Death by wormy sausage or golf ball – your choice: the weird world of duels

In days of old when knights were bold and the equivalent of twitter squabbles were settled by duels it is amazing the lengths people went to, well – men, mostly but not exclusively men, were prepared to go for that thrill of dicing with death. Or were they?

Think duels and you’re thinking of a couple of guys in wigs trying to shoot or slash each other to death – and you’d be right – up to a point. In working class areas this sort of aggressive behaviour would be described as mindless violence – mindless violence and criminal but we all know there are laws for for them and others for the rest. Whatever the aristocracy indulges in is always held up as a tradition – and honourable; traditions such as flogging servants, keeping slaves, eliminating animal and bird species – all proud long-established rights of the not-so-common-man and woman.

Now I think of it perhaps these degenerates going at it hammer and tongs (not literally but not far off it) wasn’t such a bad idea given the damage they might otherwise have been doing to society.

Pistols and swords were the most popular weapons of choice but when the Americans got in on the act all that classy aristo stuff went all skew-whiff. Let me give you an example.

A couple of guys enjoying the rays in Florida playing a round of golf at Howey-in-the-Hills found they couldn’t play their strokes and keep count at the same time so an argument brewed up over the number of shots played. It’s a game of golf, guys! But umbrage is umbrage and plenty was taken and before you could call out FORE it was a case of golf clubs at dawn. Each man armed himself with a driver, an iron and two dozen balls. Tees were arranged 50 paces apart. A hat was dropped, presumably by someone of a calmer disposition and the duel got underway.

Wait for it…wait for it…your thinking they whacked like hell to see who hit the longest strike? Well, that would be golf. No, this is what they did…

The first man drove a ball into the second man’s shin. Ouch! The second man, let’s call him injured no. 1, presumably through gritted teeth, aimed and walloped his opponent square on the ribs with his ball. The guy with cracked ribs then blasted his ball at…and so they continued knocking seven bells out of one another until some nervous cops arrived chorusing Fore! very loudly. Honour satisfied the pair hobbled off to lick their wounds.


Another bizarre one was the case of Alessandro Cagliostro, an 18th century infamous Italian magician, infamous for his weirdness. Cagliostro wasn’t his real name – he went by a string of alternatives when the need arose and it did, often, for he led as they say an interesting life. There was the matter of a diamond necklace and Marie Antoinette which ended with his banishment from France but I digress. The incident I want to draw to your attention to involved a certain Scottish doctor, John Samuel Rogerson, a physician to Catherine the Great of Russia, whom Cagliostro insulted, calling him a quack, so in defence of his reputation the physician challenged the Italian to a duel. Cagliostro the showman suggested that given the involvement of a physician the duel should be appropriately medical and came up with the suggestion they get hold of two pills, one harmless and the other poisonous. An arsenic pill was found and placed in a box along with a harmless one. Cagliostro needled Rogerson that if he was indeed a real physician he would be able to treat the effects of the poison so there was nothing to worry about. Quack or not Rogerson was not stupid and refused to indulge the Italian and the duel by poison was stopped without a pill passing either’s lips.

As for Cagliostro his addiction to strange behaviour made him into a hunted man across Europe, he escaped from prison just before he died, how I’ve no idea. But that might not have been the last of the strange magician for according to another one, Aleister Crowley, the Italian was reborn in his body which only goes to prove you can’t keep a good occultist down. Or maybe you can.

dr Rogerson duel

Dr Rogerson

Incidentally the ‘quack’ Rogerson whose home was Dumfriesshire and who lived in Russia most of his life died peacefully back in Scotland at Dumcrieff in 1823 at the ripe old age of 82yrs.


Bismarck the German Minister President was once challenged to a duel by sausage by Rudolf Virchow. Virchow, was a doctor who paved the way for pathology but more relevant to this story was a co-founder of Germany’s Progressive Party (Deutschen Fortschrittspartei) and political opponent of Bismarck. The pair had a spat over military spending to the fury of Bismarck who challenged him to a duel to resolve the dispute – possibly in the hope of eliminating the mouthy nuisance. A bit like Jeremy Thorpe in this country except Thorpe didn’t let his adversary know he was about to have him shot.

In the boring version of this tale Virchow turned down the opportunity to die prematurely but let’s not linger on this account and instead hear about the sausage. As he was the one challenged to duel Virchow got to choose the weapon so he suggested two sausages; he would be armed with a cooked pork sausage and Bismarck with a raw one infected with trichinella .

For the uninitiated among you, trichinella is a genus of parasitic roundworms, nematodes, which were a big problem in the German population in the 19th century and numerous in Virchow’s laboratory where he was looking for a means of eradicating them. Virchow picked up a couple of identical looking bangers – one healthy and the other infected with the deadly trichinella which cause a range of symptoms from intense muscular pain, to difficulties in breathing, kidney failure and death.

Virchow waggled his sausages and said, “ I have a choice of weapons. Here they are! One of these sausages is filled with trichinae – it is deadly. The other is perfectly wholesome, externally they cannot be told apart. Let His Excellency do me the honour to choose whichever of these he wishes and eat it, and I will eat the other.” The bold war-monger Minister President, however, turned down the wormy sausage challenge.

Did this happen? Well, maybe.


In a duel not dissimilar to the golfing combat was the battle of the billiard balls. In 1843 in France an argument broke out over a game of billiards. Standing 12 paces apart the two involved agreed to pelt each other with balls. The man who won the draw got to throw first but before he did he warned his opponent, “I’m going to kill you on the first throw.” He took aim, threw his billiard ball and hit his opponent smack on the forehead – killing him stone dead. He was later arrested and tried for murder. Did he survive the trial? I haven’t been able to find out.

I’m tempted to leave you with the impression that men, alone, indulged in this sort of pique with consequences but that would be misleading.


The petticoat duel

 On one much highlighted occasion Princess Pauline Metternich, Honorary President of the Vienna Musical and Theatrical Exhibition, and the Countess Kielmannsegg, the Exhibition’s President, came to proverbial blows over flower arrangements for the Exhibition of 1892. There was a time when women would have elected a man to fight for them but these women were prepared to stand up for themselves – and rightly so. Being aristos they plumped for traditional swords. To avoid possible prosecution in Austria they hopped it to Liechtenstein and duly duelled topless. Topless? Not quite although that is how many like to tell the story but they stripped down to their underwear. The duel was adjudicated by a Polish woman doctor who had seen dreadful infections caused by clothes poked into fresh wounds hence the women removing their outer garments. Neither woman died in what’s referred to as the petticoat duel although both were injured – Pauline Metternich was cut on the nose and the Countess on the arm, however, they parted good friends, embracing and making up.

Maybe twitter isn’t too bad after all. At least blocking is less bloody than resorting to deadly blades or wormy sausages.

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