In 1924, Aldo Nadi was one of the most famous fencers in the world, not to mention one of the greatest. A winner of multiple Olympic Gold Medals in 1920, four years later he found himself ‘on strip’ but with a real blade.
His opponent was Adolfo Cotronei, who worked for an Italian newspaper as the editor for fencing news. In those days, especially in Italy, fencing was a big deal, and matches were held as entertainment. For these exhibitions, the point was to watch two great fighters demonstrate their skills, and it was understood that you didn’t keep an official score. There was a general sense of who won, but you didn’t keep score.
Lucien Gaudin and Candido Sassone, French and Italian champion fencers respectively, put on such a performance in 1924. It was a huge event with even Mussolini attending! After the event, Nadi, who had attended as well, stated at a dinner of fencing bigwigs that he believed Gaudin had fenced better in the bout. Cotronei didn’t state an opinion, but then went and published in his paper not only that Sassone had won - kind of classless in of itself - but also had the nerve to print a score, claiming the bout was ended at 9-7! Nadi not only called him out on this breach of etiquette, but called him a liar as well (in his memoirs he states that he believed Cotronei published it as political propaganda, as the Italian had to be reported as beating the Frenchman).
Cotronei fired back, calling Nadi a “mascalzone”, and with his honor insulted and no other recourse, Nadi challenged Contronei to a duel over the insult, and thus a real fight happened over an argument as to who won a fake one!
In his memoirs, Nadi described the duel in depth:
[…] “Gentlemen, on guard!”
These, and none other, are the words you were subconsciously waiting for. You hear and Understand them. Automatically, you execute the order. The birds no longer sing.
You have gone on guard thousands upon thousands of times before, but never was it like this. In competition, the good fencer leisurely watches his opponent for a few seconds before starting the slightest motion. Here you are by no means allowed to do so because your adversary immediately puts into execution a plan evidently well thought out in advance: surprise the youngster at the very beginning; take advantage of his lack of dueling and bear upon his nerves and morale. Get him at once. to succeed, and regardless of risks, the veteran attacks with all possible viciousness, letting forth guttural sounds. Although probably instinctive, these may have been intended to increase the daring and efficiency of the attack, and your own momentary confusion as well. but the plan hits a snag. for the vocal noises instead, work upon you as a wonderful reawakening to reality.
You have heard shouts under the mask before, and you have never paid the slightest attention to them. why even without mask, this man is like any other. He is armed with a weapon quite familiar to you, and there is no reason why he should beat you—none whatever. When these few seconds of uncertainty and uncontrollable fear and doubt are over, you counterattack, and touch, precisely where you wanted to touch—at the wrist, well through the glove and white silk. but during the violent action of your adversary, his blade snaps into yours, and its point whips into your forearm. you hardly feel anything—no pain anyway; but you know that after having touched him, you have been touched too. “Halt!” shrieks the director.
Caring not for your own wound, you immediately look at your opponent’s wrist, and then up at his face. Why on earth does he look so pleased? Haven’t you touched him first? Yes, but this is no mere competition. He has indeed every reason to be satisfied for having wounded you—supposedly a champion—even if he nicked you after you touched him.
Young man, you must never be touched. Otherwise, the blood now coming out of your arm may instead be spurting from your chest…
The doctors take care of both wounds. What?… they bandage your own and not the other?…Preposterous! you feel perfectly furious with everything and everyone—above all with yourself. Silently, your lips move with a curse. You know best, however, and you keep as quiet as in competition; but, as in competition, you are eager to go at it again—the sooner the better—and in a spirit, now, vastly different from the original start.
The air vibrates with a great deal of low-toned, confusing talk. To many people speak at once. You care so little about it all that you cannot even grasp the meaning of a single sentence. The iodine stings. but what are they talking about anyway? This is no opera stage, and the tempo of the orchestra is certainly not one for sotto voce curses. What are they waiting for? Well, yes you let your point touch the ground, as in the Salle d’Armes—but it has already been cleaned, young man! And why does he, your surgeon, look and act so strangely? Why, you just told him, the blade has been sterilized—what does it matter anyway, pretty soon it’s going to be soiled again—red, not earthy, muddy brown—red—yes, all right, oh, let’s go, for God’s sake.
You are on guard again. […]
Perhaps needless to say, Nadi (on the left) won the duel over his opponent, who, despite having fought five real duels before, had nothing approaching the younger mans talent. Nadi took a slight nick, but left his opponent well bloodied. They made up afterwards and enjoyed a dinner together afterwards.
That was the end of Nadi’s dueling career, although in his sixties he issued a challenge that was accepted by the great Edoardo Mangiarotti, who was 20 years his junior. Mangiarotti had received a greater honor from than Italian National Olympic Committee, leaving Nadi feeling slighted. The duel never happened as Mangiarotti backed out when, instead of swords, Nadi chose pistols.
