and the Code Duello

The eldest child of William and Sarah (nee Gardner) Ladd, Joseph Brown Ladd was born on a farm near Newport, R.I., on July 7, 1764. His family was poor, but not destitute. Little documentation of his early years survives other than the inscription on his mother’s gravestone that notes “Studious in infancy, he was a favourite of the muses, and highly promising in his profession of physick ... His writings … display genious [sic], which riper years might have led to eminence.”

Joseph aspired to be something other than a farmer, someone who made his way in the world by using his intellect rather than by the toil of his hands. His father, realizing that Joseph showed promise and talent, allowed him free time from his chores to spend at Redwood Library in Newport. That’s probably where Joseph met and fell in love with Amanda, an orphaned heiress whose uncle served as her guardian until such time as she should marry.

Joseph pursued Amanda passionately and spent much of his time writing love poems to her - though based on the woeful tones of his verses, now collectively known as The Letters of Arouet to Amanda, it would appear that perhaps she was less enthralled than he. Hoping to establish himself as a man of substance and thereby win Amanda’s favor, Joseph began studying medicine at the age of 15 with Dr. Isaac Senter.

While working as the doctor’s apprentice, Joseph approached Amanda and her uncle with a proposal of marriage. The uncle disapproved; some suggest it was because he would lose his control of Amanda’s business affairs once she married. At any rate, the uncle began spreading rumors besmirching Joseph’s character and intentions, a charge that seemed plausible enough to many, given the differences between their financial statuses.

As the gossip spread throughout Newport, Dr. Senter suggested it was time for Joseph to establish his own medical practice elsewhere and start with a clean slate. The doctor asked his friend, Gen. Nathanael Greene, a Revolutionary War hero who had campaigned in South Carolina, what advice he might have for a young man looking to establish himself in the medical profession.

And so, at Gen. Greene’s suggestion, Joseph arrived in the thriving port city of Charleston in 1783 to establish himself in hopes of convincing Amanda to join him here. He was just 19. Upon his arrival, undoubtedly looking a bit lost and naïve, Joseph asked a passing stranger for a suggestion of where to find accommodations. Standing nearby, a local attorney, Ralph Isaacs, overheard the conversation and, recognizing the stranger as an unsavory character, intervened, perhaps saving Joseph from being robbed and beaten on his first day in town. The two became fast friends.

Joseph soon found accommodations renting a room from Fannie and Dellie Rose, spinster sisters who lived in a large Charleston double house built by their father at 59 Church Street. Alas, it wasn’t long before Joseph received news that Amanda had married another. Though heartbroken, his passion was unabated, and he continued to write poetry extolling his love for her.

Other than the loss of Amanda, Dr. Ladd thrived in Charleston and was well liked in the community, especially by his landladies who were charmed by his habit of whistling as he went about his business. The Rose sisters were well ensconced in Charleston society and they were pleased to introduce Ladd to their socially elite friends. Indeed, in 1785, Gov. William Moultrie invited the young doctor to address the Sons of Cincinnati at their July 4 Independence Day celebration. Ladd continued writing as well, publishing more than 70 poems in periodicals that included such readers as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington.

As Joseph’s popularity grew, Ralph Isaacs began to feel a sense of jealousy and resentment toward his friend’s quick rise within Charleston society. He accused Ladd of “feeling too important” to spend as much time with him as he had in the early days after his arrival. Ladd sought to include Issacs in his activities, but Isaacs lacked the doctor’s charm and failed to fit in. His resentment grew.

The friendship derailed entirely in the fall of 1786 as the two left a performance of Shakespeare’s Richard III together. When Isaacs complained about the shortcomings of an actress in the show, Ladd rose to her defense. The evening ended on a sour note for both. After several weeks of nursing his bruised ego, Isaacs published a letter in the Oct. 12, 1786, Charleston Morning News and Daily Advertiser declaring Ladd to be a scoundrel, social climber, and quack. It was the opening salvo of a very public dispute.

To 18th century Charlestonians, a man’s honor was a matter of utmost concern - and in Charleston, these types of offenses were settled with pistols under the code duello. Ladd’s friends insisted that this public offense must be answered.

He initially responded to Isaacs’ post by publishing one of his own, affirming his good character and noting that he was sorry he had ever been friends with Ralph Isaacs. To this, Isaacs threw down the gauntlet with a challenge to duel. Had Ladd not accepted, Isaac’s accusations would effectively carry the weight of truth in his new hometown. He had once before allowed unfounded accusations to run him out of Rhode Island and away from his beloved Amanda, and he unwilling to run a second time.

