Monthly Archives: July 2012

Archery Girls

Nearly every time I turned on the Olympics this past weekend archery was on, which was fine with me as I am an Olympics Conservative.  I like the traditional sports, played by amateurs:  no beach volleyball for me (especially in London, where it looks very silly).  Archery strikes me as very traditional, even though the bows and uniforms have been seriously updated.  A slim win for the Italian gentlemen, and yet another gold medal (the 7th in a row) for the South Korean ladies.  I read several funny tweets from British archery fans, who were disappointed by their archers, and wondered what would have happened at Agincourt if their forebears put in a similar performance:  no band of brothers today!

The gold-medal-winning Italian men and South Korean women archers, and their late medieval predecessors.  British Library MS Yates Thompson 29, c. 1500.

The South Korean ladies look a lot better than the Italian men, which is saying a lot, as the latter are Italian.  While the Olympians are, of course, exemplary, there is nothing new in their outward appearance:  archery seems to have given women opportunities to look stylishly sporty for at least a century.  I found a charming photograph of fledgling archers at the university (then college) where I teach:  these Salem State ladies, in their very neat uniforms, are on the field in the spring of 1965.

Salem State archers in 1965: Salem State Archives flickr.

The Salem girls were just the tip of the iceberg:  I found records and images of archery meets for women held from the late nineteenth century onwards, all over America.  Was archery the sport of liberation, I wonder?  And these ladies always looked good:  beautiful ensembles before World War I; more sporting attire afterwards.

Archery images from the Library of Congress, including images of a meet in Boston in 1900, and of the very serious archer Mary Brownell, c. 1910-15.

My last archery image is from a beautiful collection of very arts-and-craftsy illustrations in William Nicholson’s Almanac of Twelve Sports (1898):  this archery girl is perfect for the waning days of July.

Olympic Posters

It was nice to see and hear the traditional ringing of the bells in Britain yesterday, signalling the beginning of the London Summer Olympics. Nearly all of the British institutions that I regularly “visit” have their own take on the Olympics this summer:  the Museum of London has a general exhibit, while the British Museum focuses on medals and the British Library offers up Olympex 2012, an exhibition on collecting the Olympics. My favorite Olympic-themed presentation, thankfully very accessible on-line, is the Victoria & Albert Museum’s presentation, A Century of Olympic Posters . It’s so interesting to see how the posters reflected the times in which they were produced, while at the same time projected national images to the world which were carefully chosen by the host countries.

There was no official Olympics poster until the 1912 Stockholm Olympics, but it seems appropriate to begin with the program(me) cover for the first London Olympics, held in 1908 at the newly-constructed White City Stadium in Shepherd’s Bush.  This Olympiad was originally scheduled to be held in Rome, but the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius diverted it to London. It’s a nice nostalgic image, and you can see the White City in the background.

The first official Olympics poster, printed in 16 different languages and alternative formats, was the work of Swedish artist Olle Hjörtzberg,. The original design, featuring completely naked athletes in a reference to the ancient Olympics, was replaced by this version, with its strategically-placed streamers, but this was a bit controversial too.

After a long break due to World War One, the Olympics resumed in war-devastated Belgium for the 1920 Antwerp games. Maybe it’s just my own national bias, but that looks like a very prominent American flag on the poster:  perhaps an expression of gratitude for the timely entry of the US into the war?  The poster for the 1924 Paris Olympics by Jean Droit has become iconic, and we first see the five Olympic rings representing the continents of the world on the posters for both the 1928 Olympics:  summer (Amsterdam) and winter (St. Moritz).

The poster for the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics, the first to be held outside of Europe, looks a bit odd to me:  apparently the artist Julio Kilenyi sculpted the figure and then photographed it, and I’m not sure how the lettering was produced.  There’s very little sense of place here; it does not read Los Angeles or America to me, but it’s interesting that “California” had to be added.  I suppose that the City of Angels was not yet the international city that it would become.

