Snatching a child’s nose while tucking your thumb between your fingers may seem like innocent fun, but the gentlemen of the nineteenth-century South beg to differ.
While slapping a man’s face with white gloves is more dramatic, men of means did not take the touching of their noses lightly. No matter how lightly they were touched. This insult to one’s honor could result in death.
The visible integrity of the upper crust was crucial to their success. In a world where one’s word was their literal bond, to be insinuated as dishonest could preclude any future bank loans or business transactions. Such an affront must be answered. Likely with a duel.
But why the nose? It seems almost laughable. Well, in a world where appearance and perceptions trump all, a person’s nose was “the most prominent projection of a man’s character and always exposed before the eyes of others.”1 This feature was thought to represent character more than the heart, the stomach, or even a man’s member. Those were not visible—at least not in polite company.
Hence, the nose tweak could lead to injury or death.
The story of Robert Randolph and President Andrew Jackson illustrates how devastating a nose pull could be. In the late 1820s, Randolph, as a naval lieutenant, replaced the purser of the USS Constitution upon the previous treasurer’s death. Stories differ, but it seems he neglected to order an accounting of the books when he took over. When discrepancies were discovered, Randolph was blamed. He claimed it was the former guy, but courts disagreed.
President Andrew Jackson removed Randolph from his position, stating the defaulter was “unworthy of the naval service of this republic, and an unfit associate for those sons of chivalry, integrity, and honor who adorn our navy.”2
Pretty devastating words for a previously esteemed son of Virginia. The honor code decreed he should challenge Jackson to a duel, but not only was his opponent the president of the United States, he was sixty-six years old. The challenge itself would appear unbecoming. A nose tweak would have to do.
When the president got on a boat in Alexandria to visit Fredericksburg for a ceremony, Randolph boarded as though eager to greet the great man. When most had cleared Jackson’s cabin, he stepped forward and began removing his glove.
Jackson reportedly told him that was unnecessary when Randolph leapt across a table and thrust his hand into the president’s face. “The man grabbed Jackson by the nose and proceeded to turn it until blood flowed in a steady stream.”3 In an ensuing scuffle, Jackson lifted his cane to retaliate as Randolph made his escape. The president’s entourage held him back and slammed the door.
Newspapers of the day were careful to avoid mention of the president’s nose being assaulted. The disgrace was too high. Defenders of Jackson claimed it was an assassination attempt. Others wanted to avenge the “insult”, but Jackson refused. Honor demanded he alone defend himself.
Yet, according to the Autobiography of Peggy Eaton, the author (a close friend of Jackson) claims she used to tease him about it, saying, “Ah, General, it was very bad of you to let R. pull your nose.”
She claimed he’d spring to his feet and shake his fist. “No; by the eternal God, madam, no man ever pulled my nose.”
And Randolph? The incident was politicized in a way that would make current partisans proud. After years of legal wrangling, he was acquitted on all charges.
Yet, for years thereafter, the pulling of the nose was known as a “Lieutenant Randolph outrage.”
1 Greenberg, K. S. (1990). The Nose, the Lie, and the Duel in the Antebellum South. The American Historical Review, 95(1), 57–74. https://doi.org/10.2307/2162954
2Richmond enquirer. [volume] (Richmond, Va.), 14 May 1833. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84024735/1833-05-14/ed-1/seq-2/
3Belohlavek, J. M. (1982). Assault on the President: The Jackson-Randolph Affair of 1833. Presidential Studies Quarterly, 12(3), 361–368. http://www.jstor.org/stable/27547834