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

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