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The Victorian Gentleman’s Self-Defense Toolkit – Part II

In Uncategorized on March 16, 2015 at 4:11 pm

Pierre Vigny

Continued from PART I.

During the Victorian era, numerous males (and some females) went beyond their martial training by adopting the habit of carrying special, concealed weapons which ladies and gentlemen could display without attracting attention. The author Rowland George Allanson-Winn, 5th Baron of Headley, describes these weapons in detail in his martial arts treatise, Broadsword and Singlestick. While his book mostly treats of fencing with the broadsword, singlestick (this particular section being authored by C. Phillipps-Wolley), bayonet and quarterstaff, Allanson-Winn includes a special section in the back of the book covering Victorian “street weapons,” including the cudgel, shillelagh, walking stick, umbrella, sword-cane, umbrella-dagger, and others.

THE CUDGEL.

Allanson-Winn describes the cudgel as follows:

“Any thick stick under two feet long, such as a watchman’s staff or a policeman’s truncheon, may be fairly called a cudgel, and it is not so long ago that cudgel-play formed one of the chief attractions at country fairs in many parts of England… Considering the cudgel as a modern weapon, I am inclined to advocate its use for prodding an enemy in the pit of the stomach, for, with the extra eighteen inches or so of reach which your cudgel gives you, it is likely that you may get your thrust well home, at any rate before the opponent can hit you with his fist. Many of us know what a blow on the “mark” with the naked fist will do. Well, the area of the knuckles is very much greater than the area of the end of even a very stout stick, so that, if you can put anything like the same force into the thrust that you can into the blow, you will bring a smaller area to bear on a vital point, and consequently work on that point with greater effect.”

He proceeds to advocate a deadlier, modified version of the cudgel, for those nightmare-scenarios when a ruffian might steal into one’s house in the dead of night:

“A grievous crab-tree (or blackthorn) cudgel, with two or three ounces of lead let into one end, is a good thing to have under your pillow at night. Armed with this instrument, you can steal up behind your burglar whilst he is opening your wife’s jewel case or bagging your favourite gold snuff-box; but don’t get excited about it, and remember to hit his head rather on the sides than on the back or front.”

Very similar to this leaded cudgel is the so-called “life preserver”:

THE LIFE PRESERVER.

“The “life-preserver” consists of a stout piece of cane about a foot long, with a ball of five or six ounces of lead attached firmly to one end by catgut netting, whilst the other end is furnished with a strong leather or catgut loop to go round the wrist and prevent the weapon flying from or being snatched from the hand.

Of course this instrument may be very effective, very deadly, but what you have to consider is this: the serviceable portion is so small–no bigger than a hen’s egg–that unless you are almost an expert, or circumstances greatly favour you, there is more than a chance of altogether missing your mark. With the life-preserver you have, say, at most a couple of inches only of effective weapon to rely on, whereas with the cudgel at least a foot of hard and heavy wood may be depended upon for bowling over the adversary.”

Cane4

Professor Pierre Vigny recommended a similar weapon in 1903, which he described as, “a silver-mounted Malacca cane,” noting that “everyone uses one…Everyone knows that in choosing a Malacca, it will not only serve the purpose of something to carry in one’s hand, but that this beautiful cane, the most up-to-date of all sticks, can render great service as a means of self-defence, for it can become a formidable weapon in the hands of those who have learnt how to use it. ”

Allanson-Winn elucidates:

“A leaded rattan cane is a dangerous instrument in expert hands, but my objections to it are very similar to those advanced with regard to the shorter weapon. Leaded walking-sticks are not “handy,” for the presence of so much weight in the hitting portion makes them extremely bad for quick returns, recovery, and for guarding purposes.

To my mind the leaded rattan is to the well-chosen blackthorn what the life-preserver is to the cudgel–an inferior weapon.

One does not want to kill but to disable, even those who have taken the mean advantage of trying to catch one unprepared in the highways and byways. To take an ordinary common-sense view of the matter: it is surely better far to have a three to one chance in favour of disabling than an even chance of killing a fellow-creature? The disablement is all you want, and, having secured that, the best thing is to get out of the way as soon as possible, so as to avoid further complications.”

THE SHILLALAH [Shillelagh].

Shillelaghs

“The shillalah proper is about four feet long and is usually made of blackthorn, oak, ash, or hazel; and it is a great point to get it uniform in thickness and in weight throughout its entire length. It is held somewhere about eight inches or so from the centre, and my countrymen, who are always pretty active on their pins when fighting, use their left forearms to protect the left side of their heads.

The length of the shillalah gives it a great advantage over a shorter stick, for, when held about a third of its length from the end, the shorter portion serves to guard the right side of the head and the right forearm. Indeed, the definition of the quarter-staff, given at the commencement of Chapter II., seems to me to apply far better to the shillalah, which may in a sense be regarded as the link between the ordinary walking-stick and the mighty weapon which Robin Hood wielded so deftly in his combat with Little John.”

THE UMBRELLA.

Umbrella

“As a weapon of modern warfare this implement has not been given a fair place. It has, indeed, too often been spoken of with contempt and disdain, but there is no doubt that, even in the hands of a strong and angry old woman, a gamp of solid proportions may be the cause of much damage to an adversary…”

Here, the author offers a vivid anecdote which attests to the surprising deadly potential of the umbrella:

“It is, of course, an extremely risky operation prodding a fellow-creature in the eye with the point of an umbrella; and I once knew a man who, being attacked by many roughs, and in danger of losing his life through their brutality, in a despairing effort made a desperate thrust at the face of one of his assailants. The point entered the eye and the brain, and the man fell stone dead at his feet. I would therefore only advocate the thrusting when extreme danger threatens–as a dernier resort, in fact, and when it is a case of who shall be killed, you or your assailant.”

Allanson-Winn now proceeds to technique:

“There are two methods of using the umbrella, viz. holding it like a fencing foil–and for this reason umbrellas should always be chosen with strong straight handles–for long thrusts when at a distance, or grasping it firmly with both hands, as one grasps the military rifle when at bayonet-exercise. In the latter case one has a splendid weapon for use against several assailants at close quarters. Both the arms should be bent and held close to the body, which should be made to work freely from the hips, so as to put plenty of weight into the short sharp prods with which you can alternately visit your opponents’ faces and ribs. If you have the handle in your right hand, and the left hand grasps the silk (or alpaca), not more than a foot from the point, it will be found most effective to use the forward and upward strokes with the point for the faces, and the back-thrusts with the handle for the bodies. Whatever you do, let your strokes be made very quickly and forcibly, for when it comes to such close work as this your danger lies in being altogether overpowered, thrown down, and possibly kicked to death; and, as I have before hinted, when there is a choice of evils, choose the lesser, and don’t be the least squeamish about hurting those who will not hesitate to make a football of your devoted head should it unfortunately be laid low.

The author goes on to mention the following modified version, containing a concealed dagger:

“Sometimes umbrellas have been made even more effective weapons by what is called a spring dagger, which consists of a short, strong knife or dirk let into the handle, and is readily brought into play by a sudden jerk, or by touching a spring. This may be all very well for travellers in the out-of-the-way regions of Spain, Sicily, or Italy, but I don’t like these dangerous accessories for English use, as they may be unfortunately liable to abuse by excitable persons.”

I actually saw one of these up for auction on e-bay several years ago; alas, it sold for $110 dollars (out of my price range), and I haven’t seen one since.

THE SWORD CANE.

Sword canes

“The sword-stick is an instrument I thoroughly detest and abominate, and could not possibly advocate the use of in any circumstances whatever.

These wretched apologies for swords are to outward appearance ordinary straight canes–usually of Malacca cane. On pulling the handle of one of these weapons, however, a nasty piece of steel is revealed, and then you draw forth a blade something between a fencing-foil and a skewer.

They are poor things as regards length and strength, and “not in it” with a good solid stick. In the hands of a hasty, hot-tempered individual they may lead to the shedding of blood over some trivial, senseless squabble. The hollowing out of the cane, to make the scabbard, renders them almost useless for hitting purposes.

In the environs of our big cities there is always a chance of attack by some fellow who asks the time, wants a match to light his cigar, or asks the way to some place. When accosted never stop, never draw out watch or box of lights, and never know the way anywhere. Always make a good guess at the time, and swear you have no matches about you. It is wonderful to notice kind-hearted ladies stopping to give to stalwart beggars who are only waiting for an opportunity to snatch purses, and it would be interesting to know how many annually lose their purses and watches through this mistaken method of distributing largess.”

SwordCanesDuel

Several bloody affrays with sword-canes were fought in the late 1800s in both Europe and America. Typically these were not incidents wherein gentlemen defended themselves against ruffians, but rather, hot-headed brawls–perhaps attesting to Allanson-Winn’s reasons for loathing the weapon.

