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For much of human history, it was not only perfectly acceptable but pretty much expected that disputes would end with a duel to the death. What we'll never know -- at least not until timecops become necessary -- is just how many would've-been-history-making men we lost to such fatal pissing contests, and just how much the timeline might have changed if said contests had turned out differently. Especially when you consider ...

5 Abe Lincoln Narrowly Avoided Getting Shot to Death in a Duel

Anthony Berger

You might recognize Abraham Lincoln as the president who completely owned the chin curtain/top hat combo. Oh, and also something about leading our nation through a brutal civil war and preserving the union. But it all could have ended way back when Abe was still shaving and Southerners were still slaving: Lincoln had himself a good old-fashioned duel to the death with a guy by the name of James Shields.

It all started in 1842, when the Springfield Journal published letters from one "Aunt Becca" accusing Shields -- an attorney and auditor for the State of Illinois -- of being "a ballroom dandy, floatin' about on the earth without heft or substance, just like a lot of cat-fur where cats had been fightin'." (Folks in the 19th century had very long-winded ways of calling someone a dick.) Shields, not one to let such shenanigans slide with a simple harrumph and a "Well, I'll be!" vowed that there would be "coffee and pistols for two" once he discovered the true author of the letters. And that's where Lincoln comes in -- because the author was none other than Mary Todd, aka the future Mary Todd Lincoln.

Mathew Brady
"... Shit."

Since women possess far too much common sense to participate in something as ludicrous as a duel, Lincoln was forced to accept Shields' challenge on his fiancee's behalf. And that was a problem, because Shields was an experienced marksman, whereas Lincoln had little experience in the art of remotely drilling holes in other humans. Abe did have two things going for him, though: A) he got to set the terms of the duel, and B) he was basically superhuman. Lincoln used those two things to his every advantage: The duel would take place in a tiny arena where the participants would be separated by a wooden plank (stepping over the plank would mean forfeiture), and rather than Shields' preferred weapon of choice (pistols), they would use fucking broadswords.

Lincoln's carefully planned-out terms had precisely the desired effect. When they arrived at the duel and drew their broadswords, Lincoln reached up with his Stretch Armstrong arms and sliced a branch out of the top of a nearby willow tree. And that was the only limb hacked off that day, because Shields immediately called off the duel without so much as a drop of blood spilled -- although some say there was a puddle of something around his feet that day.

liosc/iStock/Getty Images
"Your dick. That could've been your dick."

So, just how close did our great nation come to never being led by the Great Emancipator? In his own words, "I didn't want the damned fellow to kill me, which I rather think he would have done if we had selected pistols."

Harper's Weekly
And so Honest Abe never had to worry about pistols again, and he and Mary lived happily ever after.

And speaking of bullshitting your way out of a duel ...

4 Mark Twain Bullshitted His Way Out of a Duel

Wiki Commons

The "father of American literature" really needs no introduction. The quintessential American author, humorist, and satirist has been universally loved and admired by everyone from peons to American presidents to European royalty -- with the exception of one guy who wanted to give him a fatal, .58-caliber body piercing.

Before publishing any of his great works, the newly christened Mark Twain (he was plain old Samuel Clemens up until then) was editor of the Virginia City Enterprise. In his capacity as editor, Twain took it upon himself to relentlessly critique and slander James Laird, the editor of a rival newspaper. Twain's incessant needling built up to a head, and when it finally blew, Laird challenged him to a duel. Twain readily accepted -- a decision that, in retrospect, seemed a bit rash, given the facts that Twain barely knew "which end [of the revolver] to level at the adversary" and that Laird was "longer and thinner than a rail."

Mathew Brady
With a mustache like that, an overestimation of one's manliness is understandable.

As specified by The Official Duelist's Handbook (Third Edition), each duelist had a second -- a person who would try to reconcile the two participants before shit went down. The seconds acted as negotiators, relaying messages such as the time and place of the battle, as well as what weapons were to be used. Well, Steve Gillis, Mark Twain's second, turned out to provide a much, much more valuable service than that.

The story goes that, knowing that his reputation as a hopelessly inept shot preceded him and in quite justified fear for his life, Twain arrived early at the dueling grounds so Gillis could coach him as he practiced shooting a fence rail representing his lanky opponent. Twain went about missing every single shot.

