Trouble at Easton, Part Three

Around six o’clock on January 17, 1856, proslavery men in Easton, Kansas Territory, made their first serious go at the free state polls. They had come up and made threats before, but the close of the election and consequent dispersal of armed free state men emboldened them. They rode up and demanded the ballot box, at which point a group of free state men came out and formed a line against them. Joseph Bird and Henry Adams, two of the defenders, gave fairly restrained testimony to the Howard Committee about the confrontation. J.C. Green, another in the line that evening, told a bit more:

Towards night a party of men came up within a hundred yards of Mr. Minard’s house, where the election was held. They appeared to be generally armed, and were yelling.

Green and the others made their appearance

and told them they must come no further. They then stopped and used a good deal of abusive language. The one who seemed to be in command of the party coming up, told them to charge several times, but they did not do so. After standing a short time, they turned and went back.

Stephen Sparks, another man on the line outside Minard’s and of whom we shall hear more, agreed:

I heard some one of the crowd, who appeared to be the leader, say, “Charge on them, God-damn them! I ain’t afraid!” About this time our men had nearly formed themselves from the door to the road. Upon seeing our force they halted, and returned without further difficulty.

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

The proslavery party in Kansas often come across like deranged maniacs, particularly the rank and file who we see almost exclusively through the accounts of their enemies. Prominent men had more to lose and so often acted with a small measure of circumspection. David Rice Atchison, who promised to murder every abolitionist in Kansas, ultimately backed down at Lawrence and worked to defuse the situation. He must have hated it and fumed at how those blasted abolitionists outmaneuvered him, but Bourbon Dave helped reel in his boys all the same.

Green doesn’t name the leader of the proslavery men; he may have been a locally prominent individual who also had much to lose. If he did, he thought Easton a hill worth dying on. His men disagreed. The folk wisdom about bullies seems pertinent: they didn’t mind an unfair fight but the other kind could get one of them killed. Maybe some of them had molested George Wetherell up at Leavenworth the month prior or gone off in hopes of destroying Lawrence, but in both cases they expected no fight or a very uneven one.

They might, in fact, have expected something more like disciplining slaves. An enslaved person could not fight back. Failing that, Southern communities often policed white dissenters from slavery by mob action. With the exception of Patrick Laughlin’s killing of Samuel Collins, every violent scrape that I’ve yet looked into in Kansas came in about much like that: an uneven fight from the beginning where the victim had few friends to come to his defense.


Almost a Leavenworth Election

William Addison Phillips

William Addison Phillips

We left Kansas only slightly bled. The proslavery mob at Leavenworth seized George Wetherell and supplied him generously with kicks and jumps on the back. Days later, they came back and destroyed the Territorial Register, the local free state paper. In both cases, the proslavery side had little in the way of forcible opposition and largely did its work in a straightforward, direct manner. Despite a close call at Lawrence, Kansas had yet to see anything like a pitched battle between bands of proslavery and free state Kansans. With a fairly miserable winter settling in, one might expect passions to cool and everyone to hole up until spring.

The free state movement had an election scheduled. On December 15, Kansas approved the constitution drafted at Topeka and the associated black law. That meant that the territorial government now had offices in need of filling. The next round of elections took place a month later, on January 15, 1856. We have, Gentle Readers, made it out of 1855. For the most part, the proslavery men seem to have followed past precedent and simply ignored free state elections. They had no legal standing, so who cared? Those living in and around Leavenworth had a different precedent to follow, written in their footprints on George Wetherell and the river mud on Territorial Register’s type.

Mayor Slocum of Leavenworth knew all about that precedent. He sent to Fort Leavenworth for help suppressing the mob back in December, to no avail. Rather than hazard a repeat of that performance, he

ordered that no election be held in Leavenworth city; and, as it was well known that any number of ruffians could be got from the adjoining state to enforce that order, it was not attempted.

William Phillips, who faulted his free state comrades for insufficient martial valor back in December, appreciated their plight better the next month. It may have helped that they chose to have the election anyway. As they didn’t dare Leavenworth, they removed to Easton, “some twelve miles distant” to have their vote two days later.

