The Blue Lodges, Part Two

The Howard Committee

The Howard Committee

Part One

W.P. Richardson stonewalled the Howard Committee when asked about the proslavery secret societies who had invaded Kansas, stolen its elections, used their ill-gotten majorities to pass tyrannical laws, and thus driven many Kansans into the arms of the free state movement. Other witnesses did better, though J.C. Prince confessed that he

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.

Nineteenth century Americans placed more stock in oaths than we do, so we should not entirely dismiss Prince’s reference to keeping his word. He said he would and doing so may have genuinely meant a great deal to him. But nor should we discount the potential threat to his person. He spoke, after all, of men who stood ready to prosecute their case with cannons. They ran Frederick Starr out of Missouri and destroyed George Park’s printing press. In Kansas, they had seized Pardee Butler, tarred and feathered William Phillips, and apparently terrorized Lawrence sufficiently that the free state men got together for mutual defense. Prince didn’t have to wonder if they’d back violent threats with violent deeds; he knew it for a fact. Men like Robert Kelley and John and Benjamin Stringfellow, to say nothing of David Rice Atchison, meant business.

Robert S. Kelley

Robert S. Kelley

But all the same, Prince would testify some of what he knew:

I know that there was a secret society in Missouri. I knew it in the fall of 1854; but I do not know whether it exists now [May, 1856] or not. I think of the party who went to Fort Scott in November, 1854, to vote, some ten or fifteen were members of this society, perhaps all, for aught I know. The society is a pro-slavery society, and the object is to get none but pro-slavery men into office; and, I suppose, it had reference to making Kansas a slave State. They had signs and pass-words, or something similar, by which we would know each other to be members of that society. The members of this society take an oath when they join the society, administered by one of the officers of the society. The subject of the oath is to keep secret the proceedings of the society, and make Kansas a slave State, the best way they can.

The free soil men of Kansas may not have required the illustrative example of their opponents when organizing their own groups, but if they did then they clearly had it. However, this tells us not much more than we could have gathered from reading eyewitness testimony of the election stealing or Negro-Slavery, No Evil. More interesting, Prince testifies to the scope of the Blue Lodges:

I do not know that this pro-slavery society exists in any State but Missouri; and I do not recollect that I have ever heard. I have understood that the society existed pretty generally in Missouri, though I think it has pretty much died away now. […] I do not know that they ever raised any money, or paid any expenses for that purpose, or ever sent out any communications for the purpose of getting up votes here. They discussed in the lodges the question of sending voters here to make Kansas a slave State. I do not know, of my own knowledge, of how many belonged to the society in Missouri, but I have heard the number, though I do not now recollect it, though it was a very large number.

Prince’s hemming and hawing comes right before he invokes the danger to himself. I get the impression that he remembered rather more than he let on. He alternates between making a claim and swiftly walking it back. He remembers that a large number of people belonged to the group, but can’t say how many. He thinks the society existed and operated, but also that it no longer does. He knows they went to Kansas, but can’t testify that they received payment for it. Whether the Blue Lodges had died away by spring of 1856 or not, Prince still feared them if he said too much.


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