Bad blood

A set of dueling pistols purportedly used in Florida in the 1830s.

GUNSHOTS piercing the early morning quiet of Key West’s seaward side disrupted the dreams of few island residents. Their houses clustered near the harbor on the opposite shore, far from the smoke and noise. Either the participants themselves, upon their returning to town, or a newspaper published days later alerted most of the population to an “affair of honor” that had unfolded at first light on 9 February 1829.

On that day and at that hour, William A. Whitehead as likely as not was already at work, either somewhere in the field continuing his survey, or seated at his desk converting angles and distances into lines on a map. Either way, reading the landscape was more interesting to him than tales of pistols at dawn. But the circumstances, characters and aftermath of the duel proved impossible to disregard: they became part of Key West legend, which it would be one of Whitehead’s more peculiar legacies to enrich and preserve.1

One of the principals, William Allison McRea, had come ashore a mere three months previously as United States Attorney for the Southern District of Florida. A new federal court for the territory, with jurisdiction over maritime matters, had made Key West suddenly very attractive to lawyers: the report of seven arriving in a single vessel was the occasion for rueful laughter.2 But with McRea and a handful of others came an unexpected concentration of principle as well as talent; on their watch the island in the opinion of at least one chronicler entered a golden age of jurisprudence: “Dignified and courtly, scrupulous and conscientious, they placed the profession of law on the high plane tradition tells us it once occupied.”3

But William McRea’s fervor did not confine itself to the courtroom. He had once fought a duel in Tallahassee for the attentions of the Territorial governor’s daughter. Named to his position by outgoing president John Quincy Adams, McRea could not conceal his distaste for president-elect Andrew Jackson. Such outspokenness surely hastened his removal from the post early in Jackson’s first term.4 The young jurist’s ardent nature led him inexorably to the dueling ground on Key West.

McRea’s antagonist, Charles Edward Hawkins of New York, nourished his own passion through a life spent almost entirely at sea. In 1826 he followed the example of his superior, Captain David Porter of the antipiracy squadron, by exchanging the American navy jack for the standard of Mexico. Commanding the brig of war Hermón, Hawkins attacked and captured Spanish ships off Cuba, using Key West as a base. Consequently he stood accused of violating American neutrality and sovereignty in the service of another country.5 After his Mexican service ended, Captain Hawkins spent his final years pledged to yet a third flag, assembling and leading the navy of the fledgling Republic of Texas.

Amidst these shifting loyalties Hawkins remained sworn to his duty, protective of his honor and, to McRea’s eventual doom, acutely jealous of his rights as a husband. He had fought McRea at least once before and a scar on his face testified to that encounter, the mark of a deep gash from McRea’s sword.6

Intense hatreds often flare up from the ashes of a sympathy that was once as profound. Associates of McRea and Hawkins, seeing that they were now fated to inhabit the same island and, in light of the latter’s exploits at sea, even frequent the same courtroom, strove to restore the former friendship. These efforts apparently succeeded for the two men were reconciled and, at Ellen Mallory’s boarding house, Hawkins hosted a celebratory supper in tribute to his erstwhile enemy, a spectacle to which Whitehead says “all the gentry on the island” were witness.

But between Hawkins’s honored guest and Mrs. Hawkins an act of impropriety ensued. By some accounts, including Whitehead’s, the Captain returned to see “his newly re-acquired friend” leap from her bedroom window the very night of the banquet. There was consensus all around that a seduction had occurred, but marked disagreement as to who seduced whom. A challenge was tendered and accepted, a meeting arranged with some difficulty on the south beach, and this time McRea fared the worse, carried off the field with a bullet in his thigh. He showed some foresight in choosing for his “second” Key West’s resident physician.7

Part of a view of Key West in 1838, looking southeast along Whitehead Street. Based on a sketch by William A. Whitehead. On the farther edge of the island is the beach that was the site of the Hawkins-McRea duel.

