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A “New System of Defence with the Bowie Knife” and the Strange Case of Mons. Bobij

January 21, 2015

On Sunday, March 22, 1840, the following unusual notice appeared in the Times-Picayune:

Sunday, March 22, 1840 - Times-Picayune BOWIE

Mons. Bobji–or Bobij, as he was more widely known–was an extraordinary character who had recently arrived in America from Europe. French by ancestry, Polish by birth, and formerly a Lieutenant Colonel in the Polish army, he had taken part in a failed revolution in his homeland, then enlisted in the Russian military, escaped again, and traveled throughout Europe, where, pursued by “evil genius,” he survived multiple assassination attempts, one of which left “a large scar from a poniard directly over [his] left eye”. Bobij finally fled to the United States, where he offered instruction in fencing, and gave public exhibitions demonstrating the use of the broadsword, smallsword, bayonet, Bowie knife, dirk, dagger, quarterstaff, lance, and most notably, “two swords, one in each hand.” Especially tantalizing was Bobij’s announcement that he was presenting a “new system of defence with the Bowie knife,” as well as his assertion that he would show one how to defend against 21 attackers.

bowie-knife-and-sheath-granger

A vivid and astonishing account of Bobij’s early life was recounted in the pages of the Philadelphia Public Ledger. The “young Pole,” it seems, had drawn the notice of the press after yet another attempt was made on his life, and, evidently, Bobij himself had made some sort of counter-attack against his would-be assassins. This story, originally printed in the August 22, 1837 edition, follows in full:

The Case of the Young Pole.

Few incidents have occurred which teem to involve more mystery than the recent brutal attack upon a young Pole at the Atlantic Hotel in this city. All the circumstances, so far as we have learned them, bear the appearance of a conspiracy; and to our views, a conspiracy to commit a crime of the utmost atrocity; nothing less than deliberate murder. The subject of this outrage is a young man named Bobij, one of those unfortunate patriots who rose in arms to liberate their country, the much injured Poland, from the horrors of Russian bondage. He is the grandson of a Frenchman of rank and fortune, who was guillotined by Robespierre in the French revolution, leaving a son who took refuge in Poland. This young man, who is very well educated instead of adopting the aristocratic principles for which his grandfather was consigned to the guillotine, adopted the more liberal views current among the well educated youth of Poland; the more especially as his father was an officer in the service of Napoleon. After the dethronement of Napoleon, and the establishment of part of Poland as a kingdom under the protection of Russia, this young man entered the Russian army as Lieutenant. Being suspected of disaffection, then very general among the Polish officers, he was accused of a conspiracy to overthrow the Russian government in Poland. He was arrested with several others; but as no positive proof could be furnished, and as the Emperor Alexander, unlike Nicholas, was more humane than cruel, it was thought that degradation would have a greater influence over the malcontent than death, and Mr. Bobij was accordingly stripped of his rank and placed in the ranks as a common soldier. Those acquainted with the high military spirit prevalent among Polish officers, which always excited the admiration of Napoleon, and frequently elicited from him the remark that “the Poles were the very soul of honor,” may imagine the severity of this sentence.

Polish insurgents of the Uprising 1831

Polish insurgents of the Uprising 1831

But he was not long fated to endure this degradation. The Polish revolution, which soon followed that of France in 1830, and which excited a brief and delusive hope in every liberal mind, that Poland might be resuscitated and resume its ancient position among nations, called forth Mr. Bobij in common with the flower of the Polish youth, to raise their chivalrous and patriotic hands against their barbarian oppressors. He entered the gallant Polish army as a volunteer lancer, and soon attained the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, distinguishing himself for skill and intrepidity as a soldier, and zeal, energy and honesty as a patriot It is needless to mention the termination of that unfortunate struggle. Might prevailed over right, and thousands of those noble spirits who had braved every variety of suffering and danger to achieve their country’s freedom, are now expatriated fugitives, the victims of their virtues.

