A Vile Murderer and Two Stolen Horses

John Brown


Deeply troubled, to the point where he considered himself insane, John Brown’s namesake son left his Aunt Florilla, Samuel Adair, and his brother Jason to vanish into the woods and hide. Word had reached them that proslavery men wanted the Brown’s locked up, at best, and a general manhunt had begun. Jason remained behind at the cabin. Samuel Adair only granted the two Browns temporary shelter on their word that they had nothing to do with their father’s murders and impressed on them that that he and his wife risked their lives doing it. From him, we learn that a third Brown boy called at the Adair place that night, Owen.

Owen Brown, unlike his brothers, had committed bloody murder beside the Pottawatomie. His and Salmon Brown’s hands wielded the swords that claimed the lives of James, William, and Drury Doyle at least. Owen wept afterwards, but his tears could not undo the killing. He knocked at the cabin door around two or three in the morning. Jason informed Samuel Adair of everything he knew about the murders, so he did not receive a warm welcome:

“You are a vile murderer, a marked man!” said he. “I intend to be a marked man!” shouted Owen, and rode away – on one of the murdered men’s horses.

Jason told it that way and his version makes sense in light of everything else he and John say about the Adairs that night. Blood and general compassion counted for a lot, but they would not share their roof and fire with killers. John Junior adds a bit more:

I took my rifle and horse and went into the ravine on Mr. Adair’s land, remaining there through that day (May 27 )and the following night.. About four o’clock P.M. I was joined by my brother Owen, who had been informed at Mr. Adair’s of my whereabouts. He brought with him into the brush a valuable running horse, mate of the one I had with me.

According to Jason, Owen rode a horse taken from the Shermans. John Junior has both their mounts seized by Free State men up toward Nebraska, so in proslavery country, and swapped for other animals, apparently on the grounds that someone nearby would recognize them. John came to his horse just the previous day, not far from Ottawa Jones’. Except for the notion that the horses came down from near Nebraska, that all would fit for John Junior to have with him one of the horses that his father and brothers stole. Probably he did and they didn’t tell him the whole truth about where it came from or Junior couldn’t put it together with all the strain.

“Can’t keep you here.”

John Brown

News of John Brown’s murder spree got out quickly, reaching his son’s militia company before Brown and the others could return to it. The fallout from John Junior’s inconsistent response to the word and his freeing of two enslaved people turned his men against him and the Pottawatomie Rifles elected a new captain before everyone dispersed. Brown had two sons in Kansas not with him for that bloody night, the aforementioned namesake and Jason. Jason pressed the matter with his brother, Frederick, and then told his father that he could not approve of such killing. Brown took that hard, but refused to reconsider. His band of avengers broke off from the rest of the group near to Middle Creek and set off toward Junior and Jason’s cabins. They themselves set out for Osawatomie to collect their wives and children from Samuel Adair’s.

On the 26th of May, according to Junior, he and Jason arrived at Adair’s. They stayed the night and on the morning of the 27th got more disturbing news:

a pretended Free-State man, was heading a party to capture us, Mr. Adair did not consider it prudent for us to stay longer, and advised us to secrete ourselves in a ravine on his place well filled with small undergrowth. He told us he had received word that the United States Marshal had warrants for us and all of our family.

Jason has people out to make a name for themselves by nabbing John Brown already thick on the roads, but it seems that news first reached them of the fact at the Adair claim. In his version, related in Villard’s biography, they come to the cabin around nine at night. Adair answered the door, armed, and asked who knocked. The Browns identified themselves:

“Can’t keep you here. Our lives are threatened. Every moment we expect to have our house burned over our heads.”

Jason begged shelter, offering to take even a berth in the outhouse. The conversation drew Mrs. Adair, the boys’ Aunt Florilla. She asked if they had anything to do with the killings. They had not, so she agreed to let them in but told them that the Adairs hazarded their lives by doing it. They took a pair of mattresses on the floor, beside the bed, and talked until midnight. Jason told them all he had learned about the killings while John groaned.

