10 Paces and Turn…


Being in a quite brutal and bloody minded mood the last few days, the following wonderful exploration of dueling I discovered on Curious Expeditions went down a treat. After all, haven’t we all occasionally had to urge to call someone out over a suitably dramatic grievance, and then happily launch a good sized ball of lead into their chest?

OK…some of us have that urge a bit more then occasionally..but still, using the Code Duello is so much more graceful then simply running them down with a car or faking a gas main explosion.

The following delightful article is from the always enchanting Curious Expeditions.

Look also in the article for information about the Hamilton/Burr duel, which I have mentioned in a pervious posting.

Throwing down the Gauntlet

It was a delightful and unexpected sight. In the middle of a maritime museum in Dubrovnik, Croatia, was a beautiful set of antique pistols. This, however, wasn’t just any pair of pistols. No, these single shot pistols, with their heavy barrels, solid grips, and hair triggers, these pistols had a specific purpose. These were dueling pistols.

The counting of steps, the smell of gunpowder, the sound of clashing swords. The duel; gentleman’s right, settler of disputes, restorer of honor. Today one likely wouldn’t know a duel challenge if they saw one. Instead of the oft depicted glove slap across the face, the challenge was usually signaled when a gentleman threw his glove down in front of the scoundrel who had disgraced his honor. It was then acceptable for the scoundrel to slap the challenger across the face. This seems like it would only make things worse, but perhaps that was the idea.

It medieval times, the “glove” thrown down was the metal hand armor worn by knights, or as the hand armor was called, the gauntlet. Today gauntlets are still the signifier of a challenge issued. Throwing down the mitten just doesn’t quite do. So the gauntlet is thrown and the duel is on.

Nothing is more closely associated with 18th and 19th century manly pride then the duel. But duels weren’t just a Gentlemen’s game. There were in fact, a number of “petticoat duels” between women.

The most famous of these female duels is the 1792 duel between Lady Almeria Braddock and Mrs. Elphinstone, regarding a comment over Lady Braddock’s true age. The ladies dueled first with single shot pistols. The duel came within a foot of fatal when Mrs. Elpinstone’s shot went through Lady Braddock’s hat. Despite the calls of their seconds (every principle duelist must have a second, a sort of right hand man – or madame, in this case) to cease and desist, the determined ladies switched to swords. A short round of fencing ensued, and Mrs. Elphinstone was wounded in the arm. Through her pain, she agreed to write a letter of apology. Honor restored, the ladies curtsied and headed home.

When Americans think of duels, they naturally think of the infamous Hamilton Burr duel. It is a rather sad duel, as far as duels go. Not least because the grounds they dueled on were the very same grounds where Hamiltons son Phillip had dueled and been slain not long before. Though an issue of some historical contention, it is likely that Hamilton, unbeknownst to Burr, had decided to delop (duel terminology for the fairly common practice of purposely missing) and shot well above Burr. Burr, having no knowledge that Hamilton was going to delop, shot true, catching Hamilton in the hip. Though Burr was justified in his action, the duel was nonetheless seen as atrocious, and Burr was prosecuted and shunned.

It should be noted that had the men had more informed and helpful seconds, the whole thing need not have happened. The unsung heroes of the duel, seconds had a number of purposes. Among them was witnessing the duel to make sure it was fair, shooting a cheater on sight, (this included, on occasion, their own principle) ensuring the rules of the duel were obeyed, and sometimes even dueling in the place of the principle or with the other second. (This is what happened when Andrew Jackson, acting as second in a duel, was blamed for one of the participants being shot in the butt. The whole thing ended with Jackson being shot in the shoulder in a down and dirty gun and knife fight with the duelers in a city hotel.)

The most important of the second’s many responsibilities, was the duty to act as the communication link between the principle duelers. The two seconds would meet and talk honestly, in hopes of coming to a resolution that didn’t involve dueling. If Hamilton’s second had merely subtly informed Burr’s second that Hamilton intended to delop, the whole mess could have been settled relatively peaceably. A good second is much better in a duel than even the finest pistol.

There were other ways to avoid a duel besides good seconds or deloping. When challenged to a duel, the challengee usually had his or her choice of weapons. One excellent way to avoid dueling was to choose weapons either ridiculous or obviously suicidal. Howitzers, shotguns at five paces, sledgehammers, forkfuls of pig dung, and cat urine have been chosen as duel weapons. Abe Lincoln chose long swords fought on a small sandbar, which gave the lanky Lincoln a notable advantage. The duel was called off.

The sea captain and ex-whaler, S.M.Harvey, was challenged to a duel by a Creole gentleman after Harvey punched the Creole during a card game. The Captain thought about it, then told the man’s second that his choice of weapons was to be whale harpoons at twenty paces. The ex-whaler proceeded to demonstrate the use of the harpoon by splintering a tree in his backyard. The challenge was quickly dropped.

Edgar Allen Poe once managed to avoid a duel (one he started) by showing up too drunk to shoot.

If there was no way around having a duel, you might as well make it interesting. One duel between Frenchmen was said to have been fought by bludgeoning each other with billiard balls. A rather apocryphal duel was supposed to have been fought in 1400 between a man and a dog. There was the duel between the court dwarf and the man who had said the dwarf would lose in a fight to a turkey. (The dwarf shot the man through the heart.)

There was the infamous dueler “Humanity Dick.” An outspoken animal rights activist and founder of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, he had no such love for humankind. Richard “Humanity Dick” Martin fought in over a hundred duels, and was also known as “Hairtrigger Dick.” Then there was the man who fought a duel in his underwear. A doctor, he did so to avoid infection from his filthy clothing, should he get shot.

However, in the opinion of Curious Expeditions, one duel trumps them all. The duel fought by two Frenchmen in 1808, in hot air balloons over Paris. From James Landale, author of the book Duel, a True Story of Death and Honor

“Two Frenchmen chose to fight from balloons over Paris because they believed they had ‘elevated minds’. Monsieur de Grandpre and Monsieur de Pique quarreled over a famous dancer called Mademoiselle Tirevit, who was mistress of one and lover of the other. So, at 9am on May 3, 1808, watched by a huge crowd, the two Parisians climbed into their aircraft near the Tuileries and rose gently up in to the morning air. At about 2,000 feet, when the balloons were about 80 yards apart, de Pique fired his crude blunderbuss and miss. De Grandpre aimed his more effectively. De Pique’s balloon collapsed, the basket tipped, and he and his second fell headfirst to their deaths on the rooftops below. De Granpre and his second, however, drifted happily away in the light north-westerly breeze before landing safely 20 miles away.”

The lesson to be learned from the two elevated Frenchmen? If you’re going duel, think big.

For more information on duels try this, and this excellent Smithsonian articles, the dueling wiki, the famous duels wiki and this wonderful resource. More on petticoat duels, dueling pistols here and listverses great list of top 10 duels.


1 Comment

  1. On the whole, having considered…I’d rather be shot than spattered with cat urine, thank you. I can see why that would be a tactic that would cause a duel’s cancellation.

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