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Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Knife Fighter: Colonel Jack Chinn

A short article on Chinn, with a portrait of him and his famous knife.

Colonel Jack Chinn was one of the most prominent knife men of the 19th century, and I name him the fourth greatest knife fighter in his profile in my book. There are several news articles describing knife scrapes he was involved in, but he often exaggerated his exploits with the cheerful indulgence of the press.

Below is a newspaper article about him from 1900:

This Interesting Kentuckian Has a Philosophic Way of Life
Colonel Jack Chinn exhibited his famous knife yesterday.

There are some remarkable stories about that knife. The popular belief is that he carries it upon his back and attached by a patent contrivance to his collar. Colonel Chinn exploded this thrilling fairy tale by showing the true hiding place of his favorite weapon; that is, in the right of the rear pocket of his trousers. It is a harmless-looking object as he slips it from the rear pocket, simply an overgrown jackknife, securely closed. But he has a dexterous way of shifting it to the larger front pocket and opening it under that cover, then producing a wicked-looking instrument with thick, keen blade seven inches in length.

“That’s the way I always produce,” said the Colonel, smiling grimly at his “trusty steel.” “It is more effective that way. It’s a powerful argument. It has a great way of coaxing a man to do what you want him to.”

Colonel Chinn’s knife has done yeoman service. When its owner had an altercation with Jack Dowlan on the Latonia race track the blade started on a straight course to Dowlan’s heart.

“Yes, I intended to kill him,” said the Colonel. “He wore a steel shirt. That was what saved him. That steel made a nick in the knife. You can see it there.”

The nick was in evidence, scarcely more than a line upon the murderous, polished surface of the knife.

Colonel Chinn had sufficient provocation for this attack. He tells the story simply enough.

“Dowlan and I had some trouble about turf matters. He threatened that he would drive me off the race track. I was ready for him. When I hear that a man is looking for me I go and find him. That’s the way Dowlan and I came together. Once afterwards he drove behind me in Chicago and fired into the buggy from the back, then drove away so fast I couldn’t catch him. Friends of his came to me afterwards and said the fight was off; that he would leave me alone if I would him. I would have killed him if he hadn’t sent that message, but I am glad I didn’t, for the poor fellow died in an insane asylum a few years afterward, and I believe he was crazy at the time, for I had never done anything to make him turn on me like that.”

Colonel Jack Chinn has views of his own as to when he is justified in wielding the blade, which is variously characterized as a “bowie,” a “spring-back,” and the “Chinn knife.”

“I would never use it on a gentleman,” he said. “Gentlemen should never fight. They can settle their differences by a decent, gentlemanly kind of arbitration. But I would never let a scrub or a fighter back me down. I would be ashamed to go home to my wife and say that a man was looking for me, when I had this knife about me,” and again the Colonel looked at his blade, this time with the softness of a caress in his eyes.

There is another time when he thinks it would be justifiable to use the ugly blade.

“Under such circumstances as Colonel Phil Thompson’s meeting with Walter Davis it would be entirely so,” he says. “I will leave it to any Kentucky jury if I am not right. The sentiment in Kentucky is that if a man’s home has been dishonored he is less than a man if he does not avenge the dishonor by death. Read about the man who killed his wife’s employer at a picnic? The woman wanted to help her husband, who was an adoring man, and got a place as typewriter [sic]. Her employer was a devil and the husband punished his bestiality by death. The wife escaped, or he would have killed her. The jury was not out 20 minutes before it exonerated him. I witnessed Phil Thompson’s shooting of Walter Davis and helped to put the young man’s body back into the car. Walter Davis was my friend, so was his brother, ‘Crit” Davis, but I say that Colonel Thompson was right. His speech in his own defense in court was one of the prettiest things I ever heard. Senator Vorhees’ speech in his defense was magnificent. Everybody within reach of his voice was thrilled when he said: “Colonel Phil Thompson met the once-trusted friend who had despoiled his home. What did Colonel Thompson do? He fought. Why didn’t Walter Davis fight? They had met face to face, hand to hand, man to man. Why didn’t the betrayer of his friend’s trust and home fight? Why? Because a man named Shakespeare was right when he said, ‘Conscience doth make cowards of us all.’

“A man should fight if he is attacked by a scrub; he should fight if the honor of his home is at stake; he should fight if a woman or a weaker man are being ‘put upon.’ I have followed that rule always and have done a lot more fighting for other people than for myself.”


  1. "Fellow citizens. I want yon to listen to this and reflect upon it after you go to your homes—the Irish have gol all the offices, the Jews have got all the gold, and now, unless we poor white people and you niggers combine for our own protection, they will take all the silver away from us and we will be left in utter destitution."
    - Col. Jack Chinn

    Canvassing the "nigger vote".

    As quoted in the Massillon Independent, Dec 29, 1898, p.7

    1. Your point being? This is the language used by ALL in 1898.

      Of note, the trainer of Capt Jack's 1883 Kentucky Derby winner Leonetus, was black.

  2. Was Col. Jack Chinn a relative of Col. George Chinn of Mercer County , KY ?