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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

Duels

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

By the Civil War, Texas and Southern men had come to their senses, at least about one thing. They no longer deemed it necessary to challenge another gentleman to a duel, with all the rules attendant thereto.

Even in the last years before the outbreak of the rebellion it had become the fashion to simply shoot -- without warning -- an offending party. Why give the other fellow a fighting chance? Of course, it was considered mean spirited (though undeniably practical) to shoot someone in the back, but slapping their face with a glove, demanding "satisfaction" and meeting at dawn to shoot at each other at 10 or 20 paces was far too complicated.

Nevertheless, the dueling tradition had lasted for hundreds of years, and it reached its peak in Texas during the almost decade that it stood as an independent republic.

In 1837, someone with both a keen eye and a way with words came to Texas and spent some time in Galveston and Houston. Described only as "R.," he wrote about his visit in a two-part article for a Columbus, OH magazine called The Hesperian, or Western Magazine.

The anonymous visitor did a fine job of capturing what life was like in Texas' largest port and the smaller town on Buffalo Bayou named after the republic's first president. The first installment of his observations ran in the Hesperian's September 1838 issue, followed by the rest in the October number. He wrote about a lot of things, including a couple of duels.

"I do not think I would be authorized to state that there were those in Houston, who made dueling an occupation," R. declared. But then he proceeded to do just that, noting "I feel at liberty to say that there were some who seemed to think that there was no better way to employ their time than to lecture upon the principles of honor, to lay down the laws of the pistol, and to let no occasion pass to encourage others to fight."

In the summer of 1837, R. wrote, a group of young men "in the spirit of polemics" (and perhaps having imbibed over much of the distilled kind of spirits) meet in Houston's unfinished frame Capitol "to discuss some grave and heavy matters connected with the science of government." However, the man who had been employed to build the government house had not finished the job and still viewed the property as his. Not only did he feel the men had no right to be there, he was justifiably worried that the candles they were burning might catch the place on fire.

To protect his interest, he barged into the meeting, declared it over, and blew out the candles. One attendee took umbrage to the contractors' precipitous actions and slapped him soundly. At that, the builder drew a pistol, but others in the group prevented him from using it.

His honor clearly sullied, the following morning the contractor sent a messenger to see the man who had slapped him and challenged him to a duel. The slapper accepted and once the rules had been agreed to, the two men met "at the edge of town." Houston not yet having a professional baseball team or many other diversions, the townspeople delighted at the news of a duel and crowded around to take in the show.

At the appointed hour and with all due dignity, the two men counted off 10 paces, turned and fired. When the black powder smoke cleared, it was plainly evident that both duelists had missed.

The challenger could have claimed satisfaction and called it a day, but instead, he insisted on a second round. The parties reloaded their handguns, marched off 10 paces and whirled to fire again.

This time, the challenger missed again, but his opponent's bullet tore into his leg. Though the impact of the shot jolted the man, he remained standing and no blood appeared. No one but the challenger knew he had a wooden leg, and even he had not expected to be shot there.

Having escaped death twice in a matter of minutes, the challenger announced that his honor had been fully vindicated and the initial affront would be considered a thing of the past.

The second duel R. witnessed had a more unfortunate outcome. A young man had wrongfully been accused of stealing money. Acquaintances and others goaded him into challenging the theft victim to a duel. In the confrontation that followed, the innocent party suffered a mortal wound.

Those who had talked the losing duelist into throwing down the proverbial glove signed a document affirming their belief in his innocence, expressing their condolences to the victim's widowed mother and excoriating the surviving duelist for his false accusation. Realizing he was persona non grata in Houston, he departed for the frontier town of San Antonio.

There, the duelist got into a quarrel with someone in a bar. This time, he ignored the protocol of affairs of honor and simply pulled his pistol and fired. Fortunately for the intended victim, someone hit the shooter's arm just as he pulled the trigger and the bullet went wild. Rightfully offended, the man chased his attacker into another room and shot him dead.


© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" November 2 , 2017 column


Mike Cox's "Texas Tales"

  • The Rogstads of Bosque County 11-2-17
  • Murder Mystery at Fort Griffin 10-19-17
  • Old-time Cowboy 10-12-17
  • Titanic Texans 10-5-17
  • The Good Docs of San Antonio 9-29-17

    See more »

  • Related Topics:
    People | Columns |
    Texas History | Texas Towns


    Mike Cox's "Texas Tales"

  • The Rogstads of Bosque County 11-2-17
  • Murder Mystery at Fort Griffin 10-19-17
  • Old-time Cowboy 10-12-17
  • Titanic Texans 10-5-17
  • The Good Docs of San Antonio 9-29-17

    See more »

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