The Fuss and Pardee Butler, Part Five

Pardee Butler

Pardee Butler

I briefly and inadvertently published a not quite finished version of this post yesterday when meaning to save it. Sorry for any confusion, Gentle Readers.

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4

Robert S. Kelley’s mob took Pardee Butler down to the banks of the Missouri River. There they proposed to drown him for the heinous crimes of declaring that he favored a free Kansas, expected to vote accordingly, and did not much care for the violent tone of Kelley’s newspaper, the Squatter Sovereign. But on arriving at the river, the mob hesitated. Maybe they had an attack of conscience. Maybe the ringleaders didn’t know how far they could go with their mob. Maybe they didn’t like the fact that children had come to watch. Maybe they expected Butler to relent and recant. I don’t know that any of them shared their recollections with posterity, though I’m eager to hear if anybody does. They had, all things considered, attacked a white man. Even diehard proslavery communities had some limits when it came to members of the supposed superior race. Slavery, so they had it, liberated the white man from toil and freed him from mistreatment by tyrannical bosses. It didn’t quite do to contradict that dogma too often or conspicuously.

Some boys watching the festivities told Butler to defend himself. Butler pleaded that he had no idea what he had done. He knew very well, of course, but at least he could get the ringleaders on the record before witnesses. He mentioned wanting such witnesses in explaining why he bolted from the boarding house. It stands to reason he still had them in mind. The mob obliged, in a roundabout way, by interrogating him. Butler doesn’t mention this exchange in his letter to the Herald of Freedom. Where it appears in his Recollections, I expect that three decades have very much polished the dialog. That said, it runs quite similar to the proceedings of other mobs that I’ve read and a mob that wants to keep up its work must justify itself to onlookers, whether by terror or sweet reason. Thus an exchange in this vein seems quite likely. An unnamed person in the mob speaks first, then Butler:

“Did the Emigrant Aid Society send you here?”

“I came here because I had a mind to come. What did you come for?”

“Did you come to make Kansas a free State?”

“No, not primarily; but I shall vote to make Kansas a free State.”

“Are you a correspondent of the New York Tribune?”

“No; I have not written a line to the Tribune since I came to Kansas.”

Robert S. Kelley

Robert S. Kelley

Writing for Horace Greeley’s paper had gotten at least one person attacked back at the March elections. Proslavery men wanted their exploits know to extend the reach of the terror they hoped to engender, but they wanted the news to get out through proslavery organs. The Squatter Sovereign reports on Butler’s ordeal, but omits the fact that its editor played a major part in events. If things went poorly for him, Kelley could claim that Butler libeled him to the Herald of Freedom. For his own paper to cast Kelley in the starring role would make such a claim especially awkward if the matter ever came before a court of law. The Kansas courts might let it pass all the same, but why gamble?

Butler had not written for Horace Greeley, but the mob had caught him more or less red-handed. He admits in Recollections that he went to the Squatter Sovereign office and bought papers from Robert Kelley because it

had been so savage and barbarous, that I wanted to carry back to my friends in Illinois some evidence of what was going on.

That did not make Pardee Butler into a Greeley correspondent, but he planned the same as one. He would publicize the terror that sustained slavery and trampled the white man’s self-government to a northern audience. For this crime he richly deserved the rough justice of the mob.

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