“A perfectly good touch!”
|Fencing scene from the Alienist|
The Alienist is a TV show set in 19th century New York City. It has been acclaimed for its period feel and attention to detail, and the second season treats us to a short scene at a fencing club. We’ll examine the scene and look at fencing in late 19th century New York City.
Fencing was popular among the fashionable society of New York City. An 1897 article titled "Fencing Now Society's Fad" in the New York Times tells us "Never has fencing been as popular as it is today. It is the fad of the hour among fashionable folk." It continues "The list of fashionable young men who fence is practically endless. Every young man who has any claim to social distinction has taken a course of lessons from a maitre d'armes."
And not just among men. Fencing flourished with society women. Many magazine and newspaper articles of the late nineties covered the fad of fencing among ladies.
|Illustrations from the 1887 article "Fencing and the New York Fencers"|
"In a land where every man who has it in his heart to want to be a gentleman can be one, this game of address may be expected to flourish. Encouraging, as it does, self-control, forbearance, fair-play, and most of the minor virtues of good breeding; admirable as a training school for the quick eye, the ready wit, and the light, strong hand; the most subtle and thorough preparation for all other offensive-defensive sports like boxing, sinle-stck, saber and bayonet-play - it is only just that fencing should be called the fine art of athletics."
The Alienist TV Series
The Alienist is a historical mystery TV series based on the novels by writer Caleb Carr, set in late 19th century New York. The title character is an alienist, a term used to describe the budding science of psychiatry. The etymology of the word comes from the Latin alius (other), then to French aliene (insane). In French an alieniste refers to a doctor who treats the insane.
In the TV show the alienist Laszlo Kreizler teams up with a high society newspaper reporter named John Moore and the first woman to work for the NYPD named Sara Howard. Together they try to solve a series of gruesome murders they believe is the work of a lone serial killer. The show has two seasons. The second season benefits from a focus on Sara Howard, who has quit the police force and started her own detective agency.
The historical atmosphere and period details of 19th century New York City is one of the most engaging elements of the show. The first season is set in 1896, while the second is in 1897. Future president Theodore Roosevelt is featured as the police commissioner in New York City from 1895-1897. The second season also includes references to the upcoming Spanish-American War of 1898.
Fencing scene from the Alienist
The fencing in the scene is pretty wild. There are a few thrusts and parries, but also slashing with the foil that is meant solely as a thrusting weapon. The final touch an attack in prime? While the fencing was not great form, it certainly would not be out of character. After all, these are wealthy men who generally do as they please.
At the annual team competition in 1892, Richard B. Malchien wrote in Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly:
"The others, more or less, make of fencing a mimic duel, and try to land as many points on their opponent's body, not caring much in what manner it is done, resorting to all sorts of tricks to achieve their object. If they fancy they have the most points in their favor it seems to bring contentment."And in a New York Times article in 1893, fencing Professor M. Gignac complains of the fencers in New York and America. "They use fencing too much as an exercise, and too little as a game for intellectual men." He adds "It seems to me that most of them are a little too anxious to get blows in. The counting of points may be a necessary thing, but to amateurs the way the blow is delivered is more important than getting a blow in."
Professors of Fencing in New York City
"It is devoutly to be hoped that the childish bickerings indulged in by the fencing-masters during the last season will not be resumed. A course of silent and dignified contempt is recommended toward any disturber of the peace." - Edward Breck writing in the Outing Magazine of 1895.
Two of the most notable fencing masters teaching in New York City during the 1890's were Captain Hippolyte Nicolas and Regis Senac.
Nicolas was a French officer who fought in the Franco-Prussian War. He came to New York and taught for a while under Senac, then opened his own club on 6th Avenue, In 1892 his Fencers Club address was given as 19 West Twenty Fourth street. He taught only fencing and was not associated with gymnastics like many American clubs. A rifle gallery was added, and bouts with singlestick, broadsword and bayonet admitted to the floor. His system was not classical, but a simplified method that defended the entire body. Nicolas died apparently during a fencing bout froma heart attack in 1898 at his salle on 27 West 42 Street.
