Bloody Island: "Field of Honor"

January 10, 2018

 

 Bloody Island, just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, became a permanent part of the Illinois shore when the Army Corps of Engineers pushed it back out of the Mississippi using dams and dikes in the 1830s. A mile long and about 500 yards wide, it was once the site for illegal bare fist boxing and the peculiar British tradition of dueling, a means for the two states prominent citizens to settle their scores.

 

In the 1800s, dueling was one visible manifestation of upper class decorum. Unlike the South, Missouri duels were less theatrical and more lethal. According to the rewritten Irish rules to dueling, or the “code duello”, the challengee got to decide the specifics of the duel, including distance and weaponry. Participants, or “principals”, were each accompanied by a second (responsible for attempting to resolve the conflict, and if not successful, loading the pistols), a surgeon and a mutual friend of the foes.

 

Surely there have been many more duels fought at this site that did not receive press, but the ones that were heavily reported on in St. Louis, even making national headlines, give us an insight into this dangerous form of deadly retribution.

 

 



What is thought to have been the town's first duel was in 1810 between attorney James A. Graham and lieutenant John Campbell friend of Dr. Bernard G. Farrar, who went to deliver the message.

 

However, Graham did not accept the challenge, because he said Campbell was not a gentleman. Farrar took that as a personal insult saying, "I am never the friend of a man (on a point of honor) who is not a gentleman," and challenged Graham himself.

 

They met there, along the Mississippi River sandbar, on what would soon become the infamous "Bloody Island". Graham was severely wounded and eventually died from his injuries.

 

Sometimes dueling occurred amongst friends.

 

Harriet Kennerly Radford Clark, second wife of Governor William Clark, wrote to her son of a duel between Captain Harrison and Dr. Reynolds one morning on the island. "He shot first and Randolph's pistol flashed. Randolph's then flashed a second time and Harrison refused to fire." They made up and became friends afterwards.

 

A similar event occurred between dueling president, Abraham Lincoln, and his opponent.

 

Well-educated and wealthy John Smith T (the added "T" so he would not be confused with any other "John Smith") from Kentucky (what the "T" stands for) escaped as victor over at least 14 times during his career. 

 

Nonetheless, oftentimes many prominent families were left with a missing piece of their legacies. Mrs. Clark also gossiped to her son about the Biddle-Pettis duel:

 

"Mrs. Biddle is the Sole Aire & Adminestratix & finds she can live & Sustain hir loss."

 

 

For some reason, the ruthless men of St. Louis' past decided to settle disputes with their arms, rather than their fists. 

 

 

After the Benton-Lucas duel the land became well-known as "Bloody Island."

 

 

 

In 1838, the Army Corps of Engineers finally married lawless Bloody Island to the Illinois shore for good. The mile long and about 500 yard wide Bloody Island, just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, became a permanent part of the Illinois shore when it was pushed back out of the Mississippi using dams and dikes. 

 

But that didn't stop dueling in the area. In 1842, a small island near Alton known as Sunflower Island (later known as Smallpox Island), became famous for the location of Abraham Lincoln's "almost duel" with James Shields. Fortunately, the two men came to their senses prior to any blood being shed. 

 

 

 

 

 

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