En(d) garde!: The end of the dueling era in New Orleans’ City Park
When tempers flared in early New Orleans and a simple apology just wasn’t enough, hotbloods took to the field of honor to settle the dispute with swords or pistols. These showdowns were hardly private matters — some drew as many as 300 spectators, and, according to lore, some 10 duels were fought on a single Sunday in 1839 New Orleans. A popular spot was marked by towering trees known as the Dueling Oaks in what is now City Park. But as the 19th century drew to a close, opinions on dueling had shifted, and in 1890 the practice was banned in City Park. The dueling era in New Orleans had come to a close.
There used to be two Dueling Oaks in City Park, but a hurricane took out one of them in the late 1940s. The lone reminder of New Orleans’ dueling days stands at the intersection of Dueling Oaks and Dreyfous drives, which is near the New Orleans Museum of Art’s Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden.
- Duels originally were carried out in St. Anthony’s Garden, behind St. Louis Cathedral, but laws banning duels within what was then the city limits forced duelers to move to Dueling Oaks.
- Among the participants in City Park duels was Bernard de Marigny, who was president of the state Senate in 1822-23. He was a real estate developer whose surname graces the New Orleans neighborhood just downriver from the French Quarter.
- Perhaps the most notable local victim of a duel was Micajah Green Lewis, Gov. William C.C. Claiborne’s private secretary and brother-in-law, who was killed in 1805 by Robert Sterry, a Claiborne opponent.
- Among those who chose to settle their grievances with swords instead of firearms, the most famous duelist and fencing master in 19th-century New Orleans was José “Pepe” Llulla, who not only took on anyone foolish enough to challenge him but also, according to legend, maintained a cemetery for the countless number of men who fell victim to his blade.
- Although doctors are supposed to save lives, some were not immune to dueling. According to records in the Rudolph Matas Library in the Tulane University School of Medicine, two local 19th-century physicians disagreed so violently over a treatment that one vowed to shoot the other on sight. When the time came on Canal Street, shots were fired, and one man of medicine was gravely wounded. Since no medical assistance was nearby, the doctor treated the man he had just wounded, and the two became friends.
- Dr. Charles Luzenberg, another doctor who was fond of dueling, practiced for these encounters with unconventional targets: cadavers from Charity Hospital.
- The Historic New Orleans Collection has a set of dueling pistols that belonged to José Augustin Quintero (1829-85), a Daily Picayune reporter. In a foreword to an 1873 reprint of Lyde Wilson’s “Code of Honor,” Quintero defended dueling as a deterrent to more “needless” violence.
- While The Picayune campaigned against dueling shortly after its 1837 debut, competing papers defended the practice as a way of cutting down the number of barroom brawls.
- But times and beliefs apparently changed. In 1873, Col. R.B. Rhett, the editor of The Daily Picayune, fatally shot former Judge William Cooley in a duel at Bay St. Louis, Miss.
Duels have been illegal in New Orleans for well more than a century, but that action hasn’t kept angry people — mostly men — from resorting to firearms to settle grievances in circumstances much less regulated than dueling and, often, in situations in which innocent bystanders may be wounded. As of July 27, 103 people had been killed in New Orleans this year, most of them the victims of shootings.