September 13, 1859
Lake Merced, California
“They have killed me because I am opposed to the extension of slavery and a corrupt administration.” - Senator David Broderick, last words
The two giants met at dawn. Both men well over six feet, and the most bitter of enemies.
For San Francisco, the Gold Rush decade ended on that day, three months from the end of the last year of the 1850’s. California’s economy was already shifting from gold mining to silver. But on that September morning, the first shots of the Civil War in California were fired.
A crowd of hundreds of eager observers traveled beyond the city limits, east of Lake Merced, and massed behind the barn at the Lake House Ranch to watch the two principals and their seconds face off.
California Senator David Broderick, leader of the “Free Soil” Democrats, had repeatedly denounced the pro-slavery policies of President Buchanan’s administration and the California politicians who supported them.
Judge David Terry, the notoriously combustible Southern Chiv, demanded a duel.
As their insults flew back and forth, rabidly reported in the City’s newspapers, it was largely assumed that Terry was acting for Broderick’s sworn political rival, the powerful and ruthless leader of California’s pro-slavery Democrats, his fellow senator: Doctor William Gwin. Broderick had defeated Gwin and the Southern Cavaliers in the first constitutional convention’s vote to keep California a free state, and Gwin had been thirsting to oust Broderick and seize the state for the slave powers ever since.
Broderick had already been challenged by two of Gwin’s supporters as he left his last session in Washington, requiring that he beat the Southerners off with his walking stick. On the eve of his return to California, he confided in a ally:
“I fear, my dear friend, I go home to die. I shall be challenged, I shall fight, and I shall be killed.”
The first attempt at the duel had been broken up by the law. After a court hearing, the face-off was surreptitiously rescheduled.
The choice of weapons was pistols at thirty paces.
In the center of a clearing, the duelists tossed to determine the set of guns to be used. Judge Terry won the toss, and thus was able to choose a pair of eight-inch Belgian pistols. Unbeknownst to Broderick, Terry had been able to practice on the weapons in advance.
So Terry knew the pistols had hair triggers.
The men’s seconds stood Broderick and Terry back to back. The tense crowd counted off as the duelists walked forward ten paces, turned to face each other, and raised their guns.
At that first slight movement, the trigger on Broderick’s pistol discharged into the sand.
And Terry fired straight into Broderick’s chest.
As Broderick crumpled, there was a stunned silence. Then someone in the crowd shouted, "This is murder."