Episode 62: Ten Paces, Fire! Boston’s Hamiltonian Duel

Early in the morning of March 31, 1806, two young men of Boston faced each other across a marshy field outside Providence, Rhode Island.  With the sun beginning to peek above the horizon, they marked out ten paces between themselves, then stood facing one another.  Each had a friend at his right hand, as they coolly leveled their pistols at one another.  Now, one of the friends called out, “Are you ready… Present… Fire!”  And both men squeezed the triggers on their dueling pistols.  

If that sounds an awful lot like the famous duel that Alexander Hamilton fought against Aaron Burr two years earlier, you’re not wrong.  In ways that we’ll examine, it’s even more similar to the duel that Alexander’s son Philip Hamilton fought against a man named George Eacker in 1801.  

Ten Paces, Fire

The Austin/Elliot Duel

The Selfridge/Austin Killing

The Phillips/Woodbridge Duel

Dueling Law in Massachusetts

  • 1719: enacts a 100 pound fine, 6 months in prison, and corporal punishment for issuing or accepting a challenge.
  • 1730: A challenge or non-fatal duel is punishable by an hour on the gallows and a year in prison.  Anyone who is killed in a duel or executed in a duel will be given an unchristian burial at a gallows or crossroads, with a stake driven through their body.  (An interesting article about the history of staked burial)
  • 1784: Adds 39 lashes for a non-fatal duel, bans anyone who issues a challenge from holding public office, and increases the fine for a challenge to 300 pounds.  Adds dissection for those killed in a duel or executed for dueling.
  • 1805: Non-fatal duels will be prosecuted as felonious assault and the offender will be barred from holding public office.  Staked burial is no longer a punishment for fatal duels, but dissection still is.  Any challenge issued or accepeted, even if no duel is fought, is punishable by a year in prison.
  • Current Massachusetts law allows anyone who fights a duel in another state to be prosecuted for murder in Massachusetts.  Anyone who is a second in a fatal duel is an accessory before the fact.  Most of the rest of our dueling laws were repealed in 1962.

Featured Historic Site

From towering Native American totem poles and large Maya sculptures to precious artifacts of the ancient world, the Harvard Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology is among the oldest anthropology museums in the world. Founded in 1866 by George Peabody, the museum has one of the finest collections of human cultural history found anywhere.

Examples include…

  • The largest surviving collection of artifacts acquired from Native American people during the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804-1806
  • Important collections from South America, including more than 5,000 ancient Peruvian textiles
  • The finest archaeological documentation of the Maya, as well as the most extensive and varied collection of Mesoamerican artifacts and sculpture outside Mexico
  • Early and rare historical collections from the Pacific Islands, especially Hawaii, Fiji, and Tonga
  • One of the largest photographic archives in the world documenting the cultures of indigenous peoples

One of our favorite exhibits is a collection of drawings in the exhibit featuring artifacts from the Tribes of the Plains. It’s a series of illustrations by Warriors of the Lakota Sioux that depict their experiences in the period leading up to the Battle of Little Bighorn.  The drawings were done in an accounting ledger, which makes for an interesting juxtaposition of vibrant sketches of warriors in battle on top of faint transactional records. We’ll link to the Museum website and a brochure detailing this collection in the show notes.

The Peabody Museum is located at 11 Divinity Avenue, Cambridge, Massachusetts, on the Harvard University campus. It is connected to the Harvard Museum of Natural History, and one ticket admits a visitor to both museums. The Peabody Museum is open seven days a week from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and adult admission is $12.  The museum is free to Massachusetts residents every Sunday morning (year-round) from 9:00 am to noon and on Wednesdays from 3:00 pm to 5:00 pm (September through May).

Upcoming Event

On January 18 at 11am, there will be a literary lunch at Mount Auburn Cemetery’s Story Chapel on the topic of the relationship between American industry and American literature in the 19th Century, focusing on Henry author Wadsworth Longfellow and businessman Nathan Appleton.  Tickets are free.

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