It’s hard to imagine a time when a quarrel or an insult would have been settled by dueling. Arguably America’s most famous duel, between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, took place over two centuries ago. However, this form of “conflict mediation” continued in the United States until after the Civil War. The Cecil Whig frequently reprinted items concerning duels occurring relatively close by such as at the Bladensburg dueling grounds, or as far afield as New Orleans, and yet further still in continental Europe. In fact, an examination of the Whig from 1848 to 1860 reveals that almost every issue contains a mention of the custom if not a specific incident that took place somewhere in the world.
Locally, however, there was not much dueling excitement to be had, certainly not so much as at Bladensburg, where duels involving government officials, due to the town’s proximity to Washington, D. C., were a common occurrence. However, the area known as “The Wedge,” presumably because of its disputed boundary between the states of Maryland, Delaware and Pennsylvania also attracted the occasional combatants. The Whig reports incidents in August of 1841 and August 1848, the first of which is mentioned as taking place at the “Delaware line.” A generous amount of press was garnered by an incident in April 1842, which saw parties on both sides expressing their views of the enterprise and its aftermath.
The two combatants, both residents of Havre de Grace, were James O. Patterson, gentleman of leisure, and William Dawes, genteel but poor portrait painter. Mr. Patterson did not stoop to addressing letters to the newspaper about the situation, so we have only Mr. Dawes’s account to go by. Apparently Mr. Patterson arranged with Mr. Dawes to have his portrait painted, sat for the artist on one occasion, then seems to have decided not to continue. He also neglected to pay Mr. Dawes for his work. Over the next few weeks Mr. Dawes attempts to persuade Mr. Patterson to continue with the portrait, and of course to pay him for his effort. Patterson agrees but remains slippery. In the end, a compromise is reached: Dawes will be paid half-price for the complete work, and the portrait will be turned over to Patterson. And indeed these two things occur; Patterson takes possession of the painting and shreds it in the street, then apparently uses a whip on Dawes, who responds by cracking Patterson in the mouth with a pistol.
The initial report by Whig editor Ricketts on April 9, 1842 takes a mocking tone and treats the whole business as something of a joke:
. . . Grey’s Hill has twice within a short time, been fixed upon as the fit spot in which to wash the stains away from honor, and heal its wounds. It bids fair to take the palm from Bladensburg, and there is every reason that it should, it being so easily approached at all times, from all quarters, by rail-roads, by stages, and by water. If they wish to “waste their blood unseen” there are dark and shady dells where the pleasure of having brains blown out may be experienced in its fullest romance.
The quote continues in a similar manner, so it is no great surprise that the April 16 paper contains two letters, one from Mr. Dawes and one from a party of the other side (unsigned) in The “Affair,” the title editor Ricketts bestows upon it. Both letters take umbrage at the details provided in the initial account.
Nothing further appears in the Whig until May 7, when no less than eight letters, and a poem by the prolific Mr. Dawes, are included. Seven of the letters are from Dawes’s side: from himself, his “second” in the dueling party and a third friend who also happened to be the editor of the Susquehanna Advocate, a Harford County paper published in Havre de Grace. By May 16, the letter count is down to six, chronicling the dissolution of the friendship between Dawes and his “second.” Though Dawes appears to have been the more aggrieved party of The “Affair,” clearly his persistence in pursuing honor became an aggravation even to his friends. It would be interesting to know what became of him, and of his enemy Mr. Patterson. More, perhaps, on that later . . .
The Historical Society of Cecil County is currently open by appointment only. If you’d like to visit us for research, please call and schedule an appointment. Our phone number is 410-398-1790.