Robert S. Kelley’s lynch mob of South Carolinians did not shoot Pardee Butler, as some had wished. Nor did they hang him, as more had hoped. Their kangaroo court pronounced upon him, for daring come back to his family after having once suffered mob violence, tar, feathers, and thirty-nine lashes of the whip. On further consideration, the court struck out the whipping. This left the minister with the painful ordeal of pine pitch poured over his bare torso. In lieu of feathers, which Atchison had run out of that day, they applied cotton. Then they set Butler on his buggy and saw him on his way, with a promise that if he returned to the town again they would hang him.
The mob let Butler go at the outskirts of town, at which point he got his clothes about him as best he could and rode off into the cold April day. We might expect Butler to drop dead right there, as he had tar poured all over him. We imagine modern paving tar, which heats up to hundreds of degrees. Traditional tar and feathering used pine pitch, which could still give you burns but didn’t ordinarily get heated to the point that you may as well have lain down inside a stove. That doesn’t mean Butler felt no pain at all, but in the main you tarred and feathered someone for the humiliation value. His account doesn’t mention burns or blisters and the minister had no reason to soft pedal his ordeal. Instead he notes that he returned to his loved ones, children included, in that state.
It was a sorrowful meeting after so long a parting, still we were very thankful that, under the favor of good Providence, it had fared no worse with us all.
Butler had escaped worse, no doubt. He made it home to his family without a whipping, hanging, or shooting. But the first time they saw him in months, he came to them the victim of a public shaming and fresh off a near-fatal ordeal. That had to frighten and pain everyone in the house. The minister would not let his readers forget how he and his earned all this:
The head and front of my offending hath this extent, no more: I had spoken among my neighbors favorably to making Kansas a free State, and said in the office of the Squatter Sovereign, “I am a Free-soiler, and intend to vote for Kansas to be a free State.”
Of course, Butler knew he did not suffer alone. He linked his prior travail to the rising of the free state movement in Kansas, which back then didn’t even have a formal political party. He and his neighbors had chosen to leave it for the proslavery side to strike first, from religious scruples and probably in light of just how many proslavery men lived in the vicinity. Yet
There are many Free-soilers in this country-brave men-who have no conscientious scruples to hinder them from arming themselves and preparing to repel force with force. The Border Ruffians sought by a system of terrorism so to intimidate the Free-soilers as to prevent them from organizing a Free-soil party, or even discussing the subject of freedom and slavery in Kansas.
Butler respected scruples against arms, but also the choice to bear them. His group “deprecated violence” and preferred “peaceful discussion.” Butler’s calling required no less of him, and made him see it as “most fitting” that such a person
should put to the test of actual experiment whether an American citizen of blameless life could be permitted to enjoy the right of free speech […] such views being uttered without anything of angry, abusive, or insulting language.
That kind of thing “was worth as much as a man’s life” in Atchison. This, to his mind, put the situation well beyond that of ordinary carping. He hadn’t lost a street brawl or some trifle, but suffered attack for exercise of his sacred rights as an American. Thus he told the world that this terrorism would not prevail:
we know our rights and intend to have them.