Ready, Aim, Fire: Scenes From Early American Dueling

Callin' out around the world: are you ready for a brand new beat?
Summer's here and the time is right for duelin' in the streets.

The tradition of dueling first appeared among the Germanic tribes and was, in its early form, a mostly judicial matter. Conflict between to parties was settled and right and wrong were established under the belief that a higher power would protect the party in the right by allowing them to win and survive. These duels of justice would evolve into duels of chivalry in the Middle Ages and then duels of honor "“ private affairs being settled in an "honorable" manner "“ around the mid 16th century.

During the middle of the 18th century, just as dueling was falling out of favor in Europe and being outlawed in many places*, it also made its way to colonial North America. After the Revolutionary War, dueling would find a strong enough foothold in the United States that it would stay alive and well, mostly in the southeastern states, well into the 19th century and count numerous congressmen, senators, two presidents and a signer of the Declaration of Independence (the forgettable Button Gwinnett) among its practitioners.

Two hundred and four years ago yesterday, the seventh president of the United States shot and killed a horse breeder over an insult. In remembrance of this duel and the heady days of early America when you could kill a man in a heavily codified shootout if he called you a chicken, here's the highlight reel (subjective selections, not an exhaustive list) of some of the more notable duels (and near-duels) in American history.

Jackson vs. Dickinson

Before he became president, Jackson was a horse breeder in Tennessee. When Charles Dickinson, a rival breeder, called Jackson a "coward" and an "equivocator" and referred to Jackson's wife Rachel as a "bigamist" (her earlier divorce wasn't complete when she married Jackson), Jackson challenged him to a duel.

Dickinson chose pistols, and so, two hundred and four years ago, the two men met at Harrison's Mills in Logan County, Kentucky, at seven in the morning (dueling was illegal both in Kentucky and Tennessee, but they decided to meet across state lines since they were both well known in their home state).

Dickinson got off the first shot and hit Jackson just inches above the heart. Old Hickory remained standing and pulled the trigger. The pistol misfired, so he tried again and hit Dickinson in the gut. Dickinson would spend the rest of the day bleeding to death and expire that night. Jackson would spend the rest of his life dealing with a ball of lead lodged in his chest and the fallout of his "dishonorable" action of not stopping the duel when he misfired.

Hamilton vs. Burr

The most famous duel in American history was perhaps the logical conclusion to a personal and political battle that Vice President Burr and former Secretary of the Treasury Hamilton had been waging for years. Their conflict began in 1791 when Burr beat Hamilton's father-in-law, who would have supported Hamilton's Federalist policies as Secretary of the Treasury, for a Senate seat. When Burr and Thomas Jefferson tied for the presidency with 73 electoral votes each in the election of 1800 and the choosing of a president fell to the House of Representatives, Hamilton's maneuvering in the House led to Jefferson's victory and Burr taking the position of VP. Four years later, Burr ran for governor of New York when he realized he would be dropped from Jefferson's ticket and Hamilton campaigned against him and endorsed Morgan Lewis, who beat Burr. The tension between the two men continued to simmer until, upon hearing rumors that Hamilton had been saying "despicable" things about him, Burr issued a formal challenge to duel and Hamilton accepted.

Hamilton and Burr arrived by rowboat the morning July 11, 1804, at the Heights of Weehawken in New Jersey, a popular dueling ground where Hamilton's son had been killed just two years earlier (the same guns were used in both duels as well). The duel was held in New Jersey because the practice hadn't been outlawed there yet, but a number of safety measures were still implemented to keep anyone from being prosecuted. The dueling pistols were transported in a suitcase so the rowers could say under oath that they had not seen any pistols and the seconds (the representative of each dueling party, who were responsible for determining a location for the duel, checking that the weapons were equal and that the duel was fair) stood with their backs to Hamilton and Burr so that they could honestly say they saw no shots fired.

First-hand accounts of the duel agree that two shots were fired, but conflict over who fired first. It was probably Hamilton and he apparently fired high and missed Burr completely, though it's not clear if this was intentional. Burr's return fire hit Hamilton in the abdomen just above the right hip and caused extensive damage to his liver and diaphragm. Hamilton collapsed and died the following morning.

Burr may have survived, but like Jackson, he paid for it politically. He was indicted for murder in both New York and New Jersey, but never brought to trial, and was so harshly criticized for his involvement in the duel that he ended his political career early and went into exile.

