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Life of the Amazing Major J. A. McGuire, “Positively the World’s Greatest Swordsman”

February 3, 2015

 “He is at home not alone with the sword but also with the foil, rapier, staff, lance and spear…”

 

The following picturesque advertisement appeared in the August 7th, 1892 issue of the Buffalo Courier Record:

Maguire-BuffaloCourier-Record_8-7-1892

Major McGuire was a colorful and reputedly formidable character who figured prominently in a number of fencing contests in New York City and upstate New York during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. A sketch of his life was published four years earlier, on December 30, 1888, also in the Courier Record, and is reprinted below in full:

 

Life and Reminiscences of Major McGuire, the Swordsman.

 “He has killed a score of men, that is, in an honorable way…”

 

Major J. A. McGuire, the famous horseman, swordsman, fencer, duelist and all-round athlete, who appears at the Adelphia this week in exhibitions of the science of the sword, is known the world over. Although a little over thirty years old, his career has been something approaching the marvelous. He has killed a score of men, that is, in an honorable way, and though he has done hard army service for many years and engaged in numberless athletic battles, he is today in the prime of life—perhaps the oldest soldier and youngest man living.

The famous battle of Tel-el-Kebir, by Henry Louis Dupray.

The famous battle of Tel-el-Kebir, by Henry Louis Dupray.

Major McGuire was born in Glasgow, Scotland, in March, 1857, of Irish parents. From boyhood up he was noted for agility, and a desire to distinguish himself led him to join the English army when scarce fifteen years old as a trumpeter. His appearance was that of a man several years older and only this enabled him to join the ranks. At eighteen he became an instructor in gunnery and swordsmanship at Woolwich.

Sir Frederick Roberts

Sir Frederick Roberts

It was not long before his adventurous spirit led him to India where he remained for six years and seven months. During that time he was engaged in the Afghan war under Sir Frederick Roberts. Thence he journeyed to South Africa where he remained until 1881. From there he joined the English army again as a volunteer in the Egyptian war. He took part in the famous battle of Tel-el-Kebir, and went up the Nile with Sir Garnet Woolseley. Through a little argument over promotion, McGuire resigned from the English army and joined the Turks under Pasha Baker as sergeant-major in the cavalry. He was in the charge of El-teb where, out of 800 Turks who assaulted the Arabs, only a handful escaped with their lives, and McGuire was among the number. Not long after he secured a leave of absence and never returned.

McGuire killed his man in twenty minutes. In recalling the event McGuire says: “We didn’t think of the life of an Egyptian in those times. We used to kill them every day.”

 

During his army life McGuire met with many rough experiences, but always came out all right, and was generally noted for bravery among his fellow officers. He still carries with him their testimonials to that effect.

Charge at the Second Battle of El-Teb, by Josef Chelmonski.

Charge at the Second Battle of El-Teb, by Josef Chelmonski.

On one occasion in Egypt, it is recalled, he became involved in a quarrel with Ismail Pasha, an Egyptian officer, who insulted a woman who was a friend of McGuire’s. The Englishman dealt him a stinging blow on the spot, and the outcome was that the men agreed to fight a duel at 4 o’clock in the morning, accompanied by their seconds they crept out to a secluded spot to avoid court-martial. Swords were the weapons and McGuire killed his man in twenty minutes. In recalling the event McGuire says: “We didn’t think of the life of an Egyptian in those times. We used to kill them every day.”

“Returning to camp, he exhibited the Afghan’s head in triumph, as David did after the slaughter of Goliath…”

 

Early in his career, while engaged in the Afghan war, a designing Afghan, disguised as a spy, enticed McGuire from the English camp, pretext of showing him the lines of the McGuire, on horseback, followed him unsuspectingly some distance from the camp, when the Afghan suddenly drew a sword and made a thrust at McGuire’s heart. The latter wheeled about just in time to parry the blow, and jumping from his horse engaged in a life and death struggle with the Afghan. McGuire was thoroughly enraged and his superior strength gave him the advantage. The Afghan cut McGuire severely about the legs, but after a brief struggle the latter cut the Afghan’s throat, and in his rage completely severed his head from his body. Returning to camp, he exhibited the Afghan’s head in triumph, as David did after the slaughter of Goliath. McGuire bears today the scars of the wounds received in that scrimmage.

