7 Duels Between Women

iStock.com/ultramarinfoto
iStock.com/ultramarinfoto

Women and duels are often linked in the public imagination, but not because the ladies participated. The woman is usually relegated to the reason two gentlemen felt the need to wield their pistols at dawn in defense of her putative honor. In fact, most duels were fought over real or imagined slights to the parties themselves, not their lady friends, and gentlewomen were more than capable of demanding satisfaction for their own beefs. Some of those clashes were nothing short of epic.

1. ISABELLA DE CARAZZI VS. DIAMBRA DE POTTINELLA // MAY 25, 1552

Weapon(s) of Choice: Lances, maces, and swords

Isabella de Carazzi and Diambra de Pottinella were Neapolitan noblewomen and good friends until a man came between them. He was a handsome gentleman named Fabio de Zeresola who was very popular among the ladies of 16th century Naples. Isabella and Diambra had no idea he was seeing both of them until all three of them attended the same society wedding. Fabio cast a single glance at Isabella, a glance so ardent and penetrating that Diambra, who was next to Isabella at the time, immediately realized something was going on between them.

A short conversation later all was out in the open, and Isabella had cast the die when she insisted that Fabio loved her more and therefore, by the law of love, he belonged to her. Diambra claimed he loved her more and that Isabella was a liar. She was willing to die on that point, Diambra said, and so challenged her now-former friend to meet her six days hence in a field and to pick the weapons. Isabella chose full war gear: swords, lances, maces, shields, and armor-clad horses.

On the day of the duel, everyone who was anyone at the Naples court, including the Spanish viceroy, was present to witness this extraordinary event. Isabella arrived clad in blue wearing a helmet with a diamond in the crest, her horse's velvet mantle matching her clothes. Diambra wore green, the crest on her helmet a serpent of gold. Each lady took up her lance, and when the war trumpet blew, they charged each other with such ferocity that spectators could only marvel at their courage.

After the initial lance clash the women took up the maces, raining blows upon each other's shields. Isabella lost half her shield from a mace hit so powerful her horse stumbled and fell. Diambra dismounted her destrier and loudly demanded that Isabella surrender and admit Fabio de Zeresola was hers by right. Isabella took up her sword and charged Diambra, knocking her to the ground and cutting the straps of her helmet. Then she conceded that Diambra was the victor and to her belonged the spoils.

The news of this remarkable encounter spread like wildfire through the courts of Europe and the story was told for generations. Around a century later, Spanish artist Jusepe de Ribera painted it like a scene from ancient history or mythology.

2. THE COMTESSE DE POLIGNAC VS. THE MARQUISE DE NESLE // CA. 1719

Portrait of the Duke of Richelieu by Jean-Marc Nattier, 1732. // The History Blog 

Weapon(s) of Choice: Pistols

The Comtesse de Polignac had many lovers over the years, but for one of them she conceived such a mad passion that she challenged her replacement to one of the first duels fought with pistols. The casus belli was Armand de Vignerot du Plessis, 3rd Duke of Richelieu, great-grand-nephew of the dominant 17th century statesman and fictional foil of the Three Musketeers, Cardinal Richelieu. The duke's reputation as a ladies' man and manipulator of women was so well-established that Choderlos de Laclos was said to have based the character of Valmont in Les Liaisons Dangereuses on him. When he left Madame de Polignac for the Marquise de Nesle, he completely cut her off, refusing to even speak to her and driving her to ever-increasing heights of jealous frenzy.

When she could take it no more, Madame de Polignac challenged Madame de Nesle to a duel by letter. The chosen weapon was the pistol. The belligerents met in the Bois de Boulogne, saluted each other and fired their weapons. Madame de Nesle fell, her chest red with blood. Polignac, believing it a fatal blow, headed back toward her carriage, but not before hitting her enemy with a so-there line: "I will teach you the consequences of robbing a woman like me of her lover. If I had the perfidious creature in my power I would tear out her heart as I have blown out her brains."

Madame de Nesle's brains were fine. The shot had missed her chest and only grazed her shoulder. When she came to, she exulted that it had all been worth it because now that she had proved her love, the duke would be all hers. Naturally, the Duke of Richelieu immediately dumped the Marquise as a stage-five clinger and moved on to Charlotte Aglaé d'Orléans, daughter of the Regent of France.

3. PRINCESS SOPHIA AUGUSTA FREDERIKA OF ANHALT-ZERBST-DORNBURG VS. PRINCESS CHRISTIANE ANNA OF ANHALT-KÖTHEN // JUNE 1743

Grand Duchess Catherine two years after her first duel by L.Caravaque, 1745, Gatchina Museum. // The History Blog

Weapon(s) of Choice: Swords

Sophia and Christiane were German princesses, second cousins, and still teenagers when they developed a beef that could only be quashed by blood. The insult that drove them to lock swords in Sophia's bedroom when she was 14 and Christiane 17 has been lost to history, and the outcome of the challenge is unknown other than that both parties survived.

