History’s Most Famous Duels


We’ve all seen duels in movies. We know how they worked – somebody insulted somebody else’s honor, they met at dawn and fought with swords or pistols. It was considered the gentlemanly way of settling a dispute but, as we are about to see, that was not necessarily the case when it came to real-life duels.

8. Wild Bill Hickok vs. Davis Tutt

If you’ve ever seen a western where two cowboys settle their differences by facing each other in the middle of the street in a quick-draw duel, it is because of the real-life duel between Old West icon Wild Bill Hickok and a gambler named Davis Tutt that took place in Springfield, Missouri, on July 21, 1865. 

Nowadays, this type of standoff might be an old movie cliche but, in the real West, such confrontations were actually very rare. Most of the real shootouts were free-for-alls between two groups of people. It is this duel that popularized the concept and, at the same time, made a legend out of Hickok.

The source of the bitterness between the two men is uncertain, although rumors say it was a woman. Since their falling out, Hickok refused to gamble at the same table as Tutt. In return, Tutt often loaned money to other players in an effort to bankrupt Wild Bill.

The shootout itself happened over a gold pocket watch that Tutt confiscated from Hickok due to an alleged unpaid debt. Hickok gave up the watch – he had no choice, he was outnumbered when it happened – but warned Tutt that if he wore it in public, it would be the last thing he ever did. Undeterred, Tutt bragged that he would be wearing it in the town square the next day.

Now that both men made their proclamations, the one who would back down would be branded a coward. Neither did, though, so they met in a duel in the middle of the street. Tutt shot first, and missed, while Hickok took the time to steady his aim and hit his opponent right in the heart. Allegedly, the shot was from a distance of 75 yards, a remarkable feat in and of itself for that time period.

Davis Tutt died almost instantly while Wild Bill Hickok became a legend, although initially he was charged and arrested for murder. That part usually gets left out in the movies.

7. Dupont vs. Fournier

There aren’t a lot of books centered around duels, but one notable example is the novel “The Duel” by Joseph Conrad, which was turned into a movie by Ridley Scott in his feature directorial debut. It tells the story of two French officers who become obsessed with dueling each other and it is based on the real-life rivalry between Pierre Dupont and François Fournier-Sarlovèze who dueled each other more than 30 times over the course of two decades.

This long-lasting feud erupted from a trivial matter. While both were serving in Napoleon’s army, Dupont was sent to deliver a rather unpleasant message to Fournier. We don’t know what it said, but it enraged Fournier who took his anger out on the messenger and challenged Dupont to a duel. 

Fournier may have been a hothead who had an obsession with dueling, but he met his match in Dupont who felt rather the same way. Their first duel was with swords and took place in 1794, although it was deemed inconclusive as both men were injured. They then had another duel. And then another one. And another one. Eventually, they decided that they might as well establish some ground rules. Dupont and Fournier agreed that they would meet for a duel whenever they were within 30 leagues of each other or about 100 miles. They would meet halfway, unless one of them was unable due to his service, in which case the other one would make the entire journey. They were obligated to duel, the only permissible excuse being military duty.

So it went for 19 years. They fought with different kinds of swords, with pistols, on foot, and on horseback. The bizarre rivalry finally ended in 1813 when Dupont conclusively won a duel and then told Fournier it was over, allegedly because he intended to get married.

6. The Death of Évariste Galois

Unless you are deeply passionate about mathematics, you have probably never heard of the name Évariste Galois. Born in 1811 in France, he seemed destined to become one of history’s greatest mathematicians. As a teenager, he produced important work in the field of abstract algebra where he even has two branches named after him – Galois theory and Galois connections. Alas, the world was denied further contributions from the mathematical prodigy, as Galois died in a duel when he was only 20 years old.

The circumstances surrounding his death are still unclear. Galois lived during turbulent times in France. Following the July Revolution of 1830, he became more and more politically active, getting expelled from school and even arrested. It is possible that the motive for the duel stemmed from his revolutionary inclinations, but it is also possible that he and his opponent fought over a woman, as suggested by letters written by Galois. 

Galois met his rival on May 30, 1832. He was shot in the stomach and all the other participants fled the scene in a hurry, leaving Galois alone in the streets. He was found later on and taken to a hospital, but the mathematician died the next morning.

