Bloody Island- Refuge of the Code Duello
In 1800, a sandbar rose from the waters of the Mississippi River outside St. Louis. Cottonwood trees and other vegetation grew up on the mile long island. Soon the “towhead” became a favorite refuge for illegal activities. Because the island was outside the realm of local authorities, boxing and cock fights took place there. However, most notably duelists found their way to there. In the 18th and 19th century, affairs of honor were often settled by a duel. The Code Duello was an elaborate set of rules to ensure the honor of all was satisfied. Prominent men of the day were not immune to duels. Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton most famously, but also Andrew Jackson had innumerable duels. Bloody Island had its share of famous names as well.
In 1817, Mr. Charles Lucas and Col. Thomas H. Benton, both lawyers in St. Louis, fell out over a local trial during in which Benton called Lucas an outright liar. Their argument grew more serious over when Lucas accused Benton of not paying his property taxes, which meant he could not participate in a local election. More names and insults were exchanged and Lucas challenged Benton to a duel. They met on Bloody Island and shots were exchanged, Lucas was shot in the throat and Benton in the knee. Honor had technically been satisfied, but Benton wanted to take a second round. Benton was talked out of shooting again, but as Lucas healed up from his wound he began bedeviling Benton again. Benton challenged Lucas again, and this time left him dead on Bloody Island. Thomas Benton went on to become one of Missouri’s first senators after statehood in 1820.
The most famous duel to go down on Bloody Island was between Congressman Spencer Darwin Pettis and Thomas Biddle. Pettis was a strong Jacksonian Democrat and criticized Nicholas Biddle during an election speech. Nicholas’ brother, Thomas, took offense and began a war of words in the St. Louis newspapers through letters to the editor. Highlights include Biddle calling Pettis “a dish of skimmed milk” and Pettis putting slurs on Biddle’s manhood. Biddle completely lost his temper and found Pettis in a local hotel and beat him with a cowhide whip. Biddle was arrested and threw a challenge out to Pettis for satisfaction. The two met on Bloody Island on August 27, 1831. Because of Biddle’s near nearsightedness, the two met at five feet instead of the usual ten. Both men were mortally wounded and died.
Even a future president found his way to Bloody Island. Abraham Lincoln wrote a letter very critical of James Shields, the Illinois State Auditor, which was published in the Sangamon Journal. Lincoln’s future wife, Mary Todd, and her friends kept publishing inflammatory letters without Lincoln’s knowledge. Shields took offense and challenged Lincoln to a duel and they met on Bloody Island. As the challenged party, Lincoln could choose the weapon. He picked cavalry sabers and demonstrated his superior reach by slicing a tree branch over Shield’s head. The two came to an agreement at that point because Lincoln had not written the letters.
The island continued to grow and threatened to ruin the harbor at St. Louis. Under young army officer Robert E. Lee, two dykes were constructed in 1838 to divert the channel around the island. This change allowed the Mississippi to fill in the Illinois side joining Bloody Island to the mainland. It is now a train yard under the south end of the Poplar Street Bridge.
Sources available on request