The Taking of Reese Brown

The Howard Committee

The Howard Committee

Captain John Martin, of the proslavery Kickapoo Rangers, had a problem. His men took Reese Brown and his fellow free state militants prisoner on the morning of January 18, 1856, under the understanding that they had killed a proslavery man. They hadn’t quite done that, but they did hold up their end of a gunfight the night prior and John Cook, who participated on the other side, would die from a free state gunshot later in the day. On coming into Easton, the site of the previous night’s battle, Martin put his prisoners in Dawson’s store. Then he and some others, including Dr. Edward Motter, took Brown apart from the rest and questioned him.

While in the store, the free state men had other callers as well. J.C. Green testified that

I heard many of the men say that Brown should never get away from Easton alive. One man came into the store and said that Brown had as many friends in the room where they were trying him as he had enemies, and he would be damned if Brown should get away from there alive. Some one said that Brown ought not to be killed, but ought to be given up to the law. Some one then said they would be damned if Brown should get away alive.

Not everybody wanted to kill Brown, but plenty did. Both Easton locals and Martin’s Rangers included men out for blood. The release of the other free state men can’t have cooled their tempers. At some point after Brown’s questioning, a crowd formed outside the building. Martin went out to talk them down, calling on some of his less bloodthirsty comrades to help. Confident that they’d done the job, Martin went back inside.

While I was in the room some drunken men, some of whom lived out on the Stranger, some from Leavenworth, and probably one or two from Kickapoo, but none who belonged to the Rangers, broke open the door of the room and came in. Myself, Mr. Rively, and Mr. Elliot put them out again.

Martin repeats his favorite denial: Yes, men from Kickapoo came and got mixed up in everything. As a Kickapoo resident himself, he should know. But none of his Rangers had anything to do with it. Just random proslavery militants who acknowledged his authority as an officer in the Kickapoo Rangers.

Whoever came, their bursting into the room impressed the gravity of the situation on Martin’s companions:

Mr. Elliot, who was an old gentleman, advised me to come out, as the crowd would kill me and Brown both. He said he would not stay there and be exposed to such a set of drunken fools, and advised me to come away. I went out a few moments afterwards, and went into the other room where the rest of the prisoners were, and got them away while the crowd was breaking the second time into the room where Brown was.

Martin may have saved the lives of Brown’s party, but Brown remained in dire straits. He came back to Brown’s room just as the crowd broke in.

Some of them caught hold of him and tied his hands with a rope, and some tried to shoot him. Mr. Rives [probably M.P. Rively] and myself tried to protect him all we could by throwing the muzzles of the guns up and trying to take them away from them. Brown said I had done all I could do to save him, and if he was killed his blood would not be on my head. I cursed the men and told them they were doing wrong, and declared if they would kill Brown in spite of all I could do, I would not stay to see them do it.

The proslavery Captain then washed his hands of the situation, collected his horse, and rode back to Kickapoo. He insisted, truthfully, that he did all he could to spare Brown’s life. One person can rarely dissuade a lynch mob. Martin could and did prevent any immediate murder, to the point of seizing guns, but he and his lieutenant couldn’t prevail against the entire crowd.

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The Trial of Reese Brown

The Howard Committee

The Howard Committee

The Kickapoo Rangers had Reese Brown and his free state men in their custody. A Ranger named Gibson made a go at an unarmed George Taylor with hatchet but one of Brown’s men and one of the other Rangers pulled him off. Gibson didn’t take that laying down. After a second try, he settled for destroying Taylor’s hat. This in mind, the Rangers’ captain, John Martin, felt quite anxious for the safety of his captives. He put reliable guards on them, as much to protect them from his others as to prevent escape or rescue. Everyone then rode back into Easton, where Martin put his prisoners in Dawson’s store.

