In one of my favorite scenes in The Fairest Portion of the Globe, young ensign Meriwether Lewis plays a game of fives with the treacherous general James Wilkinson.
He dove after Wilkinson’s next serve and got a miraculous lucky bounce. Wilkinson raced forward but couldn’t get to it. As the dead ball rolled at his feet, Lewis picked it up and held it for a moment, turning the ball in his hands. He pushed his damp bangs out of his eyes and looked at Wilkinson. “That’s three all, sir.”
Wilkinson stepped forward and took the ball. “Give it here, Lewis. I don’t want you to mistake my meaning.” With visible fury, he turned and sent the ball slamming into the wall. Startled, Lewis lunged for the ball but collided with Wilkinson’s flying elbow instead. He tripped and crashed onto his hands and knees, face-first into the wall. His head rang and he tasted grit and blood.
“Lewis, let me tell you something for your own good,” Wilkinson jerked him around and stood over him, his hands digging into Lewis’s skin beneath his thin shirt. “Anthony Wayne has been a thorn in my side for twenty years, going back to the Revolution. Wayne has had his time here. Soon it will be a new era at Fort Washington. Jefferson’s time. My time.”
Lewis gaped up at him, warm blood trickling down his lip. “What? You and Jefferson? Sir, I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about—”
Wilkinson gave a little chuckle of pity—or was it contempt?— then leaned down and tapped him on the forehead. “Use your head, Ensign Lewis. You’re a Shakespeare buff, I understand. Wasn’t it in Coriolanus, where the bard said, ‘Nature teaches beasts to know their friends?’”
Lewis swallowed, remembering the next line in the play. Without thinking, he whispered aloud: “Pray you, who does the wolf love?”
“Precisely, ensign.” Wilkinson let out a mirthful titter. “The lamb.”
Fives was a ball game that was popular in the 18th and 19th centuries in Britain, Canada, and the United States. Similar to handball, it was formally played on a stone or brick court, and informally against a stone wall in a churchyard. The purpose of the game is to hit a small, hard leather or rubber ball over a line on the back wall so that your opponents cannot return it before the second bounce. The game is fast-paced and requires sharp hand-eye coordination, quick reflexes, and agility.
Fives was a favorite pastime of country gentlemen in the late 18th and early 19th century. American Revolutionary War General Thomas Sumter of South Carolina, known as “The Carolina Gamecock,” was known for his abilities on the fives court. The most famous fives player who ever lived is said to be John Cavanagh, an Irish house-painter who played on the fives court in St Martin’s Street in London, remaining undefeated until his death in 1819.
David Herbert Donald, in his biography of Abraham Lincoln, records that while the 1860 Republican Convention in Chicago was deciding who was to be the presidential nominee, Lincoln was quietly going about his business in Springfield. Up early on Friday, May 18th, the day when nominations were to be made, Lincoln passed some time playing fives with some other men in a vacant lot next to the Illinois State Journal Office. After he got the news of his nomination, he spoke “to the ball players who broke off their game to congratulate him.”
The popularity of fives waned in the United States in the 19th century, but the game became even more popular in Britain as it was institutionalized as a sport in Britain’s elite public schools. The most well-known variety of fives is Eton Fives, which originated at Eton College in England. The side of Eton’s chapel is supported by buttresses that form perfect three-sided fives courts in which the students can play. The bay at the foot of the chapel steps is different from the rest, because the steps’ handrail forms a hazard that complicates the game, and a landing between the two flights of steps extends the playing area. Another popular variety of fives, played on a four-sided court, originated at Rugby School in Warwickshire.
Though not the craze it once was, Eton Fives and Rugby Fives are still enjoyed by schoolboys and “old boys” in England. Modern Eton Fives is played on courts built to resemble the unique bay at the foot of the Eton chapel steps, recreating the handrail hazard that has long been the bane of many a young scholar-athlete. In the United States, the only known fives courts that are still in use are in Massachusetts: at Groton School, St.Mark’s School, the Union Boat Club, and the A.D. Final Club at Harvard University.
For everything you ever wanted to know about fives: