Gasp! A duel on Nantucket! And the frustrating thing is, we haven’t been able to discover many details. Was it a duel of pistols, swords, fisticuffs, or what? And what were the exact reasons for the disagreement that led to the duel? “Sir! You have dishonored the name of the fair lady…” or “How dare you sully my good name, linked as it is with the fair lady’s…” or maybe “Whichever of us winds, that lucky gentleman will win the hand of…”
But it was a duel over a young woman of the island, nonetheless. How did this information come into our hands? It was circuitous, to be sure. It all started with a Nantucket Historical Association Oral History project interview with 94- year-young Bertha Chase Gardiner, who imparted many fascinating stories of old Nantucket. Her daughter, “Gigi” Salisbury, had set up the interview, and that’s how two new friends were made.
About a week after the interview, Gigi called to say, “Hey—you’re interested in strange little tidbits of Nantucket information, aren’t you? Well, while I was doing some historical research in the Foulger Museum today, I came across some really intriguing diary entries of Eliza Mitchell. It seems a forebear of Mother’s and mine, George C. Chase, actually took part in a duel, right here on the island!”
Of course she told me how to find Eliza Mitchell’s diaries, carefully protected in the Foulger, and of course I looked the affair up. I found that Eliza, fourth wife of David Mitchell, was a lifetime resident of the island. Born in 1808, she filled up many, many journals with memories and accounts from her childhood, a number of them from stories told her in her youth by B. Franklin Folger. The diary containing the story of the duel was labeled “Account #252, Reminiscences 1894- 1896.” This #252 may have been her last journal, because she died in 1896. But she left behind many words about the island’s day-to-day occurrences, including many facts of historical significance. And while she did it “to furnish amusement,” her accounts help us understand what the island must have been like in the long-ago.
Here’s what she had to say about the duel, compleat with unfamiliar Capitalizations, abreviat’ns, misplaced apostrophes’ (Capt.’) & symbols, and any number of marks on the page that could have been commas, periods, or even the telltale scratch of a pen resting while its wielder paused to think a bit… It is a story about an incident in the lives of George C. Chase (1790-1878) and one John Heath, about whom is known frustratingly little. One would guess he was in his mad, carefree youth, and that he had ventured to the fair island of Nantucket as one lap in his quest to see the world; he worked, apparently, in a store here during and after the “duel over the attentions of Judith Gardner.” George apparently ceased his attentions to Judith after the duel, and later married someone else (sigh). Following is Eliza W. Mitchell’s account of the affair:
“When I was very young I hard talk of a Duel, and I asked what it meant & so it left an impression with me.
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“Capt’ Gerard Gardner who formerly lived on Fair Street, in the house unoccupied now. But Capt. Fredrick [sic] Chase was about the last owner who liv’d there until his death.
“Cap’t Gardner’s oldest Daughter was named Judith, and she was quite a Dame, and though not call’d handsome, was considerably sought after by the young Gentleman [sic], especially strangers.”
[Question: In this case, could “strangers” have meant simply newcomers to the island or, as Nantucketers used to say, someone from that other island, Martha’s Vineyard? Could it be that Judith, for some reason, was more appealing to those who did not know her well—that her charms wore somewhat thing after a time? Was she somewhat casual in bestowing her attentions and interest? Why was it that she should be sought after primarily by strangers? And how did George get mixed up in all this?]
“About that time George J [?] Baker had opened a Store, and had a young man named John Heath as Clerk. And he become somewhat interested in Miss Gardner very much to the disgust of George Chase, son of Capt’ Peter Chase.[captain of the ship Criterion, which spent a lot of time seeking whales in the Fijis], who years after became father of Miss Minnie Chase, Mrs. Sandford Kingsley and several more. Well, the two young men had some unpleasant words, and in their excitement proposed a Duel. And they were quite earner and so it was arranged that it should take place at a point call’d Newtown Gate.”
[Question: Why why oh why was George “disgusted”? Was it because, as John Heath’s farewell poem to the young ladies of Nantucket—which you’ll see anon— indicates, something of a bounder with the young women? Note: The Newtown Gate was once located near where the Five Corners is now—erected to keep browsing sheep out of the town, the gate kept moving outward as the town expanded; there seems to be no trace of it today.]
“So they each chose seconds & among them was Miss Gardner’s father, & I have been told, that it was something so new, & unheard of here, that pretty much all the men, and boys, ran to witness the affair.”
[Question: Was Miss Gardner’s father a second for George or for John? I mean, how could Eliza have omitted so vital a piece of information, anyway? If he was John’s second, that meant he would have possibly approved of John as a suitor; if he was George’s, perhaps he was seeking paternal vengeance… Was Miss Gardner to be considered a “wronged woman”? Or was she simply loved by both the young men? And finally, how come none of Nantucket’s independent-minded women attended the fracas?]
“Well, they fought hard, and Capt’ Gardner, all the time probably mean that no serious harm should come to either of them (young men) and he well knew Mr. Chases was very quick tempered [AHA!], So when things began to wear rather a grave aspect, step’d between them, George Chase, without a moments pause struck Captain Gardner, which caused great commotion, then others hastened to the scene, and separated them, and after the two became a little calmed down, it was proposed that all should be…[Frustratingly, the next words are difficult to read; the look like “Duels had there” but probably was meant to indicate that pressure was on the young men to cease their battle posthaste.] “So after a time the crowd dispersed, and all went their different ways, and when George Chase went home, he found his father in much distress, as new had been brought that he, George, had struck Capt. Gardner who was a very intimate friend of the family. [Which fact might mean that young George was merely upholding the honor of a family friend.] So, George finally consented to go, & ask pardon of Capt. Gardner, when he humbly told him how sorry he was, Capt. Gardner only laughed, & said I did not care a bit.”
[Question: Did George strike Capt. Gardner because he was incensed that the man interfered, or because he was thought to be taking Heath’s part, or was it simply an accident that occurred because the Captain stepped too hastily into the way of two furious young men? Again, we wonder with what weapons they were dueling? Indeed, it may have been a very courageous thing for Capt. Gardner to so step in, perhaps at the risk of his life. On the other hands, perhaps he just caught a right hook intended for John Heath…]
“So the matter ended, and Miss Gardner, remained single during life, and jilted [there is some writing over on the first letter of this word, which at first was written with a “g.”], until they removed from our Island, her three Sisters all married and now, all are dead, and George [sic—Eliza meant John] Heath, after paying attention to Miss Lydia Hussey, who was quite a Bell [sic—we assume EWM didn’t mean a dingdong] at that time, returned to Boston, & never returned. Miss Hussey left of [off] her gaity, and become a Methodist, though her Parents, were always Quakers.”
“She married [name not clear] Eldridge and after his death, married a Mr. Truesdell, & died in New York.
[OK. So she recovered her composure, tossed her head, and found another suitor. But what happened to poor Judith, who, “though not called handsome,” had been sought after by strangers? Hmmmm? Here is an Untold Story of Shattering Significance. What happened to Judith?]
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[That symbol above is what Eliza used to signify a change in thought.]
“I found some lines Mr Heath left, on leaving Nantucket.
Adieu, Adieu, Ye Girl Adieu, a long farewell I bid to you / While I to Boston Gang, Some twelve months hence I may again/ Visit your Island from the Main, To ease a heart felt pang, / But should I ne’er return again, Oh how my soul, is racked with pain / to think that such can be, Some happier one than I by jove, / Will then possess my Lydia’s love. Farewell poor Heath to thee.
[AHA again! Maybe Mistress Lydia broke it off with the callow Heath, not the other way ‘round, recognizing what a scoundrel he was—or perhaps having received a quiet earful from Mistress Judith or a dire warning from Lydia’s parents.]
Eliza Mitchell concludes with the following:
“All, in days long since past. And all are gone to their long rest.
So that’s the story—or, rather, part of the story— of Nantucket’s first and only recorded duel…
This article was written 30 years ago for Yesterday’s Island by the late Mary Miles, whom we all dearly miss. Her intelligence, gentle humor, and love of Nantucket Island shone through in all she wrote & we love to share this with our readers.