Two men stepped off the agreed upon distance, each going in the opposite direction. At the signal, they turned as one and fired a single shot. When the smoke cleared, one man lay dead, his blood seeping into the ground. The other remained unscathed.
Bloody Island came by its name honestly. The no-man’s-land in the middle of the Mississippi lay outside the jurisdiction of both Missouri and Illinois. Both men knew dueling was illegal. So did the many others who chose to defend their honor according to Code Duello.
This wasn’t the first duel between Thomas Hart Benton (the politician, not the painter) and Charles Lucas. The first occurred because Benton felt he’d been insulted during a court case which he lost to Lucas. It resulted in Lucas being injured in the throat and Benton in the knee. Lucas was satisfied that honor had been served. Benton was not.
Months later, Lucas publicly questioned Benton’s right to vote in the 1817 election due to failure to pay property taxes. Benton replied that he had no reason to answer charges made by “any puppy who may happen to run across my path.” Back in the day, “puppy” was the height of insult. Lucas demanded satisfaction.
Once more dueling on the island in the Mississippi, Lucas’ shot missed entirely, and Benton’s bullet hit his opponent in the chest. Lucas died moments later.
The Benton/Lucas duels were not the only ones fought on Bloody Island. Many more debts of honor were settled there, including one between a young Illinois politician named Lincoln and his opponent James Shield in September of 1842. Thankfully, that one ended in a truce.
The Duel of the Governors was the last known duel in Missouri. Thomas C. Reynolds challenged Benjamin Gratz Brown over a disagreement on the emancipation question and on accusations of cowardice. Brown sustained a leg wound that caused him to limp for the rest of his life. Reynolds, who was horribly nearsighted, was unhurt. Both Reynolds and Brown went on to be lieutenant governor (1860) and governor (1870) of Missouri, respectively.
The Civil War brought an end to dueling in the area. Men had more important things to occupy their thoughts than personal slights.
Although a dramatic end to Bloody Island would be a fitting conclusion for this bloody era, the sad truth is that it simply built up enough to join with the mainland of Illinois.