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Saturday, July 9, 2016

JULY 11, 1804

At 5 a.m. on this day, two gentlemen left New York from separate docks. One departed from the vicinity of Greenwich Village, the other from a dock somewhat further north. By all accounts, July 11th was a beautiful day, one of those summer rarities with blue skies and low humidity. A disinterested observer would not give these travelers upriver a second glance. Each boat—besides the oarsmen—carried three gentlemen, one of whom was an attorney well known in the city. A fine leather case accompanied the gentlemen who’d embarked from Greenwich.  

Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton were the two attorneys.  The leather case contained a brace of elegant smoothbore pistols that belonged to Hamilton’s brother-in-law, John Church. Each pistol weighed several pounds—a lot to hold steady in an extended hand—and delivered a bullet weighing almost an ounce—a .54 caliber ball. Only two years past one of these handsome weapons—lacquered walnut handles ornamented with fittings of brass and gold--had killed Hamilton’s beloved 21 year-old son Philip.

Despite that, and many promises made to his wife, on this day Hamilton and those fatal pistols were again heading toward the dueling ground. Set among Weehawken’s Palisades, the notorious ledge stood just 20 feet above the Hudson. To the dismay of the property’s owner, men from New York customarily used the place for their affairs of honor, for New Jersey did not prosecute duelists with the same energy as did the Empire State. Screened by trees and brush, it was secluded. Captain Deas, the owner, dwelt at the top of the precipice where he must have had a spectacular view across the river. He was generally unaware of the illicit activities taking place below him until he heard gun fire, an ominous sound bouncing along the cliff face.

Burr and his second, Van Ness, were first to arrive. They busied themselves tidying the underbrush and debris. Shortly thereafter, Hamilton and Pendleton climbed to the spot. Courtesies were exchanged and lots were drawn by the seconds as to which man would supervise the duel. Pendleton assumed the duty. When he spoke the word “Present” the gentlemen would fire at one another.

Replicas of the pistols

Rashomon-like, what happened will never be completely clear. Van Ness and Burr swore that “Hamilton fired first,” but even if he did so, his bullet went off into the trees—not the careful aim you’d expect from a war veteran who still hunted small game on his property—or a man who’d come to Weehawken all set to exterminate a hated rival. For his part, Pendleton swore that the duelists fired at almost the same time and that Hamilton had done exactly as he’d declared on the journey across from New York and had thrown away his shot. It’s also possible that after Hamilton was wounded, a reflex action caused him to pull the trigger. All we’ll ever really know is that Burr's aim was excellent; his shot penetrated Hamilton's liver, shattered his vertebrae and lodged in his spine.  

On the following day, July 12, about 2 p.m. the life of this remarkable Founding Father, Alexander Hamilton, came to an end in the home of William Bayard of Greenwich Village.   Hamilton was surrounded on his death bed by grieving friends and family, chief among these his loyal wife, Eliza.

Hamilton's grave at Trinity Church in the heart of the financial world he created.

~~Juliet Waldron ~ All my historical novels :  http://amzn.to/1UDoLAi

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