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This blog contains additional information about the bowie knife, as well as the fighting knives of other nations.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Kentuckians And Their Knives

During his visit to Kentucky in the 1830s, Sir Charles Augustus Murray, a Scotsman, was dismayed at seeing the residents there carrying knives. In Travels in North America During the Years 1834, 1835, & 1836 (1841), he expressed concerns similar to what we still hear from the British today regarding knives, which are illegal to carry in those isles.
The character of the Kentuckians has greater merits, and greater faults; their moral features are more broadly and distinctly marked. Descended, as I before said, from the western hunters, and some of them from the more wealthy planters of Virginia and North Carolina, they are brave, generous, proud, frank, and hospitable, but apt at the same time to be rough, overbearing, and quarrelsome. They are extremely vain of their State, and inclined to play the braggart, as well in her praises as their own; the former fault, I, for one, can freely forgive them, as the want of local or home attachment is one of the least agreeable features of American character. They are, moreover, pretty strongly imbued (probably through their Virginian descent) with a taste for gambling, horse-racing, &c., which is perhaps strengthened by their frequent intercourse on their northern and western frontier with the numerous gamblers, or "sportsmen," who come up the river in spring and summer to avoid the heat and malaria of New Orleans and the adjacent country.

In addition to the above traits of character, there is one of which I cannot speak otherwise than with unqualified reprobation — I mean the cowardly and almost universal practice of carrying a dirk-knife. This instrument, which, like the Italian stiletto, is only fit for the hand of an assassin, is displayed upon every occasion. It has ordinarily a blade about six or eight inches long, sharp on both sides towards the point, and comes out of the handle by a spring, which also prevents its closing on the hand of the owner. I have seen several well-dressed Kentuckians, who would probably think themselves much injured if they were not considered gentlemen of the first grade, picking their teeth with these elegant pocket-companions, in public; and I have repeatedly seen them while engaged in conversation employ their hands in opening and shutting this dirk-spring, as a London dandy on the stage raps his boots and shakes his watch-seals, or sometimes in real life, for want of manual employment, draws his glove on and off, or smooths down the felt of his hat.

Now, I would ask any candid Kentuckian, from what "chivalrous" precedent (which epithet they are very fond of applying to themselves), or from what principle, just, noble, or Christian, is this habit derivable? Man is sufficiently irascible, and when angry, prone enough to inflict injury on his fellow-creature, without deliberately furnishing himself with a weapon calculated to occasion death, or permanent mutilation, upon the occasion of the slightest dispute or ebullition of temper. I believe it is Virgil who, in describing a savage popular tumult, says, "Furor arma ministrat" ["Their rage supplies them with weapons"], and surely experience attests its truth; but this people determine, that the voice of reason or reflection shall not have one moment to whisper a suggestion, but that their passions (naturally hot and ungovernable) shall never want a sudden and deadly minister. It might be supposed, that the coarse and brutal method of fighting, still frequently adopted in this State under the name of "rough and tumble," is sufficiently savage to satisfy the parties concerned. In this, as is well known, they tear one another's hair, bite off noses and ears, gouge out eyes, and, in short, endeavour to destroy or mutilate each other; but this is not considered sufficient, and Birmingham and Pittsburgh are obliged to complete by the dirk-knife the equipment of the "chivalric Kentuckian." ....

They may formerly have had an excuse for constantly carrying a weapon, when their houses and families were hourly liable to be surprised by the war-whoop of the Indian: but against whom is the dirk-knife now sharpened? against brothers, cousins, and neighbours!

Travelers on a Mississippi Steamboat

An  Englishman traveling through the American South in the mid-19th century gave an account of his conversation with a few travelers on a Mississippi riverboat in Odd Neighbors (1865):
"You seem to know New Orleans well, gentlemen," said I, after listening to two or three  anecdotes, the scene of which was invariably laid in the metropolis of the Western Delta.

"No place like it!" cried one of the younger men, with a sort of enthusiasm; "it's right down, thorough going, and slick through, the cream of all creation. Life goes faster there than in other places."

"So I have heard," said I, with a smile, but rather diffidently; "life, I understand, goes a good deal more abruptly than is pleasant. In duels I mean," added I, seeing that I was not understood.

