“Charles Town is the fountainhead from which all violence flows,” the royal governor Lord William Campbell wrote in a letter in 1775. He was referring to rebellious colonists at the time, but he might as well have been speaking about the fashionable emergence of dueling. The practice claimed the lives, limbs, and livelihoods of many honor-bound Holy City residents from the city’s founding until 1880, when the state legislature passed its first enforceable anti-dueling laws.
J. Grahame Long, curator of history at the Charleston Museum and author of the book Dueling in Charleston: Violence Refined in the Holy City, first became interested in old Charleston’s bloody tradition back in 2000 while re-cataloging the museum’s gun collection. His eyes kept drifting back to the ornate dueling pistols, sold in identical pairs to gentlemen of means for the purpose of settling perceived offenses. As he delved into historical records and newspaper archives, he came to realize that few American cities could rival Charleston for the frequency and lethality of its formal gun battles.
Dueling was never legal, but it was regulated by a series of dueling codes, including one that was penned by former S.C. governor John Lyde Wilson in 1838. Not only were there rules about the exchange of pistol fire, but Wilson’s code detailed the sometimes months-long lead-up to the duel, from the publication of insults to the selection of intermediaries to the selection of a proper venue.
Long writes in his book that dueling became so widely accepted in Charleston — despite the objections of clergy, who delivered fiery sermons against the practice at dueling victims’ funerals — that “there slowly emerged a half-baked addiction to it.” Long found instances of men challenging each other to gun duels over the outcome of a sailboat race or the last piece of fish in a college dining hall. Sound crazy? Maybe. But that’s Charleston for you.