10 Most Bizarre Duels in History
10 Most Bizarre Duels in History

10 Most Bizarre Duels in History

Alexander Meddings - September 25, 2017

10 Most Bizarre Duels in History
Fournier-Sarlovèze (left) and l’Ètang. Pinterest

General François Fournier-Sarlovèze and General Pierre Dupont de l’Ètang

Remember that scene from Lord of the Rings where Gandalf and the Balrog do battle basically all over Middle Earth? Standing on a bridge, falling from said bridge, flying through the air, “through fire and water, from the lowest dungeon, to the highest peak”? Well, essentially the same thing happened with two French officers during the Napoleonic Wars when they fought no less than 30 duels in 19 years between 1794 and 1813.

It all started when Dupont was charged with delivering a rather heated message to Fournier. More commonly known as “the worst subject in the Grand Armée”, Fournier was a keen duellist, despite the fact that Napoleon had banned the practice. And on this occasion Fournier did decide, almost literally, to shoot the messenger, though his weapon of choice was a rapier rather than a pistol. This time, however, winning didn’t come so easily.

Fournier was wounded in the first fight, but demanded further satisfaction. They fought again, this time Dupont receiving a wound. On their third meeting, both managed to inflict glancing wounds on each other. This lack of resolution led them to draw up a contract, essentially setting out the terms of their private war. It stipulated: 1) They would meet sword in hand whenever 100 miles from each other; 2) If one was unable to travel, through demands on his services, the other would come to him; 3) There were to be no excuses whatsoever for not abiding by the contract.

Though you might fault them for their stubbornness, you can’t fault them for their creativity. On foot or on horseback, Fournier and Dupont fought with pistols, sabers, rapiers, swords, and lances. I’ve italicized fought because I struggle to see how two Napoleonic generals could have failed to inflict a mortal blow over so many encounters. I actually suspect that they really rather enjoyed themselves; something we may deduce from the fact they would often dine together before doing battle.

Things finally came to a head in 1813 when Dupont plunged his sword through Fournier’s neck during a sword fight in a Swiss wood. Believing this was a good moment to try and talk some sense into his rival, Dupont informed Fournier that he was engaged and, for the sake of his marriage, would rather like to put this who dueling business behind him. They agreed on a final pistol showdown in a nearby wood. Dupont tricked Fournier, making him fire at a piece of clothing, before advancing on him with his pistol still loaded. Fournier conceded defeat, thus ending their long rivalry on an unexpectedly peaceful note.

10 Most Bizarre Duels in History
Isaac Cruickshank’s Satire, “Killing no murder, or a new ministerial way of settling the affairs of a nation!” 1809. Castlereagh stands on the left and Canning on the right. History Today

George Canning and Lord Castlereagh

Backstabbing is nothing new to politics, and British politicians of the 19th century were so adept at it that it could have been a national sport. In 1809, an act of backstabbing between two British cabinet ministers backfired when one, at the last moment, metaphorically turned around. As Minister of War, Robert Stewart (better known as Lord Castlereagh) had his work cut out for him with Britain at war with France and Napoleon still looming (figuratively) large. George Canning held the equally stressful position of Foreign Secretary, but he believed his job and aspirations were being impeded by Castlereagh.

Though friendly to his face, behind his back Canning conspired to Castlereagh removed, and in April he wrote a letter to the Prime Minister threatening to resign if Castlereagh wasn’t asked to leave office. The contents of Canning’s letter were, however, leaked to Castlereagh, and with his honor besmirched and desperately seeking satisfaction, he wrote to Canning, challenging him to a duel. Like all correspondence of the time, Canning’s reply was straight and to the point:

The tone and purport of your Lordship’s letter (which I have this moment received) of course precludes any other answer, on my part, to the misapprehensions and misrepresentations, with which it abounds, than that I will cheerfully give to your Lordship the satisfaction that you require.”

In other words, yes, let’s. Canning drew up his will, wrote a final letter to his wife, and prepared for their encounter. The two met on London’s Putney heath, near Wimbledon, at first dawn on September 21, 1809. Castlereagh had some experience in dueling, and this may have explained his calm demeanour as he hummed sound bites from contemporary popular arias while taking up position. Canning, who had never fired a gun before, was also reportedly calm as he prepared for pistols at dawn.

Both missed their first shots, but Castlereagh demanded a second round. This time Canning landed his shot, shooting off his opponent’s coat button. Castlereagh inflicted slightly more damage with his, however, wounding his opponent in the thigh, and both men agreed that they were satisfied (though how Canning claimed to feel satisfied with a lead ball lodged in his thigh will forever be beyond me).

The duel didn’t go down too well with some of the big political names of the time. King George III expressed his fury that two secretaries of state should have broken the laws they swore to uphold while still carrying the seals of office. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Spencer Perceval, wasn’t very happy with the PR fallout either, writing, “Terrible all this, for public impression”. Indeed it was, and both Canning and Castlereagh unceremoniously resigned in October the same year.

