Until relatively recently, throughout the ages there have been those with a sense of daring, a penchant for the theatrical, and a romantic ideal of honour, (not to mention a misplaced feeling of indestructibility, and, perhaps, a streak of insanity), who have chosen to settle disputes, especially matters of disrespect, with that most destructive of spectacle: the duel.
Many a hot-headed adventurer, feeling slighted at an accusation of dishonesty, taking offence at the advances made by a rival to a beloved, or in an attempt to throw off a perception of weakness or inferiority, has chosen the duel as the preferred remedy to the problem; a death or glory attitude overcoming common sense, satisfaction only being achievable through the prospect of immediate destruction, be it the destruction of oneself or one’s enemy.
The duel has traditionally followed a relatively rigid formula. The weapons would be selected, normally pistols or swords, and a secluded venue would be chosen. In literature this would invariably be some isolated clearing, under leaden skies, with a swirling mist shrouding the scene. Numerous figures in history have been seduced into participating in the deathly spectacle of pistols at dawn, among them Pushkin, Proust, and British Prime Minister William Pitt.
A duel of a very different kind was brought to the attention of the British public on this day in 1808, with the news that two intrepid Frenchmen had faced one another in a competition to the death, using hot air balloons as their unlikely weapon of choice.
The dispute, as reported in the publication Dodsley’s Annual Register on 22 June 1808, and described as a “very novel species of duel,” was between one Monsieur Le Pique, and his rival Monsieur de Grandpré. At the centre of their argument was Mademoiselle Tirevit, a young dancer of renown who was employed at the Paris Opéra.
On discovering they shared, rather too closely, a mutual acquaintance, the pair resolved to settle the matter with a duel. Being men of high standing, they felt a conventional duel was beneath them, and so conceived the idea of taking their duel to the skies. It was decided that two identical balloons would be constructed, and the protagonists, having reached a certain height above the ground, would attempt to shoot one another’s balloon out the sky.
The date was set for early May, and in front of a large crown in Paris’s Tuileries Gardens, Grandpré and Le Pique made their ascent. When a height of “around 900 yards” was achieved, a signal was given, and each was permitted to shoot. Le Pique fired his blunderbuss first, but missed the target. Grandpré took aim, and successfully managed to penetrate his opponent’s balloon. It began to deflate immediately, and in a matter of seconds plunged to the earth, killing both Le Pique and his unfortunate second, who had misguidedly joined Le Pique in the basket.
With victory assured, Grandpré was able to affect a peaceful descent, bringing his balloon down about twenty miles from the scene of battle. Whether his relationship with the admired Tirevit achieved similar satisfaction, is sadly unknown.