Dueling, a trend that emerged in the middle ages as a way to settle disputes among European nobility, persisted among members of the American press, particularly in the South, long after the practice came to be regarded as barbaric to most Americans. The rules for dueling were laid out in 1777, in an Irish document called the “Code Duello”. In 1838, South Carolina Governor John Lyde Wilson wrote The Southern Code of Honor, which was very similar to the Irish code although Wilson claimed not to have seen a copy until after writing his own code. In the North, dueling was already out of fashion around the time of Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr’s famous meeting in 1804. This was not the case in the South, where the practice would not see a decline in popularity until the Civil War. To refuse a duel in the South meant suffering a “posting”, a public notice accusing the refuser of cowardice and other shaming offenses.
19th century newspapers were often aligned with a particular political party, sometimes naming themselves for the party such as the Richmond Whig, the paper edited by William Elam which found itself the target of editorial attacks lobbed by Richard Beirne. Beirne, stalwart Funder and vitriolic editor of the State, was embarrassed by a dueling blunder and determined to prove his courage on the “field of honor”. He aimed an editorial loaded with a racial epithet and charges of corruption at “Mahone-ites” and Colonel Elam in 1883. Elam, equally vitriolic editor of the Whig, secretary of the State Readjuster Committee, and no stranger to dueling himself, responded to Beirne’s editorial by hurling accusations of “lies” and “cowardice”, typical of a challenge to duel.
Even though dueling was certainly waning in the South by this point, it was inevitable to the two men that they would settle the score by firing pistols at one another. The editors negotiated arrangements through their “seconds”, friends selected according to the “code” to encourage mediation and to maintain a cool temper. Elam, 20 years older than Beirne, insisted upon firing at eight paces instead of ten to accommodate his failing eyesight. A police officer in disguise arrived on horseback to arrest the men but everyone on the field scattered and Beirne and Elam went into hiding, though both still determined to defend their honor.
It is worth mentioning here that dueling was actually illegal, and had been for quite some time. A duel resulting in death could mean a murder conviction for the shooter, and one could be barred from seeking political office for their involvement in a duel.
The story was already something of a sensational news item in papers around the country because of the oddity that the honor ritual had become, so the fact that the antagonists were now fugitives bound to fight to the death over an editorial flame war must have been very titillating to the news reading public of 1883.
Dramatic headlines ran in the Washington Post that told the day by day of the epic duel in almost real time (Warning! Spoilers ahead):
BENT ON HAVING BLOOD.: SANGUINARY EDITORS PREPARING TO MEET IN MORTAL COMBAT. Richmond Ages over an affair of honor between Messrs. Beirne and Elam — Both gentleman not to be found (June 22, 1883)
THE DUELISTS ARRESTED.: An Officer Appears While the Seconds Are Wrangling About the Pistols. (June 23, 1883)
BLOODTHIRSTY EDITORS.: The Duelists Again at Large Trying to Arrange Another Meeting.
(June 24, 1883)
NOW FOR THE FIGHT!: The Seconds of Beirne and Elam Again Complete Arrangements
(June 26, 1883)
DETAILS OF THE AFFAIR.: Journeying Hundreds of Miles in Carriages in Order to Elude Arrest. (July 1, 1883)
COLTS AT EIGHT PACES.: ELAM AND BEIRNE MEET AND THE FORMER IS WOUNDED. Shot in the Thigh the Second Round–the Wound Serious–Elam Lying at Waynesboro and Beirne in Baltimore ( July 1, 1883)
ELAM DOING WELL.: Further Particulars of a Most Remarkable Affair of Honor. (July 2, 1883)
MR. ELAM’S CONDITION.: The Reports of Its Seriousness Exaggerated — Beirne’s Movements.
(July 3, 1883)
THE BEIRNE-ELAM AFFAIR.: The Better Class of Virginians Not in Favor of Dueling. (July 19, 1883)
News of the Beirne-Elam duel reached coast to coast:
Some papers were not so amused by the blood-lust. Take the Daily Globe in St. Paul, Minnesota for instance:
And in the Columbian in Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania:
“The pistol seems to be mightier than the pen in Virginia. It remains to be seen now whether the law is mightier than the pistol. In this enlightened age it is high time that the resort to “the code” be abandoned.”
It was front page news in Lancaster, Pennsylvania:
Salt Lake City apparently sought regular updates of the conflict, registering their disapproval with lines like “chivalric idiots” and “details of the disgusting affair”:
So there you have it. William Elam was hit in the thigh by Richard Beirne’s bullet. Beirne “won” and Elam recovered, and never dueled again.
Perhaps the appeal of dueling flagged because of the increasing accuracy of firearms in the 19th century. Simply put, it kept getting easier to kill and be killed. It was less likely, though obviously still possible, to die in a duel with the old flintlocks, the favored weapons of duelers and the same used by Hamilton and Burr, which were inaccurate even for very experienced marksmen. Consider the weapons chosen in the late duel between editors Elam and Beirne, however; in 1883, Col. Elam insisted upon Navy revolvers and a relatively short distance of 8 paces to compensate for his age and nearsightedness. The duel these men were so bent on fighting was about drawing blood on the so-called “field of honor”; they revealed no interest in settling the score any other way.
Though dueling didn’t end that day with a bullet in Col. Elam’s thigh, it certainly tapered off after that, finally coming to a close with Richmond Times editor Joseph Bryan’s very public and elegant refusal of a challenge to a duel and resulting arrest of riled Richmond Democrat, Jefferson Wallace, in 1893–ten years after the “last duel”.
Pistols & Pointed Pens by Virginius Dabney
Pistols, Politics and the Press: dueling in 19th century American journalism By Ryan Chamberlain