"Sir," said another of the party, "you have been misinformed. Not that I insinuate that our free citizens will tamely brook affront. No, sir! But there is great exaggeration prevalent on the score of duels and fatal affrays, pretended to be of continual occurrence down South. We have chivalry, sir, we have fire, but we air not the monsters we air depicted."

I told him I had always understood that the state of Mississippi in especial was renowned for its lawless condition, and for the slight value set on human life by its inhabitants. The four gentlemen shook their heads with one accord.

"These air slanders," said one of the seniors of the party, whose name I understood to be Alphonso P. C. Jones—"these air slanders, I give you my sacred word of honour. We live, it is true, in a land where the blushing bloom of Eden has not yet wholly faded away; in a land where the luxuriant beauty of airth sometimes attracts the spoiler and the rowdy, and occasional difficulties will happen. But peace is our idol, and the olive- branch ---"

Here some confusion was caused to the orator by the trifling circumstance of his bowie-knife tumbling from its concealment somewhere in the roll-collar of his waistcoat, and coming with a bang on the mahogany table. He turned very red, and was shuffling the unwelcome implement away, when I stretched out my hand, saying, "Would you allow me to look at it ? I have often wished to inspect a bowie-knife."

Mr. Alphonso P. C. Jones solemnly handed over the weapon in its shagreen sheath, and I looked with great interest at the sharp and heavy blade, the strong cross-bar to increase the purchase in close conflict, and the silver mountings of haft and scabbard. Meanwhile, Mr. Jones muttered something about the necessity of self-preservation, and the number of Irish and Germans about.

"You must often have found this sort of thing useful in your mode of life," said I, poising the heavy dagger as I gave it back.

"What way of life? What might you mean?"

Such were the questions rather fiercely propounded, and every brow was overcast.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Bowie Knives and Pistols in Congress

A report on ante-bellum violence in the nation's capital appeared in The New Monthly Magazine, published in London in 1856. Again, the English are appalled with what goes on in their former colonies.
There are not infrequently scenes on the floor of the House which 
threaten to end in personal violence. On a Saturday afternoon when I 
was present, members were questioning the candidates for Speaker as to 
their sentiments on various points in relation to slavery, and a Mr.
 Kennett "begged to add to the questions that had been put two others: 
Did they believe in a future state? and, if they did, did they think that 
state would be a free state or a slave state?"

A southern gentleman
named Barksdale thought these questions were meant to ridicule his own, 
so he jumped out of his seat, rolled up his coat-sleeves, and advanced 
towards Kennett, declaring that he "repelled the insult with scorn, and 
derision, and contempt," and much besides. He appeared as though he 
must annihilate at least half a dozen men before he could be pacified, but 
at last his friends succeeded in convincing him that he was mistaken. 

Kennett told him he was not to be frightened by him or anybody else,
 nor did he appear to be. Some Congressmen are known to carry pistols and bowie-knives about with them. The latter is a formidable weapon, 
the blade about a foot long, slightly curved at the point. It is kept in a
case, and sometimes worn thrust down the back inside the coat, with the 
handle at the nape of the neck; so that the wearer can put his hand 
behind his head and draw it out in an instant.

I saw an advertisement 
offering a reward for the recovery of a silver-hilted bowie-knife lost in 
the Capitol. In the session before last, the present clerk to the House, General Collum, who was then a representative, during debate was involved 
in a personal dispute with another speaker, when a pistol was 
drawn forth by one of the parties, and only the prompt interference of 
friends prevented bloodshed. I am sorry to say that out of doors, too, 
physical force arguments for subjects of opinion are often resorted to. One day, while at Washington, my English sense of legislative and 
literary propriety of behaviour was shocked by a public fight on the
Avenue between a Congressman from Virginia and the editor of the Evening Star. The man of the quill got worsted, and had his finger 
bitten by the honourable member.

