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

January 24, 2015

“When a man is called on to face a ruffian, he needs no better weapon than a hickory walking stick…”

 

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Parrying a thug’s left-hand blow and breaking his arm by a crack on the “crazy bone.”

On August 30, 1903, a lengthy illustrated article appeared in the New York Tribune, under the following heading:

“SCHOOLS WHERE MEN ARE TAUGHT HOW TO DEFEND THEMSELVES AGAINST THE ATTACKS OF STREET ROWDIES”

The piece was accompanied by seven illustrations, excerpted from The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, a British journal. These illustrations bear close resemblance to others depicting “Bartitsu,” a martial art created by one Edward William Barton-Wright, that borrowed heavily from Japanese Jiu-Jitsu and European cane techniques, and that was practiced mainly between 1899 and 1902. Although relatively short-lived, Bartitsu techniques were widely printed and publicized in various magazines and newspapers throughout the United Kingdom.

The text of the New York Tribune article, however, is original, and offers a fascinating glimpse into how New Yorkers viewed the criminal threat at the turn of the century, as well as emphasizing the importance of learning self defense. The article also offers an interesting look at the perceived fighting styles of various local “thugs” of Anglo-Saxon, Spanish, Italian, and German origin, and offers advice for defending oneself against assaults with the fist, foot, stick, knife, and gun:

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In the crowded city as well as at the lonely crossroads a man never knows when he may be called upon to defend himself. However vigilant may be the police, however strong the windows of his house, one is never absolutely secure from thug or burglar. However regular may be his habits, however restrained his desires, still there are emergencies which may keep a citizen out until the “owl” hours or call him into unfrequented byways. Street gangs never seemed bolder than at the present time, and their attacks upon law-abiding citizens are of frequent occurrence. The majority limit their operations to the tenement house districts, but now and then they appear where least expected. Such was the case in the alleged attack upon David Lamar’s coachman in Long Branch by “Monk” Eastman and some other members of his notorious East Side gang.

Above: Notorious New York City criminal "Monk" Eastman. Source: Wikipedia

Above: Notorious New York City criminal “Monk” Eastman. Source: Wikipedia

When a man is called on to face a ruffian, he needs no better weapon than a hickory walking stick. A revolver is likely to harm him more than to help. As soon as a man reaches for his weapon, his adversary has the right to shoot, and the accomplished criminal is almost sure to have his weapon ready first. The stick is the better weapon, because it is quicker. It is in one’s hand already. It is always “loaded.”

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Thwarting a left-hand blow with the elbow and simultaneously strangling the thug.

In such a crisis the first blow counts. At such a time neither endurance nor strength is as important as quickness. There is only one round, and in most instances there is only one blow. The man who gives it first, and gives it right, is the victor. One does not need to be an experienced boxer or wrestler, for his adversary on such occasions is not likely to observe the Marquis of Queensberry rules or the laws of the Greco-Roman school of wrestling. Foul means are fair at such times.

“Stick defence…is not a pastime between sportsmen; it is a quick and safe method of knocking out a thug.”

 

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Making a “hooked thug” see stars, so that he lets go of his cane.

In the city of London the crime of the highwayman and burglar has increased to such an extent that many schools have sprung up in the great English metropolis where one may learn the art of stick defence. The schools have proved popular, and many of the professional fencing and boxing masters have included courses in which the pupil is taught to handle the stick. The instruction is simple, and contrasts in a striking degree with the complicated science of fencing. Neither is it anything like the old art of handling the singlestick, where two men armed with sticks parry with each other for an opening to administer a blow. Stick defence differs from all these manly exercises in this essential— it is not a pastime between sportsmen; it is a quick and safe method of knocking out a thug.

Many a busy New-Yorker, however, would never learn the art of stick defence, even though he believed it would someday save his life, if he had to go to a gymnasium or a fencing school to learn it.

“I simply haven’t the time,” such a man would say.

For the same reason he has long wished to be a boxer, and secretly envied the splendid muscles of the athletes he sees at the beach when he goes down there for a Sunday swim. Neither does he know anything about wrestling or many another manly sport which would not only befriend him in an hour of need, but, best of all, build up his physique and enable him to work harder and longer, and yet feel far less weary when he leaves his office at night.

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A cane thrust into a thug’s neck to make him drop his knife.

Stick defence, however, can be learned at home more easily, perhaps, than any other art of self-defence, and after a few general rules are mastered the beginner may learn how to apply them in many effective ways. He must first of all have a roommate or some other good friend who is willing to play the “thug” and to be ‘”knocked out” some half hundred times. In imagination the “thug’s” arms will be broken, his wrists and ankles dislocated and his neck twisted.

