John King, Christiansburg Merchant, First To Be Involved In Argument Resulting In Double Death
From the 1938 centennial edition of The Times-Register
The duel in which Thomas Lewis, grandson of General Andrew Lewis, was killed in 1808, was one of the reasons that dueling was outlawed in this state soon after that fatal affray. Thomas Lewis was killed near Christiansburg on the first Monday in May of 1808 in a duel with John McHenry, sheriff of Montgomery county.
Like many other duels of those early days this shooting took place as the result pf a political quarrel. McHenry and Joseph King were candidates for the same legislature and bitter feelings arose between them. Apparently, they had settled their differences after a time, but McHenry made a trip to Kentucky and while he was gone rumors started which again fanned the flames of discord.
Joseph King who was a merchant in Christiansburg had married the half-sister of Thomas Lewis who was just starting out to practice law at the age of 22 years. McHenry was forty years of age.
Because of the fact that Joseph King was a man with a family he did not feel like engaging in a duel with McHenry, but Thomas Lewis readily took up the argument and there are indications that it was this impetuous young man who was the aggressor in insisting on the fight. Under the code of that day the duel was the means of settling disputes in which honor is at stake.
After some bickering it was decided that the two men would fight a duel with rifles at thirty paces. As both were experts with firearms it was almost a foregone conclusion that the duel would prove to be a fatal one.
Thomas Bowyer was secured as the second for Lewis while James Charlton was McHenry’s second with arrangements made for a Doctor Floyd to be on hand to give medical assistance after the firing.
Early on the Monday morning that the duel took place Thomas Lewis is reported to have gone to the King home and kissed the baby which had been recently born.
When the fighters reached the scene of combat, which was not far from Christiansburg, Charlton is reported to have suggested to Bowyer that the rifles be loaded with blanks in order to save the lives of the two men. Bowyer replied that they had not come there for child’s play.
Both duelists had on new suits with brass buttons, one of the brass buttons being placed over the heart. Previously, McHenry had said to Lewis “If you make me fight you, I am going to drive that button through you.”
“One, two, three, fire”, was the signal given and McHenry fired first, his bullet going directly through the button over the heart of Lewis. Lewis fired almost at the same time, the bullet taking effect in McHenry’s liver.
Lewis died almost instantly while McHenry sank to the ground mortally wounded. When a doctor sought to give aid to McHenry he said, “Go see how it is with poor Tom.”
On Tuesday morning Lewis was buried and McHenry asked that he be placed by a window where he could see the funeral procession. He remarked as the remains were carried by his resting place, “There goes the best friend I had on earth.”
The tragedy of a man killing one of his best friends brought many to realize the futility of dueling and soon after the fatal shooting the Virginia legislature passed an act outlawing the duel and specified in the act that all office seekers must take an anti-dueling oath. In those days duels were largely fought by persons who became inflamed over politics and candidates for office were generally the ones who fought.
In view of the fact that this duel was largely responsible for the outlawing of this savage custom, it can be held that Thomas Lewis did not die in vain for with him died a method of settling disputes that has no place in an enlightened commonwealth.
-Prepared by Lisa King