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The Most Incredible Sword Fights in History

Posted by JT Hats

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Next up are the duels. Typically one-on-one battles, these range from the friendly-quarrel-turned-deadly to the full-on-fracas.

Van Gogh Vs. Gaughin
Proof that mental illness, prostitutes and rapiers do not mix

In Happier Times
Destruction: 1
Skill: 3
Honor: 5

The story we've heard is that two good friends, artists Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gaughin, had an argument. Despondent because of their falling out, Van Gogh sliced off part of his own ear with a razor and presented it to a French prostitute as a token of affection.

What actually happened, according to scholars Hans Kaufmann and Rita Wildegans of Hamburg, Germany, may be quite different. The two art historians examined Van Gogh's letters and found references to a pact of silence between Gaughin and himself, plus some talk of how lucky Van Gogh was that Gaughin hadn't learned the art of heavy weapons like machine-guns.

The latest interpretation of events is that while Gaughin and Van Gogh lived together in the south of France, Van Gogh's mental health declined and he became aggressive and difficult to tolerate. Gaughin decided to leave, and Van Gogh followed him, packing a straight razor. Near a bordello both men frequented, the two had an emotional encounter, and Gaughin — an excellent fencer — drew his rapier and lopped off Van Gogh's ear.

The two decided not to reveal what happened to the local authorities. Van Gogh continued to the bordello, left his ear with one of his favorites, and after returning home nearly bled to death in his own bed. Both men kept their pact, except for an occasional joke by mail.

Duel Des Mignons
On second thought, stringing beads might've been a better idea

King of the Dainties
Destruction: 3
Skill: 3
Honor: 2

The Duel Des Mignons — Duel of the Dainties — involved six young men who were favorites of King Henry III of France. Though very popular with the King, the Dainties were accused by others of sexual misconduct and frivolous or effeminate ways. In April 1578, two of the men quarreled over a woman and decided to settle the matter dramatically with epees, in a duel patterned after a legendary fight between two sets of Roman triplets, the Horatii and the Curiatii.

The primaries in the duel, Caylus and D'Entragues, selected two sets of seconds for the mythic battle. Riberac and Schomberg allied with D'Entragues; and Maugerin and Livaret supported Caylus. As the principals fought, Riberac suggested to Maugerin that a peaceful solution might be wisest, but Maugerin replied that he'd come to fight, not to string beads. After Riberac spent a moment in prayer, the seconds clashed. Moments later, Maugerin fell dead, but not before seriously wounding Riberac, who died of his wounds the next day.

Watching this, the third pair of duelists — Schomberg and Liverot — concluded that for honor's sake they should also be fighting. Schomberg drew first blood by slashing off half of Liverot's cheek, but Liverot responded by driving his epee through Schomberg's heart. Liverot died in a different duel two years later.

The principles both survived the contest, though Caylus died later after suffering from his nineteen wounds for more than a month. Many of Caylus's injuries were sustained when parrying D'Entragues's dagger with his bare hand. Caylus had complained about that during the duel, since he had no dagger of his own. D'Entragues, who was severely wounded by Caylus, had only replied that Caylus shouldn't have left his own dagger at home.

Floquet Vs. Boulanger
Prime Minister fights General in a battle to the near-death
Destruction: 1
Skill: 5
Honor: 5

A near-fatal dueling wound befell General Boulanger in his fight with French Prime Minister Floquet in 1888. General Boulanger had insulted Floquet twice during a debate in the Chamber of Deputies, eventually triggering Floquet's demand for a duel.

By odds the General, a professional soldier ten years younger than Floquet, certainly had the upper hand over the sixty-year-old lawyer, but skill triumphed over anger on the dueling grounds.

Based on an Eye-Witness' Sketch

On July 15th the two met in the garden of Count Dillon of Neuilly. In the first exchanges Floquet got the worst of it, with a wound in the calf, the hand and the side, but did manage to stab General Boulanger in the right forefinger. Boulanger responded with a wild charge, but Floquet stayed calm and simply raised his blade to meet the onrushing General's throat, ending the contest.

