Hand Me My Pistol, Please

January 1, 2005 by Hugh A. Halliday



A set of duelling pistols comes with powder.

Between 1646 and 1948, some 300 duelling incidents were recorded in what is now Canadian territory. These ranged from challenges delivered (but not accepted) through to formal combats, many bloodless but approximately 30 with fatal outcomes. The two professions most frequently represented among duellists were military officers and lawyers.

Duels should not be confused with medieval “trial by combat” which was part of a crude legal system and conducted in the presence of judges—even kings. Duels, by contrast, were illegal and hence conducted furtively. Sheriffs were obliged to suppress them and those who killed an opponent were liable to be arrested and charged with murder. Unhappily, duelling was also a practice conducted almost solely by upper class scofflaws and fellow aristocrats who, while acting as jurors and judges, did not enforce the law. They preferred to let a duellist go free than have him publicly hanged for the amusement of the common herd.

Although secretive, duels were conducted as rituals which became more elaborate as time passed. By the 19th century, a duel required at least four persons—the protagonists and their seconds. A doctor was optional. The seconds were especially important, for between challenge and resolution of a dispute, all communications had to be through them. These intermediaries might mediate and prevent violence altogether; as a last resort, they witnessed the encounter and ensured that some degree of fairness had been observed.

An example of seconds in mediation is best illustrated by an incident in January 1836 when two Lower Canadian politicians, Sabrevois de Bleury, and Charles-Ovide Perrault, had a violent falling out and went “to the turf.” Their seconds placed the two men 36 feet apart, loaded the pistols, then set about trying to negotiate a compromise, talking with each other, then their principals. At last a solution was worked out. The opponents were to advance towards each other, grasp hands, and say, “I am sorry to have insulted you” (Bleury) and “I am sorry to have struck you” (Perrault). These were to be spoken simultaneously. After that, they were to reply in unison: “I accept your apology.” The two men were coached in the agreed words, then strode to their meeting. Bleury held back his lines, allowing Perrault to apologize and he to accept, but the seconds refused to recognize this attempt to renege. They started again, this time speaking simultaneously. The pistols were discharged in the air and all returned to their respective carriages, proceeding to a tavern for a drink before going back to Quebec.

The seconds as referees, in the most horrible of circumstances, is best seen in the case of the infamous Jarvis-Ridout duel in York (Toronto) on July 12,1817. Their meeting climaxed a feud that had been setting two “establishment” families against one another. Samuel Peters Jarvis was 24, John Ridout was 18 and both were veterans of the War of 1812, although they had since ventured into law.

The insults that preceded their encounter need not detain us; the role of their seconds is more remarkable. The protagonists had been placed some 16 yards apart, facing one another. The count was to be “One, two, three, fire!” On the count of “two”, Ridout raised his arm, fired, missed, and began to walk away.

Ridout’s premature shot was a terrible breach of the duelling codes. He was brought back by the seconds and a conference followed. The seconds agreed that Jarvis was entitled to his shot. Ridout stood in his place; the count resumed. On the word, “Fire!”, Jarvis brought up his pistol, took deliberate aim, and shot Ridout through the jugular and windpipe. Jarvis was arrested, tried for murder, and acquitted in defiance of both law and evidence. Although Ridout was almost certainly incapable of speech after the fatal shot, statements were entered that he had briefly stayed on his feet, remained conscious long enough to shake hands with all, and forgave Jarvis. This version, of course, was utterly self-serving—a good story to tell a jury already anxious to save a fellow “toff.” The near-incestuous nature of the Upper Canadian aristocracy is further demonstrated by the fact that, in 1818, Samuel Peters Jarvis married Mary Powell, daughter of the judge who had tried him.

The first duels in what is now Canada occurred in 1646 and were described in the Jesuit Relations. Writing in May 1646, Father Jéròme Lallement reported that two men employed in Quebec by the Ursulines had insulted each other and had then crossed swords; their names, the cause of their quarrel, and the outcome were all omitted. At Trois-Rivières, two soldiers named La Groye and Lafontaine had fought a duel in which the former had been twice wounded. La Groye was probably the innocent party. Father Lallement described him as having “behaved discreetly, like a Christian.” This was confirmed by evidence from natives. Lafontaine was punished by imprisonment in a pit.