Few images are as ominous as the official poster for the 1936 Berlin Olympics with its menacing Nazi symbolism and the Four Horsemen, which can only be seen as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in historical perspective.  And then there are two very similar, one might say identical, posters from the canceled 1940 and 1952 Helsinki Olympics.  Clearly Finland–and perhaps the world–decided to pick up where they left off.

There is some semblance of place in the Helsinki posters, but I think that emphasis becomes pronounced in the post-war era, beginning with the image of the second British Olympics, the so-called “Austerity Olympics” of 1948. Jumping forward to the early 1960s, the sense of place seems to overwhelm the sheer athleticism of the earlier posters in the images from the 1960 and 1964 Olympics in Rome and Tokyo.

Of course, the images get more abstract and symbolic in the later 1960s:  the poster for the Mexico games represents the psychedelic age perfectly, as does one of the slightly-cynical images of the 1976 Montreal Olympics.

The posters for the more recent games just don’t seem as textured to me as those from the past, although I really like the official poster #1 from the 2000 Sydney games, “Peace Roo”, designed by David Lancashire. The trend seems to be for whole series of posters to be produced rather than just one, representing individual sports as opposed to the entire event. This was certainly the case for the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, which was represented by over 50 posters, and the organizers of the third London games commissioned posters from 12 eminent British artists. Pictured below is “For the Unknown Runner” by Chris Ofili, who used the vase outline to reference the Greek origins of the games.

Clapboard Castles

I know that the great American photographer Walker Evans (1903-75) liked Greek Revival houses, factories, main streets, roadside advertising, picture postcards, and people from all walks of life, but I think he really, really liked hotels. In the vast Walker Evans Archive at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, there are many images of hotels, large and small, and I’ve recently come into possession of a Fortune Magazine article from August 1949 in which he photographs and writes about some of the most famous New England resort hotels of the last century. In “Summer North of Boston”, Evans refers to one of these grand hotels, the Poland Springs House in South Poland, Maine, as “the nation’s uttermost dream of secular grandeur, this clapboard castle, turreted, porticoed, balustraded, oriflammed”. And when you see the photographs of this sprawling hotel (erected in 1876 and destroyed by fire in 1975), you know just what he means.

Scan from “Summer North of Boston” by Walker Evans, Fortune Magazine, August 1949 and original photograph and c. 1910 postcard of the Polar Springs House from the Walker Evans Archive, Metropolitan Museum of Art; 1894 menu from the Polar Springs House, New York Public Library Digital Gallery.

I really wish I had seen this amazing building before it burned to the ground in what all the accounts describe as a “spectacular” fire–a fate that it shared with most of the grand hotels in Evans’ article.  His “north of Boston” encompasses a triangular region between the North Shore towns surrounding Salem in the south, Bar Harbor, Maine in the north, and the White Mountains of New Hampshire in the west. Within this area were the New Ocean House in Swampscott (1884-1969), Oceanside in Magnolia (a village of Gloucester, Massachusetts:  1876-1958), Wentworth-by-the-Sea in New Castle, New Hampshire (built in 1874 and still standing, though some people think its recent “restoration” was more of a reconstruction), the Samoset in Rockland, Maine (1902-1972), and the Mount Washington Hotel in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire (built in 1902 and still majestically and miraculously intact).

The New Ocean House, Oceanside, Wentworth-by-the-Sea, and the Samoset by Walker Evans, and the Mount Washington Hotel at the time of the 1944 Bretton Woods International Economic Conference by Alfred Steiglitz, Time Life Pictures/Getty Images.

Of all these American castles it is the Wentworth with which I had the closest connection:  I grew up nearby and actually attended my senior prom at what was then almost a relic.  The building experienced a conspicuous decline in the later 1980s and 1990s, becoming the focus of the national preservationist movement, before it was rescued and rebuilt after 2000.  It has lost its hyphens and become the Marriott Wentworth by the Sea.

