The Blue Lodges, Part One

John Sherman

John Sherman

Happy Juneteenth. I plan to write something on the depressingly traditional way one white American chose to celebrate it this year for Monday.

Having spend a fair bit of time on the free state militias that grew up in Kansas during 1855, it only seems fair to explore their opposite number. They operated as Blue Lodges, Sons of the South, the Social Band, the Friend’s Society, and probably under other names. The Howard Report includes testimony from eleven men on secret societies, but most of them spoke about the free state side rather than their antagonists. Only Jordan Davidson, John C. Prince, William P. Richardson, and John Stringfellow had anything to say about border ruffian organization.

Of those four, Richardson proved the least candid. His testimony consumes only a single page. John Sherman, brother of a then unremarkable officer named William, asked if Richardson belonged to any secret society aimed at “the extension of slavery into any territory of the United States”. Richardson answered in a remarkable subversion of the verbosity of the age:

I decline answering that question.

Even if Richardson would not admit to membership, would he testify that such a society existed?

I decline answering that question.

Sherman pressed on, ignoring the denials. Did such a group have anything to do with elections in Kansas? Did they, perhaps, send cash or recruit voters to go over for the day?

I decline answering that question.

Then Sherman finally dragged a new sentence out of Richardson.

Question. Would your answer to these questions, by the rules or obligations of such a society, impose upon you any penalty or danger of violence, or would it tend to criminate you?

Answer. It would subject me to no pains or penalties. I think it would be improper in me to answer these questions, but not that there is anything dishonorable about it, I do not think the committee have any right to ask me any such questions, and, therefore, I respectfully decline answering them.

Congressman Sherman heard Richardson’s denials before the affair with H. Miles Moore and so can’t have had that in mind. Nevertheless, he had reason to suspect that Richardson feared punishment if he told all. He knew from John C. Prince’s testimony on May 9, 1856, six days prior to Richardson’s, that the former

should not like to tell all I know about this society, because I think it would result to me injury; and that is one reason, though not the only one, why I dislike to answer in relation to the matter. One other reason is, that the members of the society take oaths to keep secrets those matters.

With Richardson stonewalling, Sherman pressed on. Did Richardson, who declined to otherwise comment on secret societies, know of any rule they put out requiring men like him to refuse cooperation with the Howard Committee and other outsiders? His tongue loosened by the last inquiry, Richardson finally let a few more words free:

I decline answering that question, upon the ground that the committee have no right to ask me such questions.

Richardson came back the next day and added that he had not properly understand Sherman’s question, but in the day since he had come to do so. Thus he parted with still more of his dear words:

I know of no such thing.

Glad he cleared that up.

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