“A Knightly Tournament”
In early March, 1876, a “Grand” tournament of arms was announced, to be held at the Lyceum Theater in New York City, that would involve “all kinds of weapons that are used in fencing.” The event was organized and directed by Colonel Thomas H. Monstery, a noted New York fencing master and teacher of pugilism, who had reportedly participated in more than fifty duels, and fought under twelve flags on three separate continents. By all accounts, this Assault-of-Arms would be the largest, the most interesting, and the most ethnically diverse ever held in the city. It was noted that the contestants would include Danes, Germans, Spaniards, Frenchmen, Englishmen, and Americans, and that the tournament would embrace the following weapons:
“English single stick”
“Sabre against bayonet”
“Knife against sabre”
“French quarterstaff” or “Grand Bâton”
Savate, or Boxe Française
Of these weapons, the New York Times noted that “with each the method of using it in actual combat will be shown.”
An Assault-of-Arms, is, simply put, “an exhibition of fencing with various weapons.” During the nineteenth century, those particularly large or lavish assaults began to adopt the appellation “Grand”–as in the case of an 1857 New York City tournament, in which it was announced that “one man will defend himself against twelve assailants.” During the 1860s and 1870s, the Grand Assault continued to develop and grow in popularity, particularly in France, where such gala events were attended by hundreds, even thousands, of spectators, as well as high-level politicians, military men, artists, journalists, and members of the aristocracy.
Monstery’s event was not the first “Grand Assault-of-Arms” to be held in New York City; a Colonel De La Croix had directed one in Mahattan in 1811, and in 1857, two were held on Broadway, one under the auspices of an F. Lambert, the other by Henry Gebhard. The 1876 event directed by Monstery was, however, far more notable in both the diversity of its participants, in the variety of the weapons exhibited, and for its particular “American-ness”; no other Grand Assault-of-Arms (that this author is aware of), in either Europe or America, was known to have included the use of the Bowie-knife or the sword-cane.
The announcement of this event caused considerable excitement in New York, and was widely reported in various local newspapers. Advertisements in French even appeared in the journal Courrier des Etats-Unis (see above). A column in Turf, Field, and Farm proclaimed:
A KNIGHTLY TOURNAMENT.–
How rapidly our people are becoming educated in all varieties of physical education may be gleaned from the announcement made in another column that all the celebrated swordsmen in the United States are to meet at the Lyceum Theatre, Thursday, March 9, to contend for supremacy, and to display the proficiency of the various schools of fencing now in vogue in Europe.
The weapons used on that occasion will include foil, broadsword, rapier, bayonet, lance and Bowie-knife, the English single stick and the double quarter staff, which was formerly the great weapon in use among the athletic peasants of the west of England.
The entertainment will be as complete in its range of nationalities represented as in the weapons used, as Spaniards, Italians, Frenchmen, Germans, Danes, Englishmen and Americans will try to win the laurels for both themselves and their country.
This affair is attracting much attention among our military men, as it will be the first of its class, on a large scale, ever given in this country, and it will therefore give them an opportunity of testing what extent the sword is useful as a weapon of warfare.
Col. Thomas H. Monstery, of the New York School of Arms, and the champion-at-arms of the United States and Spanish America, will superintend the tournament, and decide who are the best fencers.
As fencing is both a useful and graceful accomplishment, and one almost entirely unknown to the majority of our youths and military men, the theatre should be thronged with an enthusiastic audience. We heartily commend any exercise intended to develop the physical improvement of our people. We therefore wish that this novel enterprise may meet the success it so richly deserves.
The Courrier des Etats-Unis concurred:
Il y aura foule à cette soirée, a laquelle voudront assister tous ceux qui prennent intéret aux exercises qui mettent en jeu les facultés physiques de l’homme.
The New York Tribune added,
Athletic sports have lately been in bad repute in New York, but the exhibition of fencing by Col. Monstery and others tonight at the Lyceum Theater will be well worthy of seeing…The exhibition of skill in all degrees of swordsmanship promises to be very fine and entertaining.
Likewise, the New York Clipper noted,
Those who sigh for a “Passage-at-Arms” will take in Col. Monstery’s tournament at the Lyceum on Thursday, March 9.
For those who were interested in attending, the New York Sun provided the following information:
Tickets to be had, with programme, at Col. Monstery’s New York School of Arms: Boxing and Safety Shooting Gallery, 619 6th Ave.; or at theatre box office after 9 A.M. the day of the Tournament.
The tournament was held in the vast and lavish Lyceum Theatre, located in Manhattan at 107 West Fourteenth Street. Originally built in 1866 as the Theatre Français, a home for French-language plays and comic operas, it had been renamed “The Lyceum” in 1871 after a change in management, and contained more than one thousand seats.
Writer Tom Miller described the building thus:
Drawing on 18th Century English styles, [it was] an impressive stone building with a two-story portico and a classic, closed pediment ornamented with sculpture. Paired, fluted Corinthian columns supported the balcony, matched above by the single columns of the second story, narrower, portico. There were five entrance doors to the shallow lobby at street level. The building stretched through to 15th Street. Inside two tiers rose above the orchestra seats, supported by slender columns to lessen the obstructed views…There were four private boxes, two each at the orchestra and second level.