10 Most Bizarre Duels in History
The scene of the duel, Brighton Racecourse, around 1790. My Brighton and Hove

Humphrey “Naked Gun” Howarth and the Earl of Barrymore

Considering their famed reputation for sexual repression, the British have a remarkable habit of stripping off at any given opportunity. This is especially the case when the sun comes out and temperatures soar to anything above 15 degrees Celsius, and when they go out and drink heavily. From an early 19th century anecdote, it appears another good opportunity to get out the skinsuit was during a duel to the death.

This is precisely what happened when two MPs (Members of Parliament), Humphrey Howarth and the Earl of Barrymore, got into a drunken disagreement at the Brighton races in 1806. The Irish Earl blackened the elderly MP’s eye during a particularly heated round of the card game Whist, and they decided to settle their dispute by dueling with pistols on the ground’s racetrack early the morning. Once both men had sobered up sufficiently, of course.

When Howarth turned up, however, it didn’t seem he’d quite managed to clear his mind. For the onlookers, excitement quickly turned to confusion, and then shock, as the right honorable (and rather obese) MP for Evesham stripped down completely before taking up position beside Barrymore; his pistol—for want of a better term—fully cocked.

There was in fact a method to his apparent madness. Before becoming a politician, Howarth had served as a surgeon in the British East India Company. There he had learned (quite before his time, in fact) that most gunshot fatalities weren’t caused by the bullet per se which rarely penetrated deep enough inside the body. Instead, fatalities were more likely to be caused by the infections that followed, as the shot embedded shreds of dirty clothing inside the body.

With his back against the wall, and not wishing to enter into the annals of history as the man who killed the naked warrior in puris naturalibus, Barrymore backed down. The matter was considered settled and both men walked, we can presume somewhat awkwardly, away.

10 Most Bizarre Duels in History

“The Petticoat Duellists”, Lady Almeria Braddock and Mrs. Elphinstone. History.com

Lady Almeria Braddock and Mrs. Elphinstone

Historically, duels were fought mainly by aristocrats or men of the upper classes, but they weren’t fought exclusively by them. Women too occasionally dueled for a number of reasons. In the 16th century Naples, Isabella de Carazzi and Diambra de Pettinella subverted gender roles by taking up lances, maces, and shields and doing battle for the hand of a very eligible bachelor, one Fabio de Zeresola. In 1829, two wealthy Russian landowners took up their husbands’ sabers and hacked each other to death in a nearby birch grove because they didn’t quite see eye to eye as neighbors.

In this quintessentially English story, however, a duel arose from some sharp-tongued remarks made over afternoon tea. Mrs. Elphinstone, an upper-class woman, was visiting the house of Lady Braddock when she made some somewhat tasteless comments about her hostess’s appearance:

You have been a very beautiful woman. You have a very good autumnal face even now, but you must acknowledge that the lilies and roses are somewhat faded. Forty years ago, I am told, a young fellow could hardly gaze upon you with impunity.”

Problematically, Lady Braddock had only recently turned 30, and the seasonal and floral imagery could do nothing to placate her rage at the injury done to her honor. She demanded that Mrs. Elphinstone satisfy her by consenting to a duel.

The “Petticoat Duel“, as it came to be known, was fought in London’s Hyde Park in 1792. The pair drew pistols and Mrs. Elphinstone managed to penetrate Lady Braddock’s hat, knocking it to the ground (yup, she was apparently aiming for the head). The two then switched to swords and, going for a rather less capital target, Lady Braddock struck her opponent in the arm. Bleeding from her wound, Mrs. Elphinstone returned home where—presumably with her good hand—she wrote Lady Braddock a lengthy letter of apology.

So at least ran the story in a 1792 edition of Carlton House Magazine. Unfortunately, there’s no other evidence that this duel ever took place. No Lady Braddock existed who actually fits the bill; only a Lady Almeria Carter who seems to have been of an entirely peaceful disposition. But there was a Georgian actress called George Anne Bellamy who had once played a character called Almeria, was friends with one General Braddock—who had fought a duel with pistols and swords in Hyde Park—and was acquaintances with one Mrs. Elphinstone. Though it’s sure to disappoint, it seems this story, revolving around the Georgian actress, was purely apocryphal.

10 Most Bizarre Duels in History
The aftermath of Alexander Pushkin’s duel. Wikimedia Commons

Alexander Pushkin and Baron Georges D’Anthès

Regarded by many as Russia’s rival to Shakespeare, Alexander Pushkin is still considered one of Russia’s literary greats. As versatile as he was prolific, he gave voice to national identity at a time of considerable political strife. He was also the darling of Tsar Nicholas who, through a mixture of admiration and distrust of Pushkin’s anarchic beliefs, dragged him unwillingly into the world of court politics and intrigues. Pushkin’s wife Natalya Goncharova, dazzlingly beautiful yet dangerously immature, made sure there was no shortage of the latter.

