Missouri State Archives
Crack of the Pistol:
Dueling in 19th Century Missouri
A Brief Biography of Abiel Leonard
Considered a “Yankee” by Missouri standards, Abiel Leonard had emigrated West from Vermont to practice law in the Territory of Missouri. A small, near-sighted man with poor health, he was ill-suited to the harsh frontier life. During Leonard’s early struggles to set up a law practice, he found himself forced to teach, farm, and speculate on land to make a living. With the help of a friend and fellow lawyer, he finally obtained the position of prosecuting attorney for the First Judicial District of Missouri in Howard County. This office would not only provide Leonard with a steady source of income, but it would change his life forever.
As part of his duties as prosecutor, Leonard was given the responsibility of trying Major Taylor Berry on charges of forgery and perjury. Major Berry was a well-known War of 1812 veteran and one of the founding fathers of the city of Columbia. Even though Berry was acquitted, his public humiliation demanded satisfaction. Shortly after the trial, Major Berry chose Leonard as his target and assaulted him repeatedly with a rawhide whip. To the surprise of many, the little “Yankee” fought back and issued a challenge.
On September 1, 1824 Abiel Leonard and Major Taylor Berry met on Wolf Island in the middle of the Mississippi near New Madrid. With the first fire, Leonard grazed Berry, but Berry missed. Efforts at reconciliation failed and a second shot was taken missing Leonard but striking Berry in the lungs. Though not immediately fatal, Berry died three weeks after the duel of pneumonia. Consequently, under the 1822 anti-dueling statute Leonard was not charged with murder, but was indicted for challenging Berry to a duel.
Even though the jury could not agree on a verdict, Leonard was found guilty by the Howard County Circuit Court and fined $150. He was also disbarred and disenfranchised. Soon afterward, because of petitions presented to the Missouri General Assembly on his behalf, a special act was passed reinstating all lost privileges. Leonard went on to a distinguished political career, and in 1834 was elected to the Missouri Legislature followed by appointment to the Missouri Supreme Court in 1855.