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Pistols For Two … Coffee For One
“It is astonishing that the murderous practice of duelling should continue so long in vogue,” said Benjamin Franklin. Yet continue it did, often with peculiarly American variations
February 1975 | Volume 26, Issue 2
Inevitably, women not only caused many duels but actually participated in some. In France ladies of the nobility met in occasional encounters with rapiers. In this country armed conflict took place primarily between ladies of questionable repute, was usually spontaneous, and seldom followed the code. One exception is particularly noteworthy for its outcome. It happened in Denver, Colorado, during the silver boom of the 1870’s. Mattie Silks was proud of being the Queen of the Denver Tenderloin and commonly wore a queenlike costume, complete with cloak and train. She loved money but loved a gambler named Cort Thompson even more. So did Katie Fulton. Cort Thompson was probably playing both sides of the street. All the proper formalities were observed as the two shady ladies met on the grounds of the Denver Brewery, which assured a good attendance. Prominent among the spectators was the dashing Mr. Thompson.
When the pistols roared and the smoke cleared, both Mattie and Kate were obviously unhurt. Then, among the crowd, a man slowly crumpled. Cort Thompson was dead with a bullet in his handsome head, presumably from Mattie Silks’s gun. Accident? Or good shooting? Only Mattie ever knew; there was no police investigation.
Percussion duelling pistols had generally replaced flintlocks by the late 183o’s; and although the code continued to specify smoothbores, many of the new pistols were rifled. But there is little evidence to show that they made duelling any more lethal. Certainly this factor was not responsible for the custom’s gradual decline. Nor did the increasing number of laws have a great deal directly to do with it; laws are no stronger than the willingness to prosecute and convict. But they were an indication of a very slow change in the public attitude, and urbanization, industrialization, and the rise of the middle class all had a part in this.
Duelling was still in vogue at the time of the Civil War, though mainly in the South and Far West. This was particularly true of the Confederate army; but few of these affairs were of unusual interest except for the paradox that devotion to the cause didn’t prevent Southerners from killing each other. Questions of rank and command were the cause of bitter disputes in both armies, North and South, but it was usually only the Confederates who actually fought over them. General U. S. Grant’s frank confession in his memoirs seems to be at least an indication of the northern attitude: I do not believe I would ever have the courage to fight a duel. If any man should wrong me to the extent of my being willing to kill him, I would not be willing to give him the choice of weapons with which it should be done, and of the time, place and distance separating us, when I executed him. If I should do another such a wrong as to justify him in killing me, I would make any reasonable atonement within my power, if convinced of the wrong done. I place my opposition to dueling on higher grounds than any here stated. No doubt a majority of the duels fought have been for want of moral courage on the part of those engaged to decline.
Yet a curious belief that personal quarrels were somehow privileged persisted even in the North—and its army. During an active campaign in 1862 two Union generals, William Nelson and Jefferson C. Davis (no relation), had a dispute at the Gait House in Louisville, Kentucky. General Davis demanded an apology, whereupon General Nelson slapped him in the face, calling him a coward to boot. Then Nelson started up the stairs. Davis grabbed a pistol from a bystander and shot Nelson just above the heart. This was not a duel or even a fight; it was murder or, by the kindest interpretation, manslaughter. Yet Davis was never tried by either a military or a civil court and continued to serve with distinction and, presumably, respect throughout the war. [See “I have been basely murdered,” A MERICAN H ERITAGE , August, 1963.]
One of the last recorded duels occurred in 1889 and, appropriately enough, in the South. It sums up, perhaps, the basic absurdity of the whole custom. J. R. Williamson, a dignified, proud man, was president of the Rome, Chattanooga, and Columbus Railroad. He and an attorney, Patrick Calhoun, a descendant of the more famous John C. Calhoun, brought themselves to fighting pitch over a slurring statement Pat Calhoun had made about Williamson before a Georgia legislative committee. President Williamson then called Calhoun a liar. After an interchange of notes, with neither willing to retract, Calhoun challenged.
In accepting, Williamson specified the newfangled Smith and Wesson hammerless revolvers. As word leaked, the newspapers knew they had a bonanza, and the governors of Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee knew they had a hot potato—the meeting might take place in any one of those three states. Sheriffs and posses were alerted along all the state borders. Actually Cedar Bluff, Alabama, was the chosen site. Two railroads connected Atlanta with Cedar Bluff. Calhoun and party were to take one; President Williamson and cohorts were to ride in his private car on the other—what the stockholders thought of this is not recorded.