Dueling at Topeka, Part Two

James Henry Lane

James Henry Lane

Despite Charles Robinson’s best efforts, we left James Lane and G.P. Lowry with a duel scheduled for eight the next morning. Lowry said something about Lane and a Mrs. Lindsay. Robinson declined to give details, save to say that it involved some scandal and he had helped Lane settle up with Mr. Lindsay. Robert Collins’ biography, Jim Lane: Scoundrel, Statesman, Kansan refers to Lane’s “lecherous” reputation in conjunction with the Lindsay affair. He also relates an episode with a “Mrs. Buffum” who asked pay for her services which Lane could not provide. Disenchanted with the transaction, she drew a pistol, challenged Lane, and chased him through the streets. Collins goes on to say that both stories “came with little proof”. True or not, Lane apparently took the Lindsay rumor as serious enough to warrant a public resolution. Lowry apparently felt confident enough of the matter to wager his life on it, or at least that he wanted others to think he would.

Challenge and acceptance could in themselves satisfy would-be dueling partners. Both showed the world that they felt strongly and would risk injury, so whatever agreement they came to thereafter deserved some respect. But neither man backed down. The night passed and in the morning, Robinson relates that

a message appeared and desired to change the hour from eight o’clock to eleven o’clock. This evidently was the beginning of a back-down, as the convention would be in session at that hour, and most likely Lane would have some friend posted to stop the duel.

These things had a ritual to them. A notionally outside interruption to events could serve to call the thing off. Robinson probably didn’t need hindsight or a deep knowledge of dueling culture to recognize delaying tactics when he saw them. Nor did Lowry, who accepted the change. The convention commenced and half an hour before the time appointed, Lane rose and gave what Robinson called “one of his windy harangues”. He spoke until the time came, then closed, claimed his hat, and started for the duel.

Instantly Judge Smith arose, in great apparent agitation, made the announcement that he had learned a hostile meeting was in contemplation, to which some members of the convention were parties, and he desired “to move the adoption of the following resolution,” which had been previously prepared in due form. This resolution apparently created a great sensation, and proposed to expel any member of the convention who would be a party to such a meeting, either as principal or second.

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Such a resolution could give both men a face-saving way to back down. They had a higher charge to their constituents and a duty to Kansas, for which they could sacrifice their grudge. The convention approved unanimously. Robinson, accepting that he had acted as Lowry’s second the night previous, chose “to conform to the resolution” and so passed his role to J.F. Legate.

Legate was in his element, and demanded a fight or an ignominious back-down and apology on the part of Lane. It is needless to say the apology and back-down came to the full satisfaction of the challenged party. This was the first and last duel in Kansas

This kind of ritual brinksmanship and choreographed de-escalation occurred often enough in duels. It seems that the challenge and acceptance formed not the immediate precursor to the clash of arms, but rather one step of several along the road to a non-violent resolution. People really did duel one another from time to time, as Andrew Jackson and Thomas Hart Benton did, but the theater of honor could serve in lieu of the field of honor easily enough. If that theater sounds like the stage for an absurd, swaggering farce with far too much risk of going wrong to us, then it prompted eye rolling and shock from some quarters at the time as well.

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