Patrick Laughlin came back from the Big Springs Convention with two missions: organize a mail route through his area of Kansas and found two cells of the Kansas Legion. If the first duty constituted a burden to him, he didn’t tell the Howard Committee. Laughlin completed forming the first cell the day he returned to Doniphan and then set out to points north to arrange the second. On the way, he changed his mind:
after being out about six miles I returned back to Doniphan, where I broke open the seal and read the constitution and ritual for the first time. I did not organize any in the county afterwards. At the meeting at which I was appointed delegate to the Big Springs convention the arguments of Dr. G.A. Cutler, C.W. Steward, A. Larzelere, B. Harding, and others, were to urge the necessity of a secret society, something on the order of the Know-nothings, by which they could unite their force and labor more effectually against the pro-slavery party. This idea was received with acclamation by all of them except myself. I being an Irishman myself by birth, was opposed to the measure, as it was too much like Know-nothingism, and told them if they pressed it they would find me their most inveterate enemy. They said they had better do without it; that they were too feeble to have any disturbance in their ranks.
According to Laughlin, he got promises from his free state friends that they would found no secret society. His opposition makes perfectly good sense in light of the rise of the Know-Nothings in the middle 1850s and his Irish birth. But then he went armed with that assurance off to Big Springs. On the way, he delivered a pair of sealed books and oversaw the formation of a chapter of the Kansas Legion. Laughlin says that he broke the seals on the books, but apparently didn’t then read them. Nor did he have time to see the group in Oceana organize itself. What did he think he had done, if not helped form a secret society?
Of course, hindsight makes that judgment easy. Laughlin might have just trusted too much in his friends’ word. He says nothing to the Howard Committee about what he believed the books to contain when he went off with the first pair, but he understood himself as forming some kind of covert group at least by the time he came back to Doniphan. He might have missed the significance of his time in Oceana out of haste, but he literally had instructions to do the same job in Doniphan and elsewhere at his leisure and got halfway done before turning back. Maybe it just took that long for his doubts to come to the surface. He could have just gotten too curious to resist opening a book and reading it.
His testimony suggests another concern as well. At Lawrence,
When Mr. Brown showed me the rifles at Lawrence he told me that they would continue to send arms, men, and means to make Kansas a free State by force, if necessary. He told me that these arms and munitions of war were sent as dry goods to the agents of the Emigrant Aid Society, who received them and gave them out to the people, and gave as a reason why they were thus secretly sent was that they might not be detected by the United States officers.
Laughlin might have imagined the Oceana group as just some kind of local militia with whom his friends communicated. Seeing the arms ready for distribution must have made the affair look far more organized and hierarchical. The fact that an Emigrant Aid Society man, Charles Robinson, Laughlin surmised, had put himself two weeks’ behind schedule to get the guns through in secret couldn’t have helped. Laughlin had an aversion to secret societies and George Washington Brown told him that the society he had involved himself with, wittingly or not, secretly ran guns into Kansas.
To underline the point,
Brown’s instructions to me was, that when we got thirty men in each regiment we must send a delegate to Boston, but that he must first go to Lawrence, where he would get letters of introduction to the people in Boston, who would furnish him with as many arms as we had men in the neighborhood to bear them, and that we would get them gratis.
That makes for rather more than a simple social club.