MISSOURI STATE ARCHIVES
Crack of the Pistol:
Dueling in 19th Century Missouri
The Age of Political Duels
Duelists in Europe were usually members of the established aristocracy. In America where no titled aristocracy existed, there was a struggle to establish a ruling elite. In the South, wealthy plantation owners became the recognized ruling class known as the planter aristocracy. However, in Missouri, lawyers, judges, politicians, and newspaper editors competed to be recognized as frontier aristocrats and found themselves forced to abide by the rigid gentleman’s code of honor. Because a man of honor was defined by the respect he received in public, many men in these occupations defended their reputations on the dueling ground. They were more likely to be challenged, because of statements they made about others in public. In addition, they could not afford to risk their social status by refusing to make or respond to challenges. Social pressure demanded that a gentleman must defend his honorable status. A man, who wanted a political future, did not walk away from a challenge. By properly executing a duel according to the Code Duello, even a man of marginal background could establish himself as a gentleman and gain social and political standing.
Missouri’s territorial days, filled with dissension over questionable Spanish land grants, territorial elections, and the tension of petitioning Congress for statehood in the years to follow, created an environment of political unrest and uncertainty. Even though dueling in the United States had its origins in medieval chivalry, Americans, and Missourians in particular, seldom resorted to the code because of the honor of a woman. Most early Missouri duels revolved around class standing, but between 1816 and 1824 politics initiated the largest number of duels. Dueling became a standard political weapon to eliminate or disgrace one’s opponent and quiet possible critics. The political duel became common place and elections were often decided with pistols rather than by votes. Many of Missouri’s most famous citizens defended their honor on the dueling grounds.
No Man’s Land
Around 1800 a small sandbar in the middle of the Mississippi River between the states of Missouri and Illinois grew to island proportions. Due to its neutral location, it was technically outside of both states and beyond the jurisdiction of local authorities. This made the island an ideal site as a secluded “field of honor” for dueling. Even though it was only about a mile in length and approximately five hundred yards wide, numerous Missourians found their way to its secluded shores to defend their reputations. Nothing more than some trees and dense vegetation, it quickly became notorious and earned its colorful name of Bloody Island.
At 6:00 a.m. on August 12, 1817, Thomas Hart Benton and a young Charles Lucas met on an island in the middle of the Mississippi near St. Louis. Benton first challenged Lucas to a duel after losing a court case where he believed he had been insulted. Lucas refused the first challenge. However, during the election of 1817, Lucas questioned Benton’s right to vote on the basis he had failed to pay his property taxes. Publicly humiliated, Benton responded by replying that he would not answer charges made by “any puppy who may happen to run across my path.” Such an indignity demanded satisfaction. The furious Lucas challenged Benton to duel and he accepted.
From the distance of 30 feet, Benton hit Lucas in the throat, but was only grazed by Lucas’ bullet in the knee. Lucas was satisfied, but Benton insisted upon a second meeting after Lucas had time to heal. During the next few months, friends tried to reconcile the two men. Benton’s anger was refueled when gossip claimed he was afraid to duel at ten feet. When further reconciliation efforts failed, Lucas met Benton once again on the same island, but at the agreed upon distance of ten feet. Lucas missed again, but Benton’s bullet hit Lucas in the chest. Within minutes, Lucas was dead. The dueling grounds became known as Bloody Island.
Thomas Hart Benton was elected to the United States Senate in 1820 and served for thirty years.
At 6:00 p.m. on June 30, 1823, Joshua Barton and Thomas C. Rector met on Bloody Island to settle their differences. A few days earlier, Thomas Rector’s brother, William C. Rector, surveyor general of Illinois, Missouri, and Arkansas, had been accused in an anonymous newspaper article of hiring relatives and overpaying the surveyors in his district. Joshua Barton was the United States district attorney and the brother of United States Senator David Barton. Senator Barton had been critical of William Rector and opposed his reappointment to the surveyor general position. General Rector was absent from St. Louis, so considering it a reflection on the family honor and public reputation, Thomas immediately contacted the newspaper and was told that Joshua Barton was the author. Thomas Rector challenged Joshua Barton and they met on the island. Barton was hit on first fire and died on Bloody Island. Thomas Rector escaped unharmed.