THE WALKING-STICK.

Cane5
Above: Image of fencing master Justin Bonnafous’s self-defense with the cane

This is the weapon which Allanson-Winn most heartily recommends for everyday self-defense purposes:

“The choice of this useful adjunct is by no means as easy as many people suppose, for it involves not only a knowledge of the prerequisities–in the matter of various kinds of woods, etc.–but also an acquaintance with the situations a man may find himself in, and the uses to which he may have to put his walking-stick.”

Here, Allanson-Winn goes on to discuss several types of inferior wood often used for walking sticks–oak (too stiff and apt to snap) hazel (too light), ash (too pliant), and rattan (too much bend to thrust with). He thus concludes:

“Where, then, shall we look for a stick which combines all the good qualities and is free from the drawbacks just enumerated? Without the slightest hesitation I refer you to the Irish blackthorn, which can be chosen of such convenient size and weight as not to be cumbersome, and which, if carefully selected, possesses all the strength of the oak, plus enormous toughness, and a pliability which makes it a truly charming weapon to work with.

It is a matter of some difficulty to obtain a real blackthorn in London or any big town. You go into a shop, and they show you a smart-looking stick which has been peeled and deprived of most of its knobs, dyed black, and varnished. That is not the genuine article, and, if you buy it, you will become the possessor of a stick as inferior to a blackthorn as a pewter skewer is inferior to a Damascus blade.

The best way is to send over to Kerry, Cork, or some other county in the Emerald Isle, and ask a friend to secure the proper thing as prepared by the inhabitants.

The sticks are cut out of the hedges at that time of year when the sap is not rising; they are then carefully prepared and dried in the peat smoke for some considerable time, the bark of course being left on and the knobs not cut off too close; and, when ready, they are hard, tough, and thoroughly reliable weapons.”

Here, it may be of interest to the modern enthusiast that the problem of obtaining true, reliably treated blackthorn is just as much a problem today as it was in the Victorian era (if not more so). Liam O Caidhla, one of the last traditional blackthorn stick-makers in Ireland, notes in the Sunday Mirror that “there are very few people making the authentic shillelagh these days – probably less than 30 people. Most of the shillelaghs sold in souvenir shops are made from hawthorn wood – not the traditional blackthorn wood. They are just made from roughly cut hawthorn and painted black.” Liam’s authentic blackthorns are available online here: http://misticshillelagh.tripod.com/id10.html

“The length of the blackthorn depends on the length of the man for whom it is intended, but always go in for a good long stick. Useful lengths range between 2 ft. 10 in. and 3 ft., and even 3 ft. 6 in. for a very tall man.

The blackthorn, being stiff and covered with sharp knots, is a first-rate weapon for defence at very close quarters. When, therefore, your efforts at distance-work have failed, and you begin to be “hemmed in,” seize the stick very firmly with both hands, and dash the point and hilt alternately into the faces and sides of your opponents.

Always have a good ferrule at the end of your stick. An inch and a half from an old gun barrel is the best; and do not fix it on by means of a rivet running through the stick. Let it be fixed in its place either by a deep dent in the side, or by cutting out two little notches and pressing the saw-like tooth into the wood. It is also a good plan to carry these saw-like teeth all round the ferrule and then press the points well into the wood; there is then no chance of the fastening-on causing a split or crack in the wood.”

Here Allanson-Winn recommends training in fencing as the best preparation for an armed encounter with the stick:

“I would always say, commence with the foils and work hard, under some good master, for a year or so without touching any other branch. Then go on to broad-sword, and keep to alternate days with foils. Later on take up the single-stick, and then go on to bayonet-exercise, quarter-staff, and anything else you please.

This extended range of work will give you a wonderful general capability for adapting yourself at a moment’s notice to any weapon chance may place in your hands: the leg of an old chair, the joint of a fishing rod, or the common or garden spade; any of these may be used with great effect by an accomplished all-round swordsman.”

Allanson-Winn now offers an anecdote which attests to the extreme effectiveness of the walking stick:

“It once fell to my lot to be set upon by a couple of very disagreeable roughs in Dublin, one of whom did manage to get the first blow, but it was “all round” and did not do much harm. Before he could deliver a second hit I managed to lay him out with a very severe cut from my blackthorn, which came in contact with his head just between the rim of his hat and the collar of his coat. Now, had my knowledge of stick-play been insufficient to enable me to accurately direct this cut (cut 5) to its destination, I might not now be scribbling these pages. As it turned out, this poor injured rough was placed hors de combat, and was afterwards conveyed to the hospital, and I only had to tackle his friend, a stubborn varlet, who, after knocking me about a good deal and also receiving some rough treatment at my hands, ran away. He was “wanted” by the police for some time, but was never caught.

This little episode is only given to show that the proper delivery of one blow or hit is often enough to turn the tables, and how advisable it is to practise often, so as to keep the eye and hand both steady and quick.”

WHY A MAN’S GOTTA DO WHAT A MAN’S GOTTA DO

In conclusion, Allanson-Winn offers one of the most thoughtful and profound statements on the importance of martial training ever set down in print:

“I can almost hear people say, ‘Oh, this is all rubbish; I’m not going to be attacked; life would not be worth living if one had to be always ‘on guard’ in this way.’ Well, considering that this world, from the time we are born to the time we die, is made up of uncertainties, and that we are never really secure from attack at any moment of our lives, it does seem worth while to devote a little attention to the pursuit of a science, which is not only healthful and most fascinating, but which may, in a second of time, enable you to turn a defeat into a victory, and save yourself from being mauled and possibly killed in a fight which was none of your own making. Added to all this, science gives a consciousness of power and ability to assist the weak and defenceless, which ought to be most welcome to the mind of any man. Though always anxious to avoid anything like ‘a row,’ there are times when it may be necessary to interfere for the sake of humanity, and how much more easy is it to make that interference dignified and effective if you take your stand with a certainty that you can, if pushed to extreme measures, make matters very warm indeed for the aggressor? The consciousness of power gives you your real authority, and with it you are far more likely to be calm and to gain your point than you would be without the knowledge. Backed up by science, you can both talk and act in a way which is likely to lead to a peaceful solution of a difficulty, whereas, if the science is absent, you dare not, from very uncertainty, use those very words which you know ought to be used on the occasion.”

WHERE TO LEARN TODAY?

While fencing schools of the Victorian era commonly offered instruction in weapons such as rapier, broadsword, dagger, cudgel, walking stick, cane, and staff, it is now extremely difficult to find masters authentically teaching these martial arts.

Maestro Ramon Martinez

Currently the best source for instruction is Maestro Ramón Martínez, who runs a traditional Academy of Arms in New York City. Unlike most modern instructors of historical fencing, who reconstruct their techniques from books, Maestro Martinez is the inheritor of a living tradition which can be traced back directly to the nineteenth century. He was trained and certified as a master by Frederick Rohdes, a German fencing master born in Western Prussia in 1897. Rohdes, who taught fencing in New York until his death in 1984, learned a variety of historical fencing systems from his own master, Marcel Cabijos. A Frenchman born in 1893, Cabijos attained great renown in his day by defeating the saber and épée champion of the United States (Leo Nunes) with only a twelve-inch dagger, in a well-publicized contest held in New York City in 1926.

Marcel Cabijos
Maître d’Armes Marcel Cabijos (1893-1964)

Thankfully, these techniques were passed down intact from master to student, and are still taught today at the Martinez Academy of Arms. Instruction is available in rapier, military saber, dueling sword, sword & dagger, single dagger, cane, staff, bayonet, and numerous other styles. Maestro Jeannette Acosta-Martinez (Ramon Martinez’s wife, and a fencing master as well) also teaches her own style of stick fighting, based on French fencing theory. It is in this salle d’armes, one of the last places of its kind in the world, where through martial, physical and mental discipline, one can attain the noted characteristics of the thoroughbred gentleman or gentlewoman.

For those not living in New York City, there are three other schools in the United States which are run by instructors trained by the Martinezes: Salle de St. George, Palm Beach Classical Fencing, and the Destreza Pacifica School of Arms.

Rapier & Dagger fencing
Illustration of fencers with rapier, cloak and daggers. New York, 1891.

Sources and further reading:

Broad-Sword and Single-Stick With Chapters on Quarter-Staff, Bayonet, Cudgel, Shillalah, Walking-Stick, Umbrella and Other Weapons of Self-Defence, by R. G. Allanson-Winn C. and Phillipps-Wolley. Pub. 1890.

