Some trivial notes on the practice of dueling…
Duelling is, or rather was, surprisingly rule-bound. In America, most duels were governed by the Irish code duello. The duello contains 25 rules regarding duel-worthy offenses, apologies, weaponry, pleas for leniency, all the way down to regulations on how to handle a secondary duel, should the assistants of the original duellers have a disagreement that itself requires duel-based resolution. No, really—the code duello is exquisitely detailed (read it here):
As a blow is strictly prohibited under any circumstances among gentlemen, no verbal apology can be received for such an insult. The alternatives, therefore — the offender handing a cane to the injured party, to be used on his own back, at the same time begging pardon; firing on until one or both are disabled; or exchanging three shots, and then asking pardon without proffer of the cane.
If swords are used, the parties engage until one is well blooded, disabled, or disarmed; or until, after receiving a wound, and blood being drawn, the aggressor begs pardon.
Because it was the act of duelling, rather than the outcome, that allowed duellists to defend their honor and gain satisfaction, an agreement to intentionally miss in pistol duels emerged as a common practice. The strategy—which cleverly allows the combatants to retain both their dignity and their appendages—is called deloping. The code duello expressly forbids it.
Deloping was a crucial turning point in the famous Burr-Hamilton duel. Prior to the event, Hamilton had declared his plan to delope, yet brought to the fight a pair of specially-modified hair-trigger pistols. Standard deloping procedure was to fire into the ground, so as to make one’s non-deadly intent clear. Hamilton fired his first shot into the air, nowhere near Burr. It remains unclear whether he deloped in nonstandard fashion, or was shooting to kill but confounded by his custom guns.
Burr, who knew only that Hamilton had fired in his direction and was taken aback by this brazen act of japery, responded by shooting Hamilton in the stomach. A scoundrel to his dying breath, Burr later claimed that were it not for the morning mist obscuring his view, he would have hit Hamilton in the heart.
As it happens, Burr was the sitting vice president when this infamous, milk-commercial-lampooned event occurred. I had always assumed, perhaps out of some optimistic naivete, that this could not have happened while he was in office, but no, no…that was foolish. Burr was charged with Hamilton’s murder, in both New York and New Jersey. Why both? Well, even in the early 19th century duels weren’t totally above-board and were generally frowned upon by the local constabulary. Most duels had to be carried out in secluded areas that had “jurisdictional ambiguity,” such as an island on a river that forms the border between two places. That describes Weehawken, where Burr and Hamilton did the deed. The park there is still known as “Weehawken Duelling Grounds” despite the fact that duelling and open containers are expressly forbidden by city ordinance.
Burr briefly fled to South Carolina before charges were dropped, which means that he was an actual fugitive from justice while acting as vice president. This was not out of character: Burr was a notorious hothead involved in at least 10 other duels in his lifetime, including one with Hamilton’s brother-in-law. He was also later tried (and acquitted) for treason. His treasonous acts include both a byzantine land-development scandal involving Burr’s support of Mexican attempts to overthrow the Spanish in what is now the American southwest, and stealing land acquired in the Louisiana Purchase. He may have been framed on both charges, but think about how much people must have hated him to go through that effort. Also, remember that Aaron Burr “Got Milk?” commercial? It was directed by Michael Bay. No joke.
• • •
Though duelling was increasingly outlawed and falling into disfavor following Hamilton’s death, it remained relatively more common in the south, owing in part to southern traditions of honor and chivalry. Sword and pistol duelling was more typically a pastime for the aristocracy and landed nobility; the “lower classes” of the south had their own duelling technique: GOUGING. It’s just as it sounds: hand-to-hand combat with the goal being to remove eyes, bite off appendages, and cause maximum mayhem (in the literal sense of the word). Historian Elliott Gorn describes it thusly:
“The emphasis on maximum disfigurement, on severing bodily parts, made this fighting style unique. Amid the general mayhem, however, gouging out an opponent’s eye became the sine qua non of rough-and-tumble fighting, much like the knockout punch in modern boxing. The best gougers, of course, were adept at other fighting skills. Some allegedly filled their teeth to bite off an enemy’s appendages more efficiently. Still, liberating an eyeball quickly became a fighter’s surest route to victory and his most prestigious accomplishment.”
“Liberating an eyeball!” The disfigurement of such fighting was meant to remain as a visible, life-long sign of dishonor.
• • •
Other miscellaneous dueling notes:
• In the 18th and 19th century, Argentinian gauchos duelled with knives; victory was achieved by slashing your opponent’s face severely enough that the blood prevented them from seeing.
• Scumbag / president Andrew Jackson once duelled with Charles Dickinson (described by wikipedia as a “famous duellist”). Jackson allowed his opponent to shoot first, was hit in the chest, stayed upright, then unleashed a killing shot.
• At least one mid-18th century duel was never culminated because after agreeing to duel, it was determined that one party had previously promised never to duel in the morning, while the other had pledged never to duel in the afternoon.
• Some interesting duels from history, all of which I’m assuming are apocryphal: Some early 1800s Frenchmen, neither of whom was Snidely Whiplash, duelled from hot-air balloons, each attempting to puncture the other’s balloon (there was indeed a winner, who sent his adversary plummeting to his death in a deflated balloon). An 1843 duel was said to have been fought by throwing billiard balls at one another. Lastly, Otto von Bismarck once challenged Rudolf Virchow to a duel. Duelling code dictates that the challengee chooses the weapon. Virchow suggested making two sausages, one infested with roundworm. Each man would then eat a single sausage. Bismarck declined, his dignity besmirched forevermore.
• Mark Twain was nearly involved in a duel with a rival newspaper editor during the early part of his career, but the editor backed off after a colleague exaggerated Twain’s prowess with a pistol.
• Abraham Lincoln nearly dueled with a rival Illinois state legislator, but the dispute was resolved just before the duel occurred.
• French mathematician and political radical Evariste Galois, who made seminal contributions to algebra, was killed in a duel at the age of 20. Apparently he was so assured of his own impending death that he spent the night before the duel writing out all of his mathematical works, which were published after his death.
• Uruguay decriminalized duels in 1920, and shortly thereafter former president Jose Batlle y Ordonez realized that dream of so many autocrats and duelled the editor of the major Uruguayan newspaper, whom he shot and killed. In a similar vein, Mussolini once engaged in a 75-minute sword duel with a Roman newspaper editor, ending when the editor suffered grievous wounds.
• After having killed Montoya’s father many years previously, the six-fingered Count Rugen is himself killed by Inigo Montoya in an informal duel.