The Richmond History Podcast

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

One of the last Mortal Duels in VA and Probably the Most Famous in Richmond History

When Mary's queenly form I press, in Strauss's latest waltz
I would as well her lips caress, although those lips be false.
For still with fire love tips his darts, and kindles up anew
The flame which once consumed my heart, when those dear lips are true.
Of form so fair, of faith so faint, if truth were only in her,
Though she'd be the sweetest saint, I'd still feel like a sinner.

First printed in the Richmond Enquirer in 1873

Mary Triplett

This poem may not mean much today, but in 1873, it was enough to make a man kill.  John Mordecai was madly in love with the beautiful Mary Triplett who was "a veritable daughter of the God's, divinely fair and most divinely tall" as a contemporary described her.1  But she had been engaged to Page McCarthy who was also madly in love with the belle.  But she suddenly broke off the engagement and suddenly went to Europe for about a year.  When she returned she refused to even speak to McCarthy.2
One night during a dance at the Richmond Club, it was worked out as a clever joke that Page and Mary would dance together but Mary cut the dance and returned to her seat, purposely insulting McCarthy, and unintentionally inspiring the poem.2
When Mordecai saw the poem, he was pissed that "his" girl would be slandered in print.  His friends tried to calm him down but that didn't squash the problem.  John kept running his mouth about it until Page had to claim that he had written it about another girl.  It didn't take long for the gossip to get around that of course he had written it about John's Mary.  After confronting Page, John "struck him a powerful blow in the face which cut all the skin from over his left eye and felled him to the floor" according to William Lawrence Royall, who after some rolling on the floor became John's second to the duel that would settle this dispute.  

Oakwood Cemetery in 1865

The location was near Oakwood Cemetery in Richmond, VA.  The weapons were Colt Army revolvers.  The distance was ten paces.  All six chambers were loaded.  The signal would be "Fire...1...2...3".  A shot could be fired anytime between fire and 3.  They both fired their first shot.  Both missed.  When asked if they were satisfied (many duels ended with shots and no one shot), McCarthy replied "Oh, no. I demand another fire."  Both men were hit, Mordecai mortally, dying a few days later.2
McCarthy was fined $500 and sentenced to six months in jail, but his doctor advised that he was so badly injured that jail would in danger his life,2 so Governor Kemper ruled that he wouldn't have to serve the time.1
McCarthy didn't die until 1900.3
These were some of the most prominent citizens of Richmond.1

According to William Lawrence Royall "There were several duels after this, but none of them fatal"2
Virginia, Mississippi and West Virginia still have anti dueling statutes on the books.  I think in every other state it is just murder.




1. Richmond:The Story of a City, Virginius Dabney
2. http://richmondthenandnow.com/The-Fatal-Triangle.html
3.http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?res=F70C1EF8345811738DDDAF0A94DD405B808CF1D3

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