San Francisco’s foremost contribution to American dueling lore was the 1859 face-off between United States Senator David C. Broderick and David S. Terry, chief justice of the California Supreme Court--a blood contest so controversial that it finally put an end to all dueling in this state.
Broderick was born to Irish immigrants in 1820 (his father is said to have been one of the stonemasons on the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.) and grew up defending himself around the rougher quarters of New York City. In early adulthood, he made a living mostly as a saloonkeeper and fireman, but profited handsomely on top of that as a ward heeler for Tammany Hall, the city’s growing Democratic political machine. He left Manhattan for San Francisco in 1849, just as William Marcy “Boss” Tweed--destined to become the fat poster boy for Tammany corruption--was beginning his arm-twisting career.
Well connected to New York Democrats and possessing formidable political skills, within two years of his sailing through the Golden Gate, Broderick had become president of the California Senate and “dictator of the municipality,” as Jeremiah Lynch put it in A Senator of the Fifties: David C. Broderick of California. Taking a page from the Tammany manual, “Boss” Broderick created a strong partisan political structure in San Francisco, using almost any opportunity he could find to embarrass the Whigs, who controlled City Hall and Sacramento before Broderick’s arrival here. The single notable exception to that vigorous partisanship was in his alliance with Whig leaders against the First Vigilance Committee in 1851. Broderick's opposition to the vigilantes, though, may not have been borne from any disgust he felt for the Committee’s fire-against-fire tactics, but rather out of his fear that its prescriptions for reform would negatively impact his own increasingly nefarious activities.
Nobody was nominated or elected to office in this city during the 1850s unless he had received Broderick’s blessing. The Democratic boss handed out political endorsements as gifts, always expecting something in return--usually money. An 1851 survey of the San Francisco elite listed Broderick’s worth as only $30,000, much below that of real-estate pioneer James Lick (with a reported $750,000), merchant W.D.M. Howard ($375,000), and the fulminating newspaperman Sam Brannan ($275,000). But his bank deposits grew quickly after that. By historian Herbert Asbury’s calculus, the former saloonkeeper probably pulled down several hundred thousand dollars every year in “favors” from officeholders. Broderick looked upon this city and the state as treasure chests just waiting for his plundering attentions. It wouldn’t be too much to say that the rise of the Second Vigilance Committee in 1856 was brought about in part by public disgust over the Broderick machine’s extensive graft--including its looting of the city treasury.
Annalist George R. Stewart once described Broderick (shown at right) as “a responsible leader.” But as John P. Young wrote in San Francisco: A History of the Pacific Coast Metropolis, “the truth of history demands the statement that for a long period [Broderick’s] methods were utterly vicious ... he shrank from no infamy which would promote his objects.” The boss wasn’t above surgical applications of violence when it seemed necessary to maintain his order in town or his wishes at the polls, and he had a small but effective troop of “enforcers” on his payroll--bruisers with names like Dutch Charley and Yankee Sullivan--who became well practiced in the art of intimidation.
“If we can only escape David C. Broderick’s hired bullies a little longer,” wrote Evening Bulletin editor James King of William, acknowledging Broderick’s palpable threat, “we will turn this city inside out, but what we will expose the corruption and malfeasance of her officiary.” King was one of the few men in town brave enough--or maybe stupid enough--to publicly oppose the boss’ rule. He regularly published lists of men who sought political office through the power of their pocketbooks and alluded to covert real-estate deals through which Broderick could profit at public expense and sufference.
* * *By 1859, Broderick had expanded his influence well beyond the state’s borders, winning the chance to represent California in the U.S. Senate. This fulfilled a longtime wish for San Francisco’s kingpin. Jeremiah Lynch quotes Broderick as saying that “To sit in the Senate of the United States as a Senator for one day, I would consent to be roasted in a slow fire on the plaza.”
But his participation in national affairs came at an extraordinarily tumultuous time. Tensions were running high between Southerners and other representatives of the Union; they would boil over in another year, when Abraham Lincoln of Illinois was elected president. Broderick had been identified with forces that opposed the extension of slavery to the West Coast. On this issue, as on others, his influence as a politician was not memorable, but his stated views had created trouble for him among some passionately pro-slavery Southerners in the Democratic Party--men such as Chief Justice David Terry.
