April 25, 2017 John Swartwout was minding his own business—scheming against the United States government with his friend, vice president Aaron Burr—when a senator slandered him as a scoundrel. A scoundrel! What was Swartwout to do? Challenge the senator to a duel, of course.
Read a full transcript of this episode on the Something True website.
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Music on this week’s episode:
Fabrizio Paterlini – Veloma
Jahzzar – Fastest Man on Earth*
Josh Woodward – Oh Mallory*
Yair Yona – Pharoah 2011
Chris Zabriskie – Prelude No. 23
*modified for the podcast.
No insult in history has provoked more bloodshed than one man telling another, ‘You’re not a real man.’
‘WHAT!’ men would scream in reply. In 12th century Scandinavia, men would settle such an insult by fighting to the death at a crossroads. In France, during the 14th and 15th centuries, packs of knights would force each other to enter a duel, or else admit that he was not a real man and give up his shoes as a forfeit.
In renaissance Italy, Fiore dei Liberi wrote down a gentleman’s rules of fighting and duelling in a book called The Flos Duellatorum. For the ease of the reader, The Flos Duellatorum came with illustrations of animals who explained in rhyme how to swordfight and wrestle.
It might seem funny now, but for many centuries, if a man described your genitals as “pocket sized” there was no other recourse available than to run screaming at him with a sword.
Such is the struggle of man.
You’re listening to Something True – stories from the footnotes of history. Written by Duncan Fyfe and read by Alex Ashby. This week’s episode: Entourage.
You might not have heard the name John Swartwout. Nobody in John Swartwout’s time had really heard of it either. But everyone did know the name of his best friend: Aaron Burr, the third vice president of the United States.
Swartwout had been a long-time member of Burr's entourage, along with his brothers, the Sensational Swartwout Brothers. His duties as part of Burr’s squad included: nothing.
Aaron Burr was roundly disliked in his time. He was considered ruthlessly ambitious and the archetypal career politician. The aspersions cast upon him were vicious and correct.
But once, Aaron Burr did put self-interest aside to step up in a time of public crisis. Yellow fever had broken out in Lower Manhattan, thought to be the result of a contaminated and sub-par water supply system. ‘I will do something about this,’ Aaron Burr announced. ‘I will make a water company, and provide clean, safe water to the people of Manhattan.’
Even Burr's political enemies were like: ‘Yes. We like this. We love this idea, and we will do whatever it takes to make it happen, Aaron Burr.’ With broad support and political goodwill, a bill setting up Burr's Manhattan water company was swiftly signed into law by the governor of New York.
‘Thank you,’ said Aaron Burr, ‘thank you for your faith in me. One thing, though, just probably something that you should note: I changed the legislation you signed at the last second so that I don't have to actually do any of the water supply stuff, and instead I can run my new company as a bank. And what’s more, I can use the capital we raise to fund my presidential campaign. I think I'm probably going to do that. The whole yellow fever thing... it’s a bit of a toughie. Well, good luck, I don't really have the answer to that one.’
Burr's plan had worked, and everyone was mad at him again. With his newfound largesse, Burr ran a strong campaign, barely losing the presidential race to Thomas Jefferson, instead becoming the vice president in a show of unity. It was Burr's greatest political victory, and he immediately looked into forcing out Jefferson, and claiming the presidency for himself.
Things were looking good for John Swartwout, too. Burr had set him up with a job as associate director of the fake water company/secret bank, drawing upon all of Swartwout's skills and experience in nothing.
But the enemies of Burr had not forgotten. In 1802, a year and a half into Burr's vice presidency, they struck. A gang of New York politicians, led by senator and rising star DeWitt Clinton, forced a takeover of Burr's company and ousted the vice president from his position as director. Swartwout was thrown out as well.
Swartwout wasn't happy. He complained that DeWitt Clinton was a big bully and had only gone after them for personal reasons. And whether or not he meant for it to happen, word of his complaints reached Senator Clinton, who responded publicly by branding John Swartwout “a liar, a scoundrel, and a villain.”
Swartwout was shocked. ‘You're calling me names!’ he said. ‘You're saying that I'm a liar and a scoundrel and a villain and that's not true. That's not fair!’ Such an affront, Swartwout figured, demanded a public apology. He drafted a letter for Clinton to sign, in which a remorseful, pathetic Clinton threw himself upon the mercy of a righteous Swartwout and begged him to accept his profuse apology. Clinton told him to stick that letter up his pocket-sized anus.
