Accounting for the fighting arts that enabled his countrymen to dominate most of the known world, Roman strategist Publius Flavius Vegetius Renatus explained that a sword stroke with the edges, though made with ever so much force, seldom kills, as the vital parts of the body are defended both by the bones and armor. On the contrary, a stab, though it penetrates but two inches, is generally fatal.
POMPEII-TYPE GLADIUS, TINNED BRONZE SCABBARD AND IRON SPEAR HEAD
THE AXEL GUTTMANN COLLECTION
Roman swordsmanship doctrines took root among the erstwhile barbarians dedicated to besting their cultural laggards and social inferiors. Thus the Nineteenth Century Gauls agreed with the Eighteenth Century Britons: “le tranchant blesse, la pointe tue,”
—“the Edge Wounds, but the Point Kills.”
The sword lore of the day was rife with fears of the “stabber”, a.k.a. the “rusher”, an uncouth but dangerous creature possessed but of the rudiments of sword-play, who inflicted himself upon the most prominent swordsman present, by drawing his sword-hand as far back as he possibly could, putting his head down, rushing upon his opponent, and stabbing at him with his foil as hard as he possibly could, regardless of aim or outcome.
Far beyond the bounds of Christendom, Japanese ronin agreed with the lesson dealt by Renatus: their swords, fashioned for expert cutting, served the novice best as stabbing implements:
“…and that’s how you kill a man.”
“The pen is mightier than the sword,” gushed Cardinal Richelieu in the eponymous play penned by Edward Bulwer-Lytton in 1839. But could the same be said of the pencil with its ephemeral traces? Lord Coke, treating of a deed, wrote: “And here it is to be understood, that it ought to be in parchment or in paper. For if a writing be made upon a peece of wood, or upon a peece of linen, or in the barke of a tree, or on a stone, or the like, &c. and the same be sealed or delivered, yet it is no deed, for a deed must be written either in parchment or paper, as before is said, for the writing upon these is least subject to alteration or corruption.” For the same reasons, argued his successors, a writing ought to be made with materials least subject to alteration or corruption. Yet this presumption was rebutted when the Court of King’s Bench ruled on 6 February 1826, that “a bill or note may be drawn or indorsed in pencil as well as in ink.” Thus the stage was set for the lowly pencil besting the noble sword.***
On 30 March 1858, U.S. Patent Office issued Patent Number 19,783
for the combination of the lead and india-rubber or other erasing substance in the holder of a drawing-pencil, to Hymen L. Lipman
of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
In 1862 Lipman sold his patent to Joseph Reckendorfer of New York City, New York, for $100,000. On 4 November 1862, Reckendoffer received another patent
for an improvement upon the invention of Lipman.
He then sued the pencil manufacturer Faber
In 1875 the Supreme Court of the United States ruled against Reckendorfer in Reckendorfer v. Faber
, 92 U.S. 347 (1875) declaring the patent invalid because the invention was actually a combination of two already known things with no new use. As Justice Ward Hunt
put it on behalf of the Court:
A combination, to be patentable, must produce a different force, effect, or result in the combined forces or processes from that given by their separate parts. There must be a new result produced by their union; otherwise it is only an aggregation of separate elements.
A combination, therefore, which consists only of the application of a piece of rubber to one end of the same piece of wood which makes a lead pencil is not patentable.