Up for a few days by this point, just deprived of his command and seeing his political friends turn on him, plus news that his father and brothers committed an already infamous crime, pushed John Junior past his breaking point. He confided to his Aunt that he felt himself going insane. He couldn’t sleep, despite his fatigue. Jason repeated Adair’s advice that Junior take to the timber land and hide, which he did.

“The most terrible shock that ever happened to my feelings in my life”

John Brown

John Brown, four of his sons, his son-in-law, Theodore Weiner, and James Townsley went into the Kansas night and took five lives with broadswords. Satisfied, the antislavery terrorists returned to their camp. There Owen Brown, who got his own hands bloody at least with the Doyles, wept. Around dawn, he came up to Townsley and told him that the group had finished killing proslavery men in the night.

Sunday afternoon, barely twelve hours after killing Dutch Bill Sherman, Brown and his band rode out of their camp and down the California Road. They rejoined the Pottawatomie Rifles at the home of Ottawa Jones, a member of that nation on good terms with the Browns, around midnight. Rejoining the Rifles reunited Brown with his sons John Junior, in command, and Jason. News of the murders beat them to the camp, complete with word that Old John Brown did the deed.

Jason recalls word of the killings as “the most terrible shock that ever happened to my feelings in my life; but brother John took a different view.” The Rifles, outraged, demanded explanations from Junior. He first claimed the murders as “good news” and then later insisted he could neither endorse nor repudiate them; he believed the old man must have some good reason. This did not impress his command one bit, however much we might understand disbelief and confusion at the news that a dear loved one committed a grievous crime. His compromised position, plus earning the ire of his men by freeing a few slaves, made Junior’s captaincy untenable and he resigned it the next morning. The company, under instructions from the US Army, thereafter dispersed from Jones’ place.

On the way home, just east of Middle Creek, Jason raised the issue with his father.

I did not, but I stood by and saw it.


Someone else in the party, who Jason didn’t name, argued self-defense and defense of others. Jason didn’t buy it and said his piece:

I did not fully understand the cause of it then, and told him I was very sorry the act had been done. I said to him: ‘I think it was an uncalled for, wicked act.’

Jason recalled that this

seemed to hurt father very much; but all he said was, ‘God is my judge, -we were justified under the circumstances.’

Hurt or not, John Brown didn’t back down. He did what he thought right, end of story. Jason didn’t think so and asked Frederick if he knew who did the killing. Frederick did, but refused to tell him. Jason pressed: had Frederick done it?

No; when I came to see what manner of work it was, I could not do it. The tears rolled down Frederick’s face as he spoke.

The group broke up soon after crossing Middle Creek, with Brown and his band going to Junior’s cabin. John and Jason, who had his own cabin nearby, went to Samuel Adair’s instead to collect their wives and sons.



Some Thoughts on John Brown

John Brown

Gentle Readers, despite occasional appearances, historians are human. Just like the people we study, we come to the past with our own set of values, inclinations, and biases. None of us can produce an objective history, any more than we can produce the final, complete history of anything. We cannot pretend to neutrality and you ought to take a skeptical look at any recent historian who tries. But we must approach the past as fairly as we can and try to understand the mores, motives, hopes, fears, and cultural backgrounds of the people we study. Perhaps we don’t communicate this well, but history is an exercise in empathy.

That brings us to John Brown. Biographers have painted him as a Christian warrior saint and a deranged madman driven by paranoid obsessions. The most recent work I’m familiar with credits Brown as a vital precursor to civil rights. People love and hate Brown, often intensely. As must surprise no one, I find him intensely admirable. Though not as immune to the white supremacy of his era as one biographer would cast him, he does have a far smaller helping of it than most. He fought slavery, which puts him right up there with a soldier liberating a concentration camp in my book. Brown felt an obligation to black Americans that he cast in cringe-worthy paternalistic terms, but demonstrated a remarkable willingness to let them guide the course of his own life. He believed them ignorant and lacking in necessary discipline, but also saw both traits as situational and cured through good examples and education rather than innate in their race. In that, he differs little from many black leaders of his era. Far more than most white Americans, he treated non-whites as his equals. He would even fight and kill white men for their freedom, something he intended as early as the 1840s and finally consummated, twice, in the last decade of his life.

For the most part, historians don’t debate the facts of Brown’s life. Some have pathologized his antislavery, just as they have that of most whites, as a kind of mental illness. Brown and the rest had an unnatural fixation on slavery, which posed no danger to them. They reacted with intolerable offensiveness and hostility to a harmless, dying institution. Abandoning those ideas, as recent generations have, presents us with newly revised, more generous take. Brown’s violence may still discomfit us, as all violence should, but in the end he proposed killing enslavers to free the enslaved. How can we celebrate George Washington, who put a lot of white, British soldiers into their graves for what we consider, at least in principle, the cause of freedom and damn Brown for the same? If we are consistent and fair, we must count them as similarly heroes for freedom. The fact that Brown might well have killed George Washington for the same cause should say more to us damning of Washington than of Brown.

The idea of the hero abolitionist John Brown drowns in Pottawatomie creek, next to William Sherman’s brains. On that terrible night, Brown killed unresisting men who owned no people. He did it in what he imagined as self-defense and specifically targeted those who worked for an illegitimate and oppressive government. Some of them may have made dire, credible threats or posed a threat to Brown and his family through their connection to the bogus legislature’s courts, but Brown killed them in anticipation. Had the Doyles, Wilkinson, or Sherman come at him armed and dangerous, Brown would have done no worse than anybody else. By taking them at night, ripping them from their beds and their families and ordering them hacked to pieces in the dark, he went beyond any reasonable understanding of self-defense. He acted like an enslaver lynch mob, protecting his community from what he deemed a vile, dangerous element. That we agree with him on slavery, or even farther that proslavery whites themselves count as a serious danger, should not blind us to that.

Furthermore, self-defense does not tell the full story even if we grant it to Brown. James Townsley reported that his motives extended further than the simple murders of threatening elements and, unlike his claim that Brown wanted a general purge of the area, this makes sense in light of all Brown did:

Brown said it must be done for the protection of the Free States settlers; that the pro-slavery men party must be terrified

and consequently that

the pro slavery men were dreadfully terrified

Brown valued consistency in most things, following his convictions where they led him, whatever the hazards. We have a word for political violence directed at civilian targets to create fear among the enemy. Let us honor Brown’s values by calling the Pottawatomie murders he, his sons, and a few others committed by their right name: terrorism.

We usually imagine terrorism as something that someone else does, for goals we oppose. Calling Brown a terrorist does not come easily to anyone sympathetic to him. It associates his cause with those which shock our conscience. We might view it as discredited by such methods. But what else can one call a man who pulls people from their beds at night and murders them to set an example for others?

We can make excuses and claim Brown doesn’t qualify if we want, and some have, but this serves us poorly for understanding Brown. The past does not exist to make us comfortable and we are poorer for not confronting the difficult parts. We imagine terrorists, for the obvious reasons, as utterly evil. They do wrong for bad causes, like Nazis. In John Brown, we have a terrorist who may have done wrong for the best of causes. I don’t want to say that; I still admire him. My own convictions are such that I view the murder of an enslaver by the enslaved as inherently just, even praiseworthy, but Brown did not murder an enslaver and so his killing freed no one. Nor did he suffer slavery and so we might grant to him a right to revolutionary violence against his oppressors as a class, unless we recognize his act as one of solidarity with black Americans as well as white and so as an extension of their struggle. Brown would probably have agreed with that but his immediate motives involved protecting white freedom, which puts a hard limit on how far we can take that line of reasoning.