Now Swartwout was furious. ‘You have offended me, DeWitt Clinton,’ he said, ‘and I must have satisfaction. I want to fight you. I want to fight you in a duel. I challenge you to face me in a duel, and if you have an ounce of honour at all, you must accept.’
‘Whatever,’ said Clinton. Clinton was in!
In the honour duels of the 18th and 19th centuries, killing your opponent was not the point. The rules of duelling, in fact, made it extremely unlikely. The flintlock pistols typically used often misfired, and duellists had no more than three seconds to take aim. It was not common for participants to be shot, let alone killed.
The purpose of duelling to settle scores was to prove that both parties had the courage of their convictions. The wronged man could face his aggressor, fire a pistol at him, and then—as was his right—declare honour satisfied and call off the duel. The two men would live, look each other in the eye, and shake hands, secure in the knowledge that they were both brave men and sexual men.
However, there was still the problem of duelling being illegal. So, to do it you simply had to get up very early in the morning, before anyone else was awake.
John Swartwout and DeWitt Clinton met at the duelling grounds in Weehawken, New Jersey on July 30, 1802. They were joined by their “seconds”, William Smith and Richard Riker. The seconds were responsible for negotiating on behalf of the “principals”—Swartwout and Clinton—and officially calling the duel to an end once shots were fired and honour had been satisfied. The principals were not able to do this themselves because they were required to glower at one another in anger.
Clinton and Swartwout stood ten yards apart. When ordered to fire, they were to raise their flintlock pistols and, within three seconds, shoot each other.
Swartwout sized up the senator from New York.
Both men took aim, quickly, and fired.
‘Well,’ said William Smith, Swartwout's second. ‘Is honour satisfied?’
‘What?’ Swartwout blinked. ‘No! That was very disappointing for me!’
The seconds conferred. ‘One more time, please,’ Smith called out. Swartwout and Clinton reloaded their pistols, took aim, and fired at each other.
Again, they missed.
‘Is honour satisfied?’ Smith asked Swartwout.
‘No!’ Swartwout said. ‘He called me a liar!’
Clinton shrugged, and they prepared to go again.
Clinton and Swartwout fired again. And missed each other again.
‘Is honour satisfied?’ Smith asked.
‘No, it is not!’
The men reloaded and waited for their instruction.
Swartwout missed. Clinton's bullet ripped through Swartwout's leg, tearing into the flesh below the knee. But Swartwout stayed standing.
‘Oh shit,’ said Smith, looking at the wound. ‘Alright, this is definitely over. We’ve got to get you to a doctor.’
‘No!’ said Swartwout. ‘Honour is not satisfied.’
The code of duelling dictated that only Swartwout, as the offended party, could declare an end to the duel, and so, the principals reloaded to shoot guns at each other again.
On their fifth exchange, Swartwout missed again and Clinton hit Swartwout in the same leg, but above the knee this time. Still, Swartwout remained standing.
‘I want to go again,’ Swartwout said.
‘No, this is really stupid,’ Clinton interrupted. ‘This is just really dumb. I'm not doing this anymore.’
‘What! You can't do that!’
‘I don't want to kill this fool,’ Clinton said. ‘Maybe if the real principal were here, maybe if I was up against Burr, rather than this baby... but no. Forget this. I'm going home in my boat.’
Clinton left with his second, and Swartwout, bleeding from two holes in his leg, turned to Smith helplessly.
‘I don't know what to do now.’
Smith took Swartwout back to, of all places, Aaron Burr's house. Swartwout was carried inside and set down on the carpet.
‘What the fuck?’ Aaron Burr would probably have said. ‘What the fuck is this?’
‘I did it for you!’ cried Swartwout. ‘I did this for you!’
Swartwout survived his injuries, and slandered DeWitt Clinton as a coward. Clinton didn't even respond. And from there, John Swartwout served out the rest of his natural life in a manner that history has declared not worth remembering.
That was Something True, a podcast on the Idle Thumbs network, written by Duncan Fyfe and read by Alex Ashby, with artwork by Ray Chen. Music credits can be found in the description and on our website at somethingtrue.net. Follow us on twitter @atruepodcast, and join us again for the next episode: Häxprocesser.