The Wentworth in 2000 and today; the BEST book for the architecture and culture of the grand resort hotels of coastal New England:  Bryant Tolles’ Summer by the Seaside.  The Architecture of New England Coastal Resort Hotels, 1820-1950 (2008)

An Array of Elephants

I know that they’re trendy now and have been for some time, but I’ve been an elephant afficionado since I was a little girl, so I have many, many elephants that run the range from extreme tackiness to quite elegant.  I’ve had to edit my collection of elephants down rather dramatically to avoid their takeover of the house, so most of them are in boxes in the basement now (I could not, of course, get rid of them!)  I think that I should forgo future pachyderm purchases, unless they are of the ephemeral variety and don’t take up much room. Nevertheless, I am always looking…and several very different and unattainable elephants  have caught my eye over the past few weeks, renewing my appreciation for those in my own house at the same time.

Three great elephants: a “change packet” (a kind of ephemera I didn’t even know existed! nineteenth-century shopkeepers would give you your change back in these cute little paper packets, which provided them with another avenue for advertising) from the Graphics Arts Collection at the Princeton University Library, the mechanical elephant of the Machines of the Isle of Nantes, which can carry around up to 49 people for 45 minutes, and an elephant embroidered by Mary, Queen of Scots about 1570 from the collection of the Victoria & Alfred Museum in London.

I like this last embroidery panel because it indicates that the Queen had access to the first great Renaissance zoological work, Conrad Gessner’s Historiae Animalium (1551-1558).  Mary’s elephant clearly seems to be based on the image in Volume One of Gessner, and I like to think of the plotting Queen and her ladies leafing through the tome for inspiration.

Elephants in my house:  a few of my favorite elephants, still upstairs, beginning with the wallpaper in my first-floor powder room. I can’t remember what the maker or pattern is.

The little guy below is my very favorite elephant:  I have no idea what he is made of or how old he is. He was in a box with some other little elephants–all cast iron–which I bought for a $1.00, but he is not cast iron but rather a hard plaster-like material.

A recent purchase from an antiques shop in Maine:  this guy seems to be made of old college pennants.  I have no idea what to do with him, so he just sits on a chair in the guest bedroom.

A sixteenth-century book illustration:  I purchased it after it was already cut out, but I still feel guilty.

Moneypenny, one with the elephant garden seat.

A Swarm of Bees in July

According to the old English nursery rhyme: A swarm in May is worth a load of hay; a swarm in June is worth a silver spoon; but a swarm in July is not worth a fly. Even if we could muster enough bees in these days of ever-dwindling bee populations, apparently it’s too late in the season for a regenerating swarm. Nevertheless, there still seem to be bees around, in my garden, on the streets of Salem, and in my bookmark folder labeled interesting insects. So it’s a good time to showcase most of the above.

For the past few years, the city of Salem has been initiating public art projects, and this year the goal is all about transforming mundane surfaces into works of art.  All the utility boxes around town have been painted, and my favorite is the “bee box” near the intersection of Essex and Summer Streets: here we have a real swarm, or at least a utilitarian representation of one.

I think bees are on everyone’s minds now that their numbers are in decline, but in fact representations of them go way back: the royal associations, their industrious and organizational nature, and the fact that they were the source of Europe’s native sweetener made them very conspicuous insects in western culture.  Sometimes they even seem to transcend insect-hood, or at the very least represent all of insect-hood, as in God made the birds and the bees.

Some medieval bees:  pollinating, confronting a bear, and making honey:

British Library MSS Harley 3244 (after 1236), Harley 3448 (15th century) and Sloane 4016 (c. 1440).

