“A Sure Defense: The Bowie Knife in America”

Earlier this year, I had the pleasure of writing a piece for Knife World magazine in which I discussed the bowie knives used by John Wilkes Booth and his conspirators.  The article, entitled, “Cloak and Daggers: Cutting Through the Confusion of the Lincoln Assassination Knives“, highlighted my conclusion that the knife currently on display at Ford’s Theatre as “Booth’s knife” is not the one taken from John Wilkes Booth’s body at the Garrett farm.  I am still working on convincing and motivating those in charge of the Ford’s Theatre museum to correct this mistake.

Cloak and Daggers Knife World April 2013

Since the article was published in April, I have kept in touch with the wonderfully nice editor of Knife World, Mark Zalesky.  Mark has been working exceedingly hard recently having been asked to guest curate an upcoming exhibit on the history of the bowie knife in America.  The exhibit, which is called “A Sure Defense: The Bowie Knife in America“, opens this Friday at the Historic Arkansas Museum in Little Rock.  I received this mailer today, advertising some of the events that will be occurring on Friday and Saturday to celebrate the opening of the exhibit:

Bowie Knife Exhibit Events

I’m personally excited for this exhibition for two reasons. First of all, the press release for the exhibit, which can be read here, includes the following paragraph:

“Visitors to the public exhibit will have the opportunity to see knife designs associated with Alamo martyr James Bowie and his less famous brother Rezin, and to examine bowie knives once owned by such historic figures as Davy Crockett, Theodore Roosevelt, General Winfield Scott and John Fox “Bowie Knife” Potter. The role of the bowie knife in the Antebellum era is explored along with the Civil War and the opening of the west, and there’s a special focus on the role bowie knives played in the events surrounding the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

Using resources such as my article for Knife World, Mark has created a nice display about the knives used by the conspirators. In it, he has been kind enough to give my conclusion regarding Booth’s knife further press and attention.

The knives in the Lincoln display for the bowie knife exhibit are period knives, identical to the ones used by the conspirators. They are the same, “make and model” as it were, as the ones on display at Ford’s Theatre and in storage at the NPS or Huntington Library. Here is a picture of “Lincoln knives” in the upcoming exhibit at the Historic Arkansas Museum:

Bowie Knives Exhibit Assassination knves

The rightmost knife above is identical to the “Liberty knife” currently on display at Ford’s Theatre as Booth’s knife. From my research I do not believe this knife was retrieved from Booth’s body as it claimed to have been by the display at Ford’s. Though I am not 100% certain of its origin, my hypothesis is that it came from Mary Surratt’s boarding house in D.C.

The middle knife is identical to the knife found in George Atzerodt’s rented room at the Kirkwood House hotel. David Herold was seen carrying this long knife in his boot during the day of the assassination and probably removed it when visiting in George’s room on that day.  It’s counterpart is on display at Ford’s Theatre.

The leftmost knife is identical to the knife Lewis Powell used to stab Secretary Seward and the knife retrieved from John Wilkes Booth when he was shot at the Garret farm.  Powell’s knife is in the Huntington Library in California.  Booth’s knife is in storage at the NPS’ Museum Resource Ceneter in Landover, Maryland.  I’m working on getting this knife out of storage and properly displayed at the Ford’s Theatre Museum.

It is also with a deal of pride that I state that the leftmost knife and sheath in the above picture, belong to me.  I bought the knife a few years ago, wanting a duplicate of the knife Booth used to stab Major Rathbone.  According to Mark, these “smaller” Rio Grand Camp knives are harder to find as most people want the big ones like the one in the middle.  During the course of our collaboration on the Knife World article, I told him I had an identical knife to Booth’s and he asked if I would consider lending it to the Historic Arkansas Museum for the exhibition.  Though I’m not sure if I will be able to, I’m hoping to find the time to make the journey to Arkansas to see my knife along with over 200 other bowie knives.

For anyone who may live around, or are planning a trip near Little Rock, the exhibit, “A Sure Defense: The Bowie Knife in America” runs from December 13th, 2013 until June 22nd, 2014 at the Historic Arkansas Museum. The Historic Arkansas Museum is open 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 1 – 5 p.m. on Sunday and admission to the galleries and parking are free.

For those who can’t make it to the museum, a full color catalog documenting this historic exhibit is planned, and will be available from the museum’s gift shop and online store some time in the near future.

I hope those of you in the area will check out the exhibit at the Historic Arkansas Museum. You can learn all about the fascinating history of the bowie knife and say “hi” to my knife and sheath while you are there.

Historic Arkansas Museum
Mark Zalesky, guest curator of “A Sure Defense: The Bowie Knife in America

Categories: Uncategorized | Tags: , | 1 Comment

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One thought on ““A Sure Defense: The Bowie Knife in America”

  1. Wesley Harris

    Thanks for sharing this, Dave. I’m about 3 hours from Little Rock. Don’t know if I can make it this weekend for the symposium but I’ll definitely get up there during the exhibit.


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