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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
The eager press and peace officers made matters difficult. Two reporters hid themselves aboard the private car and were discovered and pitched off. But they hoofed it back to Rome, Georgia, found a spare locomotive and an engineer familiar with the train schedule on that line, and acted as firemen themselves. President Williamson’s own engineer was not so familiar with the schedule and finally became so fearful of a head-on collision that even his dread of the boss couldn’t persuade him to proceed farther. Catching up, the reporters offered their own engineer in return for a ride on the private car. Reluctantly, Williamson accepted.
They pulled into Cedar Bluff almost simultaneously with the arrival of the regular train carrying the Calhoun party. But the sheriff was there as well. His problem was that no one would admit to being either Williamson or Calhoun. During this contretemps Judge Tompkins of Williamson’s group raised the point that the sheriff was interfering with the United States mails by delaying the departure of the regular train. While the sheriff was mulling this over both parties sneaked aboard this train, and it pulled out of the station with the empty private car and engine ordered to follow.
After a few miles President Williamson used his influence to stop the train, and everyone started toward a clearing to settle the matter. But as the regular train departed the pesky sheriff arrived at the head of a posse armed with Winchesters. In the nick of time the faithful engineer came puffing along with the private car. Now both parties scrambled aboard it and took off again, with Williamson and Calhoun trying to remain aloof from each other in these close quarters.
At last a safe spot was found, but late in the day. Then came another delay. Williamson’s second, testing his weapon, couldn’t make the cylinder revolve. A reporter named Bruffey, seeing the precious duel in peril, volunteered to fix it. Bruffey succeeded but shot off the tip of his finger in the process. It was dusk when the two men took their places, peering at each other warily.
At the word “Fire!” a regular volley rattled out, but both men remained untouched. There had been a misunderstanding on a most crucial point. Williamson had thought they were to keep firing at will; Calhoun had understood that they were to exchange shots one at a time, each on signal. As a result Williamson had emptied his revolver and Calhoun still had four shots left. It had now become a replay of the Jackson-Dickinson affair, and Calhoun was free to kill an unarmed man. Williamson didn’t flinch, nor would he retract any of his statements. Standing in place, the two stubborn men engaged in a lengthy interchange.
Finally Calhoun said to President Williamson, “In my remarks before the committee, you as a person did not enter my mind. I say this holding my four shots in reserve, and when I’ve fired them into the air I expect you to withdraw your remarks.” He discharged the four shots, Williamson retracted, they shook hands, and all repaired to the private car to enjoy champagne and cigars on the ride home. The only damage was to Mr. Bruffey’s finger.
This duel, despite its many slapstick aspects, was no joke to the participants. All the difficulties with the trains and the law offered plenty of opportunities to call it off with honor, yet Williamson and Calhoun showed the same grim determination to see it through that runs like a blood-soaked thread through the long history of duelling. The poor marksmanship was due to bad light and inexperience, not to intent, and had there been a fatality, the victor could hardly have escaped legal punishment. But to a country of newspaper readers it was all sheer comedy, and so duelling was ended in perhaps the only way it could be ended: it was laughed out of existence.