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Friday Slide Show: The Last Duel Share This on LinkedIn   Share This on Google   Tweet This   Forward This

8 August 2014

History is an imperfect study. Americans are often accused of caring little about it and knowing less. Here's a quick test. Any idea what happened in your neighborhood 150 years ago?

The Site. Beneath the trees, two granite pillars.

Just a few steps from our childhood home is a neglected historical site that was exotic enough that all of us kids knew about it. Studies show we were above average.

That special place is the site of the last duel in California. There former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of California David Terry mortally wounded Senator David Broderick in 1859.

The site was neglected when, as children, we would visit it. But it's gotten a little attention since then. The bare minimum.

It remains a dreary site, the perfect place to do something you don't want anyone to know about. Our photos in today's slide show were mostly taken with an Olympus XZ-1 but one was taken with a Canon Rebel outfitted with a Lensbaby Spark. We'll leave it to you to guess which.

We worked on these in Lightroom 5, applying the Aged Photo preset to mute the colors before tweaking a bit. It really is a dreary place and a realistic rendering would have been depressing. Somehow, artificially aging the images makes the place look other worldly.

Now that you've seen the place, you'll no doubt want to know what happened.

Friends at one time and both Democrats, the unfortunate Broderick was an abolitionist whom the pro-slavery Terry blamed when he lost re-election.

"I see that Terry has been abusing me," Broderick countered. "I now take back the remark I once made that he is the only honest judge in the Supreme Court. I was his friend when he was in need of friends, for which I am sorry. Had the vigilance committee disposed of him as they did of others, they would have done a righteous act."

Both pistols had hair triggers but Broderick's was more sensitive, which proved decisive.

After Terry failed to be renominated as a California Supreme Court Justice, he lashed out at Broderick in a speech accusing Democratic convention delegates of following his orders to keep a pro-slavery judge off the court.

When Broderick heard about the speech, he called Terry a "damned miserable ingrate," a description shortly forwarded to Terry who wrote to Broderick demanding an apology. That not forthcoming, a duel -- illegal in California -- was scheduled for that secluded spot.

Belgian .58 caliber pistols, with which Terry was familiar and had practiced with the day before, were the chosen weapons. Both pistols had hair triggers but Broderick's was more sensitive, which proved decisive.

James O'Meara, an eyewitness, wrote an account of what happened:

His [Broderick's] rigor of frame was so intense that, in the effort to adjust his pistol to the required position, he was obliged to use his left hand to bring his right arm into proper form; and in the effort he also so swerved his whole body that his right leg was pressed out of place, downward and forward, out of line with the left leg, and his chest was thrown out and quartering toward his antagonist, so as to present a larger surface for the chance of a shot aimed at him. He held his pistol in vise-like grip; and his wrist, instead of being in condition for ease of motion, was as an iron bolt, to move only with and as rigidly as the arm. He seemed the impersonation of that order of courage which faces death without terror, which prefers doom to the reproach of fear.

Broderick's gun discharged prematurely into the dirt. But he faced Terry directly who aimed at his chest and fired. Broderick fell to the ground, seriously wounded, a bullet lodged in his lung. He would die three days later, claiming, "They have killed me because I was opposed to slavery and a corrupt administration.""

On the site of the duel today are two granite pillars representing the dueling positions of each man. Standing at either of them, it is shocking to see just how close 10 yards is.

There used to be a plaque on the hill to the north of them indicating where the crowd stood, also too close for comfort. But only the pillars are left at the site itself. A few signs at more public locations point the way and tell a bit of the story.

We've returned now and then to take photos, never quite capturing the reality of that event 155 years ago. We never seem to be able to remember which man was the senator, which the judge, who stood against slavery and who for it, who insulted whom, which man lived, which died.

We just remember it was the last duel fought in California.

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