A Closer Look at David Rice Atchison, Part Two

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)


We left David Rice Atchison, Senator from Missouri, invisible in the records. Between February second and twentieth of 1855, he drops off the map. During that time, Lewis Cass believed that Atchison toured the South soliciting support for his crusade in Kansas. Large rallies would have generated news reports, but if Atchison came to a state capital quietly and talked to fellow politicians behind closed doors, we might never know. Outside of Missouri and Washington, few people likely knew him on sight. He appears again back in Missouri, possibly in St. Louis on the twentieth and definitely in Jefferson City by the twenty-second.

Bourbon Dave arrived to disappointing news. The Missouri legislature had just voted to postpone choosing a new senator. Until that point, Atchison may have expected easy reelection. It turned out that his battle with Thomas Hart Benton had cost him the support of many Democrats, enough together with Missouri’s Whigs to deny him a clear majority. With nothing much to do in the state capital, he made for the border the next day. He had Kansas to save for slavery, after all. Elections for the legislature would take place on March 30 and he could hardly miss that. On the twenty-fifth, Atchison went into Kansas in the company of “eighty men and twenty-four wagons.” He came packing two Bowie knives and four pistols, just for himself. The proceeds of his movement, in fraud and intimidation, amounted to control of the legislature of Kansas.

Robert Morse Taliaferro Hunter (D-VA)

Atchison wrote his F Street messmate, Robert M.T. Hunter, celebrating the victory and asking for ten thousand southerners to come and consolidate their victory. If they could “take possession of and hold every acre of timber” then Kansas could never go against slavery. Missouri could swing half of the ten thousand, he believed, but the rest of the section had to do its part. If the section failed Atchison, then it would lose Missouri and, soon after, Texas and Arkansas. With them gone, the South would have to concede the territories entire to freedom.

But none of this made Atchison “a Bandit, a ruffian, an Aaron Burr.” Atchison did not, he would have his friend know, preside over a regime of violent hooliganism. Instead he saved the lives and homes of antislavery Kansans by restraining his men. Where he went, nothing violent transpired. He couldn’t claim any responsibility for other places, but he assured Hunter that only the most impudent got “the hickory.”

One must suspect Atchison of polishing up his reputation here, but the Howard Report found only violent threats where he personally went. He may, as he did when proslavery forces moved against Lawrence, have acted to restrain his followers just as he claimed. He still got the mob in position where it could do harm and we ought to understand the border ruffians as part of a movement he started, organized, and led. The two do not cancel out, but only together form a complete picture of Missouri’s senator.

Andrew Butler of South Carolina, another of Atchison’s late messamates fabulously declared

the advent of Kansas shall be to the living Atchison a Star in his varied galaxy of life.

A young friend or relation of Butler’s had just gone off to Kansas and Butler asked Atchison to look after him.

James Mason

James Mason, author of the Fugitive Slave Act, proved less effusive. He heard rumors that people in Kansas wanted Andrew Reeder deposed in favor of a more pliable governor. The proslavery side should not use their victory as an excuse to color outside the legal lines. Instead, if Reeder proved intransigent against the proslavery legislature, then they could charge him with various offenses and ask his removal. Atchison had anticipated Mason’s advice, bending Franklin Pierce’s ear on the issue through his old friend, classmate, and present Secretary of War. Jefferson Davis had his back, to the point where the papers referred to a coalition of the two men against Reeder. In the summer, Pierce fired him at the request of Kansas’ legislature.

In the mean time, Atchison’s Platte County men destroyed the Parkville Industrial Luminary for objecting to how Missouri had outright stolen Kansas’ legislature. Parrish, Atchison’s biographer, stresses that he has no evidence the man himself took part in the destruction, but also notes that the Squatter Sovereign praised the act. Given the close personal and political relationship between the brothers Stringfellow and Atchison, it seems unlikely they would have done so if Atchison objected. Instead they advised continuing the campaign against antislavery papers elsewhere in Missouri and, as they later would, in Lawrence.

