The Fuss and William Phillips, Part Five

William Phillips

William Phillips

Parts 123, 4

We left William Phillips crossing the river into Missouri as a prisoner of the Leavenworth mob. Unfortunately, Howard Report testimony falls silent here. Nobody who took part in Phillips’ lynching or witnessed it personally cared to tell them about it. George F. Warren saw Phillips taken and volunteered for a posse to rescue him, but by the time all of three men got together, the mob had Phillips on the water and out of reach. Etcheson’s account in Bleeding Kansas: Contested Liberty in the Civil War Era refers to some New York Times articles I don’t have access to, so I can’t draw on them to fill in the details.

Etcheson also cites a book with a remarkably nineteenth century title In Perils by mine own Countrymen: Three Years on the Kansas Border, by a Clergyman of the Episcopal Church. One can’t fault John McNamara, who Etcheson outs in her endnote, for the anonymity. He published in 1856. I couldn’t find anything about him online, given his common name, but he may very well have still lived in Kansas at the time. That said, he cheekily included on the title page the following line from the Merchant of Venice:

What judgment shall I dread, doing no wrong?

McNamara answered his own question in part starting on page 50, where he takes up Phillips’ story. Before getting into this, I should add that reading McNamara requires some caution. He tells a significant part of this story through dialog. This makes for dramatic reading, but I have my doubts that he ever witnessed any such conversations. They scan as a narrative device, not straight reporting.

McNamara begins with the editors of the Herald, William Rives Pollard and William Adams. Each had put their signatures on the notice for Phillips to leave Leavenworth. The mob took Phillips to their office on discovering he had not actually quit Kansas:

“I tell you what we will do,” said each to the other, “let us betray Phillips to cross the Missouri; we shall have the tar and feathers all ready for him on the Missouri side. “We will strip him, over there, on the solitary river-bottom, clip his hair off, coat him with tar, and apply the feathers. we shall then ride him on a rail through the streets of Weston, while a drum shall be beaten, and the chivalry will cry out ‘victory'”

One struggles to read this without imagining the editors rubbing their hands together and also contemplating putting a woman on some train tracks. Whether Pollard and Adams took the lead in the plot or otherwise, it came to pass:

Phillips was enticed over the river. They did to him all that was desired. He was brought to Weston in that awful plight. They cut off the hair of his head, but his strength did not fail him-he was a Samson still. His body looked contemptible, but the soul of the man was there; they could not tar and feather that!

From Warren’s testimony, we know that Phillips received his enticement at gunpoint. Once they had their way with Phillips, shaving half his head, applying the tar and feathers and riding him around town on a rail, the mob had further plans:

Col. Lewis Burns now approached him, and tried to wheedle him to sign a paper declaring that he would leave the Territory of Kansas.

“No, sir,” said the hero, “I am in your power, you can put me into the Missouri, if you please, but I will not voluntarily leave the Territory!”

A negro was now brought forward, and commanded to sell Phillips at auction.

“How much, gentlemen, for a full-blooded abolitionist, dyed in de wool, tar and feathers, and all?”


A quarter-of-a-cent was bid, and Phillips was sold!

Peter from Louisiana

Peter from Louisiana

The auctioning may seem just strange to us, but think about what it said to the men involved. A black person was fit only for slavery, bought and sold at will, beaten and raped at whim. By having a black man auction Phillips off as a slave, even if only rhetorically, the mob told all who learned of it that they saw abolitionists as less than property. A black person might occupy so inferior a position in their minds as to deserve and even require enslavement, an almost infinite gulf between that person’s value and that of any white, but Phillips stood so low in their esteem as to open up a similar gap beneath him and a black man. A slave could do work for the owner’s profit, but Phillips would not serve even for that.

At most generous, this affair paints Phillips as a pest. They may not have killed him that day, but they might easily enough graduate from trying to shoo him away to swatting him dead. A committee in Leavenworth gathered after all this and unanimously passed resolutions submitted by A. Payne thanking the lynch mob and declaring

That we heartily endorse the action of the committee of citizens that shaved, tarred and feathers, rode on a rail, and had sold by a negro, William Phillips, the moral perjurer.

In their eyes, Phillips perjured himself by swearing an affidavit that Missouri men stole the Leavenworth election back in March. By this point, weeks later, dead Malcolm Clark no longer entered into things at all.

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