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

“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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