This story first was published in 2012.
In a wooded ravine just south of Harding Park and between the boundaries of the Olympic Club and San Francisco Golf Club stand two small stone obelisks, a carefully measured 10 paces apart. They mark the spot where a pair of combatants faced each other in what is regarded as the last notable duel to take place in the United States: a shootout in autumn 1859 that resulted in the death of a United States senator at the hand of a retired chief justice of the California Supreme Court after years of dispute about slavery and a rash of insults the two men had been hurling at each other.
A real duel. With pistols and seconds. And one man dying from a shot to the chest, just nine years after California had officially become the 31st state of the union – and mere months before America lapsed into civil war.
The senator was David C. Broderick, a man of Irish-Catholic origins who had worked as a bouncer and tavern owner in New York City before setting out for California after the great gold strike a decade prior. And the justice was David S. Terry, a Kentuckian by birth who served for a spell with the Texas Rangers and fought in the Mexican-American War before moving even further west to seek his fortune in the gold fields, too.
A crowd of some 70 people gathered around those men as they waited for the sun to rise that morning, and for the coin toss to determine the choice of the Belgian .58-caliber pistols that had been selected for the duel. Terry won the flip, and he grabbed his weapon after which Broderick took his. Shortly thereafter came the call of “Fire!”
Strange as it may seem today, duels were fairly common in 19th century America. And in Europe, too, where they had been used to settle disputes as far back as the late 1500s. Men saw them as a way of restoring honor in the face of, say, a personal insult or attack. The one who felt aggrieved issued a challenge to the one he believed had maligned him, demanding “satisfaction.” Then, it was up to that person to accept the challenge, or be dishonored.
Once a duel was agreed upon, the parties would choose their location, usually isolated spots where police were unlikely to venture (because dueling was illegal in most places). The duelists also picked the type of weapons to be used, generally swords in 17th- and 18th-century Europe and then pistols on both sides of the Atlantic in later years. Knives also were an occasional option. At the same time, the combatants named seconds. These were well-trusted friends who helped set the terms of the confrontation, for example, and checked the weapons to make sure they were fair and in proper working order.
While duels often ended with one of the men dying, it didn’t always turn out that way. If each party fired a shot, and neither hit its mark, the challenger might state that he was “satisfied,” at which point the duel could be declared over.
The duel between Broderick and Terry featured a pair of tough, accomplished men. The son of a stonemason and a voracious reader, Broderick fell into politics as a result of his work in New York, where taverns were among the places where the folks who ran the Democratic political machine, known as Tammany Hall, gathered to strategize.
So, it seemed only natural that he started to organize the local Democrat Party not long after he arrived in San Francisco in 1849. Broderick had learned the game of political patronage in New York at the feet of the master, Boss Tweed, and also had learned to like it. Soon he was doling out jobs of all sorts for Californians who honored him with their loyalty.
Locals started calling him “Chief,” and in 1857 Broderick became a U.S. senator in his adopted state. Acerbic and gruff, he was a bachelor known for his anti-slavery stance at a time when the Democratic Party was split into two very defined and contentious groups – those who supported slavery and felt it should be extended to the West, and those who believed the practice should be confined to the Southern states in which it already existed.
In time, those who held the latter view came to be known as “Broderick Democrats.” But few observers would mistake his stance as coming from social progressive beliefs. Rather, it was based on Broderick’s sense that the practice represented unfair competition to the working man for which he advocated so fervently.
Though he was also a Democrat, Terry was not at all in Broderick’s camp on slavery. A tall, strong man who always carried a Bowie knife for his protection, Terry found no fortune as a prospector when he moved to California. So, he settled in Stockton, at that point a largely lawless tent city of dirt roads through which supplies and people moving between San Francisco and the gold fields passed. He began to practice law, and in 1855, was appointed to the State Supreme Court. Two years later, Terry became chief justice of that body.
