Last week Thomas Webster, a 20-year veteran of the NYPD, was sentenced to the stiffest sentence so far – 10 years – for his actions while attacking the U.S. Capitol on January 6th in an effort to keep Donald Trump in power. In the effort to identify the insurrectionists, Webster was given the name “eye-gouger” for his attempt to gouge the eyes of a Washington D.C. police officer.
It’s a long American tradition. Eye gouging, not insurrection.
“There are a great many different modes of fighting,” one Lansingburgh, NY writer observed in 1870. “We have in Pugilism the rough-and-tumble, the gouging, the fair and square stand-up-to-the-scratch-and-take it fight, and other kinds too numerous to mention.” Although less frequent in the northern states, and after the Civil War, American history is full of gouging.
Historian Elliott Gorn has studied early rough-and-tumble fights and their attendant eye gouging, biting and maiming. He centers the practice in the southern states, noting that in the 1740s it was common enough that the North Carolina colonial assembly made it a felony “to cut out the Tongue or pull out the eyes of the King’s Liege People.”
Virginia followed suit in 1752, noting that “many mischievous and ill disposed persons have of late, in a malicious and barbarous manner, maimed, wounded, and defaced, many of his majesty’s subjects, then very specifically makes it a felony to put out an eye, slit the nose, bite or cut off a nose, or lip.”
Later, in 1772, Virginia revised its statute to make it clear that “gouging, plucking, or putting out an eye, biting or kicking or stomping upon” a peaceable citizen was a crime. Gorn notes that 1780s South Carolina “made premeditated mayhem a capital offense, defining the crime as severing another’s bodily parts.”
“The best gougers, of course, were adept at other fighting skills,” Gorn wrote in his 1985 essay for The American Historical Review, “Gouge and Bite, Pull Hair and Scratch’: The Social Significance of Fighting in the Southern Backcountry.”
“Some allegedly filed their teeth to bite off an enemy’s appendages more efficiently. Still, liberating an eyeball quickly became a fighter’s surest route to victory and his most prestigious accomplishment. To this end, celebrated heroes fired their fingernails hard, honed them sharp, and oiled them slick.”
Gorn notes the practice of gouging was attested to from Louisiana to Ohio, where it was outlawed in 1821. Edward Allen Talbot, who wrote a narrative of his travels, Five years’ residence in the Canadas: including a tour through part of the United States of America, in the year 1823, said the practice was also widespread there:
“The principal object of the combatants appears to be the calculation of eclipses; or, in other words, their whole aim is bent on tearing out each other’s eyes, in doing which they make the fore finger of the right hand fast in their antagonist’s hair, and with the thumb, —as they term it,— gouge out the day-lights. If they fail in this attempt, they depend entirely on their teeth for conquest; and a fraction of the nose, half an ear, or a piece of a lip, is generally the trophy of the victor.”
“To such an extent is this method of boxing carried in the Southern States of America,” Talbot wrote, “that when the people of New England or those of Canada observe a man who has only one eye, and the place where the other is not, they commonly say that he has received a Virginian brand.”
“I kept my thumb in his eye, and was just going to give it a twist and bring the peeper out, like taking a gooseberry in a spoon,” Davy Crockett once said about one of the rough-and-tumble fights he engaged in.
The practice was however, undoubtedly far less common in the northern more urbanized areas, although there are examples from New York history. The boxer Howell Gardner, known by his cognomen “Horrible” (the brother of Orville “Awful” Gardner, both friends and training partners of prize-fighter John Morrissey), once said “in sheer brutality, a prize fight isn’t half as desperate and bad as a street or barroom fight, where there is biting and kicking and gouging out eyes and all that.”
In 1848, the Poughkeepsie Journal reported that Charles Smith was found guilty “of gouging out the eye of another man with whom he was fighting.” He was sentenced to 21 years in state prison. “The laws of this State in reference to maiming are very severe, and we think very justly so,” the paper opined. “It is one of the most heinous crimes of which man can be guilty.”
In 1859, Billy Mulligan and Pat Matthews engaged in an impromptu rough and tumble fight at Platt’s Saloon in the city of New York. They gouged and Mulligan’s nose was bitten off, marking him for life as a “rough.”
In 1867, Harry Nolan and Bill Colton fought for nearly forty minutes on the Palisades. Nolan bit off one of Colton’s ears and a thumb. Colton took a chunk out of Nolan’s cheek.
Gorn describes much of the motivations for eye-gouging and maiming during rough and tumble fights, and it’s a complicated milieu of factors, among them:
“Violence and poverty were part of daily existence, so endurance, even callousness, became functional values. Loyal to their localities, their occupations, and each other, men… craved one another’s recognition but rejected genteel, pious, or bourgeois values, awarding esteem on the basis of their own traditional standards.”
Much of that quote rings familiar today in light of the actions of the NYPD’s Thomas Webster.
Illustrations, from above: Retired NYPD officer Thomas Webster, dubbed the ‘eye gouger,’ attacks a DC police officer in a still from January 6th video; The hands of “celebrated gouger” from drawings reproduced in Richard M. Dorson’s Davy Crockett: American Comic Legend (1939); and a street fight illustrated in The Crockett Almanac (Nashville, 1840).