Whispered History: The story behind San Francisco’s Broderick-Terry Duel Landmark Park

A single bullet stands before a black background.
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I

t is becoming increasingly difficult to find a quiet space in San Francisco.

The city’s skyline is dotted with cranes. Its streets are suffocated with chaotic construction and the buses packed with people. Every inch of space serves as only a small reprieve from overwhelming congestion. Each second of silence is only a breath amid the never-ending marathon of urban life.

Yet if you travel to the southwestern corner of the city, far from the tourists and the startups, past the zoo and a bit south of San Francisco State and just beyond the county line, the rarest of San Francisco locales can still be found — an isolated, near deserted public green space that is neither overrun by tourists or populated with dog walkers.

Tucked behind an unremarkable parking lot, the odd little Broderick-Terry Duel Landmark Park is flanked by an eclectic mix of suburban one-stories, a private golf course and a housing complex that borders the perimeter of the park’s small ravine in a crescent. When driving by on the adjacent boulevard or jogging at nearby Lake Merced, the grounds of the park are hidden from view, blocked by a series of tarped chain link fences that protect a nearby tennis court in a formidable coalition of vegetation and in part, geographic fortune. Yet none of these explanations fully convey the sense of mystery behind the park, captured both in its deserted state and the two wooden posts standing in its center.

It feels as if the place doesn’t want to be found.

The trigger

United States Senator David C. Broderick was looking for a fight on the morning of June 26, 1859. He had just finished reading the morning headlines over breakfast at the International Hotel when he suddenly slammed his fists on the dining table in violent frustration. The junior senator had finally read the news that had already begun weaving its way through the ordered halls of Sacramento and the nearly lawless streets of San Francisco.

David S. Terry, the former Chief Justice of California and supposed friend of Broderick, had just denounced him publicly on the grounds of the Democratic Convention in Sacramento, accusing him of being a disloyal Democrat and a radical abolitionist, and questioning both his civic honor and personal character.

United States Senator David C. Broderick was looking for a fight on the morning of June 26, 1859.

California’s Democratic party was fracturing, just as the country was, over the issue of slavery, and the two aforementioned gentlemen were occupying places on different spots of the Democratic party spectrum. Terry, who was part of a group of Democrats that advocated for the expansion of slavery and called themselves “The Chivalry,” characterized Broderick and his anti-slavery supporters as “a miserable remnant of a faction flying under false colors.”

There was the shot against his civic honor.

As for his personal character, Terry accused anti-expansionist Democrats of being “the personal followers of one man, the personal chattels of a single individual whom they are ashamed of. They belong heart and soul, body and breeches, to Senator David C. Broderick. They are yet ashamed to acknowledge their masters, and are calling themselves, forsooth, Douglas Democrats… Perhaps they do sail under the flag of Douglass, but it is the banner of the black Douglass whose name is Frederick not Stephen.”

Terry was, of course, referring to the African American abolitionist Frederick Douglass and the Democratic nominee for president Stephen Douglas, who would eventually lose to the Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln. It was Terry’s belief that those in line with Broderick’s politics prioritized abolitionists such as Douglass rather than the party itself.

Even at a time where political rhetoric was becoming increasingly toxic, Terry’s words cut deep and posed a direct challenge to Broderick on a personal and professional level.

A friend of Terry’s named D.W. Perley was in the dining room with Broderick that morning, placed as the subject of a passionate rant from Broderick after the senator noted that Perry’s friend “(had) been abusing (him) in Sacramento.” When Perry asked him to elaborate, Broderick burst into a tirade, claiming that he had saved Terry’s political career and even life by getting him out of jail when Terry stabbed a vigilante in self-defense. He lamented, “This is all the gratitude I get from the damned miserable wretch for the favors I have conferred on him.”

The dining room, hushed into stunned silence and feigned disinterest, did not remain so for long as Broderick declared, “I have hitherto spoken of him as an honest man — as the only honest man on the bench of a miserably corrupt court — but now I find I was mistaken. I take it all back. He’s just as bad as the others.”

