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Dueling: the Fascinating Facts

So I'm reading this book on the history of dueling. It's called Gentlemen's Blood and is written in an amusing high-whoopsie style by historian Barbara Holland, who seems scarcely to believe that the things she is writing about actually happened. Which, the further in you get, becomes more and more understandable as a reaction.

Dueling doesn't really get covered very much in standard history surveys, which is odd, because it was nearly universal in Western history for hundreds and hundreds of years. It outlasted slavery, child labor and the male-only franchise. It cost tens of thousands of lives -- perhaps even hundreds of thousands -- and with the birth of democracy in the United States it was not limited to the aristocracy. For over a thousand years, it was perfectly legal* to murder another person for pretty much any reason at all as long as he consented to the duel.

Here are some interesting things about dueling:

- Some experts believe that in places and times where dueling is legal and/or acceptable, domestic violence rates are very low.

- John Boswell's son died in a duel. So did Lord Byron's uncle and Strom Thurmond's father. The painter Caravaggio killed one of his best friends in a duel. The Hamilton family were legendary duelists -- Alexander Hamilton lost an infamous duel with Aaron Burr** when the former was a newly released Secretary of the Treasury and the latter was Vice-President, but Hamilton's son had been killed in a duel years earlier, and Hamiltons show up as seconds in a staggering number of duels in the U.S. and Great Britain.

- Dueling is still legal in at least three South American countries, sometimes with the qualifier that one must be a registered blood donor to fight a duel. The vice-president of Peru fought a duel with a congressman as recently as 2002.

- Until the late 18th century, it was perfectly acceptable to sever the head of someone you'd killed in a duel and bring it to dinner with you that night. Up until the early 20th century, people fighting duels were expected to throw a big party the night before.

- Iceland was the only European country to outlaw dueling early on. Sweden banned it briefly in the 17th century because there were so many people dying in duels that the officer ranks of its military were being decimated. It was a matter of national security.

- For many years, the word "gentle" meant "nobly born" -- and, often, therefore dangerous and hotheaded, or at least accustomed to violent dueling. Shakespeare used it often in this sense.

- In many countries, it was a crime punishable by forfeiture, imprisonment, or even death to refuse to fight a duel. And in a few countries, most notably Russia, you were required to initiate a duel if you were properly insulted. (For a while, this was amended to demand that you initiate a duel if someone else heard you being insulted, but this was discontinued when it became obvious that enlisted men were simply setting disliked officers against one another by hearsay in order to get rid of one or both.

- One memorable duel was fought by two French noblemen taking potshots at each other with blunderbusses from hot air balloons. In one American duel, the challenged -- one of the few people who didn't seem to take the whole ridiculous process seriously -- suggested that he and his challenger both leap off a tall building at the same time and whoever hit the ground last was the winner. (Ultimately, he agreed to the ludicrous method of shotguns at five paces, and ended up being literally blown to pieces. His opponent was a U.S. senator.)

- Monarchs often challenged one another to duels, though they never actually fought them. So did American presidents. Andrew Jackson was a notorious duelist who may have killed as many as eighteen people in duels***; he also encouraged other people to fight duels, even when they had forgotten their quarrels or forgiven them. (He goaded John Quincy Adams into a duel on general principles.)

- Dueling was so widely accepted and even encouraged in various military organizations that it was practically a tradition. For almost a century, the standard handbook issued to American sailors upon enlistment in the Navy contained a copy of the standard rules of dueling.

*: In some countries and in some situations, a victorious duelist could be tried for manslaughter, but successful convictions were so rare as to be statistically nonexistent.

**: Though history books make it out as if Burr was some kind of monster and the Burr-Hamilton duel was an aberration, quite the opposite is true. Hamilton was the offending party, and despite his loudly stated objection to dueling, he had fought at least five up to that point. The guns chosen for the duel belonged to him (they were the ones with which his son had been killed) and were said to have claimed eleven lives before his own. James Monroe, having been insulted by John Adams, nearly challenged him to a duel but was convinced not to by James Madison, who pointed out that killing the president wouldn't help a fledgling democracy get off the ground. Even so, between them, the Founding Fathers fought nearly two dozen duels, and two signatories to the Constitution -- Hamilton and Button Gwinnette -- were killed in duels.

***: If true -- the particulars of duels were often vague, and misreported by partisan newspapers and biased witnesses -- this means that the man on the $20 bill personally murdered twice as many people as the Manson Family.

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Comments

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tx_cronopio
Aug. 10th, 2007 01:33 pm (UTC)
Interesting! I like Barbara Holland, I'll have to look for this.

Also, your birthday was when you were in Chi-town so I didn't post a bday post, but I'll say now, HAPPY BIRTHDAY!
ludickid
Aug. 10th, 2007 03:31 pm (UTC)
Why, thank you!
lester22
Aug. 10th, 2007 01:39 pm (UTC)
Your facts and figures have gravely insulted my honor.