Terry (below) was a truculent Kentuckian who seemed much more adept at creating enemies than friends. But until the slavery question burned the bridges between them, the judge had gotten along quite well with Broderick. Broderick had come to Terry’s aid after the judge stabbed an agent of the Vigilance Committee in 1856. The politician is even credited with paying $200 a week to John Nugent, editor of the widely read and anti-vigilante San Francisco Herald, in exchange for editorials that defended Terry against mob “justice.” (Charges against the jurist were eventually dropped after his ostensible murder victim suddenly recovered.) What ultimately killed their relationship were two caustic remarks. The first was made by Terry, who told a Democratic gathering that “Broderick’s professed following of Douglas meant not Stephen Douglas the statesman, but Frederick Douglass the mulatto.” The second came during breakfast the next day, when Broderick read the chief justice’s feeble attempt at insult and told an acquaintance with him at the table that he no longer believed Terry to be an honest man. It just so happened that one of Terry’s friends was seated nearby, heard this broad slander, and demanded that Broderick withdraw it or be challenged to a duel.
Now, the political boss was from New York, where questions of personal probity were weighted with far less significance than they were in Terry’s native South. He could, in good conscience, have refused to apologize for his comment about the judge and also ignored the opportunity to engage in an affaire d’honneur. But Broderick agreed instead to take Terry on.
The choice of weapons fell to the judge, as the aggrieved party, and he selected a pair of 8-inch, single-shot Belgian-made dueling pistols that belonged to his neighbor, Dr. Daniel Aylette. Reports are that Terry practiced with these guns for two months prior to his face-off against David Broderick--he apparently wanted every advantage he could find--and in that time Terry realized that one of the pistols had a particularly sensitive trigger. This firearm he calculatedly left to the use of his opponent.
* * *The Broderick-Terry fight was originally scheduled for Monday, September 12, 1859, in a ravine near Lake Merced, in what is now San Francisco’s southwest corner, near the San Mateo County line. But the combatants failed to keep their arrangement sufficiently under wraps, and the city’s chief of police showed up to stop the duel before it had even begun. Broderick and Terry were both arrested--after all, dueling was officially prohibited by California state law--and weren’t released by a judge until later that day. Before retiring to their respective homes, the men quietly agreed to meet on the following morning at the same place.
When the judge and the politician, both trailing their retinue of “seconds” (assistants), appeared again beside Lake Merced, they found 60 spectators, including some of the city’s most highfalutin power brokers. Rules were discussed, and then the opponents stepped back until they were 10 paces apart. “Gentlemen, are you ready?” asked a second, and he began counting to three. But at only one, Broderick’s hair-triggered Belgian weapon discharged accidentally, its ball firing into the dirt at his feet. The count continued: two. Terry raised his gun, took aim at his now-defenseless enemy. Three! There was a sharp crack, and a bullet went through Broderick’s right lung. The crowd gasped!
Taking stock of the senator’s body, Terry is supposed to have remarked disappointedly that “The shot is not mortal. I have struck two inches to the right.”
But in this, he was mistaken. Bleeding and huffing for air, Broderick was taken 12 miles north in a wagon to Fort Mason, where he was nursed for the last three days of his life. During one of his final agonies, the 39-year-old solon is supposed to have said, “They have killed me because I was opposed to the extension of slavery and a corrupt administration”--but that sounds like a load of tripe designed for public appreciation.
Justice Terry departed San Francisco not long after the duel was done. He joined the Confederate Army and didn’t return to California until after the Civil War.
David Broderick, on the other hand, was laid in state at the Union Hotel on Kearny Street until September 18, when 30,000 people showed up at Portsmouth Square to pay him a last moving tribute. A lengthy procession of San Franciscans (by some accounts, the line extended a mile or more) followed the casket to its burial place at Laurel Hill Cemetery, west of downtown. Although he’d accumulated more than his share of enemies in life, in death Broderick was championed as a martyr for the Union cause. As one old man, echoing the sympathies of many San Franciscans, said while gazing over Broderick’s casket, “God bless you. California has this day lost her noblest son.”