A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Old Time Kentucky: Louisville newspaper editors used pistols to take war of words to the next level

By Berry Craig
NKyTribune columnist

Louisville newspaper editors George D. Prentice and Reuben T. Durrett did more than fire verbal broadsides at each other. They shot it out with pistols on a busy Falls City street in 1857.

Evidently neither one was hit, but Prentice purportedly wounded a bystander in the leg. Prentice ran the Louisville Journal. Durrett was editor of the Louisville Courier. The papers were bitter rivals.

George D. Prentice (Photo Provided)

George D. Prentice (Photo Provided)

The bad blood between Prentice and Durrett started brewing in 1854. Prentice took offense at an article he thought Durrett wrote and challenged the Courier man to a duel. Durrett refused to fight out of “conscientious feelings.” But Prentice backed off when he discovered Durrett was not the author.

Even so, their press feud continued.

On July 20, 1857, the Journal said Democratic Congressman John Milton Elliott of Prestonsburg was a drunk. Elliott was a Courier favorite.

The next day, the Courier published an unsigned article that jabbed the Journal’s impudent “Plug Ugly editor” and his paper, “the principal Plug Ugly organ in Kentucky.”

The Courier confessed it knew nothing of Elliott’s drinking habits. The paper countered that Prentice was a “notorious drunkard” who got so liquored up on a local ferryboat that he fell off the gangplank and had to be fished out of the Ohio River.

Reuben T. Durrett (Photo Provided)

Reuben T. Durrett (Photo Provided)

Prentice, in high dudgeon, immediately dashed off a letter to Durrett. He suspected the article was Durrett’s dirty work and demanded to know if he would retract it in the next issue of the Courier.

Durrett quickly replied. His missive denied that Prentice had any “right to interrogate me as to the authorship of any article in the Courier unless you see my name at the head of its columns as editor.”

The editors swapped more poison pen letters. Finally, Prentice threatened to publicly shame Durrett.

“I shall denounce you to your face the first time I see you upon the street. I shall be upon Third cross street myself in half an hour or less, and I hope I shall not have to wait for you long.”

Guns blazed at the appointed time. After the smoke cleared, the bystander presumably went for medical aid and the two editors went back to work.

Naturally, Durrett and Prentice disagreed on how their gun battle went down, and they published wildly disparate versions of the rencontre.

The Journal claimed Durrett was a coward who hid and fired at Prentice from behind a door. The Courier heard “Mr. Prentice was very much intoxicated.” Durrett and Prentice also resumed their war of words, which lasted until the Courier man stepped down in 1859.

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Berry Craig of Mayfield is a professor emeritus of history from West Kentucky Community and Technical College in Paducah and the author of five books on Kentucky history, including True Tales of Old-Time Kentucky Politics: Bombast, Bourbon and Burgoo and Kentucky Confederates: Secession, Civil War, and the Jackson Purchase. Reach him at bcraig8960@gmail.com

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