Family Stories

Drs. Benjamin W. Dudley and William H. Richardson Duel in 1818 – At the Dueling Tree on the Fayette/Scott County Line

While at the Ohio Book Store in Cincinnati I was fortunate to find a copy of Some of the Medical Pioneers of Kentucky.  It was edited by J. N. McCormack, M.D., L.L.D., biographies written by various doctors of early doctors in Kentucky.  There is no publishing date, but the book is very old.  The two doctors mentioned in the following article about duels have their biographies and portraits in this book, and follow the article.

The Messenger Inquirer, Owensboro, Daviess County, Kentucky

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Tree stump on Scott-Fayette line once dueling site

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 in the groin.

Richards 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 ended.

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

The following article, written by L. P. Yandell, M.D., Louisville, was read at a meeting of the Kentucky State Medical Society at Bowling Green, April, 1870.  I share portions of the article with you.

The announcement of the death of Dr. B. W. Dudley, though from his great age and increasing infirmities an event not unexpected, will be read with feelings of sadness by every American physician; and educated surgeons in every country will feel, when they read it, that a great light of the profession has gone out.  The oldest by many years of all the eminent medical men of the West and South, for a long time the unrivaled surgeon of the Mississippi Valley, one of the founders of the earliest of all our western schools of medicine, he was the last remaining link between the present generation of physicians and that which has passed away with him.  If he leaves behind him any superior in the profession of our country, it is certain that no one of all our surgeons has occupied a larger space in the public eye.  He achieved indeed a great reputation.  He was equally distinguished as a surgeon and as a teacher of surgery.  His life and character were in many respects remarkable, and furnish materials for a memoir of extraordinary interest.

Dr. Benjamin Winslow Dudley was born of respectable and pious parents in Spottsylvania County, Virginia, on the 12th of April, 1785.  His father, the Rev. Ambrose Dudley, long known as a leading Baptist minister in Kentucky, and whose memory is still affectionately cherished in the churches where he labored, removed from Virginia to the neighborhood of Lexington, into what was then called the county of Kentucky, when this gifted son was a year old.  In that neighborhood his long life was passed.

His first medical studies were with Dr. Frederick Ridgely, and in the fall of 1804 went to Philadelphia to attend medical lectures [this is where he first met Dr. William H. Richardson].  Afterwards Dr. Dudley spent four years in Europe, learning his trade as doctor.  He returned to Lexington in the summer of 1814, and three years later was made professor of anatomy and surgery at Transylvania University.  When the medical school was moved to Louisville in 1837, he declined to follow, remaining in Lexington.

Dr. Dudley’s reputation as a surgeon rests chiefly upon his operations for stone in the bladder, in which he succeeded better than all other surgeons of the world, either of our own or of former times, performing 225 such operations in his lifetime.

In some respects, Dr. Dudley, as a practitioner, was in advance of his age.  He condemned blood-letting, and used to say that a man’s life was shortened a year for every bleeding.

Dr. Dudley was married on the 9th of June, 1821, to Miss Anna Marie Short, daughter of Major Peyton Short, and sister of the late Prof. Charles W. Short.  This estimable lady died young, leaving him two sons and a daughter; the present Dr. Wilkins Dudley, W. A. Dudley, Esq., and Mrs. Anna Tilford.  He never married a second time.

He delivered his last lecture in February, 1850, and the last entry on his books bears date April 28, 1853.  He was consulted often afterward by his professional brethren, but from that time forward he never treated any patient of his own.  His death took place on Thursday, the 20th day of January, 1870, in the eighty-fifth year of his age.

The following article was written by Robert Peter, A.M., M.D., Lexington.

Taught in the Medical Department of Transylvania until the time of his death in 1844, and was highly respected by his pupils as a practical teacher in his especial chair, not withstanding the fact that he had not had the advantage of a college education.  He was a man of great energy and of many admirable traits of character.  His pupil, the late Dr. Lewis Rogers, in his address as President of the Kentucky State Medical Society in 1873, thus spoke of his old preceptor and friend:

‘Few men ever had nobler traits of character.  He was warm-hearted, brave, and a sincere friend.  I knew him from my earliest boyhood, and have passed away many happy and instructive hours at his magnificent home in Fayette County.  His hospitality was profuse and elegant.  I listened to his public teachings as a professor with interest and care, because I knew he taught the truth as far as he possessed it.  He was not scholarly or graceful and fluent as a lecturer, but he was ardent and impressive, sufficiently learned in his special branch, and had at his command a large stock of ripe experience.  I honor his memory beyond most men I have known.’

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