The documentary Bartitsu: The Lost Martial Art of Sherlock Holmes is now available via Amazon.com. You can read an interview about the documentary and its production here and watch the trailer right here:
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous rendering of Bartitsu as “baritsu” is now understood to have been due to a simple mistake. It’s most likely that Doyle, searching for an exotic way to explain how Sherlock Holmes had flung Professor Moriarty from the brink of Reichenbach Falls, had copied the word “baritsu” verbatim from a London Times newspaper review of a Bartitsu exhibition, which had made the same spelling error. At roughly the same time that The Adventure of the Empty House was published, E.W. Barton-Wright’s London Bartitsu Club closed its doors for the last time, thus prematurely ending Barton-Wright’s innovative martial arts experiments.
It would probably, therefore, have nonplussed both Doyle and Barton-Wright to learn that something called “Baritzu” would be practiced five years later by members of the Australian Armed Services.
Between June and December of 1902, soldiers of B Company (10th Australian Infantry Regiment) including Privates Marshall, Emery, Weeks and Verner, performed a series of “Baritzu” demonstrations alongside displays of Indian club swinging, bayonet fighting and sabre fencing. All of these items (apart from the mysterious Baritzu) were typical of military Assault at Arms exhibitions, in which various soldierly feats and skills were performed as public entertainment, often in aid of charitable causes.
In a preamble to one of their first Baritzu exhibitions, a Mr. W.B. Wilkinson addressed the audience and explained Baritzu by means of an almost verbatim quote from Barton-Wright’s 1899 article, The New Art of Self Defence:
He said that Baritzu, or the new self-defence, was composed of 300 methods of attack and counter-attack. This system had been devised with the purpose of rendering a person absolutely secure against any method of attack. It was not intended to take the place of boxing, fencing, wrestling, or any other recognised forms of attack and defence. It was claimed for it, however, that it comprised all the best points of these methods, and that it would be of inestimable advantage when occasions arose where neither boxing, wrestling, nor any of the known modes of resistance was of avail. The system had been carefully and scientifically planned; its principle might be summed up in a sound knowledge of balance and leverage, as applied to human anatomy.
Applying Occam’s razor, the simplest explanation would seem to be that a member of B Company had come across or saved a copy of Barton-Wright’s article, and that the Company used that as the inspiration for their novel Baritzu demonstrations. If so, then Marshall, Emery, Weeks and Verner must have been among the first Bartitsu revivalists, active only five years after the actual art had, for most practical purposes, ceased to exist. It’s diverting to imagine them poring over Barton-Wright’s articles, much as Bartitsu revivalists do today.
It’s even more diverting to speculate as to how the art came to be known to B Company as Baritzu. Barton-Wright’s first article for Pearson’s Magazine (quoted above by Mr. Wilkinson) had not actually referred to Bartitsu by name; the word was, however, used in the introduction to the second article. Doyle’s “baritsu” had, of course, gained some pop-culture currency by 1906. Perhaps the simplest explanation here is that there was a confusion between Bartitsu – the real, but then all-but-extinct self defence method – and baritsu – the entirely fictional fighting style of Sherlock Holmes – by soldiers who were vaguely aware of the connection but even less particular than Doyle was about spelling.
A very peculiar case of life imitating (martial) art ..
From the New York Tribune, August 30, 1903:
ART OF STICK DEFENCE.
A Ready Means of Warding Off Felonious Assaults.
In the crowded city as well as at the lonely crossroads a man never knows when he may be called upon to defend himself. However vigilant may be the police, however strong the windows of his house, one is never absolutely secure from thug or burglar. However regular nay be his habits, however restrained his desires, still there are emergencies which may keep a citizen out until the “owl” hours or call him into unfrequented byways.
Street gangs never seemed bolder than at the present time, and their attacks upon law-abiding citizens are of frequent occurrence. The majority limit their operations to the tenement house districts, but now and then they appear where least expected. Such was the case in the alleged attack upon David Lamar’s coachman in Long Branch by “Monk” Eastman and some other members of his notorious East Side gang.
When a man is called on to face a ruffian, he needs no better weapon than a hickory walking stick. A revolver is likely to harm him more than to help. As soon as a man reaches for his weapon, his adversary has the right to shoot, and the accomplished criminal is almost sure to have his weapon ready first. The stick is the better weapon, because it is quicker. It is in one’s hand already. It is always “loaded.”
In such a crisis the first blow counts. At such a time neither endurance nor strength is as important as quickness. There is only one round, and in most instances there is only one blow. The man who gives it first, and gives it right, is the victor. One does not need to be an experienced boxer or wrestler, for his adversary on such occasions is not likely to observe the Marquis of Queensberry rules or the laws of the Greco-Roman school of wrestling. Foul means are fair at such times.
In the city of London the crime of the highwayman and burglar has increased to such an extent that many schools have sprung up in the great English metropolis where one may learn the art of stick defence. These schools have proved popular, and many of the professional fencing and boxing masters have included courses in which the pupil is taught to handle the stick. The instruction is simple, and contrasts in a striking degree with the complicated science of fencing. Neither is it anything like the old art of handling the singlestick, where two men armed with sticks parry with each other for an opening to administer a blow.
