In early Creole days more duels were fought in New Orleans than any other American city. Creole honor was a thing of intricate delicacy, to be offended by a word or glance. The Duelling Oaks were a favorite setting for these affaires d'honneur, with pistol, saber, or colichemarde, a long sword with a broad forte and very slender foible, a favorite duelling weapon since the seventeenth century.
Creoles were expert swordsmen and often delighted in any and every opportunity to exhibit their art. Duels were fought over real and trivial insults, were sometimes deliberately provoked by young men anxious to display their skill. A quarrel between rival lovers, a fancied slight, a political argument, a difference of opinion regarding an opera, any one of these things was ample excuse for a duel under the oaks. In his History of Louisiana, Alcee Fortier states that on one Sunday in 1839 ten duels were fought here.
Many of the most prominent figures in the New Orleans of the era took part in duels in City Park. Bernard Mandeville de Marigny, famous in the city's history, is said to have fought nineteen duels beneath the Oaks. Micajah Green Lewis, secretary to Governor Claiborne, was killed here in a duel in 1804. Residents of the neighborhood grew accustomed to watching the daily processions to the Oaks and to seeing them depart, often one man being carried away, perhaps to his family for burial. Of course, duels did not always terminate in a fatality; often injured dignity was appeased by the first blood drawn, and the duellists sometimes left the park arm in arm.
Many of the contests ending at the Duelling Oaks began in ballrooms. A popular lady might be asked for half a dance belonging to another gentleman. No argument would ensue on the refusal of the first gentleman to relinquish his partner, but the next morning the thwarted gallant would see that the other received a challenge to a meeting at the Oaks, the whole affair conducted with exquisite politeness. By evening one or the other of the gentlemen might have performed his last courtly bow in this world.
Bienaime Christe de Lauzon and a certain M. Morel duelled to the death for less reason than that. De Lauzon, at a supper, moved his sister's chair a bit too close to the chair of the young lady Morel was escorting. Immediately Morel called upon
de Lauzonto step out on the balcony, where he slapped him in the face with a glove. Two days later they met in City Park, and de Lauzon was killed.
Bernard de Marigny escorted Anna Mathilda Morales, whom he later married, to a ball, excluded all other admirers and thereupon was the recipient of seven challenges. The dashing de Marigny met them all, one by one, and, one by one, they fell under his expert swordsmanship.
Famous in the early 1800's was Emile La Sere, one time U. S. Congressman from New Orleans. La Sere fought eighteen duels during his life. A small man, "scarcely above the weight and height of a fourteen-year-old boy," his impulsive and fiery temper kept him almost constantly embroiled in trouble of one sort or another. Kind-hearted and generous in his less intense moments, La Sere's anger was always left on the duelling grounds. He would carefully bandage the very wounds he inflicted and sit up all night beside the bed of the man he had put there.
There is a legend of a European scientist, who had to fight a duel because he insulted the Mississippi River in the presence of a Creole. The scientist had sneered at the Mississippi, saying it was, "but a tiny rill compared to the great rivers of Europe." For this the European received a slashed cheek from the Creole's sword.
John T. Monroe, in his New Orleans, The Crescent City, listed among the noted duelists meeting in City Park, "Marcel Dauphin, who fled from France to America during the Red Terror. His exit from the world was hastened by a rival fencing-master, Bonneval, personal friend of the Sea-Green Incorruptible, Robespierre'."
There were, of course, many fencing masters in New Orleans, and these men fought each other for the gratification of their professional jealousy, sometimes to entice clients by a display of skill. Senor Don Jose Llulla, better known as Pepe Llulla was perhaps the best known of them all, and if all the tales and legends are true, Pepe broke all records for participation in duels. Stories of his killings are so numerous it is more than likely most of them are myths. Yet he maintained his own cemetery, now St. Vincent de Paul's, for, said popular rumor, the burial of his victims.
Llulla's duels, for the most part, however, were usually terminated at his own suggestion, and before a fatality occurred. His dexterity was sufficient to render his opponents helpless, with Pepe's sword lightly pressed against his throat, almost at the outset of his encounter. Pepe mastered not only foils but almost every weapon. He was the South's greatest expert in the use of the saber, equally skilled with the broad-sword, and practically invulnerable when armed with a rapier or small sword.
His skill with firearms was no less remarkable. Pepe's friends thought little of holding a silver dollar between their fingers or a pipe in their teeth as a target for the Spaniard. He would balance an egg on the head of his small son and crack the shell with a ball at thirty paces. With a rifle he would hit any coin or cork tossed into the air. He was reputed to have been a genius with a bowie knife. None of Llulla's serious duels lasted more than a few minutes as he made short work of disarming his antagonist.
Duels were sometimes fought with bowie knives, even with stranger weapons. A duel is recorded during which the opponents fought with pistols, each holding a corner of the same handkerchief, in which case they would not have been more than a few feet apart. Men duelled with poison pills, a drawing being held in order to determine which would be obliged to take the pills.
There were several memorable duels with shotguns under the Oaks. In one in which M. de Buys fought M. Alpuente, de Buys life was saved by a twenty-dollar gold piece in his waistcoat pocket, the bullet being deflected when it struck the coin. Later the same de Buys fought M. Aristide Gerard in City Park and received fourteen wounds from Gerard's colichemarde. De Buys is known to have engaged in twenty-four duels.
The Duelling Oaks in City Park have seen some of the most colorful scenes in New Orleans' history. For years sword clanged against sword and bullets streaked between the ancient trees.
An article in the Times-Democrat, March 13, 1892, said, "Blood has been shed under the old cathedral aisles of nature. Between 1834 and 1844 scarcely a day passed without duels being fought at the Oaks. Why, it would not be strange if the very violets blossomed red of this soaked grass! The lover for his mistress, the gentleman for his honor, the courtier for his King; what loyalty has not cried out in pistol shot and scratch of steel! Sometimes two or three hundred people hurried from the city to witness these human baitings. On the occasion of one duel the spectators could stand no more, drew their swords, and there was a general melee."
In 1855 the police began to enforce the laws against duelling, but it continued surreptitiously for many years, despite frequent arrests and prosecutions. Finally, however, the law began to have some effect and there seems to have arisen a simultaneous loss of interest in the affairs. At last the time came when a man challenged to defend his honor with the sword or pistol, suffered no stigma by refusing an invitation to the Oaks. By 1890 duelling was only history.
John McDonogh, philanthropist and benefactor of public education, bestowed the original 100 acre tract of land that is known as City Park. It is one of the largest stands of mature live oaks in the world. More than 250 of these magnificent trees are listed on the national registry. One of the most exciting modern day spectacles is Celebration In The Oaks. In celebration of the holiday season, nearly one million lights adorn the ancient oaks.
Only one of the legendary Duelling Oaks remains standing on the duelling ground today, the other having succumbed to the inevitable forces of nature in the 1940's. Nearby stands the famous Suicide Oak where many disconsolate lovers and bankrupts have concocted their own demise. All are located not far from the New Orleans Museum of Art, built through a bequest of Issac Delgado and housing his extensive collection of objets d'art, its dominant influence has historically been French. Another New Orleans duelling site was St. Anthony's Garden, located behind the St. Louis Cathedral.
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