Adolfo Cotronei however was a prolific duelist, despite not necessarily being a top notch sportsman, and had a knack for getting into duels over petty disputes. His most famous duel occurred some months after he exchanged blows with Nadi, and again was sparked by a dispute over a fencing bout, but this time it was in regards to the 1924 Olympics! In an argument with a judge during a match between the Italians and the Hungarians, the Italian fender, Oreste Puliti, swore at the Director (a big no-no), but the Director spoke no Italian! Italo Santelli, who was coaching the Hungarian team, translated the offensive words to the judge, earning the ire of the Italian team (who, while it seems unclear, I assume claimed their fencer said no such thing). Italian honor besmirched (despite Italo being very accurate in his translation), Cotronei stepped in as the champion and issued a challenge to the 60 year old Italo (Apparently Puliti and the Director, a Hungarian by the name of Gyorgy Kovacs, dueled over the insult as well).
Although Italo, by all accounts, wanted to fight the duel, his son Giorgio instead took his place as a champion. After delays, during which the incident was written about and turned into quite a big deal in the papers, the two met on a barge in the Adriatic a month after the Olympics had ended. Giorgio Santelli, an accomplished swordsman, made quick work of the Italian writer, cutting above the eye, and claiming later that he had considered taking the whole head off. With the wound impeding Cotronei’s vision, the duel was concluded and Santelli the victor. Although the two parted on bad terms, they eventually made up and became friends some time later.
In all, Cotronei had a real knack for pissing people off over trivial things, and fought as many as eight duels (sources seem to vary). He also had a knack for pissing off fencing champions, so generally seemed to lose those duels.
In one incident that wasn’t quite as trivial, he fought a duel with Aldo Nadi’s elder brother Nedo (Yes… Nedo Nadi, poor guy). In 1932, Cotronei published an article greatly insulting to Nedo, who countered with his own article entitled “Crying Wolf!”. Despite having fired the first shot, Cotronei took great offense and threw down the gauntlet, which Nedo accepted. Nedo believed that Cotronei was a danger to fencing, and his continued line of duels with notable (sport) fencers would eventually ruin someone’s fencing career. Entering the duel, Nedo fully intended to kill the man, but through dumb luck on the writer’s part, when after a few toying prods Nedo made for a killing thrust to the belly, he destroyed his sabre by hitting straight on the belt buckle! The fear of god put into Cotronei, this ended the duel, and although Nedo didn’t achieve his goal, his purpose was served. Cotronei apparently was convinced duels might be hazardous to his health. It was the last one he fought.
(Aldo Santini Collection)
Fun History Fact,
During the Nara Period of Japanese history (710 AD - 794 AD), ink battles were a popular past time of the Imperial Court. The print above depicts one such battle between various noblemen, counselors, courtiers, and samurai.
Woodblock print by Kuniyoshi circa 1843. Currently on display at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.
A Japanese matchlock pistol with three rotating barrels. Features the Shimazu family crest. Edo period.
To Arms in Dixie,
In an earlier post I showed how the Union created new lyrics for the song Dixie which mocked the Confederacy and the South. It was not uncommon for both sides in the Civil War to create their own versions of their enemy’s popular songs.
In this post the Confederates changed their own song, rewriting the popular minstrel tune Dixie into To Arms in Dixie. The original lyrics to Dixie are confusing, strange, and nonsensical. Not to mention, Dixie was written by a northerner, Dan Emmett. As a result composer Albert Fall rewrote the song to serve as a “battle anthem” of the Confederacy.
"The Northernmost Battle of the Civil War" —- The St. Albans Raid
By the fall of 1864, it was becoming increasingly clear that the south was going to lose the Civil War. The Confederacy suffered from shortages of almost everything; weapons, ammunition, food, clothing, metals, and most especially, manpower. One commodity that the Confederacy desperately needed was cash, as the government was broke and inflation became so rampart that bricks of Confederate bills were need to buy a mere loaf of bread.
One Confederate soldier, Lt. Bennet H. Young proposed a plan to help fill the Confederate treasury. What he proposed was a raid in the north from Canada on the border town of St. Albans in Vermont. There was nothing special about the town, except for an unusually large number of banks. Even today the small town populated by 7,000 people sports 12 banks and credit unions. It was hoped that the banks of St. Albans could fill Confederate coffers while at the same divert Union troops away from the south to secure the Canadian border. The plan was simple, organize a raiding force in Canada, cross the border, rob the banks of St. Albans, burn down the town, and escape back across the Canadian border before the authorities could respond.
With the help of Confederate agent George Sanders, Young recruited 21 men in Canada to carry out the raid. The men he recruited were Confederate POW’s who escaped from Union prisons and fled to Canada. They had been captured as a result of Gen. John Hunt Morgan’s failed cavalry raids in Indiana and Ohio. Between October 10th and October 18th of 1864, Young’s men slowly crossed the border into St. Albans in pairs of twos and threes, taking residence in a hotel while claiming they were on vacation or on a business trip. On the afternoon of October 19th, the men simultaneously robbed the banks in St. Albans. Holding the tellers at gunpoint, they announced themselves as Confederate soldiers, demanded all the bank’s cash, then forced the tellers to swear an oath of allegiance to the Confederacy. After the banks had been emptied the men gathered the townspeople in the town square, relieving them of valuables and cash while preparing to burn the town.