5. The Death of Alexander Pushkin

Now we take a look at another luminary whose life was extinguished early in a duel. This time, we are not talking about a mathematician, but rather one of history’s most celebrated writers – one of the founders of modern Russian literature, Alexander Pushkin.

The author was married to Natalia Pushkina. During the mid 1830s, rumors started swirling around town that she was having an affair with a French officer named Georges d’Anthès. Allegedly, at one point, Pushkin even received an anonymous pamphlet in the mail, welcoming him to “The Most Serene Order of Cuckolds.” Although he didn’t know who sent him the mocking document, Pushkin couldn’t allow the insult to go unanswered so he challenged d’Anthès to a duel.

He first did this in 1836 but, after a series of negotiations, it was cancelled. The officer’s adoptive father, a diplomat named Jacob van Heeckeren, interfered to keep the peace, even arranging a marriage between d’Anthès and Natalia’s sister, Ekaterina.

This was only a temporary solution to the problem. The whispers around town did not stop, and the following year, Pushkin wanted to duel again. This time, he sent a vile, scathing letter to van Heeckeren, knowing that he could only respond with a duel, and that his son would likely fight in his stead. 

Pushkin and d’Anthès met on January 29, 1837, by the frozen shores of the Neva River. Pushkin hit his adversary, but only wounded him. The poet, on the other hand, was fatally shot in the abdomen, dying two days later at 37 years of age.

4. Castlereagh vs. Canning

During the early 19th century, the United Kingdom was fiercely engaged in the Napoleonic Wars. Consequently, it was kind of expected of its leaders to put aside their petty squabbles and focus on the larger task at hand.

It seemed that two politicians did not get the memo. And they weren’t just any politicians. They were senior members of the cabinet – the Foreign Secretary George Canning and the Secretary of War Robert Stewart, Lord Castlereagh. 

For a reason we’re not sure of, Canning hated the war minister and tried to undermine him whenever possible. The situation culminated in April 1809, when Canning wrote a letter to the Prime Minister, basically telling him that it was either him or Castlereagh. Eventually, the Secretary of War found out about this betrayal and demanded satisfaction.

Stewart was an experienced duelist. Canning had never fired a gun in his life. Despite this, the duel was surprisingly even. The first shot missed for both men. They could have ended it there, but they weren’t happy without some blood. Canning’s second shot was deflected by a button in his opponent’s coat, while Castlereagh hit him in the thigh. 

The duel somewhat eased the tension between the two ministers, but it put them in the political doghouse as both the king and the prime minister were angered by the publicity generated by the bizarre event. Both Canning and Castlereagh resigned their positions later that year and it took a while before they held another important office. George Canning eventually became Prime Minister in 1827, serving only 119 days before dying, thus setting the record which still stands today for the shortest tenure as British Prime Minister.

3. The Lawyer vs. the Auditor

Let’s do something a bit different and look at a duel that never actually took place but, if it had, it could have drastically changed the course of history. In 1842, the Illinois State Auditor James Shields came under fire for some of the policies he supported. One of his opponents wrote a scathing letter about him and published it in a newspaper under the pseudonym “Rebecca.” Greatly insulted, Shields went to the newspaper and demanded the true identity of the writer to challenge him to a duel. He received it – it was a young, up-and-coming lawyer named Abraham Lincoln.

As Lincoln refused to retract his letter and issue an apology, the two met in duel. As the challenged party, Lincoln was entitled to select the weapon. He chose broadswords, the biggest and heaviest around. Lincoln was tall and strong and had a wide reach so, naturally, he wanted a weapon that gave him the advantage. Plus, he was fairly certain that Shields would have killed him with a pistol, while Lincoln only intended to use the sword to draw blood and disarm his opponent.

As it turned out, this was not necessary. The two met on September 22, 1842, at Bloody Island opposite St. Louis, Missouri. When getting ready for the fight, Lincoln swung his sword powerfully above Shields’s head, cutting off a tree branch. It was an intimidation tactic, basically showing the much smaller Shields that he didn’t stand a chance. 

