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This Week in Illinois History: Illinois’ First Duel (February 8, 1819)

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February 8, 1819. Illinois is barely two months old. In the little village of Belleville, just southeast of St. Louis, Alfonso C. Stuart and Timothy Bennett square off for the first duel fought in the state.

Stuart and Bennett were neighbors who frequented the same tavern. Both were young men who had immigrated with their families to the new state. They had feuded for weeks because Bennett’s horse repeatedly broke through a fence surrounding Stuart’s cornfield. When the horse trespassed again, Stuart had his hired man fill its backside with a shotgun blast of rock salt. The horse survived, but limped home in considerable pain.

Bennett was outraged and sought revenge. He complained loudly to other tavern goers. Two men suggested a duel, a sham duel, meaning both men would load their guns only with powder and no bullet. They said it would enliven the sleepy village of less than 300 residents and no harm would come of it. They explained the plan to Stuart, and he agreed.

On February 8, everyone loaded up on whiskey and headed to the dueling ground. Stuart and Bennett readied their rifles and marched 25 paces apart. The order came to fire. Bennett shot Stuart in the heart, killing him instantly.

This was no sham duel.

Bennett was arrested but escaped jail before trial and fled the state. The two men from the tavern who had organized the “sham duel” also were charged. They argued that the duel was meant to be fake and Bennett had loaded his weapon of his own accord. They were released after a young girl testified she’d witnessed Bennett loading his rifle before the duel. It remains unknown if Stuart’s rifle was loaded.

Bennett was caught two and half years later trying to reunite with his family in Missouri. He was returned to Belleville, convicted of murder and publicly hanged in front of a large crowd of men, women and children.

Clint Cargile is the host of This Week in Illinois History and the creator and host of the podcast Drinkin’ with Lincoln.
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