Death Rock of Alexander Hamilton

March 30, 2012 — Thanks to this commercial, we all know who killed U.S. founding father Alexander Hamilton in a duel: Aawon Buhh. But what the commercial doesn’t tell us is where it happened. It was New Jersey, in the town of Weehauken…and they have the death rock to prove it.

Alexander Hamilton is one of the big names of early United States history. He was a leader in the Revolutionary War, wrote most of the Federalist Papers, served as the country’s first secretary of the treasury, and earned central stage on the ten dollar bill. He was pretty much everything but a United States President and, all in all, probably a guy who shouldn’t have exited stage left over an insult.

Aaron Burr was also a leader in the Revolutionary War, as well as U.S. Senator. The biggest font on his resume is dedicated to his tenure as Vice President of the U.S. under Thomas Jefferson.

However, despite all that national relevance, they tangled over state politics in New York, where both eventually ended up. Apparently, at some point during the end of Burr’s VPship, Hamilton said something disparaging about Burr’s abilities as a politician and a man, and it got out into the public sphere. Burr demanded an apology, and Hamilton wouldn’t offer it. As these were reasonable men in enlightened times who didn’t have the option of just Twitter feuding, there was only one way it settle it: a duel.

If I remember my Bugs Bunny cartoons right, people used to walk around with these extremely fragile things called honor. If that honor was called into question even casually, they would take these little white gloves that they all wore (to carry the fragile honor) and slap each other’s faces before throwing the glove to the ground to instigate a duel. They would then meet somewhere at dawn where they would square off to the death using swords, pistols, and on one occasion a tractor trailer.

This time it was pistols, and the date was July 11, 1804. They chose a spot on the banks of the Hudson River in Weehauken, New Jersey, just across the river from Manhattan. The location, which is at the base of a cliff, was a popular site for dueling at the time. In fact, Hamilton’s own son had died in a duel there just three years previously.

There seems to be some confusion over the duel itself, which was witnessed by only two other people. Apparently Hamilton was the Han in this shooting scenario, but his shot went extremely high. However, he might have missed on purpose according to some inscrutable duel rule that didn’t really work out for him in the end. Burr sent his gunpowder-accelerated answer right into Hamilton’s abdomen. He died the next day.

Today, the top of that cliff overlooking the Weehauken Dueling Grounds is marked with a couple of plaques, a bust of Alexander Hamilton (even though he was the one who lost), and the supposed actual boulder on which they propped him up after being shot.

It’s located on Hamilton Avenue, a short residential street of pricey homes that parallels the edge of the cliff and offers an astounding view of the Hudson and the skyline of Manhattan beyond.

The bust faces the street and sits on a tall pedestal behind a metal gate that edges the length of the cliff. The rock itself, which is actually a boulder, is on the ground behind the pedestal. The boulder is rust-red, about the size of a bean bag chair, and looks like an altogether uncomfortable pillow for a dying man.

Behind and just below them both is a small paved dais. The gate was locked on our visit, so we couldn’t get to the dais, but other pictures show that the side of the boulder overlooking the river is engraved with the words:

Upon this stone rested the head of the patriot, soldier, statesman, and jurist Alexander Hamilton after the duel with Aaron Burr.

Elsewhere on the boulder seem carved less official pronouncements. I could make out the names of Burr and Hamilton, as well as others, carved randomly and shallowly onto the surface like graffiti.

Of course, other than those dubious indications, I assume from looking around online that nobody knows if this really is the rock that Hamilton reclined on while bleeding out. However, over the decades, possibly centuries, it’s at least become the rock that has been claimed for decades, possibly centuries, to be the one on which Hamilton bled out. And that, plus its great view, differentiates it from enough other rocks to merit a visit.