By Peg Eastman

As nasty as today’s political divisions and disputes may be, they have not pulled us back in time to the days when citizens settled such matters from the ends of gun barrels. Although it was widely deplored, dueling became fashionable among military men during the American Revolution and it was not until 1880 that the South Carolina General Assembly banned the practice, following the Cash-Shannon duel in which William Shannon, father of 13, died. Six members of the Simons family were caught up in this peculiar custom and three died defending their “honor.” The earliest Simons duel involved Revolutionary War veterans and the last duel occurred in St. Augustine, Florida, when Richard Gough Simons was killed while returning from service in the Seminole War.

The first Simons duel caused quite a sensation. Colonel Maurice Simons (1744-1785) was the son of Benjamin Simons II and Ann Keating. He was a successful planter and a factor in Charleston before and after the American Revolution. Well-connected socially, his memberships included the exclusive Jockey Club and the Charleston Library Society. He was elected to the Second Provincial Congress and five South Carolina Assemblies. During the Revolution, Simons served with Keating Simons under General Francis Marion. He served in the Charles Town militia during Augustine Prevost’s siege of the city. After Charleston fell, Simons took British protection.

William Snipes was also a planter of consequence. During the Revolution, Snipes served in both Francis Marion’s and Thomas Sumter’s brigades, rising to the rank of major. He was contentious by nature and engaged in numerous controversies with his peers. In one instance, Snipes lost a suit bought by Colonel Wade Hampton. In another, Snipes was sued for libel by former president/governor Rawlins Lowndes. Maurice Simons had testified against Snipes in both suits and Snipes blamed him for his losses. Calling him a “perjured villain,” he challenged Simons to a duel. The men met at Wallace’s Bridge near Charleston. Simons was killed when the first shot struck him just below his left eye.

A murder charge was filed and the case was widely published in local newspapers. After Snipes was found guilty of manslaughter, he appealed to Governor William Moultrie and was granted a full pardon. Snipes went on to represent St. Bartholomew Parish in the General Assembly and voted against ratification of the federal Constitution at the state convention. He was 64 when he died at Horseshoe Plantation in 1806.

In the 1820s, three Simons men fought duels connected with Governor John Geddes. Born in Charleston, Geddes was blessed with considerable wealth and owned four plantations in St. Andrew’s Parish. He was educated in the law and was politically active, representing St. Philip and St. Michael Parish in the state assembly. He was elected to the S.C. Senate in 1816 and served concurrently as intendent (mayor) of Charleston after his election to that office in 1817. He resigned from the Senate when he was elected governor in 1818.

When President James Monroe visited Charleston, Governor Geddes housed him in his home and entertained lavishly. This extravagance cost Geddes dearly. He had acquired 60-64 Broad Street through marriage into the Chalmers family. After his wife Harriet Chalmers died, Geddes had married her sister Ann. Chalmers deeded the property to Ann in 1805 and when she died, the property passed to Geddes. The personal debt incurred by entertaining the president forced Geddes to sell the house in 1824.

Two Simons brothers fought Geddes shortly after he completed his term as governor. Both duels are thought to have been because of political differences. Geddes was a “Republican Democrat” who favored the declaration of war against Great Britain in 1812 and supported states’ rights. Sedgwick Lewis Simons (1788-1834) on the other hand was a leader of the Federalists (although Charles Cotes Cotesworth Pinckney was the acknowledged head of that party).

Regardless of the precipitating causes, Sedgewick Lewis Simons and Geddes met on Sullivan’s Island in 1823. There were no casualties. When his brother Edward Simons (1778-1843) and Geddes met, the governor was shot in the knee. Geddes remained active in politics and was again elected intendent of Charleston in 1823. He died in 1828 and was buried in First Scots Presbyterian churchyard.

In 1823, Edward Peter Simons (1794-1823), the grandson of Maurice Simons, was challenged to a duel by Gilbert C. Geddes, the governor’s 17-year-old son. Simons had been educated at Yale and studied law in the office of his cousin Keating Lewis Simons. He took over the practice when his cousin died and served in the state legislature. He was a warden of the city and a captain in the Washington Light Infantry.

