History of Dueling

Historians state that dueling goes back as far as the Roman period in history; if the Gladiatorial matches could be loosely considered to be a form of dueling. Indeed, the wordduel comes from a Latin duellium that was translated into Middle English later in history. Literally it means war between two.

Dueling in the sense of two men in combat over a dispute serious enough to challenge an opponent to a fight to the death, could be said started by the Norsemen in the Viking era of their history because they were the first to create rules of engagement in a duel.

The Norse concept of honor and the lengths one would take to protect one's good name. We find much about society in the Sagas of the Icelanders (Íslendingasögur). Of course, often competition of insults between rivals were part of a sense of dueling to the Norseman and not always leading to actual dual combat. But when duels were to be fought, they were fought at a specific place, traditionally at þingvellir (where Iceland's parliament is today), once an island but changed by geological changes, a former gathering place for meetings. It was the same spot where meetings were held and decisions made, established around 930 AD. It is now anIcelandic national park.

Formal rules had been established, and the injured party would say, according o the 13th century Swedish text, You are not a man's equal and not a man at heart.

The second party would reply: I am as much a man as you. The time and place were then established. If either duelist did not appear, as arranged, he was branded níðingr.

Duels described in Nordic text/sagas begin with a recitation of the dueling law, called hólmgöngulög. A cloak was laid on the ground and both men stepped on the cloak. If either men stepped off the cloak, he lost the duel and became branded a níðingr. Sometimes a circle of stones were used instead of a cloak. Weapons used were swords, spears, or axes. Each man was allowed three shields in case any should break. If blood was spilled on the cloak, that person was permitted to withdraw. If both were wounded, the man with the worse wound could purchase departure from the fighting cloak. If a man died in a duel, all his property went to the winner; which is why most fights were to the death.

Different details of a duel were written in Chapter 9 of Svarfdæla:

Then they proceeded to where they were to fight, and Moldi said he would state the duelling rules, "for I have challenged you. Each of us will place his cloak under his feet, and each of us must stand on his cloak, not moving the thickness of a finger, and the one that moves will bear a coward's name, while the man that wins will be called a valiant man wherever he goes. Whoever is wounded or defeated can release himself from the duel by paying three marks."

In Chapter 11 of Gunnlaugs saga ormstungu, the party who was challenged got to strike the first blow. There are more details at Hurstwic historical website.

When Christianity took its toll upon pagan Nordic culture, they not only introduced a new religion, but also the practice of ordeal by fire. Commonly the person who was protecting his honor would grab a piece of iron from boiling water and walk nine paces with it carrying it with one hand. This practice outlived the Viking Age. Inga from Varteig in 1218 performed the ritual of fire to prove her son was the rightful heir to the throne of Norway.

An actual written code for dueling in Europe was created in 1409 in Italy, called Flos Deullatorum. Fifteenth century sword and dueling masters like Fechtbücher Hans Talhofferprovided judicial and tournament rules in more detail.

Randolph Dueling Pistols

The Renaissance era provided more refined rules until the Irish Code Duello, until the Victorian era when pugilism replaced dueling in England. Queen Victoria of England was adamantly against dueling and made it illegal. Pugilism also had established rules known as Marquess of Queensberry. The name taken from a Scottish nobleman, John Sholto Douglas.

In the United States, former governor of South Carolina, John Lyde Wislon, published The Code of Honor or called Rules for the Government of Principals and Seconds in Dueling.

By this time period, swords were replaced with dueling pistols, which were made by famous gunsmiths like Manton of London, who also replaced the flintlock pistol with a percussionpistol. A set of dueling pistols today has been known to sell at auction for up to $1 million.

Manton Dueling Pistols, London, 1815

Dueling pistols were exquisite pieces of art, kept in a decorative wooden box lined with felt or satin that included the necessary accessories and cleaning implements required to keep maintained. Examples of antique dueling pistols:

After this article there will be a video about dueling pistols and duelling. The following is a short list of duels that are not as well-known as some, like the Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr duel in the United States, 1804. Beginning with the oldest, it is a rare duel where two women fight for honor, one of only two known duels that involved women.

Duel between Isabella de Carazzi and Diambre de Pettinella, 1552:

This duel occurred between two women for the love of Fabio de Zeresola in Italy. The Spanish artist, Jusepe de Ribera (1591 to 1652) immortalized it in his oil painting on canvas, 1636, now at the Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain. The duel occurred long before he was born, but the story inspired him to paint it on canvas. Fabio was the most sought after bachelor in Naples in the 16th century and the outcome of the duel is unknown. It might have been forgotten if it were not for the Ribera oil painting entitled Duelo de Mujeres. [Duel of Women]

Duel of Miyamoto Mushai and Sasaki Kojiro, 1612:

Both of these combatants were considered master swordsmen of their time. According to legend, their difference were caused by honor and they arranged for a meeting on the shores of Ganryū Island. Musashi showed up several hours late to unsettle his opponent and brought with him a giant wooden sword he made out of the oar of a boat. Kojiro attacked the samurai with his famous swallow cut, but before the blade was lowered Musashi dealt a fatal blow. Kojiro friends were angry for his tardiness and chased after the samurai, who made it to his boat and escaped. Musashi would become an acclaimed Japanese painter in his later years.

Lady Almeria Braddock versus Mrs. Elphinstone, 1792:

Duels would often be initiated over silly arguments, this is one of them and it involved two women, the second known dueling event involving that gender. When Mrs. Elphinstone made a social call to Lady Almeria Braddock in her London home, the visit turned sour when Mrs. Elphinstone made a comment about the hostess' age. The challenge was made and they met in Hyde Park made famous by Sherlock Holmes stories and the novel Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. According to reports, Mrs. Elphinstone fired her pistol first, hitting Lady Braddock's hat where it fell to the ground. Then the women decided to take up swords and Lady Braddock wounded her opponent in the arm. It became known about London as the Petticoat Duel and ended with neither dying and Mrs. Elphinstone agreeing to write a letter of apology.

