Charleston Duels of Philadelphia Street

philadelphia alley charleston sc

The Charleston County Courthouse, located near Washington Square, stands as a testament to how justice was done in historic Charleston, SC. But “justice” in Charleston wasn’t always handled so prettily. For many years in the United States, the duel was considered a last resort for resolving issues between two parties—perhaps nowhere more intensely than in Charleston. One Dr. David Ramsey, a physician at the beginning of the 19th century, blamed the heat for “an irritable temper which made men say and do things thoughtlessly.” Whatever the reason, pistol duels are no doubt a part of Charleston’s rich history—and it’s made for some notorious legends along the way.

“The Whistling Ghost” of Philadelphia Alley

One of the most infamous stories of dueling in Charleston, SC focuses on the rivalry between Dr. Joseph Brown Ladd and Ralph Isaacs. The two had an infamous duel in 1786.

Ladd was a pleasant man known for whistling his way down the streets—leading to the nickname of the “Whistling Doctor.” Isaacs, at one point a friend of Ladd’s, eventually had a quarrel with the Whistling Doctor over an actress to whom both men took a liking. Finally, Isaacs insulted Ladd to the point that even friends pressured him to challenge Isaacs to a duel. Although Ladd had a shot at Isaacs, he intentionally missed so as not to kill his old friend. Isaacs had the same idea, aiming low. Even so, a leg wound and subsequent infection proved too much for the Whistling Doctor, who died two weeks later from resulting complications.

The area where they dueled—Philadelphia Alley—is now said to play host to the “Whistling Ghost,” though reports as to the actual ghost’s presence there will certainly vary.

The Cash-Shannon Duel, 1880

You read that right: duels were still being fought in Charleston toward the end of the 19th century. The Cash-Shannon Duel was among the most infamous in this time.

An argument between the two men had gone on for over two years. The feud included a variety of run-ins, lawsuits, and the like. Finally, when Cash’s wife was accused of fraud, she apparently was so speechless that she fell over and died, leading Cash to challenge Shannon to the duel. This one would take place in a field, not necessarily Philadelphia Alley. After all of the heartbreak and turmoil that marked the rivalry, Shannon and Cash still found the politeness to execute the duel like “gentlemen.” What followed next was not so gentlemanly, however, ending in Cash shooting Shannon dead.

The infamous duel hit the city of Charleston particularly hard, and the practice was outlawed soon after. Even so, Charleston duels have made their mark on the local history of the city.

See More of Charleston’s History Today

If you’re interested in finding out more about what makes this city’s history so unique, book a tour with Charleston Carriage Works to explore Charleston’s historic district in a horse-drawn carriage and hear more tales of its past.