For the fear of John Brown

John Brown

Jason Brown blundered into a posse out to arrest him on his way to Lawrence. He meant to stop at Ottawa Jones’ and then proceed to surrender himself in friendly circumstances. That would, he must have hoped, spare him the fate of Reese Brown. Instead, he walked right up to a group of armed Missourians. Expecting that they wouldn’t know him, he asked directions and got what may have been the final surprise of his life in learning that they did. Some quick questioning confirmed it, at which point they collected his money and a revolver before ordering him out in front of the group for a clear shot.

With nothing left to lose, and probably more than a little of his father’s forthrightness, John Brown’s second son declared himself an abolitionist, bared his breast, and dared them to shoot. That took things too far for some of the Missourians, who put their guns down. Others would have gone ahead, but their leader called it off and took Jason prisoner instead. The combination of bravery and a revulsion toward killing unresisting white men likely did the trick.

The Missourians marched Jason off toward Sterling Cato’s court at Paola. He had more rest than his elder brother had the night before, but after several days with the Pottawatomie Rifles on little sleep, then the stress of learning what his father and brothers had done, proved too much for Jason’s body. During a rest, he sat down and fell dead asleep. That prompted a new round of threats on his life after the Missourians roused Jason, but he kept on making antislavery speeches and it seemed to have an effect on a few of them. They saw to it that Jason had a good bed and gave back his money and gun once the group arrived in town.

At Paola, Jason found his older brother, John. He also got to see firsthand the fear that his father’s murders had spread among the proslavery party. The day after he and John got put into a room with two guards, after spending some time playing cards, Jason hit the hay. John remained up a little longer, then climbed in with him. John Junior woke to

the sudden opening of the outside door and the rushing in of a number of men with drawn bowie-knives. Seizing the candle, and saying, ‘Which are they?’ they crowded around our bed with uplifted knives.

Telling the story afterward, Junior has Jason still dead asleep. Confronted with murderous men and fearing a torturous death for his brother, Junior opted for a novel solution:

I opened the bosom of his shirt, and pointing to the region of his heart, said, ‘Strike here!’

Maybe Junior meant it just as he said; others have made such terrible calculations. His fragile mental state must have played a part too. Either way, he dared them to do it quickly. Such challenges rely on people not ready to do what they propose, a dangerous gamble given the circumstances and the stakes. The presence of testimony from Jason tells us that he survived the night, but it may have come down to fear rather than an attack of conscience:

At this moment the sudden and loud barking of dogs outside and a hurrying of steps on the porch caused a most lively stampede of our assailants within, and this attack was ended without a blow.

The proslavery men had a note from the boys’ father, or at least what purported to be one. It came to them from the hands of one of their own and therein Brown declared that he knew they had Junior and Jason. When the dogs raised the alarm, they believed John Brown had come and raced to defend themselves. They left the brothers in peace for the rest of the night.

 

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“We are very anxious to know what Congress is doing.”

John Brown

January of 1856 brought good and bad news for the Browns out in Kansas. John Junior won nomination and then election to the Topeka legislature. The Missourians stayed away from the Browns’ corner of Kansas even when the free staters threw that election. But the miserably cold winter also left the family destitute, low on food, and news came that the Missourians had gotten to the free state polls at Leavenworth. As part of that, they hacked to death Reese Brown (no relation). Rumor out of the Show Me State had it that they would come back as soon as it warmed up some and the snow melted. Along the way, Franklin Pierce also declared against the free state cause and that raised the specter of the United States Army stepping in.

On February 20, Brown wrote back to North Elba. He had letters from the sixth and sixteenth of January, both received just the last week.

This week we get neither letter nor paper from any of you. I need not continually repent that we are always glad to hear from you, and to learn of your welfare. I wish that to be fully understood.

Stern phrasing aside, Brown clearly missed his loved ones back in New York and wanted to hear from them constantly. We don’t write letters anymore, but before email and phone calls people wrote endlessly to one another. Then they kept the letters to read and reread, a habit intensely gratifying to historians. Someone who said they would write every day might mean it literally.

Brown held up his end of the correspondence by updating the family on how they did in Kansas. He and Salmon wrote from Osawatomie on their way back from Missouri, where they paid thirty cents for a bushel of corn.

I have but little to write this time, except to tell you about the weather, and to complain of the almost lack of news from the United States. We are very anxious to know what Congress is doing. We hear that Frank Pierce means to crush the men of Kansas. I do not know how well he may succeed; but I think he may find his hands full before it is all over.

