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The History Blog

7 Duels Between Women

The History Blog
The History Blog

Women and duels are often linked in the public imagination, but not because the ladies participated. The woman is usually relegated to the reason two gentlemen felt the need to wield their pistols at dawn in defense of her putative honor. In fact, most duels were fought over real or imagined slights to the parties themselves, not their lady friends, and gentlewomen were more than capable of demanding satisfaction for their own beefs. Some of those clashes were nothing short of epic.

1. ISABELLA DE CARAZZI VS. DIAMBRA DE POTTINELLA // MAY 25, 1552

Weapon(s) of Choice: Lances, maces, and swords

Isabella de Carazzi and Diambra de Pottinella were Neapolitan noblewomen and good friends until a man came between them. He was a handsome gentleman named Fabio de Zeresola who was very popular among the ladies of 16th century Naples. Isabella and Diambra had no idea he was seeing both of them until all three of them attended the same society wedding. Fabio cast a single glance at Isabella, a glance so ardent and penetrating that Diambra, who was next to Isabella at the time, immediately realized something was going on between them.

A short conversation later all was out in the open, and Isabella had cast the die when she insisted that Fabio loved her more and therefore, by the law of love, he belonged to her. Diambra claimed he loved her more and that Isabella was a liar. She was willing to die on that point, Diambra said, and so challenged her now-former friend to meet her six days hence in a field and to pick the weapons. Isabella chose full war gear: swords, lances, maces, shields, and armor-clad horses.

On the day of the duel, everyone who was anyone at the Naples court, including the Spanish viceroy, was present to witness this extraordinary event. Isabella arrived clad in blue wearing a helmet with a diamond in the crest, her horse's velvet mantle matching her clothes. Diambra wore green, the crest on her helmet a serpent of gold. Each lady took up her lance, and when the war trumpet blew, they charged each other with such ferocity that spectators could only marvel at their courage.

After the initial lance clash the women took up the maces, raining blows upon each other's shields. Isabella lost half her shield from a mace hit so powerful her horse stumbled and fell. Diambra dismounted her destrier and loudly demanded that Isabella surrender and admit Fabio de Zeresola was hers by right. Isabella took up her sword and charged Diambra, knocking her to the ground and cutting the straps of her helmet. Then she conceded that Diambra was the victor and to her belonged the spoils.

The news of this remarkable encounter spread like wildfire through the courts of Europe and the story was told for generations. Around a century later, Spanish artist Jusepe de Ribera painted it like a scene from ancient history or mythology.

2. THE COMTESSE DE POLIGNAC VS. THE MARQUISE DE NESLE // CA. 1719

Portrait of the Duke of Richelieu by Jean-Marc Nattier, 1732. // The History Blog 

Weapon(s) of Choice: Pistols

The Comtesse de Polignac had many lovers over the years, but for one of them she conceived such a mad passion that she challenged her replacement to one of the first duels fought with pistols. The casus belli was Armand de Vignerot du Plessis, 3rd Duke of Richelieu, great-grand-nephew of the dominant 17th century statesman and fictional foil of the Three Musketeers, Cardinal Richelieu. The duke's reputation as a ladies' man and manipulator of women was so well-established that Choderlos de Laclos was said to have based the character of Valmont in Les Liaisons Dangereuses on him. When he left Madame de Polignac for the Marquise de Nesle, he completely cut her off, refusing to even speak to her and driving her to ever-increasing heights of jealous frenzy.

When she could take it no more, Madame de Polignac challenged Madame de Nesle to a duel by letter. The chosen weapon was the pistol. The belligerents met in the Bois de Boulogne, saluted each other and fired their weapons. Madame de Nesle fell, her chest red with blood. Polignac, believing it a fatal blow, headed back toward her carriage, but not before hitting her enemy with a so-there line: "I will teach you the consequences of robbing a woman like me of her lover. If I had the perfidious creature in my power I would tear out her heart as I have blown out her brains."

Madame de Nesle's brains were fine. The shot had missed her chest and only grazed her shoulder. When she came to, she exulted that it had all been worth it because now that she had proved her love, the duke would be all hers. Naturally, the Duke of Richelieu immediately dumped the Marquise as a stage-five clinger and moved on to Charlotte Aglaé d'Orléans, daughter of the Regent of France.