Upon returning to St. Louis, William C. Rector refused to answer the charges and accusations published in the newspaper. President James Monroe reversed his decision and did not reappoint Rector as Surveyor General.
At 5:00 p.m. on Friday, August 26, 1831, Major Thomas Biddle, a distinguished War of 1812 veteran and Congressman Spencer Pettis, a promising politician, faced each other pistols in hand. They met on Bloody Island to answer a perceived insult to Thomas’ brother, Nicholas Biddle. The disagreement began when Thomas Biddle took exception to Pettis’ remarks attacking the United States Bank of which Nicholas was the president. Initially, Biddle and Pettis merely exchanged inflammatory letters in the newspaper. However, resenting the allegations and regarding this as a personal attack against his brother’s character, Biddle went to the ill Pettis’ hotel room and proceeded to cowhide his opponent. When Pettis regained his health he challenged Thomas Biddle. As the challenged, the near-sighted Biddle chose the specified distance of five feet. The pistols were so close that both men received fatal wounds. Spencer Pettis died the next day and Major Thomas Biddle died on Monday.
Both men were buried with honors and eulogized as choosing “death to avoid dishonor.” Pettis County Missouri is named for Spencer Pettis.
On August 26, 1856 Benjamin Gratz Brown, a newspaper editor, future United States Senator, and future governor faced Thomas C. Reynolds, a United States district attorney and future lieutenant governor, on the field of honor. The duel was the outcome of several years of bitter political disagreements resulting from editorials published in the Missouri Democrat. Brown strongly supported the emancipation of slaves and Reynolds sympathized with the slaveholders. The first planned duel was never fought because the near-sighted Reynolds could not agree to Brown’s choice of rifles at eighty paces.
A year passed, and tempers flared again. Brown accused Reynolds of not honoring the first challenge. Reynolds retaliated by “posting” Brown and publicly charging him with cowardice. Brown challenged and Reynolds accepted. Brown was shot in the leg and limped for the rest of his life. Reynolds sustained no injuries.
Brown was elected to the United States Senate in 1863 and became Governor of Missouri in 1870. In 1872, he ran as the vice-presidential candidate on the ticket with Horace Greeley and lost to incumbent Ulysses S. Grant and Henry Wilson.
Reynolds was elected Lieutenant Governor of Missouri in 1860 and later served as second Confederate governor of Missouri.
This was the last known duel in Missouri resulting in bloodshed.
Bloody Island continued to grow through the early 1800s and threatened to land-lock the levee and the harbor of St. Louis. So, the Army Corps of Engineers under Captain Robert E. Lee devised a system of dikes and dams that did away with the western channel and joined the Island to the Illinois shore. Throughout the nineteenth century, Bloody Island had been a popular rendezvous for duelists. The island appeared as dueling became popular in Missouri, and sank back into obscurity as pistols ceased to be an acceptable means of settling differences.
The Demise of Dueling
Attempts to end dueling were largely ineffective. Even though ministers voiced opposition to dueling from the pulpit and lawmakers passed anti-dueling ordinances, they had little impact on the bloodshed. Duelists ignored or evaded these laws and if charged were rarely prosecuted. Juries were reluctant to convict a man for defending his honor. The most common penalty was disenfranchisement and/or disbarment along with disqualification from holding office. Often, public sentiment allowed men with unquestionable honor to take the life of another with little penalty other than a fine.
Dueling in Missouri remained popular from territorial times through the antebellum period. However, the institution of dueling began to fall out of favor in the 1850s because of a complex combination of factors. It had survived for hundreds of years as a practice carried out by gentlemen only. The Civil War, a conflict greater than personal honor, swept across the United States leading to the devastation of the Confederacy and putting an end to a way of life in the South. In turn, this did away with some of the duels greatest devotees and those who adhered to the gentleman’s code of honor. Historians speculate that a major bloody war with mass fatalities impacted societies’ view of personal disagreements—enough of blood spilled over a personal insult. The mindset that justified dueling slowly died with the rise of political parties and the emphasis on democratization and the equality of all men. As the romance of the duel faded, other means of addressing personal disagreements allowed people to sue each other in court over insults. Libel laws made available a means to defend one’s reputation in the courtroom rather than on the field of honor and helped lead to the ultimate demise of the duel.