Scene from the Second Afghan War: Drummer James Roddick of the 92nd Gordon Highlanders, defending Lieutenant Menzies during hand-to-hand fighting in Kandahar, 1880. by William Skeoch Cumming.

Scene from the Second Afghan War: Drummer James Roddick of the 92nd Gordon Highlanders, defending Lieutenant Menzies during hand-to-hand fighting in Kandahar, 1880. by William Skeoch Cumming.

While in the Orient, the major acquired a knowledge of the Hindoo, Persian, Sanscrit and other tongues, and for a time was interpreter in the army. Later, in England, he received a queen’s prize for proficiency in those tongues. In 1886 and 1887 he won a number of medals for excellence in athletics, among them the prince of Wales spear. In the fore part of 1887 he came to America to give exhibitions at Manhattan beach.

Manhattan Beach, Brooklyn, 1879.

“Sergt.” Charles Walsh had been traveling around with Duncan C. Ross, under McGuire’s name, giving broadsword contest exhibitions, and McGuire had a good deal of trouble in establishing his identity. When his contract at Manhattan beach expired he followed Walsh and Ross up and cornered them at Louisville on October 23.

“Voss got the worst of it each time and in the third battle had two fingers of his left hand cut off.”

 

They agreed to fight it out in the baseball park there, and before a big crowd McGuire bested his opponent in every way and was awarded the victory. One week later he met Duncan C. Ross at the same place. Ross, though a hippodromer, is a veritable Samson and an expert swordsman. Yet the major defeated him easily to the intense disgust of a big assemblage, who wanted to see Ross win. Subsequently he met and defeated F. X. Noriega, the Spanish champion, at New Orleans while a tournament was in progress there in which Ross and Walsh were participating. The major defeated both Noriega and Walsh in one afternoon. He was then thoroughly exhausted and Ross challenged him to another battle. McGuire said he preferred to meet him on another day, but rather than submit to the big fellow’s taunts he went in against him. The task was too much for him, however. Both horses and riders fell before the clash of arms was over. Ross, fresh and strong, was the victor after a hard-fought battle.

Duncan Ross

Duncan Ross

The major has beaten a large number of swordsmen throughout the country. At Kansas City he fought and defeated a half a dozen local cavalrymen, including Capt. Phelan and Maj. Landstreet. On July 4 he battled with Capt. McGinty, an English officer weighing 210 pounds, for a gold medal.

Announcement in the Kansas City Times, July 3, 1888.

Announcement in the Kansas City Times, July 3, 1888.

McGuire used a lance and McGinty a sword. It is needless to say that McGuire was the winner. He met Capt. Voss three times, once at Nashville with gun and bayonet, again on foot, and a third time with swords on horses. Voss got the worst of it each time and in the third battle had two fingers of his left hand cut off. At Little Rock, Arkansas, the major met three men on one Sunday afternoon and defeated them all. He was arrested for violating the Sunday law and was fined $25, but inasmuch as he had won the entire gate receipts, $700, he didn’t kick.

Lance versus sword

Lance versus sword

Although in a broadsword contest the contestants are well shielded with armor they are very apt to be injured. Maj. McGuire has a number of scars on his head and forehead from old time wounds. For contests in which a large amount is at stake McGuire keeps a trained horse at Louisville, Ky. For common affairs he can manage most any animal. He claims to be able to train a horse for a match in half an hour. He is at home not alone with the sword but also with the foil, rapier, staff, lance and spear.

“In order to become a fencer the pupil must be cool, calm, and collected and possess a proper gentlemanly temper, a quick eye, and an elastic frame…”

 

In speaking of the methods of instruction and what is requisite to make a good fencer, Major McGuire says:

“Undoubtedly my method of instruction differs from that of other teachers in the country. In order to become a fencer the pupil must be cool, calm, and collected and possess a proper gentlemanly temper, a quick eye, and an elastic frame. Muscle will develop through practice. Strength is not required. I have instructed ladies in some parts of the country, and found them quite as apt as some instructors in point of science and agility.”

A quarterstaff contest. The Illustrated London News, March 26, 1870.

A quarterstaff contest. The Illustrated London News, March 26, 1870.

The Major at present weighs 156 pounds and stands 5 feet, 10½ inches. Of all the men he has met he thinks Ross the strongest and Noriega the most scientific. McGuire is something of a wrestler, too. Although little accustomed to wrestling on the carpet he has a standing proposition to wrestle any man on the carpet if the latter will give him a return match on horseback. Horseback wrestling is something comparatively new to this country. In turn the men urge their steeds at full gallop from opposite corners and when they meet, the one attempts to dismount his opponent. If he succeeds he is credited with a fall. Almost everything goes in this style.

The Major will remain in the city a couple of weeks and is anxious to meet any of the local swordsmen in a contest for points. He will give them a fair handicap.

— Buffalo Courier Record, December 30, 1888.

***

UPDATE:

Matt Easton, from the UK, has checked Hart’s Army Lists (from the 1840s to World War I), but has been unable to find any record of a Major or Captain McGuire (or Maguire), or any officer under a similar name, between 1875 to 1884. Matt writes, “There are up to four Maguires at one time and one McGwire, but none of them are this man. I think the only conclusion is that he was either fabricating details of his military service, or he had changed his name.” Special thanks to Matt for this bit of detective work!

—-

As addendum to this story, it seems that after many challenges and public fencing contests (including another with an aging Duncan Ross), McGuire’s martial career seemingly dwindled during the early 1900s. As late as 1909, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported that McGuire was in Seattle, Washington, issuing a number of challenges:

It has been a long time since the swords clashed here, but Major J. A. Maguire, champion of tho world, is in the city looking for matches and has several answers to the challenge published a few days ago. Captain B. M. Ward, formerly of the South African constabulary and now a resident of this city, in a letter accepts Maguire’s open challenge and declares himself willing to fight horseback or afoot and says he will post $1,000 as evidence of good faith. F. Richard West, fencing master of the Vancouver Fencing Club, also wants to meet Major Maguire. The champion said, last night that he would like to arrange a match with either or both in Seattle. “I prefer a broadsword combat because it is stiffer, more exciting and gives the public a much better exhibition,” said Maguire. “With broadswords there is no taking it easy. It is a real fight all the time.” Maguire is a soldier of fortune and has appeared in many countries. He was a captain in the British army and retired with the honorary rank of major. He has also been a colonel in the Turkish army, and has seen service all over the world.

We have not yet been able to uncover any accounts of these combats, if they occurred. McGuire’s talents, however, would soon be put to use in a new burgeoning medium—that of the motion picture:

New York Dramatic Mirror, Oct. 23, 1912.

New York Dramatic Mirror, Oct. 23, 1912.

From between 1911 and 1920, McGuire acted in a number of silent films (mostly Westerns) such as Buffalo Jim, Kit Carson’s Wooing, and The Untamed, playing “Indian Chiefs,” medicine men, sheriffs, saloon owners, and miners. Although many of these films seem to be now lost, or unavailable online, we did manage to locate the following photograph of McGuire, under the heading “Some Bison Old Timers”, in the Film Year Book of 1922-23:

McGuirePhoto1922

SomeBisonOldTimers1922

The following photograph shows McGuire in the silent film “What God Hath Joined Together” (1913). That’s him in the center, in the role of the preacher.

From To-day's Cinema News and Property Gazette, Volumes 3-4

From To-day’s Cinema News and Property Gazette, Volumes 3-4

Nor was McGuire’s role to be strictly in front of the camera. The January/June 1912 issue of Motography reported that,

Major J. A. McGuire, for many years in the motion picture business, will be assistant director to Rollin S. Sturgeon for the western Vitagraph company at Santa Monica. Occasionally he will appear in pictures.

It would be fascinating to know if McGuire’s martial talents and techniques were ever captured on film. For now, the search continues…

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2 Comments
  1. I can’t believe I’ve never heard of this guy…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, he’s an extraordinary character that certainly deserves to be more well-known. Accounts of him seem to be relegated to the newspapers of the period, but I’m hoping to dig up more information on his from his silent film days. I’ll post more information here when I come across it…

      Liked by 1 person

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