originally published September 9, 2014
Allow us a moment to reflect upon our broken culture and praise the glorious days of yore – the days of righteous morality, of a productive and contributory collective ethos, and of… duelling. Stupid friggin’ duelling.
Of all the ridiculous traditions that we hauled on our societal backs from the grubby landscape of the Middle Ages, duelling has to be among the most laughable. Honor and respect marked the blinding colors of the duelling flag, and men chose to end one another’s lives rather than take the more accepted modern approach of simply living in a perpetual state of passive-aggressive loathing.
When gloves would slap faces in 19th century St. Louis, the moment of stone-chinned confrontation would usually take place on a small divot of land in the middle of the Mississippi River called Bloody Island. This sandbar had crept above the water’s surface in 1798, and throughout that renegade century, Bloody Island was a lawless haven for antiquated honor defense.
Authorities agreed to look the other way when duels were to be fought on this crunchy piece of turf midway between Missouri and Illinois. Firing at pistols at one another in either state was illegal, but on Bloody Island nobody cared. It was all about nobility, about virtue, about manhood… and whatever.
Thomas Hart Benton (also called “Old Bullion”, probably because he was a big fan of chicken soup cubes) was a Missouri Senator who pushed strongly for western expansion of the United States. He also pushed a little too hard upon the feelings of one Charles Lucas while they were battling over a land deal in court, back when Benton was an attorney. The two exchanged rather public words, which culminated when Benton had the audacity to call Lucas a “puppy.”
A puppy. More vile words were never spoken.
Lucas demanded satisfaction. The two met on Bloody Island one morning in 1817, pistols at the ready. Both men hit their marks; Lucas was shot in the throat, Benton just below the knee. They survived, but eventual-Senator Benton became displeased at hearing the story as Lucas was telling it to his friends, painting Benton as the moron. Benton demanded a re-duel. Lucas agreed, and Old Bullion shot him dead.
Joshua Barton was the first Secretary of State for the great state of Missouri. He also happened to be Charles Lucas’s second in his duels with Thomas Hart Benton; the ‘second’ is usually a friend of the dueler, who acts as the last-ditch intermediary to see if a bloodless resolution could be achieved before shots were fired. Clearly ‘bloodless’ was not Joshua’s forte.
Joshua’s brother, Senator David Barton, had opposed the appointment of a guy named William Rector to the position of Surveyor General for the state. Joshua published some trash-talking letters about Rector in the St. Louis Republican, and found himself challenged to a duel by Rector’s brother, Thomas. The two met on Bloody Island in 1823, and Thomas won the duel, blasting a fatal hole in the Secretary of State. Thomas would end up dead in a knife fight two years later, and his brother William still never received the cushy government appointment.
In what might be the most dastardly awesome duel in the history of Bloody Island, a war hero named Thomas Biddle was called out by Congressman Spencer Darwin Pettis, as the two had been engaged for some time in a very public feud. The “Code Duello” (fancy-speak for the customs surrounding this barbaric form of projectile-enhanced debate) states that the person who is challenged to the duel may select the weapons and distance parameters for the fight.
Thomas Biddle selected pistols. At five feet.
Five feet meant that each party would take one or two steps before turning, and that the barrels of their guns would probably be side by side as they fired. Biddle figured there was no way Pettis would go through with such a ridiculous set-up, and that he’d back out of the duel gracefully.
He did not.
Crowds gathered on both sides of the Mississippi and watched as the two men quite literally shot one another at point-blank range. The story goes that both men forgave one another as they were being carted off the island, but that might simply be the swooping brush of doctored history. What remains as fact is that both men were dead within hours.
James Shields, who would serve as an Illinois State Senator in 1849, challenged Illinois lawyer Abraham Lincoln to a duel some seven years earlier, over a series of letters Lincoln had allegedly written and published in the Sangamon Journal. Abe had written the first letter (which poked fun at Shields, whose political views were quite in opposition to Abe’s), but the remainder had been written by a friend of Abe’s future wife. Nevertheless, Shields called out Lincoln for all of them.
Abe selected the cavalry broadsword for their duel. Then, before it was underway, he reached above Shields and sliced down a branch, demonstrating that his massive frame (and reach) would put him at a significant advantage. The two men’s seconds stepped in, and Shields was spared the indignity of being cleaved by a future president; the duel was called off.
Then the editor of the St. Louis Dispatch, Benjamin Gratz Brown believed the slaves should be emancipated. District attorney Thomas C. Reynolds felt they should remain slaves. Rather than engage in a moderated debate on the issue, Reynolds challenged Brown to a duel on Bloody Island in 1856. Brown took a bullet in the leg that gave him a life-long limp, while his shot failed to hit his target. Neither party was dead, but the duel was over. Nobody wanted to take another run at it.
This duel – one of the last infamous duels of Bloody Island – came to be known as the Duel of the Governors, as Reynolds became Missouri’s Confederate Governor during the war, and Brown would be elected the state’s governor once Missouri had rejoined the Union. I wonder if the two of them ever got together and laughed about this. I’m guessing no.
Bloody Island’s reputation began to fade as dueling became a more properly outlawed activity. Eventually the strategic placement of dams and dikes changed the water level in the river, and Bloody Island became joined with the coastline on the Illinois side. Now it’s just an empty strip of dirt alongside North Front Street, more likely to host a pair of passed-out drunks than a duo eager to take one another’s life in a ridiculous out-dated ritual. That’s a big step up, if you ask me.