Hauling Pardee Butler down to the river, threatening to drown him, and conducting a kangaroo court staffed by well-lubricated hecklers only went so far. Having done all that, the mob had to decide what to do to the minister. Butler offered, by his own admission, to sign on to an “impartial” report of proceedings, printed thereafter in the Squatter Sovereign, which would have involved something close to complete capitulation. Like many people of any era, he had grown accustomed to breathing.
Between the anarchic questioning, Butler’s proposition, the addition of new members and spectators, and, one hopes, some natural reluctance to kill another person, the mob had come to differ on their next step. Ira Norris “a Yankee by birth and education” advised Butler to get away and stay gone, for his own good. Butler answered that he would go, but would also return as
“I cannot leave; I own real estate here close by Atchison, in the State of Missouri, and I have a claim on Stranger creek; I cannot leave.”
The mob could understand that. They had their own financial interests which had, in fact, brought them to seize Butler and haul him to the river. Men like him threatened the money they had invested, or hoped to invest, in slaves. Someone proposed that Butler empower a third party to close out his business in Kansas:
I said I will neither sell my claim through an agent, nor in my own proper person. If you do not take my life, I intend to live on it.
Very well, then. Butler could stay on his claim, but should also stay away from Atchison. Butler insisted that he would come and go as he pleased. The mob presented him with a generous counter:
“If you come back again to Atchison, we will hang you.” They offered to show me the very tree on which they would hang me.
Would Butler consent at least to keeping quiet? Live in the country. Come and go from Atchison. Vote as he liked. (And good luck doing that.) But no more antislavery talk.
“No; I will speak when I please.” I said, “Gentlemen, I have done you no wrong. I had as good right to come here as you, and have as good a right to speak my mind as you. I shall do my duty as I understand it; now you do the same. You are many, I am but one man-dispose of me as you think best. I ask no favors of you.”
Even granting that Butler probably cast himself in the best possible light, one can’t deny that he accomplished quite a feat in turning the mob around. While still very much their victim, the minister had also made himself into their opposite number in negotiations. The ringleaders went apart from the rest and had some sort of vote. In his Recollections, Butler confesses that he had no idea what passed between them. However, he had news that he felt he should relay all the same. John Stringfellow later told a historian that he had it from Robert S. Kelly himself that
to this day it is probably known but to few persons that a decided verdict of death by hanging was rendered; and furthermore, that Mr. Kelley, the teller, by making false returns to the excited mob, saved Mr. Butler’s life.
I doubt it. Stringfellow and Kelley alike had a vested interest in portraying the editor as the hero of the day. Maybe Kelley thought that Butler had enough of a scare to leave and never return all the same. People do change their minds, but it strains credulity to suggest that the man who instigated the entire affair suddenly turned around and spared his chosen victim against the manifest will of the mob he had called together. The fact that the business arose out of Butler’s criticism of Kelley’s and Stringfellow’s paper would further add a personal edge to it, possibly sufficient to convince the mob that they’d been taken in by a private dispute.