Sunday, August 12, 2007

A Matter of Honor

Recently, I've found myself using the web in order to locate more information about the man whose birth name was James Butler Hickok. In later years, J.B. was better known as Wild Bill Hickok.

Part of the reason I've become fascinated with Wild Bill is that I learned only a year or two ago about Hickok's deadly gun battle with Dave (Davis) Tutt in the public square (now known as Park Central) in my hometown of Springfield, Missouri. That incident occurred on July 21, 1865. Roughly a century later, my father established his optometric practice about a block south of the site of that incident. Growing up, I never knew that aspect of the region's history.

It wasn't the first time Hickok had been involved with a historic event in or near Springfield. Earlier, he had fought for the Union during the Battle of Wilson's Creek (for which the Battlefield Mall is now named). Unfortunately, the Union lost that particular battle. Many of the soldiers who died in that battle were subsequently buried in the National Cemetery at the corner of Seminole and Glenstone, just a block or so from my boyhood home.

An article on the website for the American Bar Association states: "In the entire history of the Wild West, the closest thing to an actual 'slap leather' gunfight may have been the showdown between Wild Bill Hickok and Davis Tutt in Springfield, Mo., on July 21, 1865." That's what I call a fairly authoritative source of information.

Of course, gun duels between two men who had grievances with one another were hardly new. Aaron Burr's shooting of Alexander Hamilton is a historic event with which most Americans are familiar. Dueling had a long, long history in Europe and elsewhere.

James Landale's book The Last Duel is a fascinating book which tells the story of a duel fought in Scotland in the early 19th Century by David Landale, an ancestor of the author. The book not only tells the entire story of David Landale's duel, but it also goes into the history of duelling in great detail.

It's important to understand the history of duelling, because even though the gun battle between Hickok and Dave Tutt was quite unlike the classic duels in some respects, it was motivated by a similar impulse. When Hickok shot Tutt, it seems clear from the incidents which preceded the shooting that it was all about honor in Hickok's mind.

As I understand the story, Tutt had grabbed Hickok's nice pocket watch off the table on the previous day and refused to give it back, claiming that Hickok still owed a gambling debt to Tutt and that he would therefore hold the watch as security until Hickok paid his debt.

Technically, Tutt didn't steal Hickok's watch. He'd clearly stated that he intended to give it back once the debt was paid. But it wasn't about the watch. Hickok's pride was clearly hurt. In taking the watch, Tutt essentially accused Hickok of not honoring his debts. The accusation was made in front of a room full of witnesses. So it wasn't that Tutt took Hickok's watch. It was the reason which he cited for doing so.

A watch can be replaced. A man's honor cannot be so easily restored. Back in those days, a man's honor was often all that he had going for him.

On August 23, 1826, the duel between David Landale and his opponent George Morgan had been over a very similar matter. George Morgan, Landale's former banker, had impugned Landale's character publicly, in such a way as to jeopardize Landale's ability to operate a successful business, by jeopardizing his credit.

As James Landale points out, the court systems had not yet evolved to the point that they offered adequate redress for people who had been slandered in such a manner. Consequently, duels were sometimes employed as an illegal but societally approved manner of settling disputes between men. In fact, there were many who believed that it was a man's duty and social obligation to issue a challenge under certain circumstances. A man who allowed certain insults to pass unchallenged was considered by his peers to be a coward. Likewise, a man who was challenged was expected to accept the challenge to duel.

In the European system, they had evolved complex rules and codes of behavior designed to insure that duels were carried out in a "civilized" fashion rather than being subject to fits of passion. But the rules were often ignored or circumvented, and it was common in some circles for men to have duels for the silliest of reasons. Eventually, the practice of duelling fell out of fashion because old concepts of honor were displaced by newer concepts which placed less emphasis on individualism and more emphasis on men's responsibilities to their families and neighbors.

Just as slavery was abolished in England before it was abolished in America, duelling lasted longer in America than in Europe. But American duelling was far less formal, in part because the American system of democracy precluded the type of system in which social status dictated whether or not people were even allowed to duel.

Regarding the elaborate rules which accompanied European duelling, Americans, on the whole, were less prone to pretentiousness. Many Americans, such as Mark Twain, regarded it as silly and perhaps even hypocritical to establish elaborate rules for an enterprise which was likely to lead to the death of one or both of the participants.

Undoubtedly, that was the mentality which influenced James Butler Hickok's duel with Dave Tutt. The two men didn't bother with the formalities of procuring "seconds" or finding surgeons willing to stand by and attend to those who were injured. They didn't bother with formalities much at all. But the ancient concept of honor still lingered.

Hickok had warned Tutt not to wear the watch in public. The reason was obvious. It was bad enough that Tutt had impugned Hickok's honor in front of a few witnesses. By continuing to wear and display the watch in public, Tutt effectively declared that he intended to continue to impugn Hickok's reputation at every opportunity.

Initially, when I first read about the conflict, I found myself thinking that the whole dispute had been a bit silly, and certainly no reason to shoot a man. But the more I thought about the context in which the incident occurred, I realized that Hickok had a lot to lose if he didn't stand up to Tutt.

It's hard to feel very sorry for Dave Tutt. He very likely knew about the incident at Rock Creek Station, some five years earlier, when Hickok had killed several men during a widely publicized incident known as the McCanles Affair. David McCanles had bullied Hickok, teasing him and unwisely calling him "Duck Bill" Hickok. Then he and two of his companions had visited Hickok, "supposedly to collect a debt". McCanles and his two friends were all killed during the ensuing incident. Hickok was acquitted after the jury found that he'd acted in self defense. Undoubtedly, the fact that it was three against one had something to do with their decision! That fact alone would have suggested that it was McCanles, and not Hickok, who was the aggressor.

In view of Hickok's prior history, one would think that Tutt would have known that James Butler Hickok was not a man to be trifled with. But some people never learn until they are forced to learn the hard way.

The parallels between David Landale's duel with George Morgan and Wild Bill Hickok's 1865 gun battle with Dave Tutt are striking. In both cases, the dead man was the provocateur. In both cases, the shootings were technically illegal, but in both cases, the killers were acquitted, because their juries sympathized with them and believed them to have acted honorably.

Fast forward some 142 years or so, and it should be clear that the world in which we live is very different from the world in which Wild Bill Hickok lived. Ostensibly, ours is now a society in which law and order prevail.

Even though there are occasional exceptions, that's generally true. However, even though our ideas about honor have evolved to some extent, and even though we now have legal alternatives when slandered by others, it is still exceedingly unwise (and certainly un-Christian) to push a person to the limits by ridiculing the person or by making unwarranted public charges against that person.

Our words have great impact on the lives of others, just as the scriptures say in the book of James. People who engage in bullying behavior would be well advised to remember the old saying: "What goes around comes around." Or as the Bible says: "Whatsoever a man sows, that also will he reap."

Wild Bill Hickok was quite capable of avenging himself. Whether or not he should have done so is another separate question. He certainly is a more sympathetic character than many of the people he killed, and it's hard not to feel a certain admiration for a man who could defend himself with such devastating effectiveness, but before we are tempted to emulate him when we are treated unjustly by others, we would do well to remember another scripture:

"Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord."

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