The name of one gunmaker recurs repeatedly in tales of the most infamous duels – Robert Wogdon, says John O'Sullivan and De Witt Bailey, in this edited extract from Robert Wogdon, Wogdon & Barton, John Barton, London Gunmkaers 1764-1819
The name Robert Wogdon is one that appears frequently in tales of the most infamous duels. John O’Sullivan and De Witt Bailey chart the life and work of the gunmaker known for his duelling pistols in their new book, Robert Wogdon, Wogdon & Barton, John Barton, London Gunmakers 1764-1819.
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The name Wogdon or, as it was sometimes recorded, Wogden or Wegden, suggests its origin might have been in some long-forgotten ancient craft or trade, or the name of one of the more than 3,000 lost medieval villages, the names of which have long since disappeared from the map.
Whatever its origin, the name Wogdon certainly has a funereal ring to it, and very appropriate for the gunmaker whose duelling pistols were to send many men to their premature deaths.
Robert Wogdon made many and varied firearms – pocket and livery pistols, double-barrelled pistols, sporting guns and rifles, carbines and blunderbusses – but he was most renowned for his duelling pistols. His total production of duelling pistols over the 39 years that he was a gunmaker is unknown. He left no records and never used serial numbers on his guns. Given the large number of cased pairs of his duelling pistols that have survived to this day, his production was significant.
Certainly during his working life he was referred to as “the celebrated Wogdon” and also, “he [Wogdon] is a famous man for making pistols”.
Look at any Wogdon duelling pistol, be it one from his early production years in the mid-1770s or one made towards the end of his career when in partnership with John Barton in the early 1800s, and they all have that unmistakable Wogdon style. By 1780, Wogdon had settled on the final form for his duelling pistols and saw no reason for any major changes over the next 23 years. His pistols had now reached a level of perfect proportions and balance, and had a simple elegance that could hardly be improved.
Contrary to popular belief, duelling pistols were made as a cased pair, not to provide a weapon for each adversary but rather so each adversary could have a second pistol if a second shot was required. A serious pistol shot would practise with his own pair and would be reluctant to provide one of his pistols to his adversary. Where neither principal owned a pistol, then a pair might be produced to be shared.
By the time duelling with pistols had superseded duelling with swords in the early 1770s, the purpose had shifted from wounding or killing your opponent to demonstrating that, as a man of honour, you were prepared to risk your life to defend your reputation, or that of your family or your regiment.
A major source of income for Robert Wogdon was the production of duelling pistols, though perhaps significantly he never referred in his invoices to his pistols as being duelling pistols, but were rather a ‘neat’ pair or brace. Despite duelling being always regarded as illegal, in practice it was widely tolerated by both the juries and the sentencing judges.
Whatever the eventual outcome, it was the expected duty of both the parties’ seconds to record faithfully all details of the duel, from the original insult, the issuing of the challenge to the eventual outcome.
However, there is rarely any information as to the type, ownership or maker of the pistols used. For this reason, very few duels can now be confidently identified as those in which Wogdon pistols were used. Not surprisingly, the few duels in which Wogdon’s pistols were known to have been used took place between opponents who were well-known public figures.
The answer to the question frequently asked of the owners of Wogdon duelling pistols, “Were these pistols ever used in a duel?” must unfortunately therefore be, “We just don’t know.”
THE HAMILTON-BURR DUEL
Undoubtedly the most famous duel with Wogdon pistols, and certainly the most famous pistol duel in the United States, took place on 11 July 1804 at Weehawken, New Jersey, between the former Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, and the sitting Vice-President of the United States, Aaron Burr. More has been written about this duel than any other in American history.
The events that culminated in the duel were the result of several years of simmering political differences and antagonism. Finally, a published letter made reference to a “particularly despicable opinion” Hamilton had expressed about Burr. Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel. If Hamilton were to admit to Burr’s charge, which was substantially true, he would lose his honour. To refuse to take part in the duel would have had the same result.