Perley informed Terry of Broderick’s language and after a few letters between the two parties, the matter was settled. They agreed to meet in a few months to finally resolve the issue once and for all in a fashion both civilized and respectable for men of their noble stature.

By shooting each other at point-blank range.

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As I finally approached the park, I was struck by how empty it was. Apart from a dog walker and an unassuming teenager scrolling through his smartphone at a nearby table, the place was deserted.

 

A spectral fog hung over the spot like a bout of flu at the hospital. It was completely inescapable but also desensitizing. Growing up in the area, I had developed an immunity to the winter-like dreariness of San Francisco summers, but the grim history behind this particular site seemed to penetrate my flesh.

I took a left, due east, from the park’s main path and walked toward a damp clearing. Two wooden posts, unblinking and unchanging, faced each other from a distance of only about 10 yards. Swaying eucalyptus trees danced silently above the forgotten scene. The names “TERRY” and “BRODERICK” were carved into posts, the former on the left and the latter on the right, to mark where each man stood on that fateful day. Jeremiah Lynch, a witness to the duel, had remarked that the distance between the two was “ murderously short.”

It had been a small distance between life and death for the two men indeed, but it was a long and winding road of fate that had brought them together.

The stage

David C. Broderick was born in Washington D.C. in 1820, the son of Irish immigrant parents. His father had emigrated to America to help construct the Capitol building. The Brodericks would later move to New York City, where young David Broderick would work as a stonecutter and a saloon keeper — ironically blue-collar vocations for a man who had ambitions of joining the blue blood institution of American politics.

Despite the nation’s young age and nativist attitudes, positing initial colonial settlers as superior were quite common among Americans of the era, evidenced by the presence of parties reflecting these sentiments. The upper classes dominated political life and thus set the nation’s agenda to be one defined by landed aristocratic notions and an ethos of “rule by the few.” For a first-generation American, the only way to get your foot in the door in New York politics was through the corrupt corridors of Tammany Hall.

Originally a political party established for “pure Americans,” the political machine of Tammany Hall was beginning its transformation into an institution run by immigrants as the city was flooded with Irish Catholics fleeing the devastating potato famine. Patronage, old-fashioned bribery and backdoor politics dominated the Tammany ecosystem under leadership of all periods. When Broderick entered this chaotic political environment in the mid-1840s, he found less of a well-run machine and more of an engine going through repairs as two camps — one which sought to bring back the good old days, one which supported newcomers to the political scene — struggled for dominance as its corrupt, closed-door operations continued. Despite his best efforts, Broderick, challenged by lack of funds, was unable to break through the waning but still robust nativist and classist sentiments that dominated the city. He embarked instead for the greener, golden pastures of California.

Disillusioned and angry, it’s likely that the senator felt he had nothing left to lose by engaging in a duel.

Broderick quickly achieved financial success in California amid the Gold Rush and used it to subsidize his political dreams. He served as state senator before quickly ascending to Lieutenant Governor and gaining political control of the state’s most important city at the time, San Francisco. In 1857, he was elected to the United States Senate to represent California, only eight years after he arrived in the West and only a year after California’s statehood was finalized.

His fortunes didn’t last long as the elections of 1859 proved to be a huge blow to Broderick. The “Chivalry” wing of the party had swept most of the state’s elections, effectively isolating him within the legislature. Couple that with the rising popularity of the Republican party, bolstered by public support for the abolishment of slavery and Broderick’s political career was coming to an end.

Disillusioned and angry, it’s likely that the senator felt he had nothing left to lose by engaging in a duel.

David S. Terry was born in Kentucky in 1823 but was raised in Texas with family roots that reached back to the United States’ colonial past. He proudly embraced his Southern heritage and never wavered in his affection toward the Antebellum South, even after he moved to California.

Orphaned at a young age, Terry sought glory in the Mexican-American War as a member of the famed Texas Rangers, where he channeled his temper and fighting spirit as a model soldier before departing for the gold fields of California.