The quarrel that led to his duel was with Baron Georges D’Anthès, an exiled French aristocrat under the protection of the Dutch ambassador, Baron Heeckeren-Beverweerd. Dashing, charming, a well-rounded womanizer, D’Anthès flirted heavily with Pushkin’s wife and her sister, Ekaterina, who he later went on to marry. It’s unclear whether he had an affair with Natalya, but letters came to be distributed around court describing Natalya’s husband as a cuckold. This enraged Pushkin, who believed they’d originated from Beverweerd’s house, and him with all the ammunition he needed to challenge Beverweerd to a duel.

The ambassador was never going to accept, owing to his age. But Pushkin knew this. Instead, the ambassador’s adopted son, D’Anthès, took up the challenge. On January 27, 1837, the duellists departed St. Petersburg to meet in a snow-covered field beside the frozen River Neva. It wasn’t Pushkin’s first duel; they’d cropped up time and again in his life as well as his literature. But it was to be his last. The pair exchanged shots, and while Pushkin slightly wounded his opponent, D’Anthès’s shot punctured Pushkin’s abdomen.

The epilogue makes for sad reading. Pushkin died two days later in excruciating pain. D’Anthès showed little remorse for the remainder of his life, going on to enjoy a successful political career back in France. He passed away peacefully nearly 60 years after his mortal enemy in November 1895, surrounded by his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. His one regret, as he would reveal on occasion to his close friends, was that he had married Ekaterina rather than his one true love, her sister and Pushkin’s widow, Natalya.

10 Most Bizarre Duels in History
Roughly contemporary illustration of a game of billiards. Georgian Gentlemen

Melfant and Lenfant

France again, and this time we have a case of mortal combat quite naturally arising from a game of billiards. The combatants were two men called Melfant and Lenfant (or L’enfant sauvage to his friends) who found themselves embroiled in a somewhat heated match of the popular parlor game in their home commune of Maisonfort on September 4, 1843.

Tailoring their mode of combat to fit the occasion, both men agreed that they would stand 12 paces apart in a garden and throw billiard balls at one another. But rather than hurling them simultaneously—which, you know, would have been ridiculous—they decided they would draw lots to decide on the order of play. Melfant won, and taking the red ball in his hand he warned his opponent that he would fell him with the first throw.

A man of his word, Melfant lobbed the billiard ball straight into Lenfant’s forehead, fracturing his skull and killing him instantly. His victory was short-lived, however, as he was soon arrested and led away to prison.

He was tried for wilful murder but convicted, perhaps quite leniently, only of manslaughter. Nothing is known about what happened to him afterward, but if he ever left prison you’d imagine he found it difficult to find people to play billiards with.

10 Most Bizarre Duels in History
J. Mund’s artistic impression of the Burr-Hamilton Duel. Wikipedia

Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton

The most famous duel fought in American history was that between Aaron Burr, Thomas Jefferson’s Vice President, and former Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton. There was little love lost between the two. Hamilton had unsuccessfully campaigned against Burr when running for governor of New York in 1804, and a series of vitriolic aspersions Hamilton cast on Burr’s honor over the past 15 years led to the Vice President challenging Hamilton to a duel.

Hamilton held strong beliefs against dueling. Just three years before he’d lost his son to duel fought in defense of his father’s honor. Nevertheless this time he agreed. The date was set to July 11, 1804, and because the penalty for dueling in New York was death, the appointed place was the dueling grounds near Weehawken, New Jersey. Inauspiciously for Hamilton, the spot wasn’t far from the site of his son’s death.

What happened next is a matter of controversy as both men’s spotters had their backs turned so, under testimony, they could swear they’d “seen no fire”. Honouring the agreement, Hamilton fired his shot into the trees above Burr’s head, discharging his pistol and thereby fulfilling his duty. Burr, perhaps mistakenly believing the shot to have been a near miss, then took aim and shot Hamilton in the ribs. Hamilton collapsed, and Burr slowly and regretfully made his way towards him (suggesting aiming to kill may not have been intentional) before being led away behind an umbrella by his party.

Hamilton lay slumped, and when physician David Hosack reached him was only able to utter, “This is a mortal wound, doctor”, before falling unconscious. He awoke sometime later to inform Dr. Hosack that his gun was still loaded, and should be emptied lest it causes harm, and that the present judge, Nathaniel Pendleton, knew he didn’t intend to fire at Burr. He was taken to New York where he died the next day, in his friend’s home and surrounded by his loved ones.

Burr was tried for murder but acquitted. Other charges led to him being arrested for treason. On the run from the law and heavily in debt, he fled to Europe where he spent most of his time in England and Scotland under aliases. Ultimately he would return to New York, but his political life was done. He lived a privately secluded life until his death on Staten Island on September 14, 1836, the day of his divorce.


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