It must have been a formative experience for young Sophia. A year later, she converted to the Russian Orthodox religion and was betrothed to the future Peter III of Russia. Her new name was Catherine, and when she ascended the throne of all the Russians, she would be known as Catherine the Great. As ruler, her attitude toward dueling was markedly more tolerant than Peter the Great's had been. He made it a hanging offense, but she reformed the law, making the penalty for dueling a loss of social status. When it came to women's duels, she was even more tolerant: In 1765, she is said to have acted as second in eight different duels. Catherine insisted they only be fought until first blood, however; she disapproved of her court ladies killing each other.

4. OLGA ZAVAROVA VS. EKATERINA POLESOVA // JUNE 1829

Weapon(s) of Choice: Sabers

Olga Zavarova and Ekaterina Polesova were wealthy property owners and neighbors with a long history of neighborly disagreements. One of those disagreements escalated to the point where they decided to have it out once and for all and see who was left standing. Armed with their husbands' cavalry sabers, Olga and Ekaterina met in a birch grove. Their daughters, both 14, were present, and their daughters' governesses acted as seconds.

As per the protocol of the Code Duello, the seconds asked the combatants to reconcile. Not only did they refuse, but they were so riled up they threatened the governesses with violence for trying to stop them.

The duel was short and brutal. Olga took a blow to the head and died on the spot, but not before she stuck Ekaterina in the stomach. In the way of most gut wounds at the time, it too was fatal, but it took Ekaterina a long, painful day to die from it.

5. ALEXANDRA ZAVAROVA VS. ANNA POLESOVA // JUNE 1834

Weapon(s) of Choice: Sabers

Five years after the deaths of Olga and Ekaterina, those girls who had witnessed the violent deaths of their mothers picked up where their mothers had left off. Alexandra and Anna met in the same place, the birch grove, and had the same seconds, their own governesses. This time there was a clear victor: Alexandra Zavarova slew Anna Polesova and redeemed her dead mother's honor.

6. MADAME MARIE-ROSE ASTIÉ DE VALSAYRE VS. MISS SHELBY // MARCH 1886

Artist's rendition of Astié de Valsayre vs. Miss Shelby, Illustrated Police News, 10/04/1886. // The History Blog 

Weapon(s) of Choice: Swords

Madame Marie-Rose Astié de Valsayre was notorious in France for her vocal advocacy of feminist causes, which included women being allowed to wear trousers, get the vote, and have equal access to all professions as well as equal pay. She was also a doctor, inspired to learn the profession after serving as a nurse during the Franco-Prussian War (1870), an author—and an accomplished fencer. She founded a fencing club for women which dovetailed neatly into another favorite cause of hers: encouraging mothers to breast-feed their own children rather than employing wet nurses. The sport, she noted, is great for the pecs and thus great for nursing moms.

The American Miss Shelby was a doctor too, and it was a discussion over the comparative merits of French and American women doctors that sparked the animosity between them. Each considered their compatriots superior and things got heated. Miss Shelby may or may not have called Madame de Valsayre an idiot. Whatever the precise nature of the provocation, Astié gave Miss Shelby the classic glove slap to the face and a duel with swords ensued. They faced off in Belgium on the battlefield of Waterloo. In the second pass, Astié de Valsayre lightly wounded Miss Shelby on the arm, drawing first blood. Astié de Valsayre was declared the winner and the honor of France was restored.

There were no hard feelings. Astié gave Miss Shelby a shoutout as her "loyal adversary" a month later when she wrote to Catherine Booth, co-founder of the Salvation Army, informing her that unless she took her "pernicious doctrines" back home to England, Astié would be forced to demand satisfaction at arms. Mrs. Booth, then 57 years old and a pacifist who was against shedding blood even in self-defense, refused to respond to the provocation.

7. PRINCESS PAULINE METTERNICH VS. THE COUNTESS KIELMANNSEGG // AUGUST 1892

Princess Pauline Metternich, portrait by Edgar Degas, ca. 1865. // The History Blog

Weapon(s) of Choice: Rapiers

This is arguably the epitome of duels between high society women of the Victorian period. Princess Pauline Metternich was the granddaughter of statesman and Napoleonic-era giant Prince Klemens Wenzel von Metternich and the wife of his son Prince Richard von Metternich. (Yup, she married her uncle, her mother's half-brother.) A trendsetter, patron of the arts, and fixture of society in Paris and Vienna in the second half of the 19th century, Princess Pauline was of course involved in many charitable organizations. It was in her capacity as Honorary President of the Vienna Musical and Theatrical Exhibition that she quarreled with the Countess Kilmannsegg, wife of the Statthalter of Lower Austria and President of the Ladies Committee of the Vienna Musical and Theatrical Exhibition, apparently over the flower arrangements for the exhibition.

