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 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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