The Cane Self-Defense of Maitre d’Armes Justin Bonnafous

Cane Defense Against Stick-, Knife-, and Gun-Wielding Thugs in the New York Tribune, 1903

Stick Defense for Women in New York: The “Royal Cane” Fencing of Regis Senac, 1898

The Martinez Academy of Arms – Profile & Interview

 

 

Old Valentine’s Day Customs and Lost Romantic Rituals

In Uncategorized on February 12, 2015 at 2:31 pm

Ben Miller:

Some Valentine’s Day history…

Originally posted on Out of This Century:

Valentines- Punch

Although the roots of Valentine’s Day stretch back to A.D 496 (when it was established by Pope Gelasius I to commemorate the life of a Christian martyr), most scholars agree that the holiday did not become associated with any romantic notions until the late middle ages. By the early 18th century the custom of “drawing names” had become popular, as noted by Bourne, in his Antiquitates Vulgares (1725):

It is a ceremony, never omitted among the Vulgar, to draw Lots which they Term Valentines, on the Eve before Valentine-day. The names of a select number of one sex, are by an equal number of the other put into some vessel; and after that, every one draws a name, which…is called their Valentine, and is also looked upon as a good omen of their being man and wife afterwards.

These name-drawing rituals could become quite elaborate, to the point of resembling…

View original 1,318 more words

Theodore Roosevelt trains in Catch and Cornish Wrestling as N.Y. Governor

In Edwardian Era, Martial Arts on October 15, 2014 at 2:26 pm

youngteddyroosevelt

President Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt cross-trained in a variety of combative arts including western boxing, wrestling, jiu-jitsu, and fencing. The following article details his training in the styles of Catch-as-catch-can (or “Catch”) wrestling as well as Cornish wrestling while serving as Governor of New York state:

Theodore Roosevelt trains in Catch and Cornish Wrestling as N.Y. Governor.

The Greatest African American and Afro-American Martial Artists in History

In Bizarre and Unusual, Customs and Traditions, Edwardian Era, Middle Ages, Military, Renaissance on March 25, 2014 at 4:34 pm

By Ben Miller

When asked to recall a great martial artist of African descent born in the Americas, the average person is likely to mention a twentieth-century boxer such as Joe Louis, or a more recent exponent of the Asian martial arts, such as Jim Kelly. Or, those of the younger generation might name the modern mixed martial arts competitor Anderson Silva, regarded by some as the greatest pound-for-pound fighter of all time.

What many do not know is that in centuries past, some of the greatest practitioners of European martial arts were of African descent.

Although Africans brought a number of their own indigenous techniques with them to Europe and the Americas (as can be read about here), they also sometimes trained in, adopted, and excelled at European swordsmanship—also known as classical and historical fencing.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, it was even possible (albeit difficult) for a person of African descent to achieve renown to such a point that they would be revered, and even sought for instruction, by whites—and the historical record shows that such was the case for multiple individuals.

An early instance of one such person can be found as early as 1733, when the following advertisement appeared in a southern Colonial newspaper, informing the public about a runaway slave or indentured servant:

“Run away, from Mr. Alex. Vanderdussen’s Plantation at Goose-Creek, a Negro Man named Thomas Butler, the famous Pushing and Dancing Master.” – South-Carolina Gazette (Whitmarsh), May 19 to May 26, 1733.

In eighteenth century terminology, to “Push” was to launch an attack with the smallsword, a fact which confirms that Thomas Butler was a fencing master—and one who had achieved some degree of fame, at least on a local scale. Butler was apparently so esteemed that in July of 1734, his former master was impelled to post the following additional notice:

“Whereas Thomas Butler, Fencing Master, has been runaway these two years since, and has been entertained by several gentlemen about Ferry who pretend not to know that he had a master, this is therefore desired that they would not do the like in the future…” – South-Carolina Gazette, July 20, 1734

These passages are all the more remarkable when one considers that they are the earliest known reference to a fencing master in the American South—the next being Edward Blackwell, who in 1734 posthumously published his treatise on the art of fencing. Although not much else is known about Thomas Butler, the above passages prove that as early as the 1730s, it was not impossible to achieve fame and esteem as a black martial artist (and instructor) in white society. This article will profile three of the greatest such individuals—the Chevalier Saint Georges, Jean Louis-Michel, and Basile Croquere.

 

Historical Background

 

As early as the late middle ages, people of African descent began appearing in European treatises on swordsmanship and the martial arts, such as the books of Hans Talhoffer (1467) and Paulus Hector Mair (1542).

Above: A sickle fencer, clearly of African descent, pictured in Paulus Hector Mair's De arte athletica, published in Augsburg, Germany, ca 1542. Source: http://infinitemachine.tumblr.com/post/80881463031/medievalpoc-paulus-hector-mair-arte-de

Above: A sickle fencer, clearly of African descent, pictured in Paulus Hector Mair’s De arte athletica, published in Augsburg, Germany, ca 1542. Source: http://infinitemachine.tumblr.com

Rapier

Above: A fencer of African descent, wielding an early rapier (or “sidesword”) pictured in Paulus Hector Mair’s De arte athletica, published in Augsburg, Germany, ca 1542. Source: http://www.hammaborg.de/de/transkriptionen/phm_dresden_2/05_rapier.php

Later, in 1657, a highly detailed account of Africans practicing European swordsmanship was sent down by Richard Ligon:

Some of [the African servants], who have been bred up amongst the Portugals, have some extraordinary qualities, which the others have not; as singing and fencing. I have seen some of these Portugal Negres, at Colonel James Draxes, play at Rapier and Dagger very skillfully, with their Stookados [Stoccatos], their Imbrocados, and their Passes: And at single Rapier too, after the manner of Charanza [Carranza], with such comeliness; as, if the skill had been wanting, the motions would have pleased you; but they were skilful too, which I perceived by their binding with their points, and nimble and subtle avoidings with their bodies, and the advantages the strongest man had in the close , which the other avoided by the nimbleness and skillfulness of his motion. For, in this Science, I had bin so well vers’d in my youth, as I was now able to be a competent Judge. Upon their first appearance upon the Stage, they march towards one another, with a slow majestick pace, and a bold commanding look, as if they meant both to conquer and coming neer together, they shake hands, and embrace one another, with a cheerful look. But their retreat is much quicker then their advance, and, being at first distance, change their countenance, and put themselves into their postures and so after a pass or two, retire, and then to’t again: And when they have done their play, they embrace, shake hands, and putting on their smoother countenances, give their respect to their Master, and so go off.

– Richard Ligon, A true & exact history of the island of Barbados, 1657.

Ligon’s account provides evidence that despite their low social status, people of African descent living in the American colonies were sometimes allowed—even encouraged—to train with various weapons, including the rapier and dagger, and became skilled at multiple styles—including Italian rapier fencing, as well as the profound system of Spanish swordsmanship (La Verdadera Destreza) founded by Jerónimo de Carranza.

Colonists of African descent also undoubtedly learned from less savory channels such as piracy; an estimated one-third of pirates during this period were black, and in such company, knowledge of swordsmanship was paramount. The following passage, culled from Captain Johnson’s General History of the Pirates (1728), gives rise to the possibility that black members had access to sword instruction:

“[Pirate Captain] Misson took upon him the Command of 100 Negroes, who were well disciplin’d, (for every Morning they had been used to perform their Exercise, which was taught them by a French Serjeant, one of their Company, who belong’d to the [ship] Victoire)…”

During the early 18th century, an English fencing treatise entitled “The Art of Defence,” printed and sold by one “John King”, was published containing several plates in which black fencers demonstrated various fencing techniques:

Above: Illustration of a black fencer making a “disarm in cart. Source:www.truefork.org”

Above: Illustration of a black fencer making a “disarm in cart.” Source:www.truefork.org

Above: Illustration of a black fencer making a “pass in tierce with the knuckles up,” while checking the adversary’s blade with his unarmed hand. Source:www.truefork.org

Above: Illustration of a black fencer making a “pass in tierce with the knuckles up,” while checking the adversary’s blade with his unarmed hand. Source:www.truefork.org.

Although such illustrations were the exception rather than the rule, they provide further evidence that blacks could be regarded as potentially serious fencers. In fact, one such fencer—Julius Soubise (1754-1798), a freed Afro-Caribbean slave, was hired to be the personal fencing instructor to Catherine Hyde, the Duchess of Queensbury, and was sent to train under Domenico Angelo, one the most renowned European fencing masters.

Also at this time emerged one of one the greatest fencers of all time, who just happened to be of African descent.

 

The Chevalier Saint-Georges

 

Portrait of Saint-Georges. Source: Wikipedia

Portrait of Saint-Georges. Source: Wikipedia

Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745–1799) was born in Guadeloupe, in the Caribbean, the son of George Bologne de Saint-Georges, a wealthy planter, and an African slave named Nanon. Although his father also had many white children, he took a special liking to Joseph, and in 1753 took his son, age seven, to France, where he began his education in a variety of arts including fencing.