A few days before I left the city, in the last week of the contest for the Speakership, Horace Greeley, the 
notable proprietor and editor of the New York Tribune, was grossly assaulted 
in front of the Capitol, after the adjournment of the House, by 
Mr. Rust, member of Congress from Arkansas. Mr. Greeley, being an
 ex-M.C., is entitled to a seat on the floor of the House, and he had been 
in the city, since the assembling of Congress, corresponding for his paper. 
A paragraph of comment in the Tribune on a speech of Mr. Rust's was 
the only provocation this enlightened representative of the people of Arkansas had to knock Mr. Greeley down with a loaded cane, repeating 
his blows, and inflicting serious injuries on the unfortunate and almost 
unresisting editor. Horace Greeley is a mild, amiable-looking old gentleman, 
and, merely from his appearance, you might guess he was of the 
peace sentiments of the Quakers. He declined to prosecute his brutal assailant, though some weeks after, at the instance of a gentleman of 
New York, who came forward of his own accord, Rust was arrested and 
held to bail to answer for the assault at the Criminal Court. When I 
heard of the assault, I thought that Rust must be blackballed everywhere, 
and that if he ventured into the House next day the affair would at least become the topic of indignant comment. "No, indeed," said 
a friend, "his party will think him a fine fellow for it: there will be 
plenty of men giving Greeley a cow-hiding now they see he's so tame." 

And truly I was mistaken. Nothing disgusted me so much with political
cant about liberty on the American side the Atlantic as this occurrence, 
and the matter-of-course sort of way in which it was looked upon, — 
not by all, but at the least by a political party which in England 
would have hasted to purge itself of the disgrace of connexion with such 
ruffianism. John Bull before Jonathan still, for fair play and freedom of 

The following is a newspaper account of this transaction: "Yesterday afternoon, 
about four o'clock, soon after the adjournment of Congress, the Hon. Win. 
Smith, M.C. from Virginia, met Mr. Wallach, the editor of the Star, on the
Avenue, near the corner of Eleventh Street, and accosting him, pronounced a 
statement in the Star of the day previous, in relation to himself, to be false. Mr. 
Wallach replied, that if Mr. Smith made that assertion, he pronounced his assertion false; whereupon Mr. Smith struck Mr. Wallach, and both combatants 
grappled each other, and contended manfully for the mastery. At length, they 
fell to the ground with a mighty shock; and by the force of the fall, as we are 
informed, Mr. Wallach's bowie-knife fell out of its hiding-place, and was thrown 
to some distance. When the parties fell, Mr. Wallach was uppermost, but Mr. Smith turned him, and maintained the upper hand until separated. After a 
minute or two of severe thumping and scratching, the belligerents were separated; 
Mr. Smith with his face badly bruised and marred, and Mr. Wallach with one of 
his fingers 'catawampously chawed up.' We have not heard that either of the 
parties concerned in this fight have been arrested.

Bowie Knives in Texas, 1839

On the last Sunday of the year 1839, Francis Sheridan, an elegant young Irishman in the British diplomatic service, sailed from Barbados for the Republic of Texas. His mission in the new nation was to contribute the opinion of an eyewitness to the deliberations going on in London concerning proposed recognition of Texas. His observations were published in Galveston Island, or, A Few Months off the Coast of Texas: The Journal of Francis C. Sheridan, 1839–1840. Here are some of his impressions:

Murder and every other Crime is of great frequency in Texas 
and the perpetrators escape with the greatest impunity. 
Many Murders were committed in the Island of Galveston and 
in the Country during my stay on the Coast, and I could never 
learn that one offender was brought to justice. It is considered 
unsafe to walk through the Streets of the principal Towns without 
being armed. 
The Bowie Knife is the weapon most in vogue and it may not 
be uninteresting here to state that the greater number of these 
weapons are manufactured in Sheffield and Birmingham and
brought over in British Ships as a profitable Speculation. I have seen one manufactured by "Bunting & Son" of Sheffield, the blade 
of which was 18 inches long and ornamented in beautiful tracery 
on the steel as "The genuine Arkansas Tooth Pick" and I have 
been offered another for sale also of English make the vender of 
which hinted that I ought to pay him a Dollar more than he demanded, 
as he could assure me it had tasted Blood. 


