Knives Down

by Lizzie Davis, Grace Dunham, Alexander Sammon & Benson Tucker

published April 27, 2013

Like any city worthy of the title, Providence has a long and troubled history with knives. Precision instruments among humanity’s earliest bionic adaptations, fine blades can be a point of pride. At base, knives mean power, a dangerous allure.

When the knife is used for ill, though, the result isn’t mastery so much as amateurism. In November, a knife-wielding robber wearing a skeleton mask attempted to rob a Cranston Rite Aid. The clerk repeatedly insisted that she had no money to offer. After arguing with her for a while, the would-be thief left empty-handed. A Fall River liquor store robber, blade in hand, held up the same store three times in a 24-hour period but was apprehended after the store owner realized it was the same culprit who had hit the place the year before.

Knife crimes are often both juvenile and tragic. A disproportionate number of knife crime suspects are teens. Knives are the most readily available weapons and, accordingly, they set up young trouble-makers to get in well over their heads. Two Central Falls teens, aged 18 and 15, face first degree robbery charges after a pair of attempted muggings. It’s the involvement of the knife that makes the charges first degree, a classification holding twice the prison term that the two might have faced under second degree charges.

Knives crop up as parts of a varied makeshift arsenal. In one incident in Washington Park late last year, four men armed with a knife and a crowbar approached a 19-year old passerby and robbed him of his sneakers and cell phone. The same gang may have turned up on College Hill in January, when a group fitting that description robbed a student on Brown’s campus. Here, too, teens were the culprits. The Independent has the inside scoop, some elements imagined, exploring knife crime, production, and miscellanea in Rhode Island.—BT

Three Inches Max

In a recent radio broadcast, the ever-iconic Al Sharpton claimed that knife regulations represent the logical next step for gun control, suggesting that a society committed to minimizing violent crime must act on both fronts. Sharpton put a face to the question of knife control and crime prevention, one of few public figures to broach the issue. However, a debate over knife control cannot begin without first shedding some light on this fairly obscure legal issue. Knife control varies wildly from state to state, and what is considered kosher on one side of state lines could result in a small fine across the border. While the stakes certainly aren’t as high, the law is generally worth knowing, and Rhode Island’s knife control law is actually one of the more rewarding laws to be fluent in.

The Rhode Island state knife restriction law, Section 42 of the state code’s Weapons chapter, primarily emphasizes a limitation of blade length, in a way that is not particularly noteworthy. Rhode Islanders are entitled to both open and concealed possession of any knife up to three inches in length, from tip to handle. This posits Rhode Island as one of the least knife-friendly states in New England, second only to Massachusetts, whose tyrannical knife control provisions limit legal knives to two and a half inches, much to the chagrin of knife enthusiasts everywhere. (For comparison, New Hampshire emphatically did away with all knife regulation in 2010, creating a veritable knife-wielder’s paradise).

In the context of the gun control debate, this three inch limitation seems to best correspond to the ban of assault weapons. Without categorically illegalizing the weapons in question, Section 11-47-42 justifies limited public use of knives of excessive length or power, which can only conceivably be used to incur severe bodily harm. To borrow a line from advocates of assault rifle restriction, this law draws a hard line between what is useful and what is excessively dangerous and violent. And it seems to work--knives are only present in 22 percent of assault cases in the greater Providence area.

Yet, like so many things Rhode Island, just beneath the surface there exists a world of eccentricity that tows the line between comical and practical. Because Rhode Island’s state legislators are thorough, hard-working, and hip to the lingo of the kidz these days, they went to painstaking lengths to close any and all loopholes that could be found within the law. Urban dictionary in hand, they explicitly inscribed all small weapons that are not legal for open or concealed carry, including and not limited to those “commonly known as a blackjack, slingshot, billy, sandclub, sandbag, metal knuckles, slap glove, bludgeon, stun-gun, crossbow, dagger, dirk, stiletto, bowie knife, a sword-in-cane, or the so-called ‘Kung-Fu’ weapons.” That constitutes 16 different variants of knife-like weaponry explicitly prohibited, for those of you keeping score at home.

