America’s First Deadly Duel

In 1728, two respected Boston merchants, Benjamin Woodbridge and Henry Phillips, got into a disagreement at the Royal Exchange Tavern on King Street. Phillips was 22 and his opponent not much older. Their point of dispute has been lost to the ages, however, we do now the two reported alone to the Boston Common, apparently the traditional site in Boston for dueling by sword.

Here however, their duel took an unfortunate departure from previous duels fought on this spot, as Phillips actually ran his opponent through and possibly killed him.

Robert Handy of the White Horse Tavern, who had loaned Woodbridge his sword, picks up the story. He came upon an alarmed and wounded Woodbridge, who “begged that surgeons might be sent for.” Handy instead attended his dinner engagement and Phillips went on alone to seek help. Woodbridge’ body was discovered on the Common near 3 in the morning morning and Phillips went into hiding.

Once the news broke, then-Governor William Dummer made an appeal for Phillips’ capture and handbills went up on town pumps and major street corners. Phillips got a boat ride out to a British man-of-war in Boston Harbor, Sheerness. It left for Rochelle, France before Phillip’s pursuers found it. He died overseas a year later, supposedly of remorse.

Soon after, the government passed strict punishments for dueling. Persons convicted would “be carried publicly in a cart to the gallows with a rope about his neck, and set on the gallows an hour, then to be imprisoned twelve months without bail.” If participants had not survived, they were denied Christian burial, buried instead “near the usual place of execution with a stake drove through the body.”

This 1916 book is a trove of odd Boston events. Img from the silent film, Old Heidelberg (1915) via NYPL’s Billy Rose Theatre Collection.

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One thought on “America’s First Deadly Duel

  1. Pingback: Dueling Marbles « Looking Backward

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