Duels, Strange and Tragic
By George Fortis
New York Tribune, New York, NY - July 29, 1906
Now that dueling is practically a thing of the past, we look back on its tragic scenes, its inimitably pathetic incidents, and on the bitterness which drove men to meet in a mad struggle to take each other's lives, with only a half realization of the awful significance of a challenge and its acceptance. When once a challenge was issued there was no alternative for the person to whom it was sent. He must either accept or be branded as a coward.
Yet in spite of this an element of fascinating mystery has always associated itself with duels. What could be more tragic than thee fact that the tossing of a coin for position during a combat has cost more than one duelist his life. And there is something weirdly fascinating about the accounts in old papers of desperate struggles to the death between duelists armed with knives in darkened rooms, or the choice of two black vials in one of which death lurked in the form of a deadly poison.
But duels, like everyone else, have had a certain amount of humor mingled with them, and the colloquialism of a duel with cream-puffs at forty paces becomes less of a myth and more of a reality when we learn from records that some ten years ago a duel took place in Paris between a French Count and an American college man, in which the weapons were base-balls. The affair arose through a slight fracas in an art school, and the Frenchmen sent a challenge.
The Ball-Player Antagonist
The American husky six-footer from Yale, who had pitched on the base-ball team and stoked the crew, was loath to accept and took the matter as something of a joke. The Count pressed his desire for satisfaction, and at last the son of "Old Eli" consented to meet him stipulating that he should choose his own weapons. Seconds were agreed upon, and the mode of combat chosen by the American was base-balls at twenty paces. It was dangerously close range for a man who has spent three years twirling in-shoots and out-drops over a twelve-inch plate is likely to be a pretty accurate shot with a base-ball; but the Frenchman was game, and they met on the outskirts of the city at daybreak.
Each was to have three shots, and the Count won the toss and thereby the privilege of leading off. Perhaps he had never seen a base-ball before and at any rate his chances of signing a contract with a modern American ball team would have been about as small as they could be. The man from Yale had no difficulty in dodging the adamantine spheres which the son of Belle France sent scaling in his direction.
Then the American opened fire. The first ball grazed the Frenchman's shoulder; the second lodged in the pit of his stomach, and the third, an in-shoot, caught him full on the point of the chin. He went down and out, and never challenged another American citizen.
This singular duel reminds me of a similar one which my father used to tell me about. It was in one of the Southern States, and if I remember rightly he was a witness. There was some festivities taking place in a church in the village, when one of the rakes about town, who was noted throughout the country as a bully, entered the church and created some disturbance. The pastor, a square-jawed man from the North, requested him to leave the place, and when he refused escorted him rather forcibly to the door. The next day the minister received a challenge. He was not the kind of man to refuse, and his acceptance was sent promptly. By the code of dueling the choice of the weapons remained with the pastor, and he chose a basket of potatoes at five paces. It was a hot battle, and lasted for five minutes, but the divine, like the man from Yale, was an ex-ball pitcher, and his adversary was carried from the field of combat in a badly battered condition.
Neither of these duels resulted fatally; but probably one of the strangest duels on record, and one which terminated far more disastrously, was one which took place between two Frenchmen. The dispute was over a woman, which sex, by the way, has been the cause of about two-thirds of all the duels ever fought, and as neither of the combatants was a skilled swordsman or good pistol shot, it was decided that they should each, accompanied by their seconds, ascend to the given height in balloons, and at a signal fire, not upon each other, but upon the balloons. Accordingly, they ascended to the elevation of about half a mile, and at a signal from below they discharged blunderbusses loaded with slugs at each other's wind bags. One of the shots went wild, but the other was more effective and the balloon collapsed and its occupants were dashed to the earth and killed. It has never been ascertained why the seconds of these duelists were obliged to accompany their principals and thus jeopardize their own lives.
A Duel With Poisoned Pills
One of the most terrible duels which ever took place in France was that fought by Henri Delagrave and Alphonse Riviere in 1808. The cause of the duel was an altercation which arose over the success of the former in wooing a woman with whom they were both in love. Riviere slapped his rival in the face, and accepted the challenge which he received the following day. All the arrangements, even as to the form of the encounter, were left to the seconds, and the next afternoon four men met in a quiet grove outside the city. They were Riviere, with Savalle as his second, and Delagrave, with a doctor named Rocquet. The latter informed the principals that in order to secure a fatal result to one or the other of the combatants, he and Savalle had agreed to leave out the question of pistols and swords, and trust to the more certain action of deadly poison. As he spoke he drew from a fold in his cloak a little square wooden box in which lay four black pills, identical in size and shape.
