5 Silly Reasons People Decided to Duel
For thousands of years, men and women have risked their lives fighting duels for lofty reasons like honor, integrity, and justice. These are not those duels.
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1. He Wanted to Wear Imported Suits
Henry Clay vs. Humphrey Marshall
There was a time when it wasn’t that unusual for politicians to duel their rivals. Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr famously dueled after years of important political disagreements about the direction of the newly independent America. But some politicians didn’t need anything nearly that serious before they started shooting at the opposition.
In 1809, Henry Clay was Speaker of Kentucky’s House of Representatives. With relations between the United States and Great Britain at their worst since the Revolution, Clay put forward a seemingly unimportant bill, but one meant to thumb the House’s nose at England. The bill stated that all members of the House must wear suits made of homespun cloth, rather than that imported from the British Isles.
It seems innocent enough, but two members of the Kentucky House of Representatives, including Humphrey Marshall, refused to vote yes on the bill. While this may have been partially to antagonize the Speaker (he and Clay were not friends), Marshall was also a wealthy and “aristocratic” lawyer, who apparently felt so strongly about wearing his expensive suits made from imported cloth that angry words were exchanged between the two on the floor of the chamber. That night, Clay challenged Marshall to a duel.
A few days later the men faced each other on the banks of a creek and fired three shots each. Both men were injured in the duel but survived.
2. He Wore Your Watch in Public
James "Wild Bill" Hickok vs. Davis Tutt
In 1865, Wild Bill Hickok shot and killed Davis Tutt in the first ever “quick-draw” duel. While the Wild West and gunslingers evoke manly imagery, this gunfight was over the wearing of an accessory.
Despite having fought on different sides during the Civil War, Hickok and Tutt were good friends. They traveled together, drank together, and played poker together. While no one is sure when or why their friendship went sour, it may have started when Tutt began a relationship with an old flame of Hickok’s, who, in retaliation, started courting Tutt’s sister.
The straw that finally broke the camel’s back occurred during a card game. Tutt was the better gambler and Hickok owed him some money. Tutt took Hickok’s pocket watch as collateral for the loan since Hickok had failed to reimburse him. Hickok agreed, with the caveat that Tutt would not wear the watch in public. When Tutt started bragging about his new accessory around town the next day, it was on.
Tutt made sure to stand where Hickok would see him when he entered the town square. He flashed the pocket watch and when Hickok told him he better take it off, the two started for each other. When they were about 100 yards apart they fired simultaneously. Tutt fell down dead, Hickok escaped uninjured.
The duel was such a sensation that it was covered a year later in Harper’s Magazine.
3. He Claimed He Had More Birds Than You
William Byron vs. William Chaworth
In 1765, Lord William Byron, great uncle of that more famous Lord Byron, and his friend and neighbor William Chaworth dueled with swords in a private restaurant.
The two were cousins, neighbors and very good friends. They had been enjoying an expensive dinner with some important people when the subject turned to how best to hang birds after they were shot. This led to an argument and Chaworth eventually claimed his estate had more game birds than Byron’s. Both had been drinking and once the dinner was over they pulled their swords and asked a waiter to show them to an empty room. After hearing some commotion the waiter returned, finding Chaworth gravely injured.
When his cousin died of his wounds, Byron was tried for murder before the House of Lords. He was convicted of manslaughter but got off with a small fine. The duel earned him the nicknames "the Wicked Lord" and "the Devil Byron."
4. She Called You Old
Almeria Braddock vs. Mrs. Elphinstone
While duels between women were not as common, they were not unheard of. In 1792, Lady Almeria Braddock and a Mrs. Elphinstone fought what came to be known as “the petticoat duel.”
Mrs. Elphinstone made a social call to Lady Almeria’s house and while there paid her ladyship a very backhanded compliment, saying:
“You have been a very beautiful woman. You have a good… face even now but you must acknowledge that the lilies and roses are somewhat faded. Forty years ago, I am told, a young fellow could hardly gaze upon you with impunity.”
When Braddock insisted she was not even 30 years old, Mrs. Elphinstone retorted by saying her age was officially recorded as sixty-one. Enraged by this (probably accurate) accusation, the Lady challenged Elphinstone to a duel.
The two met in Hyde Park. They first shot with pistols at ten paces, but when no bullet hit its mark, ignoring the pleas of their friends to stop, they continued dueling with swords. Elphinstone eventually took a small injury to the arm and the ladies curtsied to each other and considered their honor restored.
5. He Called You 'Puppy'
Charles Lucas vs. Thomas Benton
In 1817, Charles Lucas and Thomas Hart Benton found themselves defending different sides of a court case. While plenty of lawyers have been on opposite sides of the courtroom without killing each other, Lucas and Hart held a grudge.
When they ran into each other at the voting booths a year later, Lucas questioned Benton’s eligibility to vote, implying he was too poor to own any property. Benton, a hot-headed man who had once injured Andrew Jackson in a tavern brawl, responded with the best insult he had. That night, Lucas challenged Benton to a duel, writing “I am informed you applied to me on the day of the election the epithet of 'Puppy.' If so I shall expect that satisfaction which is due from one gentleman to another for such an indignity.”
They fought not one but two duels over this “puppy” insult. Both escaped the first uninjured, but when rumors started that the duel had been unfair, they met again. That time the person whose job it was to shout “fire” messed up and Benton shot Lucas in the chest before he was able to draw his gun. Despite murdering his rival, Benton went on to become a US Senator.