LoweStock/iStock/Getty Images
"Can't I just trick my friends into shooting it for me?"

Understandably frustrated that his student seemed to lack even the most basic understanding of the dynamics of killing things with lead and black powder, Gillis snatched away the revolver and, noticing a flock of sparrows frolicking about 30 yards away, demonstrated how effective the pistol was at cleanly removing a teensy bird's head.

That's when Laird arrived, all snazzied up and aching to abort Tom Sawyer from the uterus of American history. One look at the headless sparrow, however, and Laird's demeanor instantly took a left turn to Abouttopissmypantsville. Mark Twain, being fucking Mark Twain, saw Lady Opportunity smiling his way, and immediately jumped on the chance to say, "Oh, that? Shit. Yeah, I did that." (But he probably said it better because, you know ... Mark Twain.)

marcovarro/iStock/Getty Images
"Your dick. That could've been your dick."

Needless to say, Laird called off the duel, and the future of American literature was saved via a combination of luck and trickery that would make Loki jealous.

3 Captain John Smith of Jamestown Survived by Beheading Three Challengers

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John Smith was the founder of Jamestown, the first successful colony of English settlers in America. You might also remember him as the chiseled blond dude who banged Pocahontas in that one Disney movie.

biography.com
Pictured: Chiseled. Blond.

But before Smith became famous for settling in America, he was a soldier of fortune in Romania, fighting for Austria against the Ottoman Turks. After fighting and seizing a Turkish stronghold, their leader, Lord Turbashaw, issued a challenge to meet any Christian foe in a one-on-one horseback death match. Smith stepped up to the plate, donned his armor, saddled up his horse, and rode through blares of trumpets and showers of bras and panties to meet the challenge -- all 22 years and 5 feet 3 inches of him (did we mention that his actual appearance probably didn't match your mental picture?).

apva.org
John Smith: Actual size.

The match was a quick one. Smith proved himself a shoe-in for a position as a Medieval Times performer when he bull's-eyed his lance straight through the tiny target that was the eye hole of his opponent's face visor. But Smith wasn't quite done ravaging his enemy just yet -- he allegedly hacked off Turbashaw's head, slapped a bow on it, and presented it to his general as a gift.

Apparently, head-gifting was a big faux pas in Ottoman society, and Smith's actions seriously pissed off a friend of the recently departed Turbashaw: the sinisterly named Grualgo. So, the story goes that Smith rode against him the next day, this time knocking his opponent off his horse with a well-timed pistol ball after his lance failed to do the job. And just to give him one final kick in the balls, Smith took Grualgo's head, too.

Nomadsoul1/iStock/Getty Images
He invented bowling later that night.

In what's starting to sound like a particularly convoluted Game of Thrones subplot, Smith, balls inflated to near-basketball levels from his two previous victories, issued an open call for another challenger. This time Mulgro stepped forward and, presumably having seen Smith's flair for mounted murder, chose to mix things up ... with battle-axes.

All signs pointed to Smith's third time being whatever the opposite of a charm is, because Mulgro handled his battle-axe about as well as you'd expect from a dude named Mulgro. With one big Conan-esque grunt and swing, he knocked Smith's ax out of his hands, leaving him with only a small sword to defend himself. But you know what they say: all's fair in love and battle-ax duels, and when Smith dodged a swing from Mulgro, he didn't hesitate to pull a dick move and stab him in the back. And before you ask -- yep, he added Mulgro's head to his growing collection. He also received a reward in the form of "an insignia bearing three Turk heads," which probably came in handy for proving he didn't pull this entire story out of his ass.

2 George Frideric Handel Survived a Sword Duel Thanks to a Lucky Button

Thomas Hudson

If you're not familiar with George Frideric Handel, you've certainly heard his work:

Handel went down as one of the greatest composers in history, influencing music and opera in ways on par with Beethoven, Mozart, and Bach. But, thanks to a sword duel early in his career, Handel may have never influenced millions with his music if he hadn't been blessed with an amount of luck that can only be described as "cartoonish."