The people of Easton did not greet Brown’s return with unanimous joy. M.P. Rively described them as “very much exasperated.” Despite that, Captain Martin insisted on a more formal exercise of frontier justice. He wanted facts before considering any serious punishment and so chose to examine Brown. The interrogation took place in Dr. Edward Motter’s office and it seems the doctor took the lead. According to Martin:

Dr. Motter questioned him as to what he (Brown) had done the night before. Brown went on to state that they had come to Easton to the election to vote, and to defend the polls if necessary; that he had understood that the Kickapoo Rangers, or the pro-slavery party, were coming there to take the ballot-box away from them. he stated the cause of the difficulty the night before, to have grown out of the fact that Mr. Sparks was going from Mr. Minard’s house home, and the news came to Mr. Minard’s that Sparks had been taken prisoner, and he went down with some 30 or 40 men to rescue him.

 

All true enough. According to Motter, Brown also admitted doing some wrong that night, though the Doctor said that Brown wouldn’t elaborate on the point and he judged the free state captain more concerned with the election’s legality than the gunfight. Neither sounds entirely plausible, but knowing himself in the power of potentially murderous enemies, Brown might have said as much of what they wanted to hear as he felt he could get away with.

Brown confessed to the exchange of gunfire, at which point Martin and company had to decide what to do next.

Myself and Mr. Elliot, Mr. Grover, and Mr. Burgess advised them to bring Brown back to Leavenworth city, and place him in the hands of the proper authorities here. There were others in the room at that time; and I went out, and the crowd asked what conclusion we had come to, and I told them. They swore that would not do, because Brown would get away as McCrea had, and they were determined to have Brown or shoot him.

Cole McCrea killed Malcolm Clark at a public meeting some time earlier. The less famous William Phillips earned his lynching from the belief that he provided the gun. Martin, and probably everyone in Kansas by this point, knew the reference. He wouldn’t have any of this unlawful execution, though:

I told them that would be wrong and cowardly, as Brown was a prisoner, and that I would be responsible for him-would take him back myself, and he should not get away. Several other men promised the same thing, and then went back into the house to get some other steady men to go out and talk with the crowd, and try to pacify them; and they did so.

Martin had every reason to paint himself as the sensible, moderate one who wanted nothing to do with needless violence. On occasion his testimony comes across as the words of a man trying too hard to defend himself. But he and hostile witnesses to the same events agree that Martin had trouble controlling his men. The man on the other side standing up for a vulnerable enemy makes for a romantic image, but our natural hostility to the proslavery party shouldn’t convince us that every one of them considered violence equally appropriate in every situation. They too had their relatively dovish and hawkish members.

 

Understanding the Kickapoo Rangers, Part Two

The Howard Committee

The Howard Committee

The Kickapoo Rangers, or a group near enough that it makes little difference, rode to the rescue. They had word of free state Kansans murdering a proslavery man and they would see justice done. The Rangers found their quarry, Reese Brown’s band of free state men, on the road outside Easton. According to the proslavery commander, John Martin, their capture occasioned

a good deal of excitement, and some questions were raised as to what we should do with them. Some of them got into a fight with one young man who had been taken in the wagon, by the name of Taylor.

Martin differs from George Taylor and Henry Adams, both of whom paint the fight as a one-sided affair that ended with Adams and a proslavery man pulling Ranger called Gibson and his descending axe away from the unarmed, prone Taylor. But Martin’s invocation of excitement implies he might have had trouble restraining his men.

That subtext runs through his testimony. Per Martin, the Rangers looked to him for advice on what to do with their prisoners. He doesn’t say it in so many words but, given the context, the options likely included letting Gibson have his way. Henry Adams testified that Martin lacked full control over his men and chose two trustworthy ones to guard them as much from their fellows as to prevent escape. Martin agreed that he did so:

They asked me if I would protect them, and I said I would, so far as I could. I requested Mr. D.A.N. Grover and Mr. Williams to get into the wagon with them, to protect them from injury, they being sober, discreet men.

