Newfoundlandia: The Last Fatal Duel in St. John’s

To make the past present, we need time and imagination. The time is March 30th, 1826: the year and the day of the last fatal duel on Newfoundland soil.

The smell of softening earth hung on the air, and the restless energy of an early spring stayed close to the skin. The ranks of St. John’s had swollen with the deployment of British soldiers. The garrisons of Fort Townshend (now The Rooms) and Fort William (now the Sheraton Hotel) chaffed under the long days of drill, and longer nights of nothing. Socials were organized to relieve the monotony, and there, the exceptional beauty of a lady from Quidi Vidi Village spun the eyes and dreams of all. Her name is thought to have been Colleen.

Captain Marc Rudkin and Ensign John Philpot were among those vying for Colleen’s attention, and were instant rivals.

Pressures of a small society stretch and warp interpersonal dynamics. Events which would in the wider world fall flat, loom large. Trivia becomes significant, and a goaded insult short days earlier followed by a grudging apology sets the stage for blood.

March 29th, the grease of routine, chow, and muscle memory move the clock. The moon rose and boredom fell finding a usual outlet, gatherings in private rooms centred around high stakes card games. The rooms of Cavendish Willock were crowded to bursting, with Philpot, based in Fort William, and Rudkin, from Fort Townshend, leading their respective camps, and sending bets ever higher.

The fire cadavered to a low ember as candles guttered and pooled in the smoke-filled air. Cheers turned to tension, and laughter twisted toward notes of danger as Philpot and Rudkin upped the stakes. Neither looked past the next hand or the break of the cards, lives being decided in the fold.

Rudkin Wins. Philpot declares him a cheat and throws a jug of water in his face. Rudkin gives him until noon to apologize and moves toward the door to leave. Philpot shakes free from his friends, rushes the door, and kicks Rudkin in the back. There would be no apology. Pistols tomorrow at sunset. Night slipped by in speed and torment.

On March 30th 1826, the sun rose into clear blue sky. Seconds were chosen: Morice for Ensign Philpot and Dr. James Coulter Strachan for Captain Rudkin. The location was agreed, the base of Robinson’s hill in a quiet corner well off the road, at the present location of the Feildian Grounds.

At the long hour, the party of four rode to the appointed field. Here the seconds, still trying to save lives, made the duellists agree to a distance of 48 feet instead of the more usual 24. Each chose a pistol. Philpot, having removed his jacket, stood wearing only his trousers and a white linen shirt. Rudkin left his coat on.

The seconds moved off to a safe distance and gave the order to “Make Ready.” The sound of Brine’s (now Rennie’s) River filled the space between heartbeats. “Fire!” Rudkin had fired into the air; Philpot to kill. His shot ripped through Rudkin’s coat collar, tearing a gash at his throat. Rudkin, placing his hand on the spot, could feel the heat but no blood. Philpot, apoplectic with rage, having taken Rudkin’s firing into the air as another insult, demanded another round. Rudkin agreed.

The young Ensign was known to be a good shot, the Captain a veteran of multiple campaigns was exceptional, and now they both aimed to kill. The lengthening shadows, the smell of earth, “Make Ready,” the sound of water, and breath. “Fire!”

Rudkin remained standing and Philpot fell. The lead ball had entered under his outstretched gun arm, between his ribs and into his lung. A military funeral was carried out for Ensign Philpot on April 2nd 1826, and he was buried on the grounds of the Anglican Cathedral on Church Hill.

A murder trial was held shortly after for Rudkin, and the seconds Morice and Strachan. They were eventually, under unusual circumstances, found not guilty.

As for the fair young Colleen, she quite sensibly married someone else.

(Based on real events. Sources: The History of Newfoundland by DW Prowse and Newfoundland Quarterly: The Last Duel by John F. O’Mara published in 1998. Prowse gives 1829, O’Mara that of 1826. I confirmed 1826 with burial records. Also, a 1942 flood report from the Daily News outlines Robinson’s hill making the location in the Feildian Grounds extremely likely).

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