Atchison’s reelection campaign also got off to an odd start. A proslavery convention met at St. Louis between the twelfth and fourteenth of July. It heard a motion that Atchison and his old law partner Alexander Doniphan, leading contenders for the Senate seat, give speeches. Atchison tried to give them a pass, aiming to keep the convention a proslavery affair rather than introduce partisanship into things. Doniphan, a Whig, followed his lead. The convention wouldn’t hear of it and appointed a committee, which Atchison again refused. The usual order of such things seems to have involved such refusals, but then one reconsidered when a committee affirmed that the convention really wanted you to speak. Maybe Atchison proved himself in earnest in the hopes that it would win him popularity enough to keep his post in the Senate, but Parrish rightly points out that he didn’t give up on Kansas after realizing that he would not again serve as senator. Rebuffed, the convention turned to the favorite pastime of nineteenth century mass meetings: drawing up a set of resolutions. Over in Kansas., the free state men did the same.

Wilson Shannon Goes to Leavenworth, Part Two

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon

Part 1

We left Wilson Shannon at the Law and Order Convention in Leavenworth, on the fourteenth of November, 1855. At the time, I had only limited access to the Library of Congress historical newspaper database. This no longer holds and so I can check William Phillips’ assertion that the governor came at a delegate from Douglas County. The Squatter Sovereign printed a delegate list that agreed with him:

Delegates from Douglas and Doniphan Counties as listed in the Squatter Sovereign

Delegates from Douglas and Doniphan Counties as listed in the Squatter Sovereign

I don’t know the exact boundaries of Douglas County as of 1855, but I suspect that neither Shannon nor former and future Acting Governor Daniel Woodson lived within them. All of those delegates had to come from somewhere. Phillips suggests that maybe three men got together somewhere and named Shannon.. The convention would hardly have scrutinized the qualifications of a sitting governor they wanted as a patron.

From the Sovereign I also learn that while chosen to represent Doniphan, Patrick Laughlin did not appear. A separate piece informs the reader that Laughlin remained confined the bed and alleges some kind of free soil midnight raid on the place where he rested to finish him off. Given Laughlin didn’t sound well before, it seems Doniphan made him a delegate as a show of support rather than with the expectation that he would attend the convention.

The convention named Shannon its president and according to the Sovereign he made one of those long nineteenth century political speeches:

more than an hour in a very able and earnest manner, and to the entire satisfaction of all present. His address satisfied all that he was an able, liberal, devoted patriot; States Rights to the back-bone. We shall not do him the injustice of attempting even a synopsis of his admirable effort.

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

We don’t have to entirely take the Sovereign’s word for it. A copy, or at least a good synopsis, probably went around. It might have gone into the Leavenworth Kansas Herald, but the Library of Congress scans for that paper run out before the convention. William Phillips denounced Shannon’s words as “indiscreet and partisan,” which suggests that the convention got exactly what it wanted. Shannon, per Phillips, committed himself to

enforce obedience to the laws enacted at the Shawnee Mission; and he called upon those by whom he was surrounded to aid him in enforcing those laws. He took occasion to denounce the constitutional movement at Topeka; declaring it treasonable, and expressed his determination that such a state of affairs must not be permitted. In this speech he also alluded, in disrespectful terms, to the majority in Congress, and said that, in the next presidential election, the party with which he then acted would carry everything before them.

Levrett Spring agrees that Shannon made quite the speech, adding that he pledged Franklin Pierce backed the proslavery party.

Friends of Law and Order in Doniphan, Part Two

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon

We left the October 30, 1855 Squatter Sovereign reporting on the local meeting in Doniphan to select representatives for the Law and Order Convention to meet at Leavenworth. The gathering chose its delegates and further published a series of resolutions deeply informed by the late revelations from Patrick Laughlin regarding the Kansas Legion. With Laughlin then nursing a would acquired in his fight with Samuel Collins and at least two other participants in that brawl present, both of whom took part in drawing up the resolutions, they had a great deal on their minds. For once, the claim that abolitionists meant to personally murder proslavery men, women, and children in their beds seems like something they might genuinely believe in the offing.

While the committee worked, the general body of the meeting had Laughlin’s story read to them. When they came back with their resolutions, the statement of purposes cited the threat of armed abolitionists directly. Of six resolutions, only two did not reference Laughlin or the Legion in some way. One endorsed the law and order meeting and the last instructed the Squatter Sovereign to print the Doniphan proceedings.