“The thug who is of Anglo-Saxon origin generally makes his assault with his fists. If he doesn’t he pulls a pistol…”

 

The thug who is of Anglo-Saxon origin generally makes his assault with his fists. If he doesn’t he pulls a pistol. His most common fist attack is to strike his purposed victim in the face with his left hand, and to hold back his right ready for a blow in the stomach. Nine times out of ten such a ruffian overwhelms his man, and even an experienced boxer may fail to thwart such an assault, But the man with a stick, should he handle himself right, ought not only to withstand his enemy, but break his arm. As soon as the stick man sees what his assailant is up to, he clutches his enemy’s left hand with his own, and with his right, holding his stick and guarding his stomach at the same time, he cracks the thug’s arm on the crazy bone, at the elbow. At the same time he strikes he twists the arm inward, so as to make the pain of the blow still more acute. If the stick man wants to strike hard enough he can break a thug’s arm in this way.

Should one find it impossible to use this device in withstanding a left-handed attack, there is another way which proves almost as efficient. As the thug rushes for his man the stick man grasps his cane at the small end with his left hand, and with his right he clutches it near the handle. His hands are near enough together, however, so that his right elbow is at an angle of 90 degrees, and with this protruding elbow he wards off the swing of the thug’s left arm. At the same time he thrusts the handle of his cane under the chin of his foe and topples him over on his back. In case of a right-handed attack, the man with a stick meets it in the same fashion, but with opposite hands.

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“Fighting fire with fire.” How to hook a thug around the neck when he tries to use a stick.

Unless the sight of a pistol’s muzzle unnerves him, the man with a cane is able to dispose of the thug who pulls a gun easier than if he used only his fists. If the pistol puller is left handed, an upward blow of the cane is best, for it knocks the weapon high into the air, and does not swerve the barrel sidewise, so that the bullet is likely to reach the heart of its intended victim.

But in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred the gun is in the right hand, and the stick man need only drop to his knees and at the same time strike his would-be murderer a sharp side-wise crack on the knuckles to disarm him.

“As the Anglo-Saxon uses his fists, so the Italian and Spaniard have recourse to the knife…”

 

As the Anglo-Saxon uses his fists, so the Italian and Spaniard have recourse to the knife. Unless such a thug is left-handed, he strikes with his right hand, and he is met by the stick man in much the same way as a left-handed fist blow is averted by the thrust of the cane’s handle under the chin. The stick man. however, holds his arms differently. He now bends his left elbow to avert the stab and shield his vitals.

As a general thing the thrust of a cane under the chin partially strangles a thug and so disconcerts him that he drops the blade from his hand. Should the ruffian use his left hand, the man with a stick grasps his weapon with his right hand around its small end and his left about its centre, and with his right elbow shielding his breast he gives the strangling thrust into his enemy’s neck.

“The German also has his way of holding up a pedestrian…”

 

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Tripping up a kicker with a hook-handled umbrella.

The German also has his way of holding up a pedestrian. In the gymnasium of army he has been trained in the use of the broadsword, or even as a peasant boy he has had “schlagen” matches with his playmates. So when a Teuton who has settled in the New World descends to deeds of violence he generally uses a stick. His fate, however, at the hands of the master of stick defence is likely to be as instantaneous as that of the Anglo-Saxon or the Italian. In meeting this kind of an enemy an umbrella or a cane with a hooked handle is the best weapon. The stick man catches the cane of his foe, hooks his assailant around the neck and jerks his head forward. At the same time he raises his knee so that the face of the thug strikes against it with great force. This treatment makes a man see so many stars that he invariably drops his cane, and thus surrenders himself to the mercy of his victor.

Some thugs have a way of coming up on their victims from behind and disconcerting them with a kick. The stick man who knows the tactics of thugs is prepared for this kind of assault. As soon as he suspects what is to occur he wheels on his heel and hooks the thug by the foot with the handle of his cane or umbrella. This is sure to send the ruffian over backward on to his back. Another way is to dodge the kick, and crack the upraised leg with a stick over the knee. Such a blow will break a man’s leg if it be administered hard enough.

“Should a New-Yorker combine both the tactics of the London stick man and the United States naval wrestler, it is safe to say that the police of this city would have far fewer holdups and burglaries to record than at the present time…”

 

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Holding off an assailant by a thrust in the stomach.

Tactics which might supplement those of the stick men have been introduced into the United States Navy. They are trick catches which are for the most part based on the Japanese system of wrestling. A sailor renders an assailant powerless simply by twisting his muscles the wrong way. It is called the leverage system, for the reason that it tends to pry a victim’s joints apart by using the bones as levers one against another. Should a New-Yorker combine both the tactics of the London stick man and the United States naval wrestler, it is safe to say that the police of this city would have far fewer holdups and burglaries to record than at the present time.

There was no need, as the author suggests, for New Yorkers to look to Londoners to learn self-defense with a stick or cane. Several New York area fencing masters of the period, such as this one, offered such instruction.

For FURTHER READING, and many additional vintage articles on cane self-defense, see A History of Cane Self-Defense in America: 1798-1930.

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