Thursday, September 14, 2017

Bowie Knives in Little Rock

Nineteenth-century English readers enjoyed tales of savagery among the frontiersmen of their former American colonies and a number of travel writers were happy to supple them. The following is from a review of Excursion through the Slave States, from Washington on the Potomac to the Frontier of Mexico; with Sketches of Popular Manners and Geological Notices, by G. W. Featherstonhaugh, published in the Foreign Quarterly Review, volume 34, 1845, p. 117 - 120.
Let us invite the reader to follow us into the territory of Arkansas, where the system of duelling is practised, at the height of 
all conceivable transatlantic ferocity. The blood-thirsty circles
 of society in this place carry off the palm of butchery. If you 
desire to see murder cultivated as a pastime, you must visit the 
pleasant town of Little Rock, situated at the bank of the Arkansa. 
Little Rock is the principal town of Arkansas, a territory lying 
on the confines between Texas and America, which, not being yet sufficiently populated to be admitted to the dignity of a federal 
state, remains under the immediate protection of the general 
government, as a quasi colony. In consequence of this peculiar condition of independence, Arkansas has become a sort of Alsatia 
for all kinds of thieves and gamblers, forgers, horse-stealers, and
the like, who, flying from the inconvenient inquisition of the laws they had outraged, take refuge in this happy district where 
they may enjoy the luxury of lawlessness to their heart's content. 

This is precisely the spot to draw out in full the national genius 
for gouging, stabbing, and shooting, elsewhere more or less restrained 
by the presence of a larger population. Arkansas is the 
headquarters of Bowieism; and Little Rock, the centre from
 whence the 'code of honour' radiates over the province. The town is tolerably well laid out, with a few brick houses, and more wooden
 ones, a great number of lawyers and doctors — the one to fan the 
litigious spirit of the people, and the other to dress their wounds — 
with a total population of five or six hundred souls. The great
 sign of American civilisation — the cheap newspaper — is here conspicuous;
 for, with a population which, in England, could not 
support a printer of occasional hand-bills, this town of Little Rock
 has no less than three cheap journals, which, says Mr. Featherstonhaugh, are not read, but devoured by every body. Yet these people who consume such an enormous quantity of scandal and political vituperation, are never known to indulge in any 
other species of reading. Probably there is no such thing in the 
whole territory of Arkanas as a Bible. Mr. Featherstonhaugh 
never saw one. 

The newspaper-office is the grand rendezvous. The worthy person who edits the principal gazette, is also a store-keeper and
 post-master; and at his store the bloods and bullies of the town
 constantly assemble — broken tradesmen, refugees from justice, and travelling gamblers. The lively emotions these gentlemen contrive 
to produce in the town of Little Rock, may be partly comprehended 
from the following passage:
"A common practice with these fellows was to fire at each other with
 a rifle across the street, and then dodge behind a door; every day groups 
were to be seen gathered round these worthy bullies, who were holding knives in their hands, and daring each other to strike, but cherishing the secret hope that the spectators would interfere. At one time they were 
so numerous and over-bearing that they would probably have overpowered 
the town, but for the catastrophe which befell one of their 
leaders and checked the rest for a-while." 

The congregation of these desperadoes at the editor's store became at last an intolerable nuisance to him; for, although American
editors are not quite so particular upon points of quietude and 
temperament as their European brethren, yet they require some 
exemption from the vulgar lot of the street-stabbing uproarious 
commonalty to whose passions they minister so satisfactorily. Our
 Little Rock editor determined to put a stop to the tumultuous 
encroachments of the gang of sanguinary dandies. Of course he
was dared on the threshold of his own house, a scuffle ensued, and he killed his man.

The public favoured the editor on this occasion, 
and at the time of Mr. Featherstonhaugh's visit, he was one 
of the most popular men in the place. It is quite a matter of luck 
how a gentleman gets out of a murder in America. Sometimes he 
is massacred by the mob — but more generally canonised and 
elected into the States' legislature. 

 Out of the whole population there are hardly twelve inhabitants 
who ever go into the streets without being armed with pistols or
large hunting knives, about a foot long, and an inch-and-a-half 
broad. “These formidable instruments,” says our author, “with 
their sheaths mounted in silver, are the pride of an Arkansan
blood, and got their name of bowie-knives from a conspicuous 
person of this fiery climate.”