Almost every public meeting seems to have a resolution about printing and the Leavenworth endorsement serves as little more than a procedural matter, we can fairly take the Donpihan resolutions as all about Laughlin’s news. One called on Wilson Shannon to suppress the antislavery militia, another demanded that the attorney-general arrest the Kansas Legion’s ringleaders. But all of this didn’t seem quite clear enough, so the group also resolved

That we place most implicit confidence in the statement of P. Laughlin, Esq., in exposing the murderous designs of the secret organization of the Free-Soil-Abolition party […] and that he is a gentleman of good character and high respectability, and will receive the thanks of the people of Kansas and the Nation at large, for exposing to view the treasonable designs of a secret organization, who seek to plunder the country in civil war and drench the Nation in human gore.

They believed in Laughin so deeply, in fact, that they named him one of their delegates to the convention.

This all fits very comfortably with normal proslavery polemics, but we should not let ourselves forget that the people of Doniphan had a real out break of violence in their streets less than a week prior that ended with one man dead and another wounded. We have only proslavery versions of events, but we can take it for granted that that rendering circulated freely in the town. There, Collins seems to have violently accosted Laughlin on multiple occasions. At least in the story, and possibly in reality, he lived up to the stereotype of the madman abolitionist bent on destroying whites. Thus the meeting further resolved

we most cordially invite every law abiding citizen, without distinction of party, to join us in upholding the Laws of our Territory and the Constitution of the Nation, that the horrors of a bloody civil war may be averted, and our country preserved.

Just as the group in Leavenworth which called the meeting tried to sound moderate by appealing to universal concerns about order and independent of party, so too did the Doniphan group. There they soon faced the same problem as their antecedent did. To endorse the laws of Kansas hardly made one into a moderate acceptable to all parties.

Friends of Law and Order in Doniphan, Part One

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon

Back at the start of October, before Patrick Laughlin told all the Kansas Legion’s secrets to the newspapers, Samuel Collins called on him to recant, the two got into a fight that left Collins dead and Laughlin stabbed, generating a flurry of editorialscounter-editorials, and related writing, a group of proslavery men got together in Leavenworth and called for a somewhat more moderate course. They focused their criticism on the free state movement’s blatantly illegal and potentially treasonous program of setting up a wildcat state government. They would stand for law and order, albeit the kind that abetted slavery. With the law and order convention scheduled for November 14, 1855, local groups around Kansas had to get together and select men to go if they wanted representation. The Squatter Sovereign for October 30 covered such a meeting in Doniphan, held hot on the heels of Samuel Collins’ death.

Per the Sovereign, “a large number” of the county’s citizens gathered at Dr. O. Brown’s office. Unless two doctors named O. Brown lived in Doniphan at the time, which could have happened, that office also saw Laughlin and Collins’ preliminary scuffle the night before their fatal confrontation. The Laughlin connection did not end there, as the meeting named James Lunch and James F. Forman among the county’s representatives. Lynch fired a shot during the Laughlin-Collins fight. Forman knocked Collins’ gun away.

As one did at these things, the meeting appointed a committee to draw up resolutions to take along. While they did their work elsewhere, the meeting’s Secretary, John A. Vanarsdale,

read the disclosure of P. Laughlin, relative to the Free-Soil-Abolition party, which had a thrilling effect on the attentive audience.

With Collins’ death and Laughlin’s injury so recent, everyone must have heard something about it already. But not everyone read the papers, or read them in a timely fashion, so they must have attended the news eagerly. It would certainly set them in the proper mindset for battling antislavery Kansans. If the Law and Order men at Leavenworth said that the free state movement threatened anarchy, then the men at Doniphan could take their late experience as proof of the danger.

If anyone missed the connection, then the committee made it clear when they introduced their resolutions:

Information has come to light from a reliable source, that there is in our midst a secret organization of what is called the Free-Soil-Abolition party, having for its object the overthrow and subversion of the liberties of the people of Kansas; and whereas, arms and munitions of war have been sent into the Territory by the people of Boston, for the purpose of butchering our wives and children, one hundred thousand dollars have already been collected and sent here to their friends to prosecute their hellish designs; and whereas, secret agents are stationed in some parts of the Territory to give the signal of war and to commence the bloody work of butchering our families, burning our houses and destroying our property

One wonders how much of that they meant literally. Usually proslavery Americans invoked this kind of destruction as the result of a slave revolt, but Kansas had precious few slaves to launch one. However, given the late revelations of an armed secret society it seems more credible than usual that the authors understood the Kansas Legion as aimed at just that goal. “Abolitionists” might not wait for slaves to do their dirty work as a consequence of emancipation, but rather pursue emancipation through the murder of proslavery whites.