"Gentlemen," said he, "in one of these pellets I have placed enough prussic acid to cause the heart of anyone who swallows it to cease beating within a few seconds. Monsieur Savalle and I will flip a coin to decide which of you shall be first obliged to draw and swallow a pill. The other shall then choose and swallow a second pill, and if neither of the first two takes effect you will each take one of the remaining and swallow them at the same instant."
While the last words lingered on the doctor's lips, he flipped the coin into the air. It shone dull red in the departing sunlight, and as it fell to the green turf Savalle cried, "Tails!"
The four men bent anxiously over the shining piece of gold, in the turn of which lay death for one of the duelists. But the coin lay with the head up, and Savalle said, "It is your first choice, Monsieur Delagrave." While the doctor was explaining the preparations, the two principals whose fate lay sealed in the four sinister black pellets showed not a sign, and Delagrave's face was impassive as he took at random one of the pills and washed it down with a glass of claret.
"And now, Monsieur Riviere," announced the doctor, "it is your turn."
A smile crossed the Frenchman's face as he took the second pill swallowed it, with the remark, "It is not bitter, at least."
The two men stood staring at each other for a moment, and then the doctor's quiet voice broke the silence. "It is again your choice, Monsieur Delagrave, and at the same instant Monsieur Riviere will take the pellet you leave."
A strange eager light of hope which changed to a look of mingled horror and dread crossed Delagrave's face as he paused a moment and silently contemplated the two globules in the box. Which should he choose? They were exactly alike in appearance, and he strained his eyes in vain for a clue to guide him in his choice--the choice which meant life or death. The sun was hanging low over a distant hill-top. The soft light of evening was creeping down over gay France-—the France he loved so well, the home of his childhood and of those most dear to him. A tiny gray-white cloud floated off in the direction of Paris.
Perhaps life meant more to him at that moment than ever before. He caught his breath sharply, and the sound recalled him to the enactment of the brutal tragedy in which he was one of the central figures.
Riviere stood watching him. His face was pale, his lips were compressed, and his eyes were darkened, narrow slits; but for that he was expressionless. He too knew that when the sun had finally disappeared and the day gone out, one of them would go with it, and perhaps he also was drinking in the last breath of the world he loved.
Taking the Deadly Pellet
We are waiting, gentlemen." Both men started at the doctor's voice. Delagrave extended his hand. In one of those terrible black pills lurked the spirit of death, the silence of the grave. The other was harmless. He tried to choose, but could not, and averting his eyes groped blindly in the box, took one of the pills and gulped it down.
At the same instant Riviere swallowed the remaining one. For an instant both men stood looking at each other, horror written on both their faces. Then a swift change shot across the countenance of Riviere; he took a step forward, and pitched headlong to the ground, dead.
The woman over whom this awful duel was fought was so horrified by its result that she refused to see Delagrave again, and the terrible memory of those few moments in the grove so weighed upon the latter's mind that he followed his rival to the grave in a few months.
An interesting incident is told of how the courage of Faraday, the great chemist, saved him from considerable inconvenience over a duel. Angered at a supposed slight, an individual once sent Faraday a challenge; but the scientist, considering it unwarranted, ignored the call. A few days afterward the challenger entered Faraday's laboratory where he was working on an analysis of sausages containing trichina, and insulted him and called him a coward.
"My friend," said Faraday, "I do not wish to fight with you; but since you insist on satisfaction, the choice of weapons is by the dueling code mine, and we will waive the matter of seconds and hold our duel right here in my laboratory. Here are two sausages exactly alike in appearance. One of them contains the deadly trichina; the other is pure. Take your choice, and I will eat the other." The man withdrew his charges and tendered an apology.
A strange duel was that which took place between an Englishman named Talbot and a Frenchman named Villeneuve. The latter was the challenger, and as Talbot was neither a skilled shot nor swordsman he stipulated that the affair should be settled with two pistols, only one of which was loaded, at five paces. They met on the field of combat and drew lots for the pistols. Chance favored the Englishman, and he secured the one which was loaded and killed his antagonist.
Then there was the duel with the poisoned cigar. This affair was to be decided by a choice from a box of three cigars one of which was poisoned, and if neither of the first two drawn should prove fatal the combatants were to draw lots for the third. They each chose a cigar and smoked them through, with no disastrous results, and when the time for drawing lots for the third and deadly cigar arrived it was found that it had fallen on the floor and been gnawed by a dog, which was found dead under the table. The effect was so great upon the principals that they agreed to call the affair off.
