Feisty and with a definite flair for the dramatic, the French are legendary for using duels to settle disagreements and defend their honor. In fact it is said that Louis XIII granted a whopping 8,000 pardons for “murders associated with duels.” But in 1808, a different kind of face-off took place in the skies above Paris.
It involved two Frenchmen: Monsieur de Grandpré and Monsieur de Pique. Both had been secretly bedding Mademoiselle Tirevit, a renowned dancer at the Paris Opera. It transpired that, while she was being kept by de Grandpré, Mlle.Tirevit began seeing de Pique for on the side.
It was decided that the winner of the duel would win her dainty, manicured hand — or more eloquently put: Mademoiselle Tirevit would “bestow her smiles on the survivor.”
The contest was to take place 2,000 feet in the air, with each man firing a blunderbuss at the other man’s balloon. Yes, you read that right: The men weren’t going to aim at each other — they were trying to shoot down much larger targets: each other’s balloon.
Apparently, the arrogant Frenchmen believed that a traditional showdown would be too, well, commonplace and unimaginative. How much more intriguing, they reasoned, to turn their testosterone-fueled battle into a mid-air dogfight.
The idea was that the winning shot would hit the balloon, which in turn would cause gas to escape and bring the blimp — and its doomed occupants — down in a crumpled heap of humiliating (not to mention potentially deadly) defeat.
On the morning of May 3rd in Paris’s Tuileries Gardens, the two men climbed into their identical hot air balloon baskets. Each was allowed a shotgun and a co-pilot to help him operate the balloon. Which means, incredibly, that each man’s respective sidekick fully expected to die if his guy had lousy aim.
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The cords securing the balloons to the ground were cut and the balloons ascended into the air as a crowd of curious spectators, many of whom simply thought they were watching a friendly balloon race, cheered them on.
The balloons rose to a half a mile off the ground and were separated by about eighty yards when the signal was given from below. The duel was officially on. De Pique got off the first shot, but inexplicably failed to hit his enormous target. Pretty funny, were it not for the tragic consequences.
Grandpré then returned fire, faring much better. He hit his mark, collapsing de Pique’s balloon which descended earthward with “fearful rapidity,” sending both he and his faithful, yet ill-fated, co-pilot to their untimely deaths. No, it wasn’t pretty: When the balloon hit the ground, they were, as one observer somewhat indelicately described it, “dashed to pieces on a housetop.”
Grandpré celebrated his gutsy (though not particularly hard-fought) victory by sending his hot-air balloon soaring even higher into the clouds, before returning to earth with his trusty co-pilot — presumably to claim his prize, the lovely Mademoiselle Tirevit.
Barbara Stepko is a New Jersey-based freelance editor and writer who has contributed to AARP magazine and the Wall Street Journal.