“I will die before they shall take me prisoner.” The Murder of Thomas Barber, Part Four

James Henry Lane

James Henry Lane

Parts 1, 2, 3

We left Robert Barber and Thomas Peirson with the body of Thomas Barber, just fatally shot by a proslavery patrol involved in the siege of Lawrence. That same patrol now approached them. Peirson, not yet seeing the proslavery men closing the two hundred or so yards between where they shot Thomas and where he fell from his horse, suggested they get Thomas up on one of their horses. But, per his statement, Peirson no more said that than he saw their pursuers.

Robert said they had best take his dead brother’s advice and depart, but Peirson

objected, saying, “If we ride away, they may overtake and kill us; we had better stay where we are, and let them take us prisoners.” I replied “I will die before they shall take me prisoner.” He then agreed to go, saying, “Let us be off as fast as we can.” We galloped on accordingly.

Peirson’s statement leaves out the bit where he suggested surrender, instead concurring with the surviving Barber that if overtaken they probably wouldn’t survive the experience. Robert has little reason to invent the exchange. Peirson probably found it embarrassing in retrospect. Somewhere about this time he also misplaced his gun, which he had on hand at the initial confrontation. Taking the two facts together with just witnessing the murder of a relative by marriage and the continuing threat to his own life, it seems likely that he saw surrender as the fastest way out of the situation. If he requires any defense for a very normal bout of anxiety, the proslavery men didn’t opt for violence until the Barbers refused arrest. He might reasonably have hoped, especially considering he hadn’t himself fired on them, that the option of compliance remained open.

Peirson and Robert Barber rode about a mile before the former asked if they still had anyone after them. Robert looked and spotted two men coming at a gallop. The others, Barber surmised, found Thomas’ body. He and Peirson rode for three more miles before Robert’s mount flagged.

I dismounted, feeling confident that the animal had been wounded in the affray; I did not stop to examine him at the time, but supposing that I was still pursued, left him standing in the road, and continued my way homewards on foot. I afterwards learned that the horse had been shot low down behind the fore-shoulder, on the right side. The horse died that night. I do not know the size of the ball which killed the animal; I did not look for it. The carcass has been dragged away and eaten by the wolves.

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Thomas Barber’s body didn’t go to the wolves. According to William Phillips,

It was not long before intelligence of the occurrence reached Lawrence. The soldiers had been on parade. After parade the were addressed by Colonel Lane in an inspiring manner; and General Robinson, being called on, made on of his prudent, cautious speeches, in which he urged them not to allow the daily outrages to drive them to commence hostilities.

It was just then that a son of Judge Wakefield, and two or three others, drove rapidly into town, and announced the murder. At first Robinson gave orders to keep it secret, for fear the men would do something rash; but before half an hour it was in every mouth, the public having gotten it before the officers. Many were for marching immediately on the Wakarusa and driving out the villains camped there. Indeed, it was with the utmost difficulty that Generals Robinson and Lane restrained them.

Longtime readers might remember Wakefield from Kansas first election strife.

Phillips might have stretched things a bit in describing Lawrence as set to march at once, but if he did then I don’t think he did so by much. The militiamen gathered in the town had worked on the defenses and come under occasional fire from the besiegers. It seems quite reasonable that they would take this as the initiation of long-threatened hostilities and want to strike at once. Any of them could have fallen in Barber’s place.

Lane and Robinson prevailed in the end and Lawrence dispatched a carriage and armed guard to go and recover Thomas Barber’s mortal remains. They then laid in what passed for state, given the circumstances, in a room of the Free State Hotel where Wilson Shannon would come the next morning.


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