Dr. Hosack’s Original Account of the Burr-Hamilton Duel of 1804
Dr. David Hosack, physician of Alexander Hamilton at the time of his death, wrote his account of events in the aftermath of the duel between the two rival politicians on August 17, 1804, more than a month after Hamilton had died as a result of his injuries. The prevailing reason for such a lengthy delay was that there was some debate as to what Hosack would be allowed to write.
In 1935, literary scholar Bennet K. Sage uncovered a box filled with various documents in a basement at Burmeister College. At first glance, he believed them unimportant until he recognized the signature of Dr. Hosack affixed to one. It appeared to be another draft of the events preceded by the duel between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton and was dated July 20, 1804, nine days after the fatal duel that eventually took Hamilton’s life. What could be read of the letter stated:
“The Colonel [Burr] never fired [at me]. Just after the second gave word, a wild man emerged from the bush. I had already given my affirmation when I caught site of him from the corner of my eye. At first, I mistook him for an African by his darkened skin. But he was not adorned as a slave, though his clothes were ragged. [Illegible] bit me and I screamed to the Colonel, ‘Sh—[illegible]… to which, he fired, his shot landing in the man’s side. Yet he did not fall, merely turning to him with those mindless eyes, then fleeing back into the bush…”
Only then did I begin scribing what my good friend had told me [illegible] moment his thoughts were sparse and inconcise. He claimed to have visions of relatives long past [illegible] demise would be short in coming. I also took note Hamilton no longer sweated. Believing him parched, I pinched the flesh of his arm, but he showed no symptom of dehydration. Again, [illegible] refused to eat.
The complexion of the facies in particular took on a pronounced paleness and there were several moments where I was certain he was no longer drawing breath. Again, I applied spirits of hartshorn [illegible] found his mouth clenched shut and unable to administer orally. Finally, I ushered everyone out of the room so that I may examine him privately. It is then he rose from his bed and attempted to attack me.
He was wild, but slow and perhaps blind; a milky layer [illegible]. I had fallen back from his attack and unintentionally barricaded myself inside by overturning an old oak desk. He advanced upon me and I still had my bag. I was left with no choice, I removed my scalpel and neatly slashed his carotid. A congealed substance not blood came out that I still cannot reconcile as a doctor.
[Illegible] burst through the door. They were in uniform, but I had never seen them black before. None of them wore rank. One aimed his musket and fired a single shot into Hamilton’s head, putting him down.”
The college already had in its possession a half-finished journal of Hosack’s secretary. One particular entry may shed light on why the doctor’s letter was revised:
“At first I believed the man a potential patient. His eyes were bloodshot, his wig was not affixed properly on his head and there was an awfull scar across his face. He identified himself only as Sanford before storming past me and entering the goode doctor’s examining room. The prior patient left quickly after, still replacing his clothing in the process. The door shut firmly behind this new man—I heard a considerable amount of yelling from the examining room, none of it Dr. Hossack’s.
It was some time later before either man emerged. All of the other patients had left. The man had a paper clutched in his hand and I caught sight of a pistol beneath his cowl before he exited. Dr. Hossack was covered with ink, looking thoroughly out of sorts and dishevelled. He immediately took me aside and ordered me not to speak of his presents.”
Before Sage could publish his findings, however, the newly discovered document and the journal disappeared. In his further research the only reference he could find to a ‘Sanford’was a John K. Sandford, a lieutenant in the Revolutionary War who had allegedly been mortally wounded by a British soldier’s saber.