By the time Brown wrote, he could have read Pierce’s statement in the Herald of Freedom or elsewhere. Congress might still act to restrain the president, though. We tend to focus on the presidency, with good reason, but congressional leaders had a much higher profile in Brown’s day and might well use it to make Pierce’s life difficult. The opposition controlled the House, which helped. That the opposition coalition specifically organized on anti-Nebraska principles helped still more. When he wrote, Brown knew that he had at least a few friends in Washington City and the might plausibly speak for the chamber.

John Brown and President Pierce

John Brown

We left John Brown in the wake of the Wakarusa War, which brought with it a peace settlement he distrusted as much as he liked the outcome of the proslavery Missourians going home. He thought Kansas’ troubles might soon come to an end, a hope that must have tracked closely with ratification of the Topeka Constitution in December of 1855. The winter brought bitter cold and deep snow down upon Kansas. Still, Brown forged on. He wrote home that things went tolerably well. That included frequent trips to Westport, where Brown challenged the locals with the declaration that he opposed slavery and lived in Kansas. They ignored him and took his money, which ran out despite receiving a fair sum from his aged father. Consequently, the food ran low too.

Two of Brown’s sons suffered frozen toes that winter and a third, Frederick, had another attack of the mysterious ailment that brought terrible headaches and left him near mad with pain. The conditions got to Brown, who again considered taking his own claim in Kansas and again abandoned the plan. He still wanted to end his days in North Elba. He suffered through a miserable bout of homesickness for the Adirondacks, which he declared almost enough to “unMan” him. I don’t have access to the original letter for context, if Brown provided any, but clearly he felt near to breaking. Whether that meant just an emotional collapse or drawing near to quitting Kansas completely, I can’t say.

Franklin Pierce

Still, Brown kept busy. The ratification of the Topeka Constitution meant that the free state government had a full slate of officers and legislators to fill. He presided over the meeting that Osawattomie that nominated men for the new legislature. John Junior got the nod, which pleased Brown greatly. On January 15, the polls opened and Brown trooped down to Pottawatomie with a basket full of guns and knives again; you never knew when a Missourian might show up. Junior won his seat, which had to please the elder Brown more still. He’d gone around the area as a tough-talking antislavery man, a chip off the old block, and the voters approved.

Then word arrived that cowardice had not kept Missouri at bay, only the cold. As soon as it warmed up and some of the snow melted away, the proslavery men meant to come again into Kansas and work some ruin. That news received swift confirmation in word out of Leavenworth, where the Missourians came to trouble the polls after all. Reese Brown (no relation) caught the worst of it for the free state side, hacked nearly to pieces and left dying on his own doorstep by the Kickapoo Rangers. Almost at the same time, Franklin Pierce declared that all Kansas’ troubles lay at the feet of antislavery men. He deemed the free staters revolutionaries and insisted that their continued activity constituted an insurrection. In other words, John Brown now had an enemy in the White House.

An Escape: More Trouble at Leavenworth, Part Two

Pardee Butler

Pardee Butler

Back in December, a free soil man in the company of the subsequently murdered Reese Brown took part in defending the free state polls at Leavenworth. Just across the Missouri from town, the border ruffians got together for another filibustering. They couldn’t leave the proslavery Kansans to have all the fun, after all. Alas, the ferry remained docked on the Kansas side until someone cut it loose and sunk it. At the end of April, a proslavery man found our nameless protagonist and blamed him for that. He tried, at knife point, to make an arrest. Such an arrest had ended with Reese Brown dead back in January. The unknown free stater may have liked and admired Brown, but declined to follow that particular example. Instead he drew his pistol and ordered the proslavery man to let go of his horse or catch a bullet to the face.

Having brought a knife to a gunfight, the proslavery man delivered some threats and let go. The anonymous -to us, but probably not to the Herald of Freedom- antislavery Kansan went on and completed his business in Leavenworth. Around sundown, he started for his home. He didn’t get far before coming to a ravine. There,

he was overtaken by eight or ten men on horseback, led on by the Ruffian. They made him halt, took his arms from him, hit him with their whips, flourished their hatchets over his head, and threatened to hang him on the first tree they came to.