Though German-born, Handel moved to London and became friends with Johann Matheson, a composer who, as Handel would later find out, had a severe case of the unable-to-calm-the-fuck-downs. You see, Matheson had written a little opera called Cleopatra, in which he himself was to perform the dual roles of Marcus Antonius and conductor of the orchestra (which wasn't a role, per se, but you catch our drift). Handel, being somewhat of a purist, didn't think it was proper for Antonius to reappear as the conductor after the character had been killed off (spoiler alert!), so he took the conductor's seat at the harpsichord and started shredding it like Eddie Van Halen in silk stockings. This is the sort of thing that makes a composer want to kill a motherfucker.

Johann Jacob Haid
"You're about to get your ass Handeld to you."

Sure enough, when he found Handel's ass warming his seat, Matheson was pissed. The two launched into a full-on rock star fistfight, right there in front of the audience ... but apparently they fist-fought about as well as you'd expect two classical composers to, and the battle soon resorted to pulling each other's powdered wigs and dropping bombs about whose momma could hit the highest C. The audience, however, was thirsty for blood by that point and ushered the two outside for a friendly game of Stab Each Other in the Heart. If you're wondering where the swords came from all of a sudden, this was the 18th century -- the swords had always been there.

Madly swinging one of those little conductor batons is seemingly good practice for sword fighting, and Matheson soon showed Handel that he had fucked with the wrong dude's harpsichord. Matheson didn't toy with his opponent for long, though -- he quickly made a furious lunge to shish kabob Handel's heart meat ... and instead hit a brass button on Handel's coat, deflecting his death blow and snapping off the point of his sword. Having just witnessed an irrefutable miracle, the two then embraced each other and cried, just like good classical composers should.

Scott Gries/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images
Kind of makes Nas and Jay-Z look like pussies in hindsight.

Handel went on to create his most influential works after that day in 1704 -- all thanks to his fabulous fashion sense.

1 Karl Marx Survived Getting Shot in the Freaking Head

Wiki Commons

Ask your local sci-fi geek or armchair alternate history aficionado the first thing he'd do if time travel were invented, and "kill Hitler" comes in second only to "that green alien chick from Star Trek." But Hitler is low-hanging fruit -- to get to the really interesting stuff, you've got to dig deeper: What would the world have been like if there had never been a Karl Marx? Now that's a question for alternate historians to ponder -- especially since it's a scenario that came very close to happening.

Back in 1836, 18-year-old Karl Marx was just another student at the University of Bonn. And like any other freshman student, Marx had to deal with his fair share of being picked on -- only worse, because in his particular case, the pickers were none other than Borussia Korps bullies (just imagine the frat guys from Revenge of the Nerds, only angrier and German), who presumably shoved him around and used his spectacular coiffure to achieve history's most epic swirlies.

libcom.org
Don't even tell us the swirlie hadn't been invented yet; let us dream.

As a result, Marx bought a pistol for self-defense, and it wasn't long before he found himself forced to use it. After a particularly nasty run-in with these self-appointed Prussian badasses, one of them challenged Marx to a duel -- which he accepted, because what else was he going to do, look like a giant pussy? The problem was, life-or-death battles don't get much more lopsided than this one: "The outcome of this contest between a short-sighted swot and a trained soldier was all too predictable, and [Marx] was lucky to get away with nothing worse than a small wound above his left eye."

In other words, Karl Marx, the man who literally wrote the book on communism, got shot in the fucking face while he was still a kid. What if the bullet hadn't glanced off of his abnormally thick forehead? That would have meant no Marxism, no Marxist-Leninism, and from there ... who knows? No Russian Revolution? No Lenin? No Stalin?


No Drago?

In short, the reason that much of the 20th century unfolded the way it did was because some college kid in a far-off country happened to be "a beneficiary of the limited accuracy of early underpowered pistols ... As dueling pistols became more powerful, reliable, and accurate, many other duelists were not so lucky." And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why you can thank the shittiness of early pistol designs for most of modern history, including a cold war that nearly annihilated all of humanity.


Please follow Jacopo on Twitter and preorder his upcoming novel, THE GREAT ABRAHAM LINCOLN POCKET WATCH CONSPIRACY. Matt Moffitt has a Twitter here and a blog here.

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Related Reading: Yes, life is fragile. Think of how different music would be if those Jamaican authorities had shot down Bono's plane. Weirder still are the musicians who predicted their own deaths in song: like Jackie Wilson and Proof. If last year's overlooked deaths are more your fancy, we can help with that too.

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