It may be hard for us to understand the rationale behind dueling by today’s standards, but it was commonly accepted in 18th century Charleston. The custom continued in South Carolina until at least 1840, years after it had been outlawed elsewhere. The issuance or acceptance of an invitation to duel was considered proof that a man was absolutely sure of the rightness of his claim, to the extent that he was willing to risk his life to prove it.

Charleston’s code duello, with rules adapted from an ancient Irish tradition, was a formalized protocol that ensured a couple of things: one, that all avenues of compromise and agreement between the parties had been exhausted before any random or passionate violence spontaneously erupted from overheated emotions. Friends or family members known as “seconds” were appointed for each party to dispassionately meet and try to work out an understanding or retraction of the offense. In reality, this was often an effective way to settle a dispute once the parties’ tempers had abated and everyone had slept on the issue for a few calm nights.

Second, as weapons of the day were generally less effectively deadly than today’s, the code ensured that doctors would be on site to lend immediate medical attention. Having an arranged duel at a set time and place also ensured that witnesses would be present on behalf of both parties and that the facts of what ensued would not be left to uninformed gossip or (at least too much) exaggeration.

But most of all, the code duello ensured that the duel was fought fairly and that no side had an advantage over the other, regardless of wealth or social standing. One party selected a pair of weapons for the duel, while the other party had first pick of which of the equally paired weapon he would use. The seconds’ job was to inspect the weapons onsite and ensure that they were “clean” and that no trickery was involved.

And finally, as the opponents looked each other in the eye in the calmer light of several days following the offense, the code allowed both parties to give one hard last thought as to whether or not they were committed enough to their position to risk serious injury or death. Each party was allowed one shot, after which it was over regardless of the outcome. Here it is key to note that this protocol provided a loophole that allowed both men to defend their honor to the point of risking their lives, but to exercise the option of a “missed” shot and thus avoid injury or death. Because of these safeguards, duels, while not uncommon, were rarely fought to the death.

When the seconds were unable to reach an agreement, the duel was set for Oct. 23. Ladd spent the preceding night writing to Amanda, noting that “friendly death may soon relieve my pain.” At dawn he and his witnesses arrived at the appointed site; though undocumented they may have met at the duelling grounds at what is now the College of Charleston Cistern or at what is now Hampton Park.

Weapons were chosen, a last effort to compromise failed to do so, the opponents stood back to back and marched the required number of paces (some sources say 10, others 21) before turning. As the challenged party, Joseph had the first shot. He fired wide (some accounts say straight up into the air), and lore suggests intentionally so, hoping his former friend would do the same and they could call it a draw.

According to witnesses, Isaacs carefully took aim and shot the doctor squarely in the kneecap. Ladd fell to the ground screaming in agony and was carried back to the Roses’ house on Church Street. There he suffered in his second-floor bedroom for 10 days before succumbing to infection and blood loss on Nov. 2. He was just 22 years old.

Today some critics consider Ladd to be among the more accomplished poets of 18th century America. One poem, “The Prospect of America,” Ladd inscribed “To the Second Fabius, His Excellency George Washington, Esq.,” though there is no documentation that the poem was inventoried within Washington’s Mount Vernon Library after his death. 

In 1832, Ladd’s sister, Elizabeth Ladd Haskins, submitted a collection of her brother’s poems to printer W.B. Chittenden, who published them under the title The literary remains of Joseph Brown Ladd, M.D. – A sketch of the Author’s Life. Today the collection is within the public domain and easily downloadable from the internet.

And while the intent here is to share a historical account of the incident, suffice it to say that the historic marker erected by the Preservation Society of Charleston at 59 Church Street is the only one in this city - a city filled with ghost stories on nearly every street corner - to mention that the sound of whistling can still be heard on the dwelling’s staircase.

The stairs of the Thomas Rose House, where Dr. Ladd is still said to whistle from time to time. We visit this beautiful Church Street double house on our Charleston Overview Tour or learn more on this brief segment of I Love the Lowcountry.

The Thomas Rose House, where Dr. Ladd died.

View a short SCETV video about Dr. Ladd. Please note, however, that recent research by Grahame Long, author of Dueling in Charleston: Violence Refined in the Holy City, fails to support that duels were ever fought in Philadelphia Alley. Duels were fought at both what is now the College of Charleston Cistern Yard and at Hampton Park.