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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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10 Memorable Neil deGrasse Tyson Quotes
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Michael Campanella/Getty Images

Neil deGrasse Tyson is America's preeminent badass astrophysicist. He's a passionate advocate for science, NASA, and education. He's also well-known for a little incident involving Pluto. And the man holds nearly 20 honorary doctorates (in addition to his real one). In honor of his 59th birthday, here are 10 of our favorite Neil deGrasse Tyson quotes.

1. ON SCIENCE

"The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it."
—From Real Time with Bill Maher.

2. ON NASA FUNDING

"As a fraction of your tax dollar today, what is the total cost of all spaceborne telescopes, planetary probes, the rovers on Mars, the International Space Station, the space shuttle, telescopes yet to orbit, and missions yet to fly?' Answer: one-half of one percent of each tax dollar. Half a penny. I’d prefer it were more: perhaps two cents on the dollar. Even during the storied Apollo era, peak NASA spending amounted to little more than four cents on the tax dollar." 
—From Space Chronicles

3. ON GOD AND HURRICANES

"Once upon a time, people identified the god Neptune as the source of storms at sea. Today we call these storms hurricanes ... The only people who still call hurricanes acts of God are the people who write insurance forms."
—From Death by Black Hole

4. ON THE BENEFITS OF TECHNOLOGY INVENTED FOR USE IN SPACE

"Countless women are alive today because of ideas stimulated by a design flaw in the Hubble Space Telescope." (Editor's note: technology used to repair the Hubble Space Telescope's optical problems led to improved technology for breast cancer detection.)
—From Space Chronicles

5. ON THE DEMOTION OF PLUTO FROM PLANET STATUS 


PBS

"I knew Pluto was popular among elementary schoolkids, but I had no idea they would mobilize into a 'Save Pluto' campaign. I now have a drawer full of hate letters from hundreds of elementary schoolchildren (with supportive cover letters from their science teachers) pleading with me to reverse my stance on Pluto. The file includes a photograph of the entire third grade of a school posing on their front steps and holding up a banner proclaiming, 'Dr. Tyson—Pluto is a Planet!'"
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit

6. ON JAMES CAMERON'S TITANIC

"In [Titanic], the stars above the ship bear no correspondence to any constellations in a real sky. Worse yet, while the heroine bobs ... we are treated to her view of this Hollywood sky—one where the stars on the right half of the scene trace the mirror image of the stars in the left half. How lazy can you get?"
—From Death by Black Hole

7. ON DEATH BY ASTEROID

"On Friday the 13th, April 2029, an asteroid large enough to fill the Rose Bowl as though it were an egg cup will fly so close to Earth that it will dip below the altitude of our communication satellites. We did not name this asteroid Bambi. Instead, we named it Apophis, after the Egyptian god of darkness and death."
—From Space Chronicles

8. ON THE MOTIVATIONS BEHIND AMERICA'S MOONSHOT

"[L]et us not fool ourselves into thinking we went to the Moon because we are pioneers, or discoverers, or adventurers. We went to the Moon because it was the militaristically expedient thing to do."
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit

9. ON INTELLIGENT LIFE (OR THE LACK THEREOF)

Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/n/neildegras615117.html
Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/n/neildegras615117.html

"Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life."

10. PRACTICAL ADVICE IN THE EVENT OF ALIEN CONTACT 

A still from Steven Spielberg's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Universal Studios

"[I]f an alien lands on your front lawn and extends an appendage as a gesture of greeting, before you get friendly, toss it an eightball. If the appendage explodes, then the alien was probably made of antimatter. If not, then you can proceed to take it to your leader."
—From Death by Black Hole

How Apple's '1984' Super Bowl Ad Was Almost Canceled

More than 30 years ago, Apple defined the Super Bowl commercial as a cultural phenomenon. Prior to Super Bowl XVIII, nobody watched the game "just for the commercials"—but one epic TV spot, directed by sci-fi legend Ridley Scott, changed all that. Read on for the inside story of the commercial that rocked the world of advertising, even though Apple's Board of Directors didn't want to run it at all.

