knuckles, 1890s, DCIt’s probably inappropriate to smile over a rather brutal weapon, but I always think this is one of the oddest artifacts in the collections. I mean, seriously, brass knuckles? Like an old Warner Bros. gangster film from the 1930s? That’s not something one would expect in the midst of our hay rakes, frying pans, adding machines and petticoats. In fact, this item purports to come from Washington D.C., not Montgomery County (the Society used to be less discriminating in our geographical coverage), hence the “one of these things is not like the other”aspect.

As well as being somewhat unexpected, this item is frustratingly vague in its history. If there was ever a maker’s mark, it is now too worn to see. We call it (them?) “brass knuckles” but I’m not sure the metal is actually brass. It’s too large for my hand, but not by much, so probably not owned by a big bruiser (which makes sense, actually; a smaller hand might need the extra, er, heft provided by a set of metal knuckles). All we were told at the time of its donation – by someone who apparently insisted on remaining anonymous – was that it was “used in S.W. Washington D.C. in the 1890s, owned by Samuel Harris.” Gee, thanks, Mr. or Ms. Anonymous. (Note: the donation predates me, so in this instance I can take no blame.) “Samuel Harris” might not be “John Smith,” but it’s not “Murgatroyd Mahaffie,” either. (I made that name up, but if there is someone out there with that name, congratulations, you have another google hit!)

A search of the 1900 census for D.C. found eight Samuel Harrises over the age of 18, all African-Americans. Their occupations include produce dealer, day laborer, farm laborer, bricklayer, coachman, and “driver for D.C.” The produce dealer, age 57 and married to Jeanna with no children at home, has a Southwest address; a few of the others have Northwest addresses, and the others either don’t say, or just have “W St” or “7th St” without specifying the quadrant. So that’s something, but still I’d like to know more. Used (or perhaps simply brandished) in self-defense, or with more sinister intent? By one of these Samuel Harrises, or by some other man who had left D.C. before 1900? Why did the donor insist on anonymity? Maybe something will come to light in the future, but until then the knuckles are something of a mystery, lending a bit of gritty flair to our more rural/suburban collections.