(removes glove)

::slap::

I challenge you to a duel, you filthy piece of carrion.
ludickid
Aug. 10th, 2007 03:32 pm (UTC)
I refuse to dignify the cartel of a low-born rapscallion as yourself. Away with you.
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yuriverse
Aug. 10th, 2007 01:47 pm (UTC)
Sounds like a fascinating book - gotta add it to The Pile.

re: duels, I'm still scarred from losing Pushkin and Lermontov to 'em.
ludickid
Aug. 10th, 2007 03:33 pm (UTC)
I'm tellin' you, man, duelling was worse than TB for generations of Russian and German artists, poets and musicians.
oilyrags
Aug. 10th, 2007 01:50 pm (UTC)
Also "The Duellists" is a pretty good movie!
ludickid
Aug. 10th, 2007 03:33 pm (UTC)
So was "Duel"! "Duel in the Sun", though, not so great.
happinesstogo
Aug. 10th, 2007 02:23 pm (UTC)
I just finished reading The Count of Monte Cristo last week and there's a bunch of stuff in there about dueling, which I sort of assumed was part of the fantastical aspect of the book, but I guess not if it was such a common thing.
ludickid
Aug. 10th, 2007 03:35 pm (UTC)
No, it was actually hugely popular around that time. Check out The Three Musketeers -- it's absolutely soaked in the culture of honor and the language of dueling, and it's definitely a case of art reflecting life rather than the other way around.
roninspoon
Aug. 10th, 2007 02:34 pm (UTC)
Perhaps it's just early, but I had to read that whole thing twice to get it through my head that you hadn't typed Raymond Burr. I thought maybe you were going for some sort of obscure joke, but when I didn't see a punchline, I thought maybe the joke was "Oh, that Raymond Burr, he's so very old" which, as a joke, was a bit of a let down.

Of course, then I realized that it wasn't Ironsides at all.
ludickid
Aug. 10th, 2007 03:38 pm (UTC)
performance anxiety
See, now I'm trying to come up with an obscure Raymond Burr joke, and I can't.

Although you know if it was legal, Hamilton Burger would have challenged Perry Mason to a duel years ago.
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spinooti
Aug. 10th, 2007 02:54 pm (UTC)
Neat! Thanks for the trivia, sir.
ludickid
Aug. 10th, 2007 03:38 pm (UTC)
man, that icon
You're welcome, miss! I thought you might enjoy it.
autobotsrollout
Aug. 10th, 2007 03:25 pm (UTC)
Okay, I definitely have to read this book now.
ludickid
Aug. 10th, 2007 03:40 pm (UTC)
You have no idea, man. Just the endless lists of how many people killed each other over complete and total bullshit -- if nothing else, it really puts the lie to the notion that there's something damning, unusual, or even new about ghetto kids killing each other over tennis shoes. These people, they were the educated, wealthy cream of society, and they were all to happy to murder or be murdered over whether or not someone liked their favorite opera aria.
writebrain
Aug. 10th, 2007 03:37 pm (UTC)
I'm getting this book. Thanks.
ludickid
Aug. 10th, 2007 03:41 pm (UTC)
You should! It's really lots of fun to read, very engaging stylistically.
calamityjon
Aug. 10th, 2007 03:52 pm (UTC)
Here's a one-act play I just wrote:

Man Reading Newspaper: Huh, it seems that Andrew Jackson may have been a kill-happy monster.

American Indians: Oh, you don't say.
ludickid
Aug. 10th, 2007 04:12 pm (UTC)
Ha ha, maaaaan. It's like, some days, you just can't kill ANOTHER DAMN INDIAN. Give me a REAL person to slaughter, that's what Andy's thinking. He probably had a whole score sheet where for every 500 Indians he gets to kill a senator.

My favorite part of the Andrew Jackson dueling lore is that he used to prod other people into dueling. Maybe on those days where he was just too tired to kill someone himself, but he didn't want to let the day pass without somehow ending a life.
hipsterdetritus
Aug. 10th, 2007 03:57 pm (UTC)
One memorable duel was fought by two French noblemen taking potshots at each other with blunderbusses from hot air balloons.

This is why Daft Punk happened: the neverending quest to try and be the two coolest French motherfuckers since the balloon duelists.
ludickid
Aug. 10th, 2007 04:12 pm (UTC)
Guess how that duel ended. Go on, you'll never guess.
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roseyv
Aug. 10th, 2007 04:27 pm (UTC)
One of my longest-held memories of any actual, historical significance comes from reading in a book (possibly a child’s biography of Dolly Madison?) at around the age of twelve or so, that pretty much forever after the Burr/Hamilton duel, Burr would refer to “my good friend Hamilton, whom I shot …” It was implied in the book that this was considered to be in rather poor taste.
ludickid
Aug. 10th, 2007 05:00 pm (UTC)
One of the things that just flips my shit about this whole thing is how polite and friendly these guys were to one another, like, minutes before attempting to murder one another. Their goofball honor code was such that they could profess their love for one another to the heavens above right up until the moment that they were forced to gun one another down for some dopey offense neither of them likely even remembered. "Suck it up" was apparently an unknown concept to these fine gentlemen.
roseyv
Aug. 10th, 2007 04:28 pm (UTC)
Oh, and happy belated birthday from me also! There is a card on its way to you -- it took me a while to find your new address, sorry.
ludickid
Aug. 10th, 2007 05:00 pm (UTC)
Why thank you, Rovio! No sorry is needed.
shekb
Aug. 10th, 2007 07:37 pm (UTC)
"Lord Bullingdon, have you received satisfaction?"
Maybe it's good that modern dueling takes less deadly forms. Then again, would it have been so bad to lose Steve Vai?
pr1ss
Aug. 10th, 2007 10:01 pm (UTC)
I recall reading that Byron liked to get into knife fights with friends. My impression is that they weren't all duels, more something to do in an era where video games didn't exist yet.
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