It was then, however, that the townspeople began to respond. Some of the citizens, many of whom were Union Army veterans, took arms and resisted the raiders. After some short exchanges of gunfire the raiders decided to burn the town and make their escape. They attempted to destroy the town using glass globes filled with incendiaries. However the bombs failed to ignite and resulted in only the destruction of a small shed.
The raiders intended to ride on and strike other towns in a similar manner, however a 90 man posse of townspeople chased the raiders back across the Canadian border. The raid resulted in the theft of $88,000, the death of St. Alban’s citizens as well as the wounding of two others, and the wounding of one of the raiders. While it seemed that the raiders would get away scot free, they were eventually captured by Canadian authorities and imprisoned in Montreal. Not wanting to become entangled in Civil War politics, Canada decided not to expedite the men to the United States, citing that the raiders had acted under orders of the Confederate Government and where protected by the rules of war. The St. Albans raiders unfortunately did not get away with the loot, as Canadian authorities seized the money and returned it to the citizens of St. Albans.
In 2014 St. Albans will celebrate the 250th anniversary of the raid, now called “the northernmost battle of the Civil War.” Festivities will include a a Civil War Costume Ball and dramatic re-enactments of the raid staged on the downtown park. Work has already begun on the dramatization and on the enormous sets and backdrops required to bring that fateful day to life. Descendants of the key players in the raid will attend this event and others.
Confederate Spiller and Burr single action revolver,
During the Civil War southern industry could in no way compete with the north. However demand for arms needed by the Confederate Army fueled some interesting attempts. In 1861 Lt. Col. James H. Burton, Edward N. Spiller and David J. Burr launched a factory in Richmond, Virginia in an attempt to manufacture revolvers for the Confederacy. A short time later they relocated their operation to Atlanta, Georgia.
To produce their revolvers, Spiller and Burr actually copied the design of a northern revolver, the Federal Whitney. Chambered in .36 caliber, the design was chosen because Edward Spiller thought it was a design that was rugged yet easy to produce. A few modifications were made however. First and foremost was the use of a brass frame rather than iron or steel, something common with all Confederate made revolvers. During the Civil War the Confederacy suffered shortages of pretty much everything, however a shortage of iron led to the substitution of brass in the production of pistol frames. Also, rather than using a cylinder made of steel, the cylinder was made of iron, as the south lacked the technical know-how to produce fine quality steel in any quantity.
Production of the Spiller and Burr revolver was rushed as quickly as possible. As a result the revolver’s quality was substantially inferior to revolvers produced in the north or in Europe. The brass frame was often casted very crudely, with little focus on uniformity and consistency. Notice how the frame on this particular piece seems oddly shaped and warped compared to that of a real Whitney Revolver.
Furthermore Spiller and Burr never marked any of their revolvers, only stamping it with “CS” (Confederate States) on the frame. Again this was simply another method to speed up production.
Speedy production was certainly needed, as the Confederate Government, impressed with the design, ordered 15,000 from the Spiller and Burr Company. However, due to manpower shortages, shortages of resources, and the lack of industrialization in the south, Spiller and Burr was only able to produce around 1,200 - 1,500 revolvers. Their operations ended in 1864 when Union forces captured Atlanta. Most other Confederate Armories fared no better, producing numbers that barely broke four digits. In the north, however, big companies such as Colt, Remington, and Smith & Wesson were producing tens of thousands of revolvers on a yearly basis. It was very clear that the south could not hope to compete with the north when it came to industrial production.
The model pictured above was sold by Rock Island Auctions for $22,000
A pair of flintlock pistols from the Ottoman Empire. Top is Albanian, bottom is Turkish. 19th century.
A frontiersman Orthodox priest in Gizhiga, Kolyma, 1901.
This is how I imagine the Wild West would’ve been if our pioneering ancestors were Slavs instead of Anglo-Europeans.
Anyone wanna write that alternate history? I’d be more than happy to provide illustrations…
Flintlock pistol crafted by Francisco Lopez of Spain, circa 1800. Decorated with carvings, gold, silver, and ivory (on ramrod) with a walnut stock.
Currently on display with the Wallace Collection in London.
Helmet from a Vendel (pre-viking) boat grave, Uppland, 7th century Guldrummet.
The helmets which are part of the epoch’s most splendid equipment have long been called Vendel helmets as a type. It seems certain that they must be Nordic work but it would be interesting to know where and when the type, originating perhaps in Roman gladiatorial helmets, appeared in the north.
It is possible to see on the Vendel helmets details which are found on the late Roman crested helmets: for example, the termination of the crest with an eagle’s head, or with both eagles’ and boars’ heads and which may also be combined with pictures of dragons. The helmets with a markedly low crest, adorned with embossed silver foil and set with rivets with decorated domed heads, make other comparisons possible.