Fencers and Fencing In America

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Fencers and Fencing In America




1890 article from the Illustrated American, a weekly magazine published from 1890 until 1900. The article chronicles fencing in the United States as well as the various academies, fencers, instructors and competitions.


Herbert W. Burdett


The Illustrated American


10 May 1890


© Fencing Arms & Artifacts


16.125" x 11.5" (approximate width, likely cut from original binding).







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FENCING, once the necessary accomplishment of all gentlemen, but now a fashionable amusement, lacking, at least in English-speaking lands, the sanguinary accompaniments of the good old days, is steadily gaining favor in America. There are scores of men in our principal cities who can hold their own with the foils against accomplished amateur swords-men trained in the fencing-schools of Europe. The American girl has also adopted as a pas-time the " fine art of athletics," which was once a very serious business to the gallants of the Old World. The revival of such a manly and graceful exercise is not surprising at a time when athletics generally are attaining a popularity little less than bestowed upon them in England, the home and birth-place of sport. Owing, perhaps, to the fact that practice with the foils does not require the publicity generally attend-ant upon all branches of out-door exercise, fencing is less talked about than any other physical amusement. Its votaries are usually of a class not given to seeking notoriety in their private life. The world at large knows consequently little of their comparative skill or of their steadily increasing numbers. In all countries where amicable swordsman-ship is cultivated, schools of instruction in the exercise have frequently developed into clubs, and acquaintanceships arising from crossed foils have ultimately led to extended intimacy and fast friendship. The New York Fencers' Club originated thus, in a fencing-school started by Captain Hippolyte Nicolas, a French officer who served his country in the Franco-Prussian War, and who, upon a visit to the United States, conceived the idea of afford-ing American swordsmen an opportunity to take lessons from an exponent of the Gallic system. The club (which recently en-gaged M. Jacobi, a recent arrival from France and a very fine swordsman , as its instructor) was formed in 1883.

Ten years previously a French maître d'armes named Regis Senac, formerly attached to the First Chasseurs d'Afrique, had settled in New York, and obtained several pupils. Other professors of fencing had tried the experiment, and abandoned it, in the conviction that New Yorkers of the nineteenth century were too practical and businesslike to give the time and actual study requisite to become masters of the art—for art it really is, according to the enthusiasts. Senac, however, thought that with time and perseverance the wealthier class could be interested in fencing as much as in any other branch of sport or recreation. Duelling encouraged the study of fencing in the South for many years, and the Creoles of New Orleans, especially, kept up their swordsmanship long after resort to the code for the settlement of trifling differences had ceased to be an everyday affair. In the North, how-ever, those who at that time toyed with the foils were generally novices, and were so few in number that it required a good deal of staying power to sustain the professor in his resolve to establish a regular school of fencing. The increased skill and consequent gratification that his first pupils derived from their lessons not only augmented their own enthusiasm, but enlisted the interest of their friends. Recruits dropped into Senac's school. Although many dropped out again upon realizing the amount of devotion demanded by the amusement, the number of pupils steadily increased, and the professor's perseverance had its reward.

At the present time several athletic associations in New York have special classes for instruction and practice in fencing. Bouts with the foils are as regular features of gymnastic exhibitions and tournaments as battles with the boxing-gloves. Individual proficients of either sex are no longer the rarities of a decade since. Women, especially those who believe in the higher physical culture of their sex, appreciate the fact that fencing occupies a prominent place among the limited opportunities for healthful physical recreation enjoyed by them, developing, as it does, an elegance and grace of deportment greater than that derivable from dancing, and at the same time giving force, endurance, and elasticity to the muscles and alertness of thought to the mind. Fencing has always played a prominent part on the stage. Many of Shakespeare's characters are accustomed to draw their swords, and upon slight provocation "lay on," to the speedy termination of one or the other's interest in worldly matters. The prevalence of duelling in by-gone days is reflected in the works of most dramatists prior to our own times. The clashing of swords invariably adds to the interest and excitement of a play. Even the modern burlesque actress is not infrequently called upon to parry and thrust in mimic earnest. Actors and actresses are, therefore, among the most constant pupils of the maître d'armes, and in acquiring the skill requisite for a realistic representation of mortal combat, they have become enthusiasts in the art, and in many cases have adopted it as a daily exercise well calculated to increase their vigor of both body and mind. It is, however, chiefly among men of good standing in society that the taste for this pastime has been developed of late years. Before Senac's arrival, the Spanish style of fencing had been taught by occasional visitors.

About the "fifties" a Cuban, named Aldama, had instructed several pupils, and Professor de Janon, for many years the teacher at West Point, also initiated some of the present veterans at the exercise. Most, however, of the better fencers in New York, prior to the last few years, learned in Europe the first principles of their accomplishment. Mr. Perry Belmont, ex-Minister to Spain, who is an expert with the foils, was a pupil of Adolphe Ruzé, some years since acknowledged to be one of the finest swordsmen in France. Another veteran who, like Mr. Belmont, increased under Senac the skill acquired from the example and precept of Ruzé, and who still holds his own in the front rank of New York swordsmen, is Mr. Ronald Thomas. The allusion to veterans, by the way, reminds one that fencing seems to endow its votaries with the charm of perpetual youth. Men of all ages practise it. Those who began in early life are reaping the benefit now, and hearing convincing testimony to its health-giving and preservative qualities by their vigor, juvenile appearance, and graceful bearing.