The committee called on Wilson Shannon to prevent all of this by placing Kansas “in a state of defensive warfare.” They then named names, taking them straight from Laughlin, and

most respectfully call upon the Attorney-General of this Territory to commence, by legal process, a suit against the above named persons, and bring them to a fair and speedy trial

Decapitating the Kansas Legion would certainly make a sounder night’s sleep for those who really did believe its members aimed to embark on a campaign of murder. They all at least arguably stood in violation of various Kansas laws, to say nothing of the general laws against murderous conspiracy. Even an impartial party could make a fair case against them on the latter grounds.

The Herald of Freedom on Patrick Laughlin, Part One

George W. Brown

George W. Brown

The Squatter Sovereign, as one might expect, greeted news of Patrick Laughlin’s killing of Samuel Collins with apparent glee. The death of a free state man at the hands of a proslavery man warranted celebration, even if the editors chose to give Collins twelve companions against whom Laughlin struggled almost alone. I hoped to find a proslavery paper less keen on the affair to examine for contrast, or to learn that the Sovereign’s public joy spread to other papers, but haven’t had any luck. My access to the Leavenworth Herald falls off in early September of 1855 and much thereafter has even survived, it seems the Library of Congress doesn’t know of it. The Kickapoo Pioneer does survive, but in libraries states away. We’ll survive the lack, but it does mean that the only contrast comes from George Brown’s Herald of Freedom.

The October 27 edition has nothing to say about Laughlin, Collins, or the Kansas Legion. Given that the fight happened on the 25th and some distance away, one can hardly blame Brown for not knowing or not having the time to set the type and still meet his deadline. Owing to uncertain paper supplies, Brown elected to go skip a few weeks, so the next paper did not come out until November 17. That issue includes several interesting pieces, some of which may appear in future posts, but on the Collins killing, Brown had little to say. He offered up no excited headline, only “Murder.”

We see in the St. Joseph Cycle, that a fatal rencounter [sic] occurred a few days ago at Doniphan, between Pat Laughlin, the perjurer-according to his own confession-and SAMUEL COLLINS, a Free State man, and late Delegate to the Big Springs’ Convention, growing out of Pat’s exposure of a secret organization said to exist in the Territory. The Cycle represents Pat as acting in self-defense, but nobody believes the statement. COLLINS had resided about a year in the Territory, and was a man of intelligence and much personal worth. We shall have further information as regards the facts in a few days.

As a person who answers to “Pat”, I find Brown’s use of it as a kind of slur deeply amusing. I suspect that he intended to play on anti-Irish sentiment by stressing it, given the frequent overlap of antislavery and nativist sentiment.

Brown confesses to lacking the necessary facts for a larger piece, which seems unlikely weeks after Collins died. From context, Brown means that he lacked trustworthy antislavery witnesses to tell him what “really” happened. We suffer the same lack today, though I suspect we would find more of actual events by comparing those missing accounts with the proslavery version than by taking either at face value. His defense of Collins involves recourse to Collins’ reputation. This suggests to me that Brown knew they stood together for a free Kansas and little else about Collins. I’ve read him vouch personally for men he knew in the past, but he makes only a token and decidedly impersonal effort here. Most likely Brown only knew Collins by reputation and politics, but took the latter as sufficient to guarantee the former. A good man opposed slavery and a good man would not go spoiling for a fight. Therefore Laughlin, who he knew as a bad man for breaking his oath of secrecy, could not possibly have acted in self-defense.

The Squatter Sovereign on Patrick Laughlin

Patrick Laughlin killed Samuel Collins in a dispute over his published revelations on the Kansas Legion, which I’ve taken some time to examine. I found them reprinted in the Squatter Sovereign for November 6, 1855. The killing itself justified the printing, which consumed most of the Sovereign’s second page. The Sovereign customarily used its first page for short fiction and poetry, this amounted to front page news in the estimation of John Stringfellow and Robert Kelley. After the usual endorsement of David Rice Atchison for President, the Sovereign printed a paragraph on the turning season and then progressed to the matter at hand.

