MISSOURI STATE ARCHIVES
Crack of the Pistol:
Dueling in 19th Century Missouri
Guided Discussion Questions
Origins and Traditions of Dueling
Discuss the concept of historical and social context with the class. How does the particular time or social setting affect how people judge customs or events?
How was the concept of honor different in the nineteenth century than it is today?
How did the Code Duello attempt to lower levels of hostility and restrain individuals from acting impulsively?
How could it be rational for an individual to participate in a duel?
Was dueling an ethical practice? Under some circumstances? Under any circumstances?
What were possible results of refusing a challenge?
What actions or customs today are accepted in some societies and condemned by others?
Are there codes that govern behavior in today’s society? What influences behavior? Laws? Religion? Peer pressure? Parent expectations?
- What was going on in Missouri and the United States during this time? What changes occurred in Missouri and the U.S. during this period?
- In 1817 St. Louis, in front of the Bank of Missouri, merchant William Smith, exchanged insults with William Tharp, a laborer. Following the argument, Smith proceeded to give Tharp a severe caning. Under the code, it was the only action Smith could take, because Tharp was of lower social class and not entitled to settle differences on the dueling ground. However, Tharp still issued a challenge to Smith who refused on the basis that Tharp was not a gentleman. At this point, Tharp posted Smith and the next day Smith confronted Tharp as he was putting up more handbills. Smith was killed on the spot and Tharp was arrested, but released. After a long trial, Tharp was acquitted. What about this scenario was not in agreement with the Code Duello? How did Tharp violate the Code Duello?
- What words did Tharp emphasize in the posting? Do these words have the same meaning or impact today?
- Why did Tharp feel the need to mention Smith’sh physical appearance?
- Why might Tharp have been acquitted?
- How did social pressure affect or influence the actions of each man?
Abiel Leonard Documents
- Why might Leonard’s prosecution of Berry have been unpopular?
- Why did the legislature feel a need to enact the anti-dueling law?
- According to the anti-dueling statute, what should have been the charge against Leonard?
- What was the actual charge against Leonard?
- Why was being barred from holding civil or military office a severe punishment?
- What did the petition on Leonard’s behalf say about public sentiment toward dueling?
- What effect did the duel have on Leonard’s political career? How would voters react today?
Political Duels in Missouri/Bloody Island
- Why was Bloody Island an ideal dueling ground?
- Why was it important that the Army Corps of Engineers chose to join the island to the Illinois side?
- How did Bloody Island contribute to St. Louis’ reputation as a violent city in antebellum Missouri?
- What was the role of the media in facilitating political duels?
- What role does the media play in politics today?
- What responsibility did/do newspapers have to their public?
- Why might a politician choose to duel rather than accept an apology?
- What effect did dueling seem to have on most politicians’ careers?