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Bang! Bang! You're Dead

Dueling at the drop of a hat was as European as truffles, and as American as mom's apple pie

From the 1830s on, in the territories and border states, pro-slavery and abolitionist hotheads challenged each other regularly.

In California in 1859 the former chief justice of the state supreme court, proslavery judge David Terry, killed antislavery senator David Broderick before a large crowd of fascinated spectators. In the South, being called an abolitionist was added to the list of insults that required a challenge.

Policy differences rankled for years. Having disagreed about the War of 1812, and most other matters since, in 1826 U.S. Secretary of State Henry Clay and Senator John Randolph of Virginia finally met by appointment across the Potomac from Washington. Randolph showed up in a long flannel dressing gown. (Considered eccentric if not downright deranged, he had reportedly fought his first duel in college over the pronunciation of a word.) The rendezvous with Clay was a distinguished encounter, though not quite historic, since the statesmen narrowly missed each other. Then they shook hands and (more or less) made up. A good duel could be cleansing.

Political honor hung by threads as slender as mail delivery. In the 1820s when Sam Houston was a congressman from Tennessee, he mailed his constituents some packets of vegetable seeds to plant. They were never delivered, and Houston called Nashville postmaster Curry a scoundrel. Curry sent a general named White with a challenge. Houston said he wouldn’t fight such a lowlife as Curry, so White offered himself instead. They fired at each other from 15 feet, and Houston wounded White severely in the groin. Nobody knows whether the seeds ever turned up.

Even Abraham Lincoln, that tower of common sense, was not a complete stranger to the field of honor. He’d objected to the tax policies of Illinois state auditor James Shields and wrote a piece signed “Rebecca,” calling Shields a fool, a liar, and smelly to boot. Shields sent a friend storming into the newspaper office, demanding to know Rebecca’s true identity. (People frequently stormed into newspaper offices in the 19th century, often heavily armed; pressrooms kept a loaded gun handy.) The editor quickly exposed his source. Shields challenged Lincoln.

According to one version, Lincoln accepted, choosing cavalry sabers, presumably because of his famously long arms. Everyone showed up as planned on a sandbar in the Mississippi near Alton, Illinois. Honest Abe sat on a log idly swishing his saber around in the air, suggestively slashing the branches high above his head, while the seconds, whose duty it was to try to mend matters, conferred. Presently a statement was agreed on, in which Lincoln was said to have said he hadn’t meant anything personal in the article, including, apparently, how Shields smelled. Then everyone went home.

Naturally newspapers and their editors were always in the thick of the dueling scene, fanning the flames. The notion of impartial political reporting would have been laughable; a newspaper was a partisan organ, fiercely praising its faction and calling its opponents monsters, consummate traitors and contemptible scoundrels. When the editors’ invention flagged, contributors pitched in, signing their pieces with noms de plume like “Vindix” or “Democritus.” A politician who couldn’t find a paper to wave his banner was forced to start a paper of his own.

Opposing editors put on their pistols when they dressed in the morning. Challenges rained down on their heads. Pressed for time, one 19th-century San Francisco editor posted a notice on his door, “Subscriptions received from 9 to 4, challenges from 11 to 12 only.” In Vicksburg, Mississippi (est. pop. 3,500), three newspaper editors died in duels in 1843 and the early part of 1844. In hot-blooded New Orleans, Dr. Thomas Hunt, perceiving slurs on his family name, killed John Frost, editor of the Crescent. In Kentucky, the proslavery Charles Wickliffe killed the editor of the Lexington Gazette over an anonymous dissenting article. He was tried and acquitted, but the succeeding editor, George Trotter, disagreed with the verdict in print. Wickliffe challenged him and was killed at eight feet.

Virginia editors had a particularly short shelf life. The two brothers who edited the Richmond Examiner in the early 19th century both died in duels. Edgar Allan Poe challenged one of the paper’s later editors but showed up too drunk to shoot. Before the Civil War, O. Jennings Wise, editor of the Richmond Enquirer, fought eight duels in only two years. John Daniel of the Examiner disagreed with Edward Johnston of the Whig over the esthetic merits of a particular statue. In the inevitable duel, they both missed.

As the duel went West it lost some of its classic formality, and sometimes instead of the courtly letter of challenge delivered by a dignified second, a glass of whiskey thrown in the face would suffice. It flourished, however, especially in California, where in 1852 a dispute over whether or not to send aid to the snowbound Donner Party led Gen. James Denver, Secretary of State of California, to kill Edward Gilbert, editor of the Alta California. (This proved a good career move; Denver, untainted, went on to serve as congressman and territorial governor, and had a city in Colorado named in his honor.)

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