“I do further solemnly swear … that … I, being a citizen of this State, have not fought a duel with deadly weapons within this State nor out of it, nor have I sent or accepted a challenge to fight a duel with deadly weapons, nor have I acted as second in carrying a challenge, nor aided or assisted any person thus offending, so help me God.”
As far as we know, Kentucky is alone among the 50 states of the Union in requiring such a declaration in its oath of office for public officials, from the governor on down. In fact, this solemn assurance takes up just about half of the entire oath.
The concern (or some would say obsession) with dueling goes far back into Kentucky history. Henry Clay came up to Louisville in 1809 to have such an encounter, but crossed the river to Indiana for the actual shooting match in order to avoid prosecution in the Bluegrass State. All this, be it noted, a full two centuries before our current struggles over gun rights and controls.
The issue hit fairly close to home back on June 1, 1890, when two young men met for secret combat in nearby St. Louis Cemetery. To add to the drama, the battle concerned a young lady and took place among the tombstones by moonlight. (I’m not making this up.)
St. Louis Cemetery, by the way, has its eastern boundary on Baxter Avenue, along the corridor that has been known in Louisville for several generations as “the Catholic Mile” or the “Appian Way” (a reference to a road leading into Rome). Even today, you will find institutions with Catholic pedigrees along the Baxter-Newburg line. In addition to St. Louis Cemetery, consider some of the venues: St. Brigid Church, Calvary Cemetery, St. Agnes Church and School, the Passionist Monastery, Nazareth Home, Our Lady of Peace and, of course, Bellarmine University.
But back to our duel down the street.
As reported by The Courier-Journal the morning after the battle, it all began when a Miss Zenor, a “pretty Evansville brunette,” came to this city to visit friends. A “dashing” Mr. Sanders, also of that Indiana metropolis, came to Louisville for a visit as well. Did we mention that he was Miss Zenor’s fiancé? Miss Zenor, it seems, had taken to walking in the evenings with a Mr. Overby. The three of them met up in the Portland neighborhood the night of June 1. The meeting was not a pleasant one. With amazing speed, a duel was arranged, and the gentlemen involved prevailed upon friends to act as their seconds. For good measure, a physician, Dr. White (friend to one of the duelists), was engaged, as well as a journalist friend who accompanied the group.
The antagonists set out for the field of battle from downtown in separate carriages, one from Fourth and Market streets, the other from Fourth and Main. For some reason unclear to history, they stopped at Phoenix Hill Park, a dancing spot where some 5,000 patrons were enjoying themselves. As Eichorn’s Orchestra was playing “a merry waltz,” the carriages swung out onto Baxter Avenue and toward St. Louis Cemetery, which they entered by tearing down a section of fence.
At the cemetery, they drove “among the white tombstones with dismal moonshadows resting over them,” the newspaper reported. Two .32-caliber Smith and Wesson revolvers were produced. Both men were reported to be extremely calm. The physician began the count, and the men fired. The result was not a happy one. Mr. Sanders was struck twice—once in the arm, once in the chest. He staggered against a tombstone and Dr. White dressed the wounds, which apparently were not serious ones, as quickly as he could.
Now the great fear of all parties was detection by the law and the rigors of Kentucky’s anti-dueling laws. Both of the combatants were eager to leave the Commonwealth as quickly as possible. Mr. Sanders, barking curses and threats, was conveyed by carriage to New Albany to await a train for Evansville, while Mr. Overby entrained for Cincinnati.
What became of the members of the love triangle after the combat among the tombs is shrouded from latter-day historians. And so ended the dangerous duel down the street from modern-day Bellarmine.
By Fr. Clyde F. Crews | email@example.com
Photo of St. Louis Cemetery by Clyde F. Crews