Period Piece: Duels to death on the shores of Lake Merced

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Leaving aside the wanton killing, there was something charming about olden-style justice. Back in the day, a political figure could draft a nasty note that ended with  “your obedient servant,” pass it off to some friends to deliver to a sworn enemy, and wait for his duel to the death to be scheduled. 

It’s probably good those days are over. Bay Area pacifists have two men to thank for the cessation of formalized murder: Senator David Broderick and Judge David Terry – who were probably not the original frenemies, but certainly early bearers of the standard. The two ensured the end of legal dueling with their fatal 1859 clash on the banks of Lake Merced.

San Franciscans of the 19th century already knew both Broderick and Terry to be firebrands. “Dave” Broderick worked as a barkeeper before making his way into a California Senate seat, a vocal working-class Democrat. In his first-ever speech to colleagues, Broderick stood up and criticized President Buchanan on the issue of slavery to a room of aghast murmurs.

(A) is for Assasination. Site of the 1859 Broderick-Terry duel.

Terry, a Democrat from the South and California Supreme Court judge, had stabbed an opponent in the neck a few years before the Lake Merced incident came to fruition. His victim survived, and Terry narrowly escaped hanging. 

The Lecompton Constitution, attempting to install slavery in the new state of Kansas, met turmoil within the Democratic Party. Broderick took a cutting abolitionist stance and Terry a bloated pro-slavery one.

“A miserable remnant of a faction, sailing under false colors, trying to obtain votes under false pretenses,” Terry said of Broderick’s supporters in a speech that later compared Broderick (unfavorably) to Frederick Douglass. 

Broderick perturbedly read the speech at breakfast a few days later. A friend of Terry’s sat nearby.

“I have said I considered him the only honest man on the Supreme bench, but now I take it all back,” remarked Broderick.

Letters were delivered between the two. Honors began to be questioned. 

“I…require of you a retraction of those remarks,” wrote Terry, angrily.

“I have to desire you to state what were the remarks that you designate…as offensive,” Broderick obliquely replied.

Terry, frustrated, quoted his opponent, ending the note with an invocation of his honor as “an officer or a gentleman." But Broderick seemed determined to cause Terry irritation.

“You are the best judge as to whether this language affords good ground of offence,” he wrote back, retraction not included.

Poked into a fury, Terry demanded a duel at “Laguna Merced,” and Broderick accepted. 

Those present at the duel later pegged Terry as the more practiced marksman. Broderick, it was said, seemed unprepared and awkward from the get-go. He carelessly chose an unfamiliar hairtrigger pistol, which fired early and off-mark. Terry took careful aim an instant later and struck Broderick in the breast. 

Broderick was to die within a few days. Anti-dueling legislation was enacted shortly afterwards. But Terry escaped legal retribution and joined up with Confederate forces at the start of the Civil War. For all the talk of glory and honor, he was shot and killed after slapping a U.S. Supreme Court judge in the face (an old friend of Broderick’s, the judge had jailed Terry for contempt during a hearing relating to Mrs. Terry).

“Slavery is old, decrepit and consumptive; freedom is young, strong and vigorous,” spoke Broderick early in his senatorial career. After his galvanizing death, much of California agreed, pushing pro-slavery Democrats out of office in favor of Republican ones. 

Today, the shady spot hosts two stone markers that indicate where the duelers faced off. 

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