Politics bad now? In 1861, Indiana politicians nearly dueled.
If you think political animosity is bad now, look back at Indiana history.
In February 1861, as Southern states seceded from the Union, two Hoosier legislators nearly dueled after they insulted one another on the floor of the statehouse.
Representative Gideon C. Moody, a Republican from Jasper County, made some derogatory remarks about Indiana Gov. Ashbel P. Willard, a Democrat who had died in 1860.
Another legislator, Democrat Horace Heffren, a lawyer from Salem, defended Willard’s memory. In doing so, he accused Moody of corruption, stating that his fellow legislator had been “wading knee-deep in swamp land frauds and speculations in Jasper county.”
This infuriated the New York-born Moody, who challenged Heffren to a duel. Moody called Heffren’s comments an “unprovoked and insulting attack.”
Although modern Americans typically consider dueling to be a southern phenomenon, some 19th century northerners also embraced a “code of honor.” Like their Dixie-born brethren, they considered dueling to be a viable means of conflict resolution.
As historian Lorien Foote, author of The Gentlemen and the Roughs: Violence, Honor, and Manhood in the Union Army, writes, “Few northern men dueled, but they would fight and kill for honor.” This included legislators Heffren and Moody.
As the challenged party, Heffren picked the weapons for the duel. Because he was the larger man — standing over six feet tall compared to Moody’s five feet, five inches — Heffren chose bowie knives. Moody, however, refused those weapons. Therefore, they eventually settled on fighting with rifles at 75 yards.
Hoping to avoid prosecution, the men chose to fight outside of Newport, Kentucky, an Ohio River town located across from Cincinnati. Kentucky had been a favored spot for out-of-state duelists, and prominent politicians, including future President Andrew Jackson and Texas politician Sam Houston, had previously fought affairs of honor in the Bluegrass State.
Although the duelists tried to keep news of the fight quiet, word of the impending confrontation quickly spread throughout Indianapolis. One correspondent wrote that “the principal topic of conversation for the last week has been duel, duel, duel!” Another remarked that that it caused “a sensation in our city.”
After spending the night in Cincinnati, the duelists and several friends crossed the Ohio River to the dueling ground. A large crowd had gathered to witness the fight.
Much to the chagrin of the spectators, as soon as the duelists arrived, they realized that the man tasked with procuring the rifles had left the weapons in Cincinnati.
When he went to retrieve the guns, friends of the duelists worked to end the animosity. After negotiations, the two legislators withdrew their insulting comments about one another and averted the duel.
Not all politicians, however, negotiated their way out of affairs of honor. As historian Joanne Freeman notes in her book The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War, multiple politicians fought duels during the 19th century.
This includes the “Great Compromiser” Henry Clay, then the U.S. Secretary of State, who dueled Senator John Randolph of Virginia. In another incident, Congressman William Graves of Kentucky shot and killed Representative Jonathan Cilley of Maine.
Freeman writes that Cilley’s death caused a massive uproar across the nation. “Sermons condemned it,” she writes. “Town meetings raged about it. Petitions denounced it. Newspaper headlines literally screamed bloody murder.”
Although no blood was shed in the dispute between Heffren and Moody, Kentucky officials were equally displeased. Because issuing challenges in Kentucky was illegal, authorities arrested them. They each paid a $1,000 bond and were released.
Because the Civil War was brewing, and because Bluegrass State authorities frequently turned a blind eye to dueling, the charges were dropped.
Heffren, however, ultimately had other legal problems to contend with. Although he later served as an officer in the Union army, Federal authorities charged him with treason because of his reputed involvement with several secret pro-Southern organization. He was eventually acquitted.
Moody, who also served as a Union officer during the Civil War, later moved to South Dakota and became a U.S. senator. He died in California in 1891.
Stuart W. Sanders is the author of four books. His latest, Murder on the Ohio Belle, was just published by the University Press of Kentucky.