3. PRINCESS SOPHIA AUGUSTA FREDERIKA OF ANHALT-ZERBST-DORNBURG VS. PRINCESS CHRISTIANE ANNA OF ANHALT-KÖTHEN // JUNE 1743

Grand Duchess Catherine two years after her first duel by L.Caravaque, 1745, Gatchina Museum. // The History Blog

Weapon(s) of Choice: Swords

Sophia and Christiane were German princesses, second cousins, and still teenagers when they developed a beef that could only be quashed by blood. The insult that drove them to lock swords in Sophia's bedroom when she was 14 and Christiane 17 has been lost to history, and the outcome of the challenge is unknown other than that both parties survived.

It must have been a formative experience for young Sophia. A year later, she converted to the Russian Orthodox religion and was betrothed to the future Peter III of Russia. Her new name was Catherine, and when she ascended the throne of all the Russians, she would be known as Catherine the Great. As ruler, her attitude toward dueling was markedly more tolerant than Peter the Great's had been. He made it a hanging offense, but she reformed the law, making the penalty for dueling a loss of social status. When it came to women's duels, she was even more tolerant: In 1765, she is said to have acted as second in eight different duels. Catherine insisted they only be fought until first blood, however; she disapproved of her court ladies killing each other.

4. OLGA ZAVAROVA VS. EKATERINA POLESOVA // JUNE 1829

Weapon(s) of Choice: Sabers

Olga Zavarova and Ekaterina Polesova were wealthy property owners and neighbors with a long history of neighborly disagreements. One of those disagreements escalated to the point where they decided to have it out once and for all and see who was left standing. Armed with their husbands' cavalry sabers, Olga and Ekaterina met in a birch grove. Their daughters, both 14, were present, and their daughters' governesses acted as seconds.

As per the protocol of the Code Duello, the seconds asked the combatants to reconcile. Not only did they refuse, but they were so riled up they threatened the governesses with violence for trying to stop them.

The duel was short and brutal. Olga took a blow to the head and died on the spot, but not before she stuck Ekaterina in the stomach. In the way of most gut wounds at the time, it too was fatal, but it took Ekaterina a long, painful day to die from it.

5. ALEXANDRA ZAVAROVA VS. ANNA POLESOVA // JUNE 1834

Weapon(s) of Choice: Sabers

Five years after the deaths of Olga and Ekaterina, those girls who had witnessed the violent deaths of their mothers picked up where their mothers had left off. Alexandra and Anna met in the same place, the birch grove, and had the same seconds, their own governesses. This time there was a clear victor: Alexandra Zavarova slew Anna Polesova and redeemed her dead mother's honor.

6. MADAME MARIE-ROSE ASTIÉ DE VALSAYRE VS. MISS SHELBY // MARCH 1886

Artist's rendition of Astié de Valsayre vs. Miss Shelby, Illustrated Police News, 10/04/1886. // The History Blog 

Weapon(s) of Choice: Swords

Madame Marie-Rose Astié de Valsayre was notorious in France for her vocal advocacy of feminist causes, which included women being allowed to wear trousers, get the vote, and have equal access to all professions as well as equal pay. She was also a doctor, inspired to learn the profession after serving as a nurse during the Franco-Prussian War (1870), an author—and an accomplished fencer. She founded a fencing club for women which dovetailed neatly into another favorite cause of hers: encouraging mothers to breast-feed their own children rather than employing wet nurses. The sport, she noted, is great for the pecs and thus great for nursing moms.

The American Miss Shelby was a doctor too, and it was a discussion over the comparative merits of French and American women doctors that sparked the animosity between them. Each considered their compatriots superior and things got heated. Miss Shelby may or may not have called Madame de Valsayre an idiot. Whatever the precise nature of the provocation, Astié gave Miss Shelby the classic glove slap to the face and a duel with swords ensued. They faced off in Belgium on the battlefield of Waterloo. In the second pass, Astié de Valsayre lightly wounded Miss Shelby on the arm, drawing first blood. Astié de Valsayre was declared the winner and the honor of France was restored.