Cooler heads prevailed over all that, with the group settling for incarceration in advance of a trial for larceny. Our hero had stolen the ferry boat and he ought to answer for it, now that the boys had some fun with their whips. They jailed him “in an isolated place near Delaware” toward midnight. Durance vile lasted through the day, when it seems that no one bothered to see to the prisoner’s needs. The next night, the antislavery man

heard a key turn in his door, and footfalls outside the house. he waited some fifteen minutes, and then went to the door, which he found open. Walking out on the prairie, he heard his horse neigh in a clump of trees some distance off and immediately went to him. He found his horse, saddle-bags, and overcoat covered with mud, and soaked through and through.

One doesn’t look a getaway horse in the teeth; our hero mounted up and got out of there before someone had second thoughts.

This all sounds a bit too neat, and I suspect the details benefit from some embroidery in the editorial office, but plausible all the same. The escape raises more questions to me than the capture, but both fit the range of proslavery behavior. Even angry mobs bent on murder sometimes had leaders who would let the victim off with some painful humiliation rather than a murder. Pardee Butler faced men who wanted him dead twice and survived it both times. Furthermore, a group of men with their blood up might talk themselves into something that none of them would do alone. One of Nameless’ captors may have had second thoughts. The proslavery men might even have imposed on a settler who agreed with their politics but didn’t want the risk of getting so personally involved. In any event, letting him go through subterfuge offered a face-saving way to resolve the situation without further violence.

 

“I’ll burn gun powder in your face.” More Trouble at Leavenworth, Part One

 

George W. Brown

George W. Brown

The Herald of Freedom trumpeted proslavery violence in expectation of new horrors in the near future. With Lecompte’s grand jury ordering the apprehension of the free state leadership and a new invasion from Missouri in the offing, they had plenty of reason to fear. Thus the May 10, 1856 issue reported a series of attacks, from a highway robbery attempt that might have happened, to the easily confirmed shooting of J.N. Mace. For the most part, this all happened in the recent past. Another item took the paper further back, to December before coming up to the present.

At Leavenworth, a place

infested with a gang of outlaws, who, if they had their deserts, would swing on every suple sapling in the woods. Their chief business is to harrass and persecute Free State settlers. They butchered Brown-tarred and feathered Phillips-incarcerated McCrea, in a close and unhealthy prison, for doing that which he would have been a coward not to have done. They have destroyed a printing press, driven families from claims, and insulted and abused women.

I don’t know about abusing women, but Leavenworth had killed Reese Brown. A separate item relates that people back in Illinois had taken up a collection to fund the purchase of a claim for his wife and children. They tarred and feathered William Phillips, though not the William Phillips who reported for Horace Greeley. A proslavery mob destroyed the Territorial Register there. The shoe fit.

Samuel Lecompte

Samuel Lecompte

The proslavery men also came for the Leavenworth ballot box. That occasioned the story that the Herald proceeded to tell, courtesy of and starring a free state comrade of Reese Brown’s, “whose name we withhold for good reasons.” Anonymous stories like this deserve heightened scrutiny, but this one has the sound of more to it than the highway robbery account. Brown and our protagonist aided in the defense of the polls and judges of election at Leavenworth. Soon thereafter, a large band of proslavery men gathered across the river in Missouri. They must have meant to cross and join the fight.

Fortunately, the ferry-boat was on the Kansas side; and by accident it was cut loose from its moorings and sunk.

Accidents do happen. The proslavery men went home cruelly disappointed. On the Kansas side, things settled down about Leavenworth with the murder of Brown until a week prior, when our nameless protagonist again went to Leavenworth. One of Brown’s murderers chatted him up. The paper reports a dialog we should treat with some skepticism, but its content doesn’t seem too out of order. The proslavery man remarked that Andrew Reeder had come back to Kansas and he “would like to see the d—-d scoundrel.” Brown’s compatriot called Reeder “a perfect gentleman.”

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Andrew Horatio Reeder

The proslavery man took the free stater’s horse by the bridle to hold him and continued:

No doubt all such d—-d abolitionists as you think he is a gentleman. You are a d—-d robber, and will catch h-ll; you stole the ferry-boat last winter, and I now arrest you for it.

Our hero asked under what authority his opposite number proposed to make the arrest, at which point the border ruffian produced “a large bowie-knife.” Alas, he brought a knife to a gun fight. Brown’s fellow drew a pistol and offered his regrets. If he could not go free at once, he would “burn gun powder in your face.”