Young Geddes felt that Simons had made expressions reflecting on his father and demanded a retraction or a meeting in the field. Simons protested that if any slight had occurred, the father should demand satisfaction, not his son. Geddes posted notifications around town reflecting on Simons’ conduct, while Simons published his version of events in the Charleston Mercury.

The antagonists met at high noon at Fort Johnson. Each fired four times without wounding his opponent, but on the fifth round, Geddes was shot through both thighs and Simons was shot in the belly. Young Geddes recovered. Simons died the following day at the age of 29. He was survived by a wife and two daughters.

Colonel Keating Lewis Simons (1775-1819), a nephew of the unfortunate Maurice Simons and John Lyde Wilson, then a lawyer from Georgetown, met in 1819. Contentious by nature, Wilson had published an indecent satire about his political opponents. The offended gentlemen drew lots to select a champion to defended their honor. Colonel Keating Simons was chosen. He was shot in the hip; Wilson’s fate is unknown.

Like Governor Geddes, Wilson is an interesting character study. He was well educated, well connected, well spoken and served in both the Lower House of the Assembly and in the Senate. He was elected governor in 1822.

According to the late Samuel G. Stoney, a professor at the College of Charleston, Wilson was a crack shot and engaged in many affaires d’honneur. He was also a bully. One evening at a St. Cecilia ball, he wanted to dance with a belle who was “sitting out” a dance with a crippled young man. Wilson stepped on his rival’s toes, but his victim chose to ignore the offense. Later that evening, Wilson tried the same trick on Henry A. Middleton, a prosperous Georgetown planter. Harsh language and a challenge followed. When the parties could not settle terms, a series of pamphlets and public notices were circulated to justify each antagonist’s position. The animosity did not stop at published insults. Middleton despised Wilson for his refusal to fight and tired in every way to embarrass him.

After Wilson became a circuit court judge in 1827, Middleton traveled with the attorneys as they made their rounds. When they dined, Middleton always requested a seat opposite Wilson and glared across the table. The constant scrutiny was so unnerving that Wilson finally resigned his judgeship. When Wilson retired from public life, he lived above his law office at 2 St. Michael’s Alley. By then he had dissipated his wealth and died in utter destitution in 1849.

Ironically, in 1838, Governor Wilson published what was considered the highest authority of the duello in the United States, The Code of Honor or Rules for the government of Principals and Seconds in Dueling. The preface states that the code was written to save human life.

Legend has it that Wilson’s ghost may have lingered. The late Miss Mary Stuart, who helped found Charleston Day School, was a tenant at 2 St. Michael’s Alley. She often heard steps pacing above her on the third floor; then a gate latch lifted and steps were heard descending the stairs. Another tenant who was a friend of the current owner also heard steps and sounds like someone dragging a chain. Apparently the “ghost” did not like entertainments, for an Episcopal priest who lived there in the 1970s heard loud noises overhead every time he gave a party. Shortly after moving in, the current owner renovated the third floor. The last time strange noises were heard was at 2:00 a.m., when the current owner heard footsteps coming down the third-floor stairs. Then they stopped, never to be heard again. (It should be noted that when Governor Wilson lived there, only an outside staircase ascended to the second floor living quarters.)

In all, at least five independent 20th residents who did not know each other told the story about noises at Number Two. Everyone guessed the identity of the “ghost.” Some remembered a long-ago duel fought in St. Michael’s Alley. In particular, a lawyer lived at Number Two who fell in love with a French actress in a troupe that was playing at the theatre across the street. Her jealous lover shot the attorney in the groin. Wounded, he left, climbed the outside steps and died on the third floor of his home.

This is Charleston — you can’t make this up.


My appreciation to Grange Simons for suggesting that the Simons duels be included in the book about the Huguenot Church and to Preston Wilson, Bill Rhett and Michael Trouche for contributing to this article. Sam Stoney’s anecdotes about John Lyde Wilson are from an unpublished book by Mable Trott FitzSimons.

Mercury newspapers can be found at the following locations:


Buxton Books

Caviar & Bananas

The Meeting Street Inn (Rack)

Clair's Service Station, Folly Rd. (Rack)

Harris Teeter, Houston-Northcutt Blvd. (Rack)

Mt. Pleasant Library, Mathis Ferry Rd. (Rack)

Pitt St. Pharmacy

The Square Onion, I'On (Rack)