Attempted Highway Robbery

George W. Brown

George W. Brown

Immediately beneath the latest brief update on the plight of freedom in Kansas, George Washington Brown’s Herald of Freedom proceeded to an item to further illustrate the point. He set the scene for the Thursday prior, May 1, 1856. “A couple of gentlemen” late of Wisconsin camped by the Santa Fe road, south of Lawrence. Many of Brown’s readers had probably done the same without much incident. Even beyond Kansas, Americans bound west and camping beside a major road would have the same resonance as standing at the ATM might have for us.

The Wisconsinites

were set upon by a party of fifteen South Carolinians, who drew their revolvers and made the demand usual with highwaymen, “your money or your life!” Our Wisconsin friends, not feeling very willing to part with either on such short notice, likewise drew their revolvers and determined to fight as became men. Accidentally (of course) one of them snapped a cap, whereupon the fifteen highwaymen, who represented the boasted chivalric spirit of the Carolinas, cried out, “don’t shoot, for God’s sake, don’t!” and precipitately fled, “followed fast and followed faster” by the men of the North, who by this time were in for a race. But inasmuch as the legs of the pursued were considerably more elongated than the legs of the pursuers, the space soon widened between them, and the Carolinians made good their escape. Southern chivalry! Southern fiddlesticks!

Reading this, I immediately wondered if any of it happened. The Wisconsinites go without names and their ability to scare off fifteen robbers, itself a seemingly improbable number, so easily suggest that Brown wrote fiction. Nineteenth century papers do invent such incidents and report them as news, so Brown would hardly stand apart from the crowd for it.

But we might not dismiss it entirely. Brown might have embroidered a real incident, or imagined one arising from a real situation. At the most basic level, Brown wants his readers to think that armed southerners range about Kansas with intent to rob good Yankees. I don’t know about mundane crimes, but that doesn’t take him far off from the basic facts of life in the territory. They had taken lives before and come by the hundreds to fight for slavery. A little robbery on the side hardly seems out of character or unreasonable for Kansans to fear.

That Brown specifically calls out South Carolinians, rather than Missourians who would make more sense as the local stock villain, inclines me to think he had more than humor in mind. A group of South Carolinians had arrived in Kansas as part of Jefferson Buford’s expedition less than two weeks before. On arriving in the territory and finding no accommodations provided for them, many of Buford’s men cut themselves loose. It wouldn’t strain credulity much for some of them to turn to other crimes to pay their bills, either to get home or keep themselves in Kansas until the fight they signed on for could erupt.

Of course, Brown’s readers knew the conventions of their time. They could take his story as a funny incident of dubious veracity and also take his other meaning: Proslavery men did things like this in Kansas. If they could manage it, and much more, in the nation’s most-watched territory, then what could they do elsewhere? What happened in Kansas or Missouri might soon ensue in Illinois or Ohio. It could happen to you.

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