Based on references in numerous announcements and accounts of the tournament, the following individuals have been identified as the primary participants in Monstery’s Grand Assault-of-Arms:
- Maitre d’Armes “Captain” Juillard, formerly of the Cavalry School of Saumur, France. Juillard was the fencing master at John Wood’s Gymnasium, on Twenty-Eighth Street near Fifth Avenue, and had contested there with Monstery two years prior: “Colonel Monstery…had seen enough of Captain Juillard to know that he had an expert and effective master before him…This assault created considerable enthusiasm, and the combatants retired amid ringing applause.”
- Professor Léon Caton, also of the Cavalry School of Saumur, France. The Army and Navy Journal, in April of 1876, noted that “MM. Caton” was a “pupil and friend of M. Senac, the French Maitre d’Armes.”
- Maitre d’Armes Jean De Turck. An article published two years prior in Turf Field and Farm noted that “Mons. Deturck was superintendent of the fencing school of a French regiment, with four professors under him…Monsieur Deturck exhibited the most modern Parisian school in perfection, the close work of the point as the taking of stitches with a knitting needle…” Various accounts published in the New York Herald show De Turck contesting with the foil, broadsword, singlestick, and bayonet.
- Fechtmeister Louis Friedrich of the New York Turnverein. According to the journal Mind and Body, “Mr. Friedrich was for many years an authority on fencing in New York, and was very well known in fencing circles throughout the East and among the societies of the Turnerbund…” In 1877, after at an event at Turn Hall on West Fourth Street, the New York Spirit of the Times reported that Friedrich was “a first class fencer, firm and quick, with a very imposing attitude and style…Friedrich and Monstery, with the broadsword, were the best feature of the evening, for Friedrich is very fine with the cutting blade, and kept even with the Colonel nearly blow for blow, both parties saluting the hits like gentlemen swordsmen.” Regarding his use of the bayonet in bouts against Captain De Turck, it was noted that “When Friedrich does this, the sympathies of the audience are generally with De Turck, who gets most unmercifully thrashed, being wholly unequal to Friedrich…” In another contest between the two, this time with sabre versus bayonet, Friedrich still maintained the advantage, as reported the Army and Navy Journal: “M. De Turck made a good defence with the bayonet, but the great superiority of the sword was quickly apparent. The only way De Turck could get in on Friedrich was by attacking and keeping up the pointing vigorously. The moment he stood on the defensive, the swordsman could get within his guard and cut or stab at will.”
- Professor William Miller, the great Graeco-Roman wrestling champion. Born in England and raised in Australia, Miller instructed in San Francisco, New York, and Baltimore from 1874 onward, and in addition to wrestling, held championships in boxing, fencing (mostly with the foils and singlestick), weight lifting, and long distance walking. He also assisted Col. Monstery with many demonstrations and exhibitions of fencing and pugilism during the 1870s.
- Captain James McGregor of London. The Army and Navy Journal, in its April 22, 1876 issue, described a bout of fencing between McGregor and William Miller: “In the single stick practice between Mr. McGregor (Colonel Monstery’s assistant we believe) and the beneficiary of the evening, there was pretty play. Mr. Miller has the advantage of a Herculean frame and great quickness, but McGregor was the best swordsman, and made a very handsome fight.” In 1884, McGregor would contend with thirty-six inch broadswords against the famed champion Duncan Ross, the two of them protected by “coats of mail.” Although McGregor lost to Ross by two points (16 to 18), he was ahead throughout most of the contest, due, according to the New York Sun, to “some scientific fencing.” Later, as reported by the Buffalo Courier, he would again challenge Ross to a contest of “mixed weapons,” including “the broadsword, mounted and on foot; with the foils, rapier, saber, infantry sword, bayonet against bayonet, bayonet against sword, single-sticks and quarterstaff.”
- Señor Martinez
- Emile Verbouiviens
- Professor Lewis
- André Christol. Nicknamed “the tiger of the Pyrenees”, Christol was a noted French Græco-Roman wrestling champion and pugilist. In 1875, as reported in the Nov. 12 issue of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, William Miller, “the larger,” had wrestled against Christol, “the lither, but about equal in perfection of muscular development.” It was noted, “The two athletes went at each other with heads lowered, like wild beasts warily beginning an encounter, and grappled each other firmly around the shoulders…”
- Colonel Thomas H. Monstery. Danish by birth, but a self-identified American by proclamation, Monstery was a graduate of the Royal Military Institute at Copenhagen, Denmark, and the Central Institute of Physical Culture at Stockholm, Sweden. He had learned to fence with a wide variety of weapons in Scandinavia, had learned knife fighting in Spain and Italy, and pugilism in Britain and Germany. He had traveled both the Wild West and “Spanish America,” taking part in countless contests, duels, and revolutions.
