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

He was a tall, bony, wild-haired man, and he faced his opponent at eight paces instead of the standard ten. He knew the other’s reputation as a deadly shot, probably the best in all of pistol-packing Tennessee. He himself wasn’t nearly as good, and his eyes, though fierce, were getting weak, but he was here deliberately, even eagerly. He was to rack up a lifetime total of at least 14 duels; in most duels a slight flesh wound would end the matter, but this man he had sworn to kill. Their seconds stood by.

He let Dickinson fire first. The bullet struck him in the chest, where it shattered two ribs and settled in to stay, festering, for the next 39 years. Slowly he lifted his left arm and placed it across his coat front, teeth clenched. “Great God! Have I missed him?” cried Dickinson. Dismayed, he stepped back a pace and was ordered to return to stand on his mark.

Blood ran into our hero’s shoes. He raised his pistol and took aim. The hammer stuck at half cock. Coolly he drew it back, aimed again, and fired. Dickinson fell, the bullet having passed clear through him, and died shortly afterward.

“I should have hit him,” our bleeding hero said, “if he had shot me through the brain.”

A costume melodrama in glorious Technicolor from the archives of MGM? A paperback swashbuckler at the airport newsstand? Well, no. The year was 1806 and the survivor was Andrew Jackson, later our widely beloved seventh President, just doing what any gentleman would do. The spat had begun when Dickinson took the “sacred name” of Jackson’s wife, Rachel, into his “polluted mouth” and escalated in an argument over a horse-racing debt until death was the only answer.

Americans like to think of dueling as antique, elitist and purely European. Not our kind of thing at all. Our historians and biographers ignore gentlemanly dueling as much as possible, though the historic air is blue with accounts of rude Western types plugging each other in places like Dodge City. Only one formal American duel can’t be politely overlooked in our textbooks; such schoolchildren as still learn history learn that Aaron Burr shot and killed Alexander Hamilton. When they do, they’re shocked. Accustomed as they are to random murders, the formality of the occasion and the importance of the players seem alarming. How was it possible that after the duel Burr went not to prison but back to Washington, D.C. to resume his presidency of the United States Senate?

Many confuse Burr with the likes of John Wilkes Booth: assassins both. Nobody tells the children that the Burr-Hamilton matter (Smithsonian, November 1976) wasn’t a uniquely gruesome crime but quite an ordinary event. Or that affairs of the kind were faithful to an ancient code of honorable behavior and, by the 19th century, so characteristic of American political and journalistic life that the Rev. Lyman Beecher, father of Henry Ward and Harriet, once cried out, “We are murderers, a nation of murderers.” Nobody mentions that Hamilton, not quite the textbook’s martyred innocent, had been a principal in 11 previous affairs of honor, mostly aborted, including clashes with the abrasive John Adams and the otherwise easygoing James Monroe; or that Hamilton’s son Philip was killed in a duel.

We’d like to forget that only in recent times has American umbrage mutated into highway wars in which rival commuters run each other’s cars off the road, or into lesser rituals like libel suits in which honor is restored by cash instead of blood.

Scholars suppose that dueling took root with the most primitive judicial systems, when disputes insoluble by witness testimony were solved in a trial by combat. The lower classes bashed each other with cudgels and staves in their customary fashion; the gentry used more gentrified weapons. On the hazy theory that God identified the good guy and lent him a hand, the winner, whether he did his own fighting or hired a proxy, was more than just the winner. By the fact of winning he was held to be innocent of the charges brought; he was honest, and the defeated man a liar; the disputed land, or ox, or fair maiden was rightfully his.

The ritual battle moved out of the courts and into the world. Gallant knights in heavy armor challenged fellow knights according to an established code, making the welkin ring with sword blows. In spite of periodic bannings, personal combat spread. It appealed to young aristocrats with too much time on their hands. Landowners laid out and leased special dueling sites, complete with bleachers for onlookers. In France, the judicial trial by combat was officially abolished in 1385—and was occasionally unabolished in the centuries to come. Queen Elizabeth I squashed it in England about 1570. Yet the private duel of honor, which was sometimes graciously attended by the reigning monarch, was just hitting its stride.

Young men from all over Europe slipped off to Italy to learn the art of fencing at the flourishing schools there. It was in Italy that the first essential manual on dueling, Flos duellatorum, was published in 1410, and every medieval gentleman studied it closely. Traveling fencing masters spread out and founded their own schools. By 1480 in Germany such schools, called Fechtschulen, enjoyed privileges conferred by the emperor himself, establishing a tradition beloved by the military and students in dueling clubs until well into the 20th century—perhaps, it’s hinted, even today.