Eastin did not make for an ideal polling place:

by this arrangement it would be needles sot add that comparatively few could go to the polls through a deep snow in such severe weather, well knowing, as they did, that the chances for a fight even there were pretty good. In fact, while Leavenworth could have polled upwards of five hundred free-state votes, little more than a hundred were polled at Easton.

Per Phillips, the free state party arranged things with enough subtlety that the proslavery men didn’t have a plan in place to disrupt the election. They had to improvise.

The Mob and the Territorial Register, Part Two

William Phillips

William Phillips

We left William Addison Phillips relating how the proslavery mob at Leavenworth, not content with stopping the referendum on the free state constitution or with brutalizing George Wetherell, decided to go after Mark Delahay’s Territorial Register too. Delahay supported the free state cause and they had a perfectly good mob all warmed up and ready for another run. Who, aside Wetherell and Delahay, would want to go home with the fun barely started?

With his audience wound up for another story of proslavery violence, Phillips had to let them down. The mob didn’t wreck the newspaper office, throw the press in the river, kill Delahay, or consummate any of the other traditional proslavery observances upon antislavery newspapers. Why not?

There is not the slightest doubt that putting it in the river on Saturday was part of the programme; but two things saved it. In the first place, a person who doe snot subscribe to the non-resistant creed informed the friends of the pro-slavery paper here that if the Missourians put the Register office in the river, the Herald office would be placed snugly beside it as soon as they left town. I do not endorse such a sentiment, of course, but I think it had a salutary effect.

If the antislavery contingent would not confront an armed mob out for blood, it could still take action after they left. Leavenworth’s questionable loyalty to the proslavery cause appears to have informed the lynching of the other William Phillips. It would stand to reason that they had numbers enough to toss the press in the river and popularity enough to get away with it, even if they eschewed a bitched brawl.

To those threats, Phillips added another consideration:

a hesitation on a part of a few of the more conservative of the pro-slavery men here, who, like Davy Atchison at the Wakarusa, were afraid that too much of a good thing “might injure the democratic party.”

Phillips might have had it just right. The proslavery party suffered a serious PR loss only a week earlier against Lawrence. They backed down in part because if they struck they would have attacked a peaceful community without any real cause and scarce official sanction. Their disappointment, however cruel, didn’t necessary trump their judgment. Delahay had done no worse, and probably much less overall, than anybody at Lawrence. If the mob afflicted him, then he might become a perfect antislavery martyr: the former Maryland enslaver, attacked by his own for the sake of his late righteousness.

William Addison Phillips in Leavenworth, Part Three

William Phillips

William Addison Phillips


The December 15, 1855 attack on the polls at Leavenworth began with a demand for the ballot box. Charles Dunn, Archibald Payne, and mob wanted it and would have it by force if need be. The box left my narrative when George Wetherell tossed it under a counter and fled, but not that of the witnesses. George H. Keller, who had presided over the box’s filling as a judge of the election, caught sight of it once more after Wetherell’s ordeal:

I saw some of the crowd going up the street afterwards holding up the ballot-box, with exultive shouts, and I do not know what became of it.

William Addison Phillips told just a bit more. He didn’t say how the mob came to the ballot box or the poll book along with it, and the crowd probably prevented him from seeing, but he agreed that the mob found their quarry and paraded down the streets with it. Many “shrieks and yells” ensued, proving “that the half-tipsy invaders were ripe for further mischief.”

All of this made an impression. Per Phillips

A panic had seized the free-state men, or rather they wanted some bold and active leaders. The polls had been violated while most of the people were at dinner; but the border ruffians kept possession of the quarter of the town where the voting had been held, and but few free-state men were to be seen venturing among them. Perhaps the apology for this timid spirit lay in the fact that the men of Leavenworth were unarmed, or but indifferently armed, and that they had no volunteer military organization, the known members and officers of which could be relied on. It was with a feeling of shame and bitterness that I saw these invading, lawless villains thus violate the dearest and most sacred rights of American freemen.

