It’s not that hard to imagine, really: Two politicians lock horns. They start lobbing insults at each other in press releases, passive-aggressive tweets, and cable news interviews. Words like “socialist” and “racist” get thrown around. Then they go out in a field and shoot guns at each other.
South Carolina banned dueling in 1880, putting an end to a time-honored tradition in which dandy gentlemen drew matching pistols and launched hot lead into each other’s bodies. The practice often resulted in amputations, quick deaths, or long painful deaths from untreated gangrene. But what if the Palmetto State had never banned dueling?
Grahame Long, curator of history at the Charleston Museum, says dueling would probably look the same today as it did in the 19th century.
“Folks here still hold to their heritages, whatever those may be, and hold to their traditions,” Long says. “I don’t think it would look a heck of a lot different … I think they’d still be doing it in secluded places and trying their best to keep it a private matter.”
Long is the author of Dueling in Charleston: Violence Refined in the Holy City, and he also oversees the Charleston Museum’s extensive collection of dueling pistols and paraphernalia. While it’s safe to call dueling an obsession for Long, his book stops just shy of romanticizing the old deadly dance. And while old-time duels were sometimes bloodless thanks to the unreliable, inaccurate flintlock pistols they used, Long says modern-day duels might be more lethal thanks to advances in weapon technology. Imagine the bloodbaths that would ensue when duelers face off carrying Glocks.
“While medical care has done a good job, I still think the weapons would outpace whatever medical care would be needed,” Long says.
In 19th-century Charleston, duels were called when one man questioned another’s honor. The fight could start over the disputed outcome of a sailboat race or an exchange of hateful words between friends. Whatever the offense, there was usually a lengthy process before the gunplay began. Intermediaries exchanged messages. Grievances were aired publicly, insults were posted on signposts, and the time and location of the duel were fretted over for months in some cases.
“I think you have to find somebody who’s willing to see things through to the end,” Long says. “I think you have to look for the real stubborn ones, the ones that just don’t come off their point of view, the ones that don’t compromise … The ones who just will not back down are the most dangerous.”
In other words, Long says, today’s politicians would be ideally suited to dueling, if it was still legal. For example, when Congressman Joe Wilson pointed at President Obama and shouted “You lie!” in his infamous 2009 breach of decorum during discussion of the Affordable Care Act, a duel would not have been far off under the old dueller’s code.
“That would be unheard of. You would really be taken to task,” Long says. “If that had happened in the 1850s, there’s no telling what would have happened.”
Here’s a fun what-if game: Imagine local political rivals shooting at each other
The City Papertook the liberty of imagining a few modern-day duels. Note: This is also a fun mental game to play during family feuds as the holidays heat up.
Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. vs. David Farrow
The Offense: The mayor of Charleston has a long history of political run-ins with David Farrow. A former reporter, Farrow spent years sticking Riley with barbs and bon mots, most of which went unanswered. The stakes were raised in 2011 when the two faced off in a mayoral election. Farrow said in interviews that Riley was a “statist” who ruled with “an iron fist,” and when Riley held a press conference to call out an anonymous group of critics for their lack of transparency, Farrow could be seen in the crowd grousing, “Has he no sense of irony?”
The Outcome: After a lengthy back-and-forth, the combatants agree to meet at midnight on the deck of a Carnival cruise ship docked in the Charleston harbor. Distracted by a crowd of protesters who gathered to demand onshore power for the duel’s overhead lighting, both fire and miss.
County Councilwoman Anna Johnson
vs. Angry Johns Islander
The Offense: Charleston County Council member Anna Johnson was the swing vote in Council’s December 2012 decision to move forward with a controversial extension of I-526 across rural James and Johns islands. Johnson ran for Council in 2010 on a platform that included opposition to 526, and her change of opinion earned the ire of some of her constituents. “I’m here to look at the entire county — not just your house, not just your yard, not just your tree,” Johnson said at the meeting.
The Outcome: A Johns Island resident can be heard calling “bullshit” during the 2012 County Council debates, causing Chairman Teddie Pryor to bang his gavel for order. Johnson exchanges words with the outspoken constituent after the meeting, and they agree to duel in the middle of protected wetlands on Johns Island. They meet in the field of battle at high tide and are both swallowed alive by pluff mud.
Larry Carter Center vs. William Gasque
The Offense: On a Saturday morning in January 2013, near the 40th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision, prominent liberal activist and occasional Green Party candidate Larry Carter Center allegedly drove his car through the parking lot of a West Ashley women’s clinic and struck 81-year-old anti-abortion protester William Gasque in the knee with his bumper. A fellow pro-lifer documented the incident in a YouTube video, and the cameraman can be heard saying “Oh, yes” multiple times as he catches it all on tape.
The Outcome: After Gasque files a police report and calls Center “a problem child” in the press (this really happened), Center demands a duel in the woods off of Highway 61. Gasque initially agrees to the terms of the duel, but when they arrive to do battle, Center sits down in nonviolent protest and Gasque, a churchgoer, remembers that he has been commanded to love his enemies. A pacifist cameraman records the incident and can be heard saying “Oh, yes” as disaster is averted.