Dueling for honor

I’ve been working on processing a collection of Wister family papers – now known as the Wister and Butler families papers (collection #1962) – that contain papers of Pierce Butler, his former wife Frances Anne (Fanny) Kemble, their daughters Sarah Butler Wister and Frances Butler Leigh, and many other family members.

Fanny Kemble

Pierce Butler is perhaps best known for marrying and eventually divorcing Fanny, a famous British actress. But I’m discovering that his life was drama-filled in other ways as well.

For instance, Butler’s birth name was actually Pierce Butler Mease. He changed his last name as a teenager as directed in his grandfather Major Pierce Butler’s will, allowing him to inherit a piece of his grandfather’s significant estate.

Among other topics, Butler’s papers include materials concerning one duel and two almost-duels in which he participated.

In 1844, James Schott, Jr. accused him of having an affair with James’ wife, and challenged him to a duel.

Both men survived the duel, which was held just over the Washington, D.C. border near Bladensburg, Maryland. According to an article in The Public Ledger, dated April 17, 1844, the sheriff from Bladensburg attended the duel, and helped the men determine where the border line fell so that he could not arrest them for dueling.

Twenty years later, in 1864, Butler challenged Andrew Mehaffey to a duel after an argument at a stockholders’ meeting of the River Oil Company, a speculative Pennsylvania venture. In that instance, the mayor of Philadelphia had Mehaffey arrested to prevent the duel from taking place at the appointed time.

Butler was outraged that he could not find “the satisfaction that one gentleman owes to another.” He wrote to Mehaffey, “It only remains for me then, failing to obtain the redress I have so earnestly sought, to denounce you as a ruffian, a coward, and a blackguard. I will so proclaim you at the Club, of which you are an unworthy member, and in whatever other place I shall see fit.”

Another almost-duel occurred in 1865-1866, when Butler felt insulted by William Henry Rawle regarding an invitation to co-host dancing assemblies in Philadelphia. Butler was, in fact, not included as a host for the assemblies, though Rawle apologized for the perceived slight and the matter dropped.

William Henry Rawle's December 19, 1865 response to Pierce Butler's allegation that he had been insulted by Rawle.

Page two of Rawle's response to Butler. He argued that no slight was intended.

For much more on Butler’s life, and that of his large extended family, check out Malcolm Bell, Jr., Major Butler’s Legacy: Five Generations of a Slaveholding Family (Athens, GA: The University of Georgia Press, 1987).


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