January 10, 2024

THE DUEL IN ELLEN'S HONOR: Soapy Smith’s grandmother

Soapy Smith’s grandmother

On Wednesday, August 9, 1820, an argument between 17-year-old, James Bowe Boisseau (1802-1820) and Robert C. Adams (unknown-1820) vying for the attention of 18-year-old Ellen Stimpson Peniston (1802-1860), took a terrible turn. The happy party in her honor took a tragic turn when the competition for Ellen’s affections ended in a deadly duel, in which both young gentlemen were killed. The gun-duel took place in a secluded yard behind the Old Blandford Church and cemetery, 319 South Crater Road Petersburg, Virginia.

There are family stories, along with a letter written in 1903 by Ellen's brother, John G. Peniston (1811-1906), pertaining to his sister and the duel. With the coming of the internet a lot of details have been dug up, giving us a better look at the tragic incident and the young woman, Ellen. The letter was written when John was 92-years-old, and was transcribed decades later by family genealogist, Ellen Peniston Rafeedie. I do not have the original letter, nor have I seen a copy; thus, I cannot determine how much of the transcription below is a true copy of the original letter in regards to grammar, spellings, punctuation, capitalization, etc.

Ryan, Ind. Territory [Oklahoma]
March 26, 1903
My own dear Niece:
Mrs. Ellen S. Faver
     I was very glad to receive your kind grattifying[sic] and unexpected letter. I assure you it aroused the slumbering ties of consanguinity, and as I read it, over and over it bore the impress on memories page of my own dear Saintly Sister Ellen, whose christian[capitalize] soul and wonderful personality, stamped her in early life the Bell[e] of Virginia.
     I regret that I cannot give you all the particulars of that fatal duel., between Adams an Boisseau. I think the circumstance this – Sister was boarding after the death of our Parents with the Aikin family. They gave her a party on a Magnificent Scale. - both of the young men were present, and nothing seemed to mar the pleasures of the enthusiast[sic] Adams brought refreshments to Sister, which offended Boisseau. They quarreled and he challenged Adams-they fought at Old Blandford Cemetery, and both were killed, - Adams may have addressed my Sister – both were prominent young men – Of course Sister had no control of the sad affair – But I think it clouded the future of her promising life.
     Several days ago, I answered a letter to your Uncle William A. Smith – He wanted to know the antecedents of the Peniston’s, - I deeply regret my incompetency to give a full and reliable statement, being only 4 years of age on the death of my Parents 1816 And the information I gave William A. I learned from others – Please see William as intended the letter for Dr. Lum – Dr. Henry and all my relatives – I regret that I did not mention my youngest brother, Dr. Thomas Peniston, he was a Professor in the New School of Medison[sic] in New Orleans, and was a Success in life. I dearly loved him, he loved his family- and on his return from Europe he gave me a good deal of information about our family- He died in New Orleans in 1865 and I think was interred in Baton Rouge Cemetery alongside his two oldest brothers and Sister Catherine- If I could ever have the pleasure of seeing you all again I have much to tell you- Two of my sons, Wayne and Ernest expect to go to New Mexico in a few weeks- Columbus S.[Smith] lives in Ryan and is doing well and now I must close, ever affectionately yours
J.G. Peniston.


     The two young men agreed to fight a duel near a secluded church lot. Both being apparent good pistoleers, they shot and killed one another. The following comes from the Genius of Liberty, Petersburg, Va., August 22, 1820, p. 2.
Aug. 11.
     A duel was fought on Wednesday last, near the brick church in Blandford, by Mr. Robert C. Adams and James B. Boisseau, of this town, which unhappily terminated on the death of both!
     The distance taken by combatants was nine feet -- the first fire proved ineffectual; but at the second, Mr. Boisseau received his antagonists' ball in the right breast and fell lifeless.
     Mr. Adams received the ball of Mr. Boisseau in the right side a little below the false ribs, and survived about two hours. Of the nature of the quarrel which gave rise to this fatal meeting, we are not informed. Thus at the shrink of the mistaken honour, have those young gentlemen sacrificed themselves.”
Jame’s parents were Benjamin Boisseau and Mary Eppes.
     It has been written that Ellen never completely got over the fact that she had been partly responsible for the deaths. The attending physician at the fight was Ira Ellis Smith, who within seventeen months would take Ellen as his bride.
After the death of her parents Ellen was boarding with another family [Aikin]. Admiring friends gave her a party in her honor. During the evening Robert Adams brought refreshments to Ellen, which offended James Boisseau. The two men quarreled, ending with James challenging his rival to fight a duel. The next day the word came to Ellen that both men had been killed. A sad shock to her, though it is said that she loved neither of them. Both men are interred in Old Blandford church cemetery where the duel took place.
     One of the dueling pistols used in the duel may be seen at the Old Blandford Church museum.

