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Bowie Knife Battles In Old San Francisco

July 20, 2011 Leave a comment

Note: Originally posted by Pete Kautz, Alliance Martial Arts

Howdy all!  With the 4th of July just around the corner I wanted to  share this lost piece of American history.  It comes from Herbert Asbury‘s  book The Barbary Coast: An Informal History of the San Francisco Underworld on  page 186.  “For half a century after the beginning of the gold rush one of the most  dangerous areas in San Francisco was the waterfront, along the Eastern and  Northeastern fringes of the Barbary Coast.  Murders, footpads, burglars,  hoodlums and rangers prowled the streets in such numbers and carried on their  depredations with such boldness that the police walked their beats in pairs and  went in even greater force whenever they found it necessary to enter any of the  dives with which the district abounded.”  

Every policeman assigned to waterfront duty was especially chosen for  strength, bravery, and huskiness.  He was equipped with the regulation  night-stick and pistol and also carried, in a large outside breast-pocket within  easy reach of his hand, a huge knife a foot or more in length.  

This  fearsome weapon was infinitely more effective at close quarters than a club or  the cumbersome, unreliable firearm of the early days.  Nor did the police  hesitate to use it. Several battles occurred in which beleaguered policemen chopped off the  hands of their assailants or inflicted other wounds equally frightful, and at  least one in which an attacking hoodlum was decapitated.  This later feat  was performed by Sergeant Thomas Langford, for many years one of the best known  men of the harbor precinct.”  

Attacked in a second-hand-clothing store in  Pacific Street by several men whom he found ransacking the place, Sergeant  Langford drew his knife and rushed them in the face of heavy pistol fire.   He struck wildly in the darkness, and his first blow nearly sheared the head of  one of the thieves from his shoulders.  The remainder of the gang, several  of them badly wounded by the Sergeant’s slashing knife, fled in terror, and  thereafter Sergeant Langford was held in greater fear by the denizens of the  Barbary Coast than any other policeman in San Francisco.”  

WOW, that’s not the kind of boring history lesson they gave back in school,  eh!  If you like these kinds of tales of days long gone, then be sure to look for  Asbury’s other books about crime and deviant behavior such as Gem of the  Prairie: An Informal History of the Chicago Underworld, The French Quarter: An  Informal History of the New Orleans Underworld, The Gangs of New York: An  Informal History of the Underworld, and All Around the Town: Murder, Scandal,  Riot and Mayhem in Old New York.  (Note that the movie “Gangs of New York” had *so little to do with the book*  that it got nominated for “Best Original Screenplay” rather than as a screenplay  adapted from another work!)  To all my friends across the USA, have a safe and enjoyable 4th of July next  week!  All my very best to you,  Pete Kautz.

© Pete Kautz. Used with permission.

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Categories: Contributing Editors