A naked man and a northern armist

John Brown

Owen and Salmon Brown murdered James, William, and Drury Doyle in the dead of the Kansas night. They hauled all three from their home and laid into them with artillery swords, leaving the bodies behind when the moved on. Mahala Doyle and John Doyle found their mutilated corpses the next day. John Brown himself had charge of the group, chose the victims, and took them prisoner. His sons did the cutting while he stood to one side, rapt. He never left any explanation of what went through his mind that. Decades later, Salmon had no idea and seemed especially puzzled by his father’s inaction ending with a bullet through the skull of the already dead James Doyle.

Maybe things got out of hand and Brown only meant a scare after all. Maybe the sight of his sons murdering a man and two of his own sons shocked the old man. Maybe he didn’t know they could do it, or that he could, until the blades fell. Maybe he was proud that his boys did what needed doing without prompting or cajoling. We can’t know, so anything we put in his mind at that moment speaks only of ourselves.

Salmon says that the party had split up and Brown’s next killings happened simultaneously. James Townsley, also there that night, mentions no such division. Salmon’s version obscures his own role, if not well, and he puts himself away from the next mayhem. Most likely, he hoped an incautious reader would miss the point and think him a pure bystander. Anyone with fingers to count by and a list of the men in the Brown party, which Salmon proffered, can see through it but he did try. The group, probably all of them, moved on to Allen Wilkinson’s place.

Townsley describes the procedure as essentially the one used at the door of the Doyle cabin:

Here the old man Brown, three of his sons and son-in-law, as at the Doyle residence, went to the door and ordered Wilkinson to come out, leaving Frederick Brown, Winer, and myself, standing in the road east of the house.

Again a loud dog greeted them, but this one seems not to have attacked. The dog roused Lousia Wilkinson, who lay sick in bed with measels. Allen Wilkinson told her it was just someone passing by and she went back to sleep. Soon enough the dog had her awake once more.

pretty soon I heard footsteps as of men approaching; saw one pass by the window, and some one knocked at the door. I asked, who is that? No one answered. I awoke my husband, who asked, “who is that? Some one replied, I want you to tell me the way to Dutch Henry’s. He commenced to tell them, and they said to him, “Come out and show us.”

Allen meant to oblige, which would have gotten an honest stranger on their way and left the Wilkinsons to sleep. Louisia argued against it, so Allen called out that he could give directions verbally and that would have to suffice. He couldn’t find his clothes in the dark, you understand.

The men out of doors, after that, stepped back, and I thought I could hear them whispering; but they immediately returned; and, as they approached, one of them asked of my husband, “Are you a northern armist?” He said, “I am.” I understood the answer to mean that my husband was opposed to the northern or freesoil party. I cannot say that I understood the question. My husband was a pro-slavery man, and was a member of the territorial legislature held at Shawnee Mission.

I don’t understand the choice of words any better than Louisa. Brown might have meant northern Kansas, where the proslavery men had the greatest strength. The northern part of the territory more directly abutted Missouri’s plantation belt. Northern arms could mean proslavery militia in that context, but I’ve never elsewhere seen it put that way. Still, if everyone understood what Brown meant then it can’t have come entirely without context.


Two dead on the road and one dead on the ground

John Brown

While James Townsley, Oliver, and Frederick Brown stood nearby, and Theodore Wiener and Henry Thompson at more of a distance, John Brown and his sons Owen and Salmon hauled James Doyle and his two eldest sons, William and Drury out of their cabin and into the Kansas night. The old man spared a third son, aged sixteen, at his mother’s pleading. The antislavery men hauled the Doyles distance from the cabin and then Owen and Salmon took to them with artillery swords. The Doyles tried to defend themselves, but James and William fell quickly. The Brown boys hacked into them and got a slash or two in on Drury before he managed to run. As Townsley puts it:

One of the young Doyle’s [sic] was stricken down in an instant, but the other attempted to escape, and was pursued a short distance by his assailant and cut down.

