Criminal Annals, Part 98 – Fatal Duel

The August 3, 1852 edition of the Sacramento “Daily Union,” has a story about something that was fairly common in the early years of California and our country, for that matter, dueling. Involved were James William Denver, a California State Senator, and Edward Gilbert, the senior editor of the largest newspaper in San Francisco at the time, the “Alta California.”

Whereas today demands for correction, letters to the editor and threats of lawsuit are the weapons of choice when a newspaper makes a statement someone disagrees with, in those days there were other, more permanent, methods to defend one’s honor.

“Fatal Duel – Death of the Hon. E. Gilbert.

“It becomes our painful duty to announce the deplorable termination of a duel, by which the community has lost a gentlemanly and honorable member, and the editorial profession an able, honest and worthy brother. On Monday, morning, at sunrise, a hostile meeting took place at Oak Grove, between Hon. Edward Gilbert, senior editor of the Alta California, and Gen. J. W. Denver, State Senator, from Trinity county. The immediate cause of this lamentable affair was a card published by Gen. Denver, reflecting upon the personal character of Mr. Gilbert. Of the merits of the controversy this is not the time or place to speak. Mr. Gilbert challenged the adverse party. The weapons selected were Wesson’s rifles, and distance forty paces.

“After the first interchange of shots, neither of which took effect, the weapons were reloaded and the word given, when Mr. Gilbert fell almost instantly, having received the shot of Gen. Denver in the left side just above the hip bone. The ball pierced the abdomen and passed entirely through his body, coming out on the right side almost directly opposite the point where it entered. Mr. G. survived but four or five minutes after the occurrence, and without a word or scarcely a groan his spirit passed from earth. His body was immediately conveyed to the Oak Grove House, where the sad duty of preparing it for its last resting place was performed.
“The most intense sensation was produced throughout the city on the receipt of the mournful intelligence, and all seemed to unite in the sincere sorrow evinced at the unfortunate issue of the encounter, and in the deep and heartfelt sympathy expressed for the surviving relatives of the deceased.

“At half past three o’clock in the afternoon , a number of the personal and professional friends of the deceased repaired to Oak Grove, and in the evening escorted the remains to the city. – After the corpse was placed in the coffin, Rev. O.C. Wheeler arose and addressed the company present in strains of touching and melting pathos, and concluded with the most appropriate and eloquent prayer that we ever heard. He made allusion to his long and intimate friendship with the deceased, passed a beautiful encomium upon his moral worth, and inveighed, though gently yet most powerfully against the cruel and bloody code by which he had been cut down in the flower of his youthful manhood and usefulness. Never have we witnessed a ceremony so solemn, so deeply impressive than that brief address and heartfelt prayer in the presence of the dead. There were stout hearts and eyes unused to weeping there, by many a manly tear was shed over the untimely bier of the departed.

The remains were conveyed to the residence of Alderman Nevett, where they will remain till to-morrow, when they will be taken to San Francisco for interment. In the name of the friends of Mr. Gilbert, we thank the proprietor of the Oak Grove House for his kind and generous conduct on this lamentable occasion. We are also under obligations to various gentlemen for delicate and well-timed attentions.
“Mr. Gilbert was formerly a resident of Albany, New York, emigrated to this State in 1846, was a member of the Constitutional Convention, and afterwards elected to the Lower House of Congress. He has been for the last four years the senior Editor of the Alta California, and was about 33 years of age at the time of his decease.

“We shall take occasion to-morrow to say something on the subject of dueling in general and in detail.”
Note: According to the “Biographical Directory of the United States Congress,” “Edward Gilbert. . . was born in Cherry Valley, N.Y., about 1819; attended the public schools; was a compositor on the “Albany Argus” in 1839, and later an associate editor; during the war with Mexico served as first lieutenant of Company H in Col. J.D. Stevenson’s New York Volunteer Regiment; arrived with his company in San Francisco in March 1847; was in command of the detachment and deputy collector of the port of San Francisco in 1847 and 1848, when the regiment was disbanded; became founder and editor of the “Alta California” in 1849; member of the State Constitutional Convention in 1849; upon the admission of California as a State into the Union was elected as a Democrat to the Thirty-first Congress and served from September 11, 1850, to March 3, 1851; was not a candidate for renomination in 1850; killed in a duel with Gen. James W. Denver, near Sacramento, Calif., August 2, 1852; interment in Lone Mountain (now Laurel Hill) Cemetery, San Francisco, Calif.”

Note 2: According to the book “A Memorial and Biographical History of Northern California” – Chicago, Lewis Publ. Co., (1891): “Trinity County was the dwelling-place of the celebrated James W. Denver in 1851–‘52, after whom Denver, Colorado, was named. He was born in Frederick County, Virginia, in 1818, and was an officer in the war with Mexico. Here in Trinity County he was elected to the State Senate, in 1852, while he had charge of the Emigrant Relief Train. He and Governor Bigler were charged with grave offenses in the management of this train, by the Alta California. Gilbert, the editor of that paper, challenged Denver to a duel. They met at Oak Grove, near Sacramento, August 2, 1852, and used rifles, at a distance of forty paces. Gilbert was killed. Shortly afterward Denver was appointed Secretary of State by Governor Bigler. He was elected to Congress in 1854. In the fall of 1856 he was appointed by President Buchanan Secretary of Kansas to Governor Shannon, and then became Governor of that Territory in 1858. In 1861 he became Brigadier General of Union Volunteers. He is still living, in Washington city.”

Note 3: According to several sources, Denver was an expert with the rifle, while Gilbert could “barely hold his piece.” Denver intentionally fired aside the first shot, but Gilbert, or his second, “perhaps because Gilbert had scoffed at bloodless duels in print,” insisted on continuing. Denver then killed him.



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