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4 Dudes Who Dueled (Some of Whom Died)

August 16, 2016

Their honor was besmirched, and they demanded satisfaction! Here are the stories of some famous folks who participated in duels (for better and for worse).
Dudes Who Dueled

Ben Jonson

A contemporary of Shakespeare and the first playwright to preserve his works for the ages by publishing them, Jonson is most famous for the plays Volpone and Every Man in His Humour. He also killed another man of the theater in a duel. The reason for the battle between Jonson and actor Gabriel Spencer is unclear, but after the two took to swords, Jonson was standing and Spencer was dead. He admitted to the crime and was arrested. After he plead “benefit of the clergy”—essentially leniency by proving his literacy was at great value to society—Jonson was spared the death penalty and served just a year in prison.

George Handel

George Handel wrote the oratorio called Messiah (or “Handel’s Messiah”) and in 1704 he fought another composer, Johann Mattheson, to the death. The backstory: It was standard in opera at the time for the opera’s director to play the harpsichord—but Handel, the X Opera’s usual harpsichord player wouldn’t let Mattheson bump him. They came to blows and literally “took it outside,” fighting in the streets and pulling swords on each other. Mattheson tried to stab Handel in the chest but his weapon struck a metal button on Handel’s coat. The near-fatal blow spooked them both, and they called off the duel.

Aaron Burr vs. Alexander Hamilton

It figures prominently in the hot Broadway musical Hamilton, but just in case you haven’t seen it (or don’t remember your high school history classes), here’s the story of the duel between sitting Vice President Aaron Burr and former Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton. Formerly friends and associates who had helped secure the U.S.’s independence from Britain and establish a new government, by 1804 Burr and Hamilton were bitter rivals from opposite political factions who had frequently tried to outmaneuver each other and badmouthed one another. (Burr had once even taken a Senate seat away from Hamilton’s father-in-law, with whom he was closely politically aligned.) Hamilton actively campaigned against Burr in his 1804 campaign to be governor of New York, a major factor in Burr’s defeat. That was the final straw, and Burr challenged Hamilton to an “affair of honor.” Hamilton was an anti-dueling advocate, ever since his own son had lost a duel defending Hamilton’s honor in 1801. Hamilton had actually planned to fire his gun into the air and resolve his dispute with Burr another way. He didn’t get the chance—Burr shot him in the stomach.

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