The Pillage of Lawrence

Gentle readers, this post discusses sexual violence in the context that my sources present it. They gave me few details and treat the matter in a way that reads now as almost completely dismissive. I don’t mean to replicate that, but I have no more information than they gave me: a few sentences admit a catalog of other offenses. I’m sorry. If reading either that presentation or the fact itself will upset you, please take a pass on today’s post. I’ve put the relevant portion at the very end, where I hope it will not come up in any reader’s summary text to be read accidentally along with this warning.

Samuel Jones

Samuel Jones

A combination of cannon fire, two of four gunpowder kegs exploding, and finally firing the building, Samuel Jones proslavery army disposed of the Free State Hotel. Neither William Phillips nor the memorial to Franklin Pierce put a firm time on it, but the destruction must have started after quarter after three and probably before five on the evening of May 21, 1856. The end of the hated symbol of the Emigrant Aid Company prompted jubilation from the mob. Sheriff Jones might sit on his horse and exult in his glory, but his men had a whole abolition town to vent themselves upon.

“Wild and reckless pillage,” in Phillips’ words, began at once. Where a door would not open, and not everyone had a lock or bolt, a window give way easily enough.

All the money and jewelry that could be found was taken, and also clothing. In fact, they took everything they wanted, or could carry away. Much of what they could not take, they destroyed.

Phillips, to a degree (and the memorialists somewhat more so) stressed the efforts of the mob’s officers to control them. Not all the officers scrupled so. A deputy marshal, one of many, took surgical tools. One of the Stringfellows -Phillips doesn’t say which- helped himself to two boxes of cigars, right off the shelf.

Ex-Vice-President Atchison was also seen with one of these, or another box. With such bright examples it would be needless to enter into a detail of the brilliant exploits of the rank and file.

Phillips estimates the losses near to $150,000. In addition to simple looting, the proslavery men took the papers of free state leaders and destroyed letters and family pictures. They tried to burn the Herald of Freedom building, but failed for already taking out most of what would have burned. What remained, a few brave sorts went in and doused. For the grand finale, the mob returned to Charles Robinson’s house on Mount Oread and burned it.

The discussion of sexual violence follows on from here, Gentle Readers.

According to the memorialists:

The work of pillage spread through the whole town, and continued until after dark. Every house and store which cold be entered was ransacked; trunks broken open and money and property taken at will. Where women had not fled, they were in some cases insulted, and even robbed of their clothing.

The insults to women included the everyday sort of insult which simply violated nineteenth century social mores. The proslavery men failed to confine themselves to rudeness and theft, as William Phillips writes:

There were also frightful stories of outrages, and of women being ravished. Such cases there may have been, but rare. There were villains in that posse who were certainly none too good for it.

Phillips probably knew more than he let on. What he reports as likely true stories, the Lawrence memorial takes as fact. Its closing passages refer to “women ravished in their homes.” To name a woman raped would have disgraced her and Phillips, expecting his book to have a longer shelf life and wider circulation than a petition, may have demurred to avoid further compounding their suffering. The victims of sexual violence suffer an unjust, and vile stigma in our time. They would not have had it easier in his. The last thing I want to do is treat this as, one horror amid many, but Phillips only makes it clear what happened paragraphs after, immediately following an estimate of the number of horses taken. The memorial states the fact and leaves it without elaboration.

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