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.


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