Whatever was said about those flowers could not be unsaid, and the Princess, then 56 years old, challenged the Countess to settle their dispute by blood. The two adversaries and their seconds, Princess Schwarzenberg and Countess Kinsky, traveled to Vaduz, the capital of Liechtenstein, and took to the field of honor. Presiding over the encounter was Baroness Lubinska who, unusually for women of the time, was a medical doctor—and a Listerite one at that. Her modern understanding of infection proved pivotal. Having seen many superficial battle wounds turn septic and fatal because fragments of dirty clothes were driven into them, the Baroness insisted both parties remove all clothing above the waist.

So the Princess Metternich and Countess Kilmannsegg, both topless, took up their swords to fight until first blood. After a few exchanges, the Princess received a small cut to the nose and the Countess was cut on the arm practically at the same time. The seconds called the duel and Princess Metternich was declared the winner.

None of the contemporary news stories mention the topless thing, but the combination of ladies, swords, and bare breasts was already an established subject for risqué postcards in the late 19th century. The tale of the Vaduz duel—with its all-female, all-aristocratic participants—made them even more fashionable. Ladies fighting with their tops off featured in sticky postcards, stereoscopic views, and nickelodeons. Here are some ladies stabbing it out to the death in a filmed scene from the 1898 Drury Lane stage play Women and Wine.

How to Baffle a Bull Moose: The Time Harry Houdini Tricked Theodore Roosevelt

Harry Houdini and Theodore Roosevelt aboard the SS Imperator.
Harry Houdini and Theodore Roosevelt aboard the SS Imperator.
Library of Congress // No Known Restrictions on Publication

When the SS Imperator set sail for New York City in June 1914, it had on board bigwigs of both politics and entertainment—namely, former president Theodore Roosevelt and acclaimed illusionist Harry Houdini. Houdini was returning from a performance tour across the UK, and Roosevelt had been busy with a tour of his own: visiting European museums, meeting ambassadors, and then attending the wedding of his son, Kermit, in Madrid. Though the two men hadn’t crossed paths before, they soon became fast friends, often exercising together in the morning (at least, whenever Houdini wasn’t seasick).

The ocean liner hadn’t booked Houdini to perform, but when an officer asked Houdini if he’d give an impromptu performance at a benefit concert on the ship, he agreed, partially at the insistence of his new companion.

Little did Roosevelt know, Houdini had spent weeks plotting an elaborate ruse especially for him.

Houdini Hatches a Plan

ss imperator in 1912
The SS Imperator circa 1913.
George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress // No Known Restrictions on Publication

Earlier in June, when Houdini was picking up his tickets for the trip, the teller divulged that he wouldn’t be the only celebrity on the SS Imperator.

“Teddy Roosevelt is on the boat,” the teller whispered, “but don’t tell anyone.”

Houdini, knowing there was a good chance he’d end up hosting a spur-of-the-moment show, started scheming immediately. The story was recounted in full in a 1929 newspaper article by Harold Kellock, which allegedly used Houdini’s own words from unreleased autobiographical excerpts.

Having heard that The Telegraph would soon publish details about Roosevelt’s recent rip-roaring expedition through South America, Houdini paid his editorial friends a surprise visit.

"I jumped into a taxi and went to The Telegraph office to see what I could pick up," he said. They readily obliged his request for information, and even handed over a map of Roosevelt’s journey along the Amazon.

What followed was a combination of spectacular cunning and good old-fashioned luck.

Houdini hatched a plan to hold a séance, during which he would employ a particular slate trick common among mediums at the time. In it, a participant jots down a question on a piece of paper and slips it between two blank slates, where spirits then “write” the answer and the performer reveals it.

He prepared the slates so that one bore the map of Roosevelt’s entire trail down Brazil’s River of Doubt, along with an arrow and the words “Near the Andes.” In London, Houdini had also acquired old letters from W.T. Stead, a British editor (and spiritualist) who had perished on the RMS Titanic in 1912. Houdini forged Stead’s signature on the slate to suggest that the spirit of Stead knew all about Roosevelt’s unpublicized escapades.

Upon boarding the ship, Houdini faced only two obstacles. First, he had to finagle his way into performing a public séance with Roosevelt in attendance. Second, he would have to ensure that the question his “spirit” answered was “Where was I last Christmas?” or something very similar.

