Fun Fact: Author of Pierson v. Post, Future Supreme Court Justice Livingston, Shot a Federalist in a Duel

November 25th, 2013

Judge Henry Brokholst Livingston wrote the dissent in the definitive first year property case, Pierson v. Post, for the Supreme Court of Judicature in 1805. You can read more about that case in this article I wrote. In 1806, President Jefferson gave him a recess appointment to the Supreme Court. he was confirmed by the Senate later that year. He would serve on the Court until 1823.

And, one more fun fact. He killed someone in a duel in 1798 in Weehawken, the *same* place where Aaron Burr shot Alexander Hamilton!

That secluded spot about 20 feet above the Hudson in Weehawken Heights, N.J., was well screened by trees and faced an uninhabited stretch of Manhattan shoreline in 1800. It lay opposite what is now West 42nd Street in Manhattan. It was a popular spot for New York duelists before and after Hamilton and Burr made it forever notorious. The Weehawken Historical Commission has recorded at least 18 duels from 1799 to 1845 and noted that many others may have gone unrecorded. The dueling area could not easily be observed from above or below, and New Jersey took a more lenient view of the practice than New York. The federal government did not make dueling illegal until 1839.

Reported deaths included those of James Jones, killed by Henry Brockholst Livingston in 1798; Isaac Gouverneur, by William Maxwell in 1815; Benjamin Price, shot by a Major Green in 1816; and William G. Graham, associate editor of The New York Enquirer, who was killed by a Mr. Barton of Philadelphia in 1827.

Go figure. I wonder if hunting foxes is anything like dueling. Though, in a duel, if you miss, you don’t win.

And the origin of this duel is even more salacious!

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
Wring his nose! Ha!

And more. Livingston apparently shot Jones in his “Groin.”

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.”

To quote Eric Cartman, “that’s not cool. You don’t shoot a guy in his d*ck.”

H/T Supreme Court Places