Kentucky’s wild history of dueling is focus of new exhibit (with a hint of Aaron Burr)

Kentucky Historical Society opens Dueling Grounds Exhibit

The Kentucky History Museum in Frankfort opened the Dueling Grounds exhibit, which includes what was believed to be a dueling pistol used or owned by Aaron Burr, vice president 1801 to 1805 who fatally shot Alexander Hamilton in a duel.
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The Kentucky History Museum in Frankfort opened the Dueling Grounds exhibit, which includes what was believed to be a dueling pistol used or owned by Aaron Burr, vice president 1801 to 1805 who fatally shot Alexander Hamilton in a duel.

Plenty of Hamilton fans and history buffs know the trouble Aaron Burr can cause with a pistol.

While that trouble is enacted onstage in Louisville this month, a piece of authentic Kentucky history involving Burr is on display at the Old State Capitol in Frankfort.

The Kentucky Historical Society has recently rolled out “Dueling Grounds,” a new exhibit that focuses on dueling throughout Kentucky History. Among the exhibit’s featured items is a pistol reportedly owned by Aaron Burr himself.

Some of the items on display are grislier.

After suffering a slight in a tavern in 1801, John Rowan — who would later become Kentucky’s third secretary of state and a judge on the court of appeals — entered a duel with Rep. John Chambers. The encounter left Chambers fatally wounded. In the duel’s aftermath, Rowan reportedly crafted a ring with a lock of the deceased Chambers’ hair inside.

That ring now stands on display in the new exhibit. It is a fitting artifact — Rowan would later become the Kentucky Historical Society’s first president, according to a press release from the organization.

Other objects in the exhibit include a disguised gun cane, a broadsword and a set of dueling pistols, as well as a set of replica pistols that allow visitors to test the heft and feel of the weapons.

Although dueling has long been illegal in Kentucky, several public figures and politicians dueled into the 19th and 20th centuries, according to Carol Bolton, the Kentucky Historical Society’s student engagement specialist.

“Socially, it was kind of an acceptable thing. Many of these men were politicians (and) it didn’t seem to matter to the public that they’d been involved in fights like this,” Bolton said. “In fact, some would say it actually helped their reputation.”

Henry Clay, former speaker of the House of Representatives, certainly maintained a lofty reputation despite his involvement in at least one duel. Andrew Jackson also partook in the popular tradition. Bolton said Jackson even held one of his duels in Kentucky — a match that his opponent did not walk away from.

Abraham Lincoln was not entirely above the tradition, either, although his sole duel ended in a peaceful truce.

Dueling was so rampant at one point that lawmakers amended Kentucky’s constitution to address it.

“I do solemnly swear that I will support the Constitution of the United States, and the Constitution of this state… and I do further solemnly swear that since the adoption of the present Constitution, I being a citizen of this state, have not fought a duel with deadly weapons within this state nor out of it,” reads an oath of office signed by former Governor Charles D. Pennebaker.

In 2015, Governor Matt Bevin spoke these very same words before taking office.

“Dueling is interesting,” Bolton said. “We think of it as this wild, violent thing, but there is actually a kind of strict code of conduct that duelists would abide by. It was very ritualistic, if you will. And only gentlemen from the upper classes would duel each other.”

Dueling rules were strict, Bolton said.

“If you’ve been insulted and you’re mad about it and you issue a challenge, you each pick a second and the seconds actually negotiate where you’re gonna duel and what weapons are gonna be used.”

Although duels are traditionally thought of as involving twin pistols, Bolton said the method of engagement often varied.. Weapons ranged from pistols to shotguns, from knives to broadswords — Lincoln’s reported weapon of choice.

Bolton said duels could end in death, victory or stalemate.

“Sometimes — if no one got hurt — the seconds would be like, ‘okay, guys, you’re done, you’ve fulfilled honor, let’s all go home.’ But you know, sometimes the duelists wanted to keep going and try again,” Bolton said.

After the Civil War, dueling began to fall out of favor, giving rise to concealed carry in its stead. Bolton said this is another step in the history of conflict resolution, of which dueling is a part.

One “Dueling Grounds” display prompts visitors to think of alternative solutions to conflict. A sea of yellow sticky notes offer such ideas as “go to sleep it will be better tomorrow,” “talk it out duhhhh” and this bit of advice, with underlined emphasis: “Not on social media!”

The exhibit is included in the price of general admission to the Kentucky History Center’s museums. Admission is 8 dollars for adults and 6 dollars for children aged six to 18 as well as veterans. Admission is free for children under the age of six.

“Dueling Grounds” will be open until Oct. 19 of this year.