Thursday, January 20, 2005

I demand satisfaction!

Boston's most famous duel was fought by one Henry Phillips — a studious and quiet young man, and the second son of a successful publisher named Samuel Phillips. He had graduated from Harvard College in 1724, at the age of twenty, and immediately thereafter had joined his brother Gillam in the family's book business.

Despite his supposedly meak demeanor, Phillips was known to frequent Luke Vardy's Royal Exchange Tavern, itself opened in 1726 on the corner of King Street and Exchange Place. Today that site is occupied by the mammoth Exchange Place skyscraper, but in Phillips' day it was a rough-and-tumble establishment, widely known as a place of gambling and vice.

On the evening of July 2, 1728, Phillips further proved the Tavern's reputation by engaging Benjamin Woodbridge, the son of an admiralty judge, in an altercation. The nature and cause of their argument is lost to history, though folklore says they were bickering over a woman with whom they were both in love.

Regardless, the two gentlemen agreed to duel over the matter. So, after dusk on the following day, both Phillips and his opponent — unaccompanied and bearing swords — met at the far end of the Common, near the Frog Pond. In the ensuing melee, Phillips was wounded in his stomach and slashed across the hands, but attained victory after he felled Woodbridge with a fatal stab to the chest. Phillips then fled the scene, stopping only to notify an in-town surgeon as to the whereabouts of Woodbridge's body before heading to his brother's shop for sanctuary. There his injuries were dressed by Gillam and certain friends, who then smuggled Phillips aboard a ship which was about to sail for London.

Phillips arrived in London some months later, where he was taken in by Gillam's brother-in-law, Peter Faneuil (yes, that Peter Faneuil). Fearing that he would be extradited back to Massachusetts, however, he quickly arranged passage to the French city of La Rochelle.

Yet Woodbridge's death bore heavily on Phillips' soul; he escaped justice, but he could not escape a guilty conscience. Within weeks of arriving in France, Phillips lapsed into a deep depression, and from there into illness and ultimately death. He did not leave a will, and so for the next ten years his brother fought numerous legal battles in order to inherit the young Phillips' substantial estate, which under colonial law was supposed to fall to his mother and sister. A decade of contestation came to naught for Gillam, however — he had assumed himself a rich man with the demise of his sibling, but the courts awarded the estate to its statutory heirs, and rejected all of Gillam's numerous appeals.


Blogger Bob Neer said...

Hi Joyce. I really like your site. I am presently working on an academic paper about Henry Phillips. I wondered where you found out about him. Also, just for the record, this was not Boston's first duel -- not even it's first fatal duel. They were hotheaded types, those colonials.

11:54 AM  

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