There have been many duels fought in the dark. One of the most notorious of these was that between Henry Grattan and Isaac Corry in 1800. The dispute was over politics, and resulted in hot words on both sides, and finally a demand for immediate satisfaction. It was midnight and raining in torrents, but despite this the men, accompanied by their seconds, repaired to a field and fought a fierce battle.
In 1853, at Bombay, India, Lieutenant Shepard and Captain Phillips, both of the same company, fought a duel by the light of a candle held by the servant of Shepard. It was a most unfortunate affair, and Phillips was mortally wounded.
Then there were duels that were fought by men with their lefthands bound together and long knives in their right. Another strange form of duel was that of drawing lots to see which of the two combatants should commit suicide.
While the first duel under a code was fought in the eleventh century, dueling is only an evolution of the single combat of the ancients. The first duel in England was fought between William, Count d'Eu, and Godfrey Baynard in 1096. In America the first duel took place at Plymouth in 1621.
But dueling has not been confined to men. The wife of Gay de Murat was a noted woman duelist. She possessed indomitable courage, and in her time killed several men on the field of honor. She was finally slain in an encounter with three men whom she attacked for having insulted her.
Madam La Beaupre was another noted woman duelist. She and Lady Urlis once engaged in an encounter in which both were severely wounded, and which would probably have had a fatal termination but for the timely intervention of some men.
Madam La Maupin, the actress, was a fine swordswoman, and when a male fellow-performer made slighting remarks about her character she held him up, attired in men's clothes, and because he refused to fight relieved him of his watch and snuff-box. Some years later she attended a ball dressed in male attire, got into an altercation with three men, challenged them, and then killed them all one after the other.
An Interminable Contest
Another strange duel was that which took place between two Frenchmen. The exact cause of the trouble is not known, but at any rate one of them found occasion to strike the other in the face. Without a word the man procured a piece of plaster with which he covered the welt raised by the blow. Then he challenged the offender. The challenge was accepted, and he of the plastered face severely wounded his antagonist. He then carefully cut a small piece from the patch on his cheek. In due time the wounded man recovered, and as he was convalescent his servant announced a caller. "All right, tell him I will be right down," was the reply. Again they met, and again with the same result. And the man cut another bit from the plaster on his face. And so it went on for several years, always with the same result. But at the last meeting, when there remained only a tiny piece of the plaster, the man who wore it drove home a fierce thrust that ended the feud forever.
Byron, angered at Southey's criticism of his verse, wrote him a challenge, but for some reason it was never delivered. Southey anticipated it, however, and had the following reply ready:
Sir.--I have the honor of acknowledging the receipt of your letter, and do myself the pleasure of replying without delay. In affairs of this kind the participants ought to meet upon equal terms. But to establish equality between you and me, there are three things which ought to be done, and then a fourth also becomes necessary before I meet you upon the field.
First, you must marry and have four children. Please be particular in having them all girls. Second, you must prove that the greater part of the provision which you make for them depends on your life, and you must be under bond for four thousand pounds not to be hanged, committing suicide, nor be killed in a duel, which are the conditions upon which I have insured my life for the benefit of my wife and daughters. Third, you must tell three direct falsehoods about yourself in some public assembly, and I shall neither be able to do this nor to meet you afterwards unless you preform the fourth thing, which is that you convert me from the Christian religion.
Till all this is accomplished our dispute must be carried on without use of any more iron than is needed for our pens, or any more lead than enters into the composition of "The Edinburgh Review."
I have the honor to subscribe myself yours, with all proper consideration,Robert Southey.
One of the most One of the most terrible duels was that between Colonel Joicey and McArthur. They were brothers-in-law, and the affair took place in Dublin. As usual, there was a woman in the case. The men were seated at a friendly dinner when the altercation arose, and it was decided to settle the matter at once. As in the case of Talbot and his French antagonist, the duel was with pistols only one of which was loaded.
The men drew lots for the choice, and each selected a weapon. They then took their seats on each side of the table, and deliberately resting their arms, aimed. It was a highly tragic scene--the yellow light streaming from the tall candles, the flash of the disordered dishes, and the two grim-faced min, in the hand of one whom lurked death for the other. Just before the word to fire, the Colonel raised a half-filled glass of wine in his left hand and said "Your health, Mr. McArthur."--"And to yours sir--in the next world." answered McArthur.
"Are you ready, gentlemen? Then fire!" A spurt of flame leaped from the muzzle of McArthur's pistol, while the empty weapon of the Colonel snapped harmlessly as he sank forward dead across the table, overturning decanters and glasses.