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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.

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