For all his lamenting that Leavenworth lacked its version of James Lane or Charles Robinson, and its own military company under a John Brown or Samuel Wood, he doesn’t seem to have seen fit to step into the breech himself. One can’t fault him too badly for his unwillingness to stand up to an angry, armed mob. Leavenworth might not have taken to the leadership of an outsider even if he offered it. But all that considered, he comes down a bit hard on the town. Reading between the lines, maybe Leavenworth didn’t have a free state military organization because not enough people in Leavenworth cared to involve themselves. Some of the citizens might come to free state polls, but with Missouri just across the river they may have had very good reason to otherwise keep a low profile. Nobody would volunteer for the other William Phillips’ treatment.


William Addison Phillips in Leavenworth, Part Two

William Phillips

William Phillips

We left William Addison Phillips in Leavenworth. There a proslavery mob that Phillips has come over from Missouri, led by Archibald Payne and Charles Dunn, brandished a pistol (Payne), and broke in a window (Dunn) to seize the ballot box and stop the referendum on the free state constitution. Payne, who had participated in the lynching of the other William Phillips, insisted on no parley. The election judges and clerk must yield up their box, no questions asked. At that point, George Keller and George Wetherell ran for it. Wetherell, spelled Wetherill by Phillips, had the box briefly but tossed it under a counter as he fled the building.

Then, Phillips saw Wetherell

knocked down by clubs. not less than thirty men were around him and jumping on him. One man had an axe raised to strike him, if he could have done so for the crowd.

Every witness to the confrontation who I’ve read agreed that Wetherell went down in a mob scene, but no others mention the axe. One would think that Wetherell himself would have said something and consequently doubt Phillips on the point. He wrote his book during the Kansas struggle and had every reason to exaggerate proslavery violence, after all. But the witnesses also agree that the crowd pressed in on Wetherell and most people didn’t have a full view of the clerk once he fell. If that same crowd kept the axe man back, Wetherell might not have seen him for the press of bodies in the way. Failing that, he had other things on his mind what with people kicking him and jumping on his head and back. Phillips may have invented the axe, but he didn’t need to. Wetherell already faced a potentially lethal assault.

The man with the axe might have made his way to the front of the crowd given time, but he lacked that luxury:

It was the work of an instant, and immediately some few of the free-state men, who had not been frightened off, interfered. The first who interposed was a pro-slavery man, who seemed to have a trifle of the Samaritan in him; but a young man from York State, named Anthony, and a Captain Brown, both good and tried free-state men, cocked their pistols, and rushed forward, as did some others. Wetherill was raised and carried home.

Wetherell names R.P. Brown and a Mr. Anthony among his rescuers. Phillips’ proslavery good Samaritan sounds like Captain Murphy, from H.H. Johnston’s testimony:

Captain Murphy came up at that time and seeing Mr. Wetherell, took him up, raised him on his feet, and told the people round, he was a good man, and he believed a law-abiding citizen, and any person attempting to stroke him would have to fight him first.

William Addison Phillips in Leavenworth, Part One

William Phillips

William Phillips

Longtime readers, and fans of the Omaha History Podcast, may remember that two men answering to the name William Phillips lived in Kansas, both antislavery and both of some historical note. The first lived around Leavenworth and appears in the record largely in connection with his lynching in May of 1855. He met his end in a gunfight with some proslavery men, rather beyond our point in the narrative. The other William Phillips, William Addison Phillips, wrote for the newspapers, befriended Charles and Sara Robinson, and had a political career after the Civil War. The Robinsons’ friend lived, at least up through late 1855, in Lawrence. He moved about Kansas, if not entirely at ease, even while the proslavery army invested Lawrence. On December 15, 1855, this William Phillips found himself in the Leavenworth that lynched the other William Phillips. There he witnessed the mob attack the polls and George Wetherell.

Phillips’s account covers rather more than the witnesses around the polling place offered in their testimony the Howard Committee. He saw Missourians cross the river, first in bands of “ten or a dozen” but soon by the boat load. He got word that they came over on a ferry up at Fort Leavenworth, three miles distant, as well. But why would they come from Missouri for a free state election? Phillips notes that before they had ignored free state affairs, only coming to intervene in elections called by the territorial government. Obviously, they hadn’t come to cast votes.

