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Sunday, May 19, 2013

Bowie-Knife Fighting Classes in the 19th Century

Col. Thomas Hoyer Monstery

When I was researching my book Bowie Knife Fights, Fighters, and Fighting Techniques, I came across a number of modern references to bowie-knife fighting instruction that was available in the 19th century. Yet in my own research, which involved searching thousands of digitally scanned newspapers and books, I was able to find only a single mention of a fencing instructor who also offered classes in the knife.

One of my readers, Phil Crawley, recently wrote to recommend I read The Sword Prince: The Romantic Life of Colonel Monstery, American Champion at Arms, which profiled another man who offered such training. Written by Captain Frederick Whittaker and originally published in 1882, Monstery's biography has recently been reprinted and made available through Hulu by Tony Wolf. This long out-of-print book is so obscure that it is not searchable through Google books, which explains how I missed it. It is a fascinating read.

Monstery, who died in 1902, was a sailor, soldier of fortune, boxer, fencing master, and duelist extraordinaire. His biography describes a number of scrapes he got into, several of them involving the knife. While ashore in Rio de Janeiro as a young sailor, he got into a fight with a slave and killed him by throwing a knife that struck him in the chest. [p. 15] Monstery is said to have been an expert knife thrower, whose technique was different than that used by most. While others held the knife by the point and spun it through the air toward the target, he preferred to hold it by the handle and throw it point first, and "would send it into a board so deep that it required a man's full strength to pull it out." [p. 47]

After he had studied boxing and fencing, he traveled to Italy and Spain to learn to fight with the knife. According to his biography, he found he could beat those from whom he sought instruction; not so surprising, as boxing and fencing provide an excellent foundation for knife fighting. His secret, according to his biographer, was "economy of motion." That is, "In fencing with any weapon, including the fist, that parry is best which takes least time and causes the least amount of motion from the position of 'guard.'"[p. 22]

In 1851, Monstery was set up for an assassination by a love rival and his two cohorts, the three of them armed with daggers. Monstery had only a hickory cane with which to defend himself, but his fencing skill enabled him to fend off the three men, though in warding off their thrusts he suffered three stab wounds in his left arm. [pp. 49-50]

Many of the incidents in the biography are impossible to verify, but Monstery's career as a boxing and fencing instructor is well documented in newspaper articles from the 1860s on, when he ran fencing academies in San Francisco, New York, and Chicago. There were several references to his ability with the knife.

This is from a description of an exhibition bout that appeared in the Daily Alta California, (28 November 1863):
The Professor of Arms of the Club [the San Francisco Olympic Club], Colonel T. H. Monstery, then gave an exhibition of the use of the sword and dagger, with the aid of three of his pupils, Messrs. Mel, Johnson and McComb. The bout was opened with a simulated duel with foils, by Mel and Johnson,— Colonel Monstery and Mr. McComb acting as seconds. Two thrusts each were recorded, and then the seconds engaged with the same weapons: the Colonel thrust his adversary twice, and allowed him to make one in return. Then Mel and Johnson were respectively challenged by the Professor to attack him with broadswords, while the dagger only was used to defend, and all the blows were successfully parried by the Colonel with his apparently insignificant weapon.

The Daily Alta California (31 July 1864) carried an advertisement for an exhibition bout in which Monstery and his students would demonstrate "Fencing with Small Swords, Daggers, Rapiers, Broadswords, Sabers, Bayonets, and with Sabre against Bayonet." 

Newspaper advertisements for Monstery's salle d'armes state "Instructions given in the use of the Broadsword, Foils, Bayonet, or any weapon of offence or defence," as well as boxing.

It is in an advertisement in the Daily Alta California (4 January 1870) that we first see knife-fighting lessons specifically mentioned:
FENCING AND BOXING ACADEMY. No. 412 Pine street, near Montgomery. Col. Monstery, instructor in fencing with foil, sword, bayonet, knife, etc. Boxing taught in twelve lessons, by a system that will give efficiency. Classes in colleges or elsewhere attended to. N.B. A select assortment of fencing apparatus and boxing gloves for sale.

In his afterword in the Monstery biography, Wolf reproduces a brochure for  Monstery's "School at Arms" in Chicago around 1890. Among other courses, there is a "Complete Course in Knife Fighting" offered for $15.

More on Monstery here and here


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