In looking back at this duel, it is important to appreciate the state of the union at the time as well as the state of affairs in and around San Francisco. The country was deeply divided by the issue of slavery as it also was expanding westward. And the City by the Bay, which had become the gateway to the gold rush, was a wild place. The city had 30,000 residents by 1856, with only a sixth of those being women, and 700 bars. Heavy drinking was rampant, personal disputes often were settled violently and San Francisco recorded more than 500 murders the first 10 months of that year.
Duels were a favorite way to handle such conflicts, and both Broderick and Terry had experience in that area. Broderick once challenged a former governor of Virginia and ardent advocate of slavery, William X. Smith, to a duel, and they faced off on a piece of land in what is now downtown Oakland. Broderick’s gun jammed at the call of “Fire!” and Smith shot him in the stomach. Fortunately for Broderick, the bullet hit a heavy gold watch in his pocket, injuring him only slightly. And the duelists determined afterward that the matter indeed had been resolved.
Not surprisingly, the showdown between Broderick and Terry arose from a dispute during the contentious California political campaign of 1859 …
As for Terry, he had been a second to a good friend in a duel in 1850 that ended inconsequentially when both gunmen missed their targets, and the challenger declared himself to be satisfied. And two years after that, Terry found himself in the role of the actual duelist, after declaring that a man who said he was a doctor was in fact a highwayman and horse thief on the run from Mexico. The two arranged a duel, but it was called off when they determined that Terry’s claim was, in fact, correct. Truth, in this case, was most definitely a defense.
Not surprisingly, the showdown between Broderick and Terry arose from a dispute during the contentious California political campaign of 1859, and the way the two rivals, who once had been friends and political allies, excoriated each other for their stands as they related primarily to slavery. The final straw came when Broderick publicly referred to Terry as a “miserable wretch.” Terry asked him to retract, but Broderick declined. So, Terry challenged Broderick to a duel and then resigned his position as chief justice of the California Supreme Court once the terms of the encounter were set.
Though he was known for being much more adept with a knife, Terry chose pistols for the duel. Pistols, it turned out, that he had purchased earlier that year, and with which he had been practicing. Terry not only became good at shooting them but also learned that one of the guns had a hair trigger and had prematurely fired in a number of earlier duels, much to the detriment of the man holding the weapon.
The duel was set for Sept. 12, 1859, at that deserted hollow off of what is now Lake Merced Boulevard. The site back then consisted mostly of scrubby sand dunes, and the weather was typically cold and foggy, with a bit of wind. Approximately 70 people came to watch, but the county sheriff showed up before any guns could be drawn and arrested both duelists for disturbing the peace. As no shooting actually had taken place, however, the men were released. The next day, they returned to the dunes.
Terry won the coin toss and selected the pistol that did not have the hair trigger. And he could not have been at all surprised when at the call of “Fire!” Broderick’s gun discharged its bullet into the ground. From 10 paces away, Terry took dead aim and shot Broderick in the chest. Three days later, Broderick died. His final words: “They killed me because I opposed a corrupt administration and the extension of slavery.”
Broderick’s death made him a martyr in the abolitionist movement. Terry, on the other hand, was suddenly reviled as a pariah, even after a jury acquitted him of Broderick’s murder. Though he returned to Stockton to practice law, Terry’s political career was over. Historians believe that the backlash of the duel and Broderick’s death had a lot to do with Abraham Lincoln winning the popular vote in California during the 1860 presidential election, and in receiving that state’s four electoral votes, which helped him win by a narrow margin.
Terry lived another 30 years after the duel, to age 66, before being shot to death by the bodyguard of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Steven J. Field, after Terry had physically attacked the jurist on a railroad car in which they were both riding. It was the culmination of a longstanding dispute between Terry and Field, who was a close friend and political ally of Broderick’s as well as the person who succeeded Terry when he resigned his chief justice position in California in preparation for his gunfight with the U.S. senator.
Terry’s life ended as violently as he had ended Broderick’s.
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