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Broderick–Terry duel

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Coordinates: 37°42′30″N 122°29′03″W / 37.7082°N 122.4842°W / 37.7082; -122.4842 (duel site)

The duel between David C. Broderick and  David S. Terry
The duel between David C. Broderick and David S. Terry

The Broderick–Terry duel (subsequently called "the last notable American duel")[1] was fought between United States Senator David C. Broderick, of California, and ex-Chief Justice David S. Terry, of the Supreme Court of California, on September 13, 1859.[1] The two men had been friends and political allies within the Democratic Party. However, Broderick was an abolitionist, whereas Terry was pro-slavery. Intense political disagreements led to bitter resentments, which in turn led to a challenge to a duel and the fatal encounter in a ravine near Lake Merced in San Francisco.

Not long after the duel, both public opinion and legislation turned strongly against the custom of duelling. As of 2020 not all of the U.S. states have laws that specifically ban duelling. The site of the duel is now a registered California Historical Landmark.


Broderick and Terry both belonged to the Democratic Party, and were originally good friends. Broderick had said of Terry that he considered him to be "the only honest man on the Supreme bench". And on one occasion, Broderick was the only person who did not turn his back on Terry in his time of need.[1][2]

That all changed after Terry failed to be re-elected. He believed that this loss occurred because of Broderick's antislavery campaign against the faction of the party to which Terry belonged.[1] Conversely, Broderick blamed Terry's faction of the party for trying to bring him down.[1] Various accusations and counter-accusations followed, in one of which Broderick said

I see that Terry has been abusing me. I now take back the remark I once made that he is the only honest judge in the Supreme Court. I was his friend when he was in need of friends, for which I am sorry. Had the vigilance committee disposed of him as they did of others, they would have done a righteous act.[1]

The situation between the two men worsened when Terry attempted to be renominated as a Supreme Court Justice, but was denied the nomination because of Broderick's efforts towards the Lecompton Constitution. In a fiery speech which Terry gave in Sacramento in June 1859, he accused the convention delegates of following the orders of their "master" Broderick.[3]

Two days later Broderick found out about the speech and reacted by calling Terry a "damned miserable ingrate", and adding that he doubted Terry's honesty. Broderick's remarks were overheard by a Mr. D. W. Perley, who later told Terry about them. Terry was clearly hurt by what he considered to be a betrayal by a man he had helped so much in the past.[3][4]

After Broderick lost an election to U. S. Senator William M. Gwin, Terry wrote a letter to Broderick which was in fact a challenge to fight a duel:[3]

Oakland, September 8, 1859.

Hon. D. C. Broderick—Sir: Some two months since, at the public table of the International Hotel, in San Francisco, you saw fit to indulge in certain remarks concerning me, which were offensive in their nature. Before I had heard of the circumstance, your note of 20th of June, addressed to Mr. D. W. Perley, in which you declared that you would not respond to any call of a personal character during the political canvass just concluded, had been published.

I have, therefore, not been permitted to take any notice of those remarks until the expiration of the limit fixed by yourself. I now take the earliest opportunity to require of you a retraction of those remarks. This note will be handed to you by my friend, Calhoun Benham, Esq., who is acquainted with its contents, and will receive your reply.

D. S. Terry.[3]

After a few clarifications on what in particular Terry found to be offensive in his statements, Broderick agreed that it was Terry's call to decide whether those statements were offensive. Terry insisted on his interpretation of Broderick's statements, and the duel was scheduled.[3][4]

The first attempt to stage the duel was made a few days before September 13. This first attempt failed because of police intervention.[5] Both Terry and Broderick agreed to make another attempt, and the location for the duel was moved to a secluded area near Lake Merced. The day was set for September 13.[5] The weapons chosen were Belgian .58 caliber pistols. Terry was familiar with that model of pistol and had practiced with one before the duel, whereas Broderick did not.[5]

As it was described later, "Both pistols had hair triggers, but Broderick's was more delicately set than Terry's, so much so that a jar might discharge it. Broderick's seconds were inexperienced men, and no one realized the importance of this difference."[1]

In 1881, James O'Meara provided an eyewitness account of the duel. He wrote concerning Broderick:

His rigor of frame was so intense that, in the effort to adjust his pistol to the required position, he was obliged to use his left hand to bring his right arm into proper form; and in the effort he also so swerved his whole body that his right leg was pressed out of place, downward and forward, out of line with the left leg, and his chest was thrown out and quartering toward his antagonist, so as to present a larger surface for the chance of a shot aimed at him. He held his pistol in vise-like grip; and his wrist, instead of being in condition for ease of motion, was as an iron bolt, to move only with and as rigidly as the arm. He seemed the impersonation of that order of courage which faces death without terror, which prefers doom to the reproach of fear.[6]

