Today’s story is a historical tale from my hometown in northern New York, Potsdam. It’s the story of a duel that wasn’t really a duel at all. It took place on Fall Island, a small island in the village of Potsdam, on the Racquette River. Long ago, it was thought to be a summer camp for the First Nation Mohawks that still live in the area. The duel itself took place the groungs of the Trinity Episcopal church, which just happens to be my childhood church.
Let’s go back to 1817. A man named Speers visited a watchmaker’s shop on Fall Island, owned by a man named Griffin. Speers was in need of a new watch and made casual conversation with the watchmaker as he looked, asking him what he used to clean the watch pieces. Griffin told him it was acid, but a harmless one. So harmless that he dared Speers to drink it, taunting him with his manhood, telling him if he did it, Griffin would give him the watch for free. Speers accepted the dare, sipped the acid, and held out his hand for the watch. What Griffin didn’t know was that as soon as he turned to get the watch, Speers spat the acid out on the floor. And then he left the store with his new watch.
The word got out about his trick. Most of the locals thought it was funny, thinking it was just as the ruse by Griffin was wrong. Many took it as a challenge to top the prank. One thing led to another, and some man came up with a plan to teach a lesson to the watchmaker, bringing Speers in on it. They convinced Griffin that Speers was now terminally ill from the acid and that Griffin would likely be hanged if Speers died since he prodded him to drink it.
So they offered him a way out of the predicament. They convinced him to challenge Speers to a duel. Killing him by duel would allow him to escape hanging for his role in Speers’ acid-related death. Speers accepted the challenge, and the two who’d come up with the plan offered themselves up as the duelers’ seconds. The role of the seconds was not only to provide support to their dueler, but to find a suitable location for the event and to ensure the pistols were acceptable and fair to all. The one to whom the challenge was made was to choose what would consitute fulfillment of the duel.
- He could stop it as soon as one or the other was wounded, no matter how minor.
- He could stop it as soon as one or the other was too incapicitated to continue.
- He could stop it as soon as one or the other was mortally wounded.
- He could stop it as soon as they both had fired once, even if both missed.
Speers chose that it would be over when either man believed themselves to be mortally wounded.
On the morning of the duel, the two man met by the church, with a large crowd in attendance. The seconds prepared the pistols and gave them to each dueler. As the third shot rang out, Griffin’s second, one of the prank’s masterminds, stepped up behind him and punched him in the head, knocking him to the ground. In his panic, Griffin thought he’d been shot, and the crowd underscored this, sympathizing with his coming “death.”
In his “last” moments, Griffin quickly gave instructions for the disposition of his estate before saying goodbye to those around him. The crowd continued to laugh, finally telling him the truth of what had happened and of Speers.
He bought the crowd rum.