In 1527 Charles V, overlord of the Holy Roman Empire, declared that Francis I of France had broken a treaty and was, as Charles would have it, “a stranger to honor and integrity becoming a gentleman.” Francis challenged him. Charles accepted. Their duel, like so many, fizzled away in preliminary negotiations. It was finally canceled, but news of the plans between the two most powerful men in Europe sparked fresh enthusiasm all over the continent. Dueling was plainly the socially correct thing to do.

Their first shots went wild, but in the second round Lady de Nestle was badly wounded.

Battles of honor with various sharp instruments became a favorite pastime in England, Scotland, Spain, Italy, Austria and Germany. For Irish laddies, dueling became an essential rite of passage. In France, swordplay developed into such an obsession that Henry IV was alarmed enough to outlaw it in 1599. His subjects paid no attention. Even though an apology or a few drops of blood often ended such matters, it has been claimed that during a peak 180-year period, 40,000 Frenchmen died of dueling wounds. The figure does not seem so preposterous when you learn that in just one decade under Henry IV, as many as 6,000 dueling deaths occurred. Even women joined in. In 1721, a Lady de Nestle met the Countess de Polignac with pistols in the gardens of Versailles over the handsome Duc de Richelieu. Their first shots went wild, but in the second round de Nestle was badly wounded. In the reign of Louis XIV, Madame de St. Belmont, dressed as a man, met a cavalry officer on the designated field and promptly disarmed him with her sword. It is by no coincidence that the Three Musketeers, who never parted from their swords, are French national heroes—along with Cyrano de Bergerac who outpointed 100 assailants at a time, presumably while composing and reciting his own verse.

By the 1700s dueling textbooks were less concerned with the fine points of swordplay than with the fine points of personal honor, the etiquette involved in exactly when a challenge was required, how to deliver it, how to accept it, and how to emerge, dead or alive, washed clean of the disrespectful look, word or gesture. The semiofficial Code Duello was adopted in Ireland in 1777 and spread rapidly. Its 36 rules laid out the proper conditions for upper-class combat, the wording of challenges, and the right of the challenged to choose the place and weapons. The rules were paramount; if they were broken, it wasn’t a duel at all, merely an unseemly brawl.

The rules of swordplay had long been established, but when guns took over the field, the seconds had more leeway in negotiating matters like distance, the number of shots to be fired, and when. Sometimes a second would call “Ready?” and the duelists, back-to-back, their weapons at their sides, would march forward to the count of paces, wheel and fire. More usually, the seconds measured off the distance and drew their marks. The principals often stood sideways to each other, sucking in their stomachs to narrow the target. One of the seconds counted, “Fire, one, two, three”; it was bad form to fire before “one” or after “three.”

Only another gentleman could meet a gentleman. If a churl insulted a gentleman, the gentleman might have him flogged, but there was no way he could honorably avenge himself face-to-face. Not that it mattered: a peasant’s insult was no insult at all. Among the elite, however slight a slight might be, it could not decently go unchallenged and no challenge could decently go unmet.

Like bungee jumping, rock climbing and other dangerous customs, duels were popular because they were exciting. They offered the restless young an outlet for natural aggressions. With this in mind when he ran for mayor of New York, Norman Mailer called for real jousting in Central Park. Duels spiked the testosterone; they provided the heady rush of risk without the large-scale cost and inconvenience of going to war. They impressed fair ladies. They impressed one’s peers. They impressed those who might grant advancement at court or in the military, illegal or not. In short, they looked good on the résumé.

Alexandre Dumas (Smithsonian, July 1996), writing in the mid-19th century of the glory days of the 17th, gave the world the merrily fearless Athos, Porthos, Aramis and d’Artagnan, parents of dozens of rousing movies. (One of Dumas’s Musketeers at least was based on a real firebrand, Armand de Sillègue, Lord of Athos, who died by the sword in 1643.) As the young hero, d’Artagnan, sets forth to seek his fortune, his father lectures him: “. . . never tolerate the slightest affront from anyone except the cardinal or the king. . . . Fight duels at the drop of a hat, especially since duels are forbidden: that means it takes twice as much courage to fight one.”

Who could resist?

