“That fellow shot me.” The Murder of Thomas Barber, Part Three

George Douglas Brewerton

George Douglas Brewerton

Parts 1, 2


The Barber party’s would-be captors had intercepted, questioned, and then finally shot at them in hopes of securing an arrest, a body, or some mix of the two. In return, Robert Barber fired back at them. Barber brother-in-law Thomas Pierson wanted to return fire as well, but had trouble drawing his pistol. The two who rode to intercept the party drew back, conferred, and then started for the larger party they’d detached from. Maybe they intended to give up on the Barbers, but the proslavery party outnumbered and outgunned them. More likely they wanted reinforcements.

The Barbers remained in place for a moment. Robert doesn’t say quite why, considering the armed pair that just accosted them. He can’t have thought that the proslavery men would take firing thrice on them as an endearing eccentricity. Ballistic intercourse, however exciting in fiction, reliably proves enticing to rather fewer of us when it comes at hazard of our own lives. If the Barbers aimed to stand their ground, or expected to watch the proslavery men flee, they soon changed plans. Robert told George Brewerton:

Thomas W. Barber then turned to us and said, “Boys, let us be off;” we started accordingly, at a gallop, on our road. At this time, the two men were still galloping towards their party. My brother and myself rode side by side; my brother-in-law, Pierson, who had a slower horse, following in our rear. After riding in this manner for about a hundred yards, my brother said to me, “That fellow shot me;” he smiled as he said so.

Robert understandably paints his brother as a model of manly restraint and innocence. This bit of odd humor seems out of place, but the more telling for it. Sudden pain and injury, especially when under other stress, can bring out the surreal in a person.

Thomas’ brother asked where the bullet struck. Thomas indicated his right side.

I then remarked, “It is not possible, Thomas?” To this he replied, “It is,” at the same time smiling again. I do not think that he realized how badly he was hurt. After uttering these-his last words-he dropped his rein, and reeled in his saddle; seeing that he was about to fall, I caught hold of him by the left shoulder, grasping the loose overcoat which he wore. I held him thus for nearly a hundred yards; I could then hold him no longer, and he fell to the ground; as he did so, I slipped from my horse, at the same time calling out “Whoa;” both horses stopped immediately; I bent over my brother, and found that he was dead, and felt that we could do nothing for him.

As Robert Barber examined the body of his brother and spoke with Pierson, the proslavery men rode toward them.

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