But contrary to this ruling of the highest court in our land, a conspicuous new result was indeed produced by the union of a piece of rubber with the piece of wood that made a lead pencil. This novelty was to manifest itself in the wake of a case that came up before the U.S. Supreme Court over eighty years later. ***
It is said that early in the XXth century, when The Times
invited several eminent authors to write essays on the theme “What’s Wrong with the World?”, the contribution of Gilbert Keith Chesterton
took the form of a letter:
G. K. Chesterton
Not satisfied with exhausting the subject matter by a pithy witticism, Chesterton followed up his missive with a book-length treatment that included a fantasy of “the Universal Stick”:
Cast your eye round the room in which you sit, and select some three or four things that have been with man almost since his beginning; which at least we hear of early in the centuries and often among the tribes. Let me suppose that you see a knife on the table, a stick in the corner, or a fire on the hearth. About each of these you will notice one speciality; that not one of them is special. Each of these ancestral things is a universal thing; made to supply many different needs; and while tottering pedants nose about to find the cause and origin of some old custom, the truth is that it had fifty causes or a hundred origins. The knife is meant to cut wood, to cut cheese, to cut pencils, to cut throats; for a myriad ingenious or innocent human objects. The stick is meant partly to hold a man up, partly to knock a man down; partly to point with like a finger-post, partly to balance with like a balancing pole, partly to trifle with like a cigarette, partly to kill with like a club of a giant; it is a crutch and a cudgel; an elongated finger and an extra leg. The case is the same, of course, with the fire; about which the strangest modern views have arisen. A queer fancy seems to be current that a fire exists to warm people. It exists to warm people, to light their darkness, to raise their spirits, to toast their muffins, to air their rooms, to cook their chestnuts, to tell stories to their children, to make checkered shadows on their walls, to boil their hurried kettles, and to be the red heart of a man’s house and that hearth for which, as the great heathens said, a man should die.
Now it is the great mark of our modernity that people are always proposing substitutes for these old things; and these substitutes always answer one purpose where the old thing answered ten. The modern man will wave a cigarette instead of a stick; he will cut his pencil with a little screwing pencil-sharpener instead of a knife; and he will even boldly offer to be warmed by hot water pipes instead of a fire. I have my doubts about pencil-sharpeners even for sharpening pencils; and about hot water pipes even for heat. But when we think of all those other requirements that these institutions answered, there opens before us the whole horrible harlequinade of our civilization. We see as in a vision a world where a man tries to cut his throat with a pencil-sharpener; where a man must learn single-stick with a cigarette; where a man must try to toast muffins at electric lamps, and see red and golden castles in the surface of hot water pipes.
In at least one of its respects, Chesterton’s adaptationist vision was not too long in coming. Not a half century later, in a case styled Scales v. United States (1958-1962), the U.S. Supreme Court considered the membership clause of the Smith Act, which prohibited membership in organizations advocating the violent or forceful overthrow of the United States government. Junius Scales was criminally charged with membership in the Communist Party of the United States. The criminal charge arose because the Communist Party advocated the overthrow of the government “as speedily as circumstances would permit.” Challenging his felony charge, Scales claimed that the Internal Security Act of 1950 stated that membership in a Communist organization shall not constitute a per se violation of any criminal statute. After failing in both a district and appellate court, Scales’ appeal to the Supreme Court was granted certiorari to consider the question of whether or not a Communist Party member’s conviction under the Smith Act, which made a felony the knowing membership in organizations advocating the violent or forceful overthrow of the United States government, violated the Fifth Amendment’s due process clause in light of the apparent protections afforded to such members under the Internal Security Act. In a 5-to-4 decision, the Supreme Court held that the Security Act protected “per se” members of an organization from criminal prosecution. By contrast, the Smith Act went beyond “per se” participation by targeting those, whose membership in an organization entailed their knowing and deliberate participation in criminal activity. In light of this distinction, the Court noted, the two Acts were not conflicted. Since Scales, at the very least, knew, encouraged, and provoked illegal Party activities over the course of his eight year membership, he became the only American ever to be convicted under the Smith Act’s membership clause, of complicity in the commission of criminal activity.