Regis Senac arrived to New York City from France. His was the classical French method, learning his trade as an instructor of fencing in the French Army. He came to the United States in 1872 and won the fencing chmapionship of America at a contest held in Tammany Hall. He opened his fencing school in 1874. An article in 1892 lists his school's address as 1441 Broadway. His son Louis Senac was also an acclaimed fencer. Regis Senac was noted for fighting three successful duels while in France, and he continued his contentious ways in New York City. The fencing master sent or accepted challenges to several of the other masters such as Nicolas, Tronchet and Jacobi. One of the most celebrated contests of the period was between himself and the brash Colonel Monstery.
|Tronchet-Senac Contest of 1887|
Colonel Thomas Hoyer Monstery was another fencing master that planted his foil in New York City for a short while. He settled there after travelling through Mexico and Cuba challenging local fencing masters. He continued this in New York, setting up various contests and Grand Assaults and writing articles on self-defense, boxing and singlestick. Among his notable students was the swordswoman Ella Hattan, known as the Jaguarina, who fought matches against men on horseback and with broadsword. Monstery moved on to Chicago in the mid 1880s.
“On Monday evening, April 10, Colonel Monstery and Regis Senac met at Tammany Hall, New York, to compete for a stake of 500 dols. and the title of champion-at-arms of the United States and Spanish America. The match was the result of an open challenge issued by Colonel Monstery, and promptly accepted by M. Senac.”
The two fencing masters fought matches with foils, sabers, rapiers, bayonets and knives. It apparently was a lively and controversial affair, with arguments from the contestants, judges and the audience over hits and touches, so that eventually Monstery abandoned the contest and the referee declared Senac the winner.
Additionally, H. Armand Jacoby taught at the New York Athletic Club; M. Gouspy at the Racquet and Tennis Club; Frederick and Heins, at the Turn Verein; C. Koch; E. Vauthier; and Theophile Gignac were all teaching fencing in New York City some time during the 1880s-1890s.
According to the 1896 Appleton's Dictionary of New York and its Vicinity "Fencing is confined generally to a few gymnasiums and the Fencing Club."
The Fencers Club was established in 1883 on 19 West 24th Street with Hippolyte Nicolas as its first fencing master. Membership included some high society names, including Astors and Roosevelts. The Club moved around, eventually occupying space at 37 West Twenty-second Street and 158 West 23d St., sharing the building with the Authors’ Club, the haunt of the leading men of letters in the great metropolis.
Other clubs were associated with gymnasiums, such as the New York Athletic Club, the Manhattan Athletic Club, and the New York Turn Verein. These were often large and fashionable resorts. A description of the Manhattan Athletic Club in 1890 included an impressive gymnasium located on the third floor. Besides gymnastic equipment it had a boxing room, toilet rooms, lounging rooms, locker rooms, dressing rooms, a drying room and three needle baths (a bath in which fine jets of water are projected against the body), a running track and a large skylight to provide sufficient light. On the floor above the gymnasium was the dining hall and private dining rooms, the housekeeper's apartments, servant's sleeping apartments, ice-house and storage rooms, laundry, manager's and clerk's room, kitchen, pantry, scullery and service room.
The Amateur Athletic Union originally controlled the sport of fencing. Wanting to get away from it's authority, fencers formed the Amateur Fencers League of America in 1891. Membership was dominated by New York City Fencers, though there were divisions in New England and Nebraska. The organizing meeting was held in New York City with members from the New York Athletic Association, Manhattan Athletic Club, Columbia College Fencing Club, Central Turn Verein, and the Fencers Club.
