1839 AMES PRESENTATION MILITIA OFFICER’S SWORD OF CAPT. JOHN C. HELME FROM THE GULICK GUARDS, “FIREMEN WITH PLEASURE – SOLDIERS AT LEISURE.” LATER POLICE CAPTAIN IN THE 1863 NEW YORK DRAFT RIOTS

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The “Gulick Guards” were organized in New York City in 1836, composed largely of firemen, current and former, and apparently taking their name from the former Chief Engineer of the Fire Department, who had been recently dismissed by the Common Council, it would seem to their displeasure. An 1838 uniform print by Curier show a member of the company in uniform, resting on a bayoneted musket, over the motto: “Firemen with pleasure – Soldiers at leisure.” John C. Helme, to whom the company presented this sword, must have been a fireman as well, but has left more of a record as a daguerreotypist, commander of several militia companies through the 1840s and 1850s, and a police captain.

The sword is an elaborate, early Ames presentation Militia officer sword with a knight’s helmet pommel, chain knucklebow, and shield-shaped langets with high relief, cast and chased borders with floral motifs, bearing lightly engraved stars and stripes at center. The shield shape is repeated by the open quillons of the cruciform, bow-shaped guard, whose bars are also cast and chased in high relief with floral elements. The grip is sheet silver over ebony.

The blade is the 1832 style officer’s blade: double edged, with narrow central fuller, and is etched on both sides. The obverse starts with a half-circle panel with sun rays and lighting bolts followed by an urn from which emerges a long floral panel and above that a panel of arms entwined by wreath and vines, with a tombstone shaped panel with US Eagle, ribbon scroll, with thirteen stars, and flamelike ends, finished by another extended panel of entwined floral elements. The reverse has an etched maker’s address at bottom reading, “N.P. Ames / Cutler / Springfield” in a wreath, followed by a floral panel, a stand of arms with swords, arrows, quiver, halberds and flags (with stars visible,) above which is the standing Indian with bow and raised tomahawk usually taken to be Tecumseh, finishing with another floral panel.

The scabbard is brass, with traces of heavy gilt, fitted with two carryings and stud at top and one ring at the midpoint. The obverse is engraved with an American eagle and E Pluribus Unum ribbon scroll, and a stand of arms with a prominent liberty cap rising on a pole from the center. Extending from this and below the lower ring mount the scabbard is engraved with a line of five-pointed stars down the center and oak leaves bordering the sides. This is interrupted by a brass sleeve that seems to be a period repair, likely for a crack. Below that the engraving shows  a trophy of Indian weapons- bow, arrows and quiver, mounted on a long pole on top of which is mounted a human head. This is immediately adjacent to the presentation panel, after which the stars and oaks leaves pick up again, essentially framing the ghoulish trophy with the presentation. The engraving then concludes with a long leafy branch with acorns leading down to the drag. The reverse of the scabbard is plain, but has the Ames scroll address at top, matching the blade: “N.P. Ames / Cutler / Springfield / Mass.”

The presentation reads: “Presented to / Capt. John C. Helme / as a token of respect by the members of the / Gulick Guards. / Oct. 1839.” Helme was born in Rhode Island in 1808 and died in Manhattan in 1881. We pick him up in the 1840s and 1850s as Captain not only of this unit, but also the “First Company National Cadets” in 1844 and “The Continental Guard,” in 1851. He is also credited as commanding Co. A 9th NYSM in 1847 and a company in the 11th NYSM in 1857, though these may be the same companies. Helme worked as a daguerreotypist at 111 Bowery from about 1846 to 1856, after which he is listed as a policeman. He was Captain of the 27th Precinct, commanding four sergeants, fifty-two patrolmen, and two doormen in 1863, and was noted in an 1885 history of the NYC police for his role in suppressing the 1863 draft riots. A short obituary notice mentions his role in putting down the 1849 Astor Place riots as well, but that was likely as part of the militia.

The sword is in very good condition. The blade frosting has shifted to gray, but the etching is clearly visible. The blade has one or two tiny nicks. The grip shows some wear, and also what looks like a faint engraved “G,” likely for the company’s name. The scabbard is very nicely detailed and shows strong remnants of it gilt. The short sleeve is certainly period, does not cover much and blends in well. We are fascinated by the engraved stand of Indian weapons and what is clearly a head on a pole or spear. It would not be surprising if there were some allusions to contemporary politics in there. The sword was formerly in the well-respected collection of Kevin Hoffman.  [sr] [ph:L]

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