info 02.14.06

Old NY: The Burr-Hamilton Pistols

"The Vice-President of the United States…being moved and seduced by the Instigation of the devil…had and held in his right hand…did then and there shoot off and discharge."

That's what the coroner's jury concluded about Aaron Burr after his duel with Hamilton. Our own rootin', tootin', ready-fire-aim executive branch may not be instigated by the devil, but we'd say the jury's still out.

Anyway, this latest misfire got us thinking about the actual guns of choice of that July 11, 1804 duel and what became of them. In the 19th century, there was no end to people claiming they owned the pistols. In 1869, the Newburg Journal reported that the guns had passed in possession from Commodore Salter of the U.S. Navy to Harry Armstrong of Newburg, NY. In the 1870s, a bar at 298 Bowery claimed the guns on their wall were the duel guns. In 1891, the NY Times reported that Charles Van Brunt, who lived near Utica, owned them.

The most widely, though not universally, accepted version is that the pistols belonged to John B. Church, Hamilton's brother-in-law, and were purchased in London in 1799. As Hamilton was the man challenged, he would have had the right to provide the guns. The Church guns had been used in previous duels: one in which Church faced off none other than Aaron Burr. (There's a whole side story that one of the guns in the Burr-Hamilton duel was rigged with a hair trigger.)

A hundred years after the duel, the Times says, "The pistols with which the fatal duel was fought are now owned by Major Richard Church of Rochester. He is a grandson of John B. Church, to whose house the body of Hamilton was taken from Mr. Bayard's home in Greenwich Village." These guns passed from the Church family to Chase Manhattan in 1930. There's a certain irony to this, since Chase grew out of the Bank of Manhattan, which Burr founded.

In 1976, Chase had 100 copies of the pistols made in honor of the country's Bicentennial. The original Church pistols were on display at the NY Historical Society during the Alexander Hamilton show.


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