BLOODY TIMES WITH WASHINGTON POLITICIANS
On March 22, 1820, the still young United States lost one of its greatest heroes – naval commander and legend of the Barbary Wars, Stephen Decatur. His life was not lost in battle, though, he was shot to death in a duel just outside of Washington, D.C. – the bullet fired by a bitter fellow naval officer named James Barron.
This was not the first time – or the last – that lives were cut short on Washington’s dueling grounds, or even in the halls of Congress.
Hamilton and Burr
The idea of a politician having a murderous streak must have begun with Alexander Hamilton. Even before his fateful duel with Aaron Burr, this member of the contingent of Founding Fathers had a penchant for bickering with just about everyone. He despised John Adams and actively disliked Thomas Jefferson and James Madison but his hatred for Aaron Burr bordered on pathological. Although Hamilton and Burr maintained a superficial relationship, Hamilton seemed bent on destroying his “friend” politically from the time Burr was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1791, if not before that.
No one knows what originally caused the rift between Hamilton and Burr, although Hamilton always maintained that it was purely political. Others have suggested that a romantic rivalry may have existed between them, with both men competing for the same woman. It should be noted that Hamilton and Burr were both unapologetic adulterers. Hamilton even had an affair with his own sister-in-law and was forced to make a public account of another affair with a woman named Maria Reynolds.
Whatever the cause of Hamilton’s hatred, he criticized Burr relentlessly. He was particularly cruel during the election of 1800, when Burr was running for president. (He lost by a handful of votes to Thomas Jefferson in one of the most contested presidential elections in history and, coming in second, became vice president).
For years, Burr ignored Hamilton’s writings and caustic jibes but that changed in 1804, when Burr was running for governor of New York. He suffered an embarrassing loss, mostly due to Hamilton’s efforts against him. During the campaign, a letter appeared in a newspaper that was unfriendly to Burr. Although it was not written by Hamilton, the letter noted, among other things, that Burr was “a dangerous man… who ought not to be trusted.” When the letter writer, Dr. Charles D. Cooper, was challenged on this statement, he defended his position and stated: “I could detail to you a still more despicable opinion which General Hamilton has expressed of Mr. Burr.”
No one has ever learned what this “still more despicable opinion” that Hamilton may have expressed but some have ventured that he accused Burr of incest with his daughter. Whatever it might have been, Burr decided that it needed clarification and he demanded that Hamilton provide it. Hamilton was evasive in his replies and refused to state what he allegedly told Dr. Cooper. More letters were exchanged between the two men, growing more heated with each passing day. Finally, their animosity led to what has become one of the most famous duels in American history.
On the hot morning of July 11, 1804, Aaron Burr, vice president of the United States, and Alexander Hamilton, one of the country’s most eminent statesmen, faced one another with pistols on a stretch of land overlooking the Hudson River in Weehawken, New Jersey. Each man was seeking to kill or maim the other in what was referred to as “the court of last resort.”
Hamilton had spent the previous evening preparing for his possible death at the hands of a superior marksman. He settled his affairs and penned letters that stated that he had no personal animosity toward Burr, only political. He concluded his letter: “I shall hazard much and can possibly gain nothing.” This sentiment did not stop him from going to the field of honor, with gun in hand, the following day.
Perfect decorum was displayed at Weehawken. When Burr and his second saw Hamilton approaching the field with his own second, they stood straight, removed their hats and saluted in a gentlemanly manner. The seconds made the arrangements, measuring the distance between the combatants and carefully loaded the pistols. Then, Burr and Hamilton took their assigned places. At the moment of truth, Burr pulled the trigger. Hamilton lurched upward, spun to the left, and fell on his face. When he hit the earth, his finger convulsively jerked the trigger and his pistol discharged into the air. The bullet clipped off a tree branch high over Burr’s head.
While Hamilton bled into the earth (he died the following day), Burr was taken away from the site. He had survived the encounter and received the satisfaction that he sought. He paid the price for that satisfaction, however. He soon faced murder indictments in New York and New Jersey and faced the scorn of the nation, horrified by Hamilton’s demise. Burr’s political career was ruined, giving Hamilton in death what he had tried so hard to accomplish during his life.
The Code Duello
It comes as a surprise to many modern readers that eminent politicians like Burr and Hamilton would engage in such a bloody business, but their duel was hardly an isolated event. Deadly duels were frequently fought throughout the country – from before America’s independence to well after the Civil War – by some of our most esteemed citizens. Future presidents, members of Congress, judges, governors and generals often found themselves on the field of honor, settling real and imagined attacks on their dignity. Both Burr and Hamilton had been involved in other duels, as had many politicians close to them. On one occasion, Hamilton had nearly dueled with future president James Monroe but (ironically), Aaron Burr stepped in and helped to settle the situation.
