Sir Richard Steele, writing in the June 7, 1709 issue of The Tatler, satirized the motives that caused men to engage in “so fatal a folly” as dueling. Supposedly founded on principles of honor and gallantry, dueling, Steele argued, was actually “an imposture, made of cowardice, falsehood, and want of understanding.”
Years earlier, as an officer in the Coldstream Guards, Steele seriously wounded a man in a sword fight and came away horrified at what had happened. He grew convinced that every man fights against his will and secretly wishes dueling done away with. Yet the custom had become so ingrained in society that “no man has courage enough to resist it.”
In Steele’s day, duels in London were usually fought behind the British Museum, open country at the time, or in Hyde Park. The weapons used most often were swords, sabers (for military men), or pistols.
Men preparing to fight had to appoint seconds, or assistants, who arranged the terms and conditions of the duel. Should anyone be killed in a fight without seconds in attendance, the surviving party could be prosecuted for murder. Seconds occasionally got so caught up in the passions of the moment that they challenged each other and fought as a sort of under card to the main event. Normally, however, seconds kept cooler heads and were sometimes able to negotiate honorable means of avoiding the duel altogether.
The French established very precise rules for personal combat. As with many other things, the French considered dueling a matter of etiquette, so they devised rules covering almost every contingency. It was stipulated, for instance, that a person blind in one eye could decline to use pistols. A person with only one leg or one arm could refuse to fight with swords or sabers. A young man was forbidden to fight a man sixty or older unless the older man had struck the younger. If one man was wounded, he was allowed one minute to fire at his opponent, “but if he has fallen on the ground, he will be allowed two minutes to recover.”
The English were not as rule-bound as the French. The main concern for the English was that combatants conduct themselves at all times honorably and as gentlemen. Still, English decorum was such that in the seventeenth century, Thomas Rymer, in a critical book on the drama, argued that characters in a play should not be shown killing each other unless their ranks were suitable to “the laws of the Duel.” One of Rymer’s chapters is titled “Who and Who May Kill One Another with Decency.”
During the reign of King Charles II (1660-1685), 165 duels were fought in England. These resulted in 75 deaths and 108 wounded. In addition to the bloodshed, dueling also produced a number of curious incidents and stories. One involved Humphrey Howarth, a surgeon, who accepted a challenge to fight with pistols. On the morning of the duel, he showed up completely naked. When asked the meaning of this innovation, Dr. Howarth explained that particles of clothing carried into the body by a pistol ball inevitably fester. Victims of gunshot wounds died from infection more often than from trauma. Although the explanation seemed reasonable and medically sound, the challenger thought the idea of fighting a naked man ridiculous and called the whole thing off.
Another incident involved Lord Erskine, a very small man, who challenged a tall, husky army officer to a duel with pistols. The officer refused the challenge, protesting that he was at too great a disadvantage being so much bigger and easier to hit than his opponent. A wit suggested that the smaller man’s outline be chalked on the officer’s body, and any hits outside the mark would not count. The officer thought this not a suitable resolution of the problem and still refused to fight.
An even smaller man than Lord Erskine was Jeffrey Hudson, a midget at the court of King Charles I. Perfectly well-proportioned, he stood only two feet six inches tall. After the age of 30, he put on a growth spurt and made it to about three feet nine inches. Often ridiculed for his size, Hudson was nevertheless intelligent and capable, the king appointing him to lead a troop of cavalry during the English Civil War.
A malicious story circulating about Hudson at the time claimed that he had once been in a fight with a turkey and barely escaped with his life by running away. When a Mr. Charles Crofts one day taunted Hudson about the story, Hudson grew angry and challenged Crofts to a duel on horseback for the following morning. Crofts showed up armed with a device that squirted water, attempting to make a joke of the situation. Hudson became even angrier and insisted they proceed with real weapons, whereupon he shot Crofts through the head before Crofts could fire first.
In another episode, Lord Alvanley was understandably relieved and even elated after coming through a duel unscathed. He gave the hackney coachman who had driven him out, and was now returning him home, the large sum of a guinea. “My lord,” said the surprised coachman, “I only took you to ______.”
“My friend,” replied Alvanley, “the guinea is for bringing me back, not for taking me out.”
The following incident may not be true, but it is a story the poet Samuel Rogers liked to tell to illustrate the national character of the English compared to that of the French. It seems an Englishman and a Frenchman got into an argument over something inconsequential. A challenge was offered and accepted, both men agreeing to fight with pistols in a dark room, the Englishman to fire first.
Once the candle was extinguished, however, the brave yet compassionate Englishman felt sorry for his poor adversary. He thought it shameful to take the Frenchman’s life over so trivial a matter. Consequently, he felt his way along the wall in the dark until he came to the fireplace. He pointed his pistol up the chimney and fired—and out tumbled the Frenchman, mortally wounded.
Rogers said that when he told the story in France, he put the Englishman up the chimney.
An unusual duel, an actual one, occurred in the early nineteenth century in the skies above Paris. Balloon flights were then all the rage in France, and it was not long before certain gentlemen of honor, seized with the balloon frenzy, took their disputes aloft.
The first instance of aerial combat took place in 1808 when a M. de Grandpré and a M. le Pique got into an argument over a woman and agreed to fight a duel from balloons high over the city. Each man was to fire a blunderbuss at the other’s balloon and try to bring it down. On the day of the fight, the balloons ascended from a field next to the Tuileries Garden, and when they had reached an altitude of about half a mile and were about eighty yards apart, the men went into action.
M. le Pique fired first with no effect, but M. de Grandpré had better success. His shot punctured his opponent’s balloon, which, according to the Northampton Mercury in England, descended rapidly, “and Le Pique and his second were both dashed to pieces on a house-top, over which the balloon fell.” Another source states that le Pique’s balloon went down with tremendous rapidity, “both principal and second being instantly killed,—much to the satisfaction of the spectators.”
In his book Dueling with the Sword and Pistol, Paul Kirchner cites two examples of extremely frivolous duels. One involved a Neapolitan nobleman “who fought 14 duels in support of his contention that Dante was a greater poet than Ariosto, only to admit on his deathbed that he had not read the works of either.”
The other extremely frivolous duel had to do with an Irish officer “who fought a man for disputing his contention that anchovies grew on trees and, after killing him, recalled that, actually, it was capers he was thinking of.”
The two most prominent literary figures killed in duels were Russian writers Alexander Pushkin and Mikhail Lermontov. Dueling lost favor throughout Europe in the late nineteenth century.