Amongst other illustrations of the 
red-hot temper of the people, Mr. Featherstonhaugh relates a story 
of two persons who, without any quarrel, except of that brutal kind which originates in pure wanton aggression, fought a duel 
after a fashion which, even in America, must have been regarded
 as something extraordinary. They were placed in a room totally
 dark, from which every glimpse of light was carefully excluded, stripped to the skin, except their trousers, their arms and shoulders 
well greased, and a brace of loaded pistols and a bowie-knife given
 to each. A signal was to be given from the outside before the
butchery began; but a quarter of an hour elapsed after the signal
before the slightest noise was heard. The two men were cowering
and glaring in the dark, suppressing their breath, and watching
 their advantage. All of a sudden a pistol went off, then another,
 then two more. The survivor afterwards stated that becoming faint from loss of blood, he stumbled against the wall and fell. The other approached stealthily with his bowie-knife to despatch
 him. The prostrate man clutched his knife, raised himself, listened,
 but could hear nothing. At last he saw a pair of cat-like eyes
 gleaming through the darkness — he lifted his knife with a desperate
 effort and stuck it into the heart of his opponent. When the 
door was opened and the seconds entered, they found the survivor still holding his knife up to the hilt in the dead man's body! [Stories such as this were common and most probably apocryphal. --P.K.] 

Such horrible examples of unmitigated ferocity ought not to be quoted against the morality or social civilisation of any country,
 unless, as in the case of these States, they are not exceptionable,
 but ordinary illustrations of the habits of the people. Extraordinary 
duels in former periods have taken place in England — such as the duel between Buckingham and Shrewsbury — surrounded 
by circumstances of peculiar heartlessness or bravado; but, in no instance in our annals, or in the annals of any country in 
Europe, can there be traced, even standing out solitarily from the 
chronicles of the most brutalised chivalry, an example of that fierce and reckless spirit which is common to the duels of America, in greater or lesser degrees of intensity. 

There is another peculiarity worth noting in these duels; over 
and above their mere criminal ferocity. It is this, that they
 generally take place in the open streets, and ordinarily on the Sabbath day, because we presume, it is the idle day when the victim is to be sure to be met with lounging at his door, or smoking in perfect unconsciousness of impending danger. This would
 be incredible, if we had not the best authority for the facts themselves in the daily papers of the Union, and if the character of the society out of which these atrocities spring, were not authenticated by a cloud of witnesses. Gamblers and swindlers of the 
most notorious description, pouring out of such districts as Arkansas 
and the neighbouring state of Texas, to both of which the 
hunted criminals of America in turn fly for shelter, spread themselves 
over the face of the country, and are to be met at all the fashionable watering-places, and in the principal towns and cities, passing themselves off as officers in the British army, sometimes as Spaniards or Germans, but always as something superfine, with a strange dazzling title to catch the grovelling circles upon whose credulity 
they trade and thrive. A clique of these ruffians went on board a steamer at Arkansas in which Mr. Featherstonhaugh had taken his place. His description of them will enlighten the
 English reader:
"Rushing into the cabin, all but red-hot with whiskey, they crowded 
round the stove and excluded all the old passengers from it as much is
if they had no right whatever to be in the cabin. Putting on a determined 
bullying air of doing what they pleased because they were the 
majority, and armed with pistols and knives, expressly made for cutting and stabbing, eight inches long and an inch-and-a-half broad; noise,
 confusion, spitting, smoking, cursing, and swearing, drawn from the most 
remorseless pages of blasphemy, commenced and prevailed from the 
moment of this invasion. I was satisfied at once that all resistance would 
be in vain, and that even remonstrance might lead to murder; for a 
sickly old man in the cabin happening to say to one of them that there 
was so much smoke he could hardly breathe, the fellow immediately said, 'If any man tells me he don't like my smoking I'll put a knife into 

