ST. LOUIS • Thomas Hart Benton was an ambitious newcomer who had wounded Gen. Andrew Jackson in a Tennessee tavern brawl. Charles Lucas was the cultivated son of a prominent local family.
Both became lawyers here after service in the War of 1812. Benton quickly made friends with important political rivals of the Lucases. During a trial in 1816, Benton and Charles Lucas clashed, essentially calling each other liars in court. In those days, the code of male honor was medieval in its touchiness and consequences. Things soon got worse.
At a polling place on Aug. 4, 1817, Lucas challenged Benton's right to vote. Said Benton, "I do not propose to answer charges made by any puppy who may happen to run across my path."
Lucas, incensed, challenged Benton to a duel. They met eight days later halfway across the Mississippi River on a lonely sandbar known to history as Bloody Island. With pistols at 30 paces they wounded each other, Lucas hurt more seriously.
That could have ended it, but hotter heads prevailed. Lucas suggested a retry at 10 paces, then let it drop. Benton accused Lucas of spreading rumors and refused to accept Lucas' denials. They met again on the morning of Sept. 27, 1817, on the same island.
The result was the most infamous single gunshot in Missouri politics. A friend of Lucas who was given the task of shouting "fire" botched the command. Benton lowered his pistol and fired, the musket ball passing through Lucas' arm and into his chest.
"Colonel, you have murdered me, and I never can forgive you," said Lucas, 24. Friends rowed his body back across the river.
The Missouri Gazette reported, "The infernal practice of dueling has taken off, this morning, one of the first characters in our country, CHARLES LUCAS Esquire."
Benton was distraught, but not enough to withdraw from public life. He championed statehood, a powerful issue for frontiersmen on the make like himself. In 1820, when the territorial legislature was choosing two senators to send to Washington, Benton was a candidate.
Another was Judge J.B.C. Lucas, father of the murdered Charles. Benton and David Barton were elected. Judge Lucas loudly called Benton a "rascal," but his son's killer served in the U.S. Senate for 30 years, becoming a close ally of President Andrew Jackson, his other shooting victim.
Bloody Island grew with river silt and threatened to block St. Louis from the channel. A young Army engineer, Lt. Robert E. Lee, built dikes that eventually saved the city riverfront and made Bloody Island part of Illinois.
On his deathbed in 1858, Benton deeply regretted having killed Lucas.