LePique and Grandpré: The Hot Air Balloon Duel
NEW EPISODE! In 1808, a lover’s quarrel in Paris led to one of the most interesting duels ever fought. Monsieur LePique and Monsieur de Grandpré both fell in love with the same ballerina. So they did what anyone caught in a 19th century Parisian love triangle would do: they fought a duel via hot air balloon. In this episode, we tell the extremely French tale and then issue a quick quiz about duels to Professional Mindreader, Eric Dittelman!
This is a story about Monsieur LePique and Monsieur Grandpré. And no, it’s not about a fight between two hockey players, it’s a story from the early 19th century in Paris. Or rather… over Paris.
It was 1808. Napoleon Bonaparte was emperor. Back in the United States, the idea of burning coal for heating a home had just been invented. Spain’s King Ferdinand had just lost his throne to France, ending the Spanish Anglo War. The French Empire had been through several decades of turmoil after the 1789 revolution. Following a period of extreme violence carried out on anyone who didn’t support the revolution, Napoleon had been named emperor and had just erected the Arc de Triomphe. Paris was about to see rapid industrialization and progress. The arts flourished. And that’s where we meet our fair princess.
She wasn’t really a princess, but could have likely played one onstage. Mademoiselle Tirevit was a famed ballet dancer at the Paris Opera. It was said that many of the bachelors of Paris had been led into heartache after watching her delicate and sensual steps. In 1808, she was being kept by Monsieur de Grandpré. “Being kept” is a sort of antiquated phrase to describe a relationship and it usually has sort of an illicit undertone. In modern terms, Monsieur Grandpré was her…sugar daddy. They had entered into an ongoing relationship that could probably be better described as an arrangement.
But then enters Monsieur LePique. It turns out that LePique had been seeing Mademoiselle Tirevit as well and both men were now laying claim to her heart…and her bed. Upon discovering this, you might think that both men would shame the woman and want nothing more to do with her. But no. Those sensual, seductive ballet steps were so enamoring that they decided they would fight for her. And this was 1808 Paris, France. That meant their fight would be a duel.
Duels were an incredible common way to settle disputes among gentlemen. According to an Ariel Roth’s editorial, “The Dishonor of Dueling,” during the reign of Henry the Fourth, more than 4,000 French men died from dueling. It was common for the topic of morning conversation to be “Do you know who fought yesterday?”
But this wouldn’t be any old normal duel. For Granpré and LePique, they came up with a duel that was as special and artistic as the woman they wanted. They’d duel in matching hot air balloons.
Duels were common in 19th century France. Duels from Hot Air Balloons were not. But that’s what these men decided to do in one of the most French decisions in history. If you’re familiar with Hamilton the musical, you’ve no doubt learned that each man is to appoint a “second,” a man who is a close confidant who arranges the terms. In this case, the seconds of Monsieurs Grandpré and LePique arranged to have two identical hot air balloons constructed. They would lift at the exact same time and at the same speed. Once a signal was given, the men would face each other and fire.
Here’s where this duel differed from the traditional duel. The men wouldn’t fire at each other. They’d fire at the gigantic target that was the other man’s balloon. It was quite common in a traditional duel for the men to miss their target. In this case, it would be much harder to miss. But a traditional dueling pistol would have little to no effect on a giant balloon. So instead, each men would take with them a blunderbuss. This was a short barreled rifle with that was flared at the end. They would either shoot large caliber or shot, like a shotgun, which was probably the case here. To raise the stakes even further, each man’s second would accompany him in the air. And for the winner, Mademoiselle Tirevit agreed to, quote “bestow her smile upon the survivor of the two, if the other was killed, or at al events” It was thought that there was even a chance that the loser of the duel would survive as the winds may gently carry a deflating balloon to the ground. It wouldn’t turn out that way.
One month after the arrangement, on June 22, 1808, a crowd gathered at the gardens of Tuileries to witness the duel. The ropes holding back the balloons were cut and they lifted into the air. There was very little wind, so the balloons stayed in sight of the onlookers, raising into the air, around 80 yards apart. When they reached a height of about half-mile above the earth, the signal was given.
Monsieur LePique fired first. He aimed his blunderbuss at Grandpré’s balloon and missed entirely. LePique and his second watched in horror as Grandpré pointed his gun back at the massive balloon above. Monsieur Grandpré didn’t miss his shot. LePique’s balloon was punctured and deflated almost instantly, sending the two men falling violently toward the Paris neighborhoods below. The description in the papers said LePique and his second were dashed to pieces on a house top. Unfortunately, history never recorded what happened to the relationship of Monsieur Grandpré and Mademoiselle Tirevit. But as for LePique, it’s certain that no one in history has ever fallen harder for a woman.
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