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.


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