THE AD

If you haven't seen it, here's a fuzzy YouTube version:

"WHY 1984 WON'T BE LIKE 1984"

The tagline "Why 1984 Won't Be Like '1984'" references George Orwell's 1949 novel 1984, which envisioned a dystopian future, controlled by a televised "Big Brother." The tagline was written by Brent Thomas and Steve Hayden of the ad firm Chiat\Day in 1982, and the pair tried to sell it to various companies (including Apple, for the Apple II computer) but were turned down repeatedly. When Steve Jobs heard the pitch in 1983, he was sold—he saw the Macintosh as a "revolutionary" product, and wanted advertising to match. Jobs saw IBM as Big Brother, and wanted to position Apple as the world's last chance to escape IBM's domination of the personal computer industry. The Mac was scheduled to launch in late January of 1984, a week after the Super Bowl. IBM already held the nickname "Big Blue," so the parallels, at least to Jobs, were too delicious to miss.

Thomas and Hayden wrote up the story of the ad: we see a world of mind-controlled, shuffling men all in gray, staring at a video screen showing the face of Big Brother droning on about "information purification directives." A lone woman clad in vibrant red shorts and a white tank-top (bearing a Mac logo) runs from riot police, dashing up an aisle towards Big Brother. Just before being snatched by the police, she flings a sledgehammer at Big Brother's screen, smashing him just after he intones "We shall prevail!" Big Brother's destruction frees the minds of the throng, who quite literally see the light, flooding their faces now that the screen is gone. A mere eight seconds before the one-minute ad concludes, a narrator briefly mentions the word "Macintosh," in a restatement of that original tagline: "On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you'll see why 1984 won't be like '1984.'" An Apple logo is shown, and then we're out—back to the game.

In 1983, in a presentation about the Mac, Jobs introduced the ad to a cheering audience of Apple employees:

"... It is now 1984. It appears IBM wants it all. Apple is perceived to be the only hope to offer IBM a run for its money. Dealers, initially welcoming IBM with open arms, now fear an IBM-dominated and -controlled future. They are increasingly turning back to Apple as the only force that can ensure their future freedom. IBM wants it all and is aiming its guns on its last obstacle to industry control: Apple. Will Big Blue dominate the entire computer industry? The entire information age? Was George Orwell right about 1984?"

After seeing the ad for the first time, the Apple audience totally freaked out (jump to about the 5-minute mark to witness the riotous cheering).

SKINHEADS, A DISCUS THROWER, AND A SCI-FI DIRECTOR

Chiat\Day hired Ridley Scott, whose 1982 sci-fi film Blade Runner had the dystopian tone they were looking for (and Alien wasn't so bad either). Scott filmed the ad in London, using actual skinheads playing the mute bald men—they were paid $125 a day to sit and stare at Big Brother; those who still had hair were paid to shave their heads for the shoot. Anya Major, a discus thrower and actress, was cast as the woman with the sledgehammer largely because she was actually capable of wielding the thing.

Mac programmer Andy Hertzfeld wrote an Apple II program "to flash impressive looking numbers and graphs on [Big Brother's] screen," but it's unclear whether his program was used for the final film. The ad cost a shocking $900,000 to film, plus Apple booked two premium slots during the Super Bowl to air it—carrying an airtime cost of more than $1 million.

WHAT EXECUTIVES AT APPLE THOUGHT

Although Jobs and his marketing team (plus the assembled throng at his 1983 internal presentation) loved the ad, Apple's Board of Directors hated it. After seeing the ad for the first time, board member Mike Markkula suggested that Chiat\Day be fired, and the remainder of the board were similarly unimpressed. Then-CEO John Sculley recalled the reaction after the ad was screened for the group: "The others just looked at each other, dazed expressions on their faces ... Most of them felt it was the worst commercial they had ever seen. Not a single outside board member liked it." Sculley instructed Chiat\Day to sell off the Super Bowl airtime they had purchased, but Chiat\Day principal Jay Chiat quietly resisted. Chiat had purchased two slots—a 60-second slot in the third quarter to show the full ad, plus a 30-second slot later on to repeat an edited-down version. Chiat sold only the 30-second slot and claimed it was too late to sell the longer one. By disobeying his client's instructions, Chiat cemented Apple's place in advertising history.

When Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak heard that the ad was in trouble, he offered to pony up half the airtime costs himself, saying, "I asked how much it was going to cost, and [Steve Jobs] told me $800,000. I said, 'Well, I'll pay half of it if you will.' I figured it was a problem with the company justifying the expenditure. I thought an ad that was so great a piece of science fiction should have its chance to be seen."

But Woz didn't have to shell out the money; the executive team finally decided to run a 100-day advertising extravaganza for the Mac's launch, starting with the Super Bowl ad—after all, they had already paid to shoot it and were stuck with the airtime.