Hamilton and Burr Duel, 1804

In America, the tradition of dueling was imported from Europe as much of the traditions have, except for Thanksgiving Day, which originated in early colonial period. Alexander Hamilton was killed in his prime because of a duel. Surprisingly, early politicians in state and federal government would have arguments amongst each other that sometimes ended up settled upon a dueling field.

New Orleans was a place where southern gentleman and proud Creole gentleman would duel over what sometimes were petty reasons. In New Orleans there was a specific place where duels usually took place, known as Duelling Oaks. A tourist attraction today, like the fascination of firearm collectors paying huge amounts of money for fully cased and preserved dueling pistol sets. Well, they are part of firearm history.

Andrew Jackson, Duelist President

Andrew Jackson, our seventh President of the United States fought more than twelve duels, receiving a bullet in his lung that remained there until his death nineteen years later. Most of the duels concerned the honor of his wife. On one occasion a political rival from Tennessee (first governor of that state) accused of him of adultery because his wife's divorce from her first husband was not finalized until she remarried. Technically true, but a major insult to Jackson. The incident ended with the death of the politician from Tennessee. The video that follows this article depicts the incident.

The bullet that hit Jackson in the lung in a duel was about a horse race. Jackson won that duel despite being seriously wounded. He took the hit in his chest, flinching but not dropping and then made his shot that was a quick kill. As stated, The Duelling Oaks in New Orleans, aforementioned, was almost a daily activity.

Stephen Decatur, Naval Hero Killed in Duel

Stephen Decatur, the naval officer hero of Tripoli was killed at the dueling grounds in Bladensburg, Maryland in 1820, which is a sad tale in which two friends, instigated by the seconds of both, who wanted Stephen Decatur dead, ended up on a dueling field. Schools, especially in Pennsylvania are named after him.

Duel of Wild Bill Hickock and Davis Tutt:

By the time of the days of the Old West, gentlemanly dueling had vanished, mostly because it became unlawful. The duel and its rules were changed and the “quick-draw” duel would occur from time to time. Actually, it was Wild Bill Hickock who enacted this first western duel on a street in Springfield, Missouri. It became big news of the day and was featured in an article in Harper's Magazine in 1867, which made Hickock famous everywhere – even in Europe. Tutt and Hickock were friends despite that Tutt fought for the Confederate Army and Hickock was an Army Scout for the Union. Both liked to gamble. The falling out reportedly occurred over a women, Tutt paying too much attention to Wild Bill's girl, Susanna Moore and rumors that Hickock had fathered an illegitimate child with Tutt's sister. Hickock began to refuse to play any card game when Tutt was involved; and Tutt supported other card players with advice and money in order to attempt to bankrupt Hickock.

The conflict came to a head when Tutt had received Hickock's watch to pay a $40 debt. Tutt found the opportunity to humiliate his former friend. After several days of underhandedness and goading, using the watch, Hickock's patience was breaking. Hearing that Tutt planned to wear the watch in the middle of the town square, Hickock stated: He shouldn't come across that square unless dead men can walk. Hickock went to his room to clean, oil and reload his pistols in anticipation of a confrontation with Tutt the next morning when the latter stated he would strut with his watch in the town square.

Tutt could not back off after hearing that Hickock's patience had worn out and what he said, so the next day he arrived at the town square about 10 am and according to testimony of four witnesses, Hickock met Tutt at the square to discuss the return of his watch. Tutt wanted $45. Eli Armstrong, who was present and a witness, tried to convince Tutt to go by the original $35 and negotiate for the rest later. Hickock still insisted he only owed $25. Holding the watch up in plain view of Hickock and everyone, he stated he would accept nothing but $45. However, both stated they did not want to fight, so they went to the nearest saloon for a drink together. When Tutt left, he was still wearing the watch in the open.

At about 6 pm, Hickock was seen calmly walking to the square with his Colt Navy in his hand. The crowd at the square saw the pistol and immediately scattered to nearby buildings. Tutt stood alone in the square and at a distance of about 75 yards, Hickock stopped and called out: Dave, here I am. He cocked his pistol and put it in his holster.

Both men stood sideways, a stance that made the least target; but Tutt was reported to be the better marksman. Neither stood down. Tutt reached for his pistol and Hickock drew his gun and made a steady aim on his left forearm. According to reports, both men fired at the same time, Tutt missing and Hickock's bullet striking him in the left side between his ribs. Tutt called out: Boys, I'm killed and staggered onto the porch of the courthouse and then back onto the street where he collapsed and died.

A warrant was issued for Hickock's arrest and was arrested two days after the shooting. Bail was denied, but eventually was able to post bail for $2,000 (about $30,000 today) and the magistrate reduced the charge from murder to manslaughter. The trial lasted three days with 22 witnesses testifying. Hickock's lawyer was Colonel John S. Phelps. Trial transcripts have been lost, but newspaper reports stated he was found not guilty, declared self-defense. Some were not happy with the verdict, one of them a Springfield attorney who made a speech in the square and murmurs of a lynching were heard. Davis Tutt was buried in Springfield City Cemetery, his former slave and half-brother, Lewis Tutt, later interred the body and reburied it in Maple Park Cemetery; no reason known.

Another stupid reason to initiate a duel, western style or not.

The following YouTube video is part of Tales of the Gun series, dealing with the history of dueling …

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