It started with a passport and ended with a duel…

Early in the summer, AAS received a generous donation of graphic arts materials from one of the Society’s members, Jim Heald, via the Worcester Art Museum. Among these items nestled on the acquisitions table was a mid-nineteenth-century passport, which stood out for two reasons. Primarily, until that moment, it had not occurred to me that official government passports existed so early in American history. Secondly, the passport holder seemed to be the most “ordinary” gentleman according to the exceedingly vague description gracing the left-hand side of the document (as can be seen in the accompanying image and transcription below.)

536099_0001Age ___34___

Stature _5___ Feet __8___ Inches

Forehead ___ordinary___

Eyes __hazel___

Nose ___ ordinary__

Mouth ___ ordinary____

Chin ______

Hair ___brown__

Complexion ___rather dark___

Face ___oval___

How could this document be used as a means of identifying anyone if they were all completed in such a non-descript fashion? This man doesn’t even appear to have a chin! (I later found a picture of the passport subject (below right) and he was sporting a full beard, which perhaps contributed to the jawline mystery.) One of our summer interns further pointed out that the term “ordinary” is not self-explanatory. It feels safe to assume “ordinary” meant “European” but beyond that, who is to say. I wondered how many run-of-the-mill men were walking around with interchangeable passports, so I took to the collection (and the internet) to do some comparison work. It would seem that the majority of mid-nineteenth-century passports readily available are more descriptive than the one we received. Although descriptions appear on passports in the early nineteenth century, it was not until the addition of photographs circa 1914 that the manuscript document moved from a letter of introduction to a document of identity. Early on, Americans needed to reapply for a new passport every six months, which may explain the lack of care taken with regard to adjectives. By the late 1870s that renewal timespan had increased to two years, which is still a short duration by today’s standards.

84943_0001-cropThroughout my study into the history of passports, my mind kept wandering to the generic man named in the document we acquired. This is where the rabbit hole of research led me to an entirely different blog post than the one I set out to write. I could tell you that France was the passport pioneer in Europe and that from the late-eighteenth century until the mid-nineteenth century British passports were often written in French. I could tell you that passports were not required for entry to the United States until after World War II, with the exception of war times (Civil and the first World War), even though American passports have been issued since around the time of the French Revolution. The list of things I could tell you—such as women and servants being listed as unnamed parties on the husband’s passport until the late 1800s, when they could apply for passports in their own names—goes on and on. Still, I kept returning to the subject of our passport. I set out simply looking for a picture and in doing so discovered the sordid life story of a seedy Confederate politician in Missouri, remembered for duels and deceit and whose life tragically ended at the bottom of an elevator shaft.

Thomas C. Reynolds.

The passport newly in our possession harkens back to a time when Mr. Reynolds was on the cusp of infamy. In 1855 he was a young United States Attorney in Missouri. He had a wife and political prospects and was in the middle of a dispute with a newspaper editor by the name of Benjamin Gratz Brown. Reynolds felt something published in Brown’s paper had been an attack on his character and he held Brown accountable. Did I mention Reynolds was a pro-slavery Democrat? He was. 1855 was also the year that this clash with Brown, which began in 1854, escalated to the proposition of a duel. By 1855 duels had largely fallen out of popularity. By 1859 they would be illegal in eighteen states. There were added restrictions for elected officials and lawyers risked being disbarred by engaging in such activities. Regardless, Reynolds challenged Brown to a duel.

Now, when I have tried explaining the events surrounding the eventual duel, more than one person asked me for a chart to help keep it all straight. I like to think this is more of a reflection on the duel than my story-telling abilities, but the following breakdown should provide an abridged but clear illustration of what transpired.

flow-chart-1-edited

I’m going to pause here a moment and let that last bit sink in. Take a minute to imagine how uncomfortable and tense that boat ride must have been with Brown, Reynolds, their seconds and their witnesses sailing over to a proper dueling spot. Awkward. Okay, now back to the duel.

flow-chart-2

Both men would go on to have political careers in Missouri and serve in the Civil War (though on opposite sides). Overall it appears that Brown ended up being the more successful of the two. But that is unsurprising when one discovers that Reynolds feigned allegiance to the Union to get himself elected lieutenant governor of Missouri and then argued for secession the minute he was in office.

In spite of this political deceit, it seems that Reynolds remained concerned with the public perception of his character throughout his entire life and attempted to defend it, even in death. In 1887, Thomas C. Reynolds fell down an elevator shaft, ending his own life. Before he died, he had written a note indicating that, while he felt sane and lucid at the moment, he was frequently plagued by hallucinations and insomnia and if he were to do anything “rash,” it was a result of this temporary insanity and his wife should receive the sympathy she was due. The late 1800s were a time of shifting attitudes regarding suicide. It was starting to be viewed less in a religious context, indicative of lacking moral fiber, and more as a social or psychological construct. It seems that in leaving behind this note, Reynolds intended to reaffirm the burgeoning psychological theory.

What began as an inquiry into early American travel documents ultimately became an illustration of the unexpected twists and turns that accompany primary source material.


Stevens, Walter B., and William K. Bixby. The Brown-Reynolds Duel; a Complete Documentary Chronicle of the Last Bloodshed under the Code between St. Louisans, from the Manuscript Collection of William K. Bixby, Ed. St. Louis: Franklin Club of St. Louis, 1911.

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