1984 - Big Brother

WHAT EVERYBODY ELSE THOUGHT

When the ad aired, controversy erupted—viewers either loved or hated the ad, and it spurred a wave of media coverage that involved news shows replaying the ad as part of covering it, leading to estimates of an additional $5 million in "free" airtime for the ad. All three national networks, plus countless local markets, ran news stories about the ad. "1984" become a cultural event, and served as a blueprint for future Apple product launches. The marketing logic was brilliantly simple: create an ad campaign that sparked controversy (for example, by insinuating that IBM was like Big Brother), and the media will cover your launch for free, amplifying the message.

The full ad famously ran once during the Super Bowl XVIII (on January 22, 1984), but it also ran the month prior—on December 31, 1983, TV station operator Tom Frank ran the ad on KMVT at the last possible time slot before midnight, in order to qualify for 1983's advertising awards.* (Any awards the ad won would mean more media coverage.) Apple paid to screen the ad in movie theaters before movie trailers, further heightening anticipation for the Mac launch. In addition to all that, the 30-second version was aired across the country after its debut on the Super Bowl.

Chiat\Day adman Steve Hayden recalled: "We ran a 30- second version of '1984' in the top 10 U.S. markets, plus, in an admittedly childish move, in an 11th market—Boca Raton, Florida, headquarters for IBM's PC division." Mac team member Andy Hertzfeld ended his remembrance of the ad by saying:

"A week after the Macintosh launch, Apple held its January board meeting. The Macintosh executive staff was invited to attend, not knowing what to expect. When the Mac people entered the room, everyone on the board rose and gave them a standing ovation, acknowledging that they were wrong about the commercial and congratulating the team for pulling off a fantastic launch.

Chiat\Day wanted the commercial to qualify for upcoming advertising awards, so they ran it once at 1 AM at a small television station in Twin Falls, Idaho, KMVT, on December 15, 1983 [incorrect; see below for an update on this -ed]. And sure enough it won just about every possible award, including best commercial of the decade. Twenty years later it's considered one of the most memorable television commercials ever made."

THE AWFUL 1985 FOLLOW-UP

A year later, Apple again employed Chiat\Day to make a blockbuster ad for their Macintosh Office product line, which was basically a file server, networking gear, and a laser printer. Directed by Ridley Scott's brother Tony, the new ad was called "Lemmings," and featured blindfolded businesspeople whistling an out-of-tune version of Snow White's "Heigh-Ho" as they followed each other off a cliff (referencing the myth of lemming suicide).

Jobs and Sculley didn't like the ad, but Chiat\Day convinced them to run it, pointing out that the board hadn't liked the last ad either. But unlike the rousing, empowering message of the "1984" ad, "Lemmings" directly insulted business customers who had already bought IBM computers. It was also weirdly boring—when it was aired at the Super Bowl (with Jobs and Sculley in attendance), nobody really reacted. The ad was a flop, and Apple even proposed running a printed apology in The Wall Street Journal. Jay Chiat shot back, saying that if Apple apologized, Chiat would buy an ad on the next page, apologizing for the apology. It was a mess:

20-YEAR ANNIVERSARY

In 2004, the ad was updated for the launch of the iPod. The only change was that the woman with the hammer was now listening to an iPod, which remained clipped to her belt as she ran. You can watch that version too:

FURTHER READING

Chiat\Day adman Lee Clow gave an interview about the ad, covering some of this material.

Check out Mac team member Andy Hertzfeld's excellent first-person account of the ad. A similar account (but with more from Jobs's point of view) can found in the Steve Jobs biography, and an even more in-depth account is in The Mac Bathroom Reader. The Mac Bathroom Reader is out of print; you can read an excerpt online, including QuickTime movies of the two versions of the ad, plus a behind-the-scenes video. Finally, you might enjoy this 2004 USA Today article about the ad, pointing out that ads for other computers (including Atari, Radio Shack, and IBM's new PCjr) also ran during that Super Bowl.

* = A Note on the Airing in 1983

Update: Thanks to Tom Frank for writing in to correct my earlier mis-statement about the first air date of this commercial. As you can see in his comment below, Hertzfeld's comments above (and the dates cited in other accounts I've seen) are incorrect. Stay tuned for an upcoming interview with Frank, in which we discuss what it was like running both "1984" and "Lemmings" before they were on the Super Bowl!

Update 2: You can read the story behind this post in Chris's book The Blogger Abides.

This post originally appeared in 2012.

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