Bloody Island: Missouri’s Infamous Dueling Ground

Dec 14, 2023 0 comments

In the late 1790s, a large sandy island emerged in the middle of the Mississippi River, across from St. Louis, Missouri, as a result of the Mississippi’s current shifting and piling up silt and river debris. This newly formed island was in the jurisdiction of neither Missouri nor Illinois. As a result, the island quickly became a hub for illegal activities and transactions. The island hosted everything from boxing matches to cockfights, but what makes the island so infamous and gave it the moniker, Bloody Island, were the numerous duels that took place there.

The practice of dueling was often seen as a means for individuals to settle disputes of honor. If someone felt offended or slighted, they would issue a challenge. If the challenge was accepted, the party being challenged would determine the duel's parameters, including location, time, weapons, and distance in the case of firearm use. The dueling participants, accompanied by witnesses and often a medical professional, would convene at the designated location. They would then engage in the duel according to the agreed-upon rules, with the confrontation continuing until one or both parties were either deceased or their honor was deemed satisfied.

Like many early American customs, the tradition originally began in Europe and was imported to the New World in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Much like its European counterpart, dueling in America became intricately linked with a comprehensive code of honor that delineated the expected behavior for aristocrats and gentlemen. Adherence to this code, which included the observance of dueling etiquette, was pivotal for individuals seeking to attain and uphold their status within the predominant social class.

Dueling became illegal in both Missouri and Illinois in the early 1800s, making the unregulated and neutral ground of Bloody Island attractive to those who wanted to settle their differences by shooting each other at close range.

The first recorded duel took place in late December 1810, between attorney James Graham and Dr. Bernard G. Farrar, the first American physician to practice west of the Mississippi. The dispute arose when Graham accused a friend of Dr. Farrar of cheating at cards, prompting the physician to step forward in defense of his friend's honor. The encounter left Graham severely wounded, and he succumbed to his wounds.

The notoriety of Bloody Island as a venue for deadly duels continued with a particularly infamous confrontation on August 12, 1817, involving two prominent St. Louis attorneys, Thomas Hart Benton and Charles Lucas. The duel was ignited by a bitter land dispute between the two men, characterized by heated accusations and insults. The escalating tension led Lucas to challenge Benton to a duel, and the stage was set on Bloody Island at the break of dawn.

As the duel commenced, Benton fired the first shot, striking Lucas in the throat. In response, Lucas's shot merely grazed Benton's knee. However, when Lucas was unable to stand for a second round, the duel was temporarily halted. Despite pleas from friends urging reconciliation, both men remained steadfast, and several weeks later, Lucas had recovered sufficiently to arrange a rematch. On the morning of September 27, in the second duel, Benton aimed with deadly accuracy, shooting his rival through the heart. Lucas succumbed within minutes, marking the tragic end of their feud.

Benton later became a United States senator for Missouri and served 30 years, from 1821-51, becoming the first senator to serve five terms.

Another notable duel on Bloody Island took place on June 30, 1823 between Joshua Barton, U.S. District attorney, and General William Rector, U.S. surveyor of Illinois, Missouri. Barton had accused Rector of corruption in office, prompting Rector to challenge Barton for a duel, which he promptly accepted. Both combatants met on Bloody Island, and Barton was slain at the first exchange.

One of the most famous duels to occur on Bloody Island was between Major Thomas Biddle, a distinguished War of 1812 veteran, and U.S. Representative Spencer Pettis. Pettis, a staunch Jacksonian Democrat, challenged Biddle, brother of banker Nicholas Biddle, because Biddle had publicly humiliated Pettis. They met on August 26, 1831, on Bloody Island, and because Biddle was nearsighted, they chose a dueling distance of only five feet. Biddle thought that such a close distance would convince Pettis not to go through with the duel, but Pettis was undeterred. They fired at five feet, and both were killed.

Bloody Island continued to grow throughout 1830, forming a wedge in the Mississippi which threatened to ruin the harbor at St. Louis. The river's current was steadily depositing silt on the Missouri side while deepening the Illinois side, creating shoals downstream from the island and jeopardizing river commerce in St. Louis. In 1837 Capt. Robert E. Lee, of U.S. Army Engineers, devised and established two dykes, one diverting the current from the Illinois shore past Bloody Island, and the other directing the water toward Duncan's Island. As time passed, Duncan's Island and the shoals below St. Louis disappeared and Bloody Island was gradually joined to the Illinois shore, becoming a section of the mainland.

Despite no longer being an island, duels between men continued to take place on the infamous tract of land.

On August 26, 1856, Benjamin Gratz Brown, editor of The Daily Missouri Democrat, and Thomas Caute Reynolds, a U.S. attorney in St. Louis, met on Bloody Island to settle their years-long bitter political dispute. Brown was shot in the leg and limped for the rest of his life. Reynolds emerged unhurt. Brown would went on to become the Governor of Missouri in 1870. Reynolds, on the other hand, became Confederate governor of Missouri in 1862.

The match, which came to be known as the “Duel of the Governors,” was the last known duel on Bloody Island.

# The Forgotten History of Bloody Island, MBU Timeline
# History of Bloody Island and its Duels,
# Death And Honor on Bloody Island, HistoryNet
# Crack of the Pistol: Dueling in 19th Century Missouri, Missouri Digital Heritage


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