After a year of on-again, off-again tension over competing land claims, Franklin Coleman killed Charles Dow. He claimed self-defense. Dow had a piece of iron for a wagon and came at him with it at the culmination of their troubles. We have only Coleman’s word on it. Where other accounts delve into their prior tensions, Coleman’s account seems fairly accurate. However, Coleman told George Brewerton that he came on Dow by surprise on the road on the occasion of their fatal meeting. William McKinney, speaking to Coleman just before the event, told the Howard Committee that he saw Dow on the road passing by. McKinney added that he tried to keep Coleman back from the road, which suggests he suspected what would come. Maybe he feared drastic action from experience with Coleman’s temper. Maybe he could see it on the man’s face.
McKinney didn’t see the shot fired:
They both went off down the road together towards Coleman’s house. When they got opposite his house, I heard a gun fired down there, and I looked and saw the smoke of the gun, and Mr. Coleman throwing the gun on his shoulder. I observed to my son, “I wonder what Coleman is shooting at.”
It seems that McKinney could have seen things had he looked the right way at the right time. He could spot Coleman in the distance, some three to four hundred yards, and understand his motions after the gun’s report. However, McKinney gave his testimony to a secret session and that suggests he felt some fear for himself that might have prompted him to hold back. McKinney’s son Nicholas gave testimony, also in secret session, and confirmed his account. He goes a step further than his father and says outright that Coleman went after Dow on the road.
I have found one other eyewitness, but she can’t tell us much we don’t already know. Almina Jones saw the shot fired and Dow fall. She put the men at twenty to twenty-five yards apart when Coleman fired, which would fit with Coleman’s story that he and Dow argued, then parted, and then Dow started back for him with the wagon skein. But she neither saw Coleman go off to see Dow nor came close enough to get the gist of their confrontation before the shot. She names Mr. Hargous, Coleman’s neighbor, as a fellow witness but he doesn’t seem to have left an account for posterity.
If this all counts very murky, it should. One might not prove it in a court of law, but it seems that Coleman deliberately sought out Dow. He might have aimed to kill the man from the moment he set out from McKinney’s or the two might have mutually worked one another up to blows. Contrary to his own account, where Coleman comes off so consistently in favor of compromise and negotiation that it raises eyebrows, he might have said something that provoked Dow to wheel on him. In the politically charged Kansas environment, with both sides feeling increasingly embattled, even a far clearer situation might give ample ammunition to both sides. With one so ambiguous as Coleman’s killing of Dow, partisanship seems inevitable.