With the advent of modern fencers and the increased dimensions of the fencing-classes of the New York and Manhattan Athletic Clubs, various German Turn-Vereins, and other organizations, a desire for competitive exhibitions was created. In April, 1888, the Amateur Athletic Union organized a series of contests for the amateur championship of the different classes of swordsmanship. First honors were secured that year by Mr. W. T. Lawson -with the foils, Mr. Eugene Higgins with duelling swords, and Mr. H. K. Boodgood with sabres. The three champions had been most instrumental in popularizing the exercise in this country, and their victories were therefore especially appropriate. All three were, and are, members of the New York Athletic Club, and, singularly enough, each had taken up fencing while abroad, some five or six years previously. Mr. Higgins was formerly a pupil of Ruzé, while Bloodgood and Lawson had taken lessons in the foils in France, and in the broadsword from Professor Hartel, the court-master at Vienna, and the greatest proficient with that arm on the Continent. Mr. Lawson, who was a classmate of Mr. Higgins at Columbia College, was captain of the 'Varsity foot-ball and cricket teams, and is now a member of the Racquet Club, and a prominent racquet player. He is a lawyer by profession. Mr. Bloodgood, who is in "the street," has a farm near Lenox, where he breeds fine horses. Mr. Higgins is engaged in commercial pursuits. It will he seen, therefore, that these gentlemen are, like the majority of fencers, true amateurs, in the sense that swordsmanship is with them solely a recreation pursued out of business hours.

The championship contests undoubtedly caused many accessions to the ranks of fencers in the United States. In 1889 a new trio came to the fore in the persons of B. F. O'Connor, a professor of Columbia College, who secured the foils ; Dr. G. M. Hammond, a son of the well-known surgeon, who proved victorious in the duelling-sword class ; and Luis J. Francke, another Columbia graduate, and a member of the Cedarhurst Country Club, who vanquished all opponents with the sabre. The victors of '89—like their predecessors, members of the N. Y. A. C.—had acquired their skill chiefly from the tuition of M. Senac.

The third annual meeting to decide the championship took place last February, an earlier date than usual. In the preliminary bouts, members of Philadelphia and Boston clubs had competed, but only metropolitan fencers were represented in the finals. The champions of former years did not compete, and Mr. Samuel T. Shaw won the deciding bout. with the foils. Mr. Alexander Greger, who holds the dual position of Russian Consul and attaché of the Legation, became champion with the duelling-sword. Like Mr. Shaw, he is a N. Y. A. C. man, and although the Manhattan Athletic Club's representatives had closely pressed their opponents, it seemed probable that the N. Y. A. C. would for the third time preserve their unbroken record. To Mr. George Heintz, a son of the fencing-master at Annapolis, belongs, how-ever, the honor of placing a championship to the credit of the New York Turn-Verein, by his victory with the sabre over Mr. Van Schaick, of the Manhattan Athletic Club.

Mr. Greger, the present duelling-sword champion, is an especially brilliant and graceful swordsman. He acquired his fencing education in Paris and St. Petersburg. Mr. Shaw is a graduate of Senac's Salle d'Armes.

Although the championships drew attention to the diversion, and swelled the membership of the various fencing-classes, it is claimed by fencers—even by ex-champions themselves–that those contests were by no means conclusive demonstrations of the superiority of the winners over many of the defeated contestants. In Paris, they say, championships are unknown. If one inquire who is the best fencer, some prominent swordsman may be named, but a similar query as to the champion fencer would not he understood. The greatest expert in the world may he touched by the foil in a bout with a novice. While a long series of bouts may demonstrate the superiority of one swordsman over another, the winner of such a tournament as annually decides the championship in New York may really be inferior to several less fortunate contestants. As in all athletic contests where a single defeat puts a man out of court, the best fencers may oppose one another in the preliminary rounds, with the result that half of them must stand down and look on, while men of inferior skill, who have been matched against opponents of their own calibre, gain the glory of contesting the finals. The prize may be carried off by a second-rate fencer who, by a stroke of luck, had succeeded in gaining the fifth and winning point in his close contest with a man generally a shade more expert than himself. The absurd jealousy between professional instructors which formerly wrought no little harm to the interests of fencing, and even now crops out occasionally, also placed a difficulty in the way of general competition between the graduates of different schools. A swordsman, who in actual combat might easily wound and defeat his antagonist trained to a different method of defence and attack, might yet succumb to the same man in a bout with the foils where adherence to certain rules is imperative, where the contest is decided by touches, with comparative indifference to the skilful parry, the defensive position while lunging, and other details of the utmost importance in a duel for blood. A change in the rules at present governing the championships is advocated by prominent swordsmen, and it is not improbable that a championship class composed of the best men from each organization may be instituted, and other innovations ere long replace the individual fencing championship.


Owner / Custodian

Loaned for digitization by Benjamin Bowles

Digitization Record

Digitized by Benjamin Bowles ; Cataloged by Benjamin Bowles



Herbert W. Burdett, “Fencers and Fencing In America,” Fencing Arms & Artifacts, accessed May 27, 2024, https://fencingexhibit.com/items/show/91.

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