One of the pistols used in the duel
The card and possibly a corresponding letter are illegible
Courtesy of VA Travels, YouTube video
and the Blandford, Church Museum

(Click image to enlarge)

     A family letter reads, [Ellen’s] “accomplishments equaled her personal charm, so it was no wonder that she should have many lovers.” Some blamed Ellen for the deaths, including the families of Boisseau and Adams, causing her great distress, and she never escaped feeling responsible.
     Adams and Boisseau were from prominent families. I found the following email from A. S. Boisseau to Anne Stiller (January 1999) with the Boisseau side of the history.     
     This James B. Boisseau was killed in the duel at Blandford 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 sure I agree with 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" they no doubt mean "engaged" in conversations with two men at once. Smith family history states that Ellen accepted a drink from one of the young men, which enraged the other, and the challenge was made. I am told by one historian who wrote about duels, 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."

     Ellen Stimpson Peniston was born March 4, 1802 in Petersburg, Virgina. Daughter of Samuel Peniston and Ariana Sleymaker. She was never able to hold her grandson, Jefferson R. Smith, in her arms, as she passed away just eleven days before he his birth.
     Ellen was educated in Annapolis and Baltimore, Maryland. Described as the “Belle of Virginia” and “the Flower of Georgia.” A family letter in 1932 boldly states that she was the most educated woman in Georgia.
     It is written that Dr. Ira Ellis Smith [my gr-gr-gr-grandfather] was the physician present when the duel took place. Approximately one year after the duel, Ira married Ellen in Petersburg, Virginia, December 6, 1821. They had 11 children together (ten boys and one girl).
     Ellen died October 23, 1860, in Coweta County, Georgia, where she rests in peace at Oak Hill Cemetery in Newnan, Georgia. Her sermon was given by Rev. Alexander Means, DD LLD., who read from Psalms 73, verses 24 and 25. In a family bible under her name it reads; "In sure prospects of a blessed immortality." She missed meeting her grandchild, Jefferson R. Smith by 11 days.

     In 2011 during a research and presentation trip, I and two cousins took a trip to the Oak Hill cemetery hoping to find the missing Smith family graves, including Ellen's. We were there with the president of the Coweta County Historical Society, who guessed that the Smith plots might be close to the Peniston family plots. He happened to peek around a bush “fence” and to our surprise, there they all were. For decades the Smith family could not locate the graves because the cemetery had changed the name and numbering system of that location many decades ago, but did not correctly update records and plot maps, so we were looking in the wrong place.
Graves of Ellen S. Peniston and Dr. Ira E. Smith
Descendants Geri Murphy, Jeff Smith and Jeannie Schaffner

(Click image to enlarge) 
     Some of the early letters written by Ellen S. Peniston have been saved. Following are two examples written in 1820 from Virginia, that family member, Ellen Rafeedie, sent to me. In the letters, Ellen is corresponding with her brother, Anthony Peniston, a physician in New Orleans, Louisiana. He co-founded the School of Medicine in New Orleans, which later became the Tulane University. His portrait hangs in Founders Hall. and Peniston Street in New Orleans was named in his honor. Online, I found a medical journal (in french) from 1854 located at the Louisiana State University (1 Vol. Location: M:20 - For further information see online catalog. Mss. 339).
February 3d, 1820

