The Murder of Thomas Barber, Part Two

George Douglas Brewerton

George Douglas Brewerton

Part One

Thomas Barber, his brother Robert, and his brother-in-law Thomas Pierson, rode out of Lawrence about midday on December 6, 1855. All served in the force defending Lawrence against its besiegers, but they had leave and aimed to spend at least some of it at their claims. They rode into a weak spot in the cordon about the town, where only mounted patrols kept people in or out, and seem to have expected an easy trip. Robert and Pierson had revolvers with them, but Thomas rode unarmed. A few miles outside Lawrence, they came on a proslavery patrol. When the Barber party turned off on a shortcut, it aroused the patrol’s interest and two men broke off to intercept them:

this they did by approaching us on our right, and placing themselves in front of us, or nearly so. They came up at a trot, while we were walking our horses. The remainder of the approaching party had in the meanwhile halted in full sight of us, but at a distance of from two to four hundred yards.

However innocently this all began, by now the Barbers had to know they’d come into trouble. One of the riders put his horse across the road, only yards away. The other addressed them, demanding they halt. The Barbers obliged.

After halting us, the rider on the grey horse asked, “Where are you going?” My brother Thomas W. Barber-who answered for our party-replied, “We are going home.” He then asked us, “Where are you from?” my brother answered, “We are from Lawrence.” “What is going on in Lawrence?” was the next question. “Nothing in particular,” said my brother.

Nothing but the construction of earthworks and other preparations for battle, but both sides knew that very well. Barber’s questioner probably hoped to shake loose some useful intelligence about Lawrence’s defenses or find some pretext for detaining the party further. Failing that, the proslavery men still had the useful weapon of legitimacy:

“We have orders from the Governor to see the laws executed in Kansas.” Thomas W. Barber then asked, “What laws have we disobeyed?”

Samuel Newitt Wood

Samuel Newitt Wood

Wilson Shannon had summoned the militia. Sheriff Jones happily took Missourians into his posse. The patrollers had the law, or a reasonable simulacrum, on their side. But what laws indeed? They hardly had Jacob Branson or Samuel Wood before them. Nor had the patrol caught them in the act of antislavery politics. Nor did the law of Kansas forbid armed men moving about or earthen construction projects. The patrol’s spokesman felt no obligation to answer, instead demanding the Barbers come along with him. “My brother then said” Robert told George Douglas Brewerton:

“We don’t do it.” You won’t, hey?” said their spokesman, at the same time starting off with his horse so as to bring him on the right side of my brother-who moved his horse’s head slightly towards him, as he did so. The man drew his pistol as he started, but halted on reaching his new position to the right of my brother

Robert lost track of the other rider, on a sorrel, at this point. The spokesman’s new position obscured him from where Robert sat and, incidentally

my attention was at that moment taken up with drawing my own pistol, which was belted on behind my back, in such a manner that I was obliged to seize it with my left hand; this I did under the belief that we were about to be attacked.

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon

The spokesman already had his gun out. Robert didn’t need much of a crystal ball to see how things would soon go.

As I was changing it [the gun] into my right hand to fire, I saw their spokesman-the man on the grey horse-discharge his pistol at my brother. I did not think at the time that my brother was hit. This man, after firing at my brother, rode right around into the road, and halted some ten paces in our rear. I wheeled my horse and shot at him, but missed; I cannot say that he returned my fire, but on changing my position I saw the smoke of the pistol of the man on the sorrel, who was still in his old position. I then fired a second barrel at him, but missed, as I had done before.

After Robert fired, the two riders drew back and conferred not quite within his hearing. Robert makes this all sound very formal and restrained, but it must have felt differently at the time. One has the sense that the intercepting riders did not expect any kind of resistance and drew back to decide what they ought to do in response. They must have decided in favor of reinforcements, as they then made for the rest of the patrol at a gallop. Robert fired after them, missing again.

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