The Two William Phillipses (with thanks to @hjenks670)

William Phillips

William Phillips

Gentle Readers, two nice things happened yesterday. Hank Jenk (@hjenks670) reached out to me via Twitter to talk sources. He’s interested in William A. Phillips, found the blog, and hoped I could help him shine some light on Phillips’ early years. As you know, Phillips has lately served as a star of this blog’s narrative. He involved himself in the free state movement, participated in the Topeka convention and other important events, and wrote of his experiences in fairly pleasant prose with occasional dashes of humor. All of this makes him an especially attractive source. I gave Hank a thumbnail annotated bibliography of my Kansas sources and my best guesses on where he might have further luck, delighted to have the chance to help.

Incidentally, if any of you have questions, spot errors, or just want to talk history, you’re welcome to reach out in the comments section or via twitter. The blog has an email address as well, just the blog’s name at gmail. I decline to type it out in a likely futile attempt to frustrate automated marketing operations.

I think that I first came to William Phillips through the story of his lynching. It remains my preferred touchstone for identifying him and situating him within Kansas affairs, deeply informing my interpretation of his work. I mentioned this to Hank in talking about my sources. He wrote back to inform me of a regrettable error that I’ve made and then complicated through repeated reference. Hank studies William Addison Phillips, born in Scotland on January 24, 1824. Phillips came to the United States with his family and settled on a farm in Randolph County, Illinois. He gave up farming for journalism, eventually working for Horace Greeley’s New-York Tribune. In that capacity, he came to and reported from Kansas. Somewhere along the way he also studied and practiced law. This Phillips wrote The Conquest of Kansas and, to my knowledge, everything else that I’ve credited to William Phillips. So far, so good.

But a mob did not lynch William Addison Phillips at Leavenworth for the temerity of challenging the vote fraud there on the occasion of the March elections, for bringing about the special election of late May, or anything else. I went back looking and confirmed that a man named William Phillips suffered the mob’s seizure, transport to Missouri, shaving, tar and feathering, riding on a rail, and mock auction for the princely sum of one half cent. One of my sources calls this Phillips young. William A. Phillips turned thirty-one the year of the lynching, which doesn’t sound very young. Maybe Phillips had a youthful demeanor and didn’t look his age, but I’d more readily believe that of a man in his middle twenties than one past thirty.

The lawyer William Phillips of Leavenworth sounds a bit implausible. In a territory with only a few thousand white inhabitants, two men could have the same name. But two men had the same name and both practiced law? That seems less probable still. But coincidences do happen and a further look convinced me that this one had.

In Bleeding Kansas Alice Nichols writes of some proslavery men burning houses. I hadn’t noticed this story before as Nicholes presents it in her chapter 20, nearly a hundred pages away from her treatment of the Topeka Convention and further still from her brief reference to the Phillips lynching. Those proslavery men, Emory’s Regulators, came to the home of the second William Phillips:

Free-soilers who defended their property were sometimes killed. The week before, William Phillips, the lawyer who had once been tarred and feathered and auctioned off by a slave, had attempted to defend his home. he and his brother-in-law saw the Regulators approaching, so they grabbed guns and fired. Both shots counted. Two Regulators fell dead. The others stormed the house and killed William Phillips, right before his wife’s eyes.

A historical marker makes the same connection, dating Phillips murder to August 28, 1855. If William Addison Phillips died then, he managed to resurrect himself in time to attend the Topeka Convention. Failing that, his remarkably animate body toiled on for nigh forty years with no one the wiser. These have to be separate men with the same name and profession, a fact which I missed in reporting the lynching and have subsequently referenced mistakenly almost every time William Addison Phillips has figured into a post.

Clearly I had the wrong man and so misled you. I’m sorry. I’d rather have had it right to start with but better to know, write the correction, and go forward than persist in the mistake. Thanks for setting me straight, Hank.

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