The Last Duel
The story of the last duel in Upper Canada
by Ken W. Watson
The scene played out just east of the Town of Perth on a bright and sunny morning, the 13th of June, 1833. Two young men stood about sixty feet apart, wearing black trousers, shirts removed to reveal their bare torsos. The duelling pistols were levelled and the clearing resounded with a loud “crack” as the pistols simultaneously discharged. Clouds of smoke from the pistols obscured the men for a moment, but when the smoke cleared, both were still standing.
They slumped with relief, the deed was done, honour had been satisfied. Neither had really wanted the duel, but events over the last few weeks had inevitably led to this moment. But now, the second for one of the men cried out “Load up again,” and made a loud and passionate argument that honour would not be satisfied until the duel came to a clear resolution.
The young duellists were trapped by circumstance, the duelling pistols were reloaded and they returned to their marks. They again turned sideways to each other, levelled the pistols and fired as one. But this time one of the men spun partway around, his hands flying in the air and then he collapsed, dead by the time he hit the ground. The bullet had pierced his heart.
How had it come to this?
The two young men involved in the duel were John Wilson and Robert Lyon. Both were law students under of tutelage of prominent Perth lawyers. If argument is the mark of a good lawyer, then Perth was blessed with three of the best, since they argued all the time. Daniel McMartin, James Boulton and Thomas Radenhurst were Perth’s first three lawyers. They had all been students of Dr. John Strachan and they arrived in Perth in the early 1820s to start up their own practices. Boulton arrived in Perth in 1823, McMartin a bit later and Radenhurst in 1824.
Boulton and McMartin were always arguing. Boulton perceived himself to be of a better social class than McMartin, and McMartin was of the opinion that hard work and actions defined a man, not just his social status as an accident of birth. Both were in agreement however, in their intense hatred of Radenhurst, a reformer; neither liked the radical concepts that Radenhurst expounded. They didn’t confine their disagreements to words, they came to blows on several occasions, Boulton even horsewhipping McMartin in 1831. They also challenged each other to duels. In 1827, McMartin challenged Boulton to a duel and in 1830 Radenhurst and Boulton agreed to a duel. In the end though, no duels ever took place. But the men believed in the concept, Boulton stating, in reference to McMartin’s challenge, that “a duel could protect one’s character although it could never redeem it when lost.”
John Wilson and Robert Lyon had the misfortune to enter into this volatile environment. John Wilson became the law clerk of James Boulton and boarded with the Boulton family. Robert Lyon, a relative of Mrs. Radenhurst, arrived to study under Thomas Radenhurst. The story goes that Wilson and Lyon were sent to Bytown on business by their respective masters. While there, Wilson overheard Lyon apparently making a disparaging remark about a Miss Elizabeth Hughes, to the effect that Miss Hughes “had allowed young men to indulge in little freedoms that were unbecoming.” While in Bytown, Wilson wrote a letter to Mrs. Boulton in Perth which included this information. The grapevine went into high gear and word eventually got out about the remark regarding Miss Hughes’ character that was apparently made by Robert Lyon.
The anecdotal stories aren’t in full agreement about exactly what happened leading up to the duel. Some say that Henry La Lievre, a friend of Lyon, had feelings for Miss Hughes, but that she didn’t want to have anything to do with him, and he blamed this on John Wilson. Another has it that Robert Lyon was sweet on Miss Hughes, but that when she learned of the remarks he had apparently made, she spurned him, and he blamed Wilson.
This led to a confrontation one day where Lyon, meeting Wilson in front of the court house, slapped him on the face. Wilson, after some thought and consultation, challenged Lyon to a duel. Lyon accepted. It is said that Lyon’s friend, Henry La Lievre, who was reported to have a “bold and unscrupulous disposition,” encouraged Lyon to accept the duel. It can also be said that the atmosphere of the day, including the actions and thoughts of Boulton and Radenhurst, helped influence the decision to duel. Lyon chose La Lievre as his second. Wilson chose Simon Fraser Robertson as his second.
It was dawn on June 13, 1833, when they slipped out of town for the duel. As required by a duel, a surgeon (to either patch up the wounded, or pronounce the deceased), a young Mr. Reade, joined the group. The five made their way to a clearing east of town, near where Last Duel Park is located today.
After Wilson and Lyon fired their first shot, missing each other, it is said that Reade and Robertson counselled the two to end the duel right there. Lyon was apparently ready to apologize to Wilson for the public encounter that had directly led to the duel, but Henry La Lievre vehemently argued for the duel to continue. La Lievre won out, the pistols were reloaded and this time Wilson’s bullet entered Lyon’s body in the armpit below his outstretched arm and pierced his heart. He fell dead on the spot. He was only 19 years old.
Henry La Lievre ran away from the scene. Wilson and Robertson gave themselves up to the authorities. The lifeless body of Robert Lyon was carried back to the Radenhurst house. Reverend William Bell reported that the next day, Radenhurst, mad with liquor, took a pistol and went over to Boulton’s house, prepared to shoot him. Fortunately for Boulton, Radenhurst wasn’t able to find him. Later that year, Boulton was hounded out of Perth “as a result of having made himself many enemies.”
Wilson was locked away in the Perth jail for three months until his case could be heard in Brockville. He acted as his own lawyer and his passionate defence resulted in his acquittal.
And, as for the young lady, Miss Elizabeth Hughes, who was the root of the disagreements that led to the duel? She was later to become Mrs. John Wilson.
Lanark County Genealogical Society - The Duel of 1833 -
Lanark County Genealogical Society - The Wilson-Lyon Duel -
Turner, Larry, Perth: Tradition & Style in Eastern Ontario, Natural Heritage / Natural History Inc., Toronto, 1992.