There were no hard feelings. Astié gave Miss Shelby a shoutout as her "loyal adversary" a month later when she wrote to Catherine Booth, co-founder of the Salvation Army, informing her that unless she took her "pernicious doctrines" back home to England, Astié would be forced to demand satisfaction at arms. Mrs. Booth, then 57 years old and a pacifist who was against shedding blood even in self-defense, refused to respond to the provocation.

7. PRINCESS PAULINE METTERNICH VS. THE COUNTESS KIELMANNSEGG // AUGUST 1892

Princess Pauline Metternich, portrait by Edgar Degas, ca. 1865. // The History Blog

Weapon(s) of Choice: Rapiers

This is arguably the epitome of duels between high society women of the Victorian period. Princess Pauline Metternich was the granddaughter of statesman and Napoleonic-era giant Prince Klemens Wenzel von Metternich and the wife of his son Prince Richard von Metternich. (Yup, she married her uncle, her mother's half-brother.) A trendsetter, patron of the arts, and fixture of society in Paris and Vienna in the second half of the 19th century, Princess Pauline was of course involved in many charitable organizations. It was in her capacity as Honorary President of the Vienna Musical and Theatrical Exhibition that she quarreled with the Countess Kilmannsegg, wife of the Statthalter of Lower Austria and President of the Ladies Committee of the Vienna Musical and Theatrical Exhibition, apparently over the flower arrangements for the exhibition.

Whatever was said about those flowers could not be unsaid, and the Princess, then 56 years old, challenged the Countess to settle their dispute by blood. The two adversaries and their seconds, Princess Schwarzenberg and Countess Kinsky, traveled to Vaduz, the capital of Liechtenstein, and took to the field of honor. Presiding over the encounter was Baroness Lubinska who, unusually for women of the time, was a medical doctor—and a Listerite one at that. Her modern understanding of infection proved pivotal. Having seen many superficial battle wounds turn septic and fatal because fragments of dirty clothes were driven into them, the Baroness insisted both parties remove all clothing above the waist.

So the Princess Metternich and Countess Kilmannsegg, both topless, took up their swords to fight until first blood. After a few exchanges, the Princess received a small cut to the nose and the Countess was cut on the arm practically at the same time. The seconds called the duel and Princess Metternich was declared the winner.

None of the contemporary news stories mention the topless thing, but the combination of ladies, swords, and bare breasts was already an established subject for risqué postcards in the late 19th century. The tale of the Vaduz duel—with its all-female, all-aristocratic participants—made them even more fashionable. Ladies fighting with their tops off featured in sticky postcards, stereoscopic views, and nickelodeons. Here are some ladies stabbing it out to the death in a filmed scene from the 1898 Drury Lane stage play Women and Wine.

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The Plucky Teenage Stowaway Aboard the First American Expedition to Antarctica
The Ohio State University Archives
The Ohio State University Archives

Documentary filmmaker and journalist Laurie Gwen Shapiro came across the name "William Gawronski" in 2013 while researching a story about Manhattan's St. Stanislaus, the oldest Polish Catholic church in the U.S. In 1930, more than 500 kids from the church had held a parade in honor of Billy Gawronski, who had just returned from two years aboard the first American expedition to Antarctica, helmed by naval officer Richard E. Byrd.

The teenager had joined the expedition in a most unusual way: by stowing aboard Byrd's ships the City of New York and the Eleanor Bolling not once, not twice, but four times total. He swam across the Hudson River to sneak onto the City of New York and hitchhiked all the way to Virginia to hide on the Eleanor Bolling.

"I thought, 'Wait, what?" Shapiro tells Mental Floss.

Intrigued by Billy's persistence and pluck, Shapiro dove into the public records and newspaper archives to learn more about him. She created an Excel spreadsheet of Gawronskis all along the East Coast and began cold-calling them.

"Imagine saying, 'Did you have an ancestor that jumped in the Hudson and stowed away to the Antarctic in 1928?'" Shapiro says. She got "a lot of hang-ups."

On the 19th call, to a Gawronski in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, an elderly woman with a Polish accent answered the phone. "That boy was my husband," Gizela Gawronski told her. Billy had died in 1981, leaving behind a treasure trove of mementos, including scrapbooks, notebooks, yearbooks, and hundreds of photos.

"I have everything," Gizela told Shapiro. "I was hoping someone would find me one day."