Clay vs. Randolph

John Randolph was an angry man. He fought his first duel at 18 over a fellow student's mispronunciation of a word. As a Congressman, he regularly labeled his colleagues "vile,"  "slanderers," "traitors" and "contemptible and degraded beings." His anger caught up with him when he accused Secretary of State Henry Clay of "crucifying the Constitution and cheating at cards" on the House floor. Clay challenged him to a duel.

Assaulting his character was one thing, but Randolph did not want to assault Clay's body and rob his family of a father and husband. Days before the duel, Randolph confided in a friend that he would instead purposefully aim high and miss at the duel, in order to preserve his honor while sparing Clay's life. The men met on the field of honor on April 8, 1826, and as preparations were being made, Randolph accidentally fired his gun at the ground. Clay accepted that the misfire was an accident and allowed the duel to proceed, so both men marched the agreed upon number of steps, turned and fired. Randolph, humiliated by his misfire, made no effort to aim high and away, but still missed Clay, barely striking his coat. Clay also missed and, unsatisfied, demanded another attempt. Clay missed again and Randolph followed through on his intent to spare Clay and fired into the air. Clay was moved by this and met Randolph at midfield to end the duel and shake his hand, where Randolph noted that he owed the Secretary a new coat.

Lincoln vs. Shields

During his time as a Whig representative in the Illinois legislature, Abraham Lincoln (who opposed dueling) wrote a series of satirical letters, under the pseudonym Rebecca, poking fun at State Auditor James Shields. When some of the letters wound up published in a local newspaper, Shields wrote a letter demanding that Lincoln retract them. Lincoln took offense at both Shields' tone and his assumption that Lincoln had written all of the letters that appeared in the paper (some of the letters were believed to have been written by Mary Todd, Lincoln's future wife, and a friend). When Shields asked for at least a retraction of the letters he knew were Lincoln's, Lincoln refused unless Shields withdrew his letter, demanding an apology for the demanding of an apology, in other words. Shields grew tired of the stalemate and challenged Lincoln to a duel.

As the challenged party, Lincoln had the choice of weapons and other certain conditions. Instead of the usual pistols, he chose cavalry broadswords and decided that the duel would be fought in a pit 10 feet wide and 12 feet deep with a large wooden plank in the middle that neither man was allowed to step over. These conditions, the long armed, 6' 4" Lincoln hoped, would give him enough of an advantage that Shields would withdraw the challenge. If the duel were to go on, Lincoln though he would at least have an opportunity to disarm Shields without either man getting hurt.

Lincoln wasn't the only one trying to make the duel a bloodless one. Both men's seconds took matters into their own hands and arranged a truce, agreeing that a note in which Lincoln admitted authorship of his letters and asserted "no intention of injuring [Shields'] personal or private character or standing as a man or gentleman" would satisfy all parties. Afterwards, Lincoln and Shields forged a friendship and political alliance that would last for the rest of their careers.

Twain vs. Laird

For a time, Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, was living in Virginia City, Nevada, and writing editorials for The Territorial Enterprise. When Twain erroneously accused his rival paper, The Virginia City Union, of reneging on a pledge to charity, the Union's publisher, James Laird, raised such a fuss that Twain challenged him to a duel.

When Twain went to practice shooting with his second, it became apparent that his pen was mightier than his sword and that his pistol was downright awful. There was no way he'd survive the duel. As Laird and his second approached the field of honor, Twain's second grabbed a bird and shot its head off. When Laird arrived, Twain and his second were admiring the corpse and the second explained to Laird that Twain had shot the bird from thirty yards.

That night, Laird called off the duel, but the fact that a one had been challenged and accepted still brought Twain in conflict with Nevada Territorial laws. Since the local authorities weren't fans of Twain's writing anyway, Twain took the opportunity to leave Nevada and headed to California where he worked for another newspaper and wrote The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.

