1880: Philly surgeon and soldier duel with pistols over fashion statement

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Robert Adams Jr. (left) and Dr. James William White fired their 10-inch-long, platinum-lined pistols on April 10, 1880, in a duel over a fashion gripe.

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At the count of three, the surgeon and the soldier both fired their 10-inch-long, platinum-lined pistols on April 10, 1880.

There was no doubt both men fired. But whether Dr. James William White aimed his shot at the sky rather than the heart of Robert “Bertie” Adams Jr. was the subject of much debate.

The “slight misunderstanding” that led to the once-infamous “affair of honor” was not over a woman — it was over an outfit.

The fashion statement

They were brothers in arms, both members of the First City Troop, the nation’s oldest continually active mounted unit, which still operates under the umbrella of the Pennsylvania Army National Guard.

Dr. White was the first to ruffle feathers.

After a year serving as the troop's surgeon in the late 1870s, the young doctor verbalized his disdain with the dress code.

Traditionally, troop surgeons dressed in nondescript white trousers and a blue frock coat. Dr. White, on the other hand, requested permission to visit patients wearing the elaborate cavalry uniform, which included a nickel-plated and bearskin-crested helmet, blue tights, roomy boots, and richly embroidered officer's jacket.

White, a University of Pennsylvania medical school graduate, felt the drab clinical ensemble befitted the duties of a military preacher, and not the practice of a surgeon.

It was not, he protested, suggestive of a man of war.

Enlisted Troopers of the First City Troop march during a recent 4th of July parade. (FIRST CITY TROOP / via Facebook)

Debate ensued among the troopers, followed by a concession: White could wear the uniform, but not the officer’s jacket.

Despite some servicemen snickering behind his back, White dutifully treated the infirm in his formal wear for a few years without explicit objection, until Bertie Adams decided to air his concerns.

Toward the end of the troop’s drill on the night of April 8, 1880, at the Troop’s original armory at 21st and Ludlow Streets (then Ash Street), Adams, 31, sized up White, 30.

Adams, also a Penn alumnus but on the business school side, said the regular surgeon’s attire was good enough for White to wear. The military uniform, he added, was too harsh for a doctor.

A screaming match ensued, and the parties were separated.

Later that week, rumors of White submitting to Adams’ critiques reached the surgeon at his home at 222 South 16th Street. He at once grabbed his hat and approached Adams’ residence a block away at 124 South 16th Street.

Pointedly, White asked Adams to retract his commentary.

Adams declined, and White punched him in the head.

The party of five

By this time, dueling, once seen as a gentleman’s solution to a challenge of manhood, was becoming extinct.

Not to mention illegal.

Following a deadly shootout near Chester in March 1830, state and federal lawmakers passed laws forbidding one man from challenging another to a match by gunfire.

So to avoid trouble, White and Adams agreed to settle their differences outside of the Commonwealth, and to delay the official challenge until they crossed state lines. They met at the Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore Railroad depot at South Broad and Prime Streets on the morning of April 10. (Prime was later renamed Washington Avenue.)

The party of five — White, Adams, each man’s second, and a physician to treat them — boarded the 7:30 a.m. train toward Wilmington, Del.

The duel

They arrived an hour later, and two separate carriages were waiting. The two parties were led 17 miles into a swath of Maryland countryside about two miles outside Newark.

The carriages stopped on a dirt road, and the five men cut through two fields toward a wedge of open woods. It was a shaded spot, closed-in by thick trees.

At the stroke of 1 p.m., the two men took 15 paces, and turned to face each other. The two associates removed the dueling pistols from a compartmentalized wooden case and loaded them with lead musket balls.

Robert Adams Jr. (left) and Dr. James William White fired their 10-inch-long, platinum-lined pistols on April 10, 1880, in a duel over a fashion gripe. (INQUIRER ARCHIVES)

White’s second, young lawyer Charles Townsend, was tasked with making the formal countdown. He would count, aloud, to three. The men were allowed to fire anytime between 1 and 3.

Both men aimed their pistols.

“One.”

“Two.”

“Three.”

The fallout

White fired first. But neither met his mark.

They shook hands, amicably agreed that their obligations were satisfied, and restored their pistols to the wooden case. The five gentlemen then boarded their carriages, and were back in Philadelphia by 4 p.m.

By Monday morning, their escapade was already the talk of the town. Newspapers were in an uproar, lecturing on the lawlessness of the “barbaric” act. Some local papers reported rumors of White — a life-saving doctor, after all — shooting at the sky, while others claimed the men shot acorns in lieu of bullets.

White refused to address the gossip, save for one specific rumor raised by the New York Herald, a newspaper that had a penchant for sensationalism.

“No woman in the case,” White said.

No participant was ever charged with a crime, and the breach of law did no great harm to Adams’ career. He served in the Pennsylvania State Senate, and was later appointed United States Minister to Brazil before being elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from 1893 until his death.

White's reputation did not escape unscathed. While he resumed his lecture series and continued visiting patients, men would pass him on the streets and shake their heads in disgust.

But the social shaming didn’t last. He served as the troop’s surgeon for another eight years, and continued to proudly wear the ornate uniform. He went on to write two books with Theodore Roosevelt, and was instrumental in bringing the annual Army-Navy Game to Philadelphia, and his beloved Penn’s Franklin Field.

Adams, reportedly suffering financial hardship, committed suicide on June 1, 1906.

White died in 1916, of cancer.

Before Adams passed, the two men sat together under a wreath of cigar smoke and again squashed their quarrel, according to White’s autobiography.

“You fired in the air, didn’t you?” asked Adams.

“Yes, I did,” White said.

“I didn’t,” Adams said. “I fired at you.”


About this Series:
Using the digital archives of The Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News, Crooks tells the forgotten stories behind some of the most outlandish crimes, and criminals, in Philadelphia history. *Search the archives for yourself and subscribe for full access.*