Bloody Island was not an island, it was a sandbar. It appeared from the Mississippi in 1798. Then it grew and threatened to block St. Louis’ riverboat traffic. It was named after the city’s fathers, who scolded it (“That bloody Island will ruin us!”). Instead, the island was a place where high-society men used to go for 20 paces to settle disputes.
Mark A. Neels, author of “The Barbarous Custom of Dueling”: Death and Honor on Bloody Island, says that if you were part of society’s upper crust, you would have owned a pair of dueling guns. Maybe you got a mother-of-pearl-handled pair for your 18th birthday. You could challenge your critic to a duel if you felt your reputation was being damaged. This is not walking, talk, walk and walk, turn, blam. Neels states that it is essentially political theatre. “Most of the time, when a duel took place, the two people didn’t kill one another. This would have been too inhumane.
However, this is not to say that blood did not sometimes soak into the sand. St. Benjamin Gratz Brown, Louis Globe-Democrat editor, left Bloody Island with a gunshot in his leg and a permanent limp. Senator Thomas Hart Benton was nailed to the knee and then shot Charles Lucas, his dueling partner. A crucial, but not bloodless, the duel was held on Bloody Island. Neels claims it’s not widely known because most Americans don’t want to see Abraham Lincoln as capable of potential murder. Illinois politician James Shields called the duel after taking issue with a series of insulting pseudonymous letters that Mary Todd Lincoln sent to a Springfield newspaper under the name Rebecca. Neels states that Lincoln hated guns. He had only fired one malice shot at a turkey once when he was a young boy. Although he did kill the turkey, he felt so much regret that he would never fire another weapon again. Lincoln is clever and wily. He is taller than Shields. He knew he had an extended arm and a wide reach, and that a broadsword would make it longer. The duel does not take place. They reach the other end, and Lincoln begins to swipe at a tree using his broadsword. Shields looks at the situation and says, “Ahhh, I am out, I am out–I forgive You, Abe.” Everything’s good!'”
Is Bloody Island still alive today? Neels states, “The best way to put it is that it does but it doesn’t.” “The land mass is now part of the Illinois shore. But if you look across to the eastern pylon at the Eads Bridge you will see the southern tip of Bloody Island.
It is no longer an island or a blood-soaked field for the honor.