Although the most famous duel in America, between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton, occurred in New Jersey, the vast majority of duels occurred in the South. Duels had been long frowned upon in the North, and Hamilton’s death at Burr’s hands sped up the demise of dueling north of the Mason-Dixon Line.
In the South, dueling was a long-established tradition deeply entrenched in an elaborate code of honor practiced by Southern men. The extremely complicated rules and customs governing the tradition of dueling had been outlined in the 18th century in a book titled Code Duello. Most Southern cities had dueling grounds, and in Richmond, there were at least two, both in Church Hill.
On April 10, 1801, a twenty-year-old man named Gill Armistead Selden, a married father of two, was shot and killed in duel with Skelton Jones. Dueling was so prevalent that Skelton Jones, his brother Meriwether Jones, and Selden’s brother Joseph were all later killed in duels.
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The place of this duel has been referred to by contemporary writings as the Bloody Run or Chimborazo Heights dueling ground. According to an 1848 map, this dueling ground where Selden lost his life was still in use, and ran the entire length of the east side of 30th Street, between Franklin and Grace streets. Because 30th Street no longer intersects either of these streets, the heavily-wooded former dueling ground is only visible from an isolated part of East Franklin Street, east of 29th Street.
Richmond’s most famous duel occurred in Church Hill as well. On May 9, 1873, Page McCarty shot and killed John Brooke Mordecai in the Confederate section of Oakwood Cemetery, which had frequently been used for duels.
Former friends, the two became enemies when a popular Richmond girl, Mary Triplett, dropped her interest in McCarty in favor of Mordecai. Mary publicly snubbed McCarty at a ball, and McCarty responded by publishing a slightly inappropriate poem about Mary in a newspaper.
Mordecai challenged McCarty, who shot Mordecai in the stomach. He lingered for several days before dying. After the duel, McCarty, who was shot in the hip, never married and shunned society. Mary Triplett later married Phillip Haxall, but died young.
Dueling began to decline in Richmond, but did not end completely until Joseph Bryan, challenged to a duel in the 1890’s, reported his challenger to the police and called him “absurd.”