Button Gwinnett vs Lachlan McIntosh

As a representative of Georgia at the Continental Congress, Button Gwinnett was the second of the signatories on the United States Declaration of Independence. He was also the bitter rival of Brigadier General Lachlan McIntosh. Their conflict started when McIntosh was appointed as commander of Georgia's Continental Battalion over Gwinnett. Gwinnett took the appointment as a slight and took out his wrath on McIntosh and his family. He had McIntosh's brother George arrested and charged with treason against the revolution. As governor, he took an active role in military matters, causing dissension in the ranks and undermining McIntosh's leadership. When Gwinnet ordered one of McIntosh's subordinates to lead a poorly planned expedition into British Florida, the disastrous operation led to Gwinnett and McIntosh blaming each other for the failure. The public sparring grew vicious when McIntosh denounced Gwinnett as a "scoundrel and lying rascal." The governor challenged him to a duel to restore his honor.

The two met to duel with pistols on May 16, 1777, in a field a few miles east of Savannah. After marching twelve paces, they turned and fired almost simultaneously. Gwinnett took a shot to the hip and McIntosh took one to the leg. Gwinnett died three days later and George Washington feared that Gwinnett's allies would take revenge on the surviving McIntosh, so he ordered him to report to Continental Army headquarters. McIntosh spent the winter of 1777-1778 with the Continental Army at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania and later commanded several regiments of North Carolina troops in the Revolutionary War.

Gwinnett maintains a small amount of fame today for having the most valuable historical autographs in America. Since he was not well known before signing the Declaration of Independence and died shortly after, people attempting to collect the autographs of all 56 signers of the Declaration have autograph paid as much as $150,000 for Gwinnet's signature.

* As late as 1829, however, England's prime minister, the Duke of Wellington, challenged the Earl of Winchelsea to a fight to the death over an insult about the duke's supposed softness toward Catholics.

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Dennis Oulds, Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
When John Lennon and Yoko Ono Mailed Acorns to World Leaders
 Dennis Oulds, Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Dennis Oulds, Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

John Lennon and Yoko Ono had a big year in 1969. Following a quick wedding ceremony in Gibraltar, they hopped over to Amsterdam and used their honeymoon suite at the Hilton as a stage for their week-long “Bed-In for Peace” protest against the Vietnam War. A week later they were in Vienna wearing bags over their bodies and declaring the formation of a comical new philosophy called “bagism." Their goal, they said, was to promote "total communication" by getting people to focus on their message instead of their skin color, ethnicity, clothes, or in Lennon's case, hair length.

John Lennon and Yoko Ono with a sign reading "bagism"
Bob Aylott, Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

These attention-grabbing antics were among their most famous peace efforts, but that same year they undertook a very different project. This time, away from the cameras, Lennon and Ono mailed acorns to some of the world's most important leaders and asked that they be planted in support of world peace.

The idea had been a year in the making. While filming a part for a movie called A Love Story on June 15, 1968, Lennon and Ono planted two acorns at England’s Coventry Cathedral, which had been bombed during WWII and was later rebuilt as a symbol of peace. They were “planted in east and westerly positions,” symbolizing the union of Lennon and Ono and their respective cultures.

Then, in 1969, they decided to scale up their "peace acorn" project. Along with two acorns placed in a small, round case, they sent world leaders a letter that read: “Enclosed in this package we are sending you two living sculptures—which are acorns—in the hope that you will plant them in your garden and grow two oak trees for world peace. Yours with love, John and Yoko Ono Lennon.”

Like the proverb “Great oaks from little acorns grow,” the couple understood the power of small gestures and wanted to start a conversation that would get world leaders thinking about the possibility of peace—or in Lennon's words, to encourage them to "give peace a chance."

John and Yoko hold up a protest sign that says "War is over if you want it."
Frank Barratt, Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

They did provoke some thought, at least. In a 1970 interview with Rolling Stone, Lennon explained, “We got reaction to sending acorns—different heads of state actually planted their acorns, lots of them wrote to us answering about the acorns. We sent acorns to practically everybody in the world.”

The two acorns were “submitted to Her Majesty [Queen Elizabeth II] in due course,” according to a letter that the Privy Purse Office at Buckingham Palace sent to the Lennons. A response from Malaysia confirmed that the acorns were to be planted in Kuala Lumpur’s Palace Gardens, and another letter from South Africa indicated that they would be planted on then-president Jim Fouché’s farm.

Golda Meir, then-prime minister of Israel, reportedly said something along the lines of, “I don’t know who they are but if it’s for peace, we’re for it,” Lennon told Rolling Stone. An official response sent by Meir’s assistant director in 1970 read, “Mrs. Meir very much appreciated the gesture, the underlying symbolism of which she would indeed like to see take root within a realistic framework.”