Governor Shannon’s New Army

SJ Jones

Samuel Jones

When the free state legislature chose to defer enactment of any legislation it passed until it secured Kansas’ admission as a state, with the free state men in charge, they did so of a mind that the President of the United States considered them traitors. They might soon face arrest, a fact that could have hardly slipped their minds with the notorious Samuel Jones taking their names down as they swore their oaths of office. They might actually have committed treason. Legal niceties had hardly stopped Missourians from coming to steal their elections and in hopes of razing their towns, but the border ruffians did not operate under the color of law the way that the United States army would if Franklin Pierce gave the proper orders.

Pierce had already done something to that effect. The March 15, 1856 Herald of Freedom reminded its readers how all had hoped that Colonel Sumner would come from Fort Leavenworth to Lawrence’s rescue back in December. Sumner had not come, despite Wilson Shannon’s entreaties. Sumner said at the time that he lacked instructions from Washington and did not feel confident to act on his own authority. Now he had those instructions, which the paper printed news of by way of a letter that Secretary of State William Marcy wrote to Governor Shannon. He attached a copy of Sumner’s orders and Pierce’s law and order proclamation.

William L. Marcy

William L. Marcy

Pierce, Marcy averred, did not think Shannon’s situation so dire as to require the use of federal troops. He should call upon them only as a last resort, but

if it becomes indispensably necessary to do so in order to execute the laws and preserve the peace, you are hereby authorized by the President to make requisition upon the officers commanding the United States military forces at Forts Leavenworth and Riley

Shannon would only use the power in “extraordinary emergency”, Marcy insisted, but he had it. If the immediate establishment of the free state goverment didn’t justify calling out the troops, then some future clash might. Shannon tried desperately to secure Sumner’s aid to save Lawrence and so had established precedent that he would use the military if possible. Once the Cavalry rode, where would they stop?

George Brown put a positive spin on all of this. He insisted that Pierce’s proclamation

is not so villainous a document as the telegraph reports make it, and as for the instructions to Gov. Shannon, they are all we could expect, or even desire. While the Governor abides by the letter of those instructions, it will afford us pleasure to sustain him. Our State organization will be in no way of Gov. Shannon. Until an attempt is made to enforce the laws enacted by that body, they are harmless. If they adopt a code of laws which commend themselves to everybody’s sense of justice, and they are everywhere obeyed, how can Gov. Shannon, or anybody else, find fault?

Brown had a strong interest in painting the free state government as perfectly innocuous, but even in doing so he hedged carefully. If they adopt laws and if those laws comport to everyone’s morals, why would they give cause for objection? And if Shannon followed the letter of Franklin Pierce’s proclamation, rather than its avowedly proslavery spirit, all would work out.

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon

But would Shannon follow the letter of the president’s instructions? When he came to Lawrence’s rescue, Shannon had shown himself not quite the proslavery partisan everyone had feared. Maybe he had gotten right by popular sovereignty when he saw how far things had gone, but Shannon had helped save Lawrence from a private army of hooligans which he had unwittingly mustered himself. When they went to Lawrence, they went to serve warrants that Shannon had seen issued. A public army legally under his control presented a different scenario entirely. Likewise the governor can’t have loved the news of a rival government to his own, headed by men he probably thought had tricked him. His charge to, in Brown’s words,

put down insubordination on the one hand, and prevent invasion on the other

might mean no more Charles Dows, Thomas Barbers, Samuel Collinses, or Reese Browns, but it could also mean calling out the army to break up the government at Topeka. Insubordination, to Shannon, might very well mean wildcat state governments as much as proslavery violence. Even if he struck at both equally, that would leave the Kansas that stolen elections had already wrought. That Kansas had slavery baked deep into its laws.

Blame Andrew Reeder, Part One

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Andrew Horatio Reeder

John Hale and Franklin Pierce did not get on. That Pierce had drummed him out of the New Hampshire Democracy can’t have brought the two men together, but come 1856 they had more bad blood between them. In his annual message, Pierce laid into antislavery politicians. Those enemies of the Constitution had done all in their power to wreck the Union, bedeviling a prostrate South that gave up concession after concession incompatible with its honor or status as an equal partner in the American nation. Nothing would please antislavery fanatics, the president said. Hale, an antislavery politician, understood that this all meant him and his. He shot back with an impressive tirade in the Senate, which concluded with his foreboding that in short order a rupture may come. Hale hoped that it could wait until Pierce left office, as a master of the art of capitulation ought not helm the ship of state in such a time. The Senator’s kind words so moved Pierce that, according to James Rawley, turned his back on Hale at a White House reception. Clearly, Pierce had declared for slavery in Kansas.