There he quickly established a law practice before working his way through the state’s Democratic party leadership, securing a nomination for a seat on the California Supreme Court in 1855, a nomination that was secured in part with the endorsement of the nativist “Know Nothing” party — an anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant political organization. Terry was elevated to Chief Justice only two years later and it seemed that he was on the rise. Unfortunately for Terry, the rest of his life would prove to be a lesson in gravity — one in which his political fortunes and personal reputation would come back down to earth.

By 1859, Terry was out of a job and a viable public future. Convinced that Broderick and his fellow abolitionist ideologues had engineered his political demise, Terry turned angry, paranoid and toxically bitter.

Put a gun in the hands of a man in that state and you have a dangerous situation. Add the man he blamed for ruining his career across from him and you have yourself a deadly chapter in American history.

The final act

Nearly everyone in San Francisco knew about the duel.

In the lead-up to the encounter, newspapers wrote about the forthcoming event as if it was a heavyweight title fight. The smart money was on Broderick, who had a reputation as a top marksman and was thus expected to come out on top.

The San Francisco Morning Call reported: “It is generally understood that Judge Terry is a first-rate shot, but is doubtful whether he is as unerring with the pistol as Senator Broderick. This gentleman, recently, in practicing in a gallery, fired two hundred shots at the usual distance, and plumped the mark every time. As he is also a man of firmer nerve than his opponent, we may look this morning for unpleasant news.”

Finally on the morning of September 13, 1859, the two rivals met just a mile east of Lake Merced to settle their dispute once and for all. The two had actually gathered at this same exact spot the previous morning, but due to the bothersome complication in that dueling was illegal, the sheriff had arrested the two before the clash could commence.

In the lead-up to the encounter, newspapers wrote about the forthcoming event as if it was a heavyweight title fight.

The former statesmen were eventually released that day and picked up right where they left off the previous dawn. It would appear that the sheriff didn’t share their same commitment — he was nowhere to be found the following sunrise.

As the final details were being worked out, a crowd of about 80 people gathered around the dueling ground, frantically chatting among themselves in thrilled anticipation. Senator Broderick paced about in the sand while Terry discussed last details with his personal surgeon. Witnesses described the duelists as calm and free of anxiety, although other sources detailing their nervousness contest this.

Broderick won the coin toss for position and placed himself with his back to the sun, which was now creeping through the familiar morning fog. Terry won another coin toss to select weapons and chose the French dueling pistols he had been practicing religiously with over the past few months.

The senators were called to their positions 10 yards from each other and waited in anticipation for the count to begin. David Colton, one of Broderick’s seconds, was in charge of initiating the duel.

“Gentlemen,” exclaimed Colton in a clear voice, “are you ready?”

“Ready,” answered Terry immediately.

The crowd looked at the other senator, who had failed to answer. Apparently, his right arm was tense, his hand was fidgety and he could not get a good grip on the pistol. After a few seconds, which seemed like an eternity to all, Broderick nodded and said, “Ready.”

Colton called out, “One.”

Broderick’s pistol fired early after only the first count.

His bullet burrowed into the ground only a few feet in front of him, completely missing his target. The crowd was shocked at such a misstep from a celebrated marksman. The befuddled Broderick could only watch as Terry ominously rose his pistol in Broderick’s direction.

Terry fired and hit the right part of Broderick’s chest. The senator struggled to remain upright and eventually fell to his knees before finally collapsing onto his back. Thin streaks of blood streamed out of his mouth and onto his pale, stricken face while he apologized to his friends. He had tried to get up but, in his words, “The blood blinded me.”

Broderick wasn’t the only one who was now blind. Terry, calm and professional, stood watching the wounded Broderick, convinced that he had not seriously harmed the senator.

Unknown to Terry, or anyone for that matter, was that the bullet had traveled straight through Senator Broderick’s right lung.

His heart would stop beating three long, brutal, days later.

