Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The deadly history of dueling

Nature has imposed special burdens on the human female through pregnancy and childbirth. When women get pregnant, they endure discomfort, danger, pain and often death. Perhaps for this reason, cultures have sought to create balance between the genders by imposing many other dangerous activities primarily or exclusively on men. Warren Farrell’s groundbreaking book, The Myth of Male Power, demonstrated how men have often been culturally required to risk their lives in ways not traditionally required of women.

Perhaps nothing demonstrates the special burdens historically placed on men more vividly than the deadly history of dueling – a primarily, perhaps almost exclusively, male activity in every culture in which it has existed.

Duel au pistolet au XIXème siècle

Duel au pistolet au XIXème siècle, par Bauce et Rouget, 20 Mai 1857, La Lecture, Le Journal de Romans

While the precise origins of dueling are unclear, it became common in the late medieval and early modern periods in Europe. It was originally a practice of the nobility that later filtered down to other class groups. Dueling was widely practiced in England, Ireland, France, Italy, Germany, Russia and other countries. In medieval times, dueling was often thought of as a kind of “judicial combat” in which God would ensure the winner was the man in the right.

Duels were conducted according to specific rules of conduct. Each combatant was expected to bring a “second” to help check the opposing duelist’s weapons and ensure the duelists were evenly matched. Between them the seconds were also supposed to decide on a suitable “field of honor” for the duel.

Duels were fought over who would marry a particular woman and, more frequently, to preserve the “honor” of one or both participants. To refuse a challenge to a duel was to be labeled a coward. A challenger might “post” that a challenge had been refused at street corners and taverns. The posted man’s marrital, social and business prospects would be dashed by an accusation of cowardice, so most challenged men felt obliged to accept.

James Hamilton, 4th Duke of Hamilton (1658-1712)

James Hamilton, 4th Duke of Hamilton (1658-1712)

In England in 1712, the Duke of Hamilton and Lord Mohun were at odds over a lawsuit brought by Hamilton against Mohun that was still pending after 11 years. Hamilton remarked to a court officer that a witness for Mohun was not partial to truth and justice. Mohun retorted that the witness had as much truth and justice as Hamilton. Later, Mohun challenged Hamilton to a duel. The latter accepted. On November 15, 1712, they fought with swords. Mohun died on the ground, Hamilton died as his servants carried him away and the lawsuit died with them.

During King George III’s reign (1760-1820), there were 172 known duels in England with 69 casualties. It is possible other duels were fought in England during the time period but kept secret.

According to writer Stephen Bands, there were “at least 277 fatalities in British duels between 1785 and 1844 but these homicides resulted in the capital sentence being carried out on only one perpetrator of a dueling fatality, the unfortunate Major Campbell who was executed in Ireland in 1808.” The reason Campbell hanged was that his duel with Captain Boyd observed none of the usual conventions of dueling such as including seconds and deciding in advance on specific conditions of the duel. Banks writes that it was “hurriedly fought in a locked room,” which gave it the appearance of a fatal brawl.

In 1777, a group of Irishmen codified dueling practices in the Code Duello. The Code Duello listed 26 rules for dueling.

In France, dueling was common but by the 19th Century, French duels were rarely fatal as most were performed with swords and would stop when blood was drawn rather than continue to the death. France also provided some of the most peculiarly inventive duels. In 1808, two French duelers fought in air balloons; one shot the other’s balloon out, resulting in the death of both the opponent and his second. In 1843, two French duelers threw billiard balls at each other.

The first recorded American duel was fought in the Massachusetts colony in 1621, the year after the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth. Duelists Edward Doty and Edward Lester clashed with swords; both sustained minor injuries. This duel was unusual because these men were servants whereas most duels were fought between upper-class men.

Dueling became common in the United States when the Revolution began and continued to be common for well over 100 years. A Declaration of Independence signer with the memorable name Button Gwinnett was killed in a duel as were two U. S. Senators, Virginia’s Armistead T. Mason and California’s David C. Broderick. In 1820, rising naval officer Stephen Decatur was killed in a duel.

Alexander Hamilton dueling with Aaron Burr.

