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Foils, Daggers, Sabers, Bayonets, and Bowie Knives: An Interview at the Salle d’Armes of Colonel Thomas H. Monstery

June 8, 2018

“This,” said the professor, “is my bayonet and dagger breastplate. You see, I teach both bayonet and dagger or knife fencing, and I should not like to hurt my pupils…”

 

The following article appeared in the February 17, 1883 issue of the Chicago Daily News, and contains an interview with the celebrated duelist, swordsman, boxer, and master of arms, Colonel Thomas Hoyer Monstery. It appeared in print very shortly after Monstery’s arrival in Chicago from New York, and appears to be the first profile of the fencing master written and published in the Windy City. The interview is especially interesting, as it provides a great deal of information about Monstery’s weapons, training equipment, and students (both male and female). Here follows the article in full, supplemented by related historical images, and a few newly inserted footnotes.

HANDLERS OF THE FOIL.

AMATEUR SWORDSMEN OF AMERICA.

Fencers and Fencing in Chicago—An Old Master’s Choice Weapons—Thorne and Mayo as Dagger-Duellists—Experts with the Rapier.

“On guard, if you please; now parry this,” followed by the whistling of foils and sounds such as emanate from a room wherein fencing is being practiced, were what one entering a certain room on Randolph street might hear any afternoon.

The words were spoken by Col. Monstery, the swordsman, to a young athlete whose tutor he was. The colonel was instructor in his art in leading military schools in Europe, and under his training a hundred duels have been fought. He is a soldier in appearance, and stands erect five feet and ten inches. He is spare in his physique, but his frame is of iron and full of suppleness. His hair is gray, and his fast whitening mustache and imperial are waxed after the manner of Napoleon. His eyes are as bright and sharp as those of a man of twenty-four years, and his very carriage shows that age has not detracted from the grace and agility which marks the perfect master of the sword. The colonel was born in 1821, in Baltimore, Md., of Scandinavian parentage¹. He early went to Denmark, where he was for a number of years pupil in the Royal military academy, in which school he afterward became an instructor in fencing. His life has been a varied one, and yet, in spite of all his hardships, he is as cheery as a youth. For many years he has taught fencing in all the large cities of Europe, where his name is remembered with pleasure by swordsmen. Among his noted pupils was the Grand Duke Constantine. In 1868 he followed Maximilian to Mexico, where he was made instructor in swordsmanship to the Mexican army. He served through the war of that time and became noted by his wonderful proficiency with every style of weapon.

The room in which the old master swordsman stood was a curiosity. On one wall was a large rack in which were some thirty foils, of all styles of make and quality. Just below these were boxing gloves, and guards for the fencer’s hands. Above the rack was a magnificent Toledo blade which, the colonel said, was his favorite, and was 500 years old. Crossed with that was a Swedish sword, whose perfect steel could not be equaled in America. Next to this pair of matchless weapons was an English army sabre, crossed with a Danish “iron-cutter,” and hanging beside these were two other swords. On the colonel’s desk were two daggers, one a genuine Roman weapon, the other a curious antique knife, which was a masterpiece of workmanship, evidently produced by a rival of famed Damascus. Near these were dueling pistols and revolvers, with the use of which the colonel was perfectly acquainted. On the front wall between two windows hung a breastplate of steel, found in Central America, and undoubtedly worn by one of the Spaniards who first invaded that land. Near this were found rules for fencing and boxing², originated by the professor and adopted as the standards. There was another breastplate of steel, heavily gilded, but battered and marked by constant use.

Bayonet guard (1838) in the system of Pehr Henrik Ling, which method Monstery learned, among others.

“This,” said the professor, “is my bayonet and dagger breastplate. You see, I teach both bayonet and dagger or knife fencing, and I should not like to hurt my pupils. I had this and that (pointing to a similar plate hanging in another place) made for me in Denmark out of Swedish steel, so that I know they are proof against blows.”

On the third wall was a motley and interesting collection of wire masks of all varieties.

Fäktmask, or fencing mask, from the Livrustkammaren in Stockholm, Sweden.

“These,” continued the Colonel, “are for light fencing. I had to import them from Europe. As you see, they are strong steel wire, made by hand. They have no pads outside, and to outward appearance are but the common fencers’ mask, but they all came from the Royal Arsenal in Denmark, and are pure shining steel. Here, however, are the broadsword masks (taking down a heavy head covering of steel network). They are made extra strong, and have padding on the top of the head and in the side, so that the exercisers may not be hurt. I have more varieties, but they all serve the same purpose. Here is the glove of stiff leather that we wear when using the broadsword or German ‘schlaeger.’ Up above them you see the three cornered or triangular rapier of the purest and best steel and are usually taken by the duelists. They were the weapons worn by the noblemen of old and used in their combats with such fatal effect. Next to these are the pointed and bladed cut and thrust straight sabers which have been in eight duels in this country, one on Long Island, some years ago³. Just beyond these are foils with their buttons off. They have also seen their duels and have each drank blood, though I am happy to say no life blood.”

“Here are my daggers and knives. You see they have guards, but removed they are pretty ugly. I teach the defense from the bowie knife and the defense from the dagger. Here is the common plastron, made extra heavy and used in the saber exercise with the heavy masks you see there. This plastron I have made myself and I have used it with many celebrated persons in their day.”

Florett, or foil, with an unusually broad blade, from the Livrustkammaren in Stockholm (it is not known how similar this may be to the foils Monstery describes).