Houdini cleared the first hurdle with flying colors, saying he “found it easy to work the Colonel into a state of mind so that the suggestion of séance would come from him.” Though the master manipulator doesn’t elaborate on what exactly he said about spiritualism during their conversation—later in his career, Houdini would actually make a name for himself as an anti-spiritualist by debunking popular mediums—it sufficiently piqued Roosevelt’s interest. When the ship’s officer requested that Houdini perform, Roosevelt apparently goaded, “Go ahead, Houdini, give us a little séance.”

Just like that, Houdini had scheduled a séance that Roosevelt wouldn’t likely miss—and the illusionist wasn’t going to leave a single detail up to chance.

A Back-Up Plan (Or Two)

theodore roosevelt on the ss imperator
Roosevelt relaxes aboard the SS Imperator.
George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress // No Known Restrictions on Publication

Rather than bank on the shaky possibility that Roosevelt himself would pen the perfect question, Houdini prepared to stuff the ballot, so to speak. He had copied the question "Where was I last Christmas?" onto several sheets of paper, sealed them in envelopes, and planned to make sure that only his own envelopes ended up in the hat from which he’d choose a question. (It seems like a problematic plan, considering the possibility that Roosevelt would speak up to say something like "Wait, that wasn't my question," but Houdini doesn't clarify how he hoped this would play out.)

The morning of the séance, Houdini devised yet another back-up plan. With a razor blade, he sliced open the binding of two books, slipped a sheet of carbon paper and white paper beneath each cover, and resealed them.

As long as Roosevelt used one of the books as a flat surface to write on, the carbon paper would transfer his question to the white sheet below it—meaning that even after Roosevelt had sealed his question in an envelope, Houdini could sneak a glance and alter his performance accordingly.

A Little Hocus Pocus

Theodore Roosevelt poses with a map of the roosevelt-rondon expedition
Sometime after his voyage on the SS Imperator, Roosevelt posed with a map of his expedition through the Amazon.
Library of Congress // No Known Restrictions on Publication

That night, Houdini kicked off the show with a series of card tricks, where he let Roosevelt choose the cards. “I was amazed at the way he watched every one of the misdirection moves as I manipulated the cards,” he said, according to Kellock’s article. “It was difficult to baffle him.”

Then, it was time for the séance.

"La-dies and gen-tle-men," Houdini proclaimed. "I am sure that many among you have had experiences with mediums who have been able to facilitate the answering of your personal questions by departed spirits, these answers being mysteriously produced on slates. As we all know, mediums do their work in the darkened séance room, but tonight, for the first time anywhere, I propose to conduct a spiritualistic slate test in the full glare of the light."

Houdini distributed the slips of paper, gave instructions, and then solicitously passed Roosevelt one of the books when he saw him start to use his hand as a surface. As Roosevelt began to write, composer Victor Herbert, also in attendance, offered a few shrewd words of caution.

"Turn around. Don't let him see it," Houdini heard him warn Roosevelt. "He will read the question by the movements of the top of the pencil."

"The Colonel then faced abruptly away from me and scribbled his question in such a position that I could not see him do it," Houdini said, adding, "Of course that made no difference to me."

After Roosevelt finished, Houdini took the book and slyly extracted the paper from the inside cover while returning it to the table.

In an almost unbelievable stroke of luck, Roosevelt’s question read “Where was I last Christmas?” Houdini wouldn’t need to slip one of his own envelopes between the slates after all.

"Knowing what was in the Colonel's envelope, I did not have to resort to sleight of hand, but boldly asked him to place his question between the slates himself," Houdini said. "While I pretended to show all four faces of the two slates, by manipulation I showed only three."

Then, after Roosevelt stated his question aloud to the audience, Houdini revealed the marked-up map, bearing the answer to Roosevelt’s question signed by the ghost of W.T. Stead.

In a 1926 article from The New York Times, Houdini describes Roosevelt as “dumbfounded” by the act.

“Is it really spirit writing?” he asked.

“Yes,” Houdini responded with a wink.

In Kellock’s account, however, Houdini confessed that “it was just hocus-pocus.”

Either way, it seems that Houdini never explained to Roosevelt exactly how he had duped him, and Roosevelt died in 1919, a decade before Kellock’s detailed exposition hit newsstands.

To fully appreciate the success of Houdini’s charade, you have to understand just how difficult it would’ve been to pull one over on a sharp-witted guy like Theodore Roosevelt. Dive into his life and legacy in the first season of our new podcast, History Vs. podcast, hosted by Mental Floss editor-in-chief Erin McCarthy.

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