Things didn’t necessarily look quite so dire in Kansas. From the beginning, free soil Kansans thought they might have a friend in Franklin Pierce. Well-connected men like James Lane told them so. The president hailed from New Hampshire, hardly a hotbed of proslavery sentiment. If he rose up through the Democracy, then that didn’t necessarily bother a majority of antislavery Kansans. Many of them, though certainly not all, leaned democratic. The charitable among them might even dismiss Pierce’s annual message for 1855, delivered on the last day of the year, as directed more at outside politicians than themselves. Yes, Pierce dismissed their concerns as the ordinary imperfections of government and, anyway, not something he could help. Yes, Pierce refused to send the army to protect them from Missouri’s invasions. But if you really wanted to, you could read all of that as indifference or poor information. Nothing the president said, contra Hale, necessitated that he had it in for free state Kansans.

On January 24, nine days after the free state pools opened everywhere save Leavenworth, and exactly a week after Leavenworth’s election belatedly took place in Easton and occasioned the murder of Reese Brown, the president sent a special message to the Congress. The House still didn’t have a Speaker, but Pierce had given up waiting on that fiasco back at the end of December. Why it took him so long to chime in again has puzzled historians. With the exception of the free state elections, nothing all that noteworthy had happened in Kansas since the annual message. Proslavery men killed Reese Brown, but all of a month before that Pierce had stood idly by while actual, if small and makeshift, armies had gathered in the territory and came near to blows. What changed?

In the second volume of his Ordeal of the Union, Allan Nevins suggests that Pierce had a divided Cabinet. The Interior Department leaned as far antislavery as the War Department, under Jefferson Davis, did proslavery. At State, William Marcy refused to give any opinion at all. Bereft of a clear consensus, in an era when presidents often shared more decision-making power with the Cabinet than we might expect, Pierce might have floundered about. Nichole Etcheson speculates that Pierce meant the message to undermine Andrew Reeder. In the endnotes, she also points to Pierce’s biographer, Roy Nichols. Nichols thought that the entire message aimed at swinging southern Know-Nothings into voting for the administration’s man as Speaker of the House. I doubt we’ll ever know.

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

But when Pierce did set pen to paper, he displayed made himself very clear: Andrew Reeder, who the free state Kansans had named their delegate to Congress, screwed it all up. He dragged his feet getting to the territory, delaying from the end of June until the beginning of October before setting foot within his new domain. Then he declined to conduct the census that he ought to have begun immediately, delaying the first legislative elections until the end of March as a consequence. Then Reeder took until the start of July to summon the legislature.

So that for a year after the Territory was constituted by the act of Congress and the officers to be appointed by the Federal Executive had been commissioned it was without a complete government, without any legislative authority, without local law, and, of course, without the ordinary guarantees of peace and public order.

I have yet to find a historian who will defend Andrew Reeder’s performance as governor. He appears genuinely unfit for the task, an inexperienced lawyer jumped up to head a territory for the convenience of the Democracy in his part of Pennsylvania. He might have done his very best, but Kansas needed more. And who had put such an incompetent novice in charge of the nation’s newest, and surely most fraught, territory? What kind of fool would look at the obvious challenges facing Kansas and decide to seat an undistinguished lawyer into the governor’s chair?

Franklin Pierce.

“We will take the house; shoot Capt. Sparks at sight.”

The Howard Committee

The Howard Committee

Angry proslavery men at the Sparks home sought Stephen Sparks, who Reese Brown had rescued the night before. They arrived at Sparks’ home before their fellows in Easton murdered his rescuer and before the man himself made it back. On arrival, they clashed with a pair of free soil men resolved to go rescue Reese. The antislavery Kansans, Francis Browning and Richard Houcks, bolted and separated. Esseneth Sparks, Stephen’s wife, saw it all.

With their quarry of opportunity gone, the proslavery men turned around and returned to the house. After an awkward moment, someone asked for orders. A Captain Dunn, the same fellow involved in the violence at the Leavenworth election the month prior and also present at Easton for some part of Reese Brown’s ordeal, gave those orders: “take the house; shoot Capt. Sparks at sight.”

