Nfld. & Labrador

How a pair of men in St. John's survived the last duel fought on Canadian soil

Augustus Healey and Denis Dooley were longtime friends. Then they both fell in love with the same woman.

Augustus Healey and Denis Dooley were longtime friends. Then they both fell in love with the same woman

These are the pistols used in the last duel to cause a death in Newfoundland, in 1826 — and they could very well be the ones used nearly 50 years later in the last one ever fought in Canada. (Eddy Kennedy/CBC)

Augustus Healey was fed up. His longtime friend, Denis Dooley, had recently moved to St. John's from Heart's Content, and the two men soon found themselves competing for the love of Healey's girlfriend, a Miss White.

Healey's solution? A duel — the last known duel on Canadian soil (or, with Newfoundland not yet a part of the country, the last known duel on what would become Canadian soil).                           

The year was 1873. Duelling was outlawed in Newfoundland, according to archivist Larry Dohey, who said the most recent duel in the frontier colony had been in 1826.

But Healey decided he had to do something about his former best friend.

"There were a number of arguments, and then finally Healey said, 'I've had enough of this. I've got to defend the honour of my woman,' and he challenged him to a duel," Dohey said. 

Fortunately, they had friends who knew better

According to newspaper accounts of the duel, the two men engaged friends, Fred Burnham and Thomas Allan, to act as seconds for the duel, and to work out the time, place and ground rules — such as how many paces Dooley and Healey would take before firing.

But their friends came to a bigger decision about the impending duel on their own.

Archivist Larry Dohey says duels were uncommon in Newfoundland at the time, and what the duel's seconds did in 1873 made it even more unusual. (Eddy Kennedy/CBC)

"Their friends were sitting back and saying, 'This is really crazy. They've been friends their whole lifetime; why are they allowing this woman to come between them?'"

He's thinking, 'I've killed my best friend over a woman,' but he doesn't know the pistol balls have been removed.– Larry Dohey

So the seconds removed the pistols' ammunition, ensuring both men would survive the duel.

And so, on a hot September night, Dooley and Healey squared off on the grounds of what is now The Rooms in St. John's, unaware their duelling pistols contained powder but no bullets. They walked 10 yards, turned and shot at the same time.

When their guns went off, Dooley fainted, and Healey became immediately remorseful.

Honour salvaged

"He's thinking, 'I've killed my best friend over a woman,' but he doesn't know the pistol balls have been removed."

Healey was relieved when Dooley, embarrassed at having fainted, got up and they learned their pistols had no ammunition, but they still had to defend their honour — and the honour of Miss White — so they settled it with fists at Casey's Farm on LeMarchant Road, where Healey knocked Dooley out.

"So now both men's honour had been salvaged. There was no death. It was just a knockout, in the fisticuffs," said Dohey. "When they both shot at the same time, I think they both realized that, 'We've been very good friends our whole lifetime. Why are we doing this?'"

A painting circa 1820 depicts a duel. By 1873, duels had been outlawed in Newfoundland, and duelling pistols were difficult to come by, making it accessible mainly to the upper class.

News of the duel travelled around the world because of what the seconds had done — considered a serious breach of duelling etiquette.

"When they removed the pistol balls, they had broken every rule or bit of etiquette around these duels. It was just so strange for someone to do that," he said.

Prior duel had been fatal

Dooley and Healey held their duel on grounds where The Rooms museum and historical archives — which is where the pistols they very well may have used are held.

The pistols were used in the prior 1827 duel, says curator Maureen Power. It was the last one in Newfoundland that resulted in someone's death; Mark Rudkin shot and killed John Philpott, reportedly over a card game or a woman, or both.

Rooms curator Maureen Power says the pistols held at The Rooms came from the collection of Joey Smallwood, the first premier of Newfoundland. (Eddy Kennedy/CBC)

Power said duelling rules stipulate that pistols must be identical and stored together to ensure fairness, meaning pistols were expensive and hard to come by, which largely confined it to the upper class — and making it possible that the ones at The Rooms were used decades later by Healey and Dooley. 

"These duelling pistols have been in Newfoundland on public display for quite some years, so these could have been used again in that duel, because they were the one set of duelling pistols that were around," she said. 

If not the exact same ones, the pistols used by Healey and Dooley would have looked extremely similar to the ones at The Rooms, which came from the private collection of former premier Joseph R. Smallwood and were on display at Government House for years.

Did the duel settle anything for Miss White? It certainly did, said Dohey — but not in the way either Healey or Dooley intended.

"Miss White would have nothing to do with either," said Dohey.

"She walked away from both of them and said, 'I can't be involved with someone of such a temperament.' So she just walked off and married another gentleman a few years later."

With files from Chris O'Neill-Yates

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