Dueling began in medieval Europe and became popular over the centuries, especially in Ireland, where it became a sport as well as a means of settling disputes. The Code Duello, developed there in 1777, became a set of rules that covered nearly every American duel and contained a list of provisions for all aspects of civilized combat. It outlined the exact number of steps to be measured between combatants, rules about cowardice, proper behavior and more.
Across the country, Americans enthusiastically killed one another with style and nowhere was this more true than at the Bladensburg Dueling Ground. This place, located just over the Maryland border from Washington, became known as “The Dark and Bloody Grounds.” There were more than 50 duels fought here during the first half of the nineteenth century but perhaps the most famous involved naval hero Stephen Decatur. The conqueror of the Barbary pirates was at the height of his national popularity when he was shot to death by a bitter fellow officer, James Barron, in 1820.
Barron’s hatred of Decatur stretched back more than 13 years. Barron had been in command of the frigate Chesapeake when it encountered the British ship Leopold off the coast of Virginia. Britain was then in the habit of boarding American ships and kidnapping sailors, claiming that they were British citizens. Barron’s ship was so unprepared for defense that he decided to pull down his colors, submit his vessel to be searched and allow several of his men to be taken. All of this occurred without the firing of a single cannon! The encounter outraged America and became one of the events that led to the start of the War of 1812.
Barron was court-martialed and suspended from service after a humiliating process that was presided over by Stephen Decatur. Over the course of the next several years, many lengthy and venomous letters were exchanged between the two men. After much arguing, Barron issued a challenge to Decatur that the two men meet on the field of honor. It seemed a one-sided battle. Decatur was known as an expert marksman and Barron was extremely near-sighted, a troublesome handicap when dueling. Pistols at eight paces were agreed upon with the additional provision, in deference to Barron’s eyesight, that each man would take deliberate aim at the other before the count.
Barron, Decatur and their seconds met at the Bladensburg Dueling Ground on the morning of March 22, 1820. After they had taken up their positions, Barron spoke to Decatur: “Sir, I hope on meeting in the next world, we shall be better friends than in this.” Decatur, who had told friends that he only intended to wound Barron, replied: “I have never been your enemy, sir.”
After the call, shots rang out in single thunderous noise and both men fell, crumpling to the ground at almost the same time. Each of them believed that he was dying and lying in pools of blood, only a few feet away from one another, they both spoke to each other. Stephen Decatur said: “I am mortally wounded; at least I believe so. I wish that I had fallen in the service of my country.” Making his peace, Barron begged for forgiveness. Decatur forgave him but “not those who have stimulated you to seek my life.”
The two men were carried from the field. Decatur was returned to his Washington home and he died from his injury later on that night. Barron, however, survived the duel but he had little reason to celebrate. Like Aaron Burr, he lived to face the anger of a country that was grieving over its fallen hero.
The earth of the Bladensburg Dueling Grounds tasted more than its share of blood. A year before the duel between Barron and Decatur, another fatal battle took place between General Armistead T. Mason, a former senator from Virginia, and his cousin, Colonel John M. M’Carty. Mason had questioned M’Carty’s right to vote at the polls in Leesburg, Virginia, an insult that so enraged the other man that he immediately challenged Mason to a duel. However, his challenge set the terms and conditions for the fight, which went against the Code Duello. The code specifically stated that only the challenged party had the right to place conditions on the fight. On that note, Mason declined but informed his cousin that he would gladly accept if a proper dueling offer was extended.
M’Carty ignored him and painted Mason as a coward. Mason now challenged M’Carty but he was dismissed due to his earlier refusal to fight. Although seething with anger, Mason took the advice of friends and let the matter drop --- until a future U.S. president convinced him to take the matter up again.
Andrew Jackson, a man who had spilled blood in many duels, bluntly told Mason that he needed to challenge M’Carty again. Inspired by the man they called Old Hickory, Mason wrote a note to M’Carty and informed him that he had resigned his commission in order to be free to challenge and fight a duel. He dispatched his second with the note and offered Mason any distance and any weapons that he chose could be used in the duel. Once again, M’Carty refused, citing Mason’s original cowardice. It was only when Mason’s second threatened to slap him that M’Carty reluctantly agreed to the battle.
