|"Eugene Onegin and Vladimir Lensky's duel", illustration by Ilya Repin |
No discussion of early 19th century duels would be complete without a mention of the Burr-Hamilton duel, even though it took place across the pond in the newly-liberated American colonies. Alexander Hamilton was a close friend of George Washington and a leader among the Federalist party; Aaron Burr was the Vice President of the United States and leader of the Democrats.
The enmity between the two men went back many years, but the immediate cause of the quarrel was a letter Hamilton wrote in which he described Burr as a “dangerous man” who “ought not to be trusted with the reins of government.” Burr demanded a retraction, and when that didn't happen he challenged Hamilton to a duel. They met at Weehawken, New Jersey, on July 11, 1804.
According to contemporary accounts, Hamilton took the first shot and fired into the air above Burr’s head. Burr fired back at Hamilton, hitting him in the stomach. Mortally wounded, Hamilton died the next day. Though Burr was charged with murder in both New Jersey and New York he was never brought to trial. However, the duel effectively killed his political career, though he did serve out his term as vice president.
Though duelists were typically male, more than one pair of women picked up pistols or swords to settle an argument. In 1792 Lady Almeria Braddock challenged Mrs. Elphinstone to a duel in Hyde Park. The cause of their quarrel hinged on the question of Lady Almeria’s age. In true mean girl fashion, Mrs. Elphinstone complimented Lady Almeria on how well she looked - given how old she was.
According to the account in Robert Baldick’s fine book, The Duel, a History, Mrs. Elphinstone began her taunts by using the past tense to describe her friend’s beauty. “You have a very good autumnal face even now,” she added, “but you must acknowledge the lilies and roses are somewhat faded. Forty years ago, I am told, a young fellow could hardly gaze on you with impunity.”
Lady Almeria protested that she was not yet 30, which was overdoing it a bit. Mrs. Elphinstone cited Collins, a source similar to Burke’s Peerage, for proof that Lady Almeria was born in 1732, which would have pegged her age at about 60. What else could Lady Almeria do but challenge Mrs. Elphinstone to a duel?
In what came to be known as the “petticoat duel,” the two women started by firing pistols, and Lady Almeria’s hat was the first casualty. They fought on with swords, and the duel continued until Lady Almeria nicked Mrs. Elphinstone in her arm. At the sight of her own blood Mrs. Elphinstone agreed to write an apology to Lady Almeria, and the duel ended.
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