Esseneth Sparks had no real defense against a band of armed men. Short of a similarly armed and numerous group; few do. She had only her son, her white skin, and the proslavery mob’s consciences to defend her. Nineteenth century chivalry could extend far enough to be some help to her. Even while besieging Leavenworth, proslavery men treated the town’s women more gently than they did the men. Whiteness provided certain immunities as well, but that sentiment could run even less than skin deep when proslavery sorts caught a whiff of antislavery in the air.

One must use the tools one has, rhetorical, or otherwise. Hearing that her unwelcome callers aimed to shoot her husband dead, and seeing them push through into the building, gambled on their pity. She told them that she had only “an afflicted son” who they might throw “into spasms right at once” and another son only twelve. Anyway, Stephen hadn’t come home. Not every proslavery American ran around in a black cape, twirling a mustache and toasting evil at every turn. Molesting a white woman and her ill child might very well prove more than they could countenance.

When I stepped to the door and looked in, I saw Captain Dunn, with a six-shooter presented at my son’s breast. I did not hear the question asked, but heard my son’s answer-“I am on the Lord’s side, and if you want to kill me, kill me; I am not afraid to die.”

Or perhaps they could countenance some violence against invalids, children, and women after all.

Incidentally, this makes the second member of the Sparks family in less than twenty-four hours to deal with a gun pointed at him by daring its owner to shoot. Stephen’s son did as his father had the night prior in Easton.

The afflicted Sparks son might not have feared death, but Dunn neglected to take him up on the matter. Instead, the proslavery captain

left him, and turned to my little son, about twelve years old, and put the pistol to his breast, and asked him where his father’s Sharpe’s rifle was, and my son told him he had none. Dunn asked him where those guns were, pointing to the racks, and told him if he did not tell the truth, he would kill him; and my son told him the men-folks generally took care of the guns.

Surely frustrated, Dunn came out. Esseneth pressed him for an explanation and

[h]e answered that they had “taken the law into their own hands, and they intended to use it.”

Intentions or not, they got no guns and no Stephen. Whether moral qualms, practical fears that some armed free state men might soon appear, or simple realization that Sparks might not risk coming home so soon moved them, the proslavery party left. They didn’t all have to go far. Esseneth knew two of the party on sight, one who lived in Leavenworth and another “raised within a mile or so of where we lived, in Platte county, Missouri.”

The Hunt for Stephen Sparks

The Howard Committee

The Howard Committee

Reese Brown’s lifeblood spilled out from the gash in his head. He died in the early morning hours of January 19, 1856. Though free state sources often declare that he suffered numerous wounds, David Brown (no relation) found only the one. That doesn’t preclude Brown suffering quite a pummeling beforehand, of course. Most probably, his proslavery captors roughed him up fairly thoroughly. They may also have given him many solid kicks when he fell down. Neither would be particularly out of character, as George Wetherell could tell us, nor necessarily likely to leave marks for David to find later on.

Brown earned the wrath of the Kickapoo Rangers and Easton’s proslavery party by coming to the rescue of Stephen Sparks. Some may have also mistaken Reese Brown for George Washington Brown, editor of the Herald of Freedom, and objected to his living on the grounds that he ran for the free state legislature, but mainly Brown led an armed group of free state men in a battle that left a proslavery man mortally wounded. By the time of Brown’s capture, he and Sparks had parted company. The proslavery mob hadn’t forgotten him.

On the afternoon of January 18, the day after Spark’s rescue, two men outside the Sparks home got news of Reese Brown’s plight. According to Esseneth Sparks, who apparently had yet to hear of her husband’s ordeal, Francis Browning and Richard Houcks resolved to go to Brown’s rescue.

Just as they started, two men rode up and called for Mr. Sparks. I told them he was out on business. They said they had private business with him.

While Esseneth and the proslavery men spoke about her husband, Browning spotted a larger party on a rise. Understanding the threat in a large group of armed men, particularly near a known and undefended free state household, he turned back and asked them what had transpired.

They said “they did not know; there was a great excitement at Dawson’s, they had heard, but they had not been there.” They then gave the sign by firing two pistols in the air, and motioning to the party with their hands. The party then came riding on as fast as they could, shouting. When they came up, they all joined in pursuit of Browning and Houcks, shouting “kill them,” “kill them,” “kill the damned abolitionists,” and firing upon them; but they divided one going one way, round the hill, and the other the other way, and escaped.

