“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.


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