Combats from this period are poorly documented, and what some writers described as “duels” were more in the nature of spontaneous brawls. Nevertheless, some features emerge. All duels in New France were with swords—probably because they were still part of normal dress. Duelling officers who killed an opponent conveniently escaped, often to return a few years later with a Royal pardon. Common soldiers who duelled had a much harder time. Whether they lived or died, their goods and property were forfeited to the church. The victim’s body was routinely dragged through the streets, then deposited on a rubbish heap. At least one successful sergeant-duellist was hanged, and others fled with no hope of a happy return.

Seldom was there a truly happy story connected with duels. One was that involving two soldiers who crossed swords on Jan. 26, 1751. Neither was seriously injured, but authorities moved against them. One fled, but Jean Corolère was taken, sentenced to one year in prison, and threatened with even more drastic punishment.

A young woman, Françoise Laurent, was in the adjacent cell, awaiting execution for having stolen from her employer. The sentence could not be carried out immediately because the post of official hangman was vacant. Once an appointment was made, her fate would be sealed. The lady knew, however, that her life would be spared if she were married to the executioner. She turned her charms upon the impressionable young Corolère (he was no more than 20), and was successful. On Aug. 17 he petitioned the Superior Council to be appointed hangman, a post considered odious in the colony. The request was granted and Corolère was released immediately. The next day he petitioned the authorities for permission to marry Françoise Laurent. That, too, was granted, and the wedding took place Aug. 19.

Following the British conquest, duels were conducted almost exclusively with pistols—although Charles-Michel de Salaberry—later hero of the Battle of Châteauguay in 1813—fought a duel with sabres about 1799 while stationed in Martinique with the 60th Regiment of Foot. The first recorded duel under the new regime took place March 30, 1767. It was staged on the Plains of Abraham between an officer and a lawyer. Neither was identified in the accounts of the day; the affair ended without bloodshed after one exchange of fire.

Meanwhile, in Nova Scotia, British garrisons had been present since the capture of Annapolis Royal in 1710. How many duels were fought among the troops may never be known, but in March 1790 two officers of the Halifax garrison duelled. Captain John Lloyd was killed. The victor, a subaltern named Williams, was tried for murder and acquitted.

Lieutenant Samuel Lester Holland and Capt. Lewis Thomas Shoedde, both of the 60th Regt., were stationed in Montreal. On March 24, 1795, they fought a duel. Their quarrel may have begun over a card game, or Holland, aged 19, possibly flirted with Shoedde’s wife during a formal ball. Whatever the cause, Shoedde issued a challenge. They met at Point-au-Moulin-à-Vent (Windmill Point), where they were placed 10 paces apart. A coin was tossed, Shoedde won, and was allowed the first shot. He put a bullet through his opponent’s trunk, just under the ribs. Holland staggered, but managed to fire his own weapon, shattering his enemy’s right arm. Then he collapsed and was carried away to a nearby coffee house to die. Shoedde fled to the United States.

The McCord Museum in Montreal has in its possession a brace of pistols with an inscription on the barrels that reads: The Gift of General James Wolfe to Capt. Samuel Holland, 1759. The recipient, of course, was Samuel Jan Holland, later Surveyor-General of Lower Canada and father of the unfortunate Samuel Lester Holland. These pistols were reputedly used in the duel.

Lawyers’ duels erupted from courtroom arguments and political disputes; those involving officers seemed to arise from the most petty causes. Sometime around 1797, Lieut. John Evans (24th Regt. of Foot) and Lieut. John Ogilvy (26th Regt. of Foot), both in garrison at Quebec, argued over whose mess served the better beer. Rhetoric escalated, a duel was fought, and Evans shot Ogilvy to death. Like many others, Evans was tried for murder and acquitted; he was killed in action in Spain in 1809.

A duel fought in St. John’s, Nfld., on March 30, 1826, arose from equally trivial origins. Capt. Mark Rudkin and Ensign John Philpot, the Royal Newfoundland Veterans Company, following a late-night card game, argued over division of the “pot” and eventually came to blows. Philpot kicked Rudkin, the latter threw down a challenge, and some 12 hours later they met with seconds. They were placed 40 feet apart, keeping their pistols at their side until the call of “Ready! Fire!” Both men fired without effect. The seconds reclaimed the weapons, conferred about a possible reconciliation, found Philpot adamant in his refusal to apologize, and reloaded the pistols. This time, Rudkin shot Philpot through the heart. Another trial, another acquittal.

