The Murder of Samuel Collins, Part Four

The Howard Committee

The Howard Committee

 

Parts 1, 2, 3

Free state man Samuel Collins, a steam sawmill operator at Doniphan, Kansas, met Patrick Laughlin on the street at about dawn of October 25, 1855. He and Laughlin clashed the night before at a doctor’s office over Laughlin’s revealing the secrets of the antislavery Kansas Legion. Come the morning, Collins saw Laughlin and approached him from behind with shotgun in hand. Laughlin’s own armament included a pistol and a bucket of flour. Collins, abjuring the benefit of surprise, called out to demand Laughlin recant. Laughlin declined and Collins pulled the trigger. His gun did not fire, so he rushed up and pulled a bowie knife, brandishing it at Laughlin’s throat and repeating his demand. Laughlin still refused to recant, at which point Collins stabbed him in the side. Laughlin fell back behind another man, James Foreman, and Collins tried the other barrel of his shotgun. This one fired, but Foreman got his hand on the barrel and knocked it aside before the discharge. Collins injured the ground at Laughlin’s feet. By this point, John or James Lynch had come out. Collins had threatened him the night before as well, so Lynch joined the fray with a shot wounding a fence across the street. Then he and Collins closed and used their guns as clubs, breaking both weapons. Collins beat Lynch to the ground.

That ended Lynch’s account of the confrontation. Allen B. Lyon saw more:

It was not until Mr. Collins attention was drawn towards Mr. Lynch that Mr. Laughlin attempted to draw a weapon. I had been watching him very closely, wondering why he did not do it before. After Mr. Collins had knocked Mr. Lynch down, he turned round and advanced towards Laughlin, with the barrels of his gun raised for a blow. Mr. Laughlin had his pistol out and fired at Mr. Collins, who dropped his gun barrels, and clasped his arms around his breast, and cried out, “Oh, Lord!”

Collins collapsed and died soon after. Collins’ son knocked Laughlin down just after the Irishman fired. Collins’ nephew lobbed a chunk of brick at Laughlin, grazing his hair. But then Laughlin’s relations intervened:

Mr. Laughlin’s brother ran up at this moment, and seized the pistol which had fallen out of the hands of his brother, and fired at Mr. Collins’ nephew, who was running away, and the ball just grazed the side of his neck. He then turned and presented the pistol at young Collins, who had knocked his brother down, who threw up both hands and asked him not to shoot, that his father was dead, and he desisted.

The combatants parted and Lyon examined Collins. He found the free state man “shot in his right side”. Survivors and bystanders carried away the wounded and dead, but left behind quite the tableau:

The ground was covered with blood, like one had been butchering a hog, and I thought there were at least three persons killed-Collins, Laughlin, and Lynch.

The excitement continued, with Doniphan “in a state of disquiet and alarm for some weeks afterwards”. Threats, or rumors of them, against Laughlin and Lynch, swirled about. Lyon told the Howard Committee that he did not hear any of the threats himself. Laughlin convalesced in James Foreman’s home and people said that someone had tried to break in and finish Collins’ job. That got a guard put up until the proslavery men could carry Laughlin across into Missouri. The sheriff that Laughlin and Lynch hoped would step in, thanks to the peace warrant they secure the night before, arrived minutes after the fight concluded.

Lest one wonder if this confrontation arose from personal difficulties, with the politics only an aggravating factor, Lyon testified that Laughlin, Lynch, and Collins had lived in Doniphan some time and got on well before. This changed only when Laughlin exposed the Kansas Legion and, consequently, Collins’ role “as colonel of the Doniphan regiment.” Lyon thus deemed the affair “a political difficulty.” I see no cause to dispute him on that count, though I do regret that it appears only proslavery witnesses gave testimony on the matter.

 

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