According to the Intercollegiate Fencing Association handbook in 1897 there were four colleges competing in the association – Columbia University, Harvard University, Yale University and the United States Naval Academy. Cornell University joined in 1898. In the original charter they set up an annual competition stating that “Each member of the Association shall send a team composed of three men to the annual tournament and the contests shall be confined to the foils as representing the fine art of swordsmanship.”
Various championships were held in New York City. The Shaw Cup was a regional club foil contest held annually. There was an intercollegiate Fencing Championship and an Amateur National Fencing Championship. Scoring for foil was often based on touches and form, so that that results were a peculiar score of 306 or something similar.
For the National Championships in 1897 Charles Bothner of the New York Athletic Club was champion in Foil, Sabre and Epee. The following year no championships were held due to the Spanish American War.
The outfits worn in the episode are accurate, with white fencing jackets of canvas or cotton and regular trousers. though typically the buttons would be on the opposite side of the hand used (buttons should be on the left side of the jacket for right-handed fencers). Often the jackets would be custom made, and hence display a variety of styles. Pants worn would be regular trousers.
Pictured here is the Fencers Club team in 1893. Note the black uniforms. When fencing at the club jackets were typically white or off-white. The black jackets were worn for competition that used the chalk method of scoring – more on this later. Pictured is one of the notable fencers of the era named Albert Van Zo Post wearing the half black uniform. This would have been for foil, where in the US the target was limited to the right side of the chest (one supposes the other side if you were left handed). Van Zo Post came in third in foil for the 1897 National Championship, but would go on to win several medals at the 1904 Olympics, including gold for singlestick and team foil.
|1883 Spalding Sporting Equipment Catalogue|
Fencing in the 1890s was more of a pastime or activity, no longer training for the duel (although duels still occurred, and you might approach a fencing master for a special lesson). So the foil, which emphasized form and skill, was the predominant weapon taught at the schools. It was not, however, exclusive. The epee was still referred to as the dueling sword, and coming in to fashion at the end of the 19th century as a sporting weapon, sometimes called a rapier by the public. The saber was transitioning from the heavier robust military weapon to a lighter dueling sword. The heavier saber still had competitive bouts as the broadsword.On the subject of saber fencing, Richard B. Malchien commented in 1893 “Professor Koch, in a conversation, expressed decided views against the use of the point in sabre play, for since we have adopted the light Vienna sabre, with its thin point, there is much danger from thrusting, and I think the Amateur Fencers League should adopt strict rules (to be enforced ) against its use.” Professor Koch also thought that the use of the thrust and arm cuts spoiled the varied play of the saber. According to the AFLA Rules foils and dueling swords were to be 34 inches long, while sabers were 33.
There is also mention of the practice of the bayonet, sabre vs. bayonet, and exhibitions of quarter-staff, schlager and la canne.
Rules might vary in clubs depending on the club and the fencing instructor. AFLA Fencing Rules adopted on October 14, 1891 stated that touches in foil shall count only when made upon the body, within the limits bounded by the collar of the fencing jacket, the medium line, the hip, and a line drawn from the hip to the posterior limit of the armpit around the front of the arm and along the crest of the shoulder to the collar. The rules adopted by the Amateur Athletic Union added the limits of the target would be defined by a cord sewed on the fencing pocket under supervision of the committee.
The dueling sword competition was governed by the same rules as the foil, with the exception that a touch on any part of the body, omitting the fencing hand, would count.
The rules as to saber fencing were the same as above, except that a cut on any part of the body above the waist shall count. Point thrusts were not allowed.
To Chalk or Not to Chalk
The AFLA rules also stated that each competitor shall wear a dark fencing jacket with dark trousers, so that white chalk marks can be easily seen. In the foil contest a fencing belt is also worn, not exceeding four inches in width.
Black fencing outfits for chalked scoring
The use of chalk to mark scoring touches was much debated at the time. Foil tips were chalked like a pool cue so that touches could be seen on the black uniform. This method was apparently unique to the United States, and not used in France where traditionally a team of judges would determine if a hit landed and if it was on the target area.