Alexander Hamilton dueling with Aaron Burr

Alexander Hamilton may well be the most famous American to die dueling when he was killed by Aaron Burr in 1804. Hamilton and Burr were longtime political rivals and opponents. After Hamilton criticized Burr at a dinner party, the two exchanged angry letters. Burr demanded Hamilton apologize; he refused. Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel. On the early morning of July 11, 1804, the two met on a field. Hamilton deliberately squandered his shot by firing into the air. Burr fired at Hamilton, hitting him in the stomach. Hamilton died the next day.

In the 19th Century, duels were most common in the American South where the ideal of the “gentleman” was strongest. The men who formed the Confederacy often styled themselves as “aristocrats” for whom any slight must be avenged with blood. Indeed, one of the interesting aspects of the duel mentality was that “honor” was linked to a kind of thin-skinned hypersensitivity to insult.

Many American duels did not end with a death. The typical weapon was a flintlock pistol that often misfired. They usually had to be fired within three seconds, making accurate aim unlikely.

Dueling was controversial from the founding of the nation. General George Washington denounced the practice and applauded one of his officers for refusing a challenge. Benjamin Franklin condemned dueling as “a murderous practice.” Some states in the young nation passed anti-dueling ordinances but they were widely flouted. Indeed, 18 states had outlawed it by 1859 but it remained common in the South and West. Even men who opposed dueling dueled. Sam Houston believed dueling was bad but took part in a duel in which Houston shot General William White in the groin. Henry Clay also opposed dueling but shot Virginia Senator John Randolph in a duel.

Why did men duel when they believed it was wrong? Alexander Hamilton wrote that his “ability to be in future useful . . . imposed on me (as I thought) a peculiar necessity not to decline the call.” It was not possible for men to continue their careers and social lives when impugned as cowards.

Portrait of Abraham Lincoln

Portrait of Abraham Lincoln

When Abraham Lincoln was an Illinois State Representative, he penned a series of satirical letters ridiculing State Auditor James Shields. Mary Todd, who was not yet wed to Lincoln, authored one of the letters, all of which were written under the pseudonym “Rebecca.” Shields soon discovered that most of the letters from “Rebecca” were in fact written by a man. Shields wrote a letter to Lincoln demanding a retraction. Lincoln objected to the tone of Shields’ letter and to the assumption that Lincoln had written more than he had. Shields demanded a retraction of what Lincoln had in fact written. Lincoln refused unless Shields retracted some of what he had said in his initial letter.

Shields challenged Lincoln to a duel. As the challenged party, Lincoln was entitled to determine the terms of the duel. In Duel! Ross Drake writes, “The terms themselves were highly unusual. Shields was a military man; Lincoln was not. Lincoln had the choice of weapons, and instead of pistols chose clumsy cavalry broadswords, which both men were to wield while standing on a narrow plank with limited room for retreat. The advantage would obviously be Lincoln’s; he was the taller man, with memorably long arms.” Lincoln later told a friend, “I did not want to kill Shields, and felt sure that I could disarm him . . . I didn’t want the damned fellow to kill me, which I rather think he would have done if we had selected pistols.”

Fortunately, friends persuaded the men to submit their argument to a makeshift arbitration panel. Shields later served as Brigadier General under President Lincoln. When Lincoln was reminded of the proposed duel, he replied, “If you desire my friendship, you will never mention it again.”

Portrait of Andrew Jackson

Portrait of Andrew Jackson

Andrew Jackson was an American President with a bit more enthusiasm for dueling. As a youth, he was reputed an expert duelist. One incident led to widespread criticism. Jackson dueled against Charles Dickinson in 1806. Dickinson fired and slightly wounded Jackson. Jackson misfired. According to dueling rules, it should have ended there. Instead, Jackson fired a second time, killing Dickinson. This to some made Jackson a murderer.

Alexander McClung became famous for winning several duels. A crack shot, he killed one opponent at over 100 feet with a smoothbore pistol. In 1855, McClung killed himself – with a pistol.

America’s Civil War may have contributed to the steep decline of dueling in its wake. The “code of honor” appeared foolish to a people heartbroken over so much bloodshed and the ideal of the Southern “gentleman” eroded with the Confederacy’s defeat and slavery’s end.

By the start of the 20th Century, anti-dueling laws were common and enforced throughout the U.S. and the practice died off – allowing many men to live to ripe old ages.

Bibliography on next page.

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