“Before we sit down, let me show you my foils. They are from Denmark, and, as you see, are broader than the ordinary foil, so that if by any mishap the button should break, the foil cannot penetrate the mask and lacerate the face. Many fathers buy the common narrow foil, and I have seen many persons badly hurt to the face by them.”

“The Americans have no patience to learn to fence well. Some of them try it, but they give it up soon. I tell you, sir, it is the best thing in the world for the men—and the ladies, too. It is not violent and rough, like boxing, and it does not strain the nerves, like rowing, but it makes the warm blood run through your body, and it makes health come. Besides it strengthens you wonderfully. A wealthy gentleman of Boston—Mr. Whitcomb, now in Paris—came to me when he was about 40, and said, “Colonel, I am afraid of consumption.’ I said, ‘I will cure you, come and fence.’ He did, and where he had been stoop-shouldered he is now strong and hale, and over 60 years of age. Such is the beauty of fencing.”

[Journalist:] “Who is the best fencer in Chicago?”

“Fred Englehardt is probably the best amateur. He is very quick, and his passes are made beautifully. Next to him is Mr. Ribolle, who, though only a pupil, gives good promise of being a fine swordsman. He is especially proficient with the broad sword. Then young Mr. Arnold is excellent with the cane. Mr. K. G. Nixon is a clever handler of the cane, the foil, and the single stick, and will yet prove a formidable opponent to the most expert. There are also Sparling, Ryerson, Hansen, Barker, Mason, and Gregory, all Chicagoans, and all quick and neat in their ways.”

“Do the editors of the papers and the news paper ever come to you?”

“Not here in this city. I have only had one newspaper pupil. He was Mr. John Ballantyne, but for some reason he gave it up some time ago. In other cities, though, I have had many. James Gordon Bennett has been under my tuition for a time. He was a good swordsman, and since I have been away from New York he has been under another’s care.”

“Who was your best pupil?”

Monstery’s noted pupil: Congressman Perry Belmont of New York

Francis G. Wilson, the young actor who was with the ‘Our Goblins’ last year. He won the amateur fencers’ prize, and, by his beautiful skill, has made his way on the stage. Peter Barlow, the wealthy New Yorker’s son, and the young society gentleman, is also a beautiful fencer, and for one so large—he weighs 250 pounds—he is very graceful with the foils. The one who is the best of these New Yorkers who have come under my care is Congressman Belmont, whose autograph you see here in my book (showing an old account book). Since I have been away from New York I have lost him. Why, my dear sir, before I left New York, eight years ago, I had twenty-three pupils regularly every day in my rooms, and they are all skillful swordsmen. William W. Riggs, the son of the now dead Parisian banker of the firm of Corcoran & Riggs, was one of the best swordsmen I have seen. He could use both hands, and could change his foil with ease from one hand to another. Catheart is another fine swordsman, and is the equal of the best of them. The finest swordsmen and athletic young men are to be found in California. There the foils are at home, and there I have had many a good round. I was instructor in fencing and boxing in the Olympic Club gymnasium in San Francisco for eight years before I came here, and my pupils have conquered all they have met. Robinson, the man who outboxed Slade, was first my pupil.”

“Who are the best swordsmen in the world?”

“With the broadsword the Americans and the Germans. With the rapier and the foils, I think the Americans can again take the palm. The most celebrated French swordsmen were with Maximilian when he went to Mexico, and I know that out of over two hundred duels that were fought there, the Mexicans won two-thirds. They are beautiful swordsman. He keeps his skill well, for he teaches fencing, and he keeps in practice. If more Americans would take fencing, they would be the best in that, as they are in everything. Mind, I don’t want them to fight duels. That is not what the noble exercise is for. It is to make them graceful, and bright, and quick.

Monstery’s pupil with the Bowie Knife: actor Charles Thorne.

“Have you had many pupils with the knife?”

“Not many in the east. In California I had a large number, and in Europe also. On the stage, however, all the great knife duelists have been my pupils. When Charley Thorne, now dead, poor fellow, was young he played with Frank Mayo in a piece called “The Robbers of the Pyrenees,” I think it was. In it was a duel with knives between two characters taken by Thorne and Mayo. I was in New York then, and I taught them to use the knife. They did well, too. I have had many more, but they are enough.”

“Have you had many actors as pupils?”

“Oh, yes. Junius Brutus Booth, who was the best amateur swordsman while he lived, was a pupil of mine. He taught his son Edwin how to fence. He was my favorite pupil of old. John McCullough, Lawrence Barrett, Charles Thorne, Dolly Davenport, E. J. Davenport, Frank Mayo, and Edwin Forrest have all had their names on my books as pupils.”

The dagger fight prepared by Monstery: from the Daily Alta California, May 14, 1870.

“Have you had many lady pupils?”

Adah Isaacs-Menken, with sword and shield

“Not here, but in the east. Lola Montez and Adah Isaacs-Menken were two of my most noted pupils, and learned their beautiful skill from me. I had a number of society ladies in New York, in Europe, and in California.”

“Do the ladies make good fencers?”

“Oh, yes. If they keep at the work long enough they become even better than the men, for they are more supple. I like to teach a lady, for she tries much harder, and gives much satisfaction.”

NOTES:

¹ This statement is erroneous. Birth records show that Monstery was born in 1824 in Copenhagen, Denmark. 

² These rules have been reprinted in full in the Appendix of Monstery’s Self Defense for Gentlemen and Ladies.

³ An account of this duel, between Col. Canzi and General Fardella, and of Monstery’s training of the former, can be found in the Introduction to Self Defense for Gentlemen and Ladies.

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