Colonel Burr arrived first. When General Hamilton arrived, the seconds measured out the distance, 10 full paces, and cast lots for the choice of position. They loaded the pistols and the parties took their stations. Both parties presented and fired in succession. Colonel Burr’s shot struck home and General Hamilton fell almost instantly. Carried to his Manhattan home, Hamilton lingered in agony, the pistol ball lodged next to his spine. He died the following day.
Burr was charged with murder but the case never reached trial. He completed his term as Vice-President but his political career was effectively over.
One could be excused for not recognising the pistols used in the Hamilton-Burr duel as having been made by the famous Wogdon. At some stage after they left Wogdon’s shop their original elegant full stocks were replaced with rather ugly heavy bronze fore-ends, perhaps to add muzzle weight to shift the centre of balance and reduce barrel flip.
The overall length of the pistols is 16in and the smooth-bore octagonal barrels are 29-bore. The plain stepped locks are simply engraved ‘Wogdon’, with a plain narrow safety catch.
The Wogdon pistols used in the Hamilton-Burr duel belonged to Hamilton’s brother-in-law, Colonel John Barker Church. Tragically, on 21 November 1801, Church’s Wogdon pistols were used in a duel between Hamilton’s eldest son, Philip, and George Eaker, a Jefferson supporter who had publicly made insulting remarks about Alexander Hamilton.
The duel took place at exactly the same place where Philip’s father was to meet Aaron Burr three years later. Philip was mortally wounded, and died in agony the following day. He was only 19 years old. The emotional trauma that Alexander Hamilton must have suffered three years later, facing Aaron Burr on the same spot where his son had been killed, and with perhaps the same pistol that he himself was now holding, can hardly be imagined. To this day, debate still rages as to whether Alexander Hamilton deliberately fired high over Burr’s head to demonstrate he had no intention of shooting Burr, or whether his pistol prematurely discharged due to the set trigger before he could properly bring his pistol to bear.
Burr’s intention seems quite clear. Four years later, in 1808, Burr met Jeremy Bentham, the noted English philosopher, and Bentham claimed to have been certain of his (Burr’s) ability to kill Hamilton. Bentham concluded that Burr was little better than a murderer.
Perhaps the most bizarre duel in which Wogdon pistols were used took place on 13 January 1777 between the Reverend Henry Bate and Andrew Robinson Stoney.
Mary Eleanor Bowes was the richest heiress in England at that time. Her promiscuous behaviour was well known and a series of anonymous, scurrilous articles with barely veiled references to her appeared in Reverend Bate’s Morning Post. Stoney demanded Bate reveal the author of these articles; Bate refused and Stoney challenged him to a duel as “the Countess of Strathmore’s champion”.
On 13 January 1777 at the Adelphi Tavern and Coffeehouse, Bate was accosted by Stoney and the duel proceeded without any witnesses. Two loud bangs followed by the unmistakable sound of clashing swords were heard and, with the help of waiters, the door was forced open. Two discarded Wogdon pistols were discovered.
By candlelight it was obvious that Stoney had been seriously injured with three stab wounds to the chest. The doctors concluded that Stoney’s injuries might well prove fatal. Stoney’s dying wish was that Mary would marry him. Somewhat reluctantly, Mary agreed and four days later Stoney was carried on a stretcher down the aisle of St James’s Church, Piccadilly, to marry Mary Elizabeth Bowes, Dowager Countess of Strathmore.
Much to everyone’s surprise, following the wedding Stoney made a rapid and complete recovery. The events leading up to the duel, the newspaper articles, the near fatal injuries Stoney had suffered, had all been a complete sham engineered by Stoney and Bate to trick Bowes into marriage, giving Stoney control over her huge fortune.
Stoney was to make Mary’s life a nightmare, subjecting her and her children to eight years of continuing physical and mental abuse, including threats of rape and murder.
After he forcibly abducted Mary to the north of England, a warrant was issued for Stoney Bowes arrest. He was found guilty of conspiracy to abduct Mary and sentenced to three years in prison, though he managed to spend his prison term in comfort due to his continued access to Mary’s estate.
