Crime in 18th and early-19th century America - Part 2 – Self-Defense with Sword, Stick, and Cudgel
In Part 1 of this series, we looked at Crime in 18th and early-19th century North America and at the policing, and protection options available to the people of that time. We learned that the streets and alleyways of America’s larger cities, although not as dangerous as those of London, presented significant risk for robbery and assault. As a result, gentlemen of means found that they needed to find ways to protect themselves when out and about. Today, in Part 2 we are going to talk about the methods people adopted and how, over time, they morphed from swords to walking sticks and cudgels.
Fencing and Dancing – Similar skills often taught by the same person
Dancing and fencing (or the “Art of Defense,” as it called in English manuals of the sixteenth century) have much in common. They both required disciplined study and motor control to learn movements that may have seemed highly unnatural to the beginning student, but which one must perform with near perfection if one were to master the art. Additionally, each had associated with it a technical language of terms for individual movements which together created movement sequences. In a dance, there is an established pattern of movements to execute in order and which must be properly executed to accommodate your partner and the other dancers. In fencing, while one might learn movements in a set pattern, one must be sure not to execute them in a pattern lest one’s opponent be able to predict one’s actions.
Given the requirement of disciplined movement common to the two activities, as well as the fact that both were expected accomplishments within the same strata of society, it is not surprising that dancing and fencing have long been associated with each other. In many cases, as we will see from the advertisements referred to in this article, a single person might serve as both dancing teacher and fencing instructor. Additionally, this “association” of dancing and fencing, that dates back at least to the Renaissance, may have caused some dance masters, particularly in the southern colonies where decorum was so valued, to not mention teaching fencing in their advertisements.
The Smallsword – the weapon of the 18th century gentleman
The smallsword first appeared as an evolution of the rapier in the mid-17th century as it was becoming less necessary for gentlemen to wear a large sword for self-defense. By the late 17th century smallswords appeared, on both sides of the Atlantic, as a dueling weapon and fashionable accessory, still capable of supplying self-defense. These weapons usually had blades shorter than 36" mounted on a small, often ornate hilt with short quillons and a light knuckle guard forming, in most cases, a two-lobed plate at the front. In a sharp divergence from the earlier rapiers that featured large and complex hilts designed to protect the hand and body, smallswords had minimal protection. Overall, the smallsword is a thrust-oriented weapon of the 18th century that is shorter, lighter, and more nimble than its ancestor and is said to be the ancestor of the modern Olympic foil and epee.
The drastic change in the form of thrust oriented swords from the long, and stiff rapier toward the lighter, shorter smallsword required changes in swordsmanship too. The most famous historical treatise on the use of the smallsword is Domenico Angelo's 1765 “L'Ecole des Armes” (School of Arms). Others include Monsieur L’Abbat’s “L'Art de l'Escrime, ou, l'Utilisation de la Petite Épée” (The Art of Fencing or the Use of the Small Sword) and Henry Blackwell’s 1702 “The English Fencing Master or, the Compleat Tuterour of the Small Sword.”
For much of the last couple of centuries, the history of fencing has tended to focus solely on Europe and the colonies that flourished on this side of the Atlantic. As a result, modern historians have tended to overlook the important traditions that existed in the United States during the colonial and early federal periods. Fencing, however, was very much alive and well on this side of the Atlantic.
Fencing in New England
In seventeenth century New England, the colonists lived under a near-constant threat of violence. This could come from several sources: Native Americans, the French, marauding pirates, criminals, or even rebels within their own community. Soon after the founding of the colony, laws were passed requiring all adult males to bear arms and up until the outbreak of King Phillip’s War in 1675, the sword, ax and pike were the preferred weapons of the colonial New England militia. Firearms were so scarce and unreliable that some soldiers did not even know how to use a gun, as one Massachusetts soldier recounted in 1686:
“I thought a pike was best for a young soldier, and so I carried a pike, and…knew not how to shoot off a musket.”
As late as 1666, one-third of the militia still had no firearms. In such an environment, knowledge of swordsmanship was paramount. During the Pequot War in 1637, colonists assaulting an Indian fortress fired a single volley of shot, cast aside their guns,
“tooke their swords in their hands…& fell upon the Indians where a hot fight continued about the space of an houre.”