This is described in an article from an 1893 issue of Frenk Leslie's Popular Monthly called "Fencers and the Art of Fencing."
“The purple velvet and the black cloth uniform worn by the fencers mingled in picturesque profusion, and were the objects of much admiration to the many ladies present; but the white uniform, which is decidedly the handsomest of all, was noticeably absent, owing to the fact that the points were to be counted by chalk tips on the foils, which leave a white spot on the dark fencing jackets when a touch is made.”
In 1894 the AFLA met to debate the use of chalk. “The present rules of judging by means of chalked foils and black jackets, the judges being two, with one umpire, have the drawback that the attention of the judges is so fixed on watching for the tell-tale mark of the chalk on the jacket that they do not pay enough attention to the fencer’s style and form. On the other hand the method employed in the recent intercollegiate tournament at the Racquet Club, in which white jackets were used and the foils were not chalked has just the opposite weakness. Judges give too much attention to form and fail to allow enough importance to points.”
By 1895 Edward Breck announced in Outing Magazine that they would be revising the rules.
“it is safe to say that the chalked foil-button and its attendant, the broom-brush, will become ancient history, and a point will be considered just as good when made on the left side of the body as on the right. In the future, style, method and position will justly count for more than they have in the past.”
A Munsey’s Magazine article of 1897 asked the question “But are not society women taking up the art now, and learning to fence as they learn to ride the bicycle? Is it not a fad for women to fence?”
Women did fence, but there were no competitions for women. The general opinion (amongst men) was that it was an opportunity to amuse themselves and become a more attractive woman.
The article continues “The fact that in a generous use of the foil lies an awkward woman's chance to become graceful will have its due weight. Women who fence much believe that no other form of exercise tends so materially to improve their personal appearance. A systematic course of instruction in the art, followed by a moderate adherence to practice, develops the finer lines of a woman's figure, tempers all the muscles of her body, strengthens her arms and legs, and gives her lightness of step, grace of movement, and perfect poise and ease of bearing.”Fencing among women in New York of the 1890’s had been more or less popular for many years. Often it became fashionable when a well-known society woman was noted as an accomplished fencer. Mrs. John Jacob Astor was considered one of the best fencers in the metropolis.
“She is making our wives and daughters honestly believe,” so they say, “that no woman who does not fence can be either healthy, graceful, or beautiful.”
Here was an opportunity for the fencing masters to add students and income.“It is Mlle. Sénac who, as the daughter of the maitre d'armes who has done much to make fencing popular among men, is confuting her father's theory that women will not take the foil seriously by developing many of her feminine pupils into skilled fencers.”
The doors of the fencing salles opened to women, but only on stated hours of specific days, and only to the male member’s wives and daughters. This encouraged the use of private houses for women to fence, as described in the article “The Modern Swordswoman” from an 1897 issue of Munsey’s Magazine.
“Most often the room is in the basement of the house, where a firm foundation for the stamping of fighting feet may be assured. Where space is limited, the billiard room is the only place suited for a salle d'armes. In such homes, man has had to sacrifice his after dinner amusement.”
The women’s fencing outfit was generally similar to the men, with the exception that women wore skirts or bloomers. Even for sports, trousers would be unacceptable for women.
The outfit is described in a New York Times article of 1897 called “Fencing Now Society’s Fad”.
“Most young women who fence wear the bloomer costume. Some few still cling to the plaited skirt that reaches just below the knee. With the latter are worn a loose-fitting jacket, buttoning down the left side, silk stockings, and heelless shoes. Of course, in addition to the dress itself, is worn the regular fencing outfit of plastron (or body shield), padded gauntlet gloves, and centaurs (elastic belts).”
|The fencing costume from a New York Times 1897 article|
This would soon be refuted by women such as Toupie Lowther (1874-1944), a British tennis player and fencer, who insisted she could compete with any man, and was willing to challenge the men to defend her assertion.