According to the son of the fencing master La Boëssière, “At 15 his [Saint-Georges’] progress was so rapid, that he was already beating the best swordsmen, and at 17 he developed the greatest speed imaginable.”

He was still a student when he publicly defeated Alexandre Picard, a renowned fencing-master in Rouen who had foolishly referred to Saint-Georges as “Boëssière’s mulatto.” Heny Angelo, son of the famous Domenico (and a highly reputed fencing master in his own right) often went to fence with Saint-Georges while in Paris, and wrote about him in his memoirs:

“No man ever united so much suppleness with so much strength. He excelled in all the bodily exercises in which he engaged…He was a skillful horseman and remarkable shot; he rarely missed his aim when his pistol was once before the mark…but the art in which he surpassed all his contemporaries and predecessors was fencing. No professor or amateur ever showed so much accuracy and quickness. His attacks were a perpetual series of hits; his [parry] was so close that it was in vain to attempt to touch him; in short, he was all nerve.”

Fencing Assault between Saint-Georges and D'Eon

Fencing Assault between Saint-Georges and D’Eon. Source: Wikipedia

Angelo also related some details about Saint-George in the following anecdote, regarding an episode wherein the two crossed blades:

“It may not be unworthy of remark that from his being much taller, and, consequently, possessing a greater length of lunge, I found that I could not depend upon my attacks unless I closed with him. The consequence was, upon my adopting that measure, the hit I gave him was so ‘palpable’ that it threw open his waistcoat, which so enraged him that, in his fury, I received a blow from the pommel of his foil on my chin, the mark of which I still retain. It may be remarked of that celebrated man that, although he might be considered as a lion with a foil in his hand, the contest over he was as docile as a lamb, for soon after the above engagement, when seated to rest himself, he said to me: ‘Mon cher ami, donnez-moi votre main; nous tirons tous les jours ensemble.’”

Although there are too many anecdotes about Saint-George’s prowess to recount here, one of the best comes from Alfred Hutton, and occurred in Dunkirk.

Saint-Georges was attending a party with a large number of ladies, when a Captain of the Hussars began boasting of his own skill in fencing—oblivious to the identity of Saint Georges. The latter calmly asked the captain, “That is interesting…but did you ever happen to meet with the celebrated Saint-Georges?” The Captain responded: “”Saint Georges? Oh yes; I have fenced with him many a time. But he is no good; I can touch him just when I please.” Whereupon Saint-Georges challenged the Captain to a bout at foils on the spot. Hutton’s account continues:

“The Captain, seeing that he is opposed to a man much older than himself, is inclined to treat him with contempt, when the veteran fencer calmly turns to the ladies and asks them to name the particular buttons on the gentleman’s coat which they would like him to touch. They select half a dozen or so.

The pair engage. The famous swordsman plays with his man for a few minutes for the benefit of his audience, and then proceeds to hit each of the named buttons in rapid succession, and finishes by sending the foil of his vainglorious enemy flying out of his hand, to the great delight of the ladies, and the discomfited Captain is so enraged that he wants to make the affair a serious one [a duel] there and then. His victorious opponent corrects him with: “Young gentlemen, such an encounter could have but one ending. Be advised; reserve your forces for the service of your country. Go, and you may at last tell your friends with truth that you have crossed foils with me. My name is Saint Georges.”

Saint-Georges also became a respected music composer, and became the instructor of Queen Marie Antoinette. In her diary, the Queen referred to Saint-Georges as her “favorite American.”

Sketch entitled "St. Georges and the Dragon," depicting Saint-Georges boxing

Sketch entitled “St. Georges and the Dragon,” depicting Saint-Georges boxing. Source: http://theprintshopwindow.wordpress.com/2013/04/16/a-truly-british-art-images-of-pugilism-in-georgian-caricature/

Not one to forget his African roots, Saint-Georges was also an ardent and active abolitionist, stating in public, “The slave trade is a barbarous practice and must be eliminated.” Saint-George’s activism drew the ire from many in the slave trade, who attempted to silence him with violence—attempts which were thwarted by the Chevalier’s considerable martial prowess:

“Early in July [1789], walking home from Greenwich, a man armed with a pistol demanded his purse. The Chevalier disarmed the man… but when four more rogues hidden until then attacked him, he put them all out of commission. M. de Saint Georges received only some contusions which did not keep him from going on that night to play music in the company of friends.”

The Journal General de France, on February 23, 1790, also reported that: “the Chevalier was peacefully walking to Greenwich one night where he was going to make music in a house where he was awaited when he was suddenly attacked by four men armed with pistols. Nevertheless he managed to drive them off with the help of his stick.”

Saint-Georges meets a rival fencing master who has challenged him to a duel, under L'arche Marion

Saint-Georges meets a rival fencing master who has challenged him to a duel, under L’arche Marion. Source: Source: Wikimedia Commons

Saint George also commanded, as colonel, the first all-black military regiment in Europe, a unit that came to be known as St. Georges’ Légion. Among its officers was a lieutenant colonel named Thomas Alexandre Dumas. The father of the famous novelist, Dumas would go on to become a general in Revolutionary France, and the highest-ranking person of color of all time in a continental European army.

General Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, painted by Olivier Pichat. Source:http://s236.photobucket.com/user/DeeOlive/media/GeneralDumas_zps10105513.jpg.html

General Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, painted by Olivier Pichat. Source:http://s236.photobucket.com/user/DeeOlive/media/GeneralDumas_zps10105513.jpg.html

Saint Georges was evidently looked upon by the French with great veneration, for a number of drawings and paintings of fencing salles show his famous portrait displayed upon the wall with considerable prominence:

Angelo's famous Salle d'Armes, displaying Saint-George's portrait

Angelo’s famous Salle d’Armes, displaying Saint-George’s portrait

Although Saint Georges passed away in 1799, his name and image is venerated among classical and historical fencers throughout the world.

 

Jean-Louis Michel

 

“The founder of the modern French school of swordsmanship, and the greatest swordsman of his century, was a mulatto of San Domingo, that famous Jean Louis, who in one terrible succession of duels, occupying only forty minutes, killed or disabled thirteen master-fencers of that Italian army pressed into service by Napoleon for his Peninsular campaign.” – Lafcadio Hearn, 1886

Jean-Louis was born in Haiti (then Saint-Domingue) in 1785, the son of a French fencing master. Later, he served as a soldier in Napoleon’s army.

His most famous exploit as a duelist was a regimental “mass” duel that took place near Madrid, Spain, in 1814. French soldiers from the 32nd Regiment and Italian soldiers from the 1st Regiment quarreled. Within 40 minutes, Jean-Louis killed or disabled thirteen Italian fencing masters in succession:

The regiments were assembled in a hollow square on a plain outside Madrid. At its center was a natural elevation forming a platform where, two at a time, 30 champions would duel for the honor of 10,000 men. As the premier fencing master of the 32d Regiment, Jean-Louis was the first up. His opponent was Giacomo Ferrari, a celebrated Florentine swordsman and fencing master of the First Regiment.

Drums rolled. The troops were ordered to parade rest, and as they slammed down the butts of their muskets in unison, the earth shook. Jean-Louis and Giacomo Ferrari stepped onto the fencing strip, each stripped to the waist to show that they wore nothing that would turn a thrust. An expectant silence filled the air as every eye was fixed on the two masters…

The fencing masters crossed swords and the bout began. Ferrari took the offensive, but Jean-Louis followed all his flourishes with a calm but intense attention; every time Ferrari tried to strike, his sword met steel. With a loud cry Ferrari jumped to the side and attempted an attack from below, but Jean-Louis parried the thrust and with a lightning riposte wounded Ferrari in the shoulder. “It is nothing, start the fight again!” cried Ferrari, getting back to his feet. Jean-Louis’ next thrust struck home, and Ferrari fell dead.

Jean-Louis wiped the blood from his blade, resumed his first position, and waited. His battle had only begun. The victor in each bout was to continue until he was injured or killed, and Jean-Louis still faced 14 swordsmen of the 1st Regiment, all of them eager to avenge their comrade.

Another adversary came at him. After a brief clash, Jean-Louis lunged and, while recovering, left his point in line. Rushing at him, his opponent was impaled. A second corpse lay at the French master’s feet.

His third opponent, a taller man, attacked fiercely, with jumps and feints, but Jean-Louis’ point disappeared into his chest, and he fell unconscious.

The next man approached. The regiments watched in fascinated silence. They were accustomed to the wholesale music of slaughter: the booming of artillery, the bursting of shells, the rattle of musketry, the clash of sabers. All are impressive, but none so keenly painful as the thin whisk of steel against steel as men engage in single combat. As one contemporary observer wrote, “it goes clean through the mind and makes the blood of the brain run cold.”

Jean Louis and his fencing master, M. D'Erape. From L'Almanach Des Sports, 1899.

