Smithee-Adams Duel

What has often been described as “the last duel fought in Arkansas” was an exchange of gunshots in the streets of Little Rock (Pulaski County) between James Newton (J. N.) Smithee and John D. Adams on May 5, 1878. This event was also an early episode in the long newspaper war conducted between the Arkansas Gazette (then the Daily Arkansas Gazette) and the Arkansas Democrat.

Adams became owner, with William D. Blocher, of the Gazette on November 11, 1876. They hired James Mitchell to be editor-in-chief of the newspaper; Mitchell had been a professor of English literature at Arkansas Industrial University, now the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville (Washington County). Smithee competed with the Gazette by purchasing the printing presses belonging to the defunct Evening Star newspaper; he published the first Arkansas Democrat on April 11, 1878. The next day, a notice (probably written by Mitchell) appeared in the Gazette commenting upon the new paper in a favorable manner. Over the following days, however, the Gazette grew increasingly critical of the Democrat. On April 16, for example, the Gazette repeated a rumor that four Arkansas politicians were each paying the Democrat $50 a month to guarantee themselves “a level head between them”—in other words, to favor none of the four politicians over the other three. Later that month, the Gazette opined that the Democrat had printed more falsehoods in the previous two weeks than the Evening Star had done in two years. On April 28, the Gazette called Smithee “too light a weight” to threaten its place in the community.

Mitchell was likely responsible for all these assertions, as Adams was out of town at the time. Smithee, represented by seconds R. C. Newton and Robert A. Howard, challenged Mitchell to a duel, and Mitchell, represented by John M. Moore, accepted the challenge. Before the duel was fought, however, Smithee and Mitchell agreed to write separate statements “disclaiming any intention on the part of each to reflect upon the honor of the other,” promising that both newspapers would print both statements side by side. The letters appeared in the Democrat but not in the Gazette. This omission came about because Adams returned to town at that time and resolved to renew the controversy.

On May 2, the Gazette printed, on page one, a letter from Adams accusing Smithee of not supporting the nominees of the Democratic Party and also of firing from his newspaper an orphan accused of a crime that Smithee himself had committed. The letter assaulted Smithee’s honor as a man, on the grounds that he had not responded to these charges when they were previously published.

Three accounts of the duel, which occurred on May 5, 1878, include similar but not identical information. The May 7 Gazette says that Adams and Smithee met in the streets of downtown Little Rock that Sunday morning at about 10:00 a.m. Six or seven shots were fired. Smithee was injured twice. Adams was unhurt, although a ball passed through the rim of his hat. In Smithee’s obituary in 1902, the Gazette reported that Smithee was shot once, “the injury consisting of a flesh wound in the wrist.” But essayist Opie Read (who worked for Smithee at the Democrat at the time) describes the shooting in greater detail, and with creative flourish, in his memoirs published in 1930. He wrote that a crowd had gathered at the corner of Main and Markham streets in Little Rock awaiting the confrontation and that, after five shots, Smithee staggered off the sidewalk and fell in the street.

In 1902, the Gazette’s obituary of Smithee claimed that “[s]hortly afterward the old trouble was adjusted, and Smithee, Adams, and Mitchell were ever after good friends.” Their careers as newspapermen seem to have been redirected by the confrontation. Adams and Blocher sold the Gazette to Ambrose Hundley Sevier Jr., son of the U.S. senator, a week after the duel on May 14, 1878. In October of the same year, Blocher and Mitchell purchased the Democrat. Smithee purchased the Gazette from Sevier in 1882, sold it again later that same year, and purchased it again in 1896, selling it a second time in 1899.

Although many other shootings have happened in the state since 1878, the Smithee-Adams duel remains the last occasion that two leading citizens of Arkansas faced each other in a premeditated attack concerning what both men considered “a matter of personal honor.”

For additional information:
Allsopp, Frederick William. History of the Arkansas Press for a Hundred Years and More. Little Rock: Parke-Harper Publishing, 1922.

Obituary of J. N. Smithee. Arkansas Gazette. July 6, 1902, pp. 1–2.

Read, Opie Percival. I Remember. New York: Richard R. Smith, 1930.

Teske, Steven. “Legacies & Lunch: J. N. Smithee.” April 4, 2012. Central Arkansas Library System, Little Rock, Arkansas. Audio online at Butler Center AV/AR Audio Video Collection: Steven Teske Lecture (accessed January 18, 2023).

———. Unvarnished Arkansas: The Naked Truth about Nine Famous Arkansans. Little Rock: Butler Center Books, 2012.

Various untitled articles in the Daily Arkansas Gazette, published between April 12, 1878, and May 7, 1878.

Steven Teske
North Little Rock, Arkansas


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