One particularly polite response came from Cambodia's head of state, Norodom Sihanouk, who worried he had erred in addressing Lennon and Ono as Mr. and Mrs. (he hadn't). He wrote, “Dear Sir and Madam, I may have wrongly assumed the friendly donators of acorns are husband and wife, and would like to submit ‘preventive’ apologies, together with my sincerest thanks for their gift.”

Norodom Sihanouk at a naval event
Norodom Sihanouk at a naval event in 1960
Three Lions/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Ono saved all of these letters, and photocopies can be viewed on her website. For his part, Lennon memorialized the event in The Beatles single "The Ballad of John and Yoko." In case you've ever wondered what the line "50 acorns tied in a sack" means, the verse in question references the events following their honeymoon and return to London:

Caught the early plane back to London
Fifty acorns tied in a sack
The men from the press
Said we wish you success
It's good to have the both of you back

To mark the 40th anniversary of the peace acorn offering in 2009, Ono recreated the act and sent acorns to 123 world leaders, including Barack and Michelle Obama. Next year, for the 50th anniversary, it remains to be seen if the famous peace acorns will again make their way around the world. If you happen to be a president or the Queen, you might want to save a spot in your garden, just in case.

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Illustration by Mental Floss. Image: Rischgitz, Getty Images
11 Things You Might Not Know About Johann Sebastian Bach
Illustration by Mental Floss. Image: Rischgitz, Getty Images
Illustration by Mental Floss. Image: Rischgitz, Getty Images

Johann Sebastian Bach is everywhere. Weddings? Bach. Haunted houses? Bach. Church? Bach. Shredding electric guitar solos? Look, it’s Bach! The Baroque composer produced more than 1100 works, from liturgical organ pieces to secular cantatas for orchestra, and his ideas about musical form and harmony continue to influence generations of music-makers. Here are 11 things you might not know about the man behind the music.

1. PEOPLE DISAGREE ABOUT WHEN TO CELEBRATE HIS BIRTHDAY.

Some people celebrate Bach’s birthday on March 21. Other people light the candles on March 31. The correct date depends on whom you ask. Bach was born in Thuringia in 1685, when the German state was still observing the Julian calendar. Today, we use the Gregorian calendar, which shifted the dates by 11 days. And while most biographies opt for the March 31 date, Bach scholar Christopher Wolff firmly roots for Team 21. “True, his life was actually 11 days longer because Protestant Germany adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1700,” he told Classical MPR, “but with the legal stipulation that all dates prior to Dec. 31, 1699, remain valid.”

2. HE WAS THE CENTER OF A MUSICAL DYNASTY.

Bach’s great-grandfather was a piper. His grandfather was a court musician. His father was a violinist, organist, court trumpeter, and kettledrum player. At least two of his uncles were composers. He had five brothers—all named Johann—and the three who lived to adulthood became musicians. J.S. Bach also had 20 children, and, of those who lived past childhood, at least five became professional composers. According to the Nekrolog, an obituary written by Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, "[S]tarting with Veit Bach, the founding father of this family, all his descendants, down to the seventh generation, have dedicated themselves to the profession of music, with only a few exceptions."

3. BACH TOOK A MUSICAL PILGRIMAGE THAT PUTS EVERY ROAD TRIP TO WOODSTOCK TO SHAME.

In 1705, 20-year-old Bach walked 280 miles—that's right, walked—from the city of Arnstadt to Lübeck in northern Germany to hear a concert by the influential organist and composer Dieterich Buxtehude. He stuck around for four months to study with the musician [PDF]. Bach hoped to succeed Buxtehude as the organist of Lübeck's St. Mary's Church, but marriage to one of Buxtehude's daughters was a prerequisite to taking over the job. Bach declined, and walked back home.

4. HE BRAWLED WITH HIS STUDENTS.

One of Bach’s first jobs was as a church organist in Arnstadt. When he signed up for the role, nobody told him he also had to teach a student choir and orchestra, a responsibility Bach hated. Not one to mince words, Bach one day lost patience with a error-prone bassoonist, Johann Geyersbach, and called him a zippelfagottist—that is, a “nanny-goat bassoonist.” Those were fighting words. Days later, Geyersbach attacked Bach with a walking stick. Bach pulled a dagger. The rumble escalated into a full-blown scrum that required the two be pulled apart.