Jean Louis and his fencing master, M. D’Erape. From L’Almanach Des Sports, 1899.

After 40 minutes only two Italian provosts were left awaiting their turn, pale but resolved. A truce was called, and the colonel of the 32d approached Jean-Louis.

“Maitre,” he said, “you have valiantly defended the regiment’s honor, and in the name of your comrades, and my name, I thank you sincerely. However, 13 consecutive duels have taken too much of your body stamina. Retire now, and if the provosts decide to finish the combat with their opponents, they will be free to do so.”

“No, no!” exploded Jean-Louis, “I shall not leave the post which has been assigned me by the confidence of the 32d Regiment. Here I shall remain, and here I shall fight as long as I can hold my weapon.” As he finished his statement he made a flourish with his sword, which cut one of his friends on the leg. “Ah,” cried Jean-Louis, distraught, “there has only been one man of the 32d wounded today, and it had to be by me.”

Seizing upon the incident, the colonel said, “This is a warning; there has been enough blood. All have fought bravely and reparation has been made. Do you trust my judgment in the matter of honor?” After Jean-Louis said he did, the colonel said there was nothing more to do but extend a hand to the 1st Regiment. Pointing to the two provosts who still waited, he said to Jean-Louis, “They cannot come to you!”

Jean-Louis dropped his sword, approached the two Italians, and clasped them by the hands. His regiment cheered, “Vive Jean-Louis! Vive the 32d Regiment!”

Jean-Louis added, “Vive the First! We are but one family! Vive l’armee!”

– Paul Kirchner, The Deadliest Men

1816 match between the Comte de Bondy and the fencing master Lafaugere by Frederic Regamey. Jean Louis served as the President de Combat, and can be seen at center, behind the fencers' blades.

1816 match between the Comte de Bondy and the fencing master Lafaugere by Frederic Regamey. Jean Louis presided as “President de Combat,” and can be seen at center.

Jean Louis’s fencing style would become a major influence on the French school of fencing, and he is credited with the saying—now famous among fencers—“A foil should be held as one holds a little bird; not so tightly as to crush it, but just enough to prevent it escaping from the hand.” He became sought out by members of the nobility for fencing instruction.

Jean-Louis retired from the army in 1849, at age sixty-five, and began teaching fencing permanently at his school in Montpellier. Later he came to denounce dueling. He instructed his daughter in the art of fencing, and she would go on to become one of his most accomplished disciples.

JeanLouisPortrait

Arsene Vigeant, a famous writer on fencing, remarked of him “Jean-Louis’ face which appeared hard at first meeting, hid a soul of great goodness and generosity.”

 

Basile Croquère

 

During the nineteenth century, New Orleans came to be regarded by many as the dueling capitol of the western world. There, duels were fought more frequently than in any other American city. As to exact statistics, one nineteenth-century visitor noted that “in 1834 there were no less than 365 [duels], or one for every day in the year; 15 having been fought on one Sunday morning. In 1835 there were 102 duels fought in that city, betwixt the 1st of January and end of April.” In 1839, another resident noted “Thirteen Duels have been fought in and near the city during the week; five more were to take place this morning.” Most of these duels were said to have been fought by those of French Creole descent, however, in 1833 William Ladd noted that blacks “are taking it up [dueling]” in the city.

In fact, African Americans fought a large number of duels in Louisiana, which were reported throughout newspapers of the era. One example, published in April 1872 by the New York Times, noted that:

“Two young colored men fought a duel with small swords in New Orleans, on Tuesday, and one was slightly wounded in the breast. One is a son of an internal revenue assessor, and the other a son of a Custom-house official. The quarrel grew out of testimony given before the Congressional Investigating Committee.”

Due in part to this prolific dueling culture, the tradition of classical and historic fencing flourished in old New Orleans. From about 1830 until the Civil War, at least fifty maitre d’armes (masters of arms) operated fencing academies in Exchange Alley, from Canal to Conti between Royal and Bourbon Streets. Of these, the author has personally come across six New Orleans fencing masters of African ancestry. Among the most notable of these were “Black” Austin, a free black man, and Robert Severin, also of African ancestry—who fought at least one duel in the city, and served as a second in at least another.

The most renowned of these masters, however, was Basile Croquère.

Croquère, according to Lafcadio Hearn, was “the most remarkable colored swordsman of Louisiana.” For much of the last century, Croquère’s life has been shrouded in mystery, and what is known about him consists mostly of scraps of anecdotal information set down in local histories. What is certain is that he was born in New Orleans around 1800 to a white father and a mother of mixed African-European ancestry.

At a young age, Croquère took part in the War of 1812, and likely participated in the famous Battle of New Orleans (1815)—in which the Americans soundly expelled the British and effectively won the war. In 1879, Croquère was listed as a member of L’Association des Vétérans de 1814-15.

Like the famous St. Georges, Croquère was sent by his white father to be educated in Paris, where he obtained a degree in mathematics, and probably received some, if not most, of his fencing instruction. After completing his studies in France, Croquère returned to New Orleans, where he set up shop as both a fencing master and a staircase builder, in which profession he applied his mathematical knowledge to construct the “soaring, multidimensional staircases” which became the staple of antebellum southern mansions.

By all accounts, Croquère was one of the best masters-of-arms in New Orleans. As one author of the period recounted:

“Though the population could count a considerable number of these fencing experts and duelists, Basile Croquère was proclaimed their superior in all things…He employed his talent to train the youth, to give them the benefit of his skill and his knowledge in arms.”

In a city known as the fencing and dueling Mecca of North America, where men literally lived and died by the sword on a daily basis, this was high praise.

“Mr. Basile was an educated and respectable man; he knew how to estimate and consider by his character, his behavior and his distinguished manners.

It was not therefore strange that a man having these recommendable qualities should enjoy a certain credit among people of high society, in whom he cultivated an elite clientele…

As to his profession of arms, it is told that he could touch his opponent almost as though composing a ballad…He often said that his chest was a holy place: it was filled with air because, we are told, no adversary’s foil was ever able to touch it…”

John Augustin (1838-1888), a New Orleans poet, editor, and Confederate veteran, recounted that Croquère “was such a fine blade that many of the best Creole gentlemen did not hesitate, notwithstanding the strong prejudice against color, to frequent his salle d’armes, and even cross swords with him in private assaults.”

Although little is known about this extraordinary master, his legend continues to endure among New Orleans guidebooks and books about dueling. Although it would be presumptuous to declare him the greatest of African American martial artists, he was, by all accounts, an extraordinary person and a swordsman of the highest caliber.

Above: A duel under the famous "Dueling Oaks" in New Orleans' City Park.

Above: A duel under the famous “Dueling Oaks” in New Orleans’ City Park.

Further reading:

 

African American Knife-Fighters of Old New York

African American Soldiers fight off 24 Germans with Bolo Knives during World War I

Fencing in Colonial America and the Early Republic

http://www.chevalierdesaintgeorge.com/bio_fulltext.html

Gabriel Banat, The Chevalier de Saint-Georges: Virtuoso of the Sword and the Bow

Reminiscences of Henry Angelo

Alfred Hutton, Sword & the Centuries

http://sworddueling.com/2010/03/08/jean-louis-michel/

Paul Kirchner, The Deadliest Men

Benjamin Truman, The Field of Honor

 

This article © 2015 by Ben Miller. All rights reserved. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that credit is given with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

First Patriots’ Day: An Eyewitness Account

In Colonial (American) Period on May 2, 2011 at 11:28 pm

Although no sound recordings of Revolutionary War veterans exist, the following recording, made in 1950, is the next best thing. In it, the ninety-five year old Dr. Alfred Worcester relates the events of Lexington, Concord, and Battle Road as told to him by his great-grandmother, who witnessed them firsthand. It’s an extraordinary audio piece, and possibly the only second-hand account of the Revolutionary War ever recorded:

First Patriots’ Day, The: An Eyewitness Account By Dr. Alfred Worcester – WGBH Open Vault.

