That Time a U.S. President Killed a Man in Cold Blood and Got Away With It Scot-Free

On May 30, 1806, Andrew Jackson dueled with famed marksman Charles Dickinson, killing him, after Dickinson insulted Jackson in a variety of ways including calling Jackson’s wife of bigamist.  This latter point was a sore spot for Jackson as his wife really had married him while she was still married to her former husband.  She had separated from her first husband, Captain Lewis Robards, in 1790 and subsequently moved in with Jackson and began calling herself his wife.  The two were soon officially married but this was later nullified by the fact that she and Captain Robards had never actually finalized their divorce, in terms of doing the paperwork, though the community itself considered them divorced.  She had to remarry Jackson in 1794 once the divorce with Captain Robards went through.

Both Dickinson’s father-in-law and Jackson at the time were horse breeders and rivals of one another. The beef between the two that eventually escalated to Jackson challenging Dickinson to a duel started in 1805 when Jackson had a $2000 (about $35,000 today) bet with Captain Joseph Erwin, Dickinson’s father-in-law, on a horse race.  The winner would get $2,000 from the other, or if the horse one or the other bet on couldn’t run, then that person would have to pay the other $800. Erwin’s horse did indeed not run the race, having come up lame, while Jackson’s horse Truxton did run, and so Erwin was forced to pay Jackson $800, though there was a disagreement between the two about which notes Jackson would be paid with.

Later Dickinson overheard a secondhand account of things Jackson supposedly said about Erwin over the matter and became angry at Jackson about it and fought with the person telling the story, who was a friend of Jackson.  Dickinson then sent Thomas Swann to ask Jackson whether what he heard was true, which Jackson denied, but in the process Jackson physically attacked Swann and said he was a “stupid meddler”.

Dickinson then wrote to Jackson, calling him a “coward and an equivocator”.  This escalated to the point where the two were sending a series of insults back and forth, including publishing some in the National Review, such as this last one which was the final straw, published in May of 1806 by Dickinson calling Jackson a “worthless scoundrel, … a poltroon and a coward” after Jackson had called Dickinson a “a worthless, drunken, blackguard”.

Despite the fact that Dickinson was known to be one of the best marksmen in all of Tennessee and dueling was illegal in that state, Jackson challenged him to a duel by sending him a note stating, he wanted “satisfaction due [him] for the insults offered.”   Because dueling was illegal in Tennessee, they traveled to Logan, Kentucky, and dueled on the shores of the Red River.

Jackson conceded the first shot to Dickinson, choosing not to fire when he turned, even though Dickinson was such a good marksmen.  He and his second thought there was a chance Dickinson might miss, having to turn and shoot and trying to do so as quickly as possible before Jackson could get off a shot.  So if he did miss or otherwise dealt a non-fatal blow, Jackson could then take his time and aim and kill him with the one shot he was allowed, as Dickinson would be required to stand still and give Jackson his chance.  Things didn’t go quite as smoothly as hoped, as the shot fired by Dickinson hit Jackson in the chest just a few inches from his heart, breaking two ribs in the process.

Not to be dissuaded, Jackson stayed on his feet and carefully aimed at Dickinson and pulled the trigger… only nothing happened as the hammer had stopped half-cocked.  So he re-cocked it and pulled the trigger again, this time hitting Dickinson in the chest.

A few hours later Dickinson died as Jackson’s shot had damaged an artery.  He was only 26 years old leaving his wife a widow, all over a silly “he said / she said” type argument pertaining to her father’s honor.  All things being equal, we imagine Captain Erwin would have rather his daughter still had her promising young husband around.

Whatever the case, Jackson lived on and eventually became President, although because of the bullet’s proximity to his heart, it could not be removed and remained in his chest for the remaining 39 years of his life, reportedly causing him quite a bit of pain.  Asked after the fact how he kept his feet after a near deadly hit to the chest, Jackson replied, “I should have hit him if he had shot me through the brain.”

This duel didn’t endear people to Jackson as many thought it was dishonorable for him to aim to kill after Dickinson had already taken his shot, thinking Jackson should have instead simply aimed to hurt Dickinson instead or even that he should have fired in the air to spare his life, thus ending the duel.

This was not the only time Jackson had a rather colorful interaction with another human who slighted him as we’ll get into shortly in the Bonus Fact on what happened after someone tried to assassinate President Jackson.

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Bonus Facts:

The first assassination of a President is both well-known and well-documented. On April 14, 1865, actor and southern advocate John Wilkes Booth shot the 16th U.S. President Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s theater. Lincoln died from his wounds not long after. (Incidentally, shortly before this, John Wilkes Booth’s brother saved Abraham Lincoln’s son’s life by grabbing him and pulling him back when Lincoln’s son was bumped and was subsequently about to fall into a moving train as a result.)

In any event, less well-known was the next assassination of a commander-in-chief. On July 2, 1881, 20th U.S. President James Garfield was assassinated by Charles J. Guiteau. He did live for 80 days after being shot, but developed a severe infection from the gunshots, with a contributing factor possibly being several doctors who stuck their unsterilized fingers in one of the bullet holes to try to find the bullet lodged deep in Garfield’s body. (Note: contrary to popular belief, much of the time, it’s better to leave the bullet in than try to remove it, even today- back then even more so.) His health gradually deteriorated until he finally suffered a heart attack and an aneurysm.