Witnesses to Scales’ complicity in the commission of criminal activity included a certain Charles Childs, a paid informer of the FBI from the age of 18. Childs testified that he had been taught at a Party school how to kill a man with a sharpened pencil. In 1952, Childs attended a “Party Training School” of which Scales was a director. The school was given “for outstanding cadres in the North and South Carolina and Virginia Districts of the Communist Party.” It was held on a farm and strict security measures were taken. The District Organizer of Virginia instructed at the school. He told the students that “the role of the Communist Party is to lead the working masses to the overthrow of the capitalist government.” With respect to the preliminary task of gaining the “broad coalition” necessary to achieve this task, he stated that,
… the Communist Party has a program of industrial concentration in which they try to get people, that is, people who are Communist Party members, into key shops or key industries which the Party has determined or designated to be industrial concentration industries or plants. This is so that the Communist Party members in a particular plant will be able to have a cell, or a Communist Party group in which they will be able to more effectively plan for such things as attempting to control the union in that particular plant.
And, in a compulsory recreation period, this same instructor gave a demonstration of jujitsu and, explaining that the students “might be able to use this on a picket line,” how to kill a person with a pencil. According to Childs’ testimony,
what he showed us to do was to take our pencil, … just take the pencil and place it simply in the palm of your hand so that the back will rest against the base of the thumb, and then we were to take it, and the person, and give a quick jab so that it would penetrate through here [demonstrating], and enter the heart, and then if we could not do that, we just take it and grab it at the base of the throat.
Thus the Communist homicide technology repurposed and redeployed the lowly pencil after the fashion of Chesterton’s Universal Stick. Regrettably, the record of Childs’ testimony left the details of this deployment to the readers’ imagination. It took several more decades for detailed instructions to surface in the U.S. media. No one was better qualified to spell them out, than G. Gordon Liddy.
In the aftermath of the Watergate scandal resulting in Liddy’s conviction and imprisonment, rumors of his martial prowess circulated through various channels. Muckraking journalist J. Anthony Lukas recounted his demonstrations of how to kill someone with a freshly sharpened pencil by bracing the eraser end in your palm and ramming the point into the victim’s neck. Upon his release, Liddy supplemented this rumor with a boast in an interview given to Playboy:
Playboy: What are the most effective ways to kill a man without employing a conventional weapon?
Liddy: Well, they are innumerable, depending, of course, on the skill of the practitioner. For someone with no special training, our old-faithful pencil is very efficient, just your common garden-variety standard wooden pencil with a good sharp point and a strong, substantial eraser. The eraser’s quite important, actually. With those prerequisites, and if you can reach your opponent, any novice could kill his enemy in one second or less. But I don’t want to go any further into the details, lest we have a sudden rash of pencil killings in junior high schools across the country. Assuming, of course, that adolescent males concentrate on Playboy’s Interviews.
Enterprising adolescent males were served the details in Liddy’s contemporaneously issued autobiography, which disclosed his contemplation of killing star witness for prosecution John Dean by driving up a pencil through the underside of his jaw, through the soft-palate and deep into his brain. Another of his journalistic nemeses, Jack Anderson, eventually spelled out the last piece of the puzzle by quoting Liddy’s warning: “Be sure the eraser is in good condition. It will protect the palm of your hand when you drive the pencil into an attacker’s throat.” Thus the patents of Lipman and Reckendorfer received their belated vindication.***
It bears notice that the Latin term for pencil, peniculus
, is a diminutive of, and a euphemism for, penis
. This derivation affords an insight into wishful aggressive deployment of that modest writerly implement. Lasting cultural impact of notional penicular homicide remains periodically attested in our day. Thus in his 2008 autobiography, William Shatner recounts his summer camp meetings with “kids who had survived the Holocaust, kids who had seen their parents slaughtered, kids who just as easily could kill you with a pencil as become friends.”
