Dueling with either swords or pistols was once considered the most gentlemanly way of resolving any kind of personal dispute or dishonor. Two duelers, armed and accompanied by their assistants, or “seconds,” to ensure a fair fight, would meet at a designated time and place to settle once and for all any grievances that divided them.
Contrary to what many people think, however, these fights were not always to the death—nor were they rare. In fact, some of the most famous names were involved in some kind of dueling disagreement at some point, from French artists and authors to American politicians, German composers, and even serving British Prime Ministers.
1. GEORGE FRIDERIC HANDEL
The renowned composer of the Messiah oratorio only narrowly escaped death in a duel with fellow composer Johann Mattheson in December 1704. According to at least one account of the story, the pair had initially quarreled when Handel refused to let Mattheson take over from him at the harpsichord during a performance of Mattheson’s new opera Cleopatra (it was custom back then to for the opera’s director to play the harpsichord, and since Mattheson had just wrapped his role as Antony for the evening, he wanted to step in).
The argument spilled out into the lobby of the theater and then out into the streets, where it soon escalated into an impromptu duel with swords: Mattheson struck Handel sharply in the chest with his blade, but an ornate metal button on Handel’s overcoat prevented him from being injured, and the duel was promptly abandoned. Happily, he and Mattheson reconciled shortly afterwards and remained close the rest of their lives—when Handel died in 1759, Mattheson funded the German translation and publication of his late friend’s biography.
2. LEO TOLSTOY
In his autobiographical essay A Confession (1882), Leo Tolstoy, the famed author of War and Peace and Anna Karenina, wrote of his early adulthood that:
I cannot think of those years without horror, loathing and heartache. I killed men in war and challenged men to duels in order to kill them. I lost at cards, consumed the labor of the peasants, sentenced them to punishments, lived loosely, and deceived people. Lying, robbery, adultery of all kinds, drunkenness, violence, murder—there was no crime I did not commit.
Precisely who Tolstoy dueled with and why is unclear, but perhaps the most famous duel of his lifetime was one that didn’t actually take place: In 1861, Tolstoy angrily fell out with his literary mentor Ivan Turgenev after he made a dig at Turgenev's daughter, and both novelists subsequently wrote to one another demanding a duel. After a string of miscommunications and poorly timed letters, they somewhat reconciled and the duel itself never came to pass.
Tolstoy wasn’t the most famous duelist in his family, however: His uncle Count Fyodor Ivanovich Tolstoy is believed to have killed as many as 11 men in duels throughout his lifetime.
3. MIGUEL DE CERVANTES
An arrest warrant dating from September 1569 ordered the capture of a 22-year-old “Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra,” who was wanted for wounding a master builder named Antonio de Sigura in a duel. This is believed to be the same Miguel de Cervantes who eventually became one of Spain’s most celebrated authors, but if so, precisely what sparked the duel between him and Sigura is unclear. The arrest warrant and the prospective punishment (if caught, Cervantes faced having his right hand cut off and a decade of banishment from the country) were, however, enough to cause Cervantes to flee his home in Madrid and take up residence in Rome, 1000 miles away.
He didn’t return to Spain until 1580, during which time he lost the use of his left hand fighting at the Battle of Lepanto and was imprisoned in Algeria by pirates for five years. Despite all these hardships, however, Cervantes went on to publish the first volume of his masterpiece, Don Quixote, in 1605.
4. ANDREW JACKSON
Andrew Jackson is believed to have participated in as many as 100 duels during his lifetime, including one in which the 39-year-old future president shot and killed a man named Charles Dickinson in 1806. Dickinson, a trainee lawyer and rival horse breeder from Tennessee, became embroiled in a four-way disagreement with Jackson, Jackson’s friend, and Dickinson’s father-in-law over an apparent gambling debt. This led to Dickinson calling Jackson a “coward and an equivocator,” and publishing a statement in the the local newspaper that labeled Jackson a “scoundrel” and a “poltroon.” It’s possible that during this time, Dickinson made the mistake of taking aim at Jackson’s wife, Rachel, whom he called a “bigamist” for having mistakenly married Jackson before her divorce from her first husband had been finalized.
In response, Jackson challenged Dickinson to a duel, and the pair met at Harrison’s Mill in Kentucky (as dueling was outlawed in Tennessee) on May 30, 1806. Dickinson, a superb marksman, shot first and struck Jackson in the chest, just missing his heart. Jackson staggered back, but managed to aim and fire. The gun misfired, and—in a breach of dueling etiquette—Jackson recocked the gun and fired again, hitting Dickinson in the abdomen; according to the New York Times, "Mr. Dickinson bled to death over many hours, in terrible agony." The bullet that struck Jackson, meanwhile, could not be safely removed by surgery and remained embedded in his chest for the rest of his life.