Mary had already filed for divorce, unheard of in 18th-century England, and this only added to her notoriety. Stoney Bowes, not one to give up easily, appealed against Mary’s divorce suit but Mary eventually gained her freedom.
Stoney Bowes was to spend the remaining 22 years of his life as a prisoner, his mounting debts still unpaid, and still pursuing yet more legal avenues to regain control of Mary’s fortune.
He was, at his death, described by his long-term friend, surgeon Jesse Foot, who had attended his duelling injuries 33 years earlier, as “a villain to the backbone… cowardly, insidious, hypocritical, tyrannic, mean, violent, selfish, jealous, revengeful, inhuman and savage without a counterveiling quality”.
LENNOX-DUKE OF YORK DUEL
Though disputed, this duel most likely took place on 26 May 1789. At the time, the Duke of York, second son of the reigning King George III, was Colonel of the Coldstream Guards, and one Charles Lennox, nephew and heir to the Duke of Richmond, was Lieutenant-Colonel of the same regiment. The circumstances of the duel began when the Duke of York let it be known, “that Colonel Lennox had heard words spoken to him at Daubigny’s [a gentleman’s club] to which no gentleman ought to have submitted”.
Colonel Lennox wrote a circular to every member of Daubigny’s asking whether such words had been used about him and requesting an answer within the next seven days, adding that no reply would be considered equivalent to a declaration that nothing had been said.
The seven days having expired and no club member recollecting to have heard such words, Colonel Lennox felt justified in concluding that they were never uttered. He formally called upon the Duke either to give up the name of his false informant or afford him satisfaction. The Duke had earlier indicated to Colonel Lennox that he wished to desire no protection from his rank. Lennox replied that he could not consider His Royal Highness as any other than the son of his King.
Colonel Lennox and the Duke, accompanied by their seconds, met on Wimbledon Common on the morning of 26 May. The usual duelling distance of 12 paces was measured out and it was agreed that both parties would fire at the given signal. Colonel Lennox fired and the ball grazed one of his Royal Highness’ curls. The Duke did not return fire. It was requested that the Duke say he considered Colonel Lennox a man of honour and courage. His Royal Highness replied he should say nothing, after which all parties left the ground.
At a meeting three days later of officers of the Coldstream Guards to deliberate on whether Colonel Lennox had behaved as became an officer and gentleman, the officers resolved: “It is the opinion of the Coldstream Regiment that Colonel Lennox had behaved with courage but from the peculiar difficulty of his case, not with judgement.” Soon afterwards Colonel Lennox resigned his commission in the Duke of York’s regiment.
Colonel Lennox would have faced a real dilemma over this incident. The Duke of York had publicly insulted him and had virtually accused him of cowardice. Had Lennox refused to challenge the Duke, his reputation as an officer and a gentleman would have been irrevocably compromised. He went perilously close to putting a ball through the duke’s head, grazing one of the royal curls – an action which would not have improved his military career prospects.
One Theophilus Swift was to write a pamphlet on the affair, taking the Duke’s side. This resulted in a further duel between Colonel Lennox and Swift, which resulted in the unfortunate Swift being shot in the abdomen. Whether Lennox had used his Wogdons in his duel with Swift is not known.
Only one of the pair of pistols made by Robert Wogdon that were used in this duel has survived, and is on permanent exhibition at the Museum of London; it presumably belonged to Colonel Lennox. No details as to the pistol used by the Duke of York have so far been found. The whereabouts of the second Wogdon pistol are unknown.
At first glance, the surviving pistol is not immediately recognisable as the work of Robert Wogdon. It is now half-stocked with a silver fore-end and a rounded, chequered butt with spurred trigger-guard. Such alterations would have taken place at some time after it left Wogdon’s shop. Whether it was in this form when used by Colonel Lennox in the 1789 duel, or still in its original full stocked form, is unknown.
This is an edited extract from Robert Wogdon, Wogdon & Barton, John Barton, London Gunmakers 1764-1819, price £75, published by Bonhams. To order, please call 01666 502200 or email: email@example.com