Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Livingstons in a Duel!?

So I was hastily whipping through one of my old favorite books Under Their Fig and Vine Tree, a travel journal written by Polish revolutionary Julian Ursyn Niemcevicz in the late 1790s.  And then I came across this passage:

'Did you know,' Mr. Law asked him [Washington], 'Mr. Jones, who was recently killed in a duel by Mr. Livingston?' 'I believe I have seen him, but I was never on intimate terms with him.' 'They say that the shot he fired at his opponent had grazed his nose.' 'How could he miss it,' replied the General. 'You know Livingston's nose; what a target!'

I honestly couldn't decide whether I was more tickled by the titillating notion of a Livingston in a pistol duel or the slight about the family's notorious aquiline nose. I forwarded it immediately to my friendly Livingston historian Geoff Benton and got back the following reference:

Duel # 1:
1798 - Unknown date
Brockholst Livingston versus James Jones
Livingston was a Republican and Jones a Federalist

According to Affairs of Honor by Joanne Freeman (page 172) -- When Republican Brockholst Livingston insulted Federalist James Jones, Jones responded by first caning Livingston and then trying to "wring his nose" -- so serious an affront that it prompted a discussion about precisely how much of Livingston's nose had been grabbed.

Jones was killed

Brockholst, eh?  Of course, I don't know much of anything about Brockholst except his unusual name.  In fact, a search through the Livingston Geneology gave me his full name as Henry Brockholst Livingston (b. 1757) who has a dashing portrait in A Portrait of Livingston Manor (shown at right).  Also there is a less dashing one (shown below at left).

And well it's true, he does have quite the nose.

According to Collins, the book's author, Brockholst had "always been known for an explosive sense of humor and an equally unpredictable temper."  He was a well-respected lawyer who'd been a wartime aide-de-campe to George Washington, who was also a close ally of Aaron Burr's.

When a editorial he wrote carelessly slighted a Federalist figure named James Jones, the other man assaulted him in front of his wife and children with a cane.  The final insult came when Jones grabbed Livingston by his prominent nose and yanked.

That was it!  A man's dignity can only take so much apparently, and he challenged Jones to a duel.  The other man was killed with a single shot to the groin, and Livingston was not prosecuted. 

The death haunted him for years however, and one acquaintance reported, "his best friends cannot lament his death more than Mr. Livingston does."

Eventually Livingston served on the Supreme Court of New York from 1802-1807 and from then on the US Supreme Court until 1823.  Apparently his career was unharmed by the incident, although assaults on his dignity appear to have been the penance that will follow him into history.

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