Bees were big in the early modern era, as their role in pollination was universally known and expensive imported sugar could not fulfill the demand for sweet treats. They also became, very notably, the subjects of the first publication of empirical observations made with one of the revolutionary instruments of the era, the microscope, in Federico Cesi’s and Francesco Stelluti’s Apiarium (1625; detail below).  In England, all of the practical gardening manuals from the sixteenth and seventeenth century contain sections on bee-keeping; it seems to be a natural component of cultivation, not a specialization by any means. Sometimes women are the designated bee-keepers, sometimes men.  There were also books focused particularly on bee cultivation and bee culture, like John Levett’s classic Ordering of Bees (1634, below) as well as satirical allegories like John Day’s Parliament of Bees (perhaps 1607, but not printed until 1641). Given that bees live in a matriarchy as well as their general nature and attributes, I’ve always wondered why Elizabeth never made more iconographical use of them; perhaps it was too patently obvious.

Centuries later, Napoleon had no such subtlety: he used bee motifs to project legitimacy for his very new regime.  The bee enabled him to project royalty–as it was associated with France’s very first royal dynasty, the Merovingians, and with France’s early medieval emperor, Charlemagne–while disassociating himself with the fleur-de-lys-bearing Bourbons whom he displaced.

Bonaparte among the Bees:  portraits of Napoleon by Anne-Louis Girodet de Roucy-Trioson  (after 1804) and Jacques-Louis David (1812; National Gallery of Art, Washington).

Bees were too universal and essential to be stigmatized by their association with Napoleon, and after his fall they became an important decorative motif in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, appearing on textiles, ceramics, and jewelry, and in many illustrations and lithographs. At the same time, this very industrious era produced several key innovations in bee-keeping, most notably Langstroth’s movable frame hive, bringing about a revolution in the management of bees. Art, science, and industry were inextricably connected when it came to bees, and I haven’t even touched on advertising.

Wedgwood Sugar Caster, early 19th century, and French bonnet veil, c. 1860, Victoria & Albert Museum, London; illustration from Brockhaus Konversations-Lexicon : allgemeine deutsche Real-Encyklopädie. (Leipzig : F.A. Brockhaus, 1883-1887), New York Public Library Digital Gallery.

Of course bees continue to be inspirational for artists, designers, and crafters.  Given that the bee population is declining at an alarming rate (30%!!!), I hope that their ongoing popularity is not merely a sentimental urge.  There are too many items emblazoned with bees to showcase here, but I am drawn to British ceramicist Fenella Smith‘s bee mugs and jugs, which you don’t see everywhere (yet).

The Long Hot Summer of 1692

Given that it is something you cannot and should not forget (or escape) in Salem, I touched on the chronology and geography of the Witch Trials and their impact pretty regularly last year, the first year of my blog.  In terms of the historical timeline, I focused particularly on the beginning of the trials in the spring of 1692 and their end in the fall, leaving the long hot summer of trials, executions, anxiety and suffering out.  But now we’re in another long hot summer, and we should remember the five women who died on this day, July 19, 320 years ago:  Rebecca Nurse, Sarah Good, Susanna Martin, Elizabeth Howe, and Sarah Wildes.

A word about the weather. I am using the phrase “long hot summer” metaphorically here; I have no idea what the average temperature was in the summer of 1692. As someone who was trained in the history of early modern Europe, a time and a place that witnessed thousands of witch trials, I’ve always been surprised that American historians don’t make more of the weather as a contributing factors to the trials here in Salem because it is definitely a factor of consideration across the Atlantic.  A few years ago, an economist asserted the theory that the so-called  “Little Ice Age” (a long trend line of colder temperatures in this same early modern era, particularly noticeable as compared to the preceding “Medieval Warm Age”) might have been a background cause of the events and accusations in Salem, but the reasoning behind the assertion didn’t really fly with me:  why 1692 as opposed to 1682, 1672 or 1662?  Extreme weather (especially hail!) is better understood as a short-term catalyst for scapegoating accusations rather than a long-term, structural cause.

Nevertheless, the accusations started flying in the cold January of 1692, the first formal charges came at the beginning of March, and the special Court of Oyer and Terminer convened in Salem Town in early June, overseeing the charge of more than 150 people on charges of the capital felony of witchcraft and the eventual conviction of 29, of which 19 victims were hanged on Gallows Hill over the summer.