Then John Brown put a bullet through James Doyle’s head, to make sure. None of the witnesses give enough information for us to know which of the Brown boys chased after Drury Doyle, but it would almost surely have been Salmon or Owen. In the morning, Mahala and John went to see what had become of their loved ones. She

found my husband and William, my son, lying dead in the road near together, about two hundred yards from the house. My other son I did not see any more until the day he was buried. I was so much overcome that I went to the house. They were buried the next day. On the day of the burying I saw the dead body of Drury. Fear of myself and. the remaining children induced me to leave the home where we had been living. We had improved our claim a little. I left all and went to the State of Missouri

The Doyles preferred slavery to freedom, but they remained human beings as capable of pain and loss as anyone. Overcome, Mahala went back inside. That left John to find Drury:

The next morning was Sunday, the 25th of May, 1856. I went in search of my father and two brothers. I found my father and one brother, William, lying dead in the road, about two hundred yards from the house; I saw my other brother lying dead on the ground, about one hundred and fifty yards from the house, in the grass, near a ravine; his fingers were cut off; and his arms were cut off; his head was cut open; there was a hole in his breast. William’s head was cut open, and a hole was in his jaw, as though it was made by a knife, and a hole was also in his side. My father was shot in the forehead and stabbed in the breast.

That kind of sight would stick with you.

Townsley, who has every reason to make the Browns look bad, insists that no intentional mutilation of the bodies took place; they hardly needed it. Cutting people apart makes a terrible mess, even if the injuries suggest they did die quickly. Drury probably lost his arms by raising them in defense, though that wouldn’t offer any comfort at all to the bereaved.

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.

A dead dog, tears, the report of pistols, and a wild whoop

John Brown

We left John Brown’s small band fleeing a dark cabin somewhere near Mosquito Creek. They stole up to it and someone -maybe Brown himself- knocked at the door. A gun stuck out through the wall and everyone embarked on a spirited chase for the better part of valor. Retreat failed to produce rout, though. Brown and his men continued on through the night, coming in short order to the Doyle claim. It was around eleven o’clock, May 24, 1856.

Townsley, who remained with the group despite a possible attempt to flee when they all scattered, has John Brown, three of his sons, and his son-in-law Henry Thompson all to go the door. Frederick Brown and Theodore Weiner stayed back with him. As they approached,

a large dog attacked us. Frederick Brown struck the dog a blow with his short two-edged sword, after which I dealt him a blow on the head with my sabre and heard no more from him.

Townsley maintains that he took part in all of this under protest once he learned of Brown’s true intentions. Apparently Brown found his protests so convincing and troubling that he armed the Marylander. Salmon Brown didn’t miss the point when he gave his own version:

Old man Tousley [Townsley] went after the dogs with a broadsword and he and my brother Fred soon had them all laid out. Tousley then went in without being asked and worked with all his might, but not as a prisoner as he afterwards claimed.

One can’t begrudge a person for defending himself against a hostile animal; that Townsley killed a dog doesn’t implicate him in murdering people. The fact that he did it with a sword supplied by John Brown, which Brown let him keep despite his protests, suggests strongly that he participated under rather less duress than he might have wanted posterity to know.

As the dogs died, Brown and his companions knocked at the door of the Doyle cabin. Within it lived James P. Doyle, his wife Mahala, and their children: William (22), Drury (20), John (16), Polly Ann (13), James (10), and Charles (8). Mahala and John later made statements under oath as to what happened. All had retired to bed by this time, but the people at the door asked for James and he got up to answer them. They wanted to know where to find Allen Wilkerson. James opened the door to give them directions, at which point Brown and company burst in. They declared they had come “from the army” and that they took the Doyles prisoner. They said also that if the older male Doyles surrendered, they would suffer no harm. Brown made no threats against Mahala, her daughter, or James Junior and Charles. He wanted James the elder, William, Drury, and John.

According to Salmon Brown, this prompted a fiery response from Mrs. Doyle, who

gave them a terrible scoring as they were being taken from the house. She said, “I told you you would get into trouble for all your devilment; and now you see it has come.”

Mahala and her son remember things differently. She might well have said something like that out of sincere feeling, panic, or to make herself more sympathetic to the Browns as she pleaded for her loved ones. Either way, they took out James first, then came back for William, Drury, and John. She pleaded through tears for John to stay with her, which Brown agreed to.