Eventually, he saw reason and, persuaded by the witnesses, the two called a truce. Later on, Shields served as brigadier general under Lincoln during the Civil War, giving Confederate General Stonewall Jackson a tactical defeat at the Battle of Kernstown. 

2. The Emancipated Duel

Duels between women were far rarer, but not necessarily unheard of. Historically, it was expected that they would settle their disputes by selecting male champions to duel on their behalf, but the 19th century saw examples of women who decided that it was time to take matters into their own hands. Undoubtedly, the most famous example was the duel between Princess Pauline von Metternich and Countess Anastasia von Kielmannsegg.

In the summer of 1892, both women were involved in the organization of the Vienna Musical and Theatrical Exhibition. Allegedly, they got into an argument over something trivial like a flower arrangement and, after heated words were exchanged, they decided to settle the matter in a duel with swords.

To make things even more interesting, the women dueled topless, supposedly to prevent strands of dirty clothes from getting into their wounds and causing infections. Princess Pauline won by drawing first blood. Their seconds were also women, as was the judge, Baroness Lupinska, while all the men who were present were servants who had to stay at a distance and keep their backs turned at all times. Because of this, the encounter was heralded as the “emancipation duel” as it made the rounds all across Europe.

Unfortunately, even though it makes for a good story, recent research suggests the possibility that the duel never actually happened. The event suffers from a lack of credible sources. The French newspapers popularized the tale and helped spread it to England, but they only said that it came from Vienna, without being more exact. To make matters even more confusing, another French paper published an article which supposedly included a statement from Princess Pauline herself, dismissing the story as a “stupid and ridiculous canard invented by Italian newspapers,” so the true origins of this duel might be lost to history. 

1. Hamilton vs. Burr

Without a doubt, the most famous duel that has taken place on American soil was that between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton, two of the country’s Founding Fathers. It has been featured in books, movies, TV shows, and even a hit Broadway musical. 

There were numerous elements that worked together to turn this encounter into an infamous duel. For starters, there was the high profile of the participants. Aaron Burr had been the Vice President of the United States, while Alexander Hamilton served as the first ever U.S. Secretary of the Treasury under George Washington, acting as one of the chief architects of the country’s emerging economy. But then there was also the animosity between the two statesmen that went back over a decade, the controversy surrounding the circumstances of the duel and, last but not least, the shocking death of Alexander Hamilton. 

The hostility between the two men stemmed from political divisions. Hamilton was the founder and leader of the Federalist Party while Burr was part of the opposing Democratic-Republican Party led by Thomas Jefferson. One of the main reasons why the latter party was even created was to oppose Hamilton’s economic policies so, obviously, he was not on friendly terms with most of them, but his antagonism with Burr went to the next level during the 1800 presidential election. 

The Federalist Party had lost that election. That was certain, but what had not been determined yet was who would be the next president because there was a deadlock between Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr. In that case, a contingent election was held in the House of Representatives, and Hamilton used his influence to convince multiple Federalists to switch their support to Jefferson. He reasoned that, even if his party lost, he could at least ensure that Burr didn’t win. 

He was successful – Thomas Jefferson became the new President of the United States. And he also was not a fan of Burr, so at the following election in 1804, he dropped him as his running mate. Instead, Burr ran for Governor of New York but, again, it was Hamilton’s smear campaign that lost him that election, as well. Afterwards, Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel.

The duel took place on July 11, 1804, in Weehawken, New Jersey, the same place where Hamilton’s eldest son, Philip, died in a duel three years prior. It remains a controversial topic because even now, two centuries later, historians still debate over what happened on that day. 

It all has to do with Hamilton’s intentions. Many say that he deloped, meaning that he intentionally threw away his first shot by firing over Burr’s head and into the trees. Meanwhile, Burr shot normally, hitting Hamilton in the stomach, and causing his death the following day. Such accounts portray Burr as being dishonorable, although others argue that Hamilton simply missed and had every intention of shooting his opponent. The assistants who were present that day gave conflicting testimonies, so we cannot say with any certainty who was in the right. What we do know for sure is that the country was outraged by the death of such a prominent man. Aaron Burr had to flee the state to avoid a murder charge and his political legacy has been far overshadowed by his duel with Alexander Hamilton.

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