Polish scythemen in the later uprising of 1863

Polish scythemen in the later uprising of 1863

Mr. Bobij escaped into France. But as he had home an important part in the contest, he was, like many of his brother fugitives, an object of malignant remembrance by the Russian Government. His family connections, numerous and wealthy at the commencement of the revolution, were scattered in exile, and all their property was confiscated; and he, as if his destruction were an important object, was pursued by the assassin in his retreat. Two attempts were made upon his life in the French capital, and which he attributes to the Russian agents in that city. Believing himself unsafe on the continent, he sailed for England in an English vessel. There too his evil genius pursued him, for a few weeks after he had landed, another attempt was made upon his life, of which he shows the effect in a large scar from a poniard directly over the left eye. Believing himself pursued by the Russian government, through its agents in foreign ports, he came to the United States, and has been for some time in this city, earning his bread by teaching the manly exercise of fencing, and deporting himself with the strictest propriety and the utmost urbanity.

We stated briefly, not long since, the principal facts in the outrage upon him in the Atlantic Hotel, in this city. It now appears that the assailants were a captain of a vessel recently from New Orleans, and two of his ship’s crew. With the captain he was acquainted, having ridden with him out of the city on the afternoon previous, and having parted with him on their return, upon perfectly amicable terms. The two sailors, at the time of the assault, were neatly dressed in ordinary citizen’s clothes, and not in the usual attire of seamen; and this, he supposes, was for the purpose of disguise in this affair. They assailed him without the least provocation, and according to the statement of our Informant, attempted to kill him; one of them giving him blow in the forehead with a dirk, at the very commencement of the assault. The landlord and hie wife interfered to protect him, and were severely beaten; one of the assailants exclaiming to the others in a low tone, “Kill the Polander and the landlord too.” The assailants were soon after arrested, and held to bail for the assault.

But the most extraordinary part of the affair is yet to be related. About a fortnight after they were prosecuted, they made complaint against Mr. Bobij for an assault upon them with intent to kill. He was apprehended, and unable to procure bail immediately in the sum of $500, was committed to Moyamensing; but he was liberated on the same day, by a citizen of this city, who became his bail. We know not how to account satisfactorily for this proceeding, and can admit but two hypotheses: one that the assault originated in that spirit of brutal mischief which is sometimes exhibited by seamen when intoxicated; the other that the assailants had conspired to kill or injure him.

His appearance, which is somewhat singular, as he wears his hair very long and large moustaches, after the fashion of the Polish lancers, might excite the ferocious ridicule of two or three intoxicated ruffians. The latter supposition would seem to be favored by the appearance of concert between the three, the declaration of one of them to the others, to “kill the Polander,” and the subsequent declaration of another of them to the landlady, that he would “answer for all.” Whichever it be, there is some mystery in the case, and the victim of this brutality, having narrowly escaped repeated attempts to assassinate him, suspects the hand of Russian authority. Whatever be the cause, we hope it will be thoroughly investigated. A friendless exile from his native land, expatriated for his attempts to achieve that freedom which is our own boast,  may well claim, not only the protection our laws, but the sympathies of an enlightened and generous community. We believe this young man to be a sufferer in the cause of liberty, and feel disposed to sustain his reputation, the only possession which the oppressors of his country have left him.

More than two months later, the court found in Bobij’s favor, reporting in the October 17 Public Ledger:

10-17-1837

For the next several years, Bobij would be free to resume his career as a fencing instructor. He took part in numerous demonstrations in Philadelphia, Baltimore, New York City (both in Manhattan and Brooklyn), and Boston. Many of these events, as described in various newspapers advertisements, were billed as part of larger “entertainments” involving plays, comic acts, and even exhibitions of wondrous new inventions, such as “Davenport’s Electro-Magnetic Machinery.” One example is the following, which appeared in the New York Evening Post:

Bobij - 2 swords - April 9, 1838 NY Evening Post

Or the following from the January 3, 1839 issue of the Auburn Journal and Advertiser:

1-3-1839

Given the occasional circus-like context of these events, one might be tempted to assume that such fencing exercises were staged, and to doubt the seriousness, or degree, of Bobij’s actual skill—were it not for the sole surviving firsthand account of such an event, which offered a glowing estimation of Bobij:

Fencing–Beautiful Exhibition.

