According to an eyewitness account printed in 1794 in the South Carolina State-Gazette, these were the terms of a duel between Mr. James Mitchell and a Mr. Sterling (first name not printed) at the Four-Mile House outside of Charleston: Starting 40 feet apart, the combatants would hold a pistol in each hand and walk toward each other, firing at will. If three shots were fired and both men remained standing, the man in possession of the last bullet was allowed to put his pistol to his opponent's chest "and kill him if he pleased."
At a distance of about six yards, both men fired — and missed. As they continued walking closer, Mitchell took a left-handed shot and missed again. "Accordingly, Mr. S. put his pistol to Mr. M's breast," the article states. But at the last moment, Sterling showed mercy and fired his gun in the air. Immediately afterward, according to the State-Gazette, the two men ate breakfast together and decided to remain friends.
Stories like this one form the backbone of Grahame Long's new book, Dueling in Charleston: Violence Refined in the Holy City. Long, the curator of history at the Charleston Museum, started off as an assistant curator in 2000. One of his first assignments was to re-catalog the museum's weapons collection, which includes a number of dueling pistols sold in identical pairs. As he inspected the guns' hefty octagonal barrels and ornate firing mechanisms, a question started troubling him: "I just had to know what these clowns were thinking. Like, what drives two people to go completely off the mark, to where they end up trying to literally kill each other over a disagreement?" The genesis of the Mitchell-Sterling conflict remains unclear, but as Long discovered, other duels were fought for reasons that sound petty to modern ears: the outcome of a sailboat race, a letter mocking the shape of a woman's nose, a piece of fish in a college dining hall.
Long began collecting anecdotes and newspaper clippings in a folder that grew fatter and fatter until he decided to write his own thoughts down. The resulting book is a breezy read, especially for a history book, and it serves as a tantalizing introduction not just to dueling, but to the historic city of Charleston.
According to Long's analysis, the Old World practice of dueling persisted much longer in the American South than in the North, and few Southern cities could rival wealthy, honor-obsessed Charleston for its number of duels. The irony of such wanton bloodshed existing in a city known for its vibrant religious life was not lost on clergy, who spoke sharply against the practice in sermons and at duelists' funerals. But duels were always "a private matter beyond the courts, outside of the church," Long says.
From its founding until roughly 1880, the Holy City had a reputation as a place where upper-class men settled their beefs with gunfights, whether on the beach, in the peninsula's Neck, or at the Washington Race Course, now the site of Hampton Park. Newspapers gleefully published gentlemen's challenges and the grisly outcomes, sometimes going so far as to pick a side. One 1839 account of a duel read: "Duel fought at the lower end of Broad Street between Fell and Herriot, the former shot in the foot to keep him from running and the latter in the mouth to keep him from jawing."
Duels were so prevalent among South Carolina gentry that a former governor, John Lyde Wilson, wrote a handbook of best practices in 1838 titled The Code of Honor: Or Rules for the Government of Principals and Seconds in Dueling. The book had as much to say about the actual act of exchanging pistol fire as it did about the sometimes months-long dance that led up to it: the publication of insults in newspapers and on lampposts, the selection of "seconds" to act as go-betweens, the negotiations regarding time and place of the duel itself.
Dueling was never technically legal. Until public outrage over a well-publicized duel caused the state legislature to pass serious anti-dueling laws in 1880, South Carolina juries rarely handed down a guilty verdict for a victorious dueler (if the case even made it to court). Confederate General Pierre Beauregard, who oversaw the bombardment of Fort Sumter in 1861, not only pardoned a dueler in his ranks but later promoted the man to commander of Fort Sumter.
In his book, Long doesn't deny the impulse for romance and comedy in retelling stories of hidebound dandies blowing each other's kneecaps off. And while he's no dueling apologist, he does mention that defending personal reputation was far more important and difficult in 19th-century Charleston than it is today. (As evidence of this, one need look no further than philandering ex-Gov. Mark Sanford's mere two-year hiatus from running for office.) Long points out that 10 years after South Carolina banned dueling, the state's homicide rate took off, tripling the rate of all New England states combined, according to other history books.
But he also reminds readers that about one in five duels ended in death, and many duelists were maimed for life. The book's bleakest passage describes a 1786 duel in which Dr. Joseph Brown Ladd, a son of New England pacifists, exchanged hateful words in a Charleston newspaper with his close friend Ralph Isaacs. Ladd's sister, Elizabeth Haskins, later wrote that her brother was "averse to dueling in principle," but that "the tyranny of public sentiment was such that to decline [the challenge] would have made him the mark of public scorn." When the day of the duel finally came, Ladd fired into the ground rather than harm his friend, but Isaacs shot Ladd in the knee, causing a gangrenous wound that would later claim Ladd's life at his Church Street home.
"I think he gets kind of caught up in high-society Charleston," Long says, reflecting on the dark episode in his office at the museum. "He gets thrust into Charleston, which is a very urban place with massive wealth, and I think he just kind of loses track of his upbringing."
Long says a few old Charleston families still keep dueling pistols in their downtown homes. Thankfully, they haven't seen action in years.