After Broderick was wounded and fell to the ground, one of the spectators tried to charge at Terry with a pistol. The spectator's name was Davis, and he claimed to be Broderick's friend. He was outraged by what he had interpreted as a murder.[1]

Broderick had indeed been seriously wounded, and fought for his life for three days. He died at 9:20 a.m. on September 16, 1859.[1][6]

One of Broderick's last pronouncements was: "They have killed me because I was opposed to slavery and a corrupt administration."[1]

Funeral of Broderick

After his violent death, Broderick was treated as a hero and a martyr for his cause - the fight against slavery. His funeral became one of the most prominent demonstrations of public support that the city of San Francisco had ever seen. He was buried at Lone Mountain cemetery.[7]

Arrest and trial of Terry

Captain of Detectives I. W. Lees and Detective H. H. Ellis proceeded to Terry's home with a warrant against him. Ellis described the arrest:

Lees and I procured a warrant against Terry and had it properly endorsed. We then proceeded to Terry's home. When we arrived within about one hundred feet of the house, a window was thrown open and Calhoun Benham, Tom Hayes, Sheriff O'Neill and Terry leveled shotguns at us and told us to 'halt.' We did so and announced that we were officers with a warrant for Terry. He stated that he was certain that he would not receive a fair trial and feared violence at that time, but agreed to surrender three days afterward in Oakland. Knowing that he would keep his word in this, as we also knew he would do when he told us that if we came nearer to his house they would all shoot, we decided to allow him to dictate terms. He surrendered as per agreement, and the case was heard by Judge James Hardy in Marin County, a change of venue having been granted because of the alleged prejudice against Terry in San Francisco. This case was dismissed but Terry was subsequently indicted by the Grand Jury in San Mateo County. The point was then raised that he had been once in jeopardy, and being well taken, that case was also dismissed.[3]


The site of the duel is marked with two small stone obelisks showing where each of the duelists stood. The obelisk on the left has the name Terry engraved on it, the right has the name Broderick engraved on it.
The site of the duel is marked with two small stone obelisks showing where each of the duelists stood. The obelisk on the left has the name Terry engraved on it, the right has the name Broderick engraved on it.

On June 1, 1932, the site of the duel was registered as California Registered Historical Landmark number 19, and in 1949, marker 19 was erected at the beginning of the trail that leads to the site. The marker was erected by the California Centennial Commission, County Board of Supervisors, and the San Mateo County Historical Association. There is also a directional obelisk which points towards the site of the duel. At the site itself, two more granite obelisks, each one engraved with the name of one of the combatants, mark the places where Broderick and Terry stood, 10 yards apart. The landmark and duel site is located at 1100 Lake Merced Boulevard, San Francisco, CA, 94015.[8]

California later passed laws against dueling, with enhanced punishment if the duel resulted in death.[9] On November 25, 1998, the pistols that were used in the duel were sold at auction in San Francisco for $34,500.[2]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Brady, Cyrus Townsend (August 1905). "Famous American Duels". Munsey's Magazine. 33: 608–616.
  2. ^ a b "Senator David Colbreth Broderick 1820-1859".
  3. ^ a b c d e f Duke, Thomas Samuel (1910). "THE STRENUOUS LIVES OF SENATOR BRODERICK AND JUDGE TERRY AND THEIR FAMOUS DUEL. (From A. E. Wagstaff's History.)". Celebrated Criminal Cases of America. San Francisco: James H. Barry Company. pp. 53–60. OCLC 3811019. By Thomas Samuel Duke, Captain of Police, San Francisco; Published with Approval of the Honorable Board of Police Commissioners of San Francisco, 1910. (Public Domain Free Download)
  4. ^ a b "David Broderick". San Francisco Fire Department.
  5. ^ a b c "The Broderick-Terry Duel".
  6. ^ a b "The last duel in San Francisco history".
  7. ^ John S. Hittell (1878). A History of the City of San Francisco and Incidentally of the State of California. A.L. Bancroft. p. 309. A History of the City of San Francisco and Incidentally of the State of California, John S. Hittell the best place, and his monument is the most prominent.
  8. ^ "Broderick – Terry Duel". THE HISTORICAL MARKER DATABASE.
  9. ^ These laws, Cal. Penal Code Sections 225-232, were repealed as "obsolete" in 1994. Note, Cal. Pen. Code Pt. 1, Tit. 8, Ch. 7; 1994 Cal. Stats. ch. 270.
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Broderick–Terry duel
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