“Code Duello” is the historic term for the “gentlemanly” act of dueling. This lost practice permeated global societies for centuries. The motive could be anything from remedying an insult, to defending a loved one’s honor. Virginia passed its Anti-Dueling Act in 1810, but that didn’t stop the insulted or dishonored from seeking loopholes to salvage their reputations.
February 6, 1819
Armistead T. Mason and John M. McCarty dueled in Loudoun County. Mason attempted to avoid the confrontation because it arose from political arguing, but his evasion didn’t work. The two dueled on a cold winter morning. Mason was shot through the heart and died. The two men were actually cousins, and several legends state McCarty went insane after the murder.
March 22, 1820
Commodore Stephen Decatur dueled with Admiral James Barron. Barron was court-martialed in 1807 because he hadn’t prepared his ship for British attack. As a result, the enemy invaded. Enemy troops killed three crewmen, severely injured several others, and freed four of their men who were imprisoned aboard.
Barron fled to Europe, where he remained for several years after the proceedings. Upon his return, Decatur continually harassed him. Barron eventually challenged him. Decatur had just recently settled with his wife in Washington, DC. Both men were wounded, but only Decatur died.
Henry Clay’s Double Duels
Henry Clay fought two unusual duels during his life. The first was in 1808, with Humphrey Marshall of the Kentucky Legislature. The two men dueled, exchanged several shots, but neither were injured.
His second duel happened on April 8, 1826. John Randolph was a Virginia Senator who insulted Clay on the Senate floor. The insults led to a challenge. The two met at Pimmit Run in Arlington. Perhaps the strangest factor was that neither man intended to shoot the other, so both men fired into the air and walked away unharmed.
February 27, 1859
Representative Daniel Sickles dueled with Barton Key, son of Francis Scott Key. Sickles was an infamous scoundrel who stirred controversy and scandal wherever he went. The New York State Assembly censured him early in his political career because he brought infamous prostitute Fanny White into the private chambers. He took the same prostitute, who masqueraded as his wife, when he met the Queen of England. His actual wife was pregnant at home.
Key was District Attorney for the District of Columbia. Sickles suspected Key of having an affair with his wife and grew enraged; regardless of the fact his numerous extramarital escapades were common gossip. Sickles murdered Keys and fled, but was captured. Unfortunately, justice was not to be served. Sickles enjoyed a posh prison life with plenty of visitors and special privileges while incarcerated in his own special cell.
The most tragic figure was his wife. His defense team’s chief aim was to slander her, to distract from the blood on Sickles’s hands. They continually portrayed her as a common “jezebel” and “harlot” to divert attention from the murder. Still, his wife did everything she could to see her husband escaped punishment.
His was the first case in United States history where the term “temporary insanity” was used in court. It was a staggering success and he was acquitted. Sickles enjoyed a tremendous public outcry against forgiving his wife for her “infidelities.” Sickles lived to the ripe age of 94, but never escaped his penchant for disgrace.
September 11, 1902
John Spriggs and William Prater confronted one another in the Meadowview area of Washington County, Virginia. The two met in a storeroom, where Prater insulted Spriggs’s wife, and immediately fired. Prater returned fire. Both men fired until their guns were empty. Both received fatal chest wounds.