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Meet three editors, one a lawyer, who fought in duels

By Matt McKinney

The Virginian-Pilot

NORFOLK (AP) — As you may know, journalists nowadays are often the subject of ridicule.

Cries of “fake news” and accusations of bias abound. And some readers hurl personal insults — often anonymously — in the comments section on The Virginian-Pilot’s website and Facebook page.

Fortunately, we’re more than 130 years removed from the rough-and-tumble days when such confrontations may have ended in a pistol-gripping showdown on the outskirts of the Great Dismal Swamp.

At least that’s where an editor of The Virginian — forerunner to today’s Virginian-Pilot — once went to settle an attack on his honor.

As far as we can tell, he was one of three former Norfolk newspapermen to participate in duels at some point in their careers. Here are their stories.

James Baron Hope

Hope, an attorney and former captain in the Confederate Army, was 36 when he became editor of The Virginian in 1865.

Sixteen years earlier, he fought in “one of the celebrated duels of the time,” according to “Saltwater and Printer’s Ink,” a 1967 retrospective on early Norfolk newspapers by Lenoir Chambers and Joseph E. Shank.

In April 1849, on a beach near Fort Monroe, Hope faced a man named J. Pembroke Jones, later a Confederate Naval officer. The men struck each other on the first shot and were both “severely wounded.” It’s not clear what prompted the showdown.

But whatever caused it, the duel left their gripe “most honorably adjusted,” The Virginian wrote.

William E. Cameron

Cameron, 39th governor of Virginia, briefly edited The Virginian in 1866 and later returned to The Virginian-Pilot.

He was editor of the Petersburg Index in 1869 when he began trading barbs with Robert Hughes, a Richmond State Journal editor.

After the Civil War, Hughes wrote editorials arguing that Virginia should mend its differences with the North and accused powerful Virginians of trying to intimidate black voters. That angered Cameron, who called Hughes a “renegade Virginian” and accused him of selling out.

To settle the score, the men agreed to duel, but had to cross into North Carolina because the practice was illegal in Virginia.

During the duel, Cameron failed to aim before shooting and missed his mark, according to newspaper accounts. Hughes’ struck the left side of Cameron’s chest, leaving a flesh wound. Hughes demanded another round, but a surgeon said Cameron had been hit too hard.

Cameron later apologized for the scuffle and the pair eventually settled their differences.

“In the heat of youth and political ardor, I was proved into language unprovoked and unjustifiable,” Cameron later wrote.

Decades later, they ran into each other at a Richmond hotel bar, according to the Norfolk Ledger-Dispatch. By then, Cameron was governor and Hughes a federal judge. “Judge, let me buy you a drink,” Cameron told the man who had shot him.

William C. Elam

Elam became the first Virginian-Pilot editor post-merger in 1898. Five years earlier, he gained national attention for his duel with a rival newspaper editor.

At the time, Elam was editor of the Richmond Whig. His opponent, Richmond State Editor Richard Beirne, accused him of corruption, among other things, and their dispute boiled over into a duel.

After police thwarted their first try, the men briefly went into hiding and later met in Waynesboro.

“The two determined editors were at last coming together to wash away with blood the stains upon their honor,” The Washington Post later wrote.

They set up on the edge of the woods a few minutes before 6 a.m. The groups marked off the distance, eight paces in each direction — two steps shorter than normal because Elam was nearsighted — and handed the men each a Colt .32-caliber revolver. Elam won the toss for choice of position and the word.

The men fired at the same time, according to newspaper accounts. Elam missed, but took a shot to his coat. Beirne demanded a second round.

About three minutes later, they tried again and Elam took a shot to his thigh.

“I’m hit,” he said. Beirne tipped his hat, hopped into his carriage and rode away.

The duel drew national attention, with newspapers in Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Utah publishing accounts. A few days later, the Post penned an editorial blasting duels.

“It is a shame, in this enlightened age, that men cannot hold opposite political views without (debating) at the muzzle of the pistol.”

Today, we have Twitter.

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