Whether he was inspired by Mason’s determination for bloodshed, of afraid of it, M’Carty proposed that they settled their differences once and for all by jumping off the dome of the U.S. Capitol. Mason’s second rejected this as a violation of the code (and obviously insane) and then M’Carty proposed that they blow themselves up with a gunpowder keg. Finally, he withdrew his ridiculous suggested and accepted a fight with muskets, charged with buckshot, at a distance of 10 feet. Mason’s second, based on his friend’s instructions of any distance and any weapon, was forced to accept. It was bound to be suicide for both men but, thanks to a friend, the conditions were modified to 12 feet with a single ball.
The two cousins met at the Bladensburg Dueling Grounds on the morning of February 6, 1819. Even though the grounds were blanketed with snow, M’Carty stripped to his shirt and rolled up his sleeves. Mason stood watching him in a heavy overcoat. They were presented with their weapons and warned not to fire before the count of three. With the muzzles of their weapons almost touching, the men fired at the same time. Mason fell dead, his aim apparently thrown off by his heavy coat. M’Carty’s shoulder was shattered as Mason’s ball entered his wrist and tore a path through his arm. He survived the duel but he lost the ability to use his right arm. In the years that followed, he never forgot that horrific, blood-soaked morning and he eventually lost his mind.
In spite of all of this, though, the seconds who were present that day were able to report that “the affair, although fatally, was honorably terminated.”
Those same words could not be used to describe the pathetic 1836 duel that took place between two congressmen, Jesse Bynum of North Carolina and Daniel Jenifer of Maryland. Jenifer had denounced in the House what he felt was the poor course of President Jackson’s party, which caused Bynum to leap to his feet and declare that it was ungentlemanly of Jenifer to say such words. Jenifer insisted that Bynum take back his words but the other man refused. Minutes later, they were on their way to the Bladensburg Dueling Grounds, with fellow congressmen serving as seconds and witnesses.
Both men stood on the field, 10 feet apart, and each boasted of what a fearsome marksman that he was. The first shots were fired but neither man was hit. The pistols were re-loaded three more times but after the fourth volley of shots, both men were still standing, unscathed.
Before the sixth shot, Bynum’s pistol discharged, probably accidentally, and one of Jenifer’s seconds prepared to shoot the man. This was a rigid rule in the Code Duello, stating that if a man fired early, his opponent’s seconds had the right to shoot him down. But Jenifer ordered the man not to shoot, and he took aim himself, fired – missed again! After six missed shots, the duel was, mercifully, called a draw.
More and more blood continued to be spilled on the Bladensburg Dueling Grounds and public concern began to rise about the continuation of this legalized murder. Unfortunately, Maryland laws did not apply to the residents of Washington, so even if a law was passed to prohibit duels at Bladensburg, it would have any effect on those who used the grounds with the most frequency. Then, finally, in 1838, an incident occurred that caused such a public outcry that Congress was forced to act.
A popular congressman from Maine named Jonathan Cilley was shot to death by another congressman, William Graves from Kentucky. Graves had been a stand-in for a New York newspaper editor named James W. Webb. Cilley had accused Webb of corruption and Graves, a close friend of the editor, took exception to the accusation.
Graves, knowing weapons quite well, challenged the inexperienced Cilley to a duel. Cilley believed the whole thing foolish and never expected the duel to actually take place. But on the morning of the duel, he found himself at Bladensburg with a rifle in his hand. The two men took up positions 80 yards apart and both fired, but no one was struck.
The shots were repeated and still, no one was hit. The seconds reached an agreement that each man would receive one final round. If no one was hit this time, the duel would be declared a draw. The agreement proved fatal for Cilley. His leg was shot out from under him, cutting away an artery and he died in a matter of seconds on the cold ground.
This fatal encounter caused a national uproar. The fallen congressman was young and left a wife and three small children behind. In the minds of many, Graves had killed him in cold blood. Newspapers called the duel “horrid and harrowing” and even former President Andrew Jackson, who had seen more than his fair share of blood and dueling, stated: “I cannot write on the murderous death of poor Cilley. If Congress does not do something to wipe out the state of the blood of murdered Cilley from its walls, it will raise a flame in the public mind against it, not easily to be quenched. Cilley was sacrificed.”
And Jackson was right, public outcry was strong after Cilley’s funeral and it forced lawmakers to do something to appease it. The next session of Congress was forced to make dueling, or accepting or making a challenge, a criminal offense.
The law appeased the public, but it did not bring an end to the dueling. The challenges were declared in secret and the duelists met in at Bladensburg under the cover of darkness for many years after dueling was declared illegal. It would not be until the Civil War before the "sport" of dueling would die out completely.