Bowies Along the Border

From page 54 of Samuel Sydney's Emigrant's Journal, second series, published in 1850.
crossed the San Antonio by a bridge of some twenty yards' 
span — the water below bright, limpid, and running with 
great velocity — and rode up through the principal street 
of the town. The Mexican houses presented a very novel 
aspect, by their more substantial and somewhat antiquated 
look, as compared with American cities in the west, 
which seem like the wooden structures of strolling players, 
always ready to be moved to a new locality. The street 
was crowded with a mixed population — bronzed Mexicans 
in a bandit-looking costume, descendants of the Indians 
of unmixed race, and much darker than their northern 
brethren; Mexican girls, many of them having considerable 
pretensions to beauty, and more or less tinged with 
Indian blood; several Negroes; and, congregated about 
the doors of bar-rooms and drinking shops, were Texan 
rangers, returned Mexican volunteers, Mississippi gamblers, 
and others of the scum of American society, carrying rifles, 
pistols, and bowie-knives, and attired in costume partly 
military, partly Mexican, partly in the skins and accoutrements 
of the savage. Passing from the street into the 
public square, I halted at a most wretched looking inn, 
filled with a most unpalatable modicum of western vagabonds. 
Here I found my Virginian friends in a state of 
inexpressible disgust at the moral condition of San Antonio. 
All that we had ever heard or met with in the administration 
of the "wild-justice" of the bowie-knife and repeating 
pistol appeared to be here intensified and concentrated. 
Murders were so common that they were scarcely subjects of 
comment. The latest amusement of this nature was shooting 
three bullets through the hat of a dissenting minister, 
as he walked down the street, because the Texan did not — 
as he declared with many oaths — admire the shape of it. 
Fortunately the marksman was good, and the hat only suffered. 
One "gentleman" was said to have slain three men 
in the course of a year. The last was of recent occurrence, and originated in a quarrel which took place in a store
close, where an officer of the returned volunteers from 
Mexico — a notorious scoundrel, and the leader of a gang of 
desperadoes — rode in on horseback and presented his pistol
 amidst a group assembled there. A scuffle ensued, which 
resulted in his own death, being stabbed through the heart 
with a bowie-knife. The successful combatant, with the 
prudent intention of preventing any further danger from 
his adversary, stabbed him six several times after he had 
fallen. The victor was "bound over to keep the peace." 
My comrades and myself had been sufficiently familiar with 
the darker features of the Far West, but here we found a "lower deep;" our imaginations had ventured to picture 
somewhat of this remote corner of the Union, but we found 
the colouring paled before the reality. They determined to 
shake the dust of this iniquitous city off their feet, and the 
next morning saw them on their way to Lavarra, leaving 
me to make my comments at my leisure upon this strange 
state of society. 
I should not readily be persuaded that any town in the 
universe, of like extent, could have furnished forth so many 
utterly depraved and absolutely reckless scoundrels as San 
Antonio exhibited every day in her streets. The whole place 
was in the hands of these desperadoes, and every iniquity 
practised with the utmost impunity. They were the law, 
and they were the public opinion. It was with a similar 
interest to that with which we inspect a menagerie of wild 
beasts, that I strolled through the town amongst those white 
savages, as they drank, swore, quarrelled, and gambled together. 

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

An Argument For the Stick Over the Knife

From The Gentleman’s Magazine, 1837, v. 1, p. 33:
Carrying a walking stick or hand cane is a good 
custom, and may be useful. If you get into a row 
and find it imperative to do a bit of gladiatorial, fight 
your way with your cane; but if you value the character 
of a gentleman, never draw a knife — it is the act of an assassin, and betrays the worst of cowardice. 
Stabbing has become popular, I admit, but its glories 
will be evanescent. The good sense of the people 
must see the brutality of the custom, and the cutting 
and carving of live bodies will be left to the surgeons. 
Pugilism is a pretty amusement, but its public practice 
is not congenial and if you fall amongst blackguards 
you cannot ensure fair play. If you must fight, and a 
Quaker may occasionally be forced into a scrimmage, use your stick; and if you expect mischief, carry a 
green hickory cane, about the size [thickness] of your middle 
finger; or a sprig of English ash. Let it be quite 
straight and devoid of the curl at the thick end. 
When you have made up your mind to go to work, 
catch hold of your stick about a foot from the thick 
end; you will have more government over your weapon 
that way than any other; and, in case of a miss, 
you can recover your guard directly. The short end 
will give you the use of an additional weapon — an 
effective spur for the ribs of your adversaries. You 
will be enabled to present one of them with a poke 
and favour another with a thump almost at the same 
moment. It is useful also to peg with at close quarters. 
If you see one of your friends drawing his toothpick 
against you, hit it a crack with your shillelah 
and knock it to smithereens. You may do a very 
decent fight with a stick of this sort; it is quite as 
detersive as the Bowie knife, and destitute of its blood-thirstiness. Murder is a terrible anti-soporific, and 
the daily sight of your victim's widow and three fatherless 
children will not assist dyspepsia. Stick to sticks, 
and cut knives.