Just beyond the city’s edge, near the southeastern shores of Lake Merced, there’s a hidden park that won’t offer you impressive views or a great dog run. What you will get is a backstory, one that involves a hero, slavery, and the last duel in the state of California.
This was not some kind of we’ve-been-drinking-all-night throwdown between a gambler and his rivals. And there was much more at stake than gold or a woman’s honor. The Broderick-Terry duel was between two very prominent members of the political scene (imagine Chris Daly challenging Gavin Newsom to a duel to settle their dispute about…well everything). The gold on the table in this story? Slavery.
David C. Broderick was elected to the California state senate in 1851 and to the US Senate in 1857. Broderick was a wildly popular Democrat who was fiercely opposed to the expansion of slavery into California. At the time the Democratic Party was actually split between pro-slavery Democrats and those who were known as “Free Soilers” (a.k.a. antislavery activists.
David S. Terry was chief justice of the California Supreme Court and an advocate for making slavery legal in California. A noted hot head, he once stabbed a man in an attempt to free a man named Reuben Maloney from arrest. It was a narrow escape from prison for Terry, and Broderick, who had been a friend of Terry’s in their earlier careers, came to Terry’s defense. Still, in 1859, Terry lost his reelection and accused Broderick of a smear campaign against him. This led, of course, to Broderick retracting his prior kind words toward Terry, whom he had called the “only honest judge in California.” The tensions escalated, and Terry officially challenged Senator Broderick to a duel.
Duels were already illegal in San Francisco, though not yet in California, and their first attempt to duel on September 12, 1859, was thwarted by the San Francisco chief of police. So the party chose a clandestine spot just outside the city proper. On September 13, a crowd of around 80 assembled, and after the usual 10 paces Broderick’s hairpin trigger shot a bullet into the ground in front of Terry. Terry’s ready bullet went straight into Broderick’s throat. A near riot ensued, with threats made against Terry as well as accusations of murder. Terry was arrested, and Broderick died three days later.
Terry managed to thwart any prison sentence, but the outrage over the murder of the beloved senator quickly led to the outlawing of duels in the state of California and, soon after, in the whole of the United States. To this day the Broderick-Terry duel is known as “the last notable duel in the US.”
Broderick was honored with a grand funeral. A street was named after him, and a monument was erected at the Lone Mountain Cemetery (later renamed Laurel Hill Cemetery and then moved to Cypress Lawn in Colma). Terry lived a long life, presumably wrought with guilt.
You can see this little piece of lost history for yourself. Take the 18 bus along Lake Merced Boulevard, or head there by car. What appears to be the parking lot for a private tennis club (you can’t park there) leads to a legit historical marker. And next to it you’ll spot a not-so-legit-looking gate that you can slip through. Once inside, you’ll be rewarded with a quiet little spot of greenery and a footpath that leads to the markers. Look for the granite pillar that points you toward the duel site. Bring a friend, and have a mock argument. You may be surprised when you arrive by just how close 10 paces actually are. Stand on the very ground that Senator Broderick’s blood once stained, now washed away by 155 years of rain.