Military companies in New England regularly performed exercises of arms, during which soldiers were taught how to fence with pike, sword, and ax in the military fashion. Civilian fencing schools appeared in the region as well. According to a work published in London in 1673, in Boston there were no musicians by trade. A dance school had been set up but closed by authorities, while a fencing school was allowed. An Englishman visiting America in 1685 mentioned in his journal that an ex-soldier named Malinson now taught “young gentlemen to fence in Boston” at the Royal Exchange and in 1686, another fencing school was set up by Richard Crisp. The strict enforcement of moral conduct, which the Puritans were so famous for, evidently failed in ridding the locals of their capacity for violence as, during the late 1680s, fencers in Boston are recorded as taking part in bloody, gladiatorial “stage-fights” like those held at the Bear Gardens and Figg’s amphitheater in London.
Among the towns of the New Haven colony, they held public fencing bouts of a less brutal nature. The colonial militia required soldiers to be skilled in the art of cudgeling, as evinced by a government order issued in 1656, which decreed that,
“each town provide a good pair of hilts for soldiers to play at cudgels with; and that they exercise themselves in playing at backsword, &c.; that they learn how to handle their weapons for the defence of themselves and offence of their enemies…”
Six times a year, these militias would be called out for a “general training,” near the marketplace. During this time, old men, women, and children were invited to serve as spectators for the performance of military exercises and the athletic contests that took place. The activities included bouts of,
“cudgel, backsword, fencing,” and, additionally, “running, leaping, wrestling, stool-ball, nine-pins, and quoits.”
During the mid to late part of the eighteenth century, anyone seeking to learn the art of fencing with the small sword did not have to look far. The great northern cities abounded with fencing schools. To study swordsmanship was not only in the interest of would-be-duelists and military men, but to be a graceful and skillful fencer was the ambition of every gentleman and considered one of the best aids to “graceful carriage, ease of movement, and courtly manners.” It also promoted physical fitness, as evinced by the words of Bostonian Jonathan Belcher, who, in 1731, wrote a letter to his son, recommending he,
“intersperse your tasks & labours with proper recreations; walking, riding, bowling, and billiards are wholesome exercises. Therefore use them for your better health, and to these I wou’d add fencing, which will extend all the parts & members of your body, open your breast, & make you more erect and give a greater advantage to your growth. I shall be pleas’d to hear you have put yourself under a good master of this gentlemanly science...”
One anonymous fencing instructor, advertising in New York, asserted that practice of the art imparted a share of manly confidence, a bold and martial air, and that the study of it in a scientific manner, tends to constitute a powerful invention, a quick conception, a penetrating judgment, and lively imagination. Likewise, in 1772, Dr. Benjamin Rush, a Philadelphia physician and future signer of the Declaration of Independence, went as far as to recommend the activity to prospective patients:
“FENCING calls forth most of the muscles into exercise, particularly those which move the limbs. The brain is likewise roused by it, through the avenue of the eyes, and its action, as in the case of music, is propagated to the whole system. It has long been the subject of complaint, that the human species has been degenerating for these several centuries…we grant that rum—tobacco-tea—and some other luxuries of modern invention, have had a large share in weakening the stamina of our constitutions, and thus producing a more feeble race of men; yet we must attribute much of our great inferiority in strength, size and agility to our forefathers, to the disuse which the invention of gun-powder and fire arms hath introduced of those athletic exercises, which were so much practiced in former ages, as part of military discipline.”
