Pardee Butler had the courage to walk into Atchison, Kansas on August 16, 1855 and go around telling people that he favored a free Kansas and expected to vote to that effect. He further told the editor of the Squatter Sovereign, Robert S. Kelley, to his face that he cared not at all for the paper’s violent, often literally, tone. Kelley had just a few months before endorsed the whipping and driving from Kansas of another man who spoke against slavery. He came to Butler the next day at the head of a group of six armed men and challenged Butler to sign a collection of resolutions from the paper endorsing the whipping of that previous unfortunate and promising the same, or fitting with a noose, for any further “abolitionists” who dared come in their midst.
Butler, like any sane person, did not meet Kelley’s gang with a happy smile. However bravely he forged on until that point, now they had guns that they thought to use on him. He started reading the resolutions aloud to buy himself time and spotted a crowd outside the boarding house. Hoping for some impartial witnesses in the crowd, Butler decided on involving them. The version he gives in the Herald of Freedom has him simply get up and walk out. Butler’s Recollections more fully explains things:
Whatever should be done would be better done in the presence of witnesses. I said not a word, but going to the head of the stairs, where was my writing-stand and pen and ink, I laid the paper down and quickly walked down the stairs into the street.
Reading between the lines a bit, it sounds like Butler let on that he might sign the resolutions as a way to get around the gang. Then he dropped them on his writing desk and headed for the door. If the crowd did not include some friends, then at least he made it clear of the boarding house and could make a run for it. Butler doesn’t say that he planned any such thing, but given circumstances I can’t imagine it didn’t cross his mind. At the very least, moving outside gave him the option. Signing might have spared him, at the cost of his reputation, but also might have formed the ironic prologue to his lynching.
But the gang caught up to him on the street. He told the Herald:
Here they stopped me, and demanded “will you sign?” I said “No!” They seized me and dragged me to the river, cursing me for a d—-d abolitionist, and saying to me they were going to drown me.
At the river, the mob apparently hit a snag. In Recollections, Butler relates
But when we had got to the river they seemed to have got to the end of their programme, and there we stood. Then some little boys, anxious to see the fun go on, told me to get on a large cotton-wood stump close by and defend myself. I told the little fellows I did not know what I was accused of yet.
By this point, the crowd had grown to thirty or forty. Butler knew very well why the mob had him. But opening a discussion might buy him more time and the act could convince some who hadn’t heard him going about Atchison the day previous that the mob had an innocent, or at least a foolish, man rather than a slave-stealing abolitionist they must execute. Not everyone who endorses violent resolutions has it in them to practice what they preach. The hesitation at the river suggests that Kelley and company might have settled for giving Butler a scare, at least with so many additional witnesses about. The more Butler talked, the more he put a face on their victim and so invoked their sympathy. Coaxing such an emotion out of proslavery radicals might seem a thin reed to grasp, but they had him entirely in their power. Butler did not have the luxury of many options to choose from.