Shot that Killed Alexander Hamilton
By Tom Hester, Staff
WEEHAWKEN -- July 11, 1804. Aaron Burr, at age 48 the vice
president of the United States, is the first to arrive.
Accompanied by his friend and second, William Van Ness, Burr climbs
the narrow path that leads from the Hudson River shore to a grassy
ledge about 20 feet above the water. The ledge is no more than 6 feet
wide and 11 yards long. On the west side, the 150-foot-high rock wall
of The Palisades looms above them. A cedar tree shades the site.
Alexander Hamilton and his second, Nathaniel Pendelton, arrive
late. At 47, Hamilton is a leading New York law, political and social
figure. Fifteen years earlier, his close friend, George Washington,
appointed him the country's first treasurer, and his fiscal policies
saved the struggling young nation from financial ruin. He also was a
major force in the ratification of the hotly debated U.S. Constitution
and was once talked about for president.
It was 200 years ago tomorrow.
Picture it: The isolated and wooded Weehawken dueling ground. Seven
o'clock in the morning. A sultry summer day taking shape. And two
powerful national figures about to settle their differences like
"gentlemen" -- with pistols at no more than 10 paces.
Burr, a Republican, and Hamilton, a Federalist, are political
enemies who despise each other. Burr believes Hamilton worked to deny
him both the presidency in 1801 -- helping to relegate him to the
mainly ceremonial role as Thomas Jefferson's vice president -- and the
New York governorship earlier in 1804. After learning that Hamilton
had offered a "despicable opinion" of him in an Albany
newspaper in April, Burr challenges him to the duel.
Only a handful of people know something is happening on the
The boatmen who row Burr and Van Ness from Greenwich Village know
only that the vice president is involved. The men who row Hamilton,
Pendelton and Dr. David Hosack, Hamilton's physician, know only that
the former treasury secretary is involved. Hosack is to wait at the
shore and to hurry to the dueling ground only if summoned.
The secluded Weehawken waterfront is a perfect place to conduct
duels. The dueling ground can be reach only by the path from the
shoreline. Eighteen duels are held here between 1791 and 1845. The
site's specific location is lost to history, but researchers have a
general idea where it was.
"The exact location of the Weehawken dueling ground is a
matter of mystery and controversy complicated by many changes along
the Hudson riverfront since 1804," said Thomas R. Flagg, a New
York-based industrial archaeologist who has studied the history of the
But a 1924 book, "The History of Municipalities in Hudson
County," declares the dueling ground's "exact location may
be found by extending the lines of 40th and 42nd streets in New York
City westerly across the river to the New Jersey side."
What remained of the ledge in 1870 was destroyed when a railroad
line was constructed along the waterfront.
Pendelton, Hamilton's second, has brought the pistols in a
velvet-lined mahogany box: two expensive, engraved and hefty
smoothbore flintlocks purchased in London in 1799 by John Baker
Church, Hamilton's brother-in-law. Dueling etiquette calls for pistols
to be no more than .50 caliber. Church's pistols are .544 caliber,
more powerful than a World War II heavy machine gun. And they already
have a history.
In 1799, the pistols were first used in a duel between Church and
Burr. Church called Burr "a scoundrel whose close friends were
knaves and wastrels," and the then-New York Assemblyman
challenged him to a duel. It was held at twilight at either Weehawken,
the Jersey City waterfront or Hoboken. In the exchange of fire,
Church's ball passed through Burr's coat and knocked off a button.
Otherwise, both men escaped injury.
In 1801, the weapons were used in a duel on the Weehawken grounds
in which Hamilton's eldest son, Philip, 19, was mortally wounded by a
At the time of Burr's challenge, Alexander Hamilton, who is
described by friends as indiscreet, vain and opinionated, has been
involved in 11 "affairs of honor," most of them ending with
an apology instead of gunfire. In 1797, Hamilton considered
challenging President John Adams to a duel over a perceived insult,
but decided to let the matter pass.
"I cannot, I presume, as he is an old man and the
president," Hamilton reasoned. That same year, Hamilton
challenged future president James Monroe after Monroe accused him of
mishandling treasury funds.
The dispute never reached the dueling ground. Aaron Burr
On the eve of his duel with Burr, Hamilton tells Pendelton he
intends not to shoot at his opponent, but instead allow him to fire
and then shoot into the air. But as the duel is about to begin,
Hamilton asks for a brief delay, and Burr watches him test his aim and
checking the pistol's sight.
At the signal to fire, Burr does not hesitate. Almost
simultaneously, Hamilton fires, but his shot is high and wide,
clipping a tree branch above and to the side of Burr.
Burr's shot enters Hamilton's right side, rips through his liver
and diaphragm and lodges in his spine. Hamilton spins and falls to the
ground. Pendelton will later argue Hamilton's shot was an involuntary
Hosack, the physician waiting at the shoreline, hears two shots and
then his name called.
"When called to him upon receiving his wound, I found him half
sitting upon the ground, supported in the arms of Mr. Pendelton,"
Hosack said. "His countenance of death I shall never forget. He
had at that instance just enough strength to say, 'This is a mortal
wound, doctor,' when he sank and became to all appearances
Burr moves to speak to Hamilton, but Van Ness, his second, stops
him. Van Ness opens an umbrella to cover Burr's face and prevent
Hamilton's boatmen from seeing the vice president, and they depart for
While being transported across the Hudson, Hamilton regains
consciousness and notices his pistol nearby. "Take care of that
pistol," he said, "it is undischarged and still cocked. It
may go off and do harm." Hamilton does not realize he fired the
The dying man is taken to the home of a friend at 80 Jane St. in
Greenwich Village. Burr returns to Richmond Hill, his home a half a
mile away, where he and a visitor have breakfast. Burr does not
mention the duel.
On his deathbed, Hamilton requests a visit from Episcopal Bishop
Benjamin Moore. He wishes to receive communion, but the bishop learns
of the sinful duel and refuses. (Both the Catholic and Episcopal
churches had spoken out against the practice of dueling.)
Hamilton then requests a Presbyterian minister. The clergyman
declares he cannot give communion in private.
The following day, Moore returns. Hamilton expresses sorrow and
contrition for his action. He receives communion.
At 2 p.m., Hamilton dies. The public is outraged.
Burr finds himself cast as the villain. The New York newspapers
trumpet the news of the duel and the aftermath.
On July 14, a great funeral procession winds through the Wall
Street area to Trinity Church. A military band leads the way, playing
the march of the dead. Burr does not attend.
On July 21, fearing murder indictments in New York and in New
Jersey -- where dueling is legal -- Burr and his valet slip out of New
York by boat to Perth Amboy. They obtain horses in Cranbury and head
south to Philadelphia and Georgia, moving along back roads to avoid
To appease an angry public, indictments are handed up in in both
New Jersey and New York, but Burr is never prosecuted. In 1805, he
returns to Washington to complete his term as vice president.
Burr does not fade from public view. In 1807 he is arrested in
Louisiana for plotting to raise an army, conquer part of the United
States' newly acquired Louisiana Territory, and crown himself emperor.
He is taken to Richmond, tried for treason, and acquitted on a
Burr spends his last years in a Staten Island hotel and dies in
1836 at age 80. He is buried in Princeton.
Burr is on his deathbed when a minister, attempting to save the old
man's soul, raises the duel and the death of Hamilton.
"I was provoked to that encounter," Burr replies. He says