On surveying expeditions Whitehead took as his assistant “an old sea-captain” named Otis, a “very simple hearted, kind, confiding personage” also in charge of what passed for the town jail. On occasion, Captain Otis allowed one of his prisoners to come along and lend a hand with the survey. He sometimes left the key with an inmate, deputizing him to admit any new detainees.8 Key West’s early size and isolation may have forgiven such indulgences, but events would show that such an arrangement was fast becoming untenable.9

By mid-May 1829 Whitehead had returned home to New Jersey, his survey and maps of Key West executed “to the satisfaction of all.”10 On Sunday 24 May William McRea, now an ex-district attorney but completely recovered from the duel, was walking along Whitehead Street when Charles Hawkins emerged from a nearby house, shouldering a double-barrel fowling piece loaded with buckshot. From two gun blasts McRea received no fewer than twenty-two wounds. He collapsed in the dust and within a few hours was dead.11

Hawkins surrendered immediately and for the next year and a half awaited trial in a St. Augustine jail, 400 miles to the north. When he finally returned for his arraignment on a murder charge, local opinion had warmed to him considerably. A Key West attorney lamented that all the jurors but two had already “made up and expressed an opinion in the case,” leaving no chance of justice being done.12 Meanwhile, since the town jail was thought inadequate, Hawkins had license to move freely about Key West. With a new wife–wooed, won and married while in prison–he lived “as much a gentleman of leisure as any one on the island.” Early in 1831 an act for his relief passed the Territorial legislature “with but two dissentient voices,” and Hawkins sailed away a free man.13

Newspapers around the country plied their readers with variant, sometimes contradictory accounts of McRea’s death and the prior history of his feud with Hawkins. It is as hard now as it was then to determine what parts of these discrepant narratives are true.14 When it came to underlying causes, the press paid scant attention to hints that something more nefarious than a love triangle was at work. Before McRea’s dismissal as district attorney, he was developing a case against Hawkins’s second in the duel who, like Hawkins, was accused of violating U.S. neutrality laws on behalf of Mexico. “Matters now depending,” McRea then wrote, “will doubtless bring to light other cases of a character equally glaring.”15

A month after McRea’s death, his brother felt compelled to address reports that seemed to vindicate Hawkins. In a fascinating open letter he asserted that McRea had become “exceedingly troublesome to a few residents on the Island” whose illicit activities made it “very desirable that he should be put out of the way. To effect this desideratum,” he continued,

every artifice was used; the ears of Hawkins were constantly assailed with falsehoods respecting the conduct of the deceased. Nothing was left undone to incense Hawkins against him. At last it succeeded, for by the hands of Charles E. Hawkins, Wm. A. McRea was launched into eternity.16

Political and economic forces are forever working to undermine principles of law and justice. While we’re not permitted to know what the young Whitehead made of such ominous allegations as those regarding Hawkins and McRea, it’s certain that his continued interest in Key West and the course of his future career on the island would require a surplus of caution and delicacy.

Fifty years after these incidents Whitehead offered them, with some amusement, as a story that “might be wrought into a sensational novel with great effect.” No more sensational than at the time they occurred, they remind us of how acts of violence, from ritual to random, lent a tragic pungency to the often desolate life of the American frontier.

Copyright © 2018-2023 Gregory J. Guderian

[1] Whitehead entitled his narrative “Affairs of Honor (?)” with an ironic question mark. It was the eighth of his Reminiscences of Key West, serially published in the Key West paper Key of the Gulf in 1877. The letterbook copy of Whitehead’s manuscript is preserved at the New Jersey Historical Society in Manuscript Group 734. Whitehead received issues of Key of the Gulf and pasted the columns into his personal copy of Walter C. Maloney’s A sketch of the history of Key West, Florida, published the year before in his hometown of Newark, New Jersey. That volume, now at the University of Miami, was the basis for the edition by Thelma Peters, “William Adee Whitehead’s Reminiscences of Key West,” Tequesta: The journal of the Historical Association of Southern Florida 1:25 (1965) 3-42. Some of the clippings show publication dates added in pencil: “Affairs of Honor (?)” probably appeared on 26 May 1877; Peters appears to have misread 26 as 23.

[2] Maloney, A sketch of the history of Key West 12 n2.

[3] Jefferson B. Browne, Key West, the old and the new (St. Augustine, Fla. 1912) 64-65.

