The Taking of Reese Brown

The Howard Committee

The Howard Committee

Captain John Martin, of the proslavery Kickapoo Rangers, had a problem. His men took Reese Brown and his fellow free state militants prisoner on the morning of January 18, 1856, under the understanding that they had killed a proslavery man. They hadn’t quite done that, but they did hold up their end of a gunfight the night prior and John Cook, who participated on the other side, would die from a free state gunshot later in the day. On coming into Easton, the site of the previous night’s battle, Martin put his prisoners in Dawson’s store. Then he and some others, including Dr. Edward Motter, took Brown apart from the rest and questioned him.

While in the store, the free state men had other callers as well. J.C. Green testified that

I heard many of the men say that Brown should never get away from Easton alive. One man came into the store and said that Brown had as many friends in the room where they were trying him as he had enemies, and he would be damned if Brown should get away from there alive. Some one said that Brown ought not to be killed, but ought to be given up to the law. Some one then said they would be damned if Brown should get away alive.

Not everybody wanted to kill Brown, but plenty did. Both Easton locals and Martin’s Rangers included men out for blood. The release of the other free state men can’t have cooled their tempers. At some point after Brown’s questioning, a crowd formed outside the building. Martin went out to talk them down, calling on some of his less bloodthirsty comrades to help. Confident that they’d done the job, Martin went back inside.

While I was in the room some drunken men, some of whom lived out on the Stranger, some from Leavenworth, and probably one or two from Kickapoo, but none who belonged to the Rangers, broke open the door of the room and came in. Myself, Mr. Rively, and Mr. Elliot put them out again.

Martin repeats his favorite denial: Yes, men from Kickapoo came and got mixed up in everything. As a Kickapoo resident himself, he should know. But none of his Rangers had anything to do with it. Just random proslavery militants who acknowledged his authority as an officer in the Kickapoo Rangers.

Whoever came, their bursting into the room impressed the gravity of the situation on Martin’s companions:

Mr. Elliot, who was an old gentleman, advised me to come out, as the crowd would kill me and Brown both. He said he would not stay there and be exposed to such a set of drunken fools, and advised me to come away. I went out a few moments afterwards, and went into the other room where the rest of the prisoners were, and got them away while the crowd was breaking the second time into the room where Brown was.

Martin may have saved the lives of Brown’s party, but Brown remained in dire straits. He came back to Brown’s room just as the crowd broke in.

Some of them caught hold of him and tied his hands with a rope, and some tried to shoot him. Mr. Rives [probably M.P. Rively] and myself tried to protect him all we could by throwing the muzzles of the guns up and trying to take them away from them. Brown said I had done all I could do to save him, and if he was killed his blood would not be on my head. I cursed the men and told them they were doing wrong, and declared if they would kill Brown in spite of all I could do, I would not stay to see them do it.

The proslavery Captain then washed his hands of the situation, collected his horse, and rode back to Kickapoo. He insisted, truthfully, that he did all he could to spare Brown’s life. One person can rarely dissuade a lynch mob. Martin could and did prevent any immediate murder, to the point of seizing guns, but he and his lieutenant couldn’t prevail against the entire crowd.

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