06 February 2011

throwing down the gauntlet

Historically speaking, there are few things that can rival a good, old fashioned gun duel, and Point Pleasant Park has one such duel in its own history.  While reading the book, Historic South End Halifax, by Peter McGuigan, I thought the author would lend a general description of the Prince of Whales Tower, or Martello Tower as it is commonly referred to, when it launched into an extraordinary tale of two men dueling for their honour on site at the tower.

NSARM no. 1983-310 number 1592

It was March 14, 1840 (almost 171 years ago) when the duel took place, and John Haliburton, a lawyer, had taken offense to remarks Joseph Howe made in a legislative public address about Haliburton's father, a chief Justice in Halifax.  Rather than fight words with words, John challenged Howe to a gun duel of pistols at dawn.  According to McGuigan's account:

"The two met outside the tower.  Standing back to back, they walked fifty paces, counted by their seconds, and turned.  At the drop of a handkerchief, they fired.  Haliburton got his shot off first, trying to kill Howe, but missed.  Howe, however, fired in the air, showing himself to be the better person.  He said, "I will not deprive an ageing father of his son."  Haliburton was lucky not to have been charged with attempted murder, jailed, and disbarred."

Haliburton (left) and Howe (right)

Despite my prairie roots, I have little at-hand knowledge of the proper rules of a duel, but since Haliburton and Howe's duel seemed so well orchestrated, I thought I should brush up on proper duel protocol.  Historically, a duel would begin when an individual made notice of their displeasure with an unforgivably rude gesture, such as dropping their glove on the ground before them (hence the phrase - throwing down the gauntlet) and demanding satisfaction from the offending party.  

Duels, when fought with swords, could be pursued to several points: first blood, severe wound, or to-the-death.  Sword duels at dawn were so poorly lit that many men brought lanterns with them so as to see their opponent.  This tactic proved so popular that fencing positions were developed to accommodate a lantern held in the left hand of the fencer.  In a pistol duel, such as the one Haliburton and Howe entertained, no lantern is reported to have been held, but their objectives were none the less clear, "each party would fire one shot. If neither man was hit and if the challenger stated that he was satisfied, the duel would be declared over. A pistol duel could continue until one man was wounded or killed, but to have more than three exchanges of fire was considered barbaric and, if no hits were achieved, somewhat ridiculous."  Indeed!

While Haliburton remains a popular namesake in the province, Halifax seems to have recognized Howe's composure and restraint in the face of the Martello Tower Duel for posterity with a statue located outside the legislative grounds of Province House in downtown Halifax in 1904, the centennial anniversary of his birth.

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