Anyone who remembers Michael Bay’s famous 1993 “Got Milk” commercial knows that sitting Vice-President Aaron Burr shot and killed former Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton during an 1804 duel. What many people do not realize, however, is that the very boulder where a mortally wounded Hamilton was thought to have rested still exists.
Burr and Hamilton had a strong dislike of one another for several years prior to the duel. Tensions reached a boiling point, however, when Burr alleged Hamilton journalistically defamed his character during Burr’s 1804 New York gubernatorial race. Letters were exchanged and when neither side backed down, a duel was scheduled for July 11, 1804, at a Weehawken, New Jersey site.
Interestingly, Hamilton’s own son had been killed three years before in a duel in Paulus Hook, only four miles south. The dueling grounds were located on a strip of land that could only be accessed from the river, and thus offered privacy for the duelists. Significant disagreement still abounds about whether Hamilton, who shot first, fired into the air by accident or to signal to Burr that he intended to end the duel. When Burr returned fire he hit Hamilton in the lower abdomen, fracturing ribs and causing considerable damage to his internal organs. Burr fled the scene as a dying Hamilton’s head was laid upon a nearby boulder.
Hamilton died the following day. Somewhat surprisingly, Burr served out the remainder of his term as Vice President. Burr would later be arrested and tried for treason over allegations that he intended to establish a new, independent country out of territory acquired during the Louisiana Purchase. Although he was acquitted, Burr’s political career was destroyed and he lived in Europe for several years before returning to the U.S. where he returned to work as a lawyer and died in relative obscurity.
In 1870 a set of train tracks was run through the old dueling grounds, so the boulder, which by then had been tied to Hamilton for several decades, was moved to its current location on Hamilton Street. However, the dueling grounds, situated on a rocky outcrop, had been quarried away for stone. In 1935 a bronze bust of Hamilton was perched atop the rock. After several acts of vandalism, the bust was moved to an adjacent pillar where it’s easier to see, and one assumes, harder to vandalize.