The year was 1878. Hannibal’s two rival town newspaper editors were engaged in a war of words, the likes of which were seldom experienced in a community such as Hannibal.
The year was 1878. Hannibal’s two rival town newspaper editors were engaged in a war of words, the likes of which were seldom experienced in a community such as Hannibal. The attention of readers grew each day as the word war escalated in print, until it came to such a point that some feared a physical altercation was looming.
And those fears were ultimately realized. One editor challenged the other to a duel, and the men selected a time and site. The weapon of choice was determined: wooden baseball bats.
Fueled by the word mongers themselves, news of this pending altercation spread across the telegraph wires to small towns and large cities, both near and far.
A noted war correspondent and editorial writer, who lived in St. Louis from 1876 to 1880, learned of the pending altercation in 1878 at Hannibal, and successfully obtained authorization from the St. Louis Times Journal, where he worked, to cover this much-anticipated public challenge.
The journalist who ventured to Hannibal to cover this foray has a name now familiar to young and old alike; in fact, 137 years after the scheduled duel, his initials are carved in stone at a 90-year-old Hannibal elementary school.
The man’s name is Eugene Field. His name is not famous for coverage of this duel, however. Instead, he is remembered for poetry written for children later during the century in which he lived.
Beginning in the year following the Hannibal duel, after relocating to Chicago, Eugene Field wrote more than a dozen volumes of poetry, including light-hearted poems for children, such as “Wynken, Blynken, and Nod.”
The town editors were William Hep Russell, representing the Clipper, and Jim Hayward of the Hannibal Journal.
The New York Sun published an account of the duel between the warring journalists in 1903, after digging deeply into the newspaper’s vault and securing information 25 years after the fact.
During the early years of the 20th Century, The Hannibal Clipper’s former editor, Mr. Russell, was a politician of note in New York. Churning out information regarding his early days in Hannibal was of high interest to the New York readership. The New York Sun laid the groundwork for the story:
“At the time of this narrative Hannibal had two newspapers, the Hannibal Clipper and the Hannibal Journal. The Hon. William Hep, then known simply as “Hep” Russell, was the editor of the Clipper. Jim Hayward was the editor of the Journal. Naturally they fell to controversy, for if it serves no other purposes it sometimes arouses all interest among its readers. Editorial and counter got so acrimonious that citizens of Hannibal began to fear a tragedy. When Hep Russell’s paper referred to the editor of the Journal as a viper the Journal talked about lizards and things that groveled along on their bellies. Personalities exhausted the language and when speech could do no more Hep Russell challenged the editor of the Journal to a duel.”
It was, according to the New York Sun, Hep Russell who challenged his fellow editor to a duel. Therefore, it was up to Hayward to choose the weapon of choice, and he selected the baseball bat.
“According to the faithful chroniclers of that day, Hep Russell was up early. He told of sleeping soundly through the night. He bore himself with grim bravery. What he ate for breakfast was described by the accurate reporters who noted that he took two cups of black coffee, a habit of the great European duelists ever since coffee came in as a beverage. His will he made and put in the hands of a trusted friend. To other confidants he whispered some instructions for action in case the duel resulted fatally. He surveyed the dueling ground. He dashed off an editorial, to be printed within the turned rules of the Clipper if it had to announced his untimely end.”
Hayward’s early morning routine was also noted by the New York Sun, but it was notedly less dramatic than that of his opponent.
“Meantime the editor of the Journal was conducting himself in a less decorous way. With a circle of friends he was discussing a jug of corn liquor and offering to bet other jugs of that appetizing stuff that if he got his opponent’s head with his bad he’d fetch a hollow sound. He refused to make a will or to express to the reporters any last messages to be conveyed to family and friends. His hardihood chilled the more sensitive. He seemed not to realize the awe of the hour.”
At the appointed time, the editors took their positions. They danced about, swinging bats randomly, until Hep exclaimed: “Now!”
“The two bats met violently. Hep’s bat broke almost in the middle and the end flew over near the observers. He lowered the handle and bowed to his opponent.
“’My bat is broken,’ said he. ‘My honor is satisfied.’ The editor of the Journal tossed his bat aside and called for more corn liquor.”
Mary Lou Montgomery is a writer, speaker and researcher with a specialty in history. She is the former editor of the Hannibal Courier-Post.