It transpired that not every proslavery paper in Kansas much cared for Laughlin. The Sovereign reports

The “Kickapoo Pioneer,” a Know-Nothing paper published in this Territory is the only pro-slavery (?) Journal that has had the temerity to question the veracity of Mr. Laughlin’s exposition of the midnight order of abolitionists in this Territory. It should be remembered that its editors are Know-Nothings, and that Mr. Laughlin is an Irishman, and therefore in the opinions of these scape-graces, his statements are “not worth much.”

The Know-Nothings dreamed that their anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant movement could save the Union by uniting the sections against the fruit of Rome, Ireland, and Germany. Knowing how things went at the end of the decade, we can easily forget that for a brief time they formed a significant force in American politics. Here we have both a reminder of that and at least a point of tension within the proslavery party. I’d very much like to see what the Pioneer said in its own words, but no one seems to have digitized it.

After dismissing the Pioneer’s editors a bunch of anti-Irish bigots and casting aspersions on their commitment to slavery, Stringfellow and Kelley pressed on to the main event:



I couldn’t do the glee with which the Sovereign reported the killing justice without including the headline. The news so pleased them that their grammar fell over. For the most part, the paper tells the same story as the witnesses did. Collins confronted Laughlin and demanded a retraction. However:

In accordance with this determination, he and some TWELVE brother Abolitionists proceeded Wednesday last to seek out Mr. Laughlin, and demand an unqualified retraction of his recent confession

John Stringfellow, Speaker of the House of Kansas

John Stringfellow, Speaker of the House of Kansas

Collins had relatives with him and they did involve themselves, but nothing in the witness testimony suggests a band of thirteen abolitionists chasing after Laughlin. Accurate news probably had time to reach the Sovereign before printing, but word of these things can grow in the retelling. Or John Stringfellow could have lied to paint the antislavery party in a darker light. He could say to the South that his party had done so much on their behalf in Kansas but now they had monstrous legions arrayed against them. They desperately needed all the help they could get to hold the line. Should that help not arrive, then Kansas’ proslavery men could go down overwhelmed by numbers or prevail against all odds, valiant specimens of white manhood either way.

How Much Blood for Kansas?

Pardee Butler

Pardee Butler

Bleeding Kansas, at least into November of 1855, has turned out less sanguine than advertised. Its first election, back in November of 1854, produced only violent threats.  The second, to populate the Assembly, managed rather better but still passed without fatalities. Many of the fistfights might have shed some blood and the attacks on William Phillips and Pardee Butler could have turned into deadly altercations, but neither did. Cole McRea, a free soiler, killed proslavery man Malcolm Clark back in the spring but their dispute involved competing property claims at least as much as political differences. Disputes over land that resolved themselves through the death of one party left the person just as dead as any fight over slavery, but they also happened all across the frontier. They speak more to Kansas’ unsettled state and weak governance than to its specific political turmoil.

We should not discount the impact of non-fatal attacks upon one’s peace of mind, and certainly not upon the general increase of tensions that they both indicate and facilitate. People who know themselves liable to attack take precautions. They go about more often with friends. They arm themselves more heavily. They develop an interest in having a violent reputation to deter attackers. All of this comes with a great deal of fear and paranoia, adding a constant psychological strain. All these facts press toward further escalation. If the other party has friends, you need friends. If you don’t have any, then the best way to get them might involve declaring for a cause. They have knives; you need knives. If they have guns, then you must as well. The other side can see the same. Defensive decisions become new provocations. Something must give.

The tension finally boiled over while the free state men convened at Topeka to write their constitution. On October 25, Samuel Collins fell to the ground on the streets of Doniphan in the first clear case of political murder in Kansas. Depending on who one asks, he had as many as two hundred or as few as fifty fellows. This past weekend I read Dale E. Watts 1995 article (PDF) on the body count, which discusses the difficulty of arriving at a precise number. He offers fifty-six clear cases. This is rather less than contemporaries on either side would have us believe, but he rightly points out that both sides had every reason to exaggerate:

Both sides tended to overestimate the level of carnage, sometimes to gain sympathy because of their losses, sometimes to convince themselves and the world that they were destroying their enemies in great numbers and thus were winning the contest. One proslavery Atchison newspaper reported that fifteen proslavery men had been killed at the Battle of Black Jack in Douglas County in June 1856. In reality no one on either side was killed during the battle. The antislavery papers were not any more accurate in their reporting. The Lawrence Herald of Freedom took the proslavery newspapers to task for exaggerating free-state losses at the Battle of Osawatomie in Lykins (Miami) county in August 1856, but in the same article the Herald made the wild claim that thirty or forty dead proslavery men were hauled from the battlefield. Only two of these proslavery casualties can be documented.

