There’s a great passage in Luc Sante‘s Low Life, in which he recounts the 19th-century New York City spectacle of man-versus-rat fights. A human competitor wearing heavy boots was placed in a ring with a swarm of hungry rats, and challenged to stomp as many to death as possible without suffering terrible injury. It’s quite a barbaric pastime, albeit one in which the primate usually emerged unscathed.
We couldn’t help but picture that bloody spectacle upon reading Jason Couch’s detailed account of “purring” in the Journal of Manly Arts. Like Sante, Couch is keenly interested in the violent sports of the 19th-century American working class. But his focus is instead drawn toward a sport that involved men kicking each other’s shins until the blood flowed:
Purring, or shin-kicking, was a popular English folk sport practiced from at least the 16th century and likely before. It existed both as a distinct contest of its own and as a facet of certain “loose hold” wrestling styles, such as Norfolk and Devonshire. By the mid-to-late 19th century, the sport was exported and practiced in America thanks to Cornish miners residing in Pennsylvania. By the end of that century the sport had all but disappeared, and now it exists only at fair exhibitions and in the mutated variants seen in children’s games.
Read down toward the end for a blow-by-blow rehash of the legendary 1883 purring match between David McWilliams and Robert Tavish. And thank your lucky stars that you aren’t a 19th-century Cornish mineworker in the Pennsylvania coal fields.