September 7, 1868 McDonnell's force attacked the Maori position at Te Ngutu-o-te-manu. His troops were severely mauled and McDonnell ordered a retreat which he left Von Tempsky to cover. Soon after, Von Tempsky was shot in the head. All attempts to recover his body failed and it was later burned on a funeral pyre, along with the bodies of other soldiers, by the Maori defenders.

Although he spent only a short time in New Zealand, Von Tempsky was one of that country’s most colourful 19th-century characters. His independence of thought and action, his talent for writing and painting, and his evident charm and good looks made him something of a folk hero. As a soldier he was flamboyant and apparently fearless. He was known to the Maori as Manurau, 'the bird that flits everywhere'. An adventurer rather than a mercenary, he sought excitement wherever he could find it.

Von Tempsky ranks as a minor New Zealand artist but the style of his work is unique. He was a highly skilled amateur watercolorist who paid careful attention to detail, especially in his rendering of the New Zealand bush. His paintings of the campaigns are of considerable topographical interest and depict events vividly. The influence of romanticism can be seen in all his works.

A modern replica of a Von Tempsky bowie by Svord.

Gustavus Von Tempsky and the Bowie Knife
To equip his troops, Tempsky had about 30 bowie knives made to his specifications by a cutler in Auckland. They were crafted from wagon springs, one of the few sources of steel available to New Zealand blacksmiths in 1863. The blade was about nine inches long, 2½ inches wide near the handle, and ¼-inch thick.

Tempsky taught his men to use the knife in close-quarters combat, holding the knife in the left hand to fend off an opponent's attacking blows while using a revolver with the right hand.

Here's a brief mention of Tempsky in Britain's Roll of Glory; or the Victoria Cross: Its Heroes and Their Valor:
Captain Swift had been instrumental in organising a corps of Forest Rangers, who did good service under a very brave German named Von Tempsky, himself destined to be shot. In one action a Maori, hidden in the branches of a tree, fired at a man of the 13th, the ball piercing his Crimean ribbon, and tearing its way to his heart. Von Tempsky brought the native down by a good aim; and, seeing that he was not dead, drew the bowie-knife he always carried, and finished him, saying: "There; you vill never kill anoder Englishman."
Tempsky is mentioned in The Adventures of Kimble Bent:
He was a good shot, a finished swordsman, and could throw a bowie-knife with deadly accuracy. It was in Mexico that he learned the use of the knife, and he never tired of impressing on his men its advantages in bush fighting.
Here's an anecdote from the New Zealand Railways Magazine (May 1, 1935):
One of my old-soldier acquaintances in the Waikato had been a corporal in Jackson's and Von Tempsky's Forest Rangers. He had a farm near Te Awamutu. Customarily, out on the farm and in the bush, he wore a sheath-knife on his belt. The knife was a veteran like himself. It had been nine or ten inches long of blade, but the point had been broken off, and he had reground and pointed it; even then it was like a young bayonet. He told me its story.

“That's one of old Von's bowie-knives,” he said. “He had a lot made for us at a blacksmith's in Auckland when the Forest Rangers were divided into two companies and he had command of one. You know, old Von was a terror with the bowie-knife. He had learned to use it in Mexico and Central America. Certainly it came in handy in the bush, and as we had no bayonets it was comforting to know you had a good sticker on your hip for a scrimmage. I've had that knife more than thirty years. See how it's worn down.

“I've used it for all sorts of jobs, hacking bush tracks, pig-sticking, skinning sheep, cutting up my tobacco and my loaf of bread. It'll last my day, my boy!”

Old John the Ranger told of one of his warpath mates, a Jamaica negro who had been a sailor and gold-digger like himself before he became a Ranger. At meal-times he used to apostrophise his bowie-knife thus: “You old son of a gun, you've dug into a Maori's vitals, you have, at Waiari, you know you have! Come on now, you're going to cut up me vittles!”
There's an interesting short video on Von Tempsky here.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Cassius M. Clay's Knives and the Elusive Bowie Knife Manual

Our roving correspondent Bob Dickerson recently toured White Hall, stately home of the 19th-century emancipationist and bowie-knife fighter Cassius M. Clay. Bob was able to answer some of the questions I've had about White Hall, such as whether any of Clay's bowie knives are on display. Here is his report:
There were four Bowie knives on display. (Unfortunately, photography isn’t permitted and my wife and I were the only ones on the tour.) The case also contained the sword that is in several photographs of Clay. The guide pointed out several pistols and swords that were documented as belonging to Clay. He said that, in his opinion, the Bowies are probably authentic. "Probably."