More pointedly, Steve Geng, the brother of writer and editor Veronica Geng
, writes in a memoir of his drug addiction, imprisonment, and bodily decay, intermingled with tributes to his sister, of his response to being stabbed in the calf with a pencil in the course of resisting a jailhouse rape attempt:
I knew I’d have more trouble with Slim, so I carefully plotted my revenge. That night I would take a sharpened pencil, now that I knew what an effective weapon it could be, creep up to Slim’s bunk while he slept, carefully place the point of the pencil into Slim’s ear, and drive it into whatever tiny brain he had with a quick stroke of the flat of my hand. Along about two in the morning when everyone was asleep, I actually did tiptoe over to Slim’s bunk, pencil in hand, but discovered him sleeping with a blanket over his head and I couldn’t determine exactly where his ears or eyes were. It was one of the most fearful and rage-ridden nights I ever spent, and my determination wavered as I put it off until the next night. There was an off chance that I might actually kill him, but I’d read somewhere that such an attack, if done quickly and efficiently, would produce no outcry from the victim, leaving me to creep back to my bunk undetected.
Fortunately, my new friends from the mess hall persuaded the assignment captain to move me to another dorm before I got a chance to test that theory.
But the pride of place in imaginary penicular slaying belongs to Derek Raymond:
‘You’re not very good at it, are you?’ said Gust, ‘they ought to have sent heavies in.’ He thought the man very likely could have got a job playing Hess in this new TV series they were doing on the war, and he would have had a word with a few directors he knew in Soho if he had been a mate of his. But, as he wasn’t, Gust kicked him in the stomach as he tried to drag himself up on one leg with the help of the bar-rail, then turned back to the other man.
‘You all right?’ he said. ‘How are you feeling now? Chipper?’ He took one of the man’s ears in his thumb and forefinger; the ear was tiny, considering the size of his head, and it had little hairs inside it. Gust picked up a cocktail stick out of a dirty glass on the bar and jabbed it down into the eardrum as far as he could; when he pulled it out the stick was half-way red, and there was some grey stuff in it as well. He shouted down his ear: ‘I think I just broke your foot!’ but the man wasn’t making sense any more; he was wailing with his hand clapped to the side of his head, swaying up and down from the waist like a bereaved widow, or else perhaps he just didn’t hear, or maybe the music was too loud. Gust realised then that he had pushed the stick in too far and that the man would probably die. Dirty cocktail-stick in the brain? What a bleeding way to go! Now the man with the broken leg tried another naughty stroke; although he only had one hand free because he was using the other one to hold onto the rail, he still managed to smash a glass and try putting it in Gust’s face.
‘This is just self-defence after all,’ Gust said to himself. He stamped on the man’s feet again; this time he definitely felt bones go and the man screamed, dropped the glass and let go of the rail; but instead of letting him fall Gust took him round the waist, ripped his fly open and searched inside his pants till he found his testicles, which he yanked right out into his hand. Their owner can’t have been much into baths because they smelled like something tepid from a canteen counter. Gust wrung them like the devil having a go at a set of wedding bells with all the grip he had, until the man was shrieking on the same D minor as the music.
‘It’s nothing personal,’ said Gust, ‘but I’m afraid you’re going to have to learn to fuck all over again.’ He wiped the blood off the man’s prick down his face, then pulled the face towards him and drove his nose into his brain with his head. The music boosted into E major on a key change, and the man doubled up under a bar-stool, leaving a lot of blood behind him while Gust receded into the half darkness towards the black drapes on the walls.
—Derek Raymond, Not Till the Red Fog Rises, Time Warner Books UK, 1994, pp. 86–87
In the realm of homicidal devices of opportunity, there is no difference between G. Gordon Liddy’s common garden-variety standard wooden pencil with a good sharp point and a strong, substantial eraser, and Derek Raymond’s cocktail stick picked up out of a dirty glass on the bar. Indeed, both of these devices answer G.K. Chesterton’s vision of a world where a man gives up trying to cut his throat with a pencil-sharpener, to stab his neighbor’s throat with a freshly sharpened pencil. As Monty Python’s criminologist helpfully pointed out, after all a murderer is only an extroverted suicide.
And that’s all she wrote. Footnotes: