The Murder of James, William, and Drury Doyle

John Brown

After fleeing a cabin where a gun stuck through the wall to answer their knocks, John Brown and his men set out for the Doyle claim. They found the Doyles and their five children, ages eight to twenty-two, asleep. James Doyle got up to answer the door. Brown asked for directions. James opened up to oblige and then the men were inside, guns and swords at the ready. They took Doyle prisoner and came back for his three eldest sons. Mahala Doyle pleaded for the youngest of those three, John, and the antislavery men left the sixteen year-old. Mahala and John told us that, but they didn’t see what happened after the others left the cabin. For that, we must rely on Salmon Brown and James Townsley, with brief input from Henry Thompson.

Salmon tells the story in two terse sentences and a longer postscript:

The three Doyles were taken out of the house to a point a half mile or so away and were slain with broadswords. Owen Brown cut down one of them and another of the Browns cut down the old man and the other. […] Father never raised a hand in slaying the men. He shot a bullet intot he head of old man Doyle about a half hour after he was dead, but what for I do not know. Perhaps it was to call Thompson and Winer so that they could locate us and we could all get together and return to our camp.

Brown had every reason, including a desire to preserve some of his father’s and brothers’ memory, to keep it brief. One gets the sense reading him that he did not care to revisit these memories, so getting it over with quickly may have factored in as well. Townsley, writing much closer to the event and keen to excuse himself, expounds at more length:

The old man Doyle and two sons were called out and marched some distance from the house toward Dutch Henry’s in the road, where a halt was made. Old John Brown drew his revolver and shot the old man in the forehead, and Brown’s two youngest sons immediately fell upon the younger Doyles with their short two-edged swords.

One of the young Doyles was stricken down in an instant, but the other attempted to escape, and was pursued a short distance by his assailant and cut down.

Townsley doesn’t name names of Brown’s sons and Owen names only one, so which other Brown son cut into the Doyles with an artillery sword that night? Brown had four sons with him. Frederick and Oliver didn’t lay hands on the Doyles. We know Owen did. That leaves us only one Brown present and unaccounted for: our source, Salmon. He wouldn’t put it in writing, but he had to know his readers would do the math.

All the witnesses, even Mahala Doyle who couldn’t see the shot, agree that someone fired a gun. Both who saw it agree that John Brown did so, but Townsley and Salmon Brown differ on his exact role. Henry Thompson weighs in through a statement in Villard’s biography that he didn’t see the shot himself, but asked about it when he rejoined the group and everyone agreed that John Brown shot a dead man. He seems to have stood aside and did nothing while his sons cut three men up before him and chased after the one who tried to flee, only moving himself after the deed was done.


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