Even if one could get around the exaggerations, and the incomplete record in general, what motivated a killing comes down to a question of interpretation. People can do things for multiple reasons, so when we have evidence of multiple motives we must weigh them and decide which ultimately prevailed. With the Collins-Laughlin fray, we have witnesses who told us clearly that the men worked together until Laughlin betrayed the Kansas Legion. Collins confronted Laughlin and demanded he recant what he had published about the group. Laughlin refused and the guns came out. The Clark-McCrea killing doesn’t provide such a clear record, though Watts considers it the second documented political killing in the territory. He counts the first as the killing of an unidentified black man stealing himself from slavery.

Where does one draw the line, though? Until I saw Malcolm Clark in Watts’ roster, I had written his death off as only incidentally political and more about land. I had missed reference to the absconding slave entirely. Thus I considered Collins the first confirmed political death, which I have cause to now reconsider.

If we have trouble including slavery as a causative factor, then we can have similar trouble excluding it. Must agitation over slavery form the dominant reason for violence in order for us to consider the violence an extension of politics or can we also consider it as a necessary, but possibly not alone sufficient, cause for violence? Watts explores this tension in the case of a later murder, allowing that the parties did differ over slavery as well as land claims. He places slavery in a secondary role, while allowing that it may have made peaceful resolution more difficult. In that situation, I would take politics as an especially relevant contributing factor to the death. Would the men have come to blows without politics separating them? We can’t know.

Ultimately, Watts says

A careful search of representative sources reveals a total of 157 violent deaths during the territorial period. Of these, fifty-six may be attributed with some confidence to the political conflict or the slavery issue. The remaining 101 killings i fifty-two resulting from personal conflicts such as fights or brawls, seventeen stemming directly from land disputes, eleven from lynchings, and five occurring during robberies. In sixteen cases information is insufficient to determine a primary motivation. Of these 101 slayings, twenty-five may have had politics or slavery as a significant contributing cause, but primarily they were the result of other factors.

The Murder of Samuel Collins, Part Four

The Howard Committee

The Howard Committee


Parts 1, 2, 3

Free state man Samuel Collins, a steam sawmill operator at Doniphan, Kansas, met Patrick Laughlin on the street at about dawn of October 25, 1855. He and Laughlin clashed the night before at a doctor’s office over Laughlin’s revealing the secrets of the antislavery Kansas Legion. Come the morning, Collins saw Laughlin and approached him from behind with shotgun in hand. Laughlin’s own armament included a pistol and a bucket of flour. Collins, abjuring the benefit of surprise, called out to demand Laughlin recant. Laughlin declined and Collins pulled the trigger. His gun did not fire, so he rushed up and pulled a bowie knife, brandishing it at Laughlin’s throat and repeating his demand. Laughlin still refused to recant, at which point Collins stabbed him in the side. Laughlin fell back behind another man, James Foreman, and Collins tried the other barrel of his shotgun. This one fired, but Foreman got his hand on the barrel and knocked it aside before the discharge. Collins injured the ground at Laughlin’s feet. By this point, John or James Lynch had come out. Collins had threatened him the night before as well, so Lynch joined the fray with a shot wounding a fence across the street. Then he and Collins closed and used their guns as clubs, breaking both weapons. Collins beat Lynch to the ground.

That ended Lynch’s account of the confrontation. Allen B. Lyon saw more:

It was not until Mr. Collins attention was drawn towards Mr. Lynch that Mr. Laughlin attempted to draw a weapon. I had been watching him very closely, wondering why he did not do it before. After Mr. Collins had knocked Mr. Lynch down, he turned round and advanced towards Laughlin, with the barrels of his gun raised for a blow. Mr. Laughlin had his pistol out and fired at Mr. Collins, who dropped his gun barrels, and clasped his arms around his breast, and cried out, “Oh, Lord!”

Collins collapsed and died soon after. Collins’ son knocked Laughlin down just after the Irishman fired. Collins’ nephew lobbed a chunk of brick at Laughlin, grazing his hair. But then Laughlin’s relations intervened:

Mr. Laughlin’s brother ran up at this moment, and seized the pistol which had fallen out of the hands of his brother, and fired at Mr. Collins’ nephew, who was running away, and the ball just grazed the side of his neck. He then turned and presented the pistol at young Collins, who had knocked his brother down, who threw up both hands and asked him not to shoot, that his father was dead, and he desisted.