The women who died on this particular day in 1692 were somewhat representative of their fellow victims:  they were women of a certain age (Sarah Good was the youngest at 39, Rebecca Nurse and Susanna Martin were both in their early 70s), from the fringes of this little world, either geographically or socially.  None came from present-day Salem, then Salem Town (now, sadly, “Witch City), but rather from either Salem Village (present-day Danvers) or the outlying communities of Topsfield, Ipswich and Amesbury. The two Salem Village women, Sarah Good, could not have been more different in both age and situation:  Good was a destitute vagrant with a “disorderly” reputation which made her very vulnerable to accusations of witchcraft, while Nurse was elderly, pious, and from a well-established family:  her trial and conviction would ultimately cast considerable doubt on the entire proceedings.

What remains:  some pictures taken on a 99-degree day in mid-July of 1692:  the Towne field and Parson Capen House (1683) in Topsfield, and the Rebecca Nurse Homestead (c. 1678) in Danvers at dusk. Rebecca Nurse and her sisters Mary Eastey and Sarah Cloyse were the daughters of William and Joanna Towne, who emigrated from England as part of the “Great Migration” and wound up in western Salem Village/Topsfield. The field below is where their original homestead was located.  All three women were accused of witchcraft, and only Sarah escaped death. The Parson Capen house in Topsfield village has no connection to the trials beyond the fact that it was standing witness at the time.

After the women were killed on July 19 their bodies were buried in shallow graves in the crevices of Gallows Hill in Salem; the exact location is still somewhat of a mystery. When darkness fell, her family came to Salem and removed her body to the hallowed ground of the family homestead. In 1885, with all of her ancestors in attendance, a memorial monument inscribed with a passage from John Greenleaf Whittier’s poem Christian Martyr was dedicated on the site:  “O Christian Martyr/who for Truth could die/When all about thee/owned the hideous lie!/The world redeemed/from Superstition’s sway/Is breathing freer for thy sake today.”


I’m never quite sure what to do with fireplaces in the summer time:  just leave them alone, throw a potted fern in them, or a few of those old-fashioned fireplace fans?  Books?  The television? (I’d rather put the television in the fireplace than over it; I hate that television-over-the-mantle look) It seems like a wasted space and opportunity, as the fireplace remains the focal point of the room no matter what the season. Our ancestors had the solution to what was for them not just a decorating problem:  they filled their damperless hearths with fireboards or chimney boards, decorated with flowers, street scenes, ships, or whatever caught their fancy. These boards would keep out (or hide) soot, dust, and birds and brighten up the dark and dusty cave in the room at the same time.

Here in Salem, the Peabody Essex Museum has several fireboards from the early nineteenth century that I have long admired and which have inspired me to try to find my own period fireboard, but I’ve never been able to find one that was even remotely affordable and fit any of my fireplaces at the same time.  But the hunt continues because it’s always nice to have a quest!

Here are some of my favorite fireboards from the PEM, beginning with a beautiful scene of upper Washington Street and the Samuel McIntire courthouse painted by George Washington Felt about 1810-20 and a view of Beverly from the same period, by an anonymous artist.  Departing from street scenes and bird’s-eye views representing pride of place, the last two boards represent an historic gale which sank eleven Marblehead fishing boats in 1846 and the stately mansion of Chatsworth in England.

Fireboards from the Collection of the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem:  View of Court House Square by George Washington Felt, c. 1810-20; View of Beverly by an anonymous American artist, c. 1800-20 (from the Safford House); The Great Gale of 1846 by William Thompson Bartoll; A Distant View of Chatsworth, Derbyshire, England by Michel Felice Corné, c. 1800 (from the Bertram K. Little and Nina Fletcher Little Collection auction at Sotheby’s,  January 29, 1994).