Maybe Martin saw the guard as a chivalrous act designed entirely to appease his over-frightened captives, but in that case any man bar Gibson might have done. That he chose with some care, cognizant of the excited state of his company, suggests that he understood in the moment that he had a bigger problem than one malcontent.

All of this left the question Martin’s band posed to him not entirely answered. Now that they had their prisoners, what would the Rangers do with them? Martin decided they must go on to Easton, taking Reese’s people with them, in order to determine just what exactly had happened. Once back in town, Martin put the free state men

into Mr. Dawson’s store for protection against some of the men who had got to drinking and had become excited. Some were excited before we got there, and belonged to the party who had been there the night before.

I said before that none of the Rangers had firsthand knowledge of what happened with Stephen Sparks the night prior to their arrival. I stand by that. Nothing in Martin’s account of his gathering up a band of men and riding for Easton mentions firsthand knowledge. If someone knew something back at Kickapoo, I can’t imagine opting for silence and instead hoping that Edward Motter’s second letter of the night would carry the day. Someone may have met the party on the way and Martin neglected to mention them. Or he might have meant only to add the threat from Easton residents to that of his own more unruly elements and not phrased himself as clearly as one would hope. For the most part, Howard Committee testimony seems to have been given verbally. A clerk could have made a mistake in transcription or Martin might not have spoken as precisely as one would hope.

Pointing toward a fresh local menace, Rively testified that when the group arrived in Easton, they found

The citizens were very much exasperated, and it is not to be wondered at that they should retaliate; I fully expected they would.

However Martin came to understand it, he had more to worry about than his prisoners escaping or posing a threat to their captors. His men, the proslavery men of Easton, or a combination might well set aside his prudence and do something drastic. One had already tried.

Understanding the Kickapoo Rangers, Part One

The Howard Committee

The Howard Committee

We left George Taylor not quite the victim of axe murder. One of the Kickapoo Rangers, Gibson, set to the unarmed Taylor with the aforesaid axe but suffered the cruel disappointment of intervention by Henry Adams and a fellow proslavery man. Even the sort of person keen to join a proslavery militia had some limits, through Gibson clearly had fewer scruples than some of his comrades.

Their motivations could stand further investigation. We can generalize from other proslavery groups and expect similar concerns about the preservation of white power and slave property. The Rangers probably understood the free state movement as an insurrection that warranted extraordinary measures in opposition. But the Howard Report includes testimony from two Rangers present that day, the M. P. Rively that Henry Adams recognized and Captain John W. Martin himself. We don’t have the good fortune to hear from Gibson, and we do know that not all the party felt precisely as he did, but they give us our best approach to understanding why he felt George Taylor needed a gruesome death.

The Kickapoo Rangers rode for Easton on January 18, 1856 without a full knowledge of the confrontations the night previous. Indeed, they almost didn’t come at all. Martin received word from Edward Motter that Easton’s proslavery men required his services, but the news did not impress him:

I answered his note by telling him I apprehended no danger, and he had better go on until they commenced to fight.

According to Motter, he wrote for the Rangers to come after the gunfight. Maybe the Doctor didn’t communicate as clearly as he wanted to so soon after hearing bullets whistle by. He could also have just told the Howard Committee that he summoned help after the fight, but really done so before. Martin dates his receipt of Motter’s letter to about eleven at night on the seventeenth. We must take such times as approximate, but it still seems likely Motter wrote sometime that night rather than in a panic over the free state party’s effrontery in simply holding an election.

“About sunrise,” Martin heard from Motter again:

saying that one of their men named Cook had been killed by the free-soilers the night before. I then went down to Kickapoo, and told the men what had happened, and showed them the notes, and we concluded, a good many of us, to go out to Easton and see what was up.

Here Martin stresses that he did not call out the Kickapoo Rangers, but rather that some random citizens of Kickapoo chose to come along instead. He just had people from Kickapoo, or within a decent range thereof. One might call them the Rangers from Kickapoo, but certainly not the Kickapoo Rangers. Maybe to his mind, the distinction mattered. I have yet to find a historian who agrees. If anything, Martin might have drawn such a line to deflect responsibility from himself given what transpired later on.

M.P. Rively began his testimony with evasions:

I first saw Mr. R.P. Brown near Easton on that day, with a number of men with him, whose names I do not recollect. He was walking, but I do not recollect whether by his wagon or not. As that was some time ago, I do not recollect much that took place; not much took place while I was there. Some men had him, but I don’t know whether they were Kickapoo Rangers or not.

You can almost see him sweating in front of the committee. He told them that he came with the understanding that they had questions about elections, “not in regard to any little difficulties that have occurred in the Territory.” Rively didn’t know anything, didn’t see anything, nothing happened, if anything happened he wasn’t there. If he was there, he didn’t remember what happened. He just saw Brown hanging out, you know?

The committee informed Rively of their purpose and John Sherman, William’s then more famous brother, cut to the heart of the matter:

Q. Will true answers to questions as to what was done that day by the persons you have spoken of to R.P. Brown, tend to criminate you personally?

A. Upon due reflection, I think they might in some degree.

Rively went on to tip his hand a bit further by counting himself among the proslavery party, making his claim to ignorance preposterous, and named many names. For a man with a faded memory, he did very well. He even remembered why the Kickapoo Rangers chose to come that day:

We had no warrant to stop these men. We heard that Mr. Brown, with a number of others, had been out holding an illegal election at Easton; that there had been some misunderstanding between Brown and his party and some gentlemen who lived at Easton, and that Mr. Brown was the leader of the party who fired upon those gentlemen, killing a gentleman by the name of Cook, a pro-slavery man

All of that sounds downright plausible. None of the Rangers appear to have lived in Easton, where they could have seen events firsthand. If they did, Motter would surely have gone to them for help directly rather than write Martin. They hadn’t reached Easton before meeting Brown’s party and so probably had no other source of information. They knew that free soil men had done murder and came to find them.

Trouble at Easton, Part Eleven

The Howard Committee

The Howard Committee

On the morning of January 18, 1856, Reese Brown and his free state compatriots started for home. They came to Easton to defend the polls, but the number of defenders proved sufficient that save for two incidents the day prior involved mostly drinking. They lined up outside the polls to answer a proslavery charge that never came and, about midnight, rode to the rescue of Stephen Sparks when he tried to leave and the proslavery men cornered him against a fence. The latter incident brought about a short gunfight, with both sides taking cover at nearby houses and exchanging fire at long range in the dark. Sparks’ son suffered minor wounds. Two proslavery men did worse, one of whom would later die. The shootout ended with the free state men retiring back to the polling place, at the house of a Mr. Minard.

While they retired to Minards’, Dr. Edward Motter sent word to Kickapoo. He feared for his life, as people lately shot at often do, and begged help in the person of the Kickapoo Rangers. The Rangers came, meeting Brown and his party on the road. They got on both sides of the party and charged forward, surrounding them. Shouting chaos ensued, where their leader temporarily lost control. He regained it only to find free state man George Taylor on the ground, a proslavery man with an axe poised above.

Taylor explained how he got into such a position:

When we got to the top of a knoll, we saw another party-I should think of a hundred men-who were at a double log-house. We walked on up the road to where they were. Directly one of them came to me and told me he wanted my rifle. I gave it to him. I was standing among the crowd about five minutes, and the man who took my rifle came up to me and knocked me down, and several hit me while I was down. he caught hold of my hair, and when I raised up I saw him trying to hit me with a hatchet. I raised up and pulled away from him. I dodged about then for some time, and he followed me with his hatchet.

Taylor made for a priority target because, according to Joseph Bird, he alone held a Sharp’s rifle. Henry Adams and an unnamed proslavery man came to Taylor’s rescue:

I sprung there and caught the hatchet in time to prevent its hitting Taylor. Some person on the other side of Taylor caught Gibson [the attacker] about the same time, and pulled him round out of my reach. It was one of his own party, trying to prevent his killing Taylor, which he seemed bent on doing. Gibson made a second blow at Taylor’s head, and one of his own party caught the hatchet. He then commenced hacking Taylor’s cap to pieces, which was on the ground.

