Editor's Note: Doctor Saw the Famous Duel

Physician's Money Digest, July31 2004, Volume 11, Issue 14

You think today's politicians play hardball? Think again. As much as I deplore the current state of political discourse, as a student of history, I've learned that political (and personal) differences were handled all the more fiercely at the dawn of our nation.

It was 200 years ago this month (July 11, 1804, to be specific) that Aaron Burr, the sitting vice president of the United States, shot and killed Alexander Hamilton, the nation's first US Treasury secretary, during a duel in Weehawken, NJ. Now that's ferocious debate.

Doctor on Duty

Alexander Hamilton

In reading , a new biography by Ron Chernow, I found that a respected physician was on hand to witness the epic event. David Hosack, MD, was a close friend of Hamilton and had cared for his eldest son, Philip, during a serious illness. Astonishingly, that same son, at age 19, was killed in a duel of his own at the same spot in November 1801.

Hamilton and Burr, both Revolutionary War heroes and political heavyweights, were longtime bitter political rivals. Using his influence, Hamilton had successfully thwarted Burr's efforts to be become US president and governor of New York.

In those times, matters of honor were often decided with violence. Although widely outlawed, duels with pistols (then called "interviews") were the preferred method of resolution. Hamilton, famous for his brilliant mind and arrogant ways, had participated in as many as 18 duels. This one ruined both men.

Dr. Hosack was born in New York City in August 1769 and earned a medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania (then the College of Philadelphia) in 1791. He was widely respected for his intellectual abilities—as a physician (he founded Bellevue Hospital), botanist (he started a huge garden where Rockefeller Center now stands), and historian (he founded the New York Historical Society).

Money Man

Hamilton, who'd written his will the night before, wasted his first shot in the hopes of settling the matter peacefully. Burr wasn't so accommodating. Upon receiving a direct shot from 10 steps away, Hamilton quickly knew his fate. "The wound is mortal, doctor," were his words to Dr. Hosack. Hamilton was returned to his Manhattan home by rowboat, where he died the next day at age 49. Dr. Hosak submitted a bill for $50 for his medical services.

As for Burr, he was never formally charged in Hamilton's murder, but was involved in another scandal in 1807. He would be tried for treason for conspiring to seize land acquired under the Louisiana Purchase to form his own country. Although ultimately acquitted, he needed funds to seek exile in Europe. Burr went to Dr. Hosack for financial help, who obliged him.