Three days later, Shapiro was in Maine poring over Billy's papers with Gizela, tears in her eyes.

These materials became the basis of Shapiro's new book The Stowaway: A Young Man's Extraordinary Adventure to Antarctica. It's a rollicking good read full of fascinating history and bold characters that takes readers from New York to Tahiti, New Zealand to Antarctica, and back to New York again. It's brimming with the snappy energy and open-minded optimism of the Jazz Age.

Shapiro spent six weeks in Antarctica herself to get a feel for Billy's experiences. "I wanted to reach the Ross Ice barrier like Billy did," she says.

Read on for an excerpt from chapter four.

***

As night dropped on September 15, Billy jumped out of his second-floor window and onto the garden, a fall softened by potatoes and cabbage plants and proudly photographed sunflowers. You would think that the boy had learned from his previous stowaway attempt to bring more food or a change of dry clothes. Not the case.

An overnight subway crossing into Brooklyn took him to the Tebo Yacht Basin in Gowanus. He made for the location he'd written down in his notes: Third Avenue and Twenty-Third Street.

In 1928 William Todd's Tebo Yacht Basin was a resting spot— the spot—for the yachts of the Atlantic seaboard's most aristocratic and prosperous residents. The swanky yard berthed more than fifty staggering prizes of the filthy rich. Railroad executive Cornelius Vanderbilt kept his yacht O-We-Ra here; John Vanneck, his Amphitrite. Here was also where to find Warrior, the largest private yacht afloat, owned by the wealthiest man in America, public utilities baron Harrison Williams; yeast king (and former mayor of Cincinnati) Julian Fleischman's $625,000 twin-screw diesel yacht, the Carmago; General Motors president Alfred P. Sloan's Rene; shoe scion H. W. Hanan's Dauntless; and J. P. Morgan's Corsair III. The Tebo Yacht Basin's clubroom served fish chowder luncheons to millionaires in leather-backed mission chairs.

Todd, a great friend of Byrd's, lavished attention on his super-connected pal with more contacts than dollars. He had provided major funding for Byrd's 1926 flight over the North Pole, and helped the commander locate and refit two of the four Antarctic expedition ships for $285,900, done at cost. Todd loved puffy articles about him as much as the next man, and press would help extract cash from the millionaires he actively pursued as new clients; helping out a famous friend might prove cheaper than the advertisements he placed in upmarket magazines. Throughout that summer, Byrd mentioned Todd's generous support frequently.

Two weeks after the City of New York set sail, the Chelsea, the supply ship of the expedition, was still docked at the Tebo workyard and not scheduled to depart until the middle of September. Smith's Dock Company in England had built the refurbished 170-foot, 800-ton iron freighter for the British Royal Navy at the tail end of the Great War. First christened patrol gunboat HMS Kilmarnock, her name was changed to the Chelsea during her post–Royal Navy rumrunning days.

Not long before she was scheduled to depart, Byrd announced via a press release that he was renaming this auxiliary ship, too, after his mother, Eleanor Bolling. But the name painted on the transom was Eleanor Boling, with one l—the painter's mistake. As distressing as this was (the name was his mother's, after all), Byrd felt a redo would be too expensive and a silly use of precious funds. Reporters and PR staff were simply instructed to always spell the name with two ls.

As Billy eyed the ship in dock days after his humiliation on board the New York, he realized here was another way to get to Antarctica. The old, rusty-sided cargo ship would likely be less guarded than the flagship had been.

As September dragged on, Billy, back in Bayside, stiffened his resolve. No one would think he'd try again! On September 15, once more he swam out during the night to board a vessel bound for Antarctica.

Since his visit two weeks prior, Billy had studied his news clippings and knew that the Bolling was captained by thirty-six-year-old Gustav L. Brown, who'd been promoted weeks earlier from first mate of the New York when Byrd added the fourth ship to his fleet. Billy liked what he read. According to those who sailed under Brown's command, this tall and slender veteran of the Great War was above all genteel, and far less crotchety than the New York's Captain Melville. Captain Brown's education went only as far as high school, and while he wasn't against college, he admired honest, down-to-earth workers. Like his colleague Captain Melville, Brown had begun a seafaring life at fourteen. He seemed just the sort of man to take a liking to a teenage stowaway with big dreams.