5. BACH SPENT 30 DAYS IN JAIL FOR QUITTING HIS JOB.

When Bach took a job in 1708 as a chamber musician in the court of the Duke of Saxe-Weimar, he once again assumed a slew of responsibilities that he never signed up for. This time, he took it in stride, believing his hard work would lead to his promotion to kapellmeister (music director). But after five years, the top job was handed to the former kapellmeister’s son. Furious, Bach resigned and joined a rival court. As retribution, the duke jailed him for four weeks. Bach spent his time in the slammer writing preludes for organ.

6. THE BRANDENBURG CONCERTOS WERE A FAILED JOB APPLICATION.

Around 1721, Bach was the head of court music for Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen. Unfortunately, the composer reportedly didn’t get along with the prince’s new wife, and he started looking for a new gig. (Notice a pattern?) Bach polished some manuscripts that had been sitting around and mailed them to a potential employer, Christian Ludwig, the Margrave of Brandenburg. That package, which included the Brandenburg Concertos—now considered some of the most important orchestral compositions of the Baroque era—failed to get Bach the job [PDF].

7. HE WROTE ONE OF THE WORLD'S GREATEST COFFEE JINGLES.

Bach apparently loved coffee enough to write a song about it: "Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht" ("Be still, stop chattering"). Performed in 1735 at Zimmerman’s coffee house in Leipzig, the song is about a coffee-obsessed woman whose father wants her to stop drinking the caffeinated stuff. She rebels and sings this stanza:

Ah! How sweet coffee tastes
More delicious than a thousand kisses
Milder than muscatel wine.
Coffee, I have to have coffee,
And, if someone wants to pamper me,
Ah, then bring me coffee as a gift!

8. IF BACH CHALLENGED YOU TO A KEYBOARD DUEL, YOU WERE GUARANTEED TO BE EMBARRASSED.

In 1717, Louis Marchand, a harpsichordist from France, was invited to play for Augustus, Elector of Saxony, and performed so well that he was offered a position playing for the court. This annoyed the court’s concertmaster, who found Marchand arrogant and insufferable. To scare the French harpsichordist away, the concertmaster hatched a plan with his friend, J.S. Bach: a keyboard duel. Bach and Marchand would improvise over a number of different styles, and the winner would take home 500 talers. But when Marchand learned just how talented Bach was, he hightailed it out of town.

9. SOME OF HIS MUSIC MAY HAVE BEEN COMPOSED TO HELP INSOMNIA.

Some people are ashamed to admit that classical music, especially the Baroque style, makes them sleepy. Be ashamed no more! According to Bach’s earliest biographer, the Goldberg Variations were composed to help Count Hermann Karl von Keyserling overcome insomnia. (This story, to be fair, is disputed.) Whatever the truth, it hasn’t stopped the Andersson Dance troupe from presenting a fantastic Goldberg-based tour of performances called “Ternary Patterns for Insomnia.” Sleep researchers have also suggested studying the tunes’ effects on sleeplessness [PDF].

10. HE WAS BLINDED BY BOTCHED EYE SURGERY.

When Bach was 65, he had eye surgery. The “couching” procedure, which was performed by a traveling surgeon named John Taylor, involved shoving the cataract deep into the eye with a blunt instrument. Post-op, Taylor gave the composer eye drops that contained pigeon blood, mercury, and pulverized sugar. It didn’t work. Bach went blind and died shortly after. Meanwhile, Taylor moved on to botch more musical surgeries. He would perform the same procedure on the composer George Frideric Handel, who also went blind.

11. NOBODY IS 100 PERCENT CONFIDENT THAT BACH IS BURIED IN HIS GRAVE.

In 1894, the pastor of St. John’s Church in Leipzig wanted to move the composer’s body out of the church graveyard to a more dignified setting. There was one small problem: Bach had been buried in an unmarked grave, as was common for regular folks at the time. According to craniologist Wilhelm His, a dig crew tried its best to find the composer but instead found “heaps of bones, some in many layers lying on top of each other, some mixed in with the remains of coffins, others already smashed by the hacking of the diggers.” The team later claimed to find Bach’s box, but there’s doubt they found the right (de)composer. Today, Bach supposedly resides in Leipzig’s St. Thomas Church.

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