The Truth Behind the Famous Duel: A Historic Account in HPL’s Collection

17 Jul

Before jumping headway into another post about something cool in our history collection, I’d like to make an important announcement: the history collection itself is available for researchers to access again! We’re completely unpacked and back on the second floor, so please make a research appointment by emailing me at stephanie.diorio@hoboken.bccls.org if you’d like to see anything or do some research.

July 11th is known to many people, myself included, as Free Slurpee Day, and hopefully you all remembered to go and get your free beverage this year! But in Weehawken, New Jersey, right next door to Hoboken, it’s also the anniversary of a very famous event that shook the greater New York City area to the core and still reverberates today. I’m talking, of course, about the duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr on July 11th, 1805, which ended in Hamilton’s untimely death. If you’re a fan of history, you’re likely familiar with the events of the duel, and even if you’re not, you’ve probably heard about the musical about Hamilton’s life written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, which features a whole song dedicated to the duel near the end of the second act (you can read our blog post about the musical here). The actual pistols used in the duel can be viewed at the New-York Historical Society not far from the entrance to the building, where they’ve been on loan from the JPMorgan Chase Historical Collection as part of a permanent exhibition for some time now.

It’s been a few days since the anniversary of the duel (which was last Thursday, the 11th), and it’s a good opportunity to clear up some misconceptions about it and also point out something really interesting that we have in our collection here.

  1. The duel wasn’t actually up on the cliffs in Weehawken where the memorial was. It was actually closer to the water.

The markers commemorating the duel’s actual supposed location, which were far closer to the waterfront, were moved when a road was put in between Hoboken and Fort Lee later in the 19th century, later replaced by a railroad. When you’re taking the Light Rail through Weehawken, you’re actually passing over the best estimated location. The markers were moved and a monument was constructed up on the cliffs later as a result of the road and eventual railroad. (The bust you see of Hamilton up there today isn’t even the original – there was one built there in 1874, but some vandals threw it over the cliff face in 1934 and it was replaced in 1935, hence the big ol’ fence around it!)

  1. It actually was illegal to duel in both New York and New Jersey.

A lot of reports will mention that the duel occurred in New Jersey because it was still legal there. In actuality, it wasn’t legal, but New Jersey authorities were far more lax about prosecuting duelists, so people would come over from New York to air their grievances via pistols since they were more likely to get away with it.

  1. Hamilton didn’t even shoot at Burr during the duel and never intended to kill him. Whether Burr wanted to kill Hamilton is still up for debate.

Contemporary reports state that Hamilton deliberately shot at a tree branch above Burr; he’d gone into the duel to maintain his honor but had no intention of harming his opponent. (In the musical Hamilton, he shoots at the sky.) Burr, on the other hand, had every reason to actively try to kill Hamilton, as Hamilton refused to retract statements he’d made against Burr politically, but since neither of them could solve the problem amicably because they both refused to back down, the duel was the only way to restore their honor. It’s worth noting that English philosopher Jeremy Bentham met Burr in 1808, a few years after the duel, and got the impression that Burr absolutely intended to kill Hamilton, writing him off as “little better than a murderer.” To this day, historians discuss Burr’s motives and whether or not he actually was willing to kill or was just following the rules and honor code of duelists.

Our collection here at the Hoboken Public Library contains a particularly unique item pertaining to the duel, a newspaper from Boston in 1804. It seemed innocuous at first when I saw it in our vertical files, but then I found the following headline and was floored:

Hamilton paper

The reason the library acquired this newspaper was that it contained a contemporary record of the duel. The “unfortunate transaction” was being discussed rather quickly after the event, with the report being dated to July 12th, one day after the duel and the letter cited in the report dating to the actual date of the duel, July 11th. It was evidently clear almost immediately that Hamilton would not survive his wounds, and the newspaper lamented his probably departure but expressed a hope that he might pull through despite this. The newspaper making its way to us and surviving for over 200 years is incredibly fortunate, and I put it in an archival sleeve for safekeeping and also digitized the article in question (the scanned photo appears above). It’s now safe to be handled by researchers, so reach out to us here at the library if you want to take a look at it in person! (If you see this, Lin-Manuel Miranda, this is your formal invitation to pop in to our library. Actually, anyone in the Hamilton cast or Hamilton fans can show up. We’d be thrilled.)

As always, keep an eye on the history page on our website as more and more materials are digitized and organized, and we’ll have more to report soon!

Written By:
Steph Diorio
Local History Librarian/Archivist at the Hoboken Public Library

Deaf Republic by Ilya Kaminsky

11 Jul

Deaf Republic
In school, we learned about history’s atrocities and I’m sure I’m not the only child who thought, “Why didn’t people do more? Why didn’t they stand up and fight?” As an adult, it has become clear that things are not always so simple.

All around the world, there are wars, there are atrocities being committed, but yet…people go on with their daily lives. And if the horror is not visible, if it is not directly affecting someone, then most people tend to shove it to the back of their minds. It’s normal, no one likes to feel disquieted and uncomfortable. But is our silence just? That’s another story…

Ilya Kaminsky’s “Deaf Republic” begins with the following poem, titled “We Lived Happily During the War”:

And when they bombed other people’s houses, we

protested
but not enough, we opposed them but not

enough. I was
in my bed, around my bed America

was falling: invisible house by invisible house by invisible house.

I took a chair outside and watched the sun.

In the sixth month
of a disastrous reign in the house of money

in the street of money in the city of money in the country of money,
our great country of money, we (forgive us)

lived happily during the war.

Deaf Republic is a collection of poems woven together to form a narrative story, so those who usually aren’t too into poetry can still read this with ease. The story begins after the above poem: It is a time of unrest and violence in the fictional town of Vasenka. Soldiers come to town and kill a deaf boy. After the shot rings, the townspeople become deaf themselves. Consequently, they teach themselves sign language, which is illustrated throughout the book. The book is divided into two Acts. The first Act follows a newlywed couple, Alfonso and Sonya, while they are expecting their first child. The second Act follows Mama Galya, the head of the puppet theater, as she leads an insurgency against the military.

In “Deaf Republic”, we are confronted by silence in a myriad of ways. Silence in the face of oppressors can be powerful and defiant. (Citizens point to their ears as soldiers bark orders at them, they create their own sign language) Silence in the face of the oppressed can be devastating. (They take Alfonso / and no one stands up. Our silence stands up for us.)

“Deaf Republic” is a powerful read. It is a beautifully written piece with verses that will make you gasp in amazement. And yes, it is unsettling. But I would argue that more than ever, we need to learn to make peace with the feeling of uneasiness. We need to look inward, as painful as that may be, and use that uneasiness and discomfort to go about making change. And that’s something I’m still trying to grapple with: often, the right thing to do is not easy.

At the trial of God, we will ask: why did you allow all this?
And the answer will be an echo: why did you allow all this?

Besides being available in print, Hoboken and other BCCLS patrons can borrow “Deaf Republic” as an ebook from eBCCLS.

Written by:
Samantha Evaristo
Hoboken Library Outreach Assistant

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