The Fuss and Pardee Butler, Part Two

Pardee Butler

Pardee Butler

Before I go forward with Pardee Butler’s story, I should clarify where I’ve taken it from. I began intending to use primarily the September 8, 1855 issue of the Herald of Freedom. Butler wrote in describing events shortly after they transpired. His Recollections came out thirty years later and benefited from the editorial hand of his daughter. Between the normal frailty of human memory, the desire of children to have their parents remembered well, and the very different political environment of the time, I would normally weigh the earlier account more heavily. I ended up doing otherwise as it became clear that, even if the later account includes some embroidery, it also includes details that Butler alluded to but did not fully recount in 1855. For example, Butler has Robert Kelley as the chief protagonist accosting him in the boarding house. The version in the paper emphasizes Kelley’s role so heavily that one can miss that he refers to the initial party with plural pronouns. “They” came up to him and demanded he sign a list of resolutions. It seems reasonable in light of that to augment the account with the fuller details of six men with guns. I hope my switching back and forth between sources, which I shall try to mark clearly, doesn’t cause any confusion. If it does, feel free to get in touch with me via the comments.

We left Pardee Butler spying a group of witnesses waiting for him outside the boarding house. He reasoned that whatever happened to him, best it happen in public view. Someone in the crowd could speak up in his defense. Kelley and company might have gone too far for the other residents of Atchison. At the very least, he could make it clear that the proslavery men accosted him rather than the other way around. But Kelley’s gang demanded that Butler sign on to a series of resolutions from Kelley’s paper, the Squatter Sovereign. If he complied, they might have just let him go. This might sound obscure to us, but if Butler proved a problem thereafter, Kelley and company could wave his signature around and so prove him a liar or coward. Putting your name to something could mean  much more in those days than it does now. They would also enjoy the satisfaction of enforcing their political dominance by coercing conversion, however limited, out of an enemy.

But where did those resolutions come from? Why them and not others? Butler’s Recollections includes an explanation of the situation that prompted them. An enslaved woman owned by one Grafton Thomasson drowned herself. This could not, of course, come down to anything to do with her status. Some abolitionist had to get it in her head that she should do such a thing. Butler thought otherwise and discloses that Thomasson liked his alcohol and became “desperate and dangerous” when in his cups. The minister declines to speculate as to what happened between Thomasson and his slave, save to remark that it never became public. One can read between the lines.

Robert S. Kelley

Robert S. Kelley

Out of this matter arose some dispute between Thomasson and a J.W.B. Kelly, a lawyer late of Cincinnati. It appears from context that Kelly suggested that slavery itself prompted the woman to drown herself, or perhaps specific misconduct of her owner. Thomasson would not stand idly by and let such words pass unchallenged. Thus

Thomasson, a great big bully, flogged Kelly, who was a small man, of slender build, and weak in body. A public meeting was called, in which resolutions were adopted praising this big bully for flogging this weak and helpless man; and then this Kelly was ordered to leave, and was not seen in Kansas afterwards.

Pardee Butler knew the resolutions from reading the paper. Kelley’s use of them made it clear what they intended for the minister to see himself in J.W.B. Kelly’s shoes: sign on and submit, or sign on for a flogging and running out of Kansas. If the community would back a large man, a known violent drunkard, against tiny little Kelly, then they would have little trouble giving a minister his licks.


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