The presence of the American border added another element to duels. Several well documented duels, including one fatal encounter, involved Canadian principals who chose to duel on American soil and thus evade even cursory notice of British law. In June 1828, two British officers reportedly went to an American island near Ogdensburg, N.Y. After three exchanges of fire, one man had been gravely wounded and was brought back to Canada.

Some duelling traffic went the other way. Two American army officers, Capt. John Farley and Lieut. Otis Fisher, quarrelled during court martial proceedings at Fort Detroit. They met with seconds on Canadian soil near Sandwich (modern Windsor) at 2 a.m., May 3, 1820, and discussed their difference until sunrise. Unable to arrive at a reconciliation, they shook hands, said goodbye to each other, took their places at 12 paces and fired. Fisher was shot through the heart. A Canadian coroner’s jury ruled the young man had been the victim of “wilful murder”, but it was an American court martial, meeting on the 4th, that dealt with Farley. The captain was let off because the duel had been fought outside the U.S.

The last fatal duel fought in Upper Canada occurred June 13, 1833, at Perth, Ont., southwest of Ottawa. It is perhaps the best known Canadian duel. The combatants, John Wilson and Robert Lyon, were two law students who had quarreled over remarks concerning a local schoolteacher named Elizabeth Hughes. A plaque erected by the Ontario Archaeological and Historical Sites Board states the dispute was aggravated by the prompting of Lyon’s second, Henry Le Lievre, described as “a bellicose army veteran.” Lyon was killed in the second exchange of shots and Wilson was eventually acquitted of a charge of murder.

The last fatal duel fought in Canada was at Verdun, Que., on May 22, 1838. Major Henry Warde, 1st Regt. of Foot, had distinguished himself under fire during suppression of the 1837 Rebellion in Lower Canada. Robert Sweeney, a lawyer by profession, had served in the Montreal Militia during the same events. The men knew each other, but when Warde wrote a love letter to Mrs. Sweeney, the aggrieved husband issued a challenge and felled the major with one shot.

Uncertainties attend the Warde-Sweeney duel. One report has it that the offending letter was not intended for Sweeney’s wife but for another woman in the household, yet was couched in such terms that its intended recipient was unclear. The Montreal establishment stuck with their aristocratic friends; a coroner’s jury declined to call civilians who had witnessed the combat and returned a verdict of Warde having come to his death “in consequence of a gunshot wound inflicted by some person unknown in a duel this morning,” although Sweeney’s name was commonly bandied about in press reports.

Newspapers denounced the hypocrisy shown by the coroner’s jury, which so evidently did not wish to pronounce the truth. The Montreal Herald remarked bitterly, “The value of an oath in Canada is not much,” even though the editor of that paper, Thomas Weir, had sat on the coroner’s panel.

What put an end to duelling in Canada? In part it was public revulsion against the practice. Nevertheless, duelling had long been denounced and nevertheless tolerated. One factor was ridicule; there were several incidents in which the principals were clearly going through the motions for show and little else. In May 1861 two Canadian duellists adjourned to Vermont for a combat—and then discovered nobody had thought to bring any bullets. Satirists and dramatists had a field day with the incident.

However, the person most responsible for the suppression of duelling may have been Queen Victoria herself. Notwithstanding that the practice was unlawful, the Mutiny Act included a clause stating that any officer declining a duelling challenge was liable to be cashiered. In 1844, the queen discussed the problem with her prime minister, Sir Robert Peel. The iniquitous section of the act was repealed, and the Articles of War amended to require the court martial and dismissal of any officer who duelled, challenged, acted as a second or failed to prevent duels. Almost immediately, duelling ceased within the British Army, and civilian society followed suit.

For the record, the last known formal duelling challenge in Canada was in June 1948. The Argentine ambassador had snubbed the consul general of the Dominican Republic, and the ambassador’s wife reportedly made disparaging remarks about the smaller country. The junior diplomat demanded satisfaction, only to be told that ambassadors did not duel with mere consuls general. When newspapers got wind of the story, the Ottawa Journal suggested the two should meet at Lansdowne Park or in the Civic Auditorium, but with boxing gloves, and External Affairs officials on hand to referee. The humour was heavy-handed, but it was further proof that duelling had gone down to ignominious buffoonery. The “diplomatic duel” never took place. Undoubtedly, the persons most relieved were External Affairs minister Louis St-Laurent and his deputy minister Lester B. Pearson.

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