One was a folder with a five-inch blade. The one on page 319 of your book is real close. [This is a J.A. Henckels spring-back knife.]
Another was a double-edged knife with an eight-inch blade. Similar to the one on page 146. I’d classify the third as a spear-point Bowie with about three inches on the reverse edge of the blade sharpened. The length was about eight inches and it had a silver handle. (It has to be the one on page 96 of your book.) [This is Clay's "Dress-up Bowie."]
The one classic Bowie had a seven-inch blade and was very close to a Randall #1 in general shape. The facets were different and it had a slab stag handle. The knives on pages 118 and 264 are close. It is similar to other commercial Bowie I’ve seen, some of them fairly new. The sheath however was old and seemed right for the time.
In general, they looked like commercial knives rather than handmade. There were manufacturers marks on two but I couldn’t read them through the glass. The dagger had “GEO. WOSTEN????” [that would be George Wostenholm, a major Sheffield knifemaker] in small letters on the blade. The spearpoint had a large I*XL on the blade. [The I*XL ("I excell") stamp was a trademark of Wostenholm.]
Bob asked the tour guide about the persistent rumor that Clay penned a manual on bowie-knife fighting in or around 1869, after his return from Russia. The guide said that no one who's been involved with the restoration or maintenance of White Hall, any historian they've talked to, or any of Clay's descendants has ever seen a copy of the book. A search of the local libraries, Transylvania College, and the University of Kentucky holdings has turned up empty too.

I got the same response--along with a weary chuckle--when I asked the Kentucky State Historical Society about such a manual. People have been asking about it for decades and not a trace of it has been found. The main source of the rumor about the manual would seem to be a lecture about Clay given by William Townsend to the Chicago Civil War Roundtable in 1952, published as a pamphlet called "The Lion of White Hall." Townsend later wrote a book-length biography of Clay with the same title.

During my research into this rumor, I was intrigued to come across a clue in the Publisher’s Weekly of February 13, 1886, p. 258. A publisher named Jansen, McClurg & Co., of Chicago placed the following ad in the section titled "Books Wanted": "The Use of the Bowie Knife. Probably pub. in Ark."

Could this refer to the fabled Clay manual or was the publisher pursuing a chimera? I can find no other mention of "The Use of the Bowie Knife."

Here is another reference to such a manual, from John W. Forney's Anecdotes of Public Men, Volume 1 (1873), though in this case what is referred to sounds like it describes the knife's use in dueling, rather than its general use:
I have heard it stated that a formal duel with knives lately took place in New Orleans; and it is alleged that two of the Southern members of the present House engaged in a fearful conflict with the ordinary bowie knife. Those who know say that there is a manual by which the use of the bowie-knife is regulated in prearranged fights; and it is notorious that many of those who carry this instrument of death use it with as much dexterity as the Indian uses the bow or the scalping-knife.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Frankie Laine's "Bowie Knife"

A great song from Frankie Laine's classic album of cowboy songs, "Hell Bent for Leather"(1961).
Someone added some creative visuals for the YouTube version.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Bowie Knife Exhibition at the Cowboy Museum

A recent article from the Edmond Sun describes a current show at the Cowboy Museum, featuring knives from the collection of famed arms expert and collector Norm Flayderman. I wish I could get down there!

Cowboy Museum opens Bowie knife exhibit
Edmond Sun, The (OK)-March 15, 2011

OKLA. CITY — OKLAHOMA CITY-- The National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum will host an exhibition of Bowie knives beginning April 1 and continuing through Nov. 20. This educational exhibition highlights examples from the museum's collection and specimens loaned by Bowie knife authority E. Norman Flayderman.

The Bowie knife became instantly synonymous with the American West after the infamous Sandbar Fight in 1827, in which James Bowie vanquished a foe using a large butcher or hunting knife. From the 1830s onward, the Bowie knife played a major role in all walks of life in the West from the frontiersman, to the gambler, to the soldier.

Sheffield Cutlery, the world leader in cutlery manufacture at the time, began to make, market and export the knives to America. Located in Sheffield, England, the manufacturer recognized the popularity of the knife and started exporting the Bowie knife to America even before Bowie's death at the Alamo in 1836.

They began to increase sales by inscribing the Bowie knife with mottos and slogans intended to play on American patriotism, state pride, occupation or personal aspiration. By the mid-1840s, hundreds of Bowie knives were coming into the United States with slogans such as "Americans ask for nothing but what is right and submit to nothing that is wrong." Some knives appealed to state pride ("A real Mississippian"), hunting aspirations ("For stags and buffaloes") or gold mining in California ("I can dig gold from quartz").