Duel-wise, America hit the ground running. The ink of his signature on the Declaration of Independence was barely dry before the brilliant Button Gwinnett was killed at 12 paces by Gen. Lachlan McIntosh, of the battling McIntosh clan, in a matter concerning a Colonial appointment.

By this time pairs of dueling pistols had come into their own as specialized weapons, elegant and, for their day, accurate. The earliest were made in England, and Americans ordered them from there until makers like Constable of Philadelphia and Cooper of New York were producing their own. Usually about .50 caliber, exquisitely engraved and housed in velvet-lined mahogany boxes with their own cleaning rods and accessories, they became a distinguished element in any gentleman’s haberdashery.

Until the 1830s, many were fitted with hair triggers, requiring only the most tentative touch. A man who, through nerves or inexperience, touched too soon would shoot a tree or the ground, depending on whether his arm was falling or rising. But for less ham-handed duelists, the hair trigger allowed not only a faster shot but a more accurate one, too.

Edgar Allan Poe challenged one of the paper’s editors but showed up too drunk to shoot.

Hair triggers fell into disrepute, but speed and accuracy continued to improve, particularly for shooting at greater distances. (In 1834 Alexander McClung, inveterate Southern duelist, set a new record by fatally shooting his man in the mouth with a percussion pistol at over a hundred feet.)

Like so much of our Old World baggage, the duel underwent a sea change in crossing the Atlantic. Here, fair maidens and a gentleman’s honor soon became less of a problem than politics. The new country took its politics to heart; almost from the beginning of the Republic all political factions considered all other political factions a threat to the country and a personal insult. They called each other not just traditional things like “liar,” “coward,” “puppy” and “poltroon,” but “fornicator,” “madman” and “bastard”; they accused each other of incest, treason and consorting with the Devil. Political debate often led straight to whatever secluded local spot had been set aside to soak up the blood of satisfaction.

It was political suicide to suffer an affront without challenging, or to decline a challenge. Such things had a way of getting around, by way of dinner parties, pseudonymous newspaper articles or the purely American custom, popular clear into the 1890s, of “posting” in taverns and on street corners notices that called the coward a coward. (Posting was also a common way of issuing a challenge in the first place.) Obeying the code of honor showcased a man’s courage, integrity and conviction, and marked him as leadership material. It was a wise career move. One James Jackson, at the tender age of 23, killed the lieutenant governor of Georgia for his “overbearing” manners and went on to become governor himself, as well as congressman and senator. Hamilton, explaining his acceptance of the Burr duel, wrote, “The ability to be in future useful, whether in resisting mischief or effecting good . . . would probably be inseparable from a conformity with public prejudice in this particular.” A pompous way of saying nobody would vote for or listen to a poltroon.

Judges, governors, senators, congressmen and rival candidates for office blazed or slashed away at each other. From 1795 until 1800, Federalists dueled with Republicans. After Jefferson’s election, Clintonian (so named for New York’s first governor, George Clinton) Republicans battled Burrite Republicans, and then went back to shooting Federalists. Decades later, when Andrew Jackson was polarizing the American political scene, an anti-Jacksonian, Col. Robert Crittenden, shot Jacksonian general Henry Conway through the heart.

The following year on Bloody Island, a favorite dueling site near St. Louis, Congressman Spencer Pettis, who was running for reelection from Missouri, and Army Postmaster Maj. Thomas Biddle, who had called Pettis “a bowl of skimmed milk,” killed each other at the brutal distance of five feet. Among many encounters in the corridors of power, Congressman Jonathan Cilley of Maine and Congressman William Graves of Kentucky had a falling out over a newspaper article and chose rifles at 80 paces; Cilley died.

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.)

Many Westerners didn’t own dueling pistols and used what they did have, homelier weapons, including the wicked bowie knife that could slice off a man’s nose like butter. In Denver versus Gilbert, the weapons were rifles at murderously close range. (With rifles, if your weapon misfired you were in deep trouble.) Around the same time and place Charles Lippincott, editor of the Sierra Citizen, killed a lawyer named Tevis in a duel with double-barreled shotguns loaded with ball at 40 yards. The effect was quite gruesome.

Even as late as mid-century there were few laws against dueling, and where such laws existed they proved hard to enforce, harder to prosecute and hardest to explain to a jury. Dueling was still considered, even by the federal lawmakers, as the mark of a manly and vigorous society and necessary to keep rude tongues in check. In 1838 Congress did make it illegal to offer or accept a challenge within the District of Columbia, but that same year Gov. John Wilson of South Carolina issued his 16-page pamphlet revising and updating the Code Duello for American use, even softening the European prejudice against fighting one’s social inferiors. It was a big seller, regularly reprinted for years.

