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OPINION | TOM DILLARD: The culture of ritualized combat

by Tom Dillard | February 21, 2021 at 8:43 a.m.

For some time I have been trying to track down information on Dr. Nimrod Menifee, famous in frontier Arkansas as the dueling physician. He came to Arkansas from Kentucky about 1820, possibly fleeing the vengeful friends of a man whom Menifee killed in a duel.

Like many aggressive young men on the frontier, Menifee became a land speculator. Along with other family members, he helped establish the towns of Lewisburg (later supplanted by modern Morrilton), Oppelo, and Menifee.

Earlier the family had invested in Cadron, a settlement on the Arkansas River near modern Conway, with the hope that the town would become the new state capital. He served in the territorial legislature and was a delegate to the 1836 convention that wrote the first state constitution.

Menifee, an ardent member of the Whig political party, did not hesitate to use physical force against his political enemies. In 1831, Menifee attacked Arkansas Gazette editor William E. Woodruff, a staunch Democrat, with a cane, forcing Woodruff to draw a pistol. He served as a "second" or aide at numerous duels in Arkansas, and the prevailing wisdom is that the good doctor was killed in a duel at the age of 42.

How could anyone live such an intensely meteoric life, yet leave such a dim historical record? I am still on the trail of Dr. Menifee, and will report more later. In the meantime, the search for the dueling doc reminds me how deeply this practice had become ingrained in early Arkansas culture.

Fortunately for my search, a history graduate student at the University of Arkansas by the name of Matthew A. Byron did a doctoral dissertation on dueling with an emphasis on the inadequacy of laws to stop the practice. While the study deals with dueling nationally, be assured that Arkansas is well represented, including by our elusive Dr. Menifee.

Some form of dueling--ritualized combat--goes far back into recorded human history. In southeastern Asia, combat aboard elephants was a duel writ large. The Europeans traditionally favored the sword, though exceptions abound. The first duel in what is today the United States occurred in Massachusetts in 1621, a mere year after the Pilgrims disembarked at Plymouth.

Dueling was highly ritualized, and a code duello governed the process "from the beginning insult to the final duel," Matthew Byron wrote. It is important to note that dueling was inextricably bound to a notion that one's honor trumped everything else, including the law.

The unwritten rules provided that each combatant would be represented by a second, a trusted friend who served several roles in this "affair of honor." The late Diana Sherwood, author of an early study of dueling in Arkansas, described how the second was responsible for ensuring that the process carefully followed the unwritten but widely-known rules of dueling: "The seconds made all arrangements and carried messages between the principals."

Sherwood also noted that "The challenged party was accorded the privilege of choosing the weapons, naming the time and place for meeting." Each duelist was accompanied by a physician.

Dueling increased dramatically following the American Revolution. About 735 duels were recorded in the nation during the 19th century, 10 times the number for the preceding century. The most famous in American history involved Vice President Aaron Burr killing former secretary of the treasury Alexander Hamilton in 1804.

The earliest duel in Arkansas was most likely that between William O. Allen and Robert C. Oden in March 1820, almost exactly one year after Arkansas Territory was created.

Allen, a Virginia native, served as a captain in the War of 1812 and moved to Arkansas Post to practice law in 1819. Oden, a young lawyer at Arkansas Post and officer in the militia, was a budding Whig leader. They were previously considered friends.

The Allen-Oden duel, fought on a remote Arkansas River island near Arkansas Post, is shrouded in layers of myth, and the exact cause of the fatal confrontation is not fully known to historians. One oft-repeated account holds that Oden and Allen were attending a dinner when the youthful Oden took Allen's cane and refused to surrender it. Allen demanded the return of the cane, and when Oden refused, he stalked off to his room and sent a challenge to young Oden.

Other sources attributed the duel to political causes, since Oden was an ally of political boss Robert Crittenden while Allen was out of favor. Both Allen and Oden were injured in the duel, and Allen later died a painful death; Oden went on to a successful but contentious political career.

In a precedent repeated many times over the succeeding years, Oden and others involved were indicted for participating in a duel--which had recently been outlawed by the territorial legislature--only to be found innocent due to far-fetched technicalities. About 25 more duels were to come, often involving public officials at the highest levels.

Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living in rural Hot Spring County. Email him at Arktopia.td@gmail.com. An earlier version of this column was published August 29, 2010.

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