Many knives had slogans referring to war. "General Taylor never surrenders" refers to the Mexican War. "Death to traitors" and "Americans never surrender" refers to the Civil War. These knives found a ready market in antebellum and wartime America.

Some of the English Bowie knives stroked the American ego, with stamped slogans such as "I surpass all" and "Try me." Other Sheffield Bowie knives that did not carry blade markings were decorated with distinctly American symbols, such as eagles, shields or star clusters on their pommel caps or cross guards.

This exhibition will focus primarily on examples with blade inscriptions and other distinctly American embellishments ranging from 1830-1870. It also will look at the history and legacy of the Bowie knife well into the 20th century. In addition to being a Bowie knife authority, Flayderman is also a widely respected antiquarian and author. His recently published, illustrated book, The Bowie Knife: Unsheathing an American Legend, will be available for purchase in The Museum Store during the exhibition.

The museum also is hosting a lecture about the Bowie knife as part of its popular "Tuesdays At Sundown" adult education series. "The Bowie Knife and the South" will be presented by William Worthen with the Historic Arkansas Museum. He will elaborate on the history of the knife and provide context for the exhibition. This "Tuesdays At Sundown" program will be at the museum from 6:30-8 p.m. May 17.

The National Cowboy Museum is in Oklahoma City's Adventure District at the junction of I-35 and I-44. The museum is open daily except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day.

For a complete calendar of events or more information about the museum, go to or call 478-2250.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Bowie Knife Stabbing at the St. Nicholas Hotel

The St. Nicholas Hotel was a posh New York City hotel in the 19th century, and when a fight involving a bowie knife occurred there in September 1855, it made national news. 
Murder at the St. Nicholas Hotel.
The St. Nicholas Hotel was on Saturday evening the scene of another frightful rencounter [spontaneous fight], similar to that enacted about a year ago, when Col. Loring, of San Francisco, lost his life.

It appears that shortly before 9 o'clock, on the evening named, two of the boarders, Capt. J. J. Wright and Mr. R. S. Dean, were seen talking together in an excited manner in the barroom.

Suddenly Capt. Wright drew from his pocket a cowhide, with which he struck Mr. Dean in the face. Instantly the latter drew from a sheath which he carried under his vest, a large bowie knife, the blade of which he plunged almost to the hilt in the side of his antagonist.

The wounded man immediately dropped the cowhide, and attempted to get away, but was followed by his antagonist who again wounded him in the abdomen.

Lieut. Stagg, of the eighth ward police, happened to be present, and as Mr. Dean was in the act of making another thrust with the knife at his adversary, caught him by the collar and prevented the further infliction of violence. Capt. Wright soon fell exhausted from loss of blood, to the floor, and was conveyed to his room, where he was attended by several physicians, all of whom pronounced his wounds to be mortal.

Mr. Dean, in making the third thrust with the knife, cut himself severely in the thigh, and was also conveyed to a room in the hotel, where the wound was dressed by the surgeon. He, as well as a friend of his named Montgomery, who witnessed the affray, are under arrest, and will be kept in custody until an examination shall take place.

The whole affray occupied but a few moments and was conducted so quietly, that many who were in the barroom at the time, were unaware of its occurrence until it was over. The news however, spread rapidly and soon the halls and the rum-room were crowded by the excited inmates.

The quarrel grew out of something Dean had said and circulated reflecting upon the honor and character of Capt. Wright. They had frequent and bitter altercations in regard to the objectionable language, and on Saturday night met by previous appointment in the rum-room of the St. Nicholas. Dean, fearing violence on the part of Capt, W., had armed himself, and when the Captain struck him with the cowhide used his weapon.

The knife with which Capt, W. was stabbed was seven inches in length, and entered the abdomen almost up to the hilt. The physicians in attendance were yesterday of the opinion that the blade had glanced, and not divided the intestines, and if such be the case, the wound though frightful, may not prove mortal. Yesterday afternoon he appeared to suffer less pain and informed our reporter that the reason of his hostility to Mr. Dean was, that the latter had made a statement that he (Capt. W,) had misappropriated some plate which was on board the steamer Jewess, which was lost at Sandy Hook in October last, and which was owned by him and Mr. Dean. He first heard of the slander while is was in Boston last week, and immediately came on to have it retracted. He had several interviews with Mr. Dean, who put him off from time to time, and on their meeting at the St. Nicholas, he being again refused, drew a cowhide, but was immediately held by Mr. Montgomery, a friend of Mr. Dean's; and had it not been that he was so held Mr. Dean would not have succeeded in stabbing him so severely.