Gibson had to endure the cruel disappointment of murdering only a hat just then. He really wanted to do in Taylor. Plenty of proslavery men talked a big game about such things. Some meant it quite sincerely. Gibson makes for the first I’ve seen so committed that he aimed to hack to death an unarmed man. He sounds frankly unhinged. Adams advised the proslavery leader, Captain Martin, to put a guard on Gibson lest he take another crack at murder.

Adams thought others in the group more of Gibson’s mind than Martin’s and convinced the Captain to separate his captives from the more dangerous sorts before they headed back into Easton as prisoners.

“A man who had a hatchet struck at his head” Trouble at Easton, Part Ten

The Howard Committee

The Howard Committee

Reese Brown and his company had quite a time. Through they passed hours of general inactivity with drinking during the election of January 17, 1856, they finally got the expected fight when proslavery men attacked Stephen Sparks. The immediate rescue didn’t bring exchange of fire, but one came as soon as proslavery and antislavery men could separate far enough for it. They exchanged rounds at long range, in the dark of night, and took cover within some nearby houses. In the exchange Sparks’ son suffered minor wounds. Two proslavery men did worse. One of the latter, a man named Cook, would die from a gut shot.

Fearing for his safety, Dr. Edward Motter sent to Kickapoo for help. The Kickapoo Rangers came, trapping Brown and some of his men on their way home from Easton. Brown tried to warn them off, but the Rangers had numbers on their side. J.C. Green described the encounter in rather retrained, summary terms. Henry Adams provided the Howard Committee more detail:

When we were about half way from Easton to Leavenworth, we met two wagons loaded with men, and one of the wagons was drawn by four animals-mules, I think. They hailed us to know where we were from, and wanted us to stop. There was a double track, and Mr. Brown drove by them without stopping. Shortly after we passed them, we saw another and a larger party in front of us, two wagons, and about thirty on horseback. The party in the wagons we already met, shouted to those in front of us, and they answered by shout, and then all rode around and surrounded us.

Green’s account broadly matches that, but the way he tells it you could almost think that the men from Kickapoo executed some kind of smooth battlefield evolution and, after some consternation, Brown surrendered. Adams speaks to the genuine chaos of the moment, with men not just maneuvering but also charging forward to fully envelop the group.

Brown’s party dismounted and raised arms as the proslavery men rushed forward, “levelling their guns and shouting.” Adams inquired, amid “a great deal of noise and disorder,” as to who had charge of the Rangers and Pierce Risely pointed him to a Captain Martin. Martin heard his name and rode over. Adams asked if he could get control of his men. Guns brandished or not, no one on the free state side seemed keen to fight it out just then. Martin obliged, “partially succeeded,” and the crowd settled enough that Adams

turned round and saw George Taylor, one of our party, on the ground, and two or three men were around him, and partially over him, and he was making an effort to get up. As he got up, his head came in sight, and a man who had a hatched struck at his head.

“They had got us and were going to hang us” Trouble at Easton, Part Nine

The Howard Committee

The Howard Committee

The gunfight at Easton on the night of January 17-8, 1856 ended inconclusively, with the free state men returning to the site of the late polls at Minard’s house rather than heading home. Stephen Sparks’ son suffered minor wounds. Two proslavery men had more serious injuries, one shot through the leg and the other in the stomach. Dr. Edward Motter tended him for some time that night, but “through fear” left at three in the morning. Motter did more than go into hiding, though:

Believing that our place was in danger, I sent an express to Kickapoo. Mr. Kookogey sent an express to Messrs. Johnson & Lyle, of this city.

Kickapoo served as the home base for the Kickapoo Rangers, a proslavery militia