Tree stump on Scott-Fayette line was once the site of several duels

gkocher1@herald-leader.comDecember 29, 2013 

GEORGETOWN — Nature, not bullets, felled the Dueling Tree on the Scott-Fayette County line.

Several famous duels were fought in the 1800s near the large burr oak, which blew down in a windstorm just before Christmas 1992. Now just a stump next to Cane Run Creek on land owned by the Kentucky Horse Park, the tree and its history were retold this year when the National Geographic Channel show Diggers brought metal detectors to look for evidence of the gunfights.

And, to Bill Cooke's surprise, they found artifacts that could be from those contests.

"I never expected there would be anything tangible," said Cooke, director of the International Museum of the Horse.

Beneath the ground just a few yards from the tree, Diggers found what is thought to be a lead bullet fragment, a percussion cap fired from a musket, and a couple of round balls or "mini balls" that were precursors to modern bullets. They also found some remnants of shotgun shells.

The artifacts are tiny and all fit in the palm of a hand when poured out from clear plastic bags that now hold them.

"Supposedly, those could be from the mid- to late-19th century," Cooke said. "They would have to go back to the 1850s if they were used in a duel, but who's to say? I don't know."

The Scott-Fayette county line was a favored spot for duels because it would increase the difficulty in proving which county a duel had been fought should the law come calling.

"If the Fayette County sheriff showed up, they jumped over into Scott County or vice versa," said Jim Barton, who formerly owned the property where the tree once stood.

The first duel recorded at the site was in 1818 and might be the only Kentucky duel fought between doctors. Dr. Benjamin W. Dudley and Dr. William H. Richardson were young Lexington physicians, and both taught at Transylvania's medical school.

Initially the dispute was between Dudley and a friend of Richardson. The two had disagreed over the methods Dudley had used in an autopsy. Words were exchanged until Dudley felt insulted beyond repair and demanded satisfaction through a duel.

Richardson's friend opposed the use of duels to settle differences, so Richardson accepted in his stead. Dudley and Richardson faced each other at 10 paces and, upon hearing the command, fired. Dudley was unscathed but Richardson fell to the ground with a life-threatening wound to the groin.

Richardson was bleeding profusely and needed immediate assistance to survive, but his attending doctor could not stop the flow. So, in an ironic turnaround, Dudley offered his assistance. He stopped the bleeding and sewed the severed artery, saving his opponent's life.

In 1829, a duel was fought between Robert Wickliffe, a state senator from Lexington, and George Trotter, a newspaper editor in Lexington who had made disparaging remarks about Wickliffe. Trotter escaped without a scratch, but Wickliffe was mortally wounded.

In 1848, O.M. Smith of Paris and Thomas H. Holt of St. Louis fired at each other "without effect" and then settled their differences.

In 1849, delegates to the constitutional convention inserted a provision in Kentucky's new charter that required all state officers to take an oath that they had never fought, issued a challenge or acted as a second in a duel. That helped to bring an end to formal dueling in Kentucky.

But not always. In 1851, Benjamin Johnson killed Thomas White in a duel fought at the dueling tree with double-barrelled shotguns loaded with single balls at 40 yards.

The last recorded duel at the site happened March 26, 1866, almost a year after the Civil War had ended.

The participants were Joseph Desha, grandson of former Kentucky Gov. Joseph Desha (he served 1824-28) and Alexander Kimbrough.

"The cause of the duel was probably personal animosity, although some accounts also cited political reasons, as Desha had been a major in the Confederate army and Kimbrough a Union sergeant," according to the Kentucky Encyclopedia.

The duel had its origins in the lobby of a Cynthiana hotel, where Desha approached Kimbrough, who refused to acknowledge Desha's hand extended for a handshake. Kimbrough called Desha a scoundrel. A scuffle ensued "with no apparent victor," so Kimbrough sent a note of challenge, and Desha accepted.

In their first shots, Desha and Kimbrough missed each other. In the second round, Desha wounded Kimbrough in the hip. Both men fled to Canada to avoid prosecution, but in 1875, Gov. James McCreary pardoned them and restored their citizenship.

After his pardon, Desha raised livestock in Harrison County. He died in Cynthiana on May 8, 1902, and was buried there.

Kimbrough, who limped the rest of his life, lived in Texas, Arizona and Los Angeles, and died in 1921 at a home for disabled soldiers in Leavenworth, Kan. He was buried in the same Cynthiana cemetery as Kimbrough.

Today, Kentucky is the only state that requires officeholders to swear they have "not fought a duel with deadly weapons within this state nor out of it."

State legislators have tried repeatedly — as recently as 2010 — to remove the dueling language from oaths, but it's still in there and still prompts snickers among people attending swearing-in ceremonies.

So the stump near Cane Creek isn't the only remnant that's still around from Kentucky's dueling days.

Greg Kocher: (859) 231-3305. Twitter: @heraldleader.

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