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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.


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