At Pottawatomie, Brown did much the same, on a vastly smaller scale, as the men who flew planes into buildings seventeen years ago. If we take slavery seriously and if we care about understanding the past in all its complications, we must grapple with that. John Brown presents us with a terrorist who feels like one of us. I don’t have a neat answer for that, which resolves all the contradictions and gives us a capsule understanding of Brown that we can put on a shelf and take for granted. Right now, I feel confident that Brown did wrong for a good cause. After I spend some time reading about slavery I tend to feel that everyone involved in enslaving others and defending the business have no rights the rest of us should feel bound to respect. Neither position sits easily with me. Both feel right at the time but not on more distant reflection.

Gentle Readers, please forgive me for the poor form of not ending with a conclusion for all of this; I don’t think there is one.

“Dreadfully terrified”

John Brown

John Brown’s company left hacked up bodies in their wake. William Sherman’s brains spilled out into the Pottawatomie and some washed away. Allen Wilkinson lay in a bush, his throat cut twice. William Doyle, like Sherman, had his head cut open and his arms severed. They helped themselves to Henry Sherman’s horse and rode off into the night in the wee hours of May 25, 1856. In the morning, family and friends found the hacked up bodies. Brown’s group washed those artillery broadswords in the creek and went back to their camp.

James Townsley, who rode with Brown that night, reflected on the carnage in 1879 and felt moved to tell posterity that

it is not true that there was any intentional mutilation of the bodies after they were killed. They were slain quickly as possible and left, and whatever gashes they received were inflicted in the process of cutting them down with swords.

Not that it would offer any comfort to the families and others who found them. Bad enough to know someone killed a friend or loved one. Discovering the body can’t make it easier. Discovering one hacked to pieces takes it to a whole new level of trauma. The bereaved didn’t see what happened and whether Brown’s men intentionally mutilated bodies, postmortem or otherwise, hardly makes it better. The fabled clean kill always exists more in theory and for the benefit of others than the victim, but Sherman, Wilkinson, and the three Doyles must have looked literally butchered.

With it all done, back in camp, Owen Brown wept for what he had done.

Townsley, though somewhat hostile toward Brown and keen to excuse his own involvement, had a rosier view of things:

I then thought that the transaction was terrible, and I have mentioned it to but few persons since. In after time, however, I became satisfied that it resulted in good to the Free State cause, and was especially beneficial to Free State settlers on the Potawatomie Creek. The pro slavery men were dreadfully terrified, and large numbers of them soon left the Territory. It was afterwards said that one Free State man could scare a company of them.

Salmon Brown describes Townsley as joining Brown’s party “in high glee,” though he tried to back out before any killing happened. For the most part, this sounds like him trying to settle the record in his favor. Townsley’s portrait of the Browns implicates Salmon in ways he clearly disliked and exaggerates the degree of his father’s ambition in painting it as a general purge of the Pottowatomie. But here Townsley writes as a man well-satisfied.

Nor does Townsley confine himself to retrospective justification. Immediately after the previous, he explains that in addition to himself receiving threats from proslavery men

I always understood that Geo. W, Grant came to our camp on Ottawa Creek, near Captain Shore’s, with a message from his father, John T. Grant, to John Brown, asking for protection from threatened assaults of the Shermans and other pro slavery ruffians.

This comes to us after the fact, but if Townsley told the truth then he believed much as John Brown did that the murders constituted a form of self-defense.


“A score of bad men should die”

John Brown

Henry Thompson and Theodore Weiner killed Dutch Bill Sherman, probably. We can’t say with absolute confidence, like much in history, but the evidence points toward them. When Brown and his men came to Dutch Henry’s cabin, they took each man present out and questioned him: What did he think of the free state party? Did he mean them harm? Did they have any weapons about? All that made good, practical sense. Brown needed to know if he had proslavery militants on his hands and if they might pull a gun or knife on him while he had his attention on murdering someone else. Speaking of, Brown also asked if they knew of any other men nearby who might just drop in.

Brown wanted Dutch Henry, Bill’s brother and

he also hoped to find George Wilson, Probate Judge of Anderson county, there, and intended, if he did, to kill him too. Wilson had been notifying Free State men to leave the Territory. I had received such a notice from him myself.

Townsley doesn’t have much cause to make such a notice up, but we should probably not read too much into how he phrased it. If Wilson gave notice, it probably came in the form of informal threats. Free State men should get out of Kansas, or they would have some trouble. Had Wilson made a regular program of this, then he would fit the same profile that the Sherman brothers did: belligerent proslavery men who made threats against the safety of antislavery Kansans. Holding office with the bogus government in itself would hardly please Brown, and his victims did consist of such men, but the direct threats seem to have singled them out for killing.

Townsley explained as much, saying he had it from Brown himself:

I desire to say that I did not then approve of the killing of those men, but Brown said it must be done for the protection of the Free State settlers; that the pro-slavery party must be terrified, and that it was better that a score of bad men should die than that one man who came here to make Kansas a free state should be driven out.

With William Sherman, Brown ran out of men to kill. The company returned to their camp, about a mile off, where they had left Townsley’s wagon and horses. With them came Dutch Henry’s horse, which Salmon rode. They stayed in camp until noon of the next day, during which time Salmon recalled that

My brother Owen felt terribly conscience-smitten because he had killed one of the Doyles, and he cried and took on at an agonizing rate.

Who killed William Sherman?

John Brown

In the morning, James Harris left the house from which John Brown and company took William Sherman out into the night. He can’t have expected a pleasant sight, given that he heard gunshots fifteen minutes after they took Sherman out and Dutch Bill never did come back. He knew that they had asked him about his position on slavery and the free state party. Harris got to go back into the cabin on the grounds that he intended no harm to antislavery Kansans. He only worked for a notorious proslavery man who had made direct threats against free state whites because Henry Sherman, Dutch’s Bill’s brother, paid well. The Shermans could hardly answer Brown’s questions the same way, or get him to believe them if they tried.

Harris found a mostly predictable sight:

That morning about ten o’clock I found William Sherman dead in the creek near my house. I was looking for Mr. Sherman, as he had not come back, I thought he had been murdered. I took Mr. William Sherman out of the creek and examined him. Mr. Whiteman was with me. Sherman’s skull was split open in two places and some of his brains was washed out by the water. A large hole was cut in his breast, and his left hand was cut off except a little piece of skin on one side. We buried him.

Harris probably expected a gunshot victim after hearing what he imagined as a cap bursting. Nineteenth century Americans had more acquaintance with blood and guts than most of us do, particularly the great majority who worked in or near agriculture. Harris probably knew butchery firsthand, though certainly not of humans. His affidavit doesn’t delve into how he reacted to the sight, which he probably would have found inappropriate as both a man and in a legal setting, but he knew Bill Sherman. Now he saw Bill Sherman’s brains laying out and his body all cut up. That had to make a dire impression.

One naturally wonders which of Brown’s men did the killing. Everyone witness agrees that except for putting a bullet through the head of the already dead James Doyle, Brown did nothing to his victims personally. Townsley points the finger at “Brown’s two youngest sons,” Owen and Salmon. Salmon denies it in his decades-later statement. He points the finger at Henry Thompson and Theodore Weiner. Salmon might have done that work and lied, but in this case he might have told the truth.

Townsley names the younger Brown sons, but he also thinks Watson Brown attended events. We know Watson remained in North Elba for all this. He doesn’t seem to have known the Brown family too well and he might have heard Thompson refer to Brown as “father” or something like that. As Brown’s son-in-law, he could easily have done so. From there it would take only a small error for him to to group Weiner in with Thompson. It would require a larger mistake to place Weiner back with him during the killing, but Townsley did gave his statement in the 1870s and memory fades. He may also have decided at some point that only the Browns did any killing as a way to further insulate himself from blame.

