Frenchmen were well-known for defending their honor by dueling. In fact, according to one historian, during an eighteen-year period within Henry IV’s reign, more than 4,000 French aristocrats were killed because of dueling. During a twenty-year period in Louis XIII’s reign, 8,000 pardons were granted for “murders associated with duels.” So, with all the duels, perhaps, the most bizarre duel that ever occurred between French happened in 1808 when Napoleon Bonaparte was Emperor.
The duel was not an ordinary one as it was to take place midair with each man firing from his own balloon. However, the reason for the balloon duel was ordinary. It originated over a celebrated opera dancer at the Paris Opera named Mademoiselle Tirevit. She was being kept by Monsieur de Grandpré but became involved with Monsieur le Pique. Both men laid claim to Tirevit’s heart, and it was decided the only way the men could resolve the situation was with a balloon duel.
To ensure it was fair, the men constructed identical balloons. The men also decided to use blunderbusses, and instead of firing at each other, they decided to fire at the balloon themselves. The idea was that the shot would hit the balloon, which in turn would cause the balloon’s gas to escape and bring down the balloon.
On 3 May 1808, the day appointed for the balloon duel, the two duelers entered their respective balloon cars accompanied by their seconds. At nine o’clock in the morning the cords securing the balloons to the ground were cut. The balloons then ascended from the gardens of Tuileries surrounded by a crowd of curious onlookers. At the time, many of the onlookers thought they were observing a balloon race and sent the balloons off with cheers.
As the balloons ascended, the wind was blowing moderately from the northwest. The balloons rose to a height of about a half a mile and were separated at a distance of about eighty yards apart when a predetermined signal was given from below and the duel commenced.
Le Pique fired the first shot and missed. Grandpré then fired. Grandpré’s shot hit its mark and le Pique’s balloon collapsed and descended with “fearful rapidity.” It was a terrible end for both le Pique and his second: When the balloon at last fell, they were “dashed to pieces on a house top.”
The victor, monsieur Grandpré celebrated. He went “aloft in the grandest style,” and some seven leagues from where the balloons ascended, Grandpré and his second landed safely. Defeating le Pique meant Grandpré also won Tirevit’s heart, or at least that is what the two men believed as they thought Tirevit would “bestow her smiles on the survivor.”
- “A Balloon Duel,” in Buckingham Advertiser and Free Press, 25 April 1863
- Dickens, Charles, All the Year Round, 1870
- Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, Volume 46, 1890
- “Novel Duel,” in The Bristol Mirror, 23 July 1808
- Roth, Ariel A., The Dishonor of Dueling, 1989
- “Sunday and Tuesday’s Posts,” in Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette, 28 July 1808