Garfield was nearly assassinated earlier, but Guiteau lost his nerve after seeing the President’s grief over his extremely ill wife. After Garfield’s wife recovered somewhat, Guiteau followed through with his plan and shot the President.

The next assassination of a U.S. President is also slightly less well-known. 25th President William McKinley was shot by anarchist Leon Czolgosz on September 6, 1901. McKinley died from an infection caused by the bullet wounds a week later, on September 14, 1901.

After McKinley had been shot twice, his immediate action was to save the life of the assassin who a mob had gathered around. He then asked for them to break the news gently to his wife. The two were extremely close and were almost never parted (particularly as she was epileptic and he liked to be around in case she had a seizure). On the way to his funeral, his wife was, to quote one contemporary account, “huddled in a compartment of the funeral train, praying that the Lord would take her with her Dearest Love.” After the funeral, she set up a shrine in their home and regularly visited McKinley’s burial vault. It was thought she wouldn’t last long after his death, but lived another 6 years before dying at 59.

On November 22, 1963, 35th president John F. Kennedy was shot in Dallas by Lee Harvey Oswald, perhaps a part of a conspiracy, perhaps not. He died shortly thereafter.

Although Lincoln’s assassination was the first, it was not the first Presidential assassination attempt.

This brings us back to the one and only Andrew Jackson. On January 30, 1835, Andrew Jackson, the 7th and perhaps the most colorful of all President was attending a funeral when his life was almost ended.

The would-be assassin was Richard Lawrence, a painter, who at the time of the assassination attempt believed himself to be King Richard III of England (in fact, Richard III, the last King of the House of York, died some 350 years before at the Battle of Bosworth Field, which is regarded by many historians as marking the end of the Middle Ages; this battle also is considered by many to have brought to a close the Wars of the Roses).

In any event, around the time of the assassination attempt, Lawrence found himself out of work, something he blamed President Jackson for, rather than his own insanity. He further thought that the U.S. government owed him a significant amount of money and if he could just kill Jackson, then it would be paid to him. He also felt that money would become plentiful in the U.S. as a result of Jackson’s death. Once he had his money, he planned to return to England where he would take back his throne, as King Richard III.

The actual assassination attempt took place after a funeral that Jackson attended, that of Warren R. Davis, a former Representative from South Carolina. When Jackson was leaving the funeral, Lawrence stepped out from behind a pillar he was hiding behind, pointed his Derringer at Jackson from around 13 feet away and pulled the trigger. Reports state the firearm went off, but the bullet did not leave the chamber. He then quickly discarded the first Derringer and drew out his second and pulled the trigger, this time with Jackson just a few feet away (rather than run away, or try to hide, which would have been contrary to Jackson’s nature, Jackson charged his would be assassin). This second shot reportedly went off like the first, with a loud bang, but with no bullet exiting the chamber.

Jackson didn’t take kindly to this assassination attempt and subsequently attacked Lawrence with a cane. Others around Jackson helped subdue Lawrence, including Congressman Davey Crocket, who incidentally was a staunch political enemy of Jackson, but nevertheless saw fit to help him take down Lawrence. Some reports even state that Jackson had to ultimately be pulled away from Lawrence as he continued to beat him even when Lawrence was down and subdued.

Lawrence was subsequently tried, though not convicted, by virtue of his insanity. He was then placed in a variety of asylums for the remainder of his life, dying 26 years later in 1861.

Conspiracy theorists at the time felt that Lawrence’s assassination attempt was actually not Lawrence’s idea, but was instigated by certain of Jackson’s political opponents, including Senator George Poindexter, who had hired Lawrence to paint his home just a few months before the attempt on Jackson’s life. Indeed, enough people thought Poindexter was involved in the assassination attempt that many of his own supporters withdrew their support and he was unable to get re-elected. Jackson himself thought Senator John C. Calhoun was the main person behind the attempt.

In any event, speaking of President Garfield, Due to being extremely poor thanks to his father’s untimely death when future President James Garfield was just 17 months old, Garfield worked a variety of odd jobs to help support himself during his education, including working as a janitor, a carpenter, and a bell ringer. Shortly after graduating from seminary, he took a position as a teacher and later sought higher education, attending Williams College. He then worked as a preacher, a principal of a high school, and a teacher of classical languages, before getting into law and then politics. Garfield was also extremely poor during his short Presidency thanks to the fact that the President was still expected to pay White House operating expenses out of his own salary (including funding expensive state dinners and the like; this was partially how Thomas Jefferson had accrued so much debt in his lifetime). As most Presidents were independently wealthy, this was not usually a problem. Garfield was not in any way wealthy, and even had to borrow a horse and buggy from former President Hayes to get around.

Going back to Jackson, he not only was the first known U.S. President someone tried to murder, but also is thought to be the first to be physically attacked while in office. The attacker was Robert B. Randolph and the attack happened about two years before the assassination attempt. Randolph had been in the Navy but Jackson had him dismissed. Randolph later attacked the President, striking him and then running away when people around Jackson attempted to grab him. Randolph ended up getting away with striking the President scot-free as Jackson didn’t press charges.

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One comment

  • this needs to be rewritten….
    including calling Jackson’s wife of bigamist.
    either “…. of bigamy” or “accusing Jackson’s wife of being a bigamist”
    might be another error or two in there somewhere, but I don’t want to reread the whole thing again. interesting article though.