Bloody Island

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Bloody Island was a sand bar in the Mississippi River, opposite St. Louis, which became densely wooded and a rendezvous for duelists. Appearing first above water in 1798 its continuous growth menaced the harbor. In 1837 Capt. Robert E. Lee, of U.S.A. Engineers, devised and established a system of dikes and dams that washed out the western channel and ultimately joined the island to the Illinois shore.

The Benton-Lucas Duel

Thomas Hart Benton first challenged Charles Lucas to a duel in October 1816 after he lost a case in Circuit Court, where he believed Lucas had insulted him. Lucas refused the challenge.

During the August election of 1817, Lucas challenged Benton´s right to vote on the basis of his taxes not being paid. Benton replied that he would not answer charges made by "any puppy who may happen to run across my path". The insult infuriated Lucas, and he issued a challenge to Benton. Lucas chose Joshua Barton as his second, and Benton chose Luke E. Lawless. The illegal duel was to take place on ´Bloody Island´, which acquired that name afterwards. At a distance of 30 feet, Benton wounded Lucas in the throat, but was himself only grazed by Lucas´ bullet. Lucas stated that he was satisfied, but Benton, contrary to the rules, claimed he was not. Not able to continue, Lucas gave his word to come back when he had healed. Friends of the men tried to calm the argument and for a time it seemed that they had succeeded.

Gossip, likely unfounded, that Lucas´ father and friends had claimed Benton was afraid of dueling at a ten foot distance, refueled Benton´s anger. Again the challenge was withdrawn when Lucas gave a plausible explanation, but Benton´s anger was renewed by additional gossip. On September 26, 1817, after Lucas had recovered enough to return to work, he received a note from Benton demanding satisfaction at nine feet. Lucas tried in vain to repair the damage. The next day the two met again, at an agreed on distance of 10 feet. After the order of "Fire!" was bungled, both men raised their pistols and shot. Lucas again missed his target, but Benton´s caught Lucas in the chest. A few minutes later Lucas was dead. The duel and Lucas´ death created a national sensation. This incident added to St. Louis´ growing reputation as a dangerous and uncivilized city. Judge John B.C. Lucas, father of Charles Lucas, used every opportunity to remind people of Benton´s actions. Although Benton was elected to the United States Senate in 1820, the "Bloody Island" affair did damage his career and reputation. Benton later expressed to his close friends his the guilt and shame he felt over the matter, and on his death bed told his son-in-law how grievously sorry he was for the incident. Other duels were fought on "Bloody Island" although none gained such notoriety. By the mid-1820s, however, dueling as a publicly accepted form of settling disagreements was coming to an end.

Sources

  • Dictionary of American History by James Truslow Adams, New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1940

External Links

  • RiverWeb - Further details on the formation and elimination of Bloody Island.