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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 


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