It was the Virginia fencing master, Edward Blackwell, who summed up the various physical and social advantages best:
“But was a Man never to fight with his Sword, no Exercise is more wholesome, and delightful to the learner, than this of Fencing: For, by working all Parts of the Body, it strengthens the Limbs, opens the Chest, gives a good Air, and handsome Deportment to the Body, a majestick Tread; and makes him active, vigorous, and lively; and also enables him to serve his Friend, and Country: In fine, Air in Wearing, and Skill in Using a SWORD, are such additional Accomplishments to a Gentleman, that he is never esteem’d polite and well bred without them…”
Blackwell went on to talk about defending oneself, wherein he is actually referring to the context of the duel. This is an important point, which perfectly echoes the comment by Philadelphia master John de Florette that those without knowledge of fencing “have to put up with insults of the grossest nature…whereas, were they masters of self-defense, they would be able to resent it in a genteel manner.” As we discussed in our earlier post on Personal Honor and Dueling in the Early United States, in the prevailing mentality of the era, when reputations were so highly valued, insults and defamation of character were themselves considered forms of assault, which, sometimes, could only be legitimately rectified by resorting to dueling. If a man’s good name was called into question, his very identity was under attack. Thus, the duel itself was thought of as a form of self-defense. Since the legal system could not be relied upon to protect a person’s reputation, dueling was viewed as:
“the only means…by which a man who has been injured by someone who possesses no rights over him, can wash away the stain left by the injury he has received.”
Certainly not all Americans agreed with such notions of “honor and justice;” some, such as Quakers, took issue with the very idea that fencing was a wholesome endeavor and over time, the concept, while firmly rooted in the south, faded in the northern colonies/states.
Fencing in New York
Between 1754 and 1787, New York City was a veritable hub for American fencers, with at least fourteen fencing schools total, eleven of which were in a concentrated area of lower Manhattan. By way of comparison, Paris, traditionally thought of as the center of European fencing, had about eighteen fencing schools during the same period. The oldest New York fencing school of which we have record opened sometime prior to July 12, 1731. Fencing teachers in the area included William Charles Hulett, who ran an academy for small-sword fencing, dancing, flute, guitar and violin “according to the present taste both in London and Paris” on French Church Street (now Pine Street) from 1752 thru at least 1786; Thomas Varin, who taught the small-sword near the Fly-market in 1760; Thomas Berry, who opened a school for the small-sword in 1761 opposite Bowling Green; Peter Viani, an Italian who lived near the Royal Exchange and taught fencing and dancing from 1762 through at least 1769; William Turner, who had a salle over the Royal Exchange (on Broad Street near Water Street) in 1764; Archibald McElroy, who taught fencing with Viani at a house adjacent to the Queen’s Head (Fraunces Tavern) in 1764; and the Frenchmen Saint Pry and Du Poke, who opened a fencing, dancing and French language academy on Little Dock Street (now Water Street) in 1775. Additionally, Alexander Graydon, in his memoirs, mentions an instructor named Benson, who taught in the New York area during the revolutionary period. The period after the Revolution saw the birth of a new crop of fencing schools in Manhattan, run by instructors such as Thomas Turner (who taught at “the Assembly-Room in the broadway”) and Giles Barrett, both former residents of Boston. One of the last schools to open in eighteenth-century New York, was that of M. Vilette and was set up in 1787.
Fencing in Maryland
In Maryland, several fencing teachers set up schools in the city of Annapolis and advertised their services in the popular Maryland Gazette. As early as 1745, the paper noted that fencing was taught at the Kent Country School in Chestertown by “very good Masters.” The first instructor named in the pages of the Gazette was Thomas Stanley, who gave notice in 1752 that he would teach fencing to “all gentlemen who are desirous to be Proficients in that Art.” In 1756, Julius Caesar Parke, a “noted master of the sword,” who had recently arrived from Barbados, mentioned that he would teach “the Use of the Foil” at Annapolis, Upper Marlboro, and Baltimore.
In 1774, George James L’Argeau announced the opening of another school in Annapolis, at which he would teach dancing, fencing and “the Musical Glasses.” In 1778, he was mentioned as a “Master of Musick, Fencing and Dancing” living in Cecil County, Maryland. According to his obituary, L’Argeau was also known as an eminent professor of music and science, and had taught in many parts of the state, including Baltimore. In 1784, another instructor named “Mr. Wall” advertised that he would teach gentlemen the rudiments of the small sword, noting that,
“his desire being rather to oblige, and assist in rendering this fine accomplishment more universal…than for any pecuniary advantage, will take no entrance, and his terms for teaching will be found reasonable.”
Jacques Pinaud, a fencing instructor “of Paris and London” who had fled the slave rebellion in Santo Domingo, also offered instruction in Baltimore during the 1790s.