The combatants parted and Lyon examined Collins. He found the free state man “shot in his right side”. Survivors and bystanders carried away the wounded and dead, but left behind quite the tableau:

The ground was covered with blood, like one had been butchering a hog, and I thought there were at least three persons killed-Collins, Laughlin, and Lynch.

The excitement continued, with Doniphan “in a state of disquiet and alarm for some weeks afterwards”. Threats, or rumors of them, against Laughlin and Lynch, swirled about. Lyon told the Howard Committee that he did not hear any of the threats himself. Laughlin convalesced in James Foreman’s home and people said that someone had tried to break in and finish Collins’ job. That got a guard put up until the proslavery men could carry Laughlin across into Missouri. The sheriff that Laughlin and Lynch hoped would step in, thanks to the peace warrant they secure the night before, arrived minutes after the fight concluded.

Lest one wonder if this confrontation arose from personal difficulties, with the politics only an aggravating factor, Lyon testified that Laughlin, Lynch, and Collins had lived in Doniphan some time and got on well before. This changed only when Laughlin exposed the Kansas Legion and, consequently, Collins’ role “as colonel of the Doniphan regiment.” Lyon thus deemed the affair “a political difficulty.” I see no cause to dispute him on that count, though I do regret that it appears only proslavery witnesses gave testimony on the matter.


The Murder of Samuel Collins, Part Three

The Howard Committee

The Howard Committee

Parts 1 and 2

We left Patrick Laughlin, the Irish-born Kansas Legion member who exposed its activities to the general public, walking down the streets of Doniphan and away from free soil sawmill operator Samuel Collins. The two had a confrontation, and may have exchanged gunfire, over Laughlin’s exposure of the Legion the night before. They both made dire threats before that. The morning of October 25 found Laughlin and John (or James, the Howard Report calls him both) Lynch, who previously considered Collins a friend, with a peace bond against Collins. Allen B. Lyon came on the scene on his way to breakfast at a local hotel.

Collins had a shotgun in hand, both barrels cocked. Lyon, who had witnessed the near-altercation the night before, put two and two together easily enough and knew Collins meant both barrels for Laughlin’s unguarded back. He tried to distract the free soil man, but Collins paid him no mind and called out to Laughlin:

“stop, God damn you, and take back everything you have said, or I will put sixteen through you”

Laughlin did not stop. Collins followed along, repeating his insistence that Laughlin recant his publication of Kansas Legion secrets. Eventually Laughlin had enough of this. He

turned round, and stood with a bucket of flour on his arm, and told Collins he had nothing to take back, and nothing that he could take back.

Collins closed to within six yards, took aim, and pulled his trigger. The gun did not fire.

In a hotel, presumably the same one where Allen Lyon planned to get his breakfast, John Lynch ate his own. He heard yelling from outside. Someone said Collins aimed to kill everybody in town. Himself a person in the town, as well as one who Collins had threatened violence against less than twenty-four hours earlier, Lynch considered himself a target. He went to the window for a look.

Back outside, Lyon told the Howard Committee that Collins did not consider matters closed when his gun failed to fire:

He then rushed upon Laughlin, cursing furiously, drew a large knife from his breast, flourished it in front of Laughlin’s neck two or three times, demanding that he should take back what he had said.

At this point, Lynch came out. He saw Collins “flourishing” the knife. Lyon saw rather more. When Laughlin again refused to recant, Collins

plunged the knife into Laughlin’s left side. Laughlin staggered several steps back, retreating from him. Collins then drew up his gun again, and presented it at Laughlin; and as he pulled the trigger, Mr. Foreman got his hand upon the barrel of the gun, and forced the muzzle down, and the contents entered the ground between Laughlin’s feet.

Lynch exited the hotel that scene, though he didn’t see Laughlin wounded. He

could not say what Mr. Laughlin was doing, but I thought he was dodging behind Mr. Foreman, who seemed to be trying to intercede between them. This was between thirty and forty feet from the hotel, perhaps fifty feet. As my life had been threatened the night before, I seized my gun when I got up from the breakfast table, and took it with me out of doors, and when I got to the corner of the hotel in sight of the parties, I fired it in the direction of Mr. Collins.

