Tuesday, May 8, 2012

William Craig, Part I

There is so much to tell about William Craig that it will take two blogs to tell his story. He was born in Glasgow, Scotland, November 1855. He was fair haired with blue eyes and stood 6 foot four inches and weighted 260 pounds at the time of his death. He was affectingly known as “Big Bill” and was always a favorite with children.

When he was 18, William Craig joined the British army and remained in the army for 12 years. Because of his “magnificent physique and carriage, together with his aptitude” he won a position in the “Royal Horse Guards Blue.” Every man in this regiment was hand picked for this position and trained for two years in drills, practice at arms and horsemanship. This was Queen Victoria’s personal escort and each man was arrayed in a gorgeous uniform. This unit may still be in existence. Perhaps someone can tell me. Maybe we saw them in the recent royal wedding?

William Craig became interested in fencing and soon was good enough too win a tournament that determined who was the best swordsman in the cavalry units. Two years in a row he won the title and was soon made the teacher of fencing, physical exercise and boxing. He would later find this knowledge and ability useful in Chicago, Illinois.

In 1884, Khartoum was surrounded by enemy forces and a relief army was organized in London. Among those chosen to relieve General Gordon were men from the cavalry units. Forty men were chosen, among them was William Craig. They were gone three years crossing the African desert with much suffering. There was a terrible battle at Ahu Klea Wells. The British army fought in what was called the “hollow square” which was always moving forward. Inside the square was the commander, the reserves and the horses and camels. Their square was attacked by 8,000 rebels who believed that they were protected by divine power and that bullets or bayonets would never harm them. As the square moved forward the camels refused to move and in time one portion of the rear wall was broken. As Colonel Barnaby fought to close the breach he was speared to death within ten feet of William Craig. Queen Victoria had two medals struck for the survivors and William Craig was awarded both for bravery. Only five of the 40 returned.

Shortly thereafter he resigned from the army and later came to Chicago arriving in 1893. (I wonder if he came to see the Columbian Exposition?) His mother and sister were already in Chicago and he must have decided to remain and live with them at 4334 Calumet avenue. Two brothers and a sister lived somewhere in Massachusetts.

His first position in Chicago was with the Amour Institute where he served as the athletic director and became well known in athletic circles. Some time later, he moved to the Princeton-Yale school on Drexel Blvd. where he served in the same position. At both schools, he often gave exhibitions as a swordsman and a boxer.

Some of his feats as a swordsman were quite amazing. For instance a lead bar was suspended in the air by a “loop of tissue paper hung over the keen edge of a razor” and one stroke of a heavy sword “severs in twain the lead bar without the strips of paper on the razors being cut or torn in the least.” The sword had a blade of steel, four feet long and three inches wide, weighing nearly five pounds. The same trick was done with a slight twist in which the bar was supported by a glass of water at each end. “The bar is cut without breaking the glasses or spilling the water.”

A person would be invited to hold an apple in the palm of their hand and William Craig would split the apple with no injury to the hand. He also performed this feat with an apple on the back of the neck. At the time, he was considered the best swordsman in America. He also taught fencing and several Chicago women were involved in his classes.

There is little information about his life in Chicago except that he was active in athletic circles. It might be possible that he would have attended the Scottish games sponsored by the Caledonian Club. There is no present evidence of involvement with the St. Andrew’s Society.

On September 22, 1900, he was appointed to the secret service and assigned to Birmingham, Alabama where he stopped a gang of counterfeiters. He was later transferred to Washington, D.C. where he made his greatest sacrifice in protecting the President of the United States.

Wayne Rethford, President
Scottish American History Club

June 2, 2012 - Next meeting of the History Club. Our speaker is David Simpson. David has been collecting Scottish coins for 30 years. He is a graduate of Aberdeen University and has researched Scottish coins in the British Museum, the Ashmolean Museum and Aberdeen University. He is a member of the Chicago Coin Club, the Hillside Coin Club and the American Numismatic Association.

The History Club does not meet in July or August and there are no pies for the June meeting just scones and coffee. The scones are pretty good, however, so come and enjoy the presentation.

1 comment:

  1. Tish Graham Hi Wayne! The Royal Horseguards Blue are now part of the Blues and Royals. With the Life Guards, they form the Household Cavalry and escorted the newly weds at last year's wedding. Prince Harry wore the uniform of the Blues and Royals.