Fencing Schools of the South
Although the American south is renowned for its former dueling culture, its cities do not seem to have attracted as many fencing teachers as the north did during the colonial era. Throughout the entire eighteenth century, only seventeen fencing teachers are recorded as having lived in the Southern colonies—only one-third of those recorded in the north. Nevertheless, fencing was still popular in the region among the young, gentlemanly class. In 1774, Philip Vickers Fithian, a tutor at Nomini Hall, observed that,
“any young gentleman traveling through the Colony [of Virginia]…is presum’d to be acquainted with Dancing, Boxing, playing the Fiddle, & Small-Sword, & Cards.”
Later in the decade, a contemporary noted that the South Carolinians “discover no bad taste for the polite arts, such as music, drawing, fencing and dancing…” Considering this testimony, it is something of a mystery that so few fencing teachers taught in the south during this period. Yet their scarcity seems to be confirmed by the words of one Virginia fencing teacher who warned his students,
“I hope you’ll keep in Practice what you have learnt, while you have the Opportunity of your present Master; for when you are depriv’d of him, it is probable another Professor of this Science may not think these Parts of America worth his Attendance.”
Following the passing of Edward Blackwell in 1734, no fencing instructor is mentioned as teaching in Williamsburg until an advertisement in the Virginia Gazette on March 20, 1752, wherein Le Chevalier de Peyronny says he will begin teaching the art of fencing, dancing, and the French language as soon as he gets a reasonable number of scholars subscribed. In 1775, a doctor De Sabb advertises that he will be teaching fencing with the small sword four days a week in Williamsburg and two days a week in York. By 1779, we see three fencing instructors mentioned at Williamsburg.
The only other southern city that had a substantial number of fencing experts during the era was Charleston, South Carolina. The first instructor in the area, judging by the records, appears to have been William Yearwood, an “extremely expert fencing master” who immigrated to Charleston from England sometime around 1730 or 1740, and “taught the youth of his city that art.” The next expert to appear was Thomas Pike, who taught fencing, dancing, manners and orchesography at Charleston, South Carolina, in a spacious long room on Church Street, between 1764 and 1774.
Following the American Revolution, Thomas Turner, after settling briefly in New York, moved to Charleston, South Carolina, where he opened an academy in Beresford’s Alley (now Chalmers Street), teaching both fencing and dancing from 1785 thru at least 1786. In 1786, Mr. Godwin, a “dancing and fencing master by trade but actor by ambition,” arrived in Charleston and began performing at Harmony Hall. Godwin had already performed in Jamaica, Philadelphia, and Savannah. When his theatrical endeavors in Charleston failed, Godwin converted the Hall into a school, wherein he taught the “Polite Arts” of music, fencing and dancing.
The Nineteenth Century
During the early decades of the nineteenth century, fencing continued to be taught in America in the same martial, deadly tradition. In the south, the number of sword-duels exploded, especially in cities such as New Orleans, which, according to some authors, soon became the de facto dueling capitol of the western world. As a result, the demand for fencing teachers in the south increased tremendously; we find, for instance, that at least fifty maître d’armes operated fencing schools in New Orleans from about 1830 until the time of the Civil War. Although the sword was in decline as a dueling weapon in the north, the ancient, martial fencing traditions were kept in various northern schools and salles des armes. One incident that occurred in the north is particularly worth recounting: in 1809, in Salem, Massachusetts, an advertisement appeared announcing a public event, at the Military School in Washington Hall by “Messrs. Tromelle & Girard, Fencing-Masters of the Military School of Col. De le Croix.” The two experts went on to,
“respectfully inform the Gentlemen of Salem and its vicinity that they propose a Fencing Exhibition, at which several amateurs will be present, and during which they will play the Small-Sword, Cut-and-Thrust, Broad-Sword, and Cudgel or Cane Fighting.”
Cudgels and Shillelaghs
The use of sticks, clubs, etc. dates to the dim recollections of the dawn of humankind on this planet. The earliest weapons that prehistoric man had available to him were most certainly rocks and clubs. For the working classes, who could not afford swords, the cudgel, most often defined as a short heavy club with a rounded head used as a weapon. These stout sticks, carried by peasants during the Middle Ages, functioned as a walking staff and a weapon for both self-defense and wartime. Later, during the English Civil War, “Clubmen” revolted in several localities against the excesses of soldiers on both sides. In law enforcement favored, cudgels, known as batons, truncheons and nightsticks, because they tended to be less lethal than guns or blades.