In a short time afterwards I heard the report of pistols. I heard two reports, after which I heard moaning, as if a person was dying; then I heard a wild whoop.

“Wild and frenzied”

John Brown

James Townsley told posterity that John Brown had a plan. He meant to go down by the Pottawatomie and purge the entire area of proslavery whites. Townsley balked at that, but Brown wouldn’t let him leave the group. Wiping out the proslavery party in the vicinity does sound like a John Brown kind of plan, but his biographers tend to doubt Townsley here. John Brown could and would kill men, but only Townsley gives the general purge version of the story. The others agree that Brown intended a more precise strike than that, aimed at leading men who held office under the territorial government or who had otherwise threatened free state families.

Brown spent Saturday, the 24th of May, in the woods with his men. The news of Lawrence and Sumner had already driven them to a fever pitch; Salmon describes the group as “crazy”. Near to sundown, so not long before they made their camp, James Blood saw Townsley’s timber wagon. When he drew near, Brown called for him to stop. As Villard tells it:

Blood remembered afterwards that the men in the wagon were armed with rifles, revolvers, knives and General Bierce’s short heavy broadswords, for which John Brown had given him one of these cutlasses when in Lawrence during the Wakarusa excitement. Brown, Blood found to be very indignant that Lawrence had been sacked without a shot being fired in its behalf. He denounced the leading Free State men as cowards or worse. “His manner,” wrote Colonel Blood twenty-three years later, “was wild and frenzied, and the whole party watched with an excited eagerness every word or motion of the old man.”

Brown let Blood go, with the request that he keep his mouth shut about the unspecified secret mission that the group undertook just then. Blood went on and so did Brown’s company. Hindsight tempts one to imagine that Blood exaggerated the hold Brown had over his men at that point, but Brown had an intensity about him that many admired. He spent that Saturday, and the prior evening too, reminding everyone of the situation and what needed doing. Somewhere in this, Townsley claims he learned of the full plan for the first time and tried to back out. He might have spent some time trying to talk Brown out of everything and credits himself with keeping Brown for a solid day. The Marylander argued that Brown needed him as a guide, which Salmon disputes on the grounds that Weiner lived in the area and could have done that job.

Villard judges that the group needed a rest and that explained the delay. They spent the previous night on the march, then had a full day’s work before heading out on bumpy roads to their eventual camp. Anyone would need some sleep after all that and since Brown planned to attack at night, opportunity knocked. Townsley has himself argue with Brown about the plan for at least some of that time, but in the end he went along and later claimed he did so unwillingly. They got going around ten Saturday night, crossing Mosquito Creek near the Doyle’s and approaching a dark cabin. Someone -likely Brown- knocked on the door and received an answer in the form of a gun barrel shoved through a gap in the wall. According to Salmon,

at that we all scattered. We did not disturb that man. With some candle wicking soaked in coal oil to light and throw inside, so that we could see within and he could not see outside, we would have managed it. But we had none.


“He proposed to sweep the creek”

John Brown

John Brown had heard enough of this talk about caution. The men at Lawrence refused to fight and the proslavery men wrecked the town. He had friends and family back around Osawatomie, in close company with increasingly belligerent proslavery neighbors and lately at least some of Jefferson Buford’s expedition of militants. The come had come to do something, whether his eldest son liked it or not. About two in the afternoon on May 23, 1856, Brown and his handpicked party left the camp they had shared with the Pottawatomie Rifles. They piled up in James Townsley’s wagon, and Theodore Weiner followed along on his pony. According to Townsley, they made it to about two or three miles short of the Pottawatomie and abandoned the road in favor of some timber land between a pair of ravines. That left them about a mile from Dutch Henry’s Crossing.

After my team was fed and the party had taken supper, John Brown told me for the first time what he proposed to do. He said he wanted me to pilot the company up to the forks of the creek some five or six miles above, into the neighborhood in which I lived, and show them were all the pro-slavery men resided; that he proposed to sweep the creek as he came down of all the pro-slavery men living on it. I positively refused to do it.