Asking around, Phillips

learned that Brigadier-General Easton, of the territorial militia, had stated in his paper and had proclaimed that his “brigade” should be disbanded in Leavenworth that day; and as these fellows had been out in the “law and order” campaign against the “abolitionists” of Lawrence, they were over to-day to get “an honorable discharge”

Wilson Shannon’s orders did give his militia officers some discretion in where they disbanded their forces. It seems, however, far-fetched that the force would have held together for five more days sitting on its hands even if, as Phillips suggests, they did it to collect some additional pay. Disbanding might have served as a good pretense for the already dispersed men to gather back together on a convenient date for further mischief. Either way, Phillips doesn’t produce any documents to support the idea. Most likely he reported a rumor that, conveniently for his politics, reflected poorly on the territorial establishment.

Phillips recognized a Virginian named Payne, who served in the Bogus Legislature, from which he took appointment as a judge, and as a colonel in the militia that lately “distinguished themselves before Lawrence.” This would make him the same Archibald Payne who ran the meeting preparatory to the other William Phillips’ lynching. William Addison Phillips described Payne as a ringleader in the mob, along with Charles Dunn, and gives both dialog consistent with Wetherell’s and Keller’s accounts:

The voting had been done at a window, and to this the crowd I have been describing made a rush. They were led on by Payne and Dunn. The movement was thoroughly understood before it was made, and around the house, and in the streets adjoining, the crowd was dense. There were several hundred of them. The window was driven in, glass, sash, frame, and all. Dunn exclaimed,

“In the name of ‘law and order’ I demand that ballot-box!””

“No d—-d parleying!” cried Payne, cocking a six-shooter and presenting it at the clerks. “Take the box, G-d d–n it, take the box!”

Dunn and Payne might not have said exactly that, but they did demand the box and appear to have done so in the name of the territory’s laws. Neither Keller nor Wetherell mention Payne’s pistol brandishing, but Keller does give the mob the arms to accomplish it. He might have understood it as covered by his reference to armament; his testimony does run somewhat laconic. He might have felt safer testifying if he didn’t directly implicate a locally prominent man like Payne. Or Phillips might have invented a rhetorical flourish.

Storming the Leavenworth Polls, Part Two

The Howard Committee

The Howard Committee

We left the Levenworth polls with Charles Dunn and friends tearing through the window where one came to vote and demanding the ballot box. The two judges of election and two clerks present, on confrontation with angry, armed men who had just proved capable of violence against architecture and upon studious reflection, ran for it. George Wetherell, one of the clerks, took the ballot box on the way out. He tossed it behind a counter on his way out, only to have Charles Gunn catch up and demand it from him. Gun seized Wetherell, struck him, and knocked him to the ground. The mob rushed on Wetherell, kicking him and jumping on his head and back.

Wetherell could easily have died there. The mob hardly seemed inclined to stop, but apparently didn’t care to risk a fairer fight:

Mr. R.P. Brown, Mr. Anthony, and others came to my rescue, and carried me to Mr. McCracken’s store. I was very much injured on the 15th of December. I was bruised, but received no cut wounds. I was able to be about the store a day or two afterwards a little. In a day or two I was able to attend my ordinary business. I was not right well afterwards. About the first of January, I was taken down sick with rheumatism, and have not been well since. I never had the rheumatism before. I supposed it was the effect of cold weather, and partly from my business.

To hear Wetherell tell it, the mob attacked an unarmed man. H.H. Johnston, who lived fifty to sixty yards away, disagreed. According to him,

Mr. Wetherell drew a bowie knife on him; Captain Dunn, in endeavoring to ward off the blow, knocked the knife out of Wetherell’s hand; Dunn then took Wetherell by the coat collar, by one hand, and struck him several times in the face, and then pulled him down in the mud on his face and hands. A man jumped on Wetherell once or twice with his feet when he was down in the mud, bruising him considerably about the face and head.

Another witness, William Burgess, had Wetherell run

into the street, and as he ran had a revolver and bowie knife in his hand at the same time. […] I am confident that Wetherell had a bowie knife and revolver in his hand.

John Sherman

John Sherman

The Howard Report doesn’t include the committee’s questions to witnesses, but does say when a witness responded and to whom. John Sherman pressed on the point of the weapons, and Burgess added that he

must have dropped the pistol at the scuffle for the ballot-box. While Dunn had hold of Wetherell, the latter drew his bowie knife. Dunn then knocked him down. This was all I saw.