The Blood-Stained Halls of Congress
The first recorded physical clash between congressmen started over spit. In 1798, Representative Matthew Lyon of Vermont ran across the floor of the House and spit into the face of Connecticut’s Roger Griswold. He did so because the Connecticut man had made fun of his Revolutionary War record. A resolution to expel “Spitting Lyon” didn’t pass, but Griswold managed to get his own revenge.
Two weeks later, Griswold walked over to where Lyon was sitting and struck him over the head with a large hickory cane. Stunned and bleeding, Lyon managed to get to his feet, grabbed some fire tongs and began swinging back at his attacker. They tumbled on the floor, swung, scratched and pummeled one another for a few minutes before this undignified melee could be broken up. The two men signed a pledge the next day, promising not to commit any act of violence toward one another again.
This battle ended peacefully but there is no denying that a precedent had been set.
The practice of dueling eventually fell from favor as means of settling disputes (and became illegal after Congressman Graves killed fellow legislator Jonathan Cilley in 1838) but the U.S. Capitol still remained a very violent place. This was especially true during the years leading up to the Civil War, when differences over slavery and state’s rights intensified to a dangerous level. Legislation was sometimes ended for the day over what amounted to nothing more than a murderous look between exchanged between two opposing lawmakers. Congress was often described as “seething like a boiling cauldron” and it was an often stated fact that every man on the floor of both Houses was armed with a revolver. James Hammond of South Carolina added that some men carried “two revolvers and a Bowie knife.” Senator Benjamin Wade walked about with a sawed-off shotgun draped over his arm. One day, a pistol that was concealed in one House member’s desk went off, causing quite a disturbance. Representative William Holman of Indiana, who was present that day, recalled that after the weapon discharged: “There were fully 30 or 40 pistols in the air.”
Without a doubt, the most disturbing incident from those troubled times was the brutal beating of Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner. On May 19, 1856, the ardent abolitionist delivered his famous “Crimes Against Kansas” speech, in which he harshly criticized the efforts of Southerners to force slavery into the territory. Sumner’s speech was overwrought with fiery rhetoric and took a number of sharp digs at Andrew Pickens Butler, a pro-slavery senator from South Carolina. At one point in the speech, Sumner referred to Butler as one of slavery’s “maddest zealots.” He also went on to refer to slavery as Butler’s “harlot”, which was “polluted in the sight of the world, is chaste in his sight.”
Butler would have been angry, and even justified in striking Sumner, if he had been present in the Senate chamber to hear the speech. He had not heard it but a relative and fellow Carolina representative, Preston S. Brooks, was there and he was enraged over Sumner’s insults.
Three days later, Brooks quietly entered the Senate chamber and found Sumner working at his desk. He cleared his throat and when he had Sumner’s full attention, he announced to him: “I have read your speech twice over carefully. It is a libel on South Carolina and Mr. Butler, who is a relative of mine.”
Then, without any sort warning, Brooks produced a heavy cane and began pummeling Sumner over the head with it! He beat the man until the cane splintered and the Massachusetts man was on the floor in a pool of blood.
A newspaper illustration of the attack on Charles Sumner
People in the north reacted to the assault with horror but in the South, Brooks was hailed as a hero. Southerners sent him commemorative canes with the words “hit him again” inscribed on them. The event was later seen as an ugly foreshadowing of the Civil War to come.
Sumner’s injuries kept him out of the Senate for three years and his empty chair was displayed as a symbol for the abolitionist movement. Several weeks after the attack, a House investigation committee concluded that it was a breach of congressional privilege. The report stated that it was an aggravated assault on not only Senator Sumner, but on the right to freedom of speech itself. Debate raged in the House over whether or not to dispel Brooks, but eventually, he decided to resign on his own. But he did not stay away for long. He ran for office again and was sworn in just two weeks after his resignation.
Ironically, Brooks died five months later from liver disease. His victim, Charles Sumner, returned from his convalescence and served in the Senate until 1874.
Not all of the murderous attacks at the Capitol involved one congressman attacking another. One of them actually involved a former politician and the newspaperman who had effectively ruined his career. The congressman, William Preston Taulbee, saw his destruction in a single headline: "Kentucky's Silver-Tongued Taulbee Caught in Flagrante, or Thereabouts, with Brown-Haired Miss Dodge."
The story beneath the headline was written by another Kentuckian, Charles Kincade, Washington correspondence for the Louisville Times. While the facts of the scandal are still being argued today, Taulbee chose not to run for re-election after the story had broken. Instead, he did what many other former lawmakers have done --- he became a lobbyist.
