Hamilton's Dueling History, a Haunted Bar and the Bank That Owns the Pistols: Your Guide to the Hamilton-Burr Duel

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Image courtesy of Bill Coughlin/The Historical Marker Database

So, you want to impress your friends with your extensive knowledge of the Hamilton-Burr duel. First, you’ve got to somehow bring Alexander Hamilton and/or Aaron Burr into the conversation. In response, your listeners are going to think, and hopefully say, something about the famous duel, because that's the only thing most people know about either man. This is your cue. When you hear the word "duel," you'll be ready to drop some serious knowledge on their collective behinds. Here's what you need to know.

Beyond the fact that both were Founding Fathers, who, exactly, were Burr and Hamilton?

Alexander Hamilton was the very first Secretary of the Treasury, and the guy behind the Federalist Papers. Aaron Burr was, at the time of the duel (July 11, 1804), the third Vice President of the United States. Both were accomplished lawyers and military men.

What does the duel have in common with The Sopranos?

Besides guns? They both took place in New Jersey. The duel went down at the Heights of Weehawken, a spot that was frequently used for just such occasions. Because New York had recently outlawed dueling as a legitimate way of settling grievances, aspiring duelists would row across the Hudson River to the more understanding shores of Tony Soprano’s home state.

What the heck were they so agitated about that they were willing to die over it?

You know how sometimes you just really don’t like someone? That was the case here. The two men had been foes since at least 1791, when Burr defeated Hamilton’s father-in-law for a Senate seat. And it went downhill from there. Burr was a Democratic-Republican, and Hamilton was a Federalist, but that was just the tip of their iceberg of ill will. Their enmity devolved from political disagreement to gangsta rap style beef. For over a decade, the two used the press and mutual acquaintances (other Founding Fathers) to hurl insults and accusations at one another. In April of 1804, the Albany Register ran an article that stated Hamilton, while at a political dinner, expressed a “despicable opinion” of Burr. Not nice, but not worth killing over either, right? Burr thought it was. During the next months, the two wrote a series of incredibly polite sounding, hateful letters which boiled down to something like this:

Burr: What did you say?
Hamilton: I don’t remember.
Burr: You better remember.
Hamilton: Look, if you come up with something specific that I was supposed to have said, I’ll tell you whether I said it or not.
Burr: That’s it. I’m going to kill you.
Hamilton: Not if I kill you first.

How well did the two men know one another?

Pretty darn well, even beyond both being Founding Fathers, and the aforementioned ongoing hatred of one another. Four years before the duel, Hamilton and Burr had worked together as an early American version of OJ’s Dream Team in one of the most sensational trials of the era. In what must have been a very awkward working relationship, the pair defended Levi Weeks, a well-heeled young man accused of murdering his working stock girlfriend, Elma Sands, and throwing her body down a well. Despite a veritable mountain of evidence, the young man was acquitted after only five minutes of jury deliberation.

Just after the verdict was read, Elma’s enraged sister pointed at Hamilton and cursed him, saying, “if thee dies a natural death, I shall think there is no justice in heaven!” It took a few years, but Hamilton’s death was anything but natural.

So, in a nutshell, what went down at this duel? Which one died again?

The two men, each with his own entourage, took separate boats across the Hudson to the duel site. The details of their accounts differ in some respects, but all witnesses maintained that both men followed the highly ritualized Code Duello (the rules of dueling).

Hamilton fired first—into the air. Burr returned fire. Into Hamilton. He died the next day.

Did Hamilton intentionally throw away his fire? Likely. The night before the duel, he wrote an open letter titled Statement on Impending Duel with Aaron Burr. In it, he wrote, “I have resolved, if our interview is conducted in the usual manner, and it pleases God to give me the opportunity, to reserve and throw away my first fire, and I have thoughts even of reserving my second fire.” After the duel, the doctor who attended Hamilton quoted him as saying, “I did not intend to fire at him.”

What does Aaron Burr have in common with Dick Cheney?

Both were sitting Vice Presidents when they shot acquaintances. In 2006, Cheney shot his pal Harry Whittington in a hunting mishap. Neither Burr nor Cheney ever apologized for what he had done. (You know who did apologize? Harry Whittington.)

What do Hamilton and Burr have to do with a haunted Manhattan bar?

Remember Elma, the murder victim who’d been thrown down a well? Well, the remnants of that well still stand in the basement of Manhattan Bistro. Staff and patrons have repeatedly reported encountering Elma’s ghost.

How common were duels in early America?

Among upper class gentleman, not uncommon. However, they were rarely fatal. The rules provided lots of opportunities for either party to apologize along the way, and the flintlock pistols used were not very accurate and prone to misfire. Both Hamilton and Burr had been involved in non-fatal duels before their unfortunate match. Hamilton had taken part in ten completely shot-less duels, so there’s reason to think he didn’t expect either himself or Burr to be killed in theirs. However, Hamilton’s own son, Philip had been killed in a duel, so he definitely knew it was possible.

Wait – Hamilton’s son was killed in a duel? What’s the story there?

It seems the Hamiltons were a hot-headed clan. In 1801, a 27-year-old lawyer named George Eacker made an inflammatory speech criticizing Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton's son (19-year-old Philip Hamilton) and a friend confronted Eacker in his box at the theatre, engaging in what Eacker termed “hooliganish” behavior. Then Eacker called them “damned rascals.” Well, obviously you can’t just let something like that slide. Philip and his friend challenged Eacker to duel. Both Eacker and the friend escaped unscathed from their duel, but Philip was not as fortunate. He was killed in his encounter with the man who had dared to insult Hamilton's honor.

I’m not really up on Code Duello. Did each duelist bring his own gun, or what?

Image courtesy of the J.P. Morgan Chase Archives

According to Rule 16 of the code, the challenged (in this case, Hamilton) had the right to choose the weapons. Hamilton chose a set of dueling pistols owned by his brother-in-law, John Barker Church, who'd once participated in a shot-less duel with Burr. The Church weapons, as they came to be called, had a macabre history that Hamilton would’ve known well: they were the same pistols used in the duel that killed his son, Philip, three years earlier, also at Weehawken.

Funny story about those pistols: they remained in Church’s family until 1930, when his granddaughter sold them to The Bank of the Manhattan Co.—a bank founded by…wait for it…Aaron Burr! That bank eventually was one of the several that merged to become JP Morgan Chase & Co., and the pistols remain in the company's archives.

Were there any sort of consequences for Burr?

Yes and no. Murder charges were brought against him in both New York and New Jersey, and he avoided them by simply staying out of those states. He kept to Washington and completed his term as Vice President, but his political career was over. Though all charges against him were eventually dropped, his life was never the same after the duel.

Is there an easy way for me to remember who killed whom?

You bet there is, and it comes by way of the SNL Digital Short “Lazy Sunday.” The line goes like this: “You can call us Aaron Burr from the way we’re dropping Hamiltons.” Get it? Dropping Hamiltons ($10 bills). Now you’ll always remember.

Now you're equipped to delight your friends with your buckets o’ dueling knowledge. Good luck getting said friends to bring up Hamilton or Burr in the first place.

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May 23, 2011 - 7:44am
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