Wilson Shannon Meets Thomas Barber

Sara Robinson

Sara Robinson

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4

On the morning of December 7, 1855, Wilson Shannon and Albert Boone rode into Lawrence amid an escort of free state men. They went to the Free State Hotel to meet with the leaders of the besieged, James Lane and Charles Robinson. They doubtless received plenty of hard looks for the obvious reasons, but likely also due to the surprise that awaited them at the hotel: the body of Thomas Barber in what Sara Robinson, Charles’ wife, called “perfect repose.” She also relates a far more romantic version of Thomas’ last words, where he declares “O God! I am a murdered man!” While both Peirson and Robert Barber may have wanted to demonstrate Thomas’ manly restraint and control in depicting his last moments, they have the benefit of witnessing them as well.

Robinson also reported that Barber’s death ought not have come as a surprise to anyone:

General George W. Clarke, the Indian Agent, went on his way to meet Governor Shannon at the Wakarusa headquarters, and there declared with horrid oaths, I have sent another of these d—-d abolitionists to his winter-quarters.”

It makes for a good story, but Robinson also has Albert Boone declare that he expected nothing like that on seeing the body. Wilson Shannon “gave a perceptible shrug of his shoulders.”

William Phillips

William Phillips

William Phillips, who saw the encounter personally, tells a different version. On seeing Barber laid out at the hotel:

There was a start. I could see the weak, vacillating, guilty governor tremble as his first glance fell on that silent figure. He had heard of the occurrence, but he proceeded to inquire of General Robinson the particulars of the case, which the general calmly told him. […] Colonel Boone expressed surprise and regret, and begged that no one should mention the name of any gentleman as having been of the party that fired, until it could be proved.

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon

Phillips alludes to Clarke’s cheerful report, but doesn’t spell it out. He must have heard of it, unless Sara Robinson invented it herself, but the absence of specifics suggests he had doubts about its veracity. Both Phillips and Robinson have decidedly hostile attitudes toward Shannon, which one can’t fault them for considering his poor choices brought an army to their doorsteps, but the obvious shock of Phillips’ version fits better when the Shannon present in his own writing. A surprise body might unsettle just about anyone, but in Barber’s perfect repose Shannon could see the effusion of blood he dreaded come much closer to fruition. One body, in such times, could soon turn into two, two to twenty, and so on. Once pitched battle began, who could say where it would end?

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