Ordinarily, I would side with Townsley on this kind of thing against Salmon; the latter’s pattern of evasion and invention speaks poorly to his credibility. However, this case departs from the usual. When Salmon kills someone at other points in the night, he names names for even his brother Owen. He references his own involvement indirectly, using the third person rather than completely erasing it. Nor does he pass his blame to a specific third party. Even in his version of the Harris encounter, Salmon places himself in the right place and doing the things that Harris confirms. On the balance, it looks more like Townsley made an error or deceived us here.

The Murder of William Sherman

John Brown

The Brown party came to one of Dutch Henry Sherman’s houses sometime after midnight, in the wee hours of May 25, 1856. John Brown, so scrupulously devout, took his killing into the Sabbath. Dutch Henry did not present himself, but they found some of his employees and a few people who bought a cow from him inside with his brother William. The Browns took a few men from the house and questioned them, including James Harris. They wanted to know where Dutch Henry got himself to, whether they had any weapons in the house, and what sort of political loyalties those present had. James Townsley didn’t hear the questioning, remaining some distance off with Theodore Weiner and Frederick Brown. From his remove, he saw that they

brought out one or two persons, talked with them some, and then took them in again.

According to Salmon Brown, he split from the group before all of this and came to Dutch Henry’s place alone. There he roused Harris and helped himself to a horse. Harris, who didn’t know Salmon, agrees that he helped himself to Henry Sherman’s horse. As before, Salmon’s odd omissions tell more than his words. In his version, he has an oddly cordial interaction with the man. He comes up and makes him ready the horse, then says good-bye and rides into the Kansas night. Harris told the Howard Committee that he did it all under duress and has no one riding off alone.

The affair with the horse left Harris outside with the Browns. Since he had cooperated and didn’t confess any hostility toward the free state party, taking Sherman’s money only because he paid well, the Browns chose to cut him loose. That meant back into the house, with “old man Brown and his son.” Inside remained Dutch Henry’s brother, Dutch Bill, a John S. Whiteman, and a man Harris didn’t know.  Then Brown took out Dutch Bill Sherman:

old man Brown asked Mr. Sherman to go out with him, and Mr. Sherman then went out with old Mr. Brown, and another man came into the house in Brown’s place. I heard nothing more for about fifteen minutes. Two of the northern army, as they styled themselves, stayed in with us until we heard a cap burst; and then these two men left. That morning about ten o’clock I found William Sherman dead in the creek near my house. I was looking for Mr. Sherman, as he had not come back, I thought he had been murdered. I took Mr. William Sherman out of the creek and examined him. Mr. Whiteman was with me. Sherman’s skull was split open in two places and some of his brains was washed out by the water. A large hole was cut in his breast, and his left hand was cut off except a little piece of skin on one side. We buried him.

Brown’s son in this version probably means Owen, the only one besides the old man that Harris knew by sight. Since Harris, inside, saw nothing and Salmon tells a story that has him entirely innocent but still coincidentally in the place where a man died at the right time, our best information comes from the distant Townsley as to what happened in those silent fifteen minutes:

They afterward brought out William Sherman, Dutch Henry’s brother, marched him down into the Potawatomie Creek, where he was slain with swords by Brown’s two youngest sons, and left lying in the creek.


“Thank you and goodbye.”

John Brown

Fresh off killing Allen Wilkinson, John Brown and his band of antislavery men headed down to a cabin owned by Dutch Henry Sherman. The German owned a few and lodged employees in them. About two in the morning on May 25, 1856, Brown came into one and found Dutch Henry’s brother, Dutch Bill, James Harris, and a few other people who had just done business with the Shermans and hadn’t gone home that night. Brown and his men burst in with swords and revolvers drawn. They collected the knives and gun in the room and “ransacked” the place for ammunition, according to James Harris.

Brown took out one of the three men who bought a cow and stayed the night, then returned him.

They then took me out, and asked me if there were any more men about the place. I told them there were not. They searched the place but found none others but we four.

