The Fuss and William Phillips, Part Two

The Howard Committee

The Howard Committee

Part One

I hope yesterday’s post did not collapse into too much narrative spaghetti while I mused about interpretation without relating the events in question. Doing the latter seems exactly one day overdue.

The first legislative elections in Kansas took place on March 30, 1855. Petitions to contest those election returns had to hit Andrew Reeder’s desk by midnight on April 4, 1855. William Phillips, the Leavenworth lawyer and newspaper correspondent, got together the signatures he needed and sent off his affidavit in time. This did not much endear him to the local proslavery men or their Missourian neighbors. Adam Fisher and Matthew France both clearly understood his subsequent treatment, and the risk they might take in objecting to further Missourian election stealing, as relating to that.

The men who seized Phillips told it differently. A. Payne reported that a public meeting got things going on April 30, quite a while after Phillips sent off his protest. Even if we allowed for a very slow spread of the news, one can hardly imagine that Leavenworth just heard of Andrew Reeder’s April 6 decision to set aside their district’s election and consequently settled on plotting revenge. Payne presided over the meeting and received appointment to a committee it formed to enact its resolutions. The Howard Report includes those resolutions with his testimony:

Whereas, by facts elicited on the coroner’s inquest held over the body of Malcolm Clark, as well as from other circumstances that have come to our knowledge, it appears that William Phillips, of Leavenworth, was an accessory to the murder of one of our most respected citizens; and whereas, the conduct of said Phillips, heretofore, has fully demonstrated his unworthiness as a citizen or gentleman; therefore,

Resolved, That, in accordance with the expressed desire of the indignation meeting to-night, William Phillips be ordered to leave this Territory by two o’clock, Thursday evening next; and that a committee of ten be appointed to notify him instanter of the requisition of this meeting.

Resolved, That the notice be written and signed by the committee, who shall proceed, immediately after the adjournment, to the residence of William Phillips, and deliver it to him in person.

Resolved, That the course to be pursued in regard to the other abolitionists and to the other matters of importance, be left for the decision of the meeting of the citizens, to be held next Thursday.

The Howard Report has the notice delivered to Phillips as well, but it lists no causes for his exile. The notice bore the signature of a James M. Lyle, who also formed part of the committee that handed it over to Phillips. At the end of May he would serve as the proslavery judge of election when Leavenworth went back to the polls. Also in interesting and compromising facts about one’s impartiality, A. Payne won a seat in the Kansas legislature back on March 30.

The third resolution quoted speaks volumes, thoroughly refuting the notion put forward by D.J. Johnson that politics had nothing to do with Phillips’ treatment. That the resolutions appear over Johnson’s signature further makes it clear that he understood acting against Phillips as fundamentally linked to action against antislavery men. That said, we can’t ignore the accusation that he had something to do with the death of the aforementioned respected citizen. What happened there?

Payne would say only that people “supposed” Phillips an accessory to the murder of a Malcolm Clark by Cole McRea. One would expect more confidence from a man who later testified to his presence on the scene, also on April 30.

I was at the squatter’s meeting held on the 30th of April, at which Clark was shot. While some one was speaking at that meeting, McCrea interrupted the speaker frequently. I remarked to Mr. Clark, who was standing near me, that McCrea was not a Delaware squatter, that he lived on the “government cut-off,” as it was called, and that I thought only those interested in the Delaware lands should participate in the meeting. Clark remarked that, if McCrea was not a Delaware squatter, he would request him to retire and not to interrupt the meeting any more.

Had they convened to discuss their depriving of the Delaware of their lands, and McCrea had no interest in that land, they had a point. Had the Delaware already lost those lands, then the security of claims on them also seems not much of McCrea’s business. Perhaps some dispute over where the boundary ran existed. Perhaps McCrea’s claim adjoined the lands or he expected them to favor developments which he felt would reduce the value of or undermine its value. The testimony doesn’t say, but this sounds very much like an argument over land rights.

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Andrew Horatio Reeder

McCrea agreed to go if the meeting wished him gone. They held a voice vote, but the chair could not decide on a clear majority. He thus called for a division to settle things. It came down against McCrea.

McCrea remarked that it was a damned fraud, and that it was through the instrumentality of Malcolm Clark. Clark remarked, “it is not so, sir.” McCrea told him it was a God damned lie. Clark made towards him, and I saw McCrea attempting to draw his pistol. Clark seemed to be picking up something, but I cannot say what. At this time, Clark must have seen McCrea in the act of drawing his pistol, being nearer to him than I was. Just at this time the crowd rushed in between myself and the pistol, and Clark exclaimed, “the scoundrel has shot me,” and saw McCrea running with a pistol in hand. Clark died in a few moments.

I think that I would have other words for someone who shot me than scoundrel. I suspect Clark may have as well, but people had different scruples about what they put in print or testified to in court back then. Furthermore, ‘scoundrel’ carried far more punch as an insult at the time. While I don’t propose to excuse McCrea, I think it worth remembering that Clark apparently charged him intending violence before McCrea brought a gun into things. Had events transpired differently, the Howard Report might very well have a section titled “The Murder of Cole McRea” rather than “The Lynching of William Phillips.”

What did any of this have to do with Phillips?

The general rumor prevailed, and I believe it, that Phillips had advised the killing of Clark; and the rumor prevailed, also, that he had been seen to hand McCrea something which was supposed to be a pistol.

Payne believed this, but note he doesn’t make any claim to have seen or heard any such thing. Nor did any other witness to the meeting come forward to declare that they saw Phillips in flagrante delicto. I can’t speak to the origin of this rumor, but given how quickly McCrea vanishes from the narrative one imagines he got out of town and did not come back. That left a dead body and demand for a scapegoat.

As Phillips made himself obnoxious to the the proslavery men of Leavenworth with his petition for a special election, and he apparently attended the meeting, who better to blame? Most of them likely already imagined secret abolitionist militias intending violence, and would see little unusual in using violence to protect slavery from white dissent. It would take only a small step to see this as the beginning of something larger and act accordingly. The resolutions speak to how they understood themselves as acting against Phillips in conjunction with their opposition to a free Kansas.

Phillips’ work as a correspondent may have entered into it as well. I haven’t found what papers he wrote to or any of his work to say for sure. Back at the March election a mob seized at least one man on the belief that he would report their deeds to the papers. One can’t deny that the mob convened their meeting the same night as the murder and so their perception of Phillips as an accessory absolutely informed their subsequent actions, but clearly they had more in mind than Malcolm Clark and Cole McRea.


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