The Shillelagh, a combination of wooden walking stick and club or cudgel, typically made from a stout knotty blackthorn stick with a large knob at the top. It is associated with Ireland and Irish folklore. In Ireland, it was used for settling disputes in a gentlemanly manner — like a duel with pistols or swords. By the 19th century Irish shillelagh-fighting had evolved into an “art” which involved the use of three basic types of weapons, sticks which were long, medium, or short in length. The anti-recruiting folk song "Arthur McBride", where the recruiters are struck with a shillelagh is thought to have originated in the era of the Napoleonic Wars, but it is quite possible that the references to France but may mean some earlier Anglo-French war.
Fighting with shillelaghs characterized using it as a cudgel. One grabs the stick about one-third of the way down from the handle end, with the thinner, lower part of the stick protecting the elbow and allowing the user to mount an offensive while keeping a defensive guard. This grip also allows launching fast punching-like strikes. Bataireacht is a category of stick-fighting martial arts of Ireland. By the 18th century bataireacht became increasingly associated with Irish gangs called "factions". Irish faction fights involved large groups of men (and sometimes women) who engaged in melees at county fairs, weddings, funerals, or any other convenient gathering. As the Irish emigrated to North America in the 18th and early-19th centuries, they brought this style of stick fighting with them and it became rooted in the Irish community here.
Canes or Walking Sticks
During the Revolutionary War, and after, officers and gentlemen were prime targets for thieves and blackguards, including drunk or disgruntled rank and file. This could occur either while walking the streets of cities and villages, in camp, or along secluded country roads. Snatching a fattened purse or taking out their anger and frustration on the well-heeled upper class spurred attacks during solo or late-night strolls. For protection when not on duty, the officer and gentleman rarely carried his sword, but instead a cane. Surprisingly, these were often no ordinary cane of solid wood. These canes packed an incredible punch when the unarmed officer or gentleman was confronted by a gang of thieves, intent on doing mischief. Within this simple, ornate cane, was a hollowed-out section into which molten lead had been poured and solidified. When swung, it would hit with a force as though struck by a sledgehammer, breaking bones or spilling teeth over the gutter – even causing death.
ss spurred attacks during solo or late-night strolls. For protection when not on duty, the officer and gentleman rarely carried his sword, but instead a cane. Surprisingly, these were often no ordinary cane of solid wood. These canes packed an incredible punch when the unarmed officer or gentleman was confronted by a gang of thieves, intent on doing mischief. Within this simple, ornate cane, was a hollowed-out section into which molten lead had been poured and solidified. When swung, it would hit with a force as though struck by a sledgehammer, breaking bones or spilling teeth over the gutter – even causing death.
In addition, fencing experts and instructors modified fencing techniques and applied them to the cane or walking stick. The individuals who taught such techniques hailed from a variety of backgrounds—from England, France, Italy, Ireland, Poland, Belgium, Denmark, and Germany—and specifically discussed the cane’s efficacy in defending against other potentially deadly weapons such as the sword, stick, dirk, Spanish knife, Bowie knife, bayonet-rifle, boarding pike, and revolver. These fencing methods were applied to canes both with and without hooks, and included techniques designed to defend against multiple attackers, using both single and double-handed grips.
An extensive study of colonial American fencing schools known to exist up to the year 1800 suggests that no instruction in practical cane defense was offered in the United States until 1798. Prior to this time, since the sword was still carried as a personal sidearm as well as an article of dress, the walking-stick may have been regarded as a superfluous instrument for self-defense—even though it, too, was carried as a common article. Fencing instructors often used the cane or singlestick as a training tool for the backsword, broadsword, and saber in various salles des armes.
In the United States, the first fencing instructor that we know of to publicly advertise instruction in cane defense was Robert Hewes, a native of Boston, Massachusetts. Described by his contemporaries as an “extraordinary” and “ingenious” man, Hewes engaged in several professions, including glassmaking (for which he became renowned), hog-butchery, hardware retail, soap making, and glue manufacturing. Additionally, the Boston press described him as a surgeon, as well as a “celebrated bone-setter and fencing master.” In acknowledgement of this fact, Hewes hung a sign outside his residence which humorously read, “Bone breaker and bone-setter.”
