A Puppy and a Pair of Pistols

27, September 2017

America’s most famous duel, between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr in 1804, shares some interesting parallels with what occurred just 13 years later on an unassuming sandbar island in the Mississippi River. Both incidents involved an argumentative, ambitious lawyer and a more reserved lawyer from a well-to-do family, but in the local duel the participant with the fiery temper won—though it took him two tries to manage it.

A “Puppy” of an Insult

Sepia-toned portrait of Thomas Hart BentonThomas Hart Benton, ca. 1855. Missouri History Museum.

Before he became one of Missouri’s U.S. senators, Thomas Hart Benton was a short-tempered young man who had fled Tennessee after getting into a much-talked-about fight with Andrew Jackson (as in the future seventh president of the United States). Benton saw in St. Louis an opportunity to make a better name for himself, and he went about doing so—loudly. He defended clients in court with forceful shouts, perhaps in an attempt to intimidate his opposing counsel.

In an October 1816 case, that opposing counsel was Charles Lucas, the much-respected son of Judge J. B. C. Lucas. The young lawyer was known for his “gentle charm” and for steering clear of vices. Lucas called Benton’s bluff during closing arguments, ultimately defeating him and inciting his wrath in the process. Benton immediately challenged Lucas to a duel, but the younger man refused to let a professional disagreement be the “necessity of taking your life, or jeopardizing my own.”

The two men interacted very little until the August 1817 election in St. Louis. As Benton was about to cast his vote, Lucas questioned whether he had paid the necessary property taxes. Benton dismissed Lucas by saying, “I do not propose to answer charges made by any puppy who may happen to run across my path.” Being called a puppy must have stung, because shortly after the election, Lucas challenged Benton to a duel, and Benton accepted.

Scan of letter from Charles Lucas to Thomas Hart BentonCharles Lucas's letter challenging Benton to a duel in August 1817. Missouri History Museum.

On August 12 the two men, along with their seconds and physicians, traveled to “the upper end of the Island opposite to Madame Roy’s”—better known today as Bloody Island. Their seconds marked off a distance of 30 feet, and the duelists took their places and fired. Wounded badly in the neck, Lucas affirmed that he was satisfied, but the largely unharmed Benton broke dueling etiquette by demanding Lucas either immediately finish what they’d started or promise to do so at a later date. The younger man weakly agreed to the latter before departing the island.

Scan of the terms of the first Benton-Lucas duelClick to view a larger image of the terms for the Benton-Lucas duel on August 12, 1817. Missouri History Museum.

A Rumor-Fueled Second Act

Word quickly spread through the city that the vengeful Benton was out to murder Lucas. Rumors also swirled that Benton—the historically better shot, much like Hamilton—feared a rematch at a much closer distance, which would have lessened his skill advantage.

Black-and-white miniature portrait of Charles LucasCharles Lucas, ca. 1815. Missouri History Museum.

Lucas wrote multiple letters to Benton, hoping to convince the older man that he’d played no role in spreading such gossip. The strategy seems to have worked, with Benton calling off the second duel in late August, but the rumors didn’t stop. Benton once again challenged Lucas, who replied:

Although I am conscious that a respectable man in society cannot be found who will say he has heard any of those reports from me and tho’ I think it more probable they have been fabricated by your own friends than circulated by any who call themselves mine, yet without even knowing what reports you have heard I shall give you an opportunity of gratifying your own wishes and the wishes of your news carriers.

On September 27, 1817, the two men once again found themselves facing off on Bloody Island. Lucas’s bullet missed; Benton’s landed squarely in his opponent’s chest. Benton’s second, Joshua Barton, recalled that Lucas forgave his rival before dying. Whether he truly did or not, that single gunshot haunted Benton both personally and professionally.

Watercolor drawing of Bloody Island in 1818Bloody Island, 1818. Watercolor on paper by Anna Maria von Phul. Missouri History Museum.

Lucas’s father spent the rest of his life challenging Benton and reminding people how the man had killed his son. He even ran against Benton in the 1820 senatorial race. Although Benton won the U.S. Senate seat and held it for 30 years, he apparently never got over that second duel with Lucas. Charles van Ravenswaay notes in his book Saint Louis: An Informal History of the City and Its People that Benton “would have given the world, he said, to see Lucas restored to life.”

Would Aaron Burr have said the same about Hamilton?

—Jen Tebbe, Editor

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