May 23, 2011

More on Ellen S. Peniston's dueling admirers of 1820

On May 22, 2011 I posted a story on Ellen Stimpson Peniston and her dueling admirers in 1820. With a little more online work I came across some very interesting information, including the names of combatants and the date they died, which happens to also be the date of the duel (no surprise considering they killed one another).

From the Boisseau Homestead site I learned that the names of the two young men were James Bowe Boisseau and Robert C. Adams. That James was only 18-years old. The duel took place on  Wednesday August 9, 1820 therefore Ellen Stimpson Peniston was also 18-years old. I could not locate anything on Robert C. Adams. The above information comes from the Norfolk and Portsmouth Herald, August 14, 1820.

On the Family Tree Maker site for Anne Stiller I found the following email from AS Boisseau to Anne Stiller (January 1999)

This James B. Boisseau was killed in the duel at Blanford Cemetery, and was reported in newspapers across the state ( I have copies from 10 or 11 different papers).

The story runs that about the year 1820, Ellen Peniston, of Petersburg, Va., engaged herself to two young men at the same time, in a spirit of harmless coquetry, but the two gentlemen took the matter seriously enough to fight a duel over it. They were named Adams and Boisseau, and the fatal encounter took place just back of the old Blandford church, in a pine grove now marked by the graves of the Hamilton family. The two former friends fell dead at the first shot, and the vain and thoughtless girl lived to mourn their hot-headed deed the rest of her life, which continued to a ripe age. (Annals of the Fowler Family Author: Glenn D.F. Arthur Call Number: CS71.F681x, p. 149)Killed in a duel at Old Blandford Church, Petersburg, VA where he fought a man named Adams for the affections of Miss Pennister [sic], a celebrated beauty. Both men, young college students, died almost simultaneously.

Not to sure I appreciate the "vain and thoughtless girl" part but we have to remember this was written from the other side of the fence and that's just the way they may have seen her. They might be correct if their statement is true that Ellen "engaged herself to two young men at the same time ..." By "engaged" do they mean "engaged" to be married or "engaged" in conversations with two men at once. Our family history states that Ellen accepted a drink from one of the young men, which enraged the other, and the duel was challenged. I am told by a female historian that Regency era etiquette at a party scene as was the case when the challenge was made, is that it is expected that all party guests mingle with everyone, even if dating or promised to one man or woman. Ellen had no control or voice in the matter once the dueling challenge  was made. With all that said, if a woman is the core reason for a duel, the women is blamed by society. 

Karen Rae Mehaffey wrote the following on the history of dueling.

The practice of dueling dates back to the Middle Ages as a method of settling a point of honor between two men or families. Dueling in the United States fell out of favor by the 1880s but remains a popular and romanticized act of American culture. It arrived in the United States with the first settlers, and the earliest recorded duel in the colonies took place in Plymouth in 1621. Dueling was never very popular in the North and lost favor and legal status there after the American Revolution. In the South, the aristocracy that developed within the planter class embraced dueling as a method of settling disputes of honor. Duels in the South continued through the Civil War, with recorded duels as late as 1901.

Life in the Deep South was isolated and rural, with definitive class and racial distinctions. The solitary life demanded a code of conduct that centered on one's personal honor, as well as family honor, in order to protect the female members of the family. The southern man was raised to defend his community, his state, and his honor, with his life. Early settlers brought the act of dueling from England, Ireland, and Scotland, and American dueling rules were based on English and Irish codes of conduct. Dueling and honor in some parts of the Deep South were influenced by French and Spanish culture as well. Various geographic regions spurred their own codes, and the most popular printed codes were those of South Carolina, New Orleans, and the English code.

For a man to have grounds for challenging an opponent to a duel, he would have to have incurred some form of insult. The code of honor among Southerners strictly prohibited questioning a man's word. To charge him with "giving a lie" was to question his reputation. Without truth in his word, a man had nothing in society and could not be trusted as a business partner or friend. Calling a man a liar was the most common way to bring on a dueling challenge. Other grounds included disputes over gambling, debts, or drunkenness. Contrary to common belief, women were rarely the cause of duels.

After the challenge, the process of dueling required each opponent to choose a second, normally a relative or close friend, and all arrangements for the duel were handled by the seconds. The man challenged had the choice of weapons, normally pistols. Once the arrangements were made, the opponents met on an arranged dueling ground, where the rules were reviewed and the weapons provided. The duel took place at ten to thirty paces, and if no one was hurt on the first shot, the seconds would meet and decide if an additional shot would be taken. Unlike Europeans, Americans gradually developed a preference for dueling to the death as opposed to simply satisfying honor.

A number of duels are known to history, most famously that of Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton in 1804. Others include Andrew Jackson and Charles Dickinson in 1817 and John Randolph and Henry Clay in 1826. Though most states had laws against dueling by 1820, the practice continued, usually late at night or at dawn, in open spaces such as fields, racetracks, or small islands near shore. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and other political icons supported laws prohibiting dueling, but the practice would not die until the planter class of the antebellum South passed into history at the turn of the twentieth century.

  • Greenberg, Kenneth S. Honor and Slavery. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1996.
  • Stowe, Steven M. Intimacy and Power in the Old South: Ritual in the Lives of the Planters. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987.
  • Wyatt-Brown, Bertram. Honor and Violence in the Old South. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

May 22, 2011
April 16, 2010 

Ellen Stimpson Peniston: pages 19-21.
The duel: pages: 20-21.

Jeff Smith



  1. One of the pistols used in the duel is presently on display at the Blandford Church museum in Petersburg, VA.

    1. Indeed, one of the pistols is on display at the Blandford Church. In the article is the following link for May 22, 2011, which tells the story of that pistol. Thank you very much for writing in!


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