Duels in 1852

Primary Source

Annals of San Francisco, 1855

The custom of fighting duels was at the period of which we write, as it at present is, deplorably common among the higher class of people of San Francisco. These encounters are generally conducted in a manner which must appear somewhat strange to the natives of other civilized countries. There is little delicate privacy observed on the occasion. On the contrary, the parties, or their immediate friends, invite all their acquaintances, who invite others to go and witness the proposed engagement. It is sometimes announced the day before in the newspapers--time, place, parties, weapons, and every particular of the ceremony being faithfully given. That no price is mentioned for the sight, seems the only thing that distinguishes the entertainment from a bull or bear fight. If two notable characters be announced to perform a duel, say at the mission, half the city flocks to the place, and, of course, the spectators are much disappointed should nobody be slain. If the bloody entertainment be advertised to "come off," say at Benicia or somewhere in Contra Costa, the steamers of the eventful morning are densely packed with those who prefer the excitement of a gladiatorial show to the dull pursuit of business, or loafing about the streets. The favorite weapons are navy revolvers. The antagonists stand back to back, walk five paces, turn suddenly around, and fire away at their leisure, till one or both are wounded or slain, or the barrels are all discharged. Sometimes rifles are preferred. With these deadly instruments many men can lodge the ball within a hair's breadth of a given mark at forty paces off, which is the usual distance between the parties in a duel of this description.

We intended to have made Mr. Gilbert's death a text, not only for enlarging upon the usual savage and public nature of the numerous duels which take place here, but also for some remarks upon the general carelessness of life among the people, and the frequency of sudden personal quarrels, when revolvers, bowie-knives and "slung shots" are unhesitatingly made use of. But we have at so many other places in this work had occasion to allude to these every-day characteristics of the inhabitants, that little more need be said here on the subject.

In the earlier years--that is, in 1849 and 1850--fatal affrays were of very frequent occurrence in the streets, and in every place of public amusement. In the gambling saloons, pistols, loaded with ball, would every night be discharged by some hot-headed, revengeful, or drunken fellows. The crowd around were always liable to be wounded, if not killed, but notwithstanding, play at every table went briskly on, as if no danger of the kind existed. A momentary confusion and surprise might take place if anybody happened to be murdered in the room; but soon the excitement died away. Similar events often occurred at the bar, or on the steps of a hotel, in a low dance or drinking-house, or in the open street, and nobody was much surprised, though some of the parties were severely wounded or killed outright. It was their "destiny," or their " luck." Since the years last mentioned, quarrels of this description have become less common, though they are still numerous. There is a sad recklessness of conduct and carelessness of life among the people of California; and nearly all the inhabitants of San Francisco, whatever be their native country, or their original pacific disposition, share in the same hasty, wild character and feeling. The circumstances of the time, the place and people, soon create the necessity in the latest immigrant of thinking and acting like the older residents on this subject. It has always been a practice with a large proportion of the citizens, to carry loaded fire-arms or other deadly weapons concealed about their persons, this being, as it were, a part of their ordinary dress; while occasionally the rest of the inhabitants are compelled also to arm themselves like their neighbors. Of course, these arms are intended for defence against attacks by robbers, as well as to be used, when necessary, against those who would merely assault the person without meaning to steal. Such weapons are not generally produced, except in cases of extremity, or the place would soon be made desolate; while sometimes the fear of provoking their use may keep the rowdy and the insolent rascal quiet. Yet, the unhappy possession of these fatal instruments often gives rise, on occasions of sudden passion, to many lamentable consequences.

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