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Gentlemen's Blood: A History of Dueling

by Barbara Holland

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1907105,631 (3.6)5
The medieval justice of trial by combat evolved into the private duel by sword and pistol, with thousands of honorable men-and not-so-honorable women-giving lives and limbs to wipe out an insult or prove a point. The duel was essential to private, public, and political life, and those who followed the elaborate codes of procedure were seldom prosecuted and rarely convicted-for, in fact, they were obeying a grand old tradition. Based on her fascinating 1997 Smithsonian article, Barbara Holland's Gentlemen's Blood is the first trade book to trace the remarkable, often gruesome, sometimes comical history of the Western tradition of defending one's honor.… (more)
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Showing 1-5 of 7 (next | show all)
A fun popular history of dueling. Author Barbara Holland writes with dry humor:


"Aside from the occasional separatist movement in Quebec, Canada today seems a placid place. Americans think of it as bland and law-abiding and a bit self-righteous; Europeans, when they think of it at all, feel it must be something like Australia, only colder."

I was amazed at the amount of carnage in the 19th century. The Irish went at each other with pistols over any minor insult; according to the Irish rules for duels it was very ungentlemanly to fire in the air or deliberately miss your opponent (both parties were required to reload and shoot again). A duel was a serious thing and must be taken seriously – about one duel in four in Ireland ended fatally. In England, dueling was practically a requirement to hold high office; Prime Ministers Bath, Shelburne, Pitt, Fox, Canning, Wellington, and Peel all fought duels (Disraeli challenged Daniel O’Connell but was turned down). In American you didn’t mess around with wimpy little pistols; in a duel between John Hampton Pleasants, (editor of the Richmond Whig), and Thomas Ritchie, Jr. (coeditor of the Richmond Enquirer – the mainstream media was a lot more exciting in those days) Pleasants showed up with a revolver, two dueling pistols, a bowie knife, and a sword cane; Ritchie had four pistols, a revolver, and a cutlass. (Pleasants was hit four times but slashed Ritchie with his sword cane before dying).


Bystanders got into the act; at a duel on a sandbar in the Mississippi between Dr. Maddox and Samuel Welles, both of Rapides, Louisiana, practically the entire town showed up, including Colonel Crane, Major Wright, General Currey, both Bowie brothers (Resin and Jim) and assorted other friends and relations. The principals exchanged shots, missed, and decided honor had been satisfied; the spectators disagreed and went at it. Colonel Crane and Jim Bowie fired at each other without effect; then Crane knocked Jim Bowie on the head with a dueling pistol, and Major Wright stabbed him with a sword cane. The sword cane was poor quality and bent after partially penetrating Bowie’s chest, whereupon Bowie stabbed Wright in the heart with his eponymous knife. In the meantime, the fight became general and ended with six killed and fifteen wounded (not including either of the principals).


American politicians were not immune. Andrew Jackson killed at least one man and reportedly suffered numerous wounds. Cousins Senator Armistead T. Mason and Colonel John McCarthy of Virginia fell out over allowing Quakers to buy out of military service; they fought with muskets at four (!) paces. Oddly, McCarthy survived; Mason got his musket tangled up in his overcoat while raising it and only blew McCarthy’s arm off.


Things weren’t that much better across the pond; both Russia and Prussia had military ordinances requiring officers to fight duels if insulted. In Russia, it went even further; you could be forced to fight a duel if a third party decided you had been insulted, thus allowing a harmless jest between friends to become a deadly encounter the next day. (I understand it didn't change much in the Communist era, where a third party could denounce you for a conversation. In fact, I understand agents would deliberately have "provocative" conversations within earshot of others and then arrest listeners for failure to denounce. Personally, I think I'd rather take my chances with a duel; I think the mortality rate was less than the Gulag). The Erast Fandorin novels describe the Russian "handkerchief" duel, in which the participants each held the corner of a handkerchief and blazed away with dueling pistols. The advantage was supposedly that it could be done indoors, although one expects people in the next apartment might be inconvenienced by stray bullets. While Holland doesn't mention the handkerchief duel, she does mention the American "bandanna" duel, in which the interested parties each held a corner of a bandanna in their teeth and then fought with Bowie knives; presumably spectators wore raincoats.


Despite the amusement value, dueling cost a lot of lives that would have been better to have been lived out: Alexander Hamilton and Stephen Decatur in the US; authors Pushkin and Lermontov in Russia, and the mathematician Evariste Galois in France.


Holland attributes the popularity of dueling to testosterone (although noting that various women in history fought lethal duels) and suggests the NRA is a remnant of the need to express masculinity. She speculates, only half in jest, that a return to rapiers might make everybody more polite; and on a final note, comments that before the invasion of Iraq the vice president of Iraq sent a challenge to the US, suggesting a duel between the respective presidents and vice presidents rather than a war. It was not accepted. ( )
1 vote setnahkt | Dec 10, 2017 |
This is more of an explanation than a history of dueling, for those scratching their heads over the practice. The practice of defending one's honor traveled from Europe to America leaving plenty of wounded and quite a few corpses in its wake. Some of the more famous duels in history are highlighted. Holland gives a readable explanation of the exageratted ritual and ettiquette involved in attempting to best one's rival. The transition from swords to pistols was interesting and even more deadly, with the law mostly tending to look the other way. Good reading for the swashbucklers and pistoleros among you. ( )
  varielle | Jan 31, 2017 |
A little too Ameri-centric (OK, far too Ameri-centric for a book that bills itself as a general history of dueling), a little too much unsubstantiated opinion in the closing chapters, and a little too flippant and breezy in tone. Picked it up from the discount table, and frankly I think I was overcharged. ( )
  g026r | Jan 10, 2011 |
Holland writes very well. This book was about a fascinating subject and she did a great job with it. I particularly liked the point she made toward the end, and I feel that her idea would have a huge impact upon today's society. All in all a really well-written book. ( )
  knfmn | Sep 11, 2010 |
This is a light, almost overly so, history of dueling from it's roots in early tribal justice til its final death knell around World War I. It turns out once a generation of young men have thrown themselves in the trenches they don't have anything else to prove. There are a lot of details and interesting stories but I would have liked more context establishing the sort of cultural and historical elements that drive dueling. As it is the sense the honor that drove dueling is still hard for me to understand. All and all I found it a worthwhile read since it left me with a good number of interesting anecdotes and improved my ability to catch historical inaccuracies which I love to bitch about. ( )
  fundevogel | Jun 9, 2010 |
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The medieval justice of trial by combat evolved into the private duel by sword and pistol, with thousands of honorable men-and not-so-honorable women-giving lives and limbs to wipe out an insult or prove a point. The duel was essential to private, public, and political life, and those who followed the elaborate codes of procedure were seldom prosecuted and rarely convicted-for, in fact, they were obeying a grand old tradition. Based on her fascinating 1997 Smithsonian article, Barbara Holland's Gentlemen's Blood is the first trade book to trace the remarkable, often gruesome, sometimes comical history of the Western tradition of defending one's honor.

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