Dangerous Will Robertson

People in the early 19th century really enjoyed dueling. Something about locking eyes with an opponent as you fired pistols at each other’s heads made life less dull. Especially when you did it over minor things like breaches of etiquette or adultery. Early legislatures sought to limit the pastime by issuing decrees that participants had to duel in the next state over, could only wound each, or other buzzkill measures. Travel requirements limited the amount of men capable of dueling to the elite who could afford to leave their homes for days or weeks at a time to go shoot a guy in a neighboring county or state. However, this meant that people who could afford to duel were also the people that ruled. So in some areas with slightly more violent populaces, like Alabama, dueling seriously depleted the amount of landowning young men.

Which meant it had to be stopped.

One of the first laws passed by the Alabama state legislature was “An act to suppress Duelling.” Originally enacted on December 17, 1819, the act provided for a small grace period to get all the dueling out of the state’s system. Participants had until April 1, 1820, to shoot at each other over matters of honor. New legislators entering the statehouses had to proclaim that they’d foregone dueling as of January 1, 1820, and the law explicitly forbade the election of any man found guilty of dueling after that time.

So, when William H. Robertson sent “a certain John W. Looney a challenge to fight with him,” on July 23, 1820, he was only two months late. Although he came near to the expiration date for dueling, Madison county felt like flexing its big law muscles. Shortly after learning that Robertson demanded that he and Looney go at each other “with deadly weapons,” the sheriff took an interest. Apparently Looney turned down the original threat because Robertson spent a lot of his spare time time trying to provoke the man.

Which leads me to my next question, why not just shoot the guy from behind a bush or something?

Either way, Robertson’s stubborn attempt to honor-kill the bejeesus out of John Looney resulted in his arrest and indictment for attempting to provoke a duel. He immediately threw himself upon the mercy of the county, which meant he had no money for a lawyer because he probably spent it all trying to get John Looney to duel him, and the court quickly found him not guilty. Although he suffered no punishment, William Robertson’s trial sent a message to the men of north Alabama – if you want to kill somebody you better be sneaky because Madison county don’t play that middle of the day stuff anymore.

The State of Alabama v. William H. Robertson, Madison County Alabama Circuit Court State Cases, 1819-1823. p. 36 (1820).

An act to suppress Duelling.

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