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Were any famous duels fought in Southeastern North Carolina?

Ben Steelman
Willkings monument

This monument in Oakdale Cemetery is to Dr. William Crawford Willkings, killed in a duel on May 3, 1856. (Photo from the Louis T. Moore Collection, New Hanover County Public Library)

The Southern code of honor prevailed on the Lower Cape Fear for much of the antebellum era, and duels, while uncommon, did occur.

In fact, what might be North Carolina’s first recorded duel took place at Brunswick Town, near St. Philip’s Church, on March 18, 1765. The principals were Capt. Alex Simpson and Lt. Thomas Whitehurst, both officers of the Royal Navy’s sloop-of-war HMS Viper. According to Alfred Moore Waddell, the dispute was over a local woman (although some sources claim that Simpson was married, with children). Other sources claim politics was involved.

By all accounts, it was a bloody mess. Simpson’s shot hit Whitehurst’s thigh, and he fell to the ground. Whitehurst’s bullet hit Simpson’s back and came out under his arm. Perhaps Whitehurst fired before Simpson could turn. At any rate, Simpson, apparently enraged, began to beat the prone Whitehurst to death, so hard that he broke the butt of his pistol. Whitehurst expired of a crushed skull.

Apparently, this was a bit much for gentlemanly behavior. Simpson was held for trial, but he escaped local custody on the night of March 27, 1765, and fled, it was thought,  to Virginia. Newly appointed colonial governor William Tryon wrote to Virginia’s Gov. Francis Farquier, requesting Simpson’s return and offering a 50-pound reward for his capture. Before long, however, Simpson reappeared and voluntarily surrendered. Tried at Wilmington in October 1765, Simpson was convicted of manslaughter and was sentenced to have his thumb branded with the letter “M.”

On July 11, 1787, Maj. Samuel Swann, a Revolutionary War veteran, and John Bradley, a Wilmington merchant, dueled just outside the St. James Episcopal churchyard, not far from modern-day Fourth Street. Apparently, Bradley had accused an Englishman who was a guest in Swann’s house of theft from his store, and Swann demanded satisfaction. Swann was killed, and Bradley was bound over for trial, but before he could be convicted, he was apparently pardoned by the governor on the recommendation of the General Assembly.

Maj. Gen. Robert Howe of Brunswick County, a Patriot leader, fought a duel with Christopher Gadsden on Aug. 13, 1778, near Charleston, S.C., after Gadsden had criticized Howe’s conduct in the loss of Savannah, Ga., to the British. Howe’s ball grazed Gadsden’s ear, and Gadsden fired into the air, after which the two were reconciled.

After U.S. Rep. John Stanly killed former Gov. Richard Dobbs Spaight in an 1802 duel at New Bern, the General Assembly passed strict-sounding laws against dueling. Among other provisions, anyone who participated in a duel, even as a second, would be banned from political office in the state, and if one duelist died, the other would face the death penalty. In practice, however, the law was loosely enforced, and numbers of state leaders, including Gov. Montford Stokes, continued to fight in affairs of honor.

The most famous duel in Southeastern North Carolina, and apparently the last, was between Joseph H. Flanner and Dr. William Crawford Willkings on May 3, 1856.

Here, the cause was politics — in particular, a now-obscure local election to the Board of Commissioners of Navigation for the port of Wilmington. Among other duties, this board had the power to quarantine ships suspected of carrying yellow fever or other infectious diseases. Control of the five-member board was up for grabs between the Democrats and the American Party or “Know-Nothings,” which in North Carolina had absorbed most of the now-shattered Whig party.

At a Democratic rally on April 30, 1856, at the New Hanover County Courthouse, Dr. Willkings stood up and delivered what the Wilmington Journal described as “an animated and stirring address.” In the course of his remarks, he claimed that the Know-Nothing candidates for the board would jeopardize the public health for “the sake of a dollar.”

This statement drew the ire of Flanner, one of the American Party candidates for the post, who printed a “card,” or classified ad in a newspaper the next day, claiming various of Willkings’ statements were lies. Willkings took offense and challenged. (By some accounts the two had been friends, or at least cordial acquaintances, until the political campaign.)

The duel caused a sensation. “I was then nine years of age, at Jewett’s school,” wrote James Sprunt in “Chronicles of the Cape Fear,” “and I remember distinctly the excitement of the schoolboys when Mr. Flanner rushed past the schoolhouse (in a carriage) behind his two black thoroughbreds, on the way to the fatal encounter.”

The parties, including seconds and surgeon James F. McRee Jr., made their way to Fair Bluff, then crossed into South Carolina to observe the legal niceties. The choice of weapons was pistols at 10 paces. According to Louis T. Moore, Flanner said he had planned to fire in the air, but when Willkings’ first shot creased his arm, he aimed to defend himself.

The contest went to three rounds. Flanner’s bullet knocked off Willkings’ hat. (Sprunt says this happened on the first round; Moore, on the second). Then, on the third round, Flanner hit Willkings in the right lung and “in a very few moments (he) expired,” according to the Wilmington Herald. McRee said Willkings swayed for a moment or two, then fell to the ground, with a froth of blood upon his lips.

Willkings, 30, was buried at Oakdale Cemetery, his coffin accompanied by “the largest and most deeply affected concourse of people that has ever been seen in Wilmington,” according to the Wilmington Journal. “Many an eye was wet, although long unused to tears.”

The Democratic Association of Wilmington paid for the erection of a granite obelisk more than 20 feet high, which still stands over Willkings’ grave. A long inscription paid tribute to the young doctor’s many virtues and the high regard in which he was held by the community. The only indication of his death by duel was a brief allusion to a life “suddenly closed.” Regrettably, the marker misspelled Willkings’ name as “Wilkings.”

Moore claims the Willkings-Flanner encounter was the last fatal duel in North Carolina, although non-fatal duels were reported in other corners of the Tar Heel state as late as 1883.

Ironically, Flanner ended up winning a seat on the board by one vote. He relocated to New Bern soon after the duel, served as a North Carolina state agent in Europe during the Civil War and died in New Bern in 1885. According to Moore, a Flanner descendant in New Bern still owned two bullets from the duel a century later.

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One Response to “ Were any famous duels fought in Southeastern North Carolina?”

  1. On November 5, 2010 at 9:49 am Rob wrote:

    That was a great article!

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