February 24, 1838 — Today, Jonathan Cilley of Maine (pictured right) was killed by Representative William Graves of Kentucky in a duel on the outskirts of D.C., in Prince George’s County, Maryland.
Here’s the back story: Graves approached Cilley with a letter at the behest of a newspaper editor, James Webb, who was incensed about a bribery accusation Cilley had made on the House Floor. Cilley refused to accept the letter; which Graves interpreted the refusal as a direct insult to his character. So he challenged Cilley to a duel.
Of course, neither man had any known grievance with the other prior to the incident. With two other Members of the House present, Henry Wise of Virginia and Delegate George Jones of Wisconsin (the dueling seconds for both men), the duel went beyond the customary two rounds, resulting in Cilley’s death in the third round.
After the ensuing House investigation, Graves, along with Wise and Jones, were recommended for censure after Cilley’s death. Although the House refused to impose the censure recommendation it offered a bill to “prohibit the giving or accepting within the District of Columbia, of a challenge to fight a duel, and for the punishment thereof.”
On February 27, 1838 — The House Chamber hosted a funeral, attended by the President Martin Van Buren and other statesmen, to honor Cilley.
Words of Wisdom
I thoroughly disapprove of duels. If a man should challenge me, I would take him kindly and forgivingly by the hand and lead him to a quiet place and kill him.