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Hanson’s Duel

As a newspaper editor, Alexander Hanson was known for his biting criticisms, and not all his targets accepted them well. Several years before the “Mobtown Massacre,” would catapult him to national notoriety, a young naval officer named Charles Gordon discovered that Hanson’s pointed barbs were not the only thing the Federalist newspaper editor was capable of firing.

Gordon had the misfortune of serving as captain of the USS Chesapeake when the navy frigate was caught unprepared and forced to surrender to a British warship off the coast of Virginia in June. The incident helped precipitate a trade embargo against Great Britain, and Gordon was reprimanded. Hanson penned a disparaging column in his newspaper about those involved in the Chesapeake debacle, and the criticism lingered with Gordon. Upon his next voyage to Baltimore, some eighteen months later, he challenged Hanson to a duel.

The men met at noon on January 10, 1810, on a secluded field in Bladensburg, Maryland, just outside the District of Columbia line. Protected by dense trees and the banks of a rippling creek, the spot had become popular for duels since the seat of government had moved to Washington at the turn of the century.

While not officially sanctioned, dueling was still an accepted custom to settle political
scores, even after the death of Alexander Hamilton in a duel with Aaron Burr some five
years prior in New York.

If Gordon, the veteran navy officer and experienced dueler, assumed his Federalist foe was just another avuncular newspaper editor, he was mistaken. Hanson, despite being frail and often in ill-health, had grown up on a plantation, served in the local militia and was an experienced shot.

Pistols in hand, the two men marched off five paces and turned to each other. Gordon was slow to lift his weapon from his left arm (there are conflicting reports whether Gordon fumbled with his pistol or fired in the air), while Hanson, with “marvelous coolness and nonchalance,” got off a shot quickly. (1) His aim was true, and Gordon was struck in the abdomen, above his right hipbone. He fell to the ground. The wound was severe and initially reported as fatal, but Gordon survived, though the wound left him disabled and his run-in with Hanson would shadow him the rest of his life.

Image credits: Harper’s New Monthly Magazine.Volume 16, number 914, March 1858.

(1) Hanson, George. Old Kent: The Eastern Shore of Maryland. Baltimore, MD: Clearfield Company, 1990. Originally published 1876, p. 129.

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Alexander Hanson and the Mobtown Massacre by Josh S. Cutler