Ok then. Did Harris know where Dutch Henry hid himself? He lost some cattle and had gone out to find them. Since Harris proved helpful enough, Brown and company kept questioning him:

They asked if I had ever taken any hand in aiding pro-slavery men in coming to the Territory of Kansas, or had ever taken any hand in the last troubles at Lawrence, and asked me whether I had ever done the free State party any harm or ever intended to do that party any harm; they asked me what made me live at such a place.

It paid well. Further questioning had Harris yield up that Henry Sherman had a horse present, complete with saddle. The Browns wanted it and had Harris saddle it up for them. Specifically, Salmon Brown may have done so. His own version has him split off from the rest of the group and go to the cabin on his own. We should not believe that but he may have reported the substance of his encounter with Harris over the horse:

The night of the slaying I went alone to the house of Mr. Harris, who worked for Dutch Henry, and had the care of a fine gray stallion. I made Harris saddle the animal and hold the stirrup for me to mount. I said, “Thank you and goodbye.” I never saw him again.

Each with a saber and two revolvers

John Brown

One of the Brown boys, either Salmon or Oliver, killed Allen Wilkinson with an artillery sword. We don’t know for sure, but the silence in Salmon’s account matches where he obscured his role in the murder of the Doyles. He starts off with an even chance and that pushes the odds further in his favor. Louisa Wilkinson, sick with measels, thought she heard him speaking outside and got to the door. She found only stillness in the night.

Next morning Mr. Wilkinson was found about one hundred and fifty yards from the house, in some dead brush. A lady who saw my husband’s body, said that there was a gash in his head and in his side; others said that he was cut in the throat twice.

Louisa didn’t see the body herself. She doesn’t say who found it, save that someone else did. They laid Allen out in a different house and forbade her from seeing him on account of her illness. She left Kansas in short order:

On the Wednesday following I left for fear of my life. I believe that they would have taken my life to prevent me from testifying against them for killing my husband. I believe that one of Captain Brown’s sons was in the party, who murdered my husband; I heard a voice like his. I do not know Captain Brown himself. I have two small children, one about eight and the other about five years old. The body of my husband was laid in a new house; I did not see it. My friends would not let me see him for fear of making me worse. I was very ill. The old man, who seemed to be commander, wore soiled clothes and a straw hat; pulled down over his face. He spoke quick, is a tall, narrow-faced, elderly man. I would recognize him if I could see him.

Brown might not have even thought of killing a woman or sufficiently small children, but one can’t vouch for his good character on such things to someone who just had her husband murdered. Furthermore, Wilkinson didn’t know if she’d have other visits to finish the job. Few people would rush to take chances in that situation.

Back on that bloody night, May 24-25, 1856, the Brown party moved on. Salmon has himself split off from the group by this point, but as before Townsley doesn’t mention any significant separation:

We then crossed the Potawatomie and came to the house of Henry Sherman, generally known as Dutch Henry. Here John Brown and the party, excepting Frederick Brown, Winer, and myself, who were left outside a short distance from the door, went into the house

By the third go, Brown had the procedure down. A few men waited outside while he and others plunged into Dutch Henry’s house. There they found no Dutch Henry. Sherman owned several houses in the area and let his employees live in them. One of those boarder employees, James Harris, tells what happened inside:

On last Sunday morning, about two o’clock, (the 25th of May last,) whilst my wife and child and myself were in bed in the house where we lived, we were aroused by a company of men who said they belonged to the northern army, and who were each armed with a sabre and two revolvers, two of whom I recognized, namely; a Mr. Brown, whose given name I do not remember, commonly known by the appellation of “old man Brown,” and his son, Owen Brown. They came in the house and approached the bed side where we were lying, and ordered us, together with three other men who were in the same house with me; to surrender; that the northern army was upon us, and it would be no use for us to resist.

It seems they quit with the pretense of knocking on doors and asking directions, likely because Brown expected to find the Shermans inside. He got Henry’s brother Dutch Bill, at least. A few people that Harris didn’t know slept over that night too, having just bought a cow from Dutch Henry.