Duels and the Roots of Violence in Missouri

Duels and the Roots of Violence in Missouri

Duels and the Roots of Violence in Missouri

Duels and the Roots of Violence in Missouri


In early-nineteenth-century Missouri, the duel was a rite of passage for many young gentlemen seeking prestige and power. In time, however, other social groups, influenced by the ruling class, engaged in a variety of violent acts and symbolic challenges under the rubric of the code duello. In Duels and the Roots of Violence in Missouri, Dick Steward takes an in-depth look at the evolution of dueling, tracing the origins, course, consequences, and ultimate demise of one of the most deadly art forms in Missouri history. By focusing on the history of dueling in Missouri, Steward details an important part of our culture and the long-reaching impact this form of violence has had on our society.

Drawing upon accounts of at least a hundred duels--from little-known encounters to those involving celebrated figures such as Senator Thomas Hart Benton, Charles Lucas, Thomas Biddle, Spencer Pettis, and John Smith T--Steward shows how the roots of violence have penetrated our modern culture. He traces the social and cultural changes in the nature of the duel from its earliest form as a defense of honor to its use as a means of revenge. By the latter part of the nineteenth century, the formal southern duel had for the most part given way to the improvised western duel, better known as the gunfight. Involving such gunslingers as Wild Bill Hickok and Jesse James, these violent acts captivated people not only in the state but also across the nation. Although the violence entailed different methods of killing, its allure remained as strong as ever.

Steward re-creates the human drama and tragedy in many of these hostile encounters, revealing how different groups operating under the code duello justified family and clan feuds, vigilante justice, and revenge killings. This often-glamorized violence, Steward argues, was viewed as a symbol of honor and courage throughout the century and greatly influenced behavior and attitudes toward violence well into the twentieth century.

While this work centers mainly on Missouri and the history of dueling in the state, its inferences extend well past the region itself. Well-written and thoroughly researched, Duels and the Roots of Violence in Missouri provides valuable insight into the violent social climate of yesterday.


Violence stalks the American landscape and haunts the minds and souls of our people. History, by documenting this specter of violence in our past, offers us an opportunity to understand our modern predicament. The roots of this social phenomena reach far back and extend into a myriad of diverse communities. Missouri, however, offers some unique insights. Regional and state histories such as this book are the building blocks of historical generalizations. Collectively, these case studies provide the inductive framework for greater constructs of historical causation.

Duels and the Roots of Violence in Missouri centers around a state’s love affair with the code duello. Although this particular form of nineteenth-century violence was in some respects a unique phenomenon, it nevertheless provides additional evidence and documentation for those searching for the roots of contemporary violence. Modern social and behavioral scientists have long established a causal relationship between social class and violence. Poverty, far more than any other variable, produces aberrant behavior. Ironically, the churlish synergy of violence and class took a different twist in the nineteenth century. In an Orwellian inversion of epic proportions, acts of violence were orchestrated not so much by the downtrodden as by the elites. It was the upper class, using the dueling pistol as the weapon of choice, which defined the standards of social conduct. It was they, while engaged in this illegal pursuit, who conditioned and romanticized the efficacy of violence. In no area of the country was this process more apparent than in Missouri, with its brusque amalgam of southern and western heritages.

Violence, sadly enough, has played a far too important role in Missouri’s past and present. Perhaps its frontier history, as well as its mixture of cultures and traditions, has contributed to this volatility. The statistics speak for themselves. In 1994, St. Louis witnessed 248 homicides. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, this high number contributed to St. Louis’s ranking as the second most violent city in the nation. By 1995, with 110 . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.