Saints and sinners

In the immediate aftermath of Broderick’s death, the city mourned with overwhelming public displays of grief. 25,000 people attended his funeral at Portsmouth Square, making it the largest event in the city’s history.

Edward Baker, a close friend of Broderick’s and Abraham Lincoln, was known as a powerful orator and his impassioned eulogy for his departed friend served to burnish that reputation all the more. He portrayed Broderick as a hero of the people who was murdered for his political convictions. A man who had sacrificed his own life so that other men may know freedom.

Like all good politicians, Baker used a high-profile death to further his own political message and convince the rest of the public that he and the Republican party he called home, were the best choice for Broderick loyalists or admirers. Broderick may have been a Democrat, but his anti-slavery stance and the martyr image he had recently cultivated were exactly the kind of political material Baker needed for Republicans to challenge Democratic control of California.

Broderick’s death and Baker’s persuasive arguments finally broke California away from Chivalry control. The public began to refer to Broderick’s death as an “assassination” and view the Chivalrists as a fundamental threat to the Union. In the presidential election of 1860, Abraham Lincoln narrowly edged out a victory in the state by only 614 votes, a slim margin that was undoubtedly influenced by public opinion toward the Democratic party following Broderick’s death.

The vicious divide that Terry and Broderick symobolized would evolve into the Civil War only one year after the election. 620,000 men would perish in the ensuing four-year-long struggle. The consequences of the conflict still reverberate today.

The vicious divide that Terry and Broderick symobolized would evolve into the Civil War only one year after the election.

Meanwhile, Terry was acquitted of murder after the duel in somewhat dubious court proceedings — the judge refused to hear testimony from the witnesses of the duel itself. He went on to fight for the Confederacy during the Civil War, and would never hold political office again. When Terry was nominated for California Attorney General in 1879, news outlets such as the New York Times and the Sacramento Daily Union condemned him, claiming that his past actions failed to “recommend him to the suffrages of an intelligent, loyal and civilized people.”

In 1889, the elderly but still hot-tempered Terry encountered Stephen J. Field, a member of the federal Supreme Court and an old personal enemy. Terry greeted the justice with a slap to the face, an act to which Field’s bodyguard responded in kind — with a bullet to the chest.

Terry died instantly.

I find it hard to imagine anyone in San Francisco was sad to hear the news.

Whispers

As I made my way out of the park, the ring of eucalyptus trees continued to sway gracefully with the gentle breeze while a middle-aged man took long, healthy drags from his cigarette as his tiny Pomeranian plodded around the undergrowth.

The location and its ordinary function clashed beautifully with the incredible history that was hidden from immediate view and knowledge, apart from my own.

I felt a rush of superiority wash over me. It felt like I was holding onto some fantastic secret that I alone was in charge of, like a site of buried treasure or a relic of ancient knowledge. Why was I seemingly the only one who noticed?

Perhaps no one really seemed to care for the place because no one wanted to remember.

It’s not much of a memory — it’s an echo.

In most historical sites (or at least the celebrated ones) they often commemorate places of some great achievement or victory authored by a brave individual or a courageous group of people. This place wasn’t any of that. It’s just a spot where someone was murdered almost 160 years ago.

Who’d want to remember that?

It’s not much of a memory — it’s an echo. A reverberation from the past that reminds us that we haven’t changed as much as we’d like to think. An artifact from yesterday that could fit in just as well tomorrow.

33,000 Americans are fatally shot each year. 12,000 of these are homicides. 230 people were shot in San Francisco last year alone, 40 of them fatally wounded.

Political polarization is at a high comparable to the Civil War. Hyperpartisanship is the norm while compromise is the rare exception. There is increasing fraying on racial, economic and cultural lines. Political rhetoric has grown increasingly personal, hostile and dangerous.

This place isn’t a landmark or a monument.

It’s an infinite whisper.

A soft, quiet voice that’s often drowned out by the sound and the fury of modern life and muffled by the veil of history.

But it calls all the same.

Contact Rory O’Toole at [email protected].