J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, June 25, 2016

The First Fatal Duel on Boston Common

In 1719 Massachusetts enacted a law against dueling, establishing the punishment as a fine of up to £100, imprisonment for up to six months, and/or corporal punishment “not extending to member or pillory.” (I think “member” refers to cutting off body parts, such as ears.)

Given all the things that the Puritans forbade, it may seem odd that they never took a stand against dueling. The fathers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony probably had more important things on their mind. Only after 1692 when Massachusetts became a province with a royally appointed governor, bringing other Anglican aristocrats and merchant adventurers, did the practice of dueling become a concern.

At the Old North Church’s blog, Mark Hurwitz just told the story of the province’s first fatal duel, nine years after this law went onto the books.
In July of 1728, Henry [Phillips] and Benjamin Woodbridge drank and played cards at the Royal Exchange Tavern on the corner of State and Exchange Street. The card game turned into an argument, which led to a challenge to a duel with swords at Boston Common that same night. According to Henry, troubles between the two had been growing for some time and according to him, a friend of Woodbridge’s encouraged him to challenge Henry to a duel with swords.

Henry suffered minor wounds to his abdomen and fled Boston Common after wounding Woodbridge in the chest. Henry sought out the medical attention of Dr. [George] Pemberton who dressed his wounds. As he was being treated for his wounds, he confessed to participating in an illegal duel and wounding Woodbridge. He brought Dr. Pemberton to Boston Common and the both of them were unable to locate Woodbridge. He was found dead the next day. It is believed that Woodbridge had sought shelter several yards away under a tree when it began to rain, and thus he expired there.

Because dueling was illegal in Massachusetts, Henry’s friends and family helped to smuggle him out of town aboard a ship departing for England that evening. Several weeks later, Henry reached London and went on to La Rochelle, France where his brother’s brother-in-law, Peter Faneuil, had family, and they agreed to take him in.
Woodbridge was a “pretty young man,” according to a diarist. Only nineteen years old, thus below the age of majority, he was nonetheless a “young gentleman-merchant,” according to the New-England Weekly Journal. His father was an Admiralty court judge in Barbados.

Phillips was also fairly young, twenty-three years old. A Harvard graduate, he had joined his older brother’s bookselling and mercantile business. They were Anglicans, but also Boston natives.

Reportedly Phillips and Woodbridge were friends before their duel. Some contemporaries blamed another man for pitting them against each other. Traditionalists blamed the new bad habits coming from England.

The Massachusetts General Court passed a new law that increased the punishments for dueling. Among the new provisions, anyone killed in a duel or convicted of killing another was denied church burial.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

If duelling was legal today I think you would have to book your space on the green ! Or perhaps there would be special areas built by the local authority .... I do wish it was legal I could keep my smallswords ready.