Both men lived, but only because of Floquet's restraint. His blade pierced the General's neck between the jugular vein and the carotid artery and nearly sliced through the phrenic nerve, which controls the ability to breathe. Doctors feared that tetanus might complicate the General's injuries, but within two days the General was on the mend, owing his life to Floquet's steady hand.

Mussolini Vs. Ciccotti
Best way to stifle a free press: duel the editors

Il Duce
Destruction: 2
Skill: 5
Honor: 3

During his rise to power in Italy, fascist newspaper editor Benito Mussolini crossed swords with communist newspaper editor Francisco Ciccotti.

Mussolini took offense at Ciccotti's anti-fascist newspaper editorials, and on October 27th, 1921, the two men fought an arduous 14-round bout which lasted one hour and fifteen minutes. Physicians examined Ciccotti's several wounds after the 14th round, and pronounced him unable to continue the fight due to loss of blood, but the two combatants at first agreed to continue the next day with pistols.

Ciccotti chose to leave the country years later when Mussolini finally established fascist control of Italy.

Mussolini, who was no stranger to combat and had been wounded in battle over 100 times, actually followed an old and respected tradition of the Italian nobility by dueling with his enemies. Dueling remained acceptable in Italy far longer than in other European nations, occurring about once a day nationwide during the peak of its popularity there.

Ciccotti was not the only journalist to feel the wrath of Mussolini's sword. On May 15th, 1922, another public critic of the fascist agenda — Signor Missiroli of the "Turin Secolo" — also battled the future dictator and expert swordsman.

The Sandbar Fight
Cordial duel escalates into a melee

Jim Bowie Statue - Photo by QuesterMark
Destruction: 3
Skill: 2
Honor: 4

The "Sandbar Fight" — which first brought the Bowie knife to the attention of the world — began with pistols, then progressed to sword and Bowie knife. An article published in the New York Times on January 27th, 1895, describes the events in what should be accurate detail, although the fight actually happened on September 18th, 1827, and the story certainly had adequate time to expand.

A long-standing and complex feud prompted Dr. Thomas Maddox and Mr. Samuel Wells to settle a matter of honor through the use of pistols on a sandbar near Natchez, Mississippi, on that fall day. The actual duel was intended to involve only the two duelists, their seconds, and physicians, but groups of friends gathered nearby to observe the event. The duel itself went well, both brave men missing one another completely and shaking hands afterwards.

Unfortunately, others there also had grudges to settle. One of Bowie's compatriots, General Currey, had shot Maddox's second, Colonel Crane, with a shotgun several months before and crippled his arm. As Currey and Bowie approached the dueling party, Currey suggested that this was a good time for Crane and him to settle their own problems. All three drew pistols, but Bowie and Crane fired the first shots. Bowie missed, but Crane wounded Bowie in the hip. As Bowie limped towards Crane with his knife in hand, Crane focused on Currey. Resting his second pistol on his crippled arm, Crane drilled Currey through the heart. Having fired both his rounds, Crane met Bowie's knife attack with the butt of his pistol and knocked Bowie down.

Bowie recovered and pulled himself to his feet just as Major Wright, another compatriot of Dr. Maddox, drew a sword cane and attacked. Bowie failed to parry the strike with his knife and the sword cane's blade drove into the center of his chest. Fortunately for Bowie, the sword was iron rather than steel. Instead of penetrating his breastbone, the tip bent and curved around one of Bowie ribs, lodging there solidly. As Wright stood over Bowie and tried to pull his weapon loose, Bowie reached up with his free hand and grabbed his shirt. Bowie pulled Wright down and drove his knife through Wright's heart.

The fight expanded to other members of the party, but only Wright and Currey died. Bowie's narrow escape caught the most attention from the day's media. Crane and others helped carry Bowie from the dueling field after things settled. Although Bowie thanked Crane for his help, he did not make peace with him. According to the Times, Bowie told Crane, "Colonel Crane, I do not think, under the circumstances, you should have shot me." Other members of Maddox's group explained later that they converged on James Bowie because he was the opposition's most dangerous man.

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