Since this career choice continued to bring Taulbee to Capitol Hill, it’s not surprising that the former congressman and the newspaper writer frequently ran into one another. Each considered the other man to be ungentlemanly and beneath contempt. Taulbee frequently insulted Kincade in the corridors of the Capitol and occasionally, would reach over and snatch the reporter’s nose or one of his ears, giving it a sharp tug. According to custom, this meant that Taulbee did not consider Kincade man enough to be worthy of fighting.
On February 28, 1890, Taulbee and Kincade met for the last time on a set of marble stairs leading up to the House of Representatives Press Gallery. Earlier that day, Taulbee had entered the House chamber and he and Kincade had exchanged insults. Taulbee could have easily overpowered the reporter, who was barely five feet tall, weighed less than 100 pounds, and was in poor health. Instead, the burly lobbyist humiliated him by tossing him around by the collar and laughing at him.
Kincade left and went home for a pistol.
Around 1:30 p.m., Taulbee and a friend went down the marble stairs for lunch in the House dining room. The staircase is in a “Y” shape – twin staircases from the second floor to a landing, with a single flight leading down from the landing to the first floor. Taulbee and his friend came down one staircase and Kincade took the other. The reporter caught up to them just below the landing.
"Can you see me now?" Kincade reportedly asked the former congressman.
As Taulbee turned toward Kincade, his friend (perhaps catching a glimpse of Kincade’s pistol) fled back up the stairs. Before Taulbee could answer the reporter’s strange query, Kincade fired. The bullet struck Taulbee in the face, just below his eye. He collapsed onto the steps, blood already pooling beneath him. Moments later, a policeman rushed to the scene and demanded to know what had happened.
Kincade was still standing on the steps, his pistol dangling from his fingers. He spoke softly to the policeman and said: “I did it.”
The former congressman was rushed from the scene and taken to Providence Hospital. He clung stubbornly to life for almost two weeks before succumbing to his wounds at the age of 39.
Kincade was tried for murder but the jury ruled that he had acted in self-defense and he was set free. He died in Cincinnati in 1906 while working as a reporter.
To this day, a stain remains on the marble stairs at the exact place where William Taulbee was shot. Legend has it that it is a stain that was left behind by the former congressman’s blood. Merely a legend? Perhaps, although some of the older guards and maintenance workers at the Capitol will tell you that no cleaning agent has ever been able to remove that stain. It endures, leaving a lasting mark on the sometimes dark history of Capitol Hill.
One strange Congressional incident did not end in death but it did include the attempted murder of a Senator, right in the Senate chamber. On May 29-30, 1908, a Wisconsin senator named Robert M. Lafollette was leading a filibuster against the Aldrich-Vreeland bill. The bill was perfectly legitimate and was designed to allow the United States currency to expand during times of panic. For some reason, Lafollette was violently opposed to it. Little did he know, however, that there were men who were just as adamant about seeing it passed.
Lafollette began his filibuster, a method used by lawmakers that allows them to talk about anything that they want to in order to prevent a vote on a bill they do not like, at 12:20 p.m. on the afternoon of May 29. Lafollette continued for hour after hour. The rule of a filibuster is that you must remain talking and you cannot leave the Senate floor. As evening approached, the senator requested “energy drinks” of milk and raw eggs to be brought to him every so often from the Senate dining room.
Robert M. Lafollette
At some point between 10:00 p.m. and 11:00 p.m., he received another of these mixtures and he began to drink it. Suddenly, his face took on a sour expression and he started to choke. He put the glass down immediately and it occurred to him that someone was trying to poison him. Lafollette was sure that one of his many enemies had decided to get rid of him. The senator had a reputation for being a man who could not be bought. So, were they trying to kill him instead?
A few minutes later, Lafollette, still leading the filibuster, began to feel nauseated. His symptoms quickly got worse. His stomach churned, his bowels roiled and shooting pains stabbed his abdomen. Although hunched over and wincing in pain, Lafollette refused to leave the Senate. Heroically, he stayed on for another half dozen hours. Finally, he surrendered at exactly 7:03 in the morning.
Lafollette had continued talking for 16 hours and 43 minutes – the longest filibuster in history at that time. Unfortunately, it was not long enough. Later on that say, the Aldrich-Vreeland bill was passed.
A short time later, a laboratory reported on the mixture that made the senator sick. According to the chemical analysis, the egg and milk drink also contained a poison called ptomaine – and there was enough in it to kill a man. Someone had tried to kill a filibuster by murdering the senator who started it. The figurative phrase that had been used up until that point, “kill a filibuster,” took on a haunting, literal meaning.