The Shot that Killed Alexander Hamilton

The Star-Ledger
By Tom Hester, Staff
July 10, 2004

 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.

The showdown

Only a handful of people know something is happening on the Weehawken shore.

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 Weehawken waterfront.

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 Burr supporter.

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 intervened.

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 reaction.

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 lifeless."

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 Greenwich Village.

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 weapon.

The aftermath

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 authorities.

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 technicality.

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 nothing else.