News Flash from 1792: Mother Fights Off Hordes of Indians with an Axe

In Uncategorized on March 16, 2011 at 3:12 pm

From the Windham Herald, Saturday. September 8th, 1792:

Extraordinary instance of female heroism. Extracted from a letter written by Col. James Perry to the Rev. Jordon Dodge. On the 1st of April inst. a number of Indians surrounded the house of John Merril, which was discovered by the barking of a dog. Merril stepped to the door to see what he could discover, and received three musket balls, which caused him to fall back into the house with a broken leg and arm. The Indians rushed on to the door, but it being instantly fastened by his wife, who with a girl about fifteen years of age, stood against it, the savages could not immediately enter. They broke one part of the door, and one of them crowded partly through. The heroic mother, in the midst of her screaming children and groaning husband, seized an axe, and gave a fatal blow to the savage, and he falling headlong into the house, the Indians supposed they had obtained their end, and rushed after him, until four of them had fell in like manner, before they discovered their mistake. The rest retreated, which gave opportunity again to secure the door. The conquerors rejoiced in their victory; hoping they had killed the whole company, but their expectations were soon dashed by finding the door again attacked, which the bold mother endeavoured once more to secure, with the assistance of the young woman; their fears now came on them like a flood; and they soon heard a noise on the top of the house, and then found the Indians were coming down the chimney; all hopes of deliverance were now at an end; but the wounded man ordered his little child to tumble a couch, that was filled with hair and feathers, on the fire, which made such a smoke that two lusty indians came tumbling down the chimney; the wounded man exerting every faculty in this critical moment, seized a billet of wood, with which he conquered the smothered Indians; at the same instant the woman aimed a blow at the savage at the door, but not with the same effect as the rest, which caused him to retreat. They then again secured the door as fast as possible, and rejoiced at their deliverance, but not without fear of a third attack. They carefully watched with their family until morning, and were not again disturbed. We learn by a prisoner that made his escape from the Indians, that the wounded Indian last mentioned, was the only one that escaped at this time. On his return he was asked,–“what news brother?” “Plaguy bad news,” replied the wounded Indian, “for the squaws have taken the breech clout, and fight worse than the long knives.” This affair happened at Newbardstown about fifteen miles from Sandy-creek, and may be depended on, as I had the pleasure to assist in tumbling them into a hole, after they were stripped of their head dresses, and about twenty dollars worth of silver
furniture.

One Tough Soldier

In Colonial (American) Period, Military on September 4, 2010 at 1:13 am

“Caleb Kilton was born in Scituate, on the 6th of October, 1781. His parents were John Jenckes and Sarah (Brayton) Kilton. His father was one of those who opened the great drama of the American Revolution, by the destruction of the Gaspee, in 1772. During the war that followed, in common with his fellow-citizens, he was frequently in active service in the field. He was in Sullivan’s expedition to the island of Rhode Island, in 1778,–and in the battle which followed the retreat of the Americans, the barrel of his gun was heated, by repeated discharges, to such a degree as to compel him to desist from reloading it. He used to relate, that a soldier near him on that occasion, was struck by a spent musket ball on his front teeth with such force as to displace four of them. Nothing dismayed, added the ball and the four teeth to the next charge in his gun, with the wish, expressed in terms more forcible than pious, that the redcoats might derive some advantage from them.”

– Transactions of The Rhode Island Society for the Encouragement of Domestic Industry in the Year 1861. Providence: Knowles, Anthony & Co. 1862. p147-148

The Survival of Archaic English in the American Dialect

In Colonial (American) Period, Customs and Traditions, Everyday Life, Federalist Period, Georgian Era, Renaissance, Victorian Era on March 31, 2010 at 11:31 pm

Many people hold the common belief that modern English, as it is spoken today by the English themselves, is the “purest,” most uncorrupted form of the language. In other words, if one were to get in a time machine and travel back to 16th or 17th century England, the language one would hear would most closely resemble modern British English, as opposed to say, American English.

This is not, however, strictly true. For instance, when an American uses the slang term “bub” (a word long extinct in England), he or she is actually using a term that has its roots in Renaissance England. Numerous “archaic” words and phrases harking back several centuries survived in American English, only to become extinct in the British Isles. One reason for this is that American culture was mostly forged in the initial wave of immigrants that came between 1620 and 1640. H.L. Mencken explains:

Most of the colonists who lived along the American seaboard in 1750 were the descendants of immigrants who had come in fully a century before; after the first settlements there had been much less fresh immigration than many latter-day writers have assumed. According to Prescott F. Hall, “the population of New England … at the date of the Revolutionary War … was produced out of an immigration of about 20,000 persons who arrived before 1640,” and we have Franklin’s authority for the statement that the total population of the colonies in 1751, then about 1,000,000, had been produced from an original immigration of less than 80,000. Even at that early day, indeed, the colonists had begun to feel that they were distinctly separated, in culture and customs, from the mother-country…The result of this isolation, on the one hand, was that proliferation of the colonial speech which I have briefly reviewed, and on the other hand, the preservation of many words and phrases that gradually became obsolete in England.

Just what phrases survived in America, only to die out in England? Mencken provides a list:

A very large number of words and phrases, many of them now exclusively American, are similar survivals from the English of the seventeenth century, long since obsolete or merely provincial in England. Among nouns Thornton notes fox-fire, flap-jack, jeans, molasses, beef (to designate the live animal), chinch, cordwood, home-spun, ice-cream, julep and swingle-tree; Halliwell adds andiron, bay-window, cesspool, clodhopper, cross-purposes, greenhorn, loop-hole, ragamuffin and trash; and other authorities cite stock (for cattle), fall (for autumn), offal, din, underpinning and adze. Bub, used in addressing a boy, is very old English, but survives only in American. Flapjack goes back to Piers Plowman, but has been obsolete in England for two centuries. Muss, in the sense of a row, is also obsolete over there, but it is to be found in “Anthony and Cleopatra.” Char, as a noun, disappeared from English a long time ago, save in the compound, charwoman, but it survives in America as chore. Among the verbs similarly preserved are to whittle, to wilt and to approbate. To guess, in the American sense of to suppose, is to be found in “Henry VI”:

Not all together; better far, I guess,
That we do make our entrance several ways.

In “Measure for Measure” Escalus says “I guess not” to Angelo. The New English Dictionary offers examples much older—from Chaucer, Wycliffe and Gower. To interview is in Dekker. To loan, in the American sense of to lend, is in and Henry VIII, but it dropped out of use in England early in the eighteenth century, and all the leading dictionaries, both in English and American, now call it an Americanism. To fellowship, once in good American use but now reduced to a provincialism, is in Chaucer. Even to hustle, it appears, is ancient. Among adjectives, homely, which means only homelike or unadorned in England, was used in its American sense of plain-featured by both Shakespeare and Milton. Other such survivors are burly, catty-cornered, likely, deft, copious, scant and ornate. Perhaps clever also belongs to this category, that is, in the American sense of amiable.

Mencken concludes:

“Our ancestors,” said James Russell Lowell, “unhappily could bring over no English better than Shakespeare’s.” Shakespeare died in 1616; the Pilgrims landed four years later; Jamestown was founded in 1607. As we have seen, the colonists, saving a few superior leaders, were men of small sensitiveness to the refinements of life and speech: soldiers of fortune, amateur theologians, younger sons, neighbouhood “advanced thinkers,” bankrupts, jobless workmen, decayed gentry, and other such fugitives from culture…There were no grammarians in that day; there were no purists that anyone listened to; it was a case of saying your say in the easiest and most satisfying way. In remote parts of the United States there are still direct and almost pure-blooded descendants of those seventeenth century colonists. Go among them, and you will hear more words from the Shakespearean vocabulary, still alive and in common service, than anywhere else in the world, and more of the loose and brilliant syntax of that time, and more of its gipsy phrases.

Source:

Mencken, H.L. (Henry Louis), 1880–1956. The American language: An inquiry into the development of English in the United States, by H.L. Mencken. 2nd ed., rev. and enl. New York: A.A. Knopf, 1921.

Top Must-Read Autobiographies Part III

In Crime, Justice and Punishment, Federalist Period, Georgian Era, Pirates, Rogues, and Gangs on March 25, 2010 at 2:40 pm

Continued from PART II.

Captain Lightfoot: The Last of the New England Highwaymen (1821)

Captain Lightfoot

Among the early annals of the American republic exists a curious pamphlet, published at Boston in 1821, entitled The Life of Michael Martin, Who Was Executed for Highway Robbery, December 20, 1821, As Given by Himself. What this little volume contains is nothing less than an account of the life of the last highwayman in New England, as dictated by the criminal himself to reporter Frederick W. Waldo of the Columbian Centinal, during the days leading up to his execution.

A highwayman (for those unfamiliar with the term) was a highway robber–a breed of criminal common during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, that was often known to adopt a polite, gentlemanly tone while accosting his victims. For this reason, highwaymen sometimes attained the status of folk heroes, especially in countries subjugated by the British (such as Ireland and Scotland), where the wealthy class and agents of the law were assumed to be in league with the colonizing powers. Martin’s account is filled with adventure, intrigue, secret societies, daring escapes, and desperate shootouts, as seen through the eyes of a character who has all the tragic failings of a man who has wasted his life in a world of crime. It is, in many ways, an early nineteenth century version of the movie Goodfellas.

Martin’s tale begins thus:

I have in the course of my short life, assumed many fictitious names. My true name is John Martin.