[4] Bertram H. Groene, Ante-bellum Tallahassee (Tallahassee, Fla. 1971) 106; Frank L. Snyder, “Nancy Hynes DuVal: Florida’s First Lady, 1822-1834,” Florida historical quarterly 72:1 (July 1993) (19-34) 29. McRea’s dismissal was a fait accompli when the Territorial governor wrote supportively to the new president, “No man could have been more indecently abusive of you.” William P. DuVal to Andrew Jackson, 21 April 1829, in Clarence Edwin Carter, ed. The territorial papers of the United States. Volume XXIV. The territory of Florida 1828–1834 (Washington 1959) 197.

[5] James M. Denham, “Charles E. Hawkins. Sailor of three republics.” Gulf Coast historical review 5:2 (Spring 1990) 92-103.

[6] Newspaper accounts of this prior altercation are vague as to its place and date, with no indication of what precipitated it, though they agree in stating that Hawkins and McRea were quite young – “they were but boys,” according to McRea’s brother – and that the rencontre occurred somewhere in the West Indies. James M. McRea, “To the public.” Alexandria (Va.) Gazette, 9 July 1829 (letter dated New York, 30 June). In Whitehead’s version they had come together as “young adventurers” assisting in Colombia’s struggle for independence from Spain. Whitehead, “Affairs of honor (?).”

[7] On Dr. Robert A. Lacey, see E. Ashby Hammond, “Notes on the medical history of Key West, 1822-1832,” Florida historical quarterly 46:2 (October 1967) (93-110) 106-107.

[8] “Childhood and Youth of W. A. Whitehead 1810-1830.” A transcription of this memoir is held by the Florida History Department, Monroe County Public Library, Key West, Florida, and by the P. K. Yonge Library of Florida History, George A. Smathers Libraries, University of Florida; page 24 of the transcription contains the reference. Browne, Key West, the old and the new 62 gives Otis’s first name as Samuel, states that the jail was then “a small frame building quite distant from the settled part of the town,” and adds details to Whitehead’s story of the “drunken vagabond” who insisted on being locked up, whereupon “the prisoner within admitted the prisoner from without.” Browne 63.

[9] Judge James Webb of the Southern District pointed out the lack of an adequate jail soon after he arrived: “there is no house on the Island which can be used for that purpose.” Webb to Delegate Joseph M. White, 27 October 1828, in Territorial papers XXIV 112. The Monroe County Grand Jury addressed the Territory’s Legislative Council, having “repeatedly made remonstrances upon this Subject,” until an appropriation of $2000 was made in 1831. Presentment of 29 May 1830, ibid. 417. See also Hugo L. Black, III, “Richard Fitzpatrick’s South Florida, 1822-1840. Part I. Key West phase.” Tequesta: The journal of the Historical Association of Southern Florida 1:40 (1980) (47-77) 63.

[10] “Childhood and Youth” 24.

[11] The findings of the coroner’s inquest were printed in the Key West Register and Commercial Advertiser of 28 May 1829 2:5, and widely reproduced.

[12] William R. Hackley, Diary, entry of 11 November 1830, in Goulding Collection, Special Collections, Florida State University Libraries, Tallahassee.

[13] Whitehead, “Affairs of honor (?).” Acts of the Legislative Council of the Territory of Florida, passed at their ninth session… (Tallahassee 1831) 12. Hackley, Diary, entry of 18 February 1831.

[14] Some elements of these accounts are brought together in James M. Denham, “A rogue’s paradise.” Crime and punishment in antebellum Florida, 1821-1861 (Tuscaloosa, Ala. and London 1997) 80-82.

[15] William Allison McRea to Colonel George M. Brooke, 10 March 1829, in Asbury Dickins and John W. Forney, edd. American state papers. Documents, legislative and executive, of the Congress of the United States, from the second session of the Twentieth to the first session of the Twenty-second Congress, inclusive… Volume IV. Military affairs (Washington 1860) 206.

[16] James M. McRea, “To the public.”

Images: English dueling pistols used in the Senator William White-Abraham Bellamy duel, black & white photonegative, State Archives of Florida. Key-West, looking south-east, reduced from a pencil sketch by W. A. Whitehead taken from the Cupola of the Warehouse of Messrs. A. C. Tift & Co., June 1838; preserved in Whitehead’s copy of Walter C. Maloney, A sketch of the history of Key West, Florida (Newark, N.J. 1876), Special Collections, University of Miami Libraries.

2 thoughts on “Bad blood

  1. The ‘Wild, wild West went South. Were there no pulp fiction writers alive in Key West at the time?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.