Pieces such as these have fetched high prices at auction:  most recently, a mid-eighteenth century board featuring the John Hancock House in Boston (below) went for over $600,000 at a Sotheby‘s auction (against an estimate of $150,000-$250,000), but this is a very early and apparently very special piece. The trompe loeil louvered fireboard depicting an idyllic landscape was probably made in Philadelphia around 1810-40: it sold for $60,000 in 2005 and is now in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

The MFA example above features two motifs that often appear on fireboards:  louvers and trompe l’oeil decoration.  In fact, it combines them:  some of the louvers are apparently real and some are fake.  I’ve seen some other louvered boards around, which has made me wonder if something could be made of all the old and abandoned exterior shutters in my basement?  A very literal trompe decoration is on the c. 1820 board below from a Skinner auction a few years ago. I wonder what the purpose was of replicating the bricks behind the board? A more charming example (to me) is the “watermelon” fireboard made in Salem, New York, about 1840, now in a private collection.

A variation on the fireboard is the dummy board or “silent companion”, which did not have to go before the hearth but certainly could and did. You could choose an iconic or period person to go before your fireplace, or you could place a pig there, like the eighteenth-century English example below. In my continuing search for a fireboard (or two), I’ve looked for new sources as well as old, and while most of the former are a bit too rustic for my taste and house, these blue and white pots by British decorative painter Lucinda Oakes look really beautiful.

Pig feeding from a Bowl Dummy Board, c. 1750-1800, Victoria & Albert Museum, London; Blue and White Pots I fireboard by Lucinda Oakes.

Master Remix

There’s an interesting exhibition at the Boston Athenaeum this summer featuring some of the major works of George Deem, an artist who mastered painting the masters–in his own variant ways.  Deem (1932-2008) was so fascinated with the works of Mantegna, Caravaggio, Matisse, Picasso, and most especially Vermeer, that he repainted them in an engaging manner that not only plays with art–but also with time.  The exhibition, entitled George Deem:  the Art of Art History, features 30 paintings that focus on Deem’s re-worked and re-imagined Vermeers as well as those of several eminent American artists, like the provocative School of Sargent, below.

George Deem, School of Sargent (1986).  Private Collection, Stamford, CT.

I find this painting particularly captivating:  it really looks like Madame Gautreau is gazing at The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit and they back at her!  Odd to have such iconic ladies in the same picture together. Another Deem take on the Boit girls is below, along with George Washington and his Portrait (1972), based on the Gilbert Stuart portrait. I really like both the idea and the image of this painting.

George Deem, George Washington and his Portrait (1972).  Collection of the Boston Athenaeum; Sargent Vermeer (2007).  Private Collection, Hartford, CT.

Living in an expansionistic age, Johannes Vermeer incorporated maps into the backgrounds of several of his paintings and Deem brings the map into the foreground in Vermeer’s Map and the near-foreground in A Stool, a Chair, and a Map, and a few other Vermeer-inspired paintings.

George Deem, Vermeer’s Map (1982).  Private Collection, Falls Church, Virginia; A Stool, a Chair, and a Map (2003). Estate of George Deem.

As one who has spent lots of time drinking in every little detail of Vermeer paintings, I can understand Deem’s obsession with Vermeer (about whom he has also written a book: How to Paint a Vermeer:  a Painter’s History of Art, 2004) and it is fun to see these background details (like The Red Chair, below) fill the frame.

George Deem, The Red Chair (2002).  Private Collection, West Hartford, CT.

Whistle Belly Vengeance

Flipping through one of a stack of old books I seem to be collecting on “ye olde” customs of New England, I found not only a recipe for a popular drink called “Flip”, but also one very much linked to my adopted city:  “A terrible drink is said to have been made popular in Salem – a drink with a terrible name – whistle-belly-vengeance. It consisted of sour household beer simmered in a kettle, sweetened with molasses, filled with brown-bread crumbs and drunk piping hot” (Alice Morse Earle, Customs and Fashions of Old New England, 1893).  I had seen that phrase before–in Old England–where it generally seemed to convey a truly awful drink, so it is odd to see it used as a name of a popular one:  the link must be the sour (spoiled) beer.  Our colonial forebears lived in an ever-perishable world which disdained waste of all kinds, so spoiled beer was turned into something sweet and hot to cover up its taste, and I suppose that the bread crumbs even added a bit of sustenance.  Many of the drinks referenced by Earle are similar in their combination of sweet and hot–and a few have proteins mixed in as well;  sillabub (hard cider, mixed with sugar, nutmeg and cream)and the afore-mentioned flip (strong beer, mixed with sugar, nutmeg, pumpkin and molasses, a shot of rum and a beaten egg, stirred with a hot fire poker) seem to have been the most substantive.  In general, possets were drinks which featured cream or milk, and fustians contained eggs.