Martin was born in Ireland, in the parish of Connehy, near the city of Kilkenny, in 1795, to Roman Catholic parents. He was provided well for, sent to church and school, but relates that “as early as I can remember, I was more fond of diversion and play, than of learning. My temper was violent, and I chose rather to be subject to the government of my own passions, than to parental authority.” At age fourteen, Martin was apprenticed to his Uncle, a brewer, but according to Martin, his own “bad habits and vicious propensities” did little to ingratiate him with his benefactor. Eventually his Uncle punished him for some crime, and Martin returned home. According to his account,

At this time, my evil habits were partially fixed; and I began to indulge in those propensities which have eventuated in my ruin…I violated all my promises; often neglected my school, and fell into bad company.

From here it was all downhill. Martin began associating with dishonest people, adopting a debauched lifestyle–which, to maintain, he resorted to stealing from his own family. At age sixteen he was initiated into the United Irishmen, or Ribbon Men, a secret society whose object was to free Ireland from British rule. Martin relates that

The meetings were generally appointed at different places each night—sometimes near my father’s, and frequently many miles off. I would, when necessary, take one of my father’s horses from his barn, and return before day light to my chamber, by the rope. The association to which I belonged, had secret signs and secret places of meeting, which were changed every night. The time was principally employed in discussing our grievances, in drilling the use of the pike, rifle and musket; and when those of higher rank had gone, the others would carouse till next morning. Some of those who remained, would talk over the feats of villainy which they had done, or intended to commit. The perpetration of small crimes was directly contrary to the intention of the founders of the association, and in their presence nothing like robbery was ever mentioned. But many others who were desperate in their fortunes, were continually devising schemes to benefit themselves individually, and not for the common good. From such members it was, that I derived my first disposition to mischief and propensity for taking from others what I had no right to demand.

Six months later, Martin’s father discovered his involvement with the Ribbon Men. He confronted his son, beat him, and disowned him. After stealing some more money from his family, Martin traveled to Dublin, where he took up cheating at cards, and began spending time with swindlers and prostitutes. He briefly landed another job at a distillery, but was fired for bad behavior.

One night, while staying at a country inn, Martin fell into conversation with a supposed “clergyman” who would change his life forever. Seeing that Martin was short of cash, the man generously offered to pay for his food and drink for the whole evening. Martin described him as follows:

The name of this man, was John Doherty. ln the course of this conversation, I thought there was something rather mysterious in his manner, although he appeared to me quite undisguised. But he asked me many questions about my family, myself, and my manner of life, which I thought it impossible for a stranger to be acquainted with…

Doherty was very earnest, in all his inquiries, and was continually plying me with liquor. He asked me at first, if my name was not Martin—If I was the young man just returned from Dublin, and who had been obliged to run away from there. You are a wild fellow, said he, are you not? I answered, yes. You are very fond of spending money? Yes, when I can get it. You don’t much care how you come by it? No, if it doesn’t cost me much trouble. He said it was a shame that such a smart young fellow as I was, should be at any time destitute of money. He at length wormed himself into my confidence, and I told him all the history of my past life. After pumping me for some time, and finding out what sort of a disposition I had; and after we had got pretty warm with liquor, he threw off his disguise of a clergyman, but did not then tell me who he was. He talked about robberies and religion, alternately: and I was confused throughout the evening, not being able to find out what was the real character of the man…

Doherty offered to travel with Martin the next day, and continued to interview him about his life story and talents. He invited Martin to race him to test his running ability, saddled him on his horse to see how he could ride, and leap ditches and fences. Satisfied with Martin’s skills, Doherty invited him to a private dinner. After fastening all the windows and doors, he revealed to Martin his true character and profession:

He said he was a highwayman, and that he was Captain Thunderbolt. I was astonished and alarmed at this information—I had for many years heard of the daring exploits of that man; and his name had for a long time been a terror to that part of the country. He had been often advertised; and but a few days before, I had seen an advertisement offering a reward of 500 pounds for his head. I then felt a little dread at being left alone with a man of whom I had heard so many outrageous crimes, and was anxious to get out of the room. He took out two large pistols and laid them on the table, after cocking one of them, and said, “Martin you must stay with me, I cannot part from so clever a fellow as you are.” I then sat down again, and he urged me to drink more. He then recounted many of his feats; some of which were so amusing, and apparently so innocent, that I listened with great delight to him. He touched my quality exactly…I remained till near midnight, hearing him recount his adventures, and he persuading me to embark with him.

Captain Thunderbolt

The interview was interrupted by the arrival of several British dragoons hunting Doherty. The two men arranged to reunite, however, the next day, where Doherty arrived with “a fine pair of double barrelled brass pistols, a dirk, and in his portmanteau, a large blunderbuss.” And thus it was that Doherty invited Martin to become his apprentice. Doherty justified his criminal profession by claiming to be a sort of Robin Hood, professing a doctrine akin to communism:

He said, it was his principle, to make property equal in this world. That he would get as much as he could from the rich, but would never molest the poor—He would take money from those who had more than they knew how to use, but would never take life, if he could avoid it. If there was any danger of detection, or any strong opposition, he thought himself justified in taking life.

Martin, of course, eventually broke down and agreed to partner with Doherty. In July of 1816, at twenty-one years of age, Martin became a highwayman. He described his initiation as follows:

[Doherty] initiated me into the order, by first throwing a glass of brandy in my face, and calling me Captain Lightfoot. He then presented me a double barrel brass pistol—after having drawn the charge, and loaded it again with slugs, he told me to put it in my bosom, and while I kept with him, and observed his instructions, I should never be taken or die. I obeyed most willingly, for my whole soul was with this man, and I thought he would stand a pretty good tug with old Satan himself.

From here the narrative becomes a litany of burglaries, hold-ups and shoot-outs as Martin learns the various intricacies of his new trade. Clearly the robbers took delight in stealing from the well-to-do; when a trembling servant offered up his valuables, Doherty told him, “we are not in the habit of troubling any but gentlemen.” Likewise, while robbing a lavish estate, he used comforting language to soothe the female inhabitants of the house, while terrifying them at the same time:

He told them his trade; that he wished to do nothing to them but what was gentlemanly, and would not take from them a farthing of property; but he had understood that there was valuable treasure in that house, and they must shell out. He laid his pistols on the table—asked for a glass of brandy: They gave it to him in great fright, and he used every means to prevent them from being alarmed. After some time, they went up stairs, and brought down a gold watch, a pocket book, containing bank notes, and a purse, with a quantity of specie in it. Doherty said that this was not all the treasure; he must have more. They went again, and returned with watches and jewels of their own. He said that he would rather be burnt to death, than take any thing from a woman. He told me to lock the door. We took each of us a part of the spoil, kissed the ladies, and bid them good bye. After we had mounted our horses, I threw down the key of the room where the servants were confined; and we took our course across the country, avoiding the public roads. The amount we lifted at this house was about 160 guineas.

Title Page
Often the two desperadoes were forced to disguise themselves to avoid detection, and barely remained one step ahead of the “redcoats,” and other authorities. At one point, Doherty is wounded in the calf while being chased by soldiers through a field. After running more than 10 miles on foot, the two hide themselves in a wood, where Doherty collapses:

he fell down on the ground, and as I thought, was a dying man. He had sense enough after a few minutes rest, to tell me that there was a small bottle in his pocket, which he directed me to give him. He smelt of it, swallowed a few drops from it, and nibbed his head with it. He was soon revived, and directed me to take out the ball from his leg, with my penknife. “Cut as near the lead,” said he, “as you can; I can afford to lose a little blood.” It was the first time that I had ever officiated as a surgeon; but I saw he was so resolute upon the subject, that I cut it out without any fear. He bound up the wound himself, and said we must remain in that wood for some time. I cut down a quantity of bushes to make a bed for the Captain, and we remained in this situation for about twenty four hours, without meat or drink. The medicine that he carried with him, saved his life; for he had bled profusely. The next night, I left him, to go in pursuit of food…I ate very ravenously; but he abstained, although he said, he was quite hungry. “If he was at the most splendid banquet in the world,” he said ” he would neither eat nor drink. This abstinence was the shortest way of curing his wound.”

After robbing a score of others, Doherty was ambushed while sleeping by a company of dragoons, and taken captive. Bound hand and foot, he was set under a careful watch. Martin waited until the moment was right, then daringly attempted to free his comerade:

I concealed myself in the rear of the stable until midnight; and then, by the assistance of my pistol, struck a light, and set fire to the stable. I then cried fire, as stoutly as I could bawl…most of the people who were guarding the Captain, came out to assist in extinguishing the flames. I watched the opportunity, and found out in what room he was confined. I went in, and there were only three soldiers left to guard him. I found them sitting quietly along side of him, their muskets placed in the corner of the room. I drew both my pistols, and swore that I would kill the first man that started. They seemed terrified, and offered no resistance. I took out my knife and cut the cords with which the Captain was bound, and gave him one of my pistols. When he was getting up, one of the soldiers got up and grasped a musket; but before he had time to cock it and present, I fired my pistol and shot him in the leg…He fell, the rest were still more alarmed, and we pushed off on foot, leaving them to mend their legs, and put out their fires, in the best manner they could.

