May 31, 2018 | Matt
May 30, 1806
Andrew Jackson is a controversial figure in American history. Today in 1806, he shot a man to death in a duel. The man was named Charles Dickinson, son-in-law of Captain Joseph Erwin, who had a tiff with Jackson over a horse racing wager. When one of Jackson’s friends disparaged Erwin over the bet, Dickinson leaped to his father-in-law’s defense, and then Jackson himself got involved. It deteriorated from there.
Jackson received a letter from Dickinson calling him a “coward and an equivocator.” A cascade of insults followed, issued by both sides. Dickinson finally went public with it, publishing a comment in a May 1806 copy of the Nashville Review that called Jackson a “worthless scoundrel… a poltroon and a coward.”
In addition to the Erwin conflict, Jackson was also enraged over Dickinson allegedly insulting his wife Rachel. Dickinson apologized, saying that he didn’t recall the insult, but that if he had made it, he must have been intoxicated. Jackson appeared to accept the apology. However, the feud kept percolating until it exploded.
In reaction to the “poltroon” charge, Jackson sent Dickinson a letter challenging him to a duel. The two agreed to meet in Adairville, Kentucky, where dueling was legal.
Dickinson had a reputation of being an excellent shot. Jackson and his entourage arrived at a plan that Jackson would allow his opponent to shoot first, hoping his aim would be spoiled by nerves or zeal. Dickinson got the first shot, and hit Jackson square in the chest. Dickinson, by the rules of dueling, stood stock still as Jackson took his return shot.
The pistol jammed at half cock, and Jackson had to draw the hammer back again for another try. The second attempt hit Dickinson in the chest, resulting in his eventual death from blood loss.
Dickinson’s bullet lodged close enough to Jackson’s heart for doctors to rule it inoperable. He carried the bullet until his death, and it was a source of continuous pain. Jackson’s esteem as a gentleman was also wounded by the duel. The public was furious that Jackson had chosen to kill Dickinson instead of wounding or deliberately missing him, which would have satisfied his honor.
Remarking on his close shave with death, Jackson later remarked, “I should have hit him if he had shot me through the brain.”