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  • Writer's pictureLawrence Lore

Death by Duel

(Republished from the old blog)

An Act for the Prevention of Vice and Immorality from 1787 for the Northwest Territory prohibited challenging anyone by word of mouth, or by writing, to fight at sword, rapier, pistol or other deadly weapon. Upon conviction, an offender faced a fine of up to $250 dollars or imprisonment without bail for up to 12 months. A person accepting or delivering a challenge or consenting to be a second in the match was also liable.

In 1813 the problem continued to vex territorial officials who enacted a more stringent dueling law that even required all government officials and attorneys to take an oath disavowing their involvement in the practice and increased the fine to $2000. This, however, did not prevent two Vincennes residents from engaging in the activity later that year on July 7. As the actual duel occurred across the river in what would become the Westport area of Lawrence County, this is believed to be the first recorded duel held in the Illinois territory.

The participants were Capt. Parmenas Beckes, an inn-keeper, a popular one-time sheriff, and a veteran of the Battle of Tippecanoe, and Edward Scull, a surgeon with Harrison’s army. Beckes had married a Mrs. Johnson, a widow, and the mother of a beautiful daughter. Dr. Scull, who had been a suitor for the hand of Beckes’ stepdaughter, (Miss Johnson) made some slighting remark regarding the chastity of the young lady. “If she was as good as she is pretty, she would be a jewel.”

This language coming to the ear of her stepfather angered him. Beckes issued a challenge of dueling pistols at ten paces. In those days settling personal disputes under the code of honor was considered indispensably necessary if a man desired to maintain any sort of standing in the best society. If he failed to offer a challenge to fight a duel, or to accept one when offered, he was considered a coward, and treated as such.

But before Beckes could meet his fate, he wrote a letter to his brother Benjamin V. Beckes, in July, 1813, which explains the incidents which led to the affair of honor, wherein he says:

“This may be the last of my writing to you, being about to engage in a duel, a custom I ever abhorred, but there are circumstances which sometimes render it necessary. A man who insinuates himself into your esteem, professes the most profound friendship for your family, paying his address to your daughter, gaining her affections, promises in the most solemn manner to marry her, asks permission of her parents, fixes a date for their marriage, and you afterwards ascertain that all this was done for the express purpose of ruining her reputation and destroying the happiness of her family, is it possible that any man can tamely submit to an insult of this kind? Such is my situation with Dr. Scull, and for such conduct I am about to punish him, or lose my live in the attempt. Although I have no daughter of my own, yet it is as much my duty to protect and vindicate the character of those under my charge as if they were my own. If unfortunately, I should be killed in this affair, I have left a will in which you and William Prince are left my executors, feeling confident you will not think hard of attending to my affairs, and Prince will be an able assistant to you. My affairs are somewhat unsettled, but do the best you can for me. Pay attention to my wife, for to me she has been a good one. My own fate hereafter I trust in the honor of that God who gave it to me, fully believing his power to save and disposition so to do. Adieu, my dear brother! Should you next behold me cold as clay, see me decently interred, is my last request.”

The day dawned clear, with no hint of what was to come. Dr Scull is said to have gone into the fight with great reluctance, and at the word “fire” discharged his piece into the air. Beckes fired and missed. The doctor said to his friends, according to one account, that he did not wish to kill or injure Beckes, and that he had no cause to quarrel with him.

Their companions, who agreed to act as their seconds, endeavored to bring about reconciliation, but Beckes would not consent. The pistols were charged anew; each took his post and fired nearly at the same instant. Beckes was struck in his right side, and as he fell, exclaimed, “Doctor, you have killed me!” He died in a few moments. Scull was unharmed. He immediately put his accounts and unfinished business in the hands of an agent for settlement and left Vincennes.

Beckes’ body was interred at one o’clock on the 7th at the American burial ground. The Masonic fraternity walked in solemn procession to the grave of their deceased brother, the first to receive a masonic burial in that jurisdiction. The United States Infantry and the artillerists stationed at Fort Knox, joined in the solemn service, and Captain Beckes was buried with all the honors of war, amidst hundreds of spectators that commiserated the loss of this truly worthy man.

According to one source the men who acted as seconds for the participants, fought a duel over the same cause, on the same ground, and with the same weapons (pistols), in which Irwin Wallace, Beckes’ second, killed Isaac Richardson, a Fort Knox lieutenant. This was not recorded in the newspaper of the time.

(Ed Note: Some accounts state that the date was July 14, but the Western Sun published on July 10, 1813, indicates the duel occurred "the past Tuesday.")

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