From Corvin Krasinski's 1811 treatise on the Lance

From Corvin Krasinski’s 1811 treatise on the Lance

We witnessed on Saturday evening, at the Masonic Hall, an exhibition of fencing by Messrs. Bobij, Sokalski and Woloszczynski, three of the Polish exiles now in this city; and though we have seen many good fencers, we were exceedingly gratified by the skill displayed by these young men. Each handled his weapons like a master of his art; but with the skill of Mr. Bobij we were particularly struck. He was perfectly familiar with every weapon, and it is, we should think, impossible, for any one to handle the musket, lance, broad sword, small sword and cut and thrust sword, more scientifically or gracefully than he. The exercise with the lance is somewhat novel in this country, the weapon never having been used by our Federal army, or by the militia of any Slate, excepting a company of lancers recently established in Boston. We do not now recollect any other. The Polish lancers have long been celebrated as light cavalry, and were particular favorites or Napoleon. We think it was at the battle of Badajos, in the Peninsular war, that they made terrible havoc among the British cavalry, excellent as it was; and the excuse assigned in the British accounts, for the signal defeat, was that the red flags at the ends of the lances so frightened the British horses, that they could not be brought up to the charge. We should rather ascribe it to the skill and celerity of the lancers. A Polish officer in this country about eight years since, a Captain of lancers in the Lithuanian or Russo-Polish army, informed us that a master of this weapon, in a scattered attack, could defend himself against four good swordsmen. If so, we can imagine that the British light horse, with all the bravery of the Anglo-Saxon race, and with horses as fearless as their riders, would be cut to pieces by an inferior number of good lancers. But however this be, the weapon requires great strength and skill, and in exercise by accomplished hands, like these young Poles, makes an interesting exhibition.

After a lengthy editorial that decried the sorry state of American militias, and called for an increase in martial training among the civilian population, the article concluded:

If then we require a militia, and would have it efficient, let our youth be encouraged to learn the use of such weapons as the sword, the lance, and the musket. We learn that these young men will soon repeat their interesting exhibition, and we commend it to public notice, both on their account and as something worth seeing. They are unfortunate exiles from their native land, and because they nobly dared, like our fathers in the revolution of ’76, to lift their hands against oppression. They are willing to earn their bread by an honest exercise of their talents. They possess the accomplishment of fencing, and offer an exhibition of it to the public. The accomplishment is worth beholding in them, and worth learning by our young men generally, and we hope that their next exhibition will be very numerously attended.

The preceding account makes clear that Bobij, indeed, really was quite skilled in the use of various arms, and that his participation in such “entertainments” can probably be attributed to either a need for money, or a simple desire to popularize his art. The fact is that not all fencing instructors of the period could afford their own schools, or rent the large spaces required for respectable Grand Assaults of Arms. In later decades, other skilled fencers would venture to take part in “entertainments” similar to those of Bobij’s–both Ella Hattan (“Jaguarina”) and Hans Hartl‘s female fencing troupe being notable examples.

Polish saber, from Michał Starzewski’s “On Fencing” (c.1830s)

Polish saber, from Michał Starzewski’s “On Fencing” (c.1830s)

On August 12th, 1840, a notice for a series of performances at the Colonnade Garden (a short-lived venue in Brooklyn Heights active from the years 1840 to 1847) appeared in the pages of the New York Daily Express. The announcement also noted that sandwiched in between the play “The Spoiled Child” and a Vaudeville routine, would be

“A trial of skill with small-swords, by Mr. Wm. Pinneford, and Mons. Bobji, who will afterwards exercise with the Bowie knife and broadsword. After which, the Irish Giant, the tallest man ever seen in the United States, will appear and attack Bobji in a real set-to with the quarter staff.”

GiantBowieQuarterstaff-8-12-1840_NYDailyExpress

An announcement published two years later, in 1843 in the Troy Daily Whig, identifies the “celebrated IRISH GIANT” as one Mr. James O’Clancey, who stood seven feet two inches. The Saturday Morning Transcript also noted that O’Clancey was a native of County Wickford, was one of the “tallest, well-proportioned men now living,” and emphasized his “manly form,” “mother wit,” and “frank and open countenance.”

Bobij also appeared at the Bowery Theatre in Manhattan, as seen in the following advertisement in the March 6, 1840 issue of the New York Commercial Advertiser:

Bobji2

But perhaps Bobij’s most spectacular announcement was the one that appeared on November 6, 1839, in the New York Evening Post, in which it was announced that he would show “how one man may defend himself against 21”:

21

It seems that in late 1840, after participating in numerous events across the east coast, in a run that lasted more than three years, Bobij mysteriously disappears from the record.

Further information about the fate and background of this fascinating character, and his “new system of defence with the Bowie knife,” remains elusive.

New York Morning Courier and Enquirer for event at the New Chatham Theatre

Ad in the New York Morning Courier & Enquirer for the New Chatham Theatre

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