Gouging: Tar Heel sport not for faint-hearted

On this day in 1749: Attempting to quell the popular no-holds-barred sport of “gouging,” the legislature makes it a felony “to cut out the tongue, or pull out the eyes.”

The law proves no match, however, for the combatants’ creativity. Five years later the proscription must be extended to “the slitting of noses, the biting or cutting off of a nose or lip, and the biting or cutting off of any limb or member.”

In colonial North Carolina, the gentry favors horse racing and cockfighting, but the yeoman class prefers “rough and tumble” fighting and “gouging.” One contemporary account describes “two men . . . fast clinched by the hair . . . while several of the bystanders were betting upon the first eye to be turned out of its socket. . . . At length the uppermost sprung up with his antagonist’s eye in his hand!!! The savage crowd applauded.”

As late as 1810 the Raleigh Star will acknowledge the widely held belief “that a North Carolinian cannot salute you without putting his finger in your eyes” but insist that civilization has driven gouging to “to Georgia and the wilds of Louisiana.”

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