Dear brother
     Feeling sensibly your neglect I had almost determined on the same course of conduct but my friendship conquered that inclination, and I cannot resist the pleasure of writing though I am apprehensive that either the letter or the writer (or perhaps both) will be deemed by you unworthy of your notice. Although this conclusion is deeply mortifying, and the general tenour of your past conduct should forbid such a suspicion, the sincerity and ardour of my love, produce fears as to the perpetuity of your affection and lead me to draw from your silence the most painful inference. My mind is busied and agitated with a thousand conjectures as to the cause of offence which I may possibly have given you, but the most scrupulous and impartial retrospection of my past conduct, does not furnish me with a single instance in which I can accuse myself of having deviated from the strictest rules of a sisters duty. I entreat you not to leave me in that painful suspense attendant on your silence, but either inform me by letter in what manner I have offended you, or convey to me the assurance that my fears are groundless and that I still share some portion of your fondness.
     Nothing of moment has occurred since you left us. I have boarded Mary C with a lady who is capable of attending to the morals as well as deportment, Mrs Gary of Prince George. She goes to school to Mr. Branch who is sufficiently learned, as yet, she being backward in her education.
     I have had the pleasure of hearing from you indirectly. The place of your residence is well known, and I am sorry you did not explain yourself explicitly, ere you left us, as you have been very much censured in this abode of friends, for the mystery which accompanied you altho' I am not acquainted with your affairs I am perfectly assured you always act from motives perfectly consistent with propriety.
     Samuel has left his school and friters away his time in the street not regarding any advice which is given him by me. The other children are well. Mr. Burke will hand you this he has met with a powerful friend in Boiling Robinson, who will no doubt, advance him considerably in his literary carreer. To hear of your prosperity and celebrity in your profession is the first wish of my heart and tho' tossed about by the rude billows of adversity, I still have a sheltering port in your affection, for I cannot bids you the injustice to believe you are selfish enough to forget those whom nature and religion bids us love and cherish - it was reported you died in New York in an Oyster house. Oh! the Poisonous breath of calumny vice vegetates more luxuriantly here than in any other place I have ever known, and a knowledge of the malignity of some of our dear Petersburg friends accounts for these reports. You will perceive that in one paragraph of my letter I have taken the sisterly liberty of admonishing, and is not dread greater in use than an astronomer would receive for remarking a small spot on the brilliant orb of the sun.
     Mrs A compliments and best wishes believe me to be ever yours
Ellen S. Peniston
In the next letter Ellen announces her marriage to Dr. Ira E. Smith.
Mount Laurel
Dec. 24, 1821
Dear brother
     Months have roll'd[sic] by, hours of anxiety have suceeded[sic] each other, with out a single line to relieve my solicitude. I wrote in answer to the letter enclosed to Mr. Sproner, but imagine you never received it, any other conclusion would be too mortifying and so then is the mood soothing to affection, I adopt it with the friends he has of the truth. How many prayers do I offer up to that throne of devine[sic] mercy, for your safety and protection. Through the toil some and diversified scenes of precarious existance[sic], no selfish [illegible] can erase my anxiety, or cause me to forget the brother, my early love, the friend who supported me through the thorny path of adversity, and lighten'd[sic] the bursting heart of sorrows devoted child. Can I forget your assiduousness to tranquilize my feelings under every affliction? or cease to be grateful for the many tender proofs I have experienced, of your steady and underacting love. Rembrance[sic] cherishes them in my bosom and gratitude shall perpetuate them.
     The important era in the eventful life of your sister has pass'd[sic]. I am married!!!! The marriage was solemnized at Mr. Akins before a large and brilliant assemblage of ladies and gentlemen, the 6th of this month. I am united to a man of worth, one who is universally belov'd[sic], and, whose merits an envious world is willing to acknowledge. Dr. Smith of Dinwiddie, he is a partner of Dr. Peter Haraway and as that is the case, we reside at his house in [illegible] before we commence house hunting. Mary Catherine is with us. All our brothers are well. Samuel causes me more sorrow than any thing in the world. He is in Petersburg, but has no home. He has been refused board every where he appli'd[sic] and he is too lazy to think of any alternative himself and too headstrong to listen to my advice. if you do not send for him disgrace and ruin will attend him, for you are the only person who can manage him at all. I deliver'd[sic] your letter safe to Mrs. M, who has never condescended to speak easily to me who she [illegible sentence] business and she spends in fashion and folly, his hard earnings, as soon as she can grasp at them - her mother has lately died, but the dear propensity can not be still'd[sic], not even by the hand of Death! It is astonishing to me how a mother can be so blind to the interests of her children, or a wife so destitute of affection for her husband! You will gratify me more than I can express, by sending me your miniature by the first opportunity - tis not impracticable and the pleasure of gazing on your features, though still and inanimate, will convey to your sister's bosom the most delightful emotions - a willing gaze on it and fancy, I see in the delicate combinations of that face the irradiations of your brilliant understanding and almost think the lips parting to give me a smile of love. Write to me brother. I entrust you to torture me no longer, By your neglect or deepen the wound it has already occasion'd[sic]. How shall I find words to express how warmly and affectionately I am your
sister, and friend.
Ellen S. Smith

ADDENDUM: An interesting point was made, that if the duel had never taken place, Soapy and I might have never been born. At the very least, our DNA composition would be vastly different if we were to be born. 


Ellen Stimpson Peniston

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

Boisseau Homestead (James Bowe Boisseau)


"The better the gambler, the worse the man."
—Publius Syrus