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Bloody Island

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

When God recommended that children obey their parents, he may not have had Judge John Lucas of Kaskaskia, Illinois, in mind. In the summer of 1817, the good judge used his son as the weapon of choice in a duel.

Both the judge and his son, Charles, were bitter political and legal rivals of an upstart St. Louis lawyer, Thomas Hart Benton. Benton would eventually become famous as a Missouri senator, but his fiery temper was already in place. His constant goading of Charles reached the boiling point in the summer of 1817. Charles questioned Benton's right to vote in an upcoming congressional election. Benton, in turn, publicly called young Lucas a "puppy."

It was too much. On August 11th, Charles challenged Benton to a duel. Benton accepted. At six in the morning, the two men faced each other on an island in the Mississippi off St. Louis. Lucas's bullet merely nicked Benton's leg, but Benton's bullet pierced his rival's neck, causing an almost mortal wound. Charles Lucas was satisfied that honor had been served, but Benton demanded a rematch. Benton’s friends eventually persuaded him that honor had been satisfied.

Neither man had counted on the Judge's honor. He accosted his recovered son on the street one day and berated him for giving up. "You must fight him again, I say! You must fight him again!" he is reported to have said. "The Lucas honor requires it!

"Well then, my dear father," Charles said, "I will be guided by you once more."  It was not a good decision.

On the morning of September 27th, Benton and Lucas met on the island for a second time and fired. Benton was untouched, but Lucas was shot in the heart. "I can forgive you," he told Benton as he died, "I do forgive you."

Judge Lucas did not forgive. He developed an almost paranoid hatred of Thomas Hart Benton, and, for years afterwards, lashed out at the murderer of his son in a series of scathing newspaper articles as a "man crimsoned with the blood of one of our most promising young citizens."

This duel of words was not as effective as it might have been. Perhaps the good judge had his weapon pointed in the wrong direction.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.