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.