Jesse L. McCoy, WWII “daggerman”

Springfield Jaycees president Robert Edwards, left, presents citation to “nationally known dagger maker” Jesse L. McCoy, center, for his contributions to the war effort in 1944. (Courtesy State Journal-Register)

Shortly after Pearl Harbor, Jesse L. McCoy of Springfield converted a ceremonial sword once used by a member of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows into a couple of daggers. By the time he and World War II were finished, “Daggerman” McCoy had provided combat knives to almost 10,000 U.S. soldiers, sailors and marines.

McCoy (1889-1957) was stage electrician for the Orpheum Theater and a veteran of service in France during World War I. In one of the earliest newspaper stories about his blade output, he recalled “the many occasions on which he … heard veterans speak of their desires to have a dagger for ‘close fighting.’

“With that thought in mind, McCoy did something about it,” the Illinois State Journal reported.

Discarded IOOF lodge swords – McCoy, an IOOF member, called them “cheese knives” – provided the raw material for his first batch of daggers. As production mounted, he frequently issued appeals for more blades, and people around Illinois, if not the nation, sent him old knives, swords and bayonets.

The McCoy publicity machine saw to it that donors and many knife recipients were named in the papers. (Springfield’s newspapers, the Illinois State Journal and Illinois State Register, both of which helped coordinate the knife giveaways, eventually printed 80-some articles about McCoy’s effort.)

“Harry Strum donated an 1863 sword which had been highly prized as a relic, and a sword was turned in by J.L. Northrup,” a March 1943 story reported. “This was made into a dagger and given to Simon Cory, R.R. 7.”

McCoy started small, making only about 50 daggers in 1942, but he apparently went into assembly-line production thereafter. As of July 1944, he told the Illinois State Register, his tally was up to 5,200 knives, but he had to take a break because he was out of old blades to convert to daggers.

His appeals worked. By the time McCoy closed up shop on Aug. 19, 1945, five days after V-J Day, he had manufactured more than 9,500 knives. (It’s not clear how he managed to ramp up production, but a badly reproduced photo that accompanied the Journal’s last-day story shows McCoy pulling the lever on what might have been a metal stamping machine.)

“McCoy’s daggers have gone to all the fighting fronts,” Journal editor/publisher/columnist J. Emil Smith wrote in 1943.

Many persons are anxious to pay for the daggers, but McCoy refuses with, “I’ve never charged for making one yet and I’m not going to start now. All I ask is that the boy who receives one of my daggers takes note of my address on the handle and writes to me.” The boys have taken note and the letters come in almost daily.

At least one soldier reportedly used a McCoy dagger in battle. According to the Feb. 6, 1945, Register:

It seems that one of four knives made by Mr. McCoy for W.J. Barnes, and in turn sent to servicemen friends by Barnes, got into the hands of Sgt. C.W. Shields of Texas. Shields, in hand-to-hand combat, was able to kill his adversary and save his own life with the McCoy made knife.

McCoy was honored for his work by the IOOF, the Jaycees, and the Veterans of Foreign Wars, among other groups. One of his daggers went to Lt. Col. James Roosevelt, son of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Actress Ethel Barrymore, on a visit to Springfield in 1943, reportedly spent several hours poring over letters McCoy kept in a giant scrapbooks.

McCoy’s one postwar attempt to capitalize on his knife production took place in 1947, when he filed petitions to run for Springfield city commissioner. “Jesse L. Daggerman McCoy,” as he was listed on the primary election ballot, fell 3,000 votes short of nomination, 19th among 42 candidates.

McCoy is buried at Oak Ridge Cemetery.

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