John Rowan was known throughout his life as an avid gamester. On January 29, 1801, Rowan joined Dr. James Chambers and three other men for a game of cards at Duncan McLean's Tavern in Bardstown. After several beers and games of whist, Chambers suggested playing Vingt-et-un for money instead. Rowan had determined not to gamble during this session of gaming, but impaired by the alcohol, he agreed. After a few hands, an argument broke out between Chambers and Rowan. The exact nature of the argument is not known. Some accounts claim it was over who was better able to speak Latin and Greek; others suggest that general insults were exchanged between the two men. A brief scuffle followed the disagreement.
How the matter escalated to a duel is also the subject of some uncertainty. In his biography of Benjamin Hardin, Lucious P. Little recounts that Chambers immediately challenged Rowan to a duel. According to Little, Rowan, embarrassed at his behavior, refused the challenge and repeatedly apologized for his actions, but Chambers was insistent on the duel and continued hurling insults of growing severity at Rowan until Rowan accepted the challenge. A letter from George M. Bibb, published a year after the event and reprinted in 1912 in the Register of the Kentucky State Historical Society, claims that Chambers' challenge was issued through a letter delivered to Rowan by Chambers' friend, Major John Bullock, on January 31, 1801. Bibb claims that he and Rowan had, after the night of the incident, gone to nearby Bullitt County on business, that Rowan had returned first, and that Rowan showed Bibb the letter upon his return on February 1.
Bullock served as Chambers' second for the duel; Bibb acted as second for Rowan. According to Bibb, he and Bullock met on February 1 to discuss the parameters for the duel. Bullock proposed that the matter be dropped, but Bibb insisted that Chambers would have to retract his challenge, to which Bullock would not consent. The duel was held February 3, 1801, near Bardstown. Both combatants missed with their first shots. Both men fired again, and Rowan's second shot struck Chambers, wounding him severely. (Bibb's account says that Chambers was struck in the left side; other accounts state that the shot hit Chambers in the chest.) Rowan then offered his carriage to take Chambers to town for medical attention, and Chambers asked that Rowan not be prosecuted. Despite medical aid, Chambers died the following day.
Public sentiment was against Rowan in the matter of his duel with Chambers. Soon after the duel, friends of Chambers formed a posse and rode toward Rowan's house. Rowan concocted a ruse whereby he dressed a family slave in his coat and hat and sent him riding from the house on horseback. The posse was fooled into thinking the slave was Rowan and gave chase, but the slave escaped and Rowan's life was spared as well. Days later, the owner of the land where the duel had taken place swore out a warrant for Rowan's arrest for murder. Some accounts hold that, as Commonwealth's Attorney, Rowan's friend Felix Grundy would have been responsible for prosecuting the case against Rowan and that Grundy resigned the position to avoid prosecuting his friend. Grundy's biographer, John Roderick Heller, admits that this was possible, although no evidence exists to confirm it. Heller also points out that Grundy was Commonwealth's Attorney not in Nelson County (the location of Bardstown), but in neighboring Washington County at the time. Joseph Hamilton Daveiss and Colonel William Allen served as counsel for Rowan. The judge opined that there was insufficient evidence to send the case to a grand jury, and Rowan was released.
my old kentucky homecountryusaautumn