Staffordshire posset pot, early 18th century, courtesy of Victoria & Albert Museum, London.

Beverige was a lighter, non-alcoholic drink generally made of water mixed with ginger and molasses, but when served to sailors it was strengthened by the addition of rum and vinegar, and became switchel. There were countless rum drinks, served hot and cold:  beer was mixed with rum (bogus), cider was mixed with rum (stone-wall), molasses was mixed with rum (black-strap).  New England was indeed awash in rum, perhaps fueled by rum, and therein, unfortunately, lies its major connection to slavery. My own house was built by a wealthy rum distiller, so I think about this connection quite a bit.

Eighteenth-century caricature from the George Arents Collection of Tobacciana in the New York Public Library (where there is smoking there is usually drinking); the Buckman Tavern in Lexington, Massachusetts, from A Revolutionary Pilgrimage (1917) by Ernest Clifford Peixotto.

Apparently a British brewery has revived Whistle Belly Vengeance:  a “ malty reddish ale”  produced by Summerskills Brewery of Devon is clearly not based on the original recipe, but it does seem to have attained the “frothiness” that was often aspired to way back when.

Definitive Duels

Living right next to the Samuel McIntire-designed Hamilton Hall, a virtual memorial to Alexander Hamilton, I am always semi-conscious of the man, his life, and his death:  208 years ago today in a famous duel with Aaron Burr.  I wrote about the duel and its cultural impact in a post from last year, so for this particular anniversary I thought I would look at some of the more famous duels in Anglo-American history.

A romanticized view of the Burr-Hamilton duel, July 11, 1804, from an 1890 American history textbook.

I’m going to start with some early modern English duels and then work my way forward towards the nineteenth century and America.  Duels are interesting little events in European history because they represent the remnants of early medieval judicial combat, as well as a tradition that early modern kings were intent on ending in order to establish themselves as the ultimate defenders of the peace.  I’ve seen images from as early as the fourteenth century of kings “overseeing” duels between their noble subjects, thus projecting the message that the ritual had royal sanction. By the early modern era, one which witnessed a great expansion of royal authority, duels were made illegal and participants were subject to prosecution, especially if a death occurred.  A case in point was the duel fought between the Elizabethan playwright Ben Jonson and his actor colleague Gabriel Spencer on 22 September 1598 in the sprawling Hoxton Fields northwest of London.  Spencer was killed and Jonson was sentenced to hang for murder, but managed to escape this fate by pleading the ancient privilege of “benefit of clergy”.  Spencer’s death left no mark on Jonson, who went on to fame, fortune and celebrity as the recipient of lots of royal patronage.

Several decades later one of the most interesting men of his age, Sir Kenelm Digby (natural philosopher, cookbook author, courtier, swordfighting cavalier) killed a French nobleman who had insulted King Charles I in a 1641 Parisian duel from which he emerged unscathed.  Back home, the fact that he had defended the honor of the King of England did not mollify his fellow Englishmen, who remained affronted by his Catholicism on the eve of the English Civil War.

