The "Monster Knife" of John Fox Potter | Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

The 'Monster Knife' of John Fox Potter

Wisconsin Historical Museum Object – Feature Story

The "Monster Knife" of John Fox Potter | Wisconsin Historical Society
Enlarge"Monster Knife" of John Fox Potter

"Monster knife" of John Fox Potter, 1860

Source: Wisconsin Historical Museum object #1957.1122

EnlargeEngraving on the knife

Engraving on the knife, 1860

Engraving on one side of blade of Potter knife. Source: Wisconsin Historical Museum object #1957.1122

EnlargeJohn Fox Potter

John Fox Potter, 1856

John Fox Potter, 1856. View the original source document: WHI 27755

Giant knife presented to John Fox Potter by Missouri Republicans after Potter's threatened duel with a Virginia congressman, 1860.
(Museum object #1957.1122)

John Fox Potter was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives as a Republican from Wisconsin in 1856 and went to Washington during a turbulent period in Congressional history. Conflicting ideologies, customs, and personalities threatened to tear Congress apart. The issues of slavery and states' rights deeply divided the nation's lawmakers, and debate and compromise routinely yielded to verbal confrontation, personal humiliations, and physical assaults.

On April 5, 1860, Republican Owen Lovejoy of Illinois delivered a fiery anti-slavery speech in the House of Representatives. Representative Roger Pryor, a Democratic secessionist from Virginia, objected to Lovejoy's bellicose manner, but John Potter rose to Lovejoy's defense, arguing that he be allowed to express himself. Days later, Pryor and Potter squabbled further about the official record of the incident published in the report of the debates of the House.

Believing that Potter offended his honor, Pryor challenged him to a duel. Potter accepted the challenge and chose to fight with bowie knives. Pryor's second refused the selection of weapon as "vulgar, barbarous, and inhuman." Potter's second replied that the custom of dueling itself was "barbarous and inhuman." The two posturing Congressmen exchanged a flurry of correspondence and District of Columbia police arrested both men to keep the peace. The duel never occurred.

Partisan print media sensationalized the entire affair and enflamed sectional sentiments. Northern newspapers condemned dueling as a vulgar Southern practice and lambasted Pryor either for issuing the challenge or for backing down from it. Potter's Democratic opponents in Wisconsin, where dueling was outlawed, demanded his resignation. They deemed the entire matter "disgusting" and, with an election approaching, suspected political motives behind Potter's grandstanding. Republicans nationwide, however, made Potter into a hero and supporters from across the country sent him knives of all sizes.

One month after the Potter-Pryor affair, the Republican Party held its national convention in Chicago and nominated Abraham Lincoln for president. At the convention, delegates from the slave state of Missouri presented John Potter with this 31-pound, 6-foot-long folding knife to commemorate his "victory" over Roger Pryor. It was a highlight of the convention and earned national press exposure when Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper dubbed it the "monster bowie knife."

From then on, Potter became widely known as "Bowie Knife" Potter. He kept the oversized knife in his Wisconsin home until the number of visitors who wanted to see it became bothersome. He donated the knife to Lawrence College in Appleton and the college subsequently donated it to the Wisconsin Historical Society in 1957. Today, this knife remains a symbol of the political discord that led to the Civil War.

The knife was manufactured by the New England Cutlery Company of Wallingford, Connecticut and engraved by Richard J. Compton of St. Louis. The engraving on one side of the knife's blade reads, "Presented to John F. Potter of Wisconsin by the Republicans of Missouri 1860". The other side is engraved with the pun, "Will always meet a Pryor engagement."


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Posted on April 07, 2005