Stick defence differs from all these manly exercises in this essential — it is not a pastime between sportsmen; it is a quick and safe method of knocking out a thug.
Many a busy New Yorker, however, would never learn the art of stick defence, even though he believed it would some day save his life, if he had to go to a gymnasium or a fencing school to learn it. “I simply haven’t the time,” such a man would say.
For the same reason he has long wished to be a boxer, and secretly envied the splendid muscles of the athletes he sees at the beach when be goes down there for a Sunday swim. Neither does he know anything about wrestling or many another manly sport which would not only befriend him in an hour of need, but, best of all, build up his physique and enable him to work harder and longer, and yet feel far less weary when he leaves his office at night.
Stick defence, however, can be learned at home more easily, perhaps, than any other art of self-defence, and after a few general rules are mastered the beginner may learn how to apply them in many effective ways. He must first of all have a roommate or some other good friend who is willing to play the “thug” and to be “knocked out” some half hundred times. In imagination the “thug’s” arms will be broken, his wrists and ankles dislocated and his neck twisted.
The thug who is of Anglo-Saxon origin generally makes his assault with his fists. If he doesn’t he pulls a pistol. His most common first attack is to strike his purposed victim in the face with his left hand, and to hold back his right ready for a blow in the stomach. Nine times out of ten such a ruffian overwhelms his man and even an experienced boxer may fail to thwart such an assault. But the man with a stick, should he handle himself right, ought not only to withstand his enemy, but break his arm.
As soon as the stick man sees what his assailant is up to he clutches his enemy’s left hand with his own, and with his right, holding his stick and guarding his stomach at the same time, he cracks the thug’s arm in the crazy bone, at the elbow. At the same time he strikes he twists the arm inward, so as to make the pain of the blow still more acute. If the stick man wants to strike hard enough he can break a thug’s arm in this way.
Should one find it impossible to use this device in withstanding a left-handed attack, there is another way which proves almost as effective.
As the thug rushes for his man the stick man grasps his cane at the small end with his left hand, and with his right he clutches it near the handle. His hands are near enough together, however, so that his right elbow is at an angle of 90 degrees, and with this protruding elbow he wards off the swing of the thug’s left arm. At the same time he thrusts the handle of his cane under the chin of his foe and topples him over on his back. In case of a right-handed attack, the man with a stick meets it in the same fashion, but with opposite hands.
Unless the sight of a pistol’s muzzle unnerves him, the man with a cane is able to dispose of the thug who pulls a gun easier than if he used only his fists. If the pistol puller is left handed, an upward blow of the cane is best, for it knocks the weapon high into the air, and does not swerve the barrel sidewise, (in which case) the bullet is likely to reach the heart of the intended victim.
But in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred the gun is in the right hand, and the stick man need only drop to his knees and at the same time strike his would-be murderer a sharp sidewise crack on the knuckles to disarm him.
As the Anglo-Saxon uses his lists, so the Italian and Spaniard have recourse to the knife. Unless such a thug is left-handed, he strikes with his right hand, and he is met by the stick man in much the same way as a left-handed fist blow is averted by the thrust of the cane’s handle under the chin. The stick man, however, holds his arms differently. He now bends his left elbow to avert the stab and shield his vitals.
As a general thing the thrust of a cane under the chin partially strangles a thug and so disconcerts him that he drops the blade from his hand. Should the ruffian use his left hand, the man with a stick grasps his weapon with his right hand around its small end and his left about its centre, and with his right elbow shielding his breast he gives the strangling thrust into his enemy’s neck.
The German also has his way of holding up a pedestrian. In the gymnasium or the army he has been trained in the use of the broadsword, or even as a peasant boy he has had his “schlagen” matches with his playmates. So when a Teuton who has settled in the New World descends to deeds of violence, he generally uses a stick. His fate, however, at the hands of the master of stick defence is likely to be as instantaneous as that of the Anglo-Saxon or Italian.
In meeting this kind of enemy an umbrella or cane with a hooked handle is the best weapon. The stick man catches the cane of his foe, hooks his assailant around the neck and then jerks his head forward. At the same time he raises his knee so that the face of the thus strikes against it with great force. This treatment makes a man see so many stars that he invariably drops his cane and thus surrenders himself to the mercy of his victor.
Some thugs have a way of coming up on victims from behind and disconcerting them with a kick. The stick man who knows the tactics of thugs is prepared for this kind of assault. As soon as he suspects what is to occur he wheels on his heel and hooks the thug by the foot with the handle of his cane or umbrella. This is sure to send the ruffian over backward on to his back.
Another way is to dodge the kick, and crack the upraised leg with a stick over the knee. Such a blow will break a man’s leg if it be administered hard enough.
Tactics which might supplement those of the London stick men have been Introduced into the United States Navy. They are trick catches which are for the most part based on the Japanese system of wrestling. A sailor renders an assailant powerless simply by twisting his muscles the wrong way. It is called the leverage system, for the reason that it tends to pry a victim’s joints apart by using the bones as levers one against another. Should a New Yorker combine both the tactics of the London stick man and the United States naval wrestler, it is safe to say that the police of this city would have far fewer holdups and burglaries to record than at the present time.