Governor Shannon Receives News from Pottawatomie

John Brown

News of John Brown’s murders along the Pottawatomie got out fast. We’ve followed it reaching his son’s militia company and through the arrest of his uninvolved sons, John, Jr., and Jason. That necessarily gave us a look at word reaching Sterling Cato, who ordered up the arrest of the Browns and so consummated one of their longstanding fears. But news also reached further in Kansas, as the general alarm indicated. Proslavery men feared that Brown would continue his murders night by night. They could dream up legions of bloody-minded abolitionists coming for them and their families. Governor Shannon learned of the massacre thrice over, in letters he copied to Franklin Pierce as part of his explanation for all that had gone wrong at Lawrence. He explained to the president that “Comment is unnecessary.”

Shannon presented Cato’s letter from Paola first:

DEAR SIR: You will have learned, perhaps before this reaches you, that Mr. Allen Wilkinson, Mr. Doyle and two sons, and Mr. Sherman, all of Franklin county, were on Saturday night last most foully and barbarously murdered. There can be no doubt of the fact that such murders have been perpetrated, and that the community, as I understand, generally suspect that the Browns and Partridges are the guilty parties. I shall do everything in my power to have the matter investigated and there seems to be a disposition on the part of the Free-State men in Franklin to aid in having the laws enforced.

I have never elsewhere heard of the Partridges, Gentle Readers. No one by that name played a role in the killing, though their inclusion speaks to the general confusion about who had done what in the immediate aftermath.

Wilson Shannon

Cato did not delude himself here. The murders shocked many free state men, who felt obligated to denounce them and commit themselves to bringing the guilty to justice. Probably most of those felt a combination of genuine abhorrence toward the brutal murders of men taken unresisting from their beds and fears that the proslavery hammer would come down on everyone. More on this in future posts.

The judge told Governor Shannon that he would get the evidence he needed and issue warrants forthwith, promising the officers bound to serve them “all the aid necessary to execute the law.” In other words, Cato might have made promises that Shannon would need to keep or share some responsibility for. He had no army himself, nor delegated command of the United States Army in the area. He had to, the Governor should understand, because

These murders were most foully committed in the night-time by a gang of some twelve or fifteen persons, calling on, and dragging from their homes, defenseless and unsuspecting citizens, and murdering, and, after murdering, mutilating their bodies in a very shocking manner.

Everyone involved denied that the Browns mutilated bodies, but no one in Kansas had CSI to put the Doyles, Wilkinson, or Dutch Bill Sherman into a magic machine and cough up a neat dating of the injuries. Hacking people up with swords makes a mess regardless of one’s intentions. Shooting someone did not leave them less dead, but did tend toward a less gory spectacle. Though Brown chose the blades for stealth, the ruin they worked served better than bullets might have in his goal of spreading general terror among proslavery Kansans.

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