During the 1770s, Hewes was also a member of the secret revolutionary society, the Sons of Liberty. At this time, an incident occurred involving Hewes’ first cousin, George Robert Twelves Hewes, where a British customs official attacked him in the street. The incident may very well have impressed upon Robert the cane’s efficacy as a weapon, and the necessity for civilian self-defense training. The increasing local mob mentality, as well as the profusion of gang warfare (involving clubs, staves, and swords) in eighteenth century Boston, may have further convinced Robert Hewes of the need to make self-defense training available to civilians. In 1798, Hewes advertised that he was keeping a fencing school which supplied instruction in the “Broad Sword or Sabre and the Manly and Wholesome Art of Defence” three days a week at the Royal Exchange Tavern on State Street. Hewes’s earliest advertisement noted that “the above art will enable a person to defend himself with a cane.”
The nineteenth century saw an explosion in the number of cane fencing instructors in the United States. That the walking-cane was employed in earnest in street encounters is seen from several news reports, of which the following, from the New York Evening Post, is only one example:
“Baltimore, Feb. 2. An attack was made upon a gentleman last evening about nine o’clock in High, near Stiles street, no doubt with the view of obtaining plunder—the gentlemen received a severe blow over his right eye, but being somewhat on the lookout, made a good defence with his cane—the ruffian then attacked him with large stones, but was compelled to retreat into an alley between Albermarls and President streets and thus effected his escape.”
Colonel De La Croix was a former nobleman of Flemish, French, and German ancestry, a member of the ancien régime, and a decorated military veteran. His 1814 biography notes that during his career, the Colonel had impressively “been fourteen times wounded severely…and has been in fifty-six regular battles, besides near fifteen hundred affairs of out-posts and skirmishes.” De La Croix arrived in the United States in 1806, where he married an American lady and opened a military school in Boston.
Later De La Croix moved his school to Newburyport, then to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and from thence to New York City and Baltimore. In New York alone he had thirty students. During his time in America, he authored several treatises on the art of warfare, and corresponded with Presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. At least seven of the Colonel’s former students, or students’ students would go on to teach cane fighting, sometimes referred to as “Norman cudgelling,” the “Norman mode of defence,” or, as simply, “a powerful defence with the cane.” Students of De La Croix’s cane method nearly always stressed its efficacy in combating large numbers of simultaneous attackers. Jean B. Girard, one of De La Croix’s first assistant-instructors, explained:
“Mr. Girard will…teach Cudgelling, in the Normand manner, not yet known in this country. If the American gentlemen were acquainted with the utility of this manly exercise, how easily it is obtained, he feels sensible that he would meet with great encouragement; as he has no doubt, that he can enable a pupil, in three months, to make an effectual defence against six assailants.”
The use of, and instruction in, the cane for self-defense continued throughout the 19th century and into the early years of the 20th century until the cane fell out of fashion.
Thank you for joining us for today’s post on self-defense in 18th and early-19th century America. Hopefully, this article has given you some insight into the options people had for protecting themselves and their property in the 18th and early-19th centuries. Please join us again in two weeks when we will examine a couple of other “arts” that could be used for exercise, entertainment, and even self-defense.
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Blackwell, H. (1702). The English Fencing-Master: or, the Compleat Tuterour of the Small Sword. London: J. Downing.
Blackwell, H. (1730). The gentleman's tutor for the small sword: Or, The compleat English fencing master. London: J. Jackson.
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Shenawolf, H. (2019, June 28). Loaded Cane – How Revolutionary War Officers and Gentlemen Protected Themselves from Drunken Soldiers and Muggings. Retrieved from Revolutionary War Journal: https://www.revolutionarywarjournal.com/loaded-cane-how-revolutionary-war-officers-and-gentlemen-dealt-with-drunken-soldiers-and-riff-raff/
Shillelagh. (2022, September 18). Retrieved from Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Shillelagh&oldid=1110999955
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