Lyon heard Lynch’s shot hit a fence on the far side of the street. Lynch and Collins closed with each other. According to Lyon

Mr. Collins immediately wheeled round, throwing up the breach of his gun, and advanced. Mr. Collins struck at Mr. Lynch, who received the blow on his gun, and the breeches of both guns were broken off; the next blow Mr. Collins knocked Mr. Lynch down.

Lynch agreed that Collins knocked him down. He claimed to know nothing of the affray thereafter, though he told the Howard Committee that in light of the threat to his life he considered this all self-defense.

The Murder of Samuel Collins, Part Two


The Howard Committee

The Howard Committee

On October 25, 1855, Patrick Laughlin came to the office of Dr. Oscar Brown. He convalesced for fifteen minutes before Samuel Collins and some friends came in. Both men abided some time, but eventually Laughlin got up and confronted Collins. It transpired that Collins called Laughlin out on the street the day prior and insulted him. This had to do with Laughlin’s involvement with and then public exposure of the free state Kansas Legion, a group he had joined out of disgust with the proslavery party and then quit because it reminded him too much of the Know-Nothings. Collins insisted that he had given no insult, but when Laughlin persisted in the charge he allowed that Laughlin “a damned liar and a damned perjured scoundrel” who “had published infamous lies to the world.”

Laughlin, shockingly, found this an unpersuasive defense. Collins rose up to answer him again, presumably with more than words, but another man in the office, Howard Committee witness Allen B. Lyon, took hold of him. Collins sat back down, but then rose once more and informed Laughlin to gird himself for the morrow.

James Lynch, who testified that he considered himself and Collins “on very friendly terms” despite differing over slavery, sat on a chair between Laughlin and Collins, though facing away from the latter. When Collins drew near, Lynch asked that the irate free soil man “not run over” him. Collins answered

“Damn you, I will kick every rib in you out of you.” I could not say anything, I was so embarrassed at that. I remained in the chair and did not leave the office until Mr. Collins had left it. As Collins left the house, he stood in the door and shaking his finger at me, he said “Damn you, I will take your life.” I made no reply to him and he left.

Lyons confirms this story, down to the rib kicking and murdering threat. He disagrees on who left first, insisting that Lynch preceded Collins. Lyons further adds that

Collins made a statement in regard to Laughlin, that he understood James Foreman had given Laughlin a cow to change his politics, and publish this exposition.

I’ve seen other references to Laughlin receiving a bribe to change his stripes. For a man of his modest means, a cow would be a pretty good inducement. However, it also sounds like the sort of story one would circulate about one’s enemies whether true or not. Nor should we discount Laughlin’s own version. As an Irishman in mid-nineteenth century America, he likely had good reason to be very wary of anything that smelled like Know-Nothingism.

After both men left the room, Lyon says that

we heard the report of a gun, and then while we looked out of the window, I saw the flash and heard the report of two guns, apparently in the yard of Mr. Collins’ house.

Lynch doesn’t mention this at all, but I don’t see much advantage to Lyon in inventing it. One could read the affair as Laughlin and/or Lynch firing on warning shots, or otherwise, at Collins’ house. Lyon tells us that Laughlin had a gun with him in the office. Alternatively, Collins could have gotten home, seen them on the street, and fired warning shots of his own. Both might have happened, with Collins firing warning shots and Lynch and Laughlin returning fire.

Whatever happened with the gunshots in the night, Lynch and Laughlin secured a peace warrant against Collins. Lynch delivered to the sheriff with the expectation that come morning Collins would appear and they would require protection.

Around sunrise, Collins’ son, whom Lyon refers to as “young Mr. Collins” called to re-measure some lumber that Collins had sold Lyon. He thought they hadn’t done the measurement correctly and wanted to verify. Young Collins did some measurements and went home.

Laughlin at that time was standing in the main street of Doniphan, about twenty steps from me, talking with Mr. James Foreman and some others. A few minutes afterward, I started to breakfast. When I got to the corner upon which the hotel stands, I met Mr. Collins, his two sons, and a nephew. Mr. Collins had a double-barrel shot gun in his hand, both barrels cocked. Mr. Laughlin was walking directly from Collins, about twenty yards in advance, with his back towards Collins.