Rough and Tumble in Georgetown

A Regular Row in the Backwoods engraving. (Source: Crockett Almanac, Library of Congress)
This image from an1841 issue of the Crockett Almanac gives a sense of what the brawling was like in Georgetown on Election Day, 1800. (Source: Library of Congress via History Matters, George Mason University)

You’ve heard of DUELING, now get ready for ROUGH-AND-TUMBLE. In the 1800s, more than a few disputes of personal honor were solved by shooting each other to death. But that’s what the gentry of the area did, so what did the common people do? Plain old hand-to-hand fighting and eye-gouging.

“Rough-and-tumble” was the name given to the fights between lower class men to settle disputes of honor and status. The style was unique in its brutality, with an “emphasis on maximum disfigurement or severing body parts.”[1] Essentially the rules were that there were no rules, and the fight was over when somebody lost an eye. That’s not an exaggeration; pulling out the eye of an opponent meant you won, and you even got to keep the eye as a trophy.

How does this apply to D.C.? As you’ve probably already guessed, the District took place in the rough-and-tumble too. Most memorable, however, was one fight that took place on election day, 1800. Tensions were very high; John Adams and the Federalists were in fierce competition with Thomas Jefferson and the Republicans. In Georgetown, votes were cast at Suter’s tavern (located near what is today K and 31st St NW). A large crowd was gathered to vote and talk but as the day wore on, and “bad whiskey” began to make its way through the men, folk became more and more unruly.

It was not long before a man named Shipely called a challenge to anyone from the opposite party who dared challenge him; a Lieutenant Peter answered his call, but sent one of his enlisted soldiers to fight for him, a man named Lovejoy. Christian Hines describes the scene:

[Lovejoy] was a very large man, well proportioned, and stood about six feet high. Shipely was nearly the same height, and very bony and muscular, but not so stout as Lovejoy. The Crown having formed a ring, the combatants went into the fight with a will, those in the crowd occasionally cheering and otherwise encouraging their choice of the men. [2]

They clawed at each other’s eyes, grappling on the wet ground outside the tavern. Shipely proved victorious, by smearing Lovejoy’s eyes generously with mud. Bystanders picked Lovejoy up and washed his face, but- although he’d managed to keep his eyes in his head- the man was blinded for life. He spent the rest of his days being led around the streets of Georgetown by a hired boy. Although it’s unclear who Shipely won for, it was Jefferson who ultimately carried the election that day.

And what became of rough-and-tumble? It fell out of fashion in the 1840s when deadlier weapons were invented that made the sport too lethal for most people’s blood. A good thing, too, or the Twitter feuds of today would result in a lot less clickbait and a lot more blindness; #RoughAndTumblr.

Footnotes

  1. ^ Gorn, Elliot J. “Goughe and Bite, Pull Hair and Scratch: The Social Significance of Fighting in the Southern Backcountry.American Historical Review, Vol. 90,1985.
  2. ^ Hines, Christian. Early Recollections of Washington City. 1866.