At one point, the two become wealthy enough to set themselves up in style in Dublin. They develop an elaborate scheme to pose as gentleman and marry a wealthy widow named Lady MacBriar. The plot is almost successful, but is foiled when the frauds have a chance encounter with someone from Martin’s home town who recognizes him. Constantly on the run, the men flee to Belfast, the highlands of Scotland, and eventually Glasgow, where they “went to a house of ill-fame, where we remained four or five days, drinking and spending a great deal of money.” For a while the men masquerade as doctors, selling people fake cures and quack medicines. The two make so much money at this, that Martin considered giving up highway robbery:

I said one day, to the Captain, that I had rather go on in this way, and would never take to the highway again. He laughed at me, and said, “to be sure we can get a living in this business; but money is not worth much to us if we can’t spend it. I want to lay up enough, so that I can get into some other country, and spend it like a gentleman—Besides, I like the fun of frightening the loons, and taking from them what is of no use to them.”

After this the two hijacked a ship and returned to Ireland, where they continued to rob. Martin describes another scene in which he accosts a prominent member of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy:

The Lord Lieutenant had a large gold headed cane in his hand; and in a few minutes he sat down on a bench, on the margin of the pond…I then came out of my hiding place, went boldly up to the master, presented my large double-barrelled pistol, and demanded all the money he had about him. He looked at me for a few moments,and then said, “Did you speak to me ?” “Yes, please your honor.” “What do you want, you impudent rascal,” said he, “get out of my presence, or I will have your skin taken off.” “Please your honor,” said I, ” I must first skin your pockets; and if you offer to call for assistance, and do not give over immediately, I shall take your life.”

At one point they become so notorious, and are pursued by so many sheriffs and king’s men, that Martin and Doherty determine to set sail for America. Before they can do so, however, the two friends are split up by circumstance, and are separated for good. Martin relates:

I never saw John Doherty from this time—Since I have been in America, I received a letter from him, informing me, that he had found out my departure from Ireland for New-York, the day after the vessel sailed; that he had scoured the country for some weeks after; and being pressed very close, he had gathered up his treasures, and pushed off to one of the West India Islands, where he was comfortably settled; and under a fictitious name, transacting much business, in an honest manner. He directed to me in the name that I had agreed to take, in case of separation. It was sent to the care of the British Consul, who, advertised the letter, and I sent for it. This man had a great many good qualities; and although he was the cause of much trouble to me, yet I feel a strong affection for him; and trust that he will die a repentant and honest man.

During his trip across the Atlantic, Martin engages in a mutiny when it is discovered the Captain was planning a detour to Canada, and so the course is set for Salem, Massachusetts. In America, Martin takes up his old trade and for some time becomes the terror of New England.

Robbing Major Bray

Unlike in Ireland, however, Martin finds no sympathy or sanctuary among the pious American populace, and is forced to constantly change identities to avoid capture. Soon the inevitable occurs. After robbing a Major Bray, Martin is sighted by authorities in Medford, Massachusetts, who immediately begin pursuit. During the chase, Martin falls off his horse, dislocates his shoulder, and escapes through a marsh. He recounts

I got into a small cluster of woods, and did not see that any one was in pursuit. I then dropped down from fatigue and the pain in my shoulder. After resting a few minutes, I took off my suspenders and cravat, tied them together, fastened one end to a tree, and the other to my wrist, and so pulled the shoulder back to its place. Still it was very painful—I rubbed it with my stocking.

Martin is finally arrested in Springfield, Massachusetts, where he is ambushed while sleeping. He is committed to the jail at Lechmere Point, Cambridge, for the robbery of Major Bray. And it is here that Martin’s account of his life ends.

The Condemned Prisoner
Above: The Condemned Prisoner

As related by Waldo, Martin is put on trial and sentenced to death. Before his execution, he makes a daring escape attempt after sawing through his chains with a hidden tool. The commotion began when, on the morning of December 8th, a turnkey named Mr. Cooledge brought Martin breakfast:

Martin was then standing up, with the great coat over his shoulders, trembling very much, and rattling his chains. Cooledge sat down his breakfast on a small table near him, and was about leaving the cell, when Martin slyly pulled down a paper of tobacco, which was on the table, and then said, in a feeble voice, “Mr. Cooledge, will you please to pick up that paper of tobacco, I am so weak that I can’t stoop.” The other very kindly stooped for the purpose, and Martin at the same moment raised the chain by which his hand was confined. and struck Cooledge a most violent blow over the head, which brought him to the ground—He remained insensible for some minutes. Martin then threw off his coat, put on his hat, and pushed out of the jail. He ran with great violence against a gate, which was about ten yards from the outer door of the jail. This gate was made of thick double boards, placed transversely, and strongly nailed. It was fastened on the inside, with a large padlock, attached to a very stout clasp, and staple. Martin threw the whole force of his body against it four successive times, without success, running some distance back every time. When he came out of the jail, there was a young man in the jailyard, who immediately gave an alarm in the house.

Martin was pursued and recaptured in a cornfield near the jail. After that, a close watch was set upon him. On Thursday, December 20th, Martin was executed at Lechmere Point, Massachusetts. That morning, hours before he was to be executed, Waldo described the prisoner’s attitude and activities:

Before the hour arrived, he asked for a looking glass, and examined his face two or three times, and adjusted his clothes, and hair, as well as his pinions would permit, With perfect composure. I then asked him if the relation of his life, which he had made to me, was correct and true—He answered, most solemnly, that it was. He was led out, about twelve o’clock, and met his fate with most perfect composure and fortitude; not unmixed with a consciousness that he had met a just doom; and with a humble reliance on the mercy of God, for remission and forgiveness.

The Columbian Centinal related that, on the occasion, Martin

appeared to assist in fixing the fatal noose to his neck, so as to occasion his death without suffering. He then took a handkerchief, and after the cap was placed over his face, and the sheriff and his deputy had descended to the stage, inquired with a firm voice, “When shall I drop the handkerchief?” The sheriff answered, ” When you please.” Martin slowly raised his hands thrice to his breast, as in prayer, and then threw down the handkerchief, and was instantly launched into eternity.

Execution at Lechmere Point

And here the story of Captain Lightfoot ends.

It is not, however, the end of the whole story. In 1847, a resident of Brattleboro, Vermont, revealed that a recently deceased doctor named John Wilson was in fact John Doherty, otherwise known as Captain Thunderbolt. It seems that Doherty had come to America in 1818, determined to start a new life, and began working in the slate industry. Eventually he accumulated enough capital to commence a medical practice, and married a Miss Chamberlain. The marriage was an unhappy one, however, and Doherty does not seem to have led a happy life. When he died, it was noted that among his effects were two double-barrelled guns, two or three duelling pistols, a number of swords, powder horns, shot bags, and a walking cane with a hidden ramrod “which, by pointing the cane towards anyone, and giving it a slight jerk, would make a noise similar to the cocking of a gun.”

Although, at the time of publication, several sources doubted Dr. Wilson and Captain Thunderbolt to be the same person, most modern authorities now accept that they were.

Captain Thunderbolt
Sources and further reading:

The Life of Michael Martin, Who Was Executed for Highway Robbery, December 20, 1821, As Given by Himself. Boston: Russell & Gardner, 1821.

Confession of Michael Martin, or Captain Lightfoot, who was hung at Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the year 1821, for the robbery of Maj. Bray. Also, an account of Dr. John Wilson, who recently died at Brattleboro, Vt., believed by many to be the notorious Captain Thunderbolt. Brattleboro, Vt.: J. B. Miner, 1847.

Captain Lightfoot, the last of the New England highwaymen : a narrative of his life and adventures, with some account of the notorious Captain Thunderbolt. Topsfield, Mass. : Wayside Press, 1926.

http://brattleborohistory.com/medicine/captain-thunderbolt-1.html

http://brattleborohistory.com/medicine/dr-john-wilsons-remedy.html

END OF PART III. Stay tuned for Part IV, when we continue to cover more books on the list.

A Loyalist Boasts of Scalping During the American Revolution

In Colonial (American) Period, Military on March 4, 2010 at 1:29 am

“I am a King’s man, who dare say anything against it; I have killed so many Yankies at Fort St. John’s with this sword of my Father, they are no soldiers at all. I kill’d and scalp’d, and kicked their arses, and the damned Committee here have gone too far already, I will shew them better, and will cut some of their heads off by and by.”

– William Johnson, Jr., half Mohawk son of Sir William Johnson, September, 1775

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