Or so Townsley says. If you have a copy of Louis Ruchames’ A John Brown Reader, from which I have taken both accounts, you can flip back a few pages and find Salmon Brown’s version. He maintains consistently that everybody knew what his father meant to do. They left to cheers from the men who didn’t come along. Townsley started out “in high glee,” actually volunteering to drive the group. Then Townsley “got weak in the knees and wanted to quit from sheer fear.” That would compromise the whole mission, so they could not let him bolt. Whether Townsley knew of Brown’s murderous intentions from the start or not, Stephen Oates suggests that finding out the old man meant to drag men out of their homes at night and kill them with swords might have changed his mind. One can imagine a gunshot as clean. The victim could die instantly and at a distance. Cutting apart a living person involved a whole new level of brutality from the perpetrator, even if the victim ended just as dead.

Townsley doesn’t mention any threats against him which might have kept him in the camp. Given that they would tend to mitigate his involvement, he would hardly have omitted such a thing. It seems Brown talked him into sticking around somehow, maybe with an unspoken threat that Townsley didn’t think amounted to enough to matter for posterity. However it happened, the attack got pushed back a night. Townsley tried to leave again and again Brown “refused to let me do so.” They kept in the trees all day and into the next night, at which point Brown ordered them out. In Salmon’s version, the delay came down entirely to the need for darkness to cover the group’s movements. Likewise, they must use their swords because the report of firearms “would have aroused the whole neighborhood.”

“I am eternally tired of hearing that word caution.”

John Brown

John Brown, Junior, told his father that he should commit no rash act. That triggered a father-son argument that ended with the elder Brown storming off. Brown had gone around, perhaps discreetly, asking volunteers for some kind of secret mission or, as his son would put it, the rash act in question. Salmon Brown, one of the volunteers, said years later that everyone in the camp understood Brown’s rash act as a planned killing. He, his brothers Frederick, Owen, and Oliver, and Henry Thompson formed the heart of Brown’s group. Brown also reached out to James Hanway, who took a pass. Theodore Weiner, who had previous run-ins with the Sherman brothers and the Doyles, signed on as well.

All those signed up for Brown’s secret mission so far also served in his little militia company, rather than the Pottawatomie Rifles under the command of the younger John Brown. One could expect a stronger degree of prior commitment from people who agreed to take his lead from the start. He approached at least one more man from outside that group, Marylander James Townsley. Townsley had military experience dating back to the Seminole War, but mustered out in 1844 and made his living as a painter. He came to Kansas in late 1855. Townsley remained there in the late 1870s, at which point the Kansas papers had some discussion over what had happened and someone realized they had an eyewitness still at hand. A lawyer rounded up James Hanway and went out to see Townsley, who obliged them.

About noon the next day, the 23rd, old John Brown came to me and said he had just received information that trouble was expected on the Potawatomie, and wanted to know if I wold take my team and take him and his boys back so they could keep watch of what was going on.

Townsley agreed, Salmon says “with glee.” He had family back there himself. With Townsley committed, Brown set to breaking camp while his sons began sharpening swords. Stephen Oates describes the weapons and their odd history:

These weapons, with ornamental eagles etched on their blades, had a bizarre history. Originally made as artillery broadswords, they had been sold as surplus property to an Ohio filibustering society called the Grand Eagles, whose members had indulged in fantasies of attacking and conquering Canada. But their plans had never worked out, and when Brown came through Akron, asking for guns and money to defend Kansas from the Slave Power, a member of the defunct society had given the swords to him.

Brown’s biographer, Villard, has John Junior and Jason with them sharpening the blades. This seems at first blush improbable, given that Junior had just tried talking his father down and Jason would remain behind, but Villard cites a statement from Jason supporting the point. He insisted that while he did put a grindstone to use that day, he had no idea what John Brown meant to do with the weapons.

George Grant noticed this going on and asked Frederick Brown if he could ride along when they moved out. Frederick asked John Brown, who told him no and advised that he have witnesses who could confirm his whereabouts in the coming night. Boys eager for adventure had best stay away from his plans, apparently.