The romanticized image of the duel envisions a fight over a lady, but it seems to me that most duels were either about politics or petty insults.  One exception was the duel fought in 1668 between George Villiers, the 2nd Duke of Buckingham, and Francis Talbot, the 11th Earl of Shrewsbury, over Anna Maria Talbot, the Countess of Shrewsbury.  The Duke and the Countess were brazen lovers, and Talbot seems to have challenged Villiers to avenge his own honor more than that of his wife.  To no avail: he died from injuries sustained in the duel and his widow was promptly installed in Buckingham’s new country estate, Cliveden House.  The Duke’s career was not tarnished by this particular episode, but Samuel Pepys, the diarist of the age, did note that “this will make the world think that the king hath good councillors about him, when the Duke of Buckingham, the greatest man about him, is a fellow of no more sobriety than to fight about a whore.

Anna Maria (Brudenell) Talbot, the Countess of Shrewsbury, 1670 by Sir Peter Lely, National Portrait Gallery, London.

The later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was a golden age of duels, fought for more petty reasons than previously. It is almost as if the professionalization of war led to the trivialization of duels.  Before I jump the pond, let’s briefly examine the “royal duel” fought between the Richard Lennox, the (future) Duke of Richmond and Governor General of British North America and Frederick, Duke of York, second son of King George III.  When royals get involved, dueling becomes “fashionable”, but compared to the seventeenth-century duels, this one does indeed seem a bit trivial:  the Duke of York was said to have made a passing remark about Lennox’s cowardly disposition, to which the latter took offense, and they met at Wimbledon Common with pistols on May 26, 1789. Lennox’s shot merely grazed the Duke’s hair, and the Duke refused to fire, and so the matter was settled.

I could go on and on with British duels in this period:  duels involving future and serving Prime Ministers, Cabinet members and Members of Parliament, peers, military officers, journalists, and even ladies!  But I’m going to leave duel-happy Britain and cross the Atlantic to put the Burr-Hamilton duel in a bit more historical perspective.  Just two years after Hamilton’s death, another scandalous duel had a very decisive end:  the future seventh President of the United States, Andrew Jackson, fatally wounded Charles Dickinson in Kentucky on May 30, 1806.  Not being an American historian with the ability to recognize reliable primary sources from those prone to exaggeration, I must say that there are a variety of confusing accounts about this duel.  Here is what I understand, but I may be wrong:  Dickinson slandered his Nashville neighbor Jackson, then a country lawyer, over a bet on a horse race and threw in a slur on his previously married wife.  Jackson (who was apparently involved in anywhere from 13 to over 100 duels over his lifetime, depending on the source) took offense and challenged Dickinson, who accepted the challenge. When they met on the field of a Kentucky border town (because dueling was illegal in Tennessee), Jackson let Dickinson fire first, and received a bullet that would shatter two ribs next to his heart and remain with him for the rest of his life.  The wounded Jackson then fired straight at Dickinson, and his pistol either misfired or stopped half-cocked (depending on the source), so he fired again, and effectively killed him. Besides the bullet, nothing about this event hindered Jackson in any way:  he went on to become the “hero of New Orleans” and the President of the United States.

An illustration from the fictional author Major Jack Downing’s Life of Andrew Jackson (Boston, 1834); General Andrew Jackson, The Hero, the Sage and the Patriot, N. Currier lithograph, 1835 (Library of Congress).

My last duel has a Salem connection via Nathaniel Hawthorne.  As part of the notable Bowdoin College class of  1825, Maine Congressman Jonathan Cilley formed friendships with classmates Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and  Hawthorne, and the latter would memorialize him after his death from immediate injuries sustained in a duel with Kentucky Congressman William Jordan Graves in 1838. The cause of the duel was, again, politics, and the contentious Democrat (Cilley)-Whig (Graves) rivalry at the time; Graves, who is always described as an experienced “marksman” in the historical record, was standing in for the Whig New York publisher James Webb, whom Cilley had labelled biased and corrupt.  Months after the duel, Hawthorne published an earnest memorial/obituary in which the honor of New England is put forward as the greater cause of Cilley’s death, anticipating the larger conflict in years to come.

An 1838 broadside ballad, courtesy of Special Collections & Archives, Bowdoin College Library.

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