Alas, the crew of the second ship headed to Antarctica now knew to look for stowaways. In a less dramatic repeat of what had happened in Hoboken, an Eleanor Bolling seaman ousted Billy in the earliest hours of the morning. The kid had (unimaginatively) hidden for a second time in a locker under the lower forecastle filled with mops and bolts and plumbing supplies. The sailor brought him to Captain Brown, who was well named, as he was a man with a mass of brown hair and warm brown eyes. The kind captain smiled at Billy and praised the cheeky boy's gumption—his Swedish accent still heavy even though he'd made Philadelphia his home since 1920—yet Billy was escorted off to the dock and told to scram.

A few hours later, still under the cover of night, Billy stole back on board and was routed out a third time, again from the “paint locker.”

A third time? The Bolling's third in command, Lieutenant Harry Adams, took notes on the gutsy kid who had to be good material for the lucrative book he secretly hoped to pen. Most of the major players would score book deals after the expedition; the public was eager for adventure, or at least so publishers thought. The catch was that any deal had to be approved by Byrd: to expose any discord was to risk powerful support. Adams's book, Beyond the Barrier with Byrd: An Authentic Story of the Byrd Antarctic Exploring Expedition, was among the best: more character study than thriller, his grand sense of humor evident in his selection of anecdotes that the others deemed too lightweight to include.

Billy was not the only stowaway that September day. Also aboard was a girl Adams called Sunshine, the "darling of the expedition," a flirt who offered to anyone who asked that she wanted to be the first lady in Antarctica. (In the restless era between world wars, when movies gave everyone big dreams, even girl stowaways were not uncommon.) Brown told a reporter that Sunshine had less noble aspirations, and soon she, too, was removed from the Bolling, but not before she gave each crew member a theatrical kiss.

As the early sun rose, Captain Brown called Billy over to him from the yacht yard's holding area where he had been asked to wait with the giggling Sunshine until his father arrived. The captain admired Billy's gumption, but it was time for the seventeen-year-old to go now and not waste any more of anyone's time.

As Lieutenant Adams recorded later, "Perhaps this matter of getting rid of Bill was entered up in the Eleanor Bolling log as the first scientific achievement of the Byrd Antarctic expedition."

*** 

From THE STOWAWAY: A Young Man's Extraordinary Adventure to Antarctica by Laurie Gwen Shapiro. Copyright © 2018 by Laurie Gwen Shapiro. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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Art
Art Lovers in England, Rejoice: France's Famous Bayeux Tapestry is Coming to the UK
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

One of France’s most prized national treasures, the Bayeux Tapestry, is officially heading to England for exhibition. The loan will mark the first time the fragile 11th century work has left France in nearly 1000 years, according to The Washington Post.

French president Emmanuel Macron announced news of the loan in mid-January, viewed by some as a gesture to smooth post-Brexit relations with Britain, ABC reports. The tapestry depicts the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, a historically important event replete with guts and glory.

Stretching for 210 feet, the Bayeux Tapestry’s nine embroidered panels tell the tale of Harold, Earl of Wessex, who swore an oath to support the right of William, Duke of Normandy, to the English throne once King Edward (a.k.a. Edward the Confessor) died without an heir. But after Edward's funeral at Westminster Abbey, Harold breaks his oath to William so he could be crowned king instead. Believing he was the rightful ruler, William—today remembered as William the Conqueror—decides to wage war and ultimately defeats Harold at the Battle of Hastings.

The historical narrative has endured for centuries, but the tapestry's provenance has been lost to time. Experts think that the artwork may have been created in England, shortly after the Battle of Hastings, although it’s unclear who designed and embroidered the scenes. Its original owner, Bishop Odo of Bayeux, the half-brother of William the Conqueror, may have commissioned the Bayeux Tapestry. He became Earl of Kent after the Battle of Hastings, and this new title would have afforded him access to skilled artisans, The Guardian explains.

The Bayeux Tapestry is currently on display in the town of Bayeux in Normandy. It likely won’t leave France until 2020, after conservators ensure that it’s safe to move the artwork. According to The Telegraph, the tapestry might be be displayed at the British Museum in 2022.

[h/t The Washington Post]

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