James Hanway marked all the sharpening too and thought, like Grant did, that it meant something. He found out enough of the plan from one of the members to shock him and approached Brown, advising “caution.” Brown shot up:

Caution, caution, sir. I am eternally tired of hearing that word caution. It is nothing but the word of cowardice.


“Commit no rash act”

John Brown

We have three versions of what happened before John Brown and a few others went off to make their mark on the bodies of some proslavery men down by Pottawatomie. Henry Williams told everyone that the murders Brown directed there came as a complete surprise. James Hanway said that Brown approached him individually. Salmon Brown would have posterity believe that everyone in the militia camp that night had a good idea of what Brown intended and eagerly approved, to the point of the aforementioned Williams writing up a literal hit list for Brown.

As always, our sources come to us with agendas attached. Salmon wants to make his and his father’s acts more conventional and thus his story emphasizes how everyone knew what John Brown meant to do and approved. Williams and Hanway, who didn’t take part in the killings, don’t want any connection to them and so respectively plead total innocence and personal refusal. One has a natural temptation to pick someone who lied and ignore their account. People do lie in their own interests all the time, so it makes sense to find the liars and discard them. When we have clear indications of falsehood, doing so might even make for good historical practice.

With the Browns in camp, we have a genuinely ambiguous situation. Even if everyone shaded the truth, we can’t presume that someone spoke only falsehoods. That leaves us with contradictory stories to reconcile. Stephen Oates does his best with the unclear, conflicting testimony. He suggests that Brown might have had a general council of war among his own small company of six men, Salmon included. Thus his son could later say that the full company knew what Brown meant and things could still come as a surprise to Hanway and Williams. However, that still leaves Salmon’s story that Williams wrote up a list of men to kill in grave doubt. Williams might have done so, but it seems unlikely that Brown either needed help picking targets or would have accepted it if he did. It also strains credulity to think that Salmon meant only a half dozen or so people when he said that

The general purport of our intentions -some radical retaliatory measure – some killing- was well understood by the whole camp.

That said, it wouldn’t take a lot of insight to imagine that John Brown meant to do something violent to proslavery men. If he had his council among his own group, maybe with a few hangers-on, then it seems that John Junior caught word of it and tried to step in. This may have happened about the time that Brown went out recruiting Hanway or another man, which would make sense if Brown aimed for some secrecy, but Junior could have overheard his father’s angry talk as easily as Hanway did and acted from that. As Oates puts it, Brown got Theodore Weiner to sign on, on the grounds that he’d caught the wrong side of the Shermans and Doyles before, and then Junior spoke up:

“Father, I object to any of the men leaving. We are getting up here near the enemy and may need them.” Apparently an argument broke out between father and son. Then the old man stomped off with Wiener following. Suddenly apprehensive, John Jr. called out, “Father, be careful and commit no rash act.”


“Some killing”

John Brown

We left John Brown on May 23, 1856. He had news of the fall of Lawrence and probably the caning of Charles Sumner. Convinced that someone must do something, and likely also that free state families now remained around Osawatomie at some peril, Brown resolved that something must be done. He went off and asked a man named James Hanway to come along for that something. Hanway told us that Brown informed him about what he had in mind, though he doesn’t say clearly if Brown mentioned murder or if he just made a general reference to some kind of reprisal. Either way, it sounds like Brown approached him personally and at least somewhat in private. On the balance, that seems the most likely version of events.

Salmon Brown told a different story, which will bear a look.

The general purport of our intentions -some radical retaliatory measure – some killing- was well understood by the whole camp. You never heard such cheering as when we started out. They were wild with excitement and enthusiasm. The principal man -the leader- in council that resolved on the necessity of Pottawatomie, -was H.H. Williams: I do not know that I ought to tell this since he himself has not; but it is the fact. He was wholly determined that the thing must be done. He knew all those men on the Pottawatomie, better than any of us. He lived among them -was familiar with all their characters. he was now the most active of us all in urging this step. And not fifteen minutes before we left to go to Pottawatomie I saw him, myself, write out a list of the men who were to be killed and hand it to father.

