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Duelling in Canada

Presenter: Hugh Halliday

Article by Owen Cooke, Pictures by Liam Norris

 On Wednesday, 16 March, at Knox Presbyterian Church in Manotick, Hugh Halliday addressed about twenty-five Historical Society members on duelling in Canada.

A native of Manitoba, Hugh has been a long-time resident of Ottawa.  While best known as an aviation historian, he has been the Curator of War Art at the Canadian War Museum and is the author of twelve books on varied topics.  This evening he spoke on one of his interests, and brought with him copies of Murder among Gentlemen; a History of Duelling in Canada, published in 1999, and made them available to the audience.  

Hugh Halliday

Photo by Liam Norris

Hugh gave a lively and fascinating presentation on duelling in Canada, which had been a mystery to most of us there.   

Hugh likened the duel to a conspiracy to commit murder by the principals and their seconds and any witnesses; but with a choice of only two possible victims.  He examined some of the 350 duels and incidents he had been able to identify over the course of Canadian history.  

He outlined the importance of the “seconds”, the duellists’ friends who agreed on the rules under which a duel would be fought and, perhaps more important, interceded to try to reach an agreement under which a duel could be avoided.

In New France, duelling was illegal.  This was true throughout Canadian history, but under the ancien regime, the law was enforced.  All documented duels in New France were with swords.  In the earliest recorded fatal duel, in April 1669, François Blanche dit Langivan, a soldier in the Trois-Rivières garrison, killed Daniel Lamarre dit Desrochers, a fellow soldier.  The survivor was tried, convicted and hanged the same day, and the bodies of both participants were exposed to the elements.  This was justice for the common soldiers, but it is not clear that duels between officers were more than sporadically prosecuted.

For the early English period, much documentation is lacking.   However, the weapons of choice were by then pistols, perhaps because the wearing of swords had gone from everyday fashion.  Duelling was as illegal under English law as it had been under French, but the whole legal system often conspired to prevent trials or acquit the participants.  Few were prosecuted and fewer still convicted.

Hugh outlined some notable duels and incidents:

 Duelling pistols Schoedde-Holland duel

The duel of William Weekes and William Dickson, both prominent lawyers in Newark (now Niagara-on-the-Lake) in1806 was prompted by remarks made in court.  The duel was fought on American soil at Fort Niagara, beyond the reach of Canadian justice.  Dickson killed Weekes.

 

The book on duelling in Canada

Hugh Halliday’s book on duelling in Canada.  Available at Chapters or Indigo.  

The Ridout and Jarvis families were among the most prominent in York (Toronto), but in 1817 in a climax to a long-standing feud, Samuel Peters Jarvis shot and killed 18-year old John Ridout at the corner of Yonge and College streets, then well outside the small city.  Jarvis was tried but acquitted.  

The encounter of John Wilson and Robert Lyon in Perth in 1833 has often been claimed as the last fatal duel in Canada; but that was fought in Verdun, Lower Canada, in 1838, when Robert Sweeney, a successful Montreal lawyer and militia officer, killed Major Henry Warde, a popular officer of the British garrison.  The affair was covered up with “appalling hypocrisy” when the coroner’s jury pronounced the death by “some person unknown.”

Joseph Howe

Joseph Howe

The last known challenge in Canada occurred right here in Ottawa in 1948.  Julio Ricart, Consul General of the Dominican Republic, challenged Dr. Juan Carlos Rodriguez, the Argentine Ambassador over a supposed slight by the Ambassador’s wife.  The Ambassador refused the challenge and the affair ended in farce in both Ottawa newspapers.

Queen Victoria was personally responsible for the end of duelling.  In 1844 she initiated a change to the Articles of War which required a court martial, with a penalty of dismissal, for any officer who duelled, challenged, acted as a second, or failed to prevent a duel.  Civilian society soon followed the Army’s lead.

In Canada men duelled over politics, over courtroom disputes, over gambling and over women.  Why did they fight?  They feared that if they did not, they would be dishonoured.

The evening concluded with a lively question and answer session, then Hugh autographed copies of Murder among Gentlemen.  

Brian thanking Hugh

Photo by Liam Norris

Brian Earl thanked Hugh Halliday for his presentation.

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