The wording of this statute sounds like a list of props from a Robert DeNiro movie, and perhaps raises as many questions as it answers. While it may seem perfectly logical that a family-first atmosphere like Rhode Island would not want its elderly citizens running around with swords masquerading as canes, it is unprecedented in New England’s knife law tradition to enumerate all conceivable types of small weaponry, all the way down to “so called kung-fu weapons.”

An exchange with the Providence Police Department yielded no information about the history of kung-fu style crime in Providence, but did suggest that in spite of the comical wording of section 11-47-42, it may truthfully deserve praise instead of reproach. Despite a high-visibility knife related incident in the College Hill area in recent weeks, Providence is not home to an inordinately high amount of knife violence. Knife crime in Providence has actually trended downward over the past three years, by a startling 15 percent. Furthermore, data indicate (by omission) that kung-fu style swordplay is at an all-time low in the Providence metro area, and there has been a conspicuous absence of sword-in-cane style assault. If anything, knives seem to be reasonably controlled already.

Perhaps most important is that Rhode Island’s knife control laws are quintessentially Rhode Island. Fluency in their stipulations tells just as much about legality as about the culture of the state itself. Quirkiness seems to come naturally to the union’s smallest state, and its penal codes are no different. Plenty of states limit the legal public use of knives, but only Rhode Island does it in such a way that is both laughable and laudable. —AS


Making Great Knives

This past Autumn I started spending too much time searching the Internet for paraphernalia from the 1939 New York World’s Fair. I loved imagining millions of people from all over the world going to Queens to visit “The World of Tomorrow.” One Google led me to this eBay listing: “RARE 1939 New York World’s Fair Imperial Pocket Knife Providence RI.” The knife was two-bladed, with a pearl handle and knickerbocker-orange lettering: “New York World’s Fair 1939.” Below the letters: a trylon and perisphere, the fair’s iconic symbol. It was a beautiful little knife.

The old Imperial Knife factory is just a ten-minute walk from where I live, on the two-block long Imperial Place, in the Jewelry district. When Italian brothers Felix and Michael Mirando founded Imperial Knife in 1917, Imperial Place was Blount Street. People say the Mirando brothers changed the name: Blount was close to “blunt,” which they did not like. Their Knife Factory, after all, was on Blount Street.

The factory on Imperial Place was 6 stories: 1st, 2nd, and 3rd for stamping metal; 4th for assembling; 5th for packaging; 6th was all offices. At their best, Imperial made 10,000 dozen knives a day, which is 120,000 knives.

A year before the World’s Fair, Domenic Fazzano — childhood friend of the Mirando brothers and a partner in Imperial — went to Germany to buy a patent made it possible to press a thinner metal piece onto a knife’s handle. The new knife cost less and looked better. They called it the “Jackmaster.” It was one of the best pocketknives on the market.

After the World’s Fair, Imperial converted to full warproduction. The company teamed up with the Ulster Knife, owned by Henry and Albert Bear (another pair of brothers), opened two more factories, and produced more than half of all knives delivered to the American Armed forces. In 1945, they were awarded the ARMY-NAVY “E” for excellence in the production of essential war goods. For over fifty more years, Imperial had a greatest hits list of knife achievements. By 1966, they were the largest supplier of electric knife blades in America. Soon after, they won the Sears, Roebuck & Co.’s “SYMBOL OF EXCELLENCE” award.

Imperial, in short, made great knives: combat knives, kitchen knives, more pocketknives. It stayed open longer than most other factories in Providence, finally shutting down production in the early 2000s. A 1939 New York World’s Fair Imperial Pocket Knife sold on March 1 for $65.00 on eBay. We’re in the world of tomorrow.—GD