One should view a statement by a participant decades later in the vein of everyone sharing in his crime and casting the real instigator as someone else with a mine or two of salt. Salmon has an obvious interest in vindicating himself and his martyred father. Spreading the blame around at least makes them less singular militants and more of their times. It paints the coming murders as something in the air, which anybody might do. As such, could one really hold them responsible? Or rather, might one view them as acting in the right?

Williams depicts himself as surprised to learn of the killings, which he obviously could not manage honestly if Salmon told the whole truth here. But if he did know then he has every reason to disassociate himself. Salmon casts him as the kind of man happy to dream up violence, but unwilling to get his own hands dirty:

Then, when it was all over, and he found out how the people down at home took it, he got scared. He hadn’t the backbone to stand by his own mind, against popular opinion, -he went back on his own radical measures, weakened, did not confess to his own share in their origin, and counselled peace. In fact, he got scared.

Salmon paints an intensely unflattering picture of Williams. One can’t read him and fail to imagine some after the fact score settling. But that still leaves us with two different versions of what went on at the Rifles’ camp that day. In Hanway’s, John Brown recruits people individually and tells them what he means to do. In Salmon’s, everyone in the camp understands that Brown meant murder from the get-go.



“Now something must be done”

John Brown

On May 25, 1856, the Pottawatomie Rifles and associated free state militia companies learned of Lawrence’s surrender and sack. After some discussion, they agreed to disperse to their homes. It probably helped that the United States Army arrived with orders to get every militant on hand back where they belonged, instead of gathered up and ready to start a little war. On the way back to Osawatomie, John Brown Junior lost his captaincy of the Rifles on the grounds that he freed a pair of slaves, which no one much liked, and that his father killed five people. That brings him up to May 27, with his father largely unaccounted for in that time. The version he gave his family via letter tells us little more. On the way home they stopped three proslavery men, who they released sans horses.

We were immediately after this accused of murdering five men at Pottawatomie

According to Jason Brown, the elder John Brown and his six-man company departed a bit before the 25th. They’d gone through the night to reach Prairie City with the others, but left there in the morning on Friday, May 23. He felt a stronger urgency than the others, as Jason later related:

Father cooked for our company. While he was cooking breakfast, I heard him, Townsley and wiener talking together. I heard Townsley say: ‘We expect to be butchered, every Free State settler in our region,’ and Townsley pleaded that help should be sent. I heard their talk only in fragments. Then I heard father say to Weiner: ‘Now something must be done. we have got to defend our families and our neighbors as best we can. Something is going to be done now. We must show by actual work that there are two sides to this thing and that they cannot go on with impunity.’

This happened on the morning of the departure, but before Brown and his small band left; Jason remained with the Rifles. Brown must have decided on some kind of action before leaving, as he went recruiting. James Hanway, one of the Rifles, has a statement on that in Sanborn’s Life and Letters of John Brown. A messenger came into camp, Hanway thinks one of Grant’s sons, and told that proslavery men had gone around Pottawatomie making a new round of threats against the free staters. That would match George Grant’s statement well enough; the news might have come directly from the threat to Squire Morse.

Old John Brown, who had a firm belief that Providence directed his steps in all undertakings, immediately raised a small party of men, and visited those who had been the instigators of this threatening movement. I think it was May 23, about two P.M., that John Brown and his party left our camp. When Brown was packing up his camp kettles, etc., at Middle Ottawa Creek, I was invited to become one of the party, by one of the eight who formed the company. I was informed at the time of the purpose of the expedition, and the necessity there was to carry out the programme.

Hanway took a pass and might have spoken with the benefit of hindsight, but it doesn’t strain credulity to imagine Brown spoke openly of violent reprisals against proslavery men. He had to have a sympathetic audience in a group literally formed to fight for a free Kansas, particularly if they just then also had news of Charles Sumner’s caning to further outrage them, as Salmon Brown thinks they did. Salmon didn’t know for sure, decades after the fact, but news could have reached Kansas via telegraph by that point and the company seems to have had regular messengers in and out of camp to bring it to them.