- Monstery’s son, “Captain” Emilio Monstery. In his writings, Col. Monstery noted that he had personally trained Emilio, beginning at the age of twelve, in his own systems of fencing, boxing and swimming.
Unfortunately, precious few accounts of the actual proceedings of Monstery’s Grand Assault-of-Arms appear to exist, and those that do provide few details. However, the extant evidence suggests that it did not disappoint. In its issue of March 17, Turf, Field, and Farm reported:
TOURNAMENT-AT-ARMS.– On the evening of the 9th instant a tournament-at-arms took place at the Lyceum Theatre, under the auspices of Col. T. H. Monstery. There was a large audience of ladies and gentlemen present, and the performances, which were highly creditable, were rewarded by frequent rounds of applause. The programme consisted of fencing with the foil, sabre, rapier, bayonet, sabre against bayonet, lance, knife-play, cane, quarterstaff, knife against sabre, and sparring. Many of the members of the New York School of Arms took part in the entertainment, and were assisted by Captain Juillard, Professors Friderich, Caton, Miller, McGregor, and Lewis, who, with Senor Martinez, M. Verbowwens, and Mr. Emilio Monstery, had several very spirited encounters, which received merited applause.
The New York Daily Graphic provided the following additional details:
The members of the School of Arms, of which Colonel T. H. Monstery is principal, were last night put upon their metal in a series of combats on the stage of the Lyceum Theatre, and in general acquitted themselves admirably…The principal features of the entertainment were a small sword assault between Colonel Monstery and Captain Juillard, in which the former was victorious; an assault with foils between Professor Caton and Captain [Emilio] Monstery; and a rapier combat between Colonel Monstery and Emile Verbouiviens. Dr. Allen varied the exercises by reading a paper on “Physical Culture,” and Mrs. [Carmen Xiques] Monstery performed very admirably on the piano.
The Graphic was also notably the only publication to specify that an encounter with “sword-canes” had taken place during the event.
After the tournament, many of the participants either disappeared from history, or went their separate ways. Colonel Monstery continued to teach in New York City, where, in 1878, he published his magnum opus on the science of self-defense, a treatise which included material on boxing, kicking, grappling, and fencing with the cane and quarterstaff. In 1883 he removed to Chicago, eventually passing away in 1901 after a lengthy and distinguished career as a swordsman. Louis Friedrich remained a mentor to German-American youth at the New York Turnverein until his passing in 1899. Captain James McGregor would go on to instruct at the Cleveland Athletic Club and the Saturn Club in Buffalo. He later settled in Toronto, where he was, according to the June 10, 1898 edition of the Buffalo Morning Express, “the reported Champion of Canada, the hero of 33 battles.” William Miller continued to achieve renown as a wrestler, pugilist, and weight-lifter throughout the 1870s, even defeating the famed Duncan Ross in a long distance walking race of over one hundred miles. Miller returned to Australia in 1883, where he founded gymnasiums in Sidney and Melbourne, and published his book Health, Exercise and Amusement (1895). In 1903, he returned to America once again, where he became Athletic instructor to the New York Police Department, and, lauded as “one of the greatest all-round athletes in the world,” remained in the U.S. until his death in 1939. He was likely the last surviving participant of Monstery’s Grand Assault of Arms.
Unfortunately, the site of the tournament, the glorious Lyceum Theatre, was not to last. During the last decades of the nineteenth century it fell on hard times, and finally closed in 1911, although it was occasionally reopened for use as a movie house. In 1939, the “venerable structure” was “smashed to the ground,” and with it, disappeared a little bit of New York’s martial history.
Colonel Thomas H. Monstery‘s martial wisdom survives in his treatise on Boxing, Kicking, Grappling, and Fencing with the Cane and Quarterstaff, which was recently published by North Atlantic Books in book form for the first time. This volume contains a new, detailed biography of Monstery, and includes additional writings by the Colonel.
A preview of the contents of this book can be seen in the following article about Victorian-era Self Defense.
More information about Monstery can also be gleaned from this article, written by Monstery’s great great granddaughter, Diane Hayes.
The Grand Assault of Arms was revived in 2002 by the Association of Historical Fencing, and continues to hold yearly contests of arms in New York City for classical fencers:
More about the history of the Grand Assault of Arms can be gleaned via this article on the AHF website.
More about the old Lyceum Theatre can be learned from Tom Miller’s blog.
New York Times, Mar. 2, 1876.
Turf, Field, and Farm, Mar. 3, 1876.
Courrier des Etats-Unis, Mar. 7, 1876.
Courrier des Etats-Unis, Mar. 8, 1876.
New York Tribune, Mar. 9, 1876.
New York Sun, Mar. 9, 1876.
New York Times, Mar. 10, 1876.
New York Daily Graphic, Mar. 10, 1876.
New York Herald, Feb. 23, 1877
New York Herald, Nov. 3, 1877.
Mind and Body, Jan. 1899, No. 59.
Text of this article © 2015 by Ben Miller.