The Murder of Reese Brown

The Howard Committee

The Howard Committee

Captain John Martin, of the Kickapoo Rangers, did all he could for Reese Brown. The mob at Easton, including some of his own men, had enough of talk about giving Brown over to the lawful authorities. They waited long enough while he, Edward Motter, and others questioned the free state man. They came for blood, not talk. Martin delayed the final confrontation by some time, but at last the proslavery rowdies burst in and refused to depart. With some parting imprecations, Martin mounted up and started back for Kickapoo. He left Brown to the mob.

 

On the way out, Martin managed to release Brown’s companions. Under the same roof, they could hear the mob laying into Brown. Brown himself had rather less luck. Eyewitness testimony drops off at this point. M.P. Rively gave a confusing and evasive version of events:

He [Brown] was then taken out of the store by some one, I do not recollect whom; and it was proposed by some person, I do not recollect whom, that Brown and Gibson should fight, which they did. Brown fought, and Gibson knocked him down with his fist; that I saw. While he was down, Brown Hallooed “Enough.” He then got up, and I led him to the wagon and put him in it, and he went home in the wagon. That is all I recollect of it. I went off in advance of the wagon, and the next day I heard Brown was dying. I did not see the fight between Brown and Gibson when it commenced. I saw Gibson knock him down, and saw Brown strike at him. Id id not see Gibson use any weapon at that time, though I saw Gibson have a hatchet as we were going out there that day. I did not see him have a hatchet at the time of the fight. I do not know that Brown was bleeding when I helped him in the wagon, for it was about dusk. Mr. Charles Dunn helped me to lead Brown to the wagon, and Brown got in himself. […] I did not see either Brown or Gibson, at the time of the fight, have any weapon. It was about dusk, and I should probably not have seen the weapons if they had had any.

Charles Dunn had a prior proslavery adventure at Leavenworth involving free state polls.

Rively managed to see and not see everything. We can only speculate, but it seems far more likely that Rively saw most everything and declined to recall on the grounds that he might incriminate himself. He admitted to the concern when he opened his testimony. It doesn’t take much reading between the lines when he spells it out for you. At some point in the attack, the proslavery men decided Brown had had enough and bundled him up in a wagon to go home.

David Brown, no relation to Reese, lived on the claim to the west of the other Brown’s. He saw Brown “three or four hours” after the proslavery men dropped him on his doorstep. A teamster in Brown’s employ asked him to find a doctor. David obliged, securing a promise to come before returning to Reese Brown’s home around three in the morning, where he

found him in a dying condition, lying upon a pallet on the floor, his clothes literally covered with blood. I sat down, took his head upon my lap, and examined the wound. I asked him how he was; he said he was dying, but should die in a good cause. I commenced opening his vest to ascertain if there were any further wounds in his body, and he told me they were all in his head.

David checked anyway, but Reese had it right. Other sources say that Reese Brown suffered numerous serious injuries, but none of them saw his body. All that blood came from a gash

on the left side of the head, cutting the inside of the ear, and extending perhaps two inches long to the left temple, cutting off a lock of hair.

Even in the full dark of night, we might expect Rively to have noticed such an injury. It claimed Reese Brown’s life soon thereafter, with his head laying on David Brown’s lap at the time of death.

Reese Brown’s brother engaged doctors to examine the body, which they exhumed for the purpose about a month after burial. The cold preserved Brown fairly well. Dr. James Davis testified that the wound

was in the left temple, severing the temporal bone to the length of about two and a half inches. I judge that the wound was made with one blod of a hatchet or tomahawk, or some weapon of that kind. The temporal bone was opened sufficiently to admit my finger anywhere along it for two inches. I ran my fore-finger into the wound up to its second joint. I have no doubt it was a mortal wound.

Dr. J.G. Park agreed, adding that it made

about a line from the outer end of the socket of the eye, and running along towards the ear […] I ran my finger through the squamous portion of the temporal bone, which is the thinnest part of the skull bone. The opening into the skull was sufficiently large to admit my fore-finger, which I ran into the brain. Fragments of bone were sticking on the inside into the brain[…] The wound was one that must have produced death, and the only wonder is that the person should have lived so long after he received it.

If Gibson, or anybody else, managed to deal Reese Brown such a wound without a weapon then they must have had metal hands. Probably Rively, and everyone else who stuck around, saw Brown take the hatchet to the head and decided that things had gone far enough. Best get him out of the area before he died surrounded by obviously guilty proslavery men.