Machismo could be more safely unleashed in making money, and legions of lawyers sprang up to defend, less colorfully but more profitably, our good names in libel suits.

By 1859, eighteen states had banned dueling, with little perceptible effect. Indignant duelists—with their seconds, attending physicians and sometimes crowds of onlookers in tow—continued to troop out of town or across a state border or simply into a grove of trees to settle their differences. New Yorkers slipped across the river to New Jersey, to Hoboken or to Weehawken, where Hamilton met Burr. The dueling doctors of New Orleans repaired, like all the bloods of that mettlesome town, to a grove known as “The Oaks” to settle medical matters—surgical methods, purges, poultices and the proper treatment of typhoid—with sword and pistol.

Islands and sandbars were popular because of their ambiguous jurisdiction. Richmond duelists headed for Belle Isle in the James River. Vidalia, in the Mississippi, was favored in Natchez, in part because it was convenient for the citizens to row over and watch. Bloody Island served St. Louis. Memphis duelists often crossed the river to Arkansas to fight, while farther south, Arkansans repaired to the mouth of the White River in Mississippi. Mid-river, on a paddle-wheel steamer, was another oasis, and James Bowie killed a gambler in a duel over a card game aboard the Orleans.

Most famous of all was the more-or-less-official national dueling ground in Bladensburg, Maryland, a convenient mile or so beyond the District of Columbia line. Here, on 15 vine-choked acres, a hundred or more duels were fought. It has been described as “the court of last resort, in which weighty points of etiquette, social and political problems and questions of veracity, propriety and right were expounded by the convincing power of gunpowder.” It was here that Gen. Armistead Mason died by a shotgun slug from his cousin, Col. John McCarty. It was here that Commodore Stephen Decatur, a brave and dashing officer, fell.

The Navy had long treasured its dueling tradition; a copy of the Code Duello was in every midshipman’s handbook, and until the Civil War no niggling official rules hampered naval dueling. In 1808 Decatur sat on the court-martial board that suspended Capt. James Barron, in effect, for mishandling a confrontation with the British Navy, and Barron went abroad to brood. Decatur became the wildly popular hero of the War of 1812 and coiner of the phrase “Our country, right or wrong.” When Barron came back and asked to be reinstated, Decatur opposed him. Barron called him out, and they met at Bladensburg, eight paces apart. Decatur, 41 years old and by all accounts as sweet-natured as he was brave, died that night; Barron lived to be 89.

Around 1857 Bladensburg’s bloody ground was cleared, plowed and planted. Dueling, however, fueled by the passions of the impending Civil War, was hardly deterred. Indeed, the Civil War itself, and the Southern response to it, sometimes seems more an affair of honor than a war, involving what might be called collective personal pride more than common sense or public advantage.

The temper of the country was shifting, however. By war’s end, enough blood had been shed to give many a distaste for the deliberate gore of dueling. Public opinion, the only effective court, changed, and anti-dueling laws were enforced. The lawless territories settled into respectable statehood. Commerce flourished, and a man’s reputation came to rest more on his cash than his courage; and besides, the war had left a backlog of certified heroes who didn’t need to prove themselves under further fire.

Dueling lingered in the reckless Far West and the proud-tempered South. It wasn’t until 1893 that Joseph Bryan, Confederate hero and editor of the influential Richmond Times, rejected a challenge, calling the custom “absurd and barbarous,” and was widely applauded for his stand. The custom ground slowly to a halt.

The mahogany cases of pistols went to the attic. As the 20th century dawned, politics became less central to our emotional lives. Manhood could be exercised in making money. Legions of lawyers sprang up to defend our good names in libel suits, less colorful but safer and more profitable. Maybe the Founding Fathers would be proud of us. Maybe they’d feel we’ve made great strides in honorable behavior. On the other hand, maybe they’d feel we’ve degenerated into a nation of greedy poltroons without spirit or conviction, unworthy to meet a true gentleman at ten paces.

Here and there, though, the tradition lingered on. In 1959, in Hollywood, Barney Silva, co-owner of a chain of Los Angeles restaurants, experienced irreconcilable differences with jazz musician Jack Sorin over one Dorothy Simon. Resolving to do the thing right, the two men marked off ten paces in Silva’s living room, wheeled, and fired. Both died.

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