So for the past several years, I have been researching this unique character, and the first time I heard his name, I knew that he must have a bizarre story. I was reading a book on famous duels, guns, not swords. Each chapter was divided into tales of various battles between two individuals. Some knife fights, but mostly it was iron and smoke. The chapter title that caught my attention was, “The Black Knight of the South.” I mean, come on, I gotta read that.
Alexander Kieth McClung was born in Virginia in 1811. He was classically educated, joined the service at a young age, resigning after nearly killing a superior officer in his first duel, and was later trained as a lawyer. The bloodshed begins after a move to Jackson, MS. in the 1830s where the young lawyer was attempting to build a practice.
Dueling was a regular practice in the country well into the early 1900s. The most famous duel was between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, and although it’s a great story (SPOILERS: Hamilton is not a good shot), I like the ones you find in the shadows. The Black Knight would earn his fame by systematically executing nearly a dozen men over ten years. I can only imagine what it must be like to be known as such a deadly killer. In fact, there is a story that later in life, after McClung had issued a superior tongue lashing, the offended party responded with a challenge, tossing his card at McClung’s face. McClung stood, offered his card in exchange, to which the challenger kindly asked for his to be returned, and graciously apologized for offending the infamous Black Knight.
His first recorded duel that ended in death was with a local lawyer and politician in Jackson, MS. The two men became foes shortly after McClung arrived in Jackson. Alexander was considered a terrible lawyer, but his uncle was the fourth Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, Justice John Marshal. Therefore, he had quite a bit of clout in the legal realm. However, his opponent, Gen. Allen, broke the confidence of McClung by disclosing a private conversation. When McClung accused Gen. Allen of the offense, he struck back. Allen announced at the local bar in front of more than a hundred patrons that McClung was a liar and a scoundrel. McClung attempted to browbeat Gen. Allen in response. Allen receiving the opening that he was likely looking for from the onset of the quarrel, sent McClung a challenge, declaring the terms of the meeting.
The selection of weapons was usually the right of the one who is challenged, but Allen, secure and well known in his shooting ability with a pistol, was determined. The two men were to meet later that same evening in a grassy field next to the Pearl River. The men would be positioned eighty yards apart, given four pistols, and a bowie knife. Each gun would contain a single shot, and the blades were to finish one another off, should the firing weapons not serve that purpose.
Allen, knowing McClung was a hothead, assumed that he could win by preserving his shots while McClung rushed him in a bloodlust, firing his weapons dry. Unfortunately for Allen, he was incorrect. Later that evening as the two men began advancing on one another after the given signal, it was Allen who allowed his nerves to get the better of him. The Black Knight cooly walked towards his prey. When they were within thirty yards of one another, Allen shouted, “Now we will see who the coward is!” McClung responded, “Yes, we will.” While Allen was pulling out his knife, McClung placed a bullet in his brain.
Soon after that, the Black Knight went on a rampage of duels getting mixed up in an altercation with the Menifee family. He executed nearly a dozen of the Menifee men in a decade long feud. It is during this vendetta that we get the story of the most notable shot that the Black Knight ever made.
John Menifee, the first of many Menifee men to see the barrel of McClung’s gun pointing in their direction, was a crack shot with a short rifle. So, when the two men got into a tussle, and Alexander issued the challenge, Menifee accepted and selected his favorite weapon. McClung must have been concerned, as he was not a good shot with a rifle. They were to meet later the next day, near the same location along the Pearl River where he had finished off Gen. Allen.
The two men squared off at one hundred yards. At the signal, the two men raised their weapons and fired. It is reported that Menifee’s rifle went off first and McClung was shortly after. A moment of stillness as the rifle cracks echoed in the air, smoke rising from their barrels. Menifee slides to his knees and finally crumbles over, landing face-first in the dirt. The Black Knight had another victim.
It wasn’t just the distance that resulted in the notoriety of McClung after the duel, it was his aim. At first, Menifee’s second cried foul and issued his own challenge. Directly above John Menifee’s eyes were two holes, and the crowd thought Alexander had cheated. It took some time to quiet down the mob and judge precisely what happened. Upon further examination it was discovered that the Black Knight’s rifle ball had struck Menifee’s iron sights, causing the bullet to split in two, both entering his skull.
Stories go on through the years, exploring his exploits with women, becoming an officer in the war with Mexico against Santa Anna, and next to a Bolivian ambassador. As I continue to dig the thread just seems to get longer. I haven’t, however, been able to locate that very first book that I read about him so many years ago. I made copies of the chapter which I have carried around in a folder for nearly fifteen years, but unfortunately, there is no title or author information on the page. Just tales of the smell of gunpowder.
It took some time, and a good deal of patience on the part of my family as we drove around an ancient cemetery in Vicksburg, MS. last year. However, after a good deal of searching, we found his grave. At the young age of forty-four, he bit down on his service revolver from his days as an officer and shot himself. Rumors are he had a unique chair constructed with a split in the back, allowing his open skull to fall backward and avoid the bloody mess spoiling his favorite suit … black, of course.