The Trial of Reese Brown

The Howard Committee

The Howard Committee

The Kickapoo Rangers had Reese Brown and his free state men in their custody. A Ranger named Gibson made a go at an unarmed George Taylor with hatchet but one of Brown’s men and one of the other Rangers pulled him off. Gibson didn’t take that laying down. After a second try, he settled for destroying Taylor’s hat. This in mind, the Rangers’ captain, John Martin, felt quite anxious for the safety of his captives. He put reliable guards on them, as much to protect them from his others as to prevent escape or rescue. Everyone then rode back into Easton, where Martin put his prisoners in Dawson’s store.

The people of Easton did not greet Brown’s return with unanimous joy. M.P. Rively described them as “very much exasperated.” Despite that, Captain Martin insisted on a more formal exercise of frontier justice. He wanted facts before considering any serious punishment and so chose to examine Brown. The interrogation took place in Dr. Edward Motter’s office and it seems the doctor took the lead. According to Martin:

Dr. Motter questioned him as to what he (Brown) had done the night before. Brown went on to state that they had come to Easton to the election to vote, and to defend the polls if necessary; that he had understood that the Kickapoo Rangers, or the pro-slavery party, were coming there to take the ballot-box away from them. he stated the cause of the difficulty the night before, to have grown out of the fact that Mr. Sparks was going from Mr. Minard’s house home, and the news came to Mr. Minard’s that Sparks had been taken prisoner, and he went down with some 30 or 40 men to rescue him.

 

All true enough. According to Motter, Brown also admitted doing some wrong that night, though the Doctor said that Brown wouldn’t elaborate on the point and he judged the free state captain more concerned with the election’s legality than the gunfight. Neither sounds entirely plausible, but knowing himself in the power of potentially murderous enemies, Brown might have said as much of what they wanted to hear as he felt he could get away with.

Brown confessed to the exchange of gunfire, at which point Martin and company had to decide what to do next.

Myself and Mr. Elliot, Mr. Grover, and Mr. Burgess advised them to bring Brown back to Leavenworth city, and place him in the hands of the proper authorities here. There were others in the room at that time; and I went out, and the crowd asked what conclusion we had come to, and I told them. They swore that would not do, because Brown would get away as McCrea had, and they were determined to have Brown or shoot him.

Cole McCrea killed Malcolm Clark at a public meeting some time earlier. The less famous William Phillips earned his lynching from the belief that he provided the gun. Martin, and probably everyone in Kansas by this point, knew the reference. He wouldn’t have any of this unlawful execution, though:

I told them that would be wrong and cowardly, as Brown was a prisoner, and that I would be responsible for him-would take him back myself, and he should not get away. Several other men promised the same thing, and then went back into the house to get some other steady men to go out and talk with the crowd, and try to pacify them; and they did so.

Martin had every reason to paint himself as the sensible, moderate one who wanted nothing to do with needless violence. On occasion his testimony comes across as the words of a man trying too hard to defend himself. But he and hostile witnesses to the same events agree that Martin had trouble controlling his men. The man on the other side standing up for a vulnerable enemy makes for a romantic image, but our natural hostility to the proslavery party shouldn’t convince us that every one of them considered violence equally appropriate in every situation. They too had their relatively dovish and hawkish members.

 

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