Burgess’ version makes it sound like Wetherell drew his pistol when Dunn first demanded the box, but that would have had to happen in the presence of George H. Keller, as Wetherell’s own version has him ditch the box before leaving the building. Keller

saw no bowie knife or pistol on Mr. Wetherell, and think he had nothing of the kind. I had no arms myself more than a small penknife.

H.M. Hook, a judge of the election who missed the excitement by virtue of going out for lunch, agreed that Wetherell had no arms so far as he knew. G.W. Hollis agreed.

Did Wetherell have a knife and/or revolver that day? He could have concealed them so Keller and Hollis didn’t see. They might have lied for him, either for political purposes or personal connections. However, one could make similar arguments against Burgess and Johnston. Neither one gives a strong indication that they disapproved of the election, but Johnston seems decidedly unimpressed with Wetherell’s trauma. Minutes after his rescue, Johnston saw him:

He told me he was not hurt very badly, that he was more frightened than anything else, and would get all over it in a short time.

Pretty good for a guy that just had his head and back stomped on, and the witnesses largely agree on that happening. Painting Wetherell as an armed man would go some way toward mitigating the rough treatment. But the clerk could have not understood how badly the mob hurt him. We have to consider Wetherell’s account in the same light, but in doing so should keep in mind that a man confessing to a lengthy infirmity may have had to swallow much more pride in 1855 than he would today.

Ultimately, I don’t think the sources let us make a firm determination either way. The witnesses who have Wetherell armed appear to have seen things from afar. Those, aside Wetherell, who have him unarmed didn’t see the attack. Those facts alone suggest that he had at least the knife, but friendly and hostile witnesses could slant their stories equally well. Regardless of the weapons, George Wetherell clearly suffered a serious attack and must have feared for his life.

Storming the Leavenworth Polls, Part One

The Howard Committee

The Howard Committee

The Free State Party held a referendum on December 15. Voters would make their wishes known on the Topeka Constitution  and the black law. They came out decidedly in favor of both. In some other place the story might end there, but one couldn’t just vote in territorial Kansas; the proslavery party had a reputation to maintain. While they didn’t make the kind of effort that accompanied the elections for the Assembly of Kansas back in March, nor come again so soon as they had to Lawrence, they couldn’t let the election pass completely unmolested.

The polls in Leavenworth opened about nine in the morning at a house on Cherokee Street, votes received through a window. Everything went well until noon, or one o’clock. Then, according to judge of the election George H. Keller,

while the election was going on, Captain Charles Dunn came there and ordered us to desist. I told him I reckoned not. he commanded me, under the authority of the territorial laws, to desist immediately. I told him not to be too fast; that I did not think we would desist. He said we should, and then called his men, and they rallied around, and he then demanded the ballot-box.

Keller had to know where this would end. A proslavery man, apparently an officer in the territorial militia, came to free state polls and demanded they close up and give over their ballots. When refused, he called up a band of friends and insisted. Keller refused all the same. Dunn

then seized the sash of the window where we had been receiving votes and pulled it out, and all his party and himself came through the window into our room. They were armed with guns, revolvers, and bowie knives.

Tearing out a window and coming through with your belligerent friends had to make an impression. The proslavery men might have expected to find three judges of the election and a clerk or two. They found one judge, Keller, and a clerk and grocer named George Wetherell. Another judge missed the excitement by having gone home for lunch, but the third, Adam Fisher, apparently got the lead out in short order. Keller soon lost track of Wetherell in “the great crowd.”

Wetherell could not lose track of himself, though he might have wished to for a while. On Dunn’s grand entrance

The judges rushed out into the next room, in the same building, and made their way out and made off. In the hurry of the moment, I snatched up the ballot-box and followed them. I threw the ballot-box behind a counter in the adjoining room as I passed out.

Dunn and company either didn’t see, or chose not to see, Whetherell drop the box. Dunn caught up and

caught me [Wetherell] by the throat and pushed me up against the outside of the building, and demanded the ballot-box. I do not exactly remember my reply, but I think I told him I had not got it, but did not tell him where it was. He then struck me in the mouth with his fist, and another person struck me on the right side of the face. I either fell or was pushed down into the sand, the crowd at the time rushing on to me. They jumped upon my head and back, and kicked me in the side.