5. ABRAHAM LINCOLN
In August 1842, Abraham Lincoln used the pseudonym "Rebecca" to write a scathing editorial criticizing the State Auditor of Illinois, James Shields, and his questionable plans to close the Illinois State Bank and to refuse to endorse its banknotes. Enraged, Shields tracked down the article's real author and wrote a letter demanding Lincoln apologize. In response, Lincoln returned the letter, suggesting that Shields rewrite it in a more “gentlemanly” fashion. Thoroughly offended, Shields challenged Lincoln to a duel.
At 6 feet 4 inches tall, Lincoln knew he was too big a target to risk a gunfight, and so requested the duel be played out with broadswords. Suitably armed, the pair met on Bloody Island in the Missouri stretch of the Mississippi River. But before the fight could begin, Lincoln swung his sword far above 5-foot-9-inch-tall Shields’s head, tearing down an immense branch from a nearby tree. And yet, Shields still insisted on fighting. It was only after some of their friends ran over that Shields was able to be talked down.
6. BEN JONSON
One of the most famous duels in literary history took place on September 22, 1598, when the playwright Ben Jonson fought with a 20-year-old actor named Gabriel Spencer in Hoxton Fields in central London. Precisely what led to the duel is unclear, but most accounts presume it was instigated by Spencer, who had killed another man, James Feake, in a swordfight two years earlier. Jonson openly admitted to Spencer’s manslaughter, but was spared being hanged through “benefit of clergy,” an ancient legal get-out clause that allowed those able to prove their literacy to escape capital punishment. Instead, Jonson was briefly imprisoned and branded on his left thumb.
7. WILLIAM PITT THE YOUNGER
In 1798, the British Prime Minister Pitt the Younger was confronted in the House of Commons by an opposing politician named George Tierney, who had taken exception to Pitt’s plan to bolster the British Navy to offset the threat of Napoleon’s France. Pitt, who was well known for his hot-headed and stubborn behavior, accused Tierney of not wanting to defend the country. Tierney responded by challenging Pitt to a duel, and the pair met before a small crowd on Putney Heath in London on May 27. At a distance of 12 paces, both fired two shots; neither man, and neither bullet, struck its intended target.
8. THE DUKE OF WELLINGTON
Incredibly, Pitt wasn’t the only Prime Minister to get himself embroiled in a duel while still in office. In 1829, the Duke of Wellington, Arthur Wellesley, challenged the Earl of Winchilsea, Sir George Finch-Hatton, to a duel when the Earl angrily challenged Wellington’s decision to pass the Catholic Relief Act and accused him of allowing “the introduction of Popery into every department of the State.”
The pair met at Battersea in London on March 21, but both sides made it clear they thought things had gone too far. Wellington shot first and missed his target (although no one is sure if the miss was deliberate or just because he was a poor shot). In response, Winchilsea fired his shot into the air. Winchilsea then presented Wellington with an apology—which Wellington refused, and then threatened to restart the duel. But cooler heads prevailed and Wellington accepted a second apology, ending the kerfuffle.
9. ÉDOUARD MANET
In 1870, a Parisian art critic named Louis Edmond Duranty wrote a conspicuously brief review of an exhibition given by his friend, the artist Édouard Manet, that read: “M. Manet showed a philosopher trampling oyster shells, and a watercolor of his Christ with Angel.” The concise write-up was hardly the glowing review Manet had anticipated, and in response, he confronted Duranty in a coffee shop two days later, slapped him in the face, and challenged him to a duel.
The pair met in the forest of Saint-Germain-en-Laye, ten miles west of Paris, on February 23. During the violent swordfight that ensued, Duranty was struck in the chest. Duranty fought on until the pair’s seconds (Manet’s assistant was none other than the novelist Émile Zola) stepped in to stop the fight. They declared the matter resolved, and Manet and Duranty quickly reconciled. They remained good friends.
10. MARCEL PROUST
In 1897, a French journalist named Jean Lorrain wrote a damning review of Marcel Proust’s book Pleasure and Days, in which he slanderously accused Proust of having a gay affair with Lucien Lemaire, the son of his friend and the book’s illustrator, Madeleine Lemaire. Lorrain’s accusation could have landed Proust in prison, and as a result he furiously challenged Lorrain—who was, ironically, openly gay himself—to a duel. They met one afternoon a few days later in the Meudon Forest just outside Paris: Proust fired first but missed, while Lorrain’s shot misfired, at which point the duel was brought to an inconclusive end. Proust, however, got the last word by using Lorraine as a partial inspiration for the Baron de Charlus in Remembrance of Things Past (1913-27).