Capt. Wright was in the Texan navy, all through the war between that country and Mexico. He distinguished himself on many occasions, and displayed great bravery. When but a young man of twenty, he commanded a small vessel, named the James Bowie, in which ship, with a crew numbering about thirty men, he took a Mexican sloop-of-war, with two hundred and fifty men on board. He did so by a skillful ruse, by covering his ship with figures dressed as men; and so numerous did they appear to the Mexicans, that the captain struck his colors without firing a shot. He also commanded two other respects, and Com. Moore speaks in the highest terms of his bravery. After the war, Captain Wright run a steamboat between New Orleans and Galveston. Since then he has been in different enterprises. At one time he commanded the fleet little steamer United States, (that was blockaded at the foot of 8th street last summer,) and ran her between New York and New Orleans. He was to have had charge of the Ocean Bird, when he had a misunderstanding with her owner. Captain Wright is 36 years of age, has a wife, but no family. James Montgomery, who is arrested, is the inventor of the corrugated steam boilers, and is a well known mechanic. R.D.S. Dean is a widower, and reputed to be wealthy.

There is hardly a probability that Mr. Wright will survive, as there is extreme danger of mortification of the bowels. Six inches of cold steel in a man's belly is likely to cause a gangrene wound.

While the Tribune insists that both Wright and Dean were under the maddening influence of liquor, the other journals deny that, and say that the appointment was made in a barroom and that they both came there under the conviction that a fight might ensue. It is a sad case throughout, as it shows how venomous hasty and harsh words may become when men cannot control their angry passions.
Though the article says, "There is hardly a probability that Mr. Wright will survive," in fact he recovered fairly quickly, according to subsequent reports.

One thing I like about 19th-century newspapers is that they gave readers the blow-by-blow account of a fight rather than couching it in vague terms as is the custom today.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Civil War Bowie Knives

In Collections of the Worcester Society of Antiquity (1885) there is this description of weapons taken as souvenirs from the battlefields of the Civil War:
In the way of military cutlery there are several items as follows: Two officers' swords, one from Gettysburg given up by a prisoner, the other from a similar source at Bull Run. These two are crossed over one of the windows in our first room. A cavalry sabre is hung over one of our doors. Though taken from a prisoner at Goldsborough, it is not supposed to menace those who pass beneath it, as did the one in history the head of Damocles. Hanging in one of the closets is still another captured weapon, having for a handle an eagle's beak fashioned from ivory. In the case are two rather gentle (?) instruments, one, yclept "Yankee Slayer," was surrendered by a captured man at New Berne; another knife obtained in a similar manner, looks much like a utensil used for many years by a butcher. The "Slayer" recalls the name of the man who invented the Bowie knife, and who, himself, used it with such terrible effect. Nothing in the whole Rebel armament was more farcical than the miserable knives with which some of the soldiers were equipped. A well directed bullet would render unavailable any number of "Yankee Slayers."

Monday, April 4, 2011

Follow Up on "Who Owns Cassius M. Clay's Bowie Knives?"

Cassius M. Clay in his later years.

A few weeks ago, I put up a post, "Who Owns Cassius M. Clay's Bowie Knives?" I just got a message from alert reader Bob Dickerson, who recalled a reference to that question in the Clay biography The Last Gladiator, by Roberta Carlee. It describes the 84-year-old Clay's foolish romance with a 15-year-old servant girl, Dora Richardson, whom he ended up marrying briefly. Determined to educate and "polish" young Dora, Clay attempted to hire a teacher, Lula Tudor to (well) tutor Dora. Carlee wrote:
Cassius, in an apparent attempt to interest her [Tudor] in Dora, sent her two gifts by his wife. One was a picture of himself in his fifties and the other was a two edged bowie knife with a stag handle in a silver mounted leather case. Cassius sent her word by Dora that it was the knife with which he had mortally wounded Cyrus Turner and that she should carry it with her at all times. (Page 245.)
The footnote for the quotation reads: Fields, Randall, article, Richmond, Kentucky Sunday Herald Leader, January 8, 1961.

As always, one wonders what to make of this. Clay got quite daffy in his old age, and sending a prospective employee a knife with which he claimed to have killed a man certainly qualifies as odd behavior.

Bat Masterson, sly fellow that he was, was known to buy cheap, worn-out Colt revolvers at pawn shops and then letting admirers notice them on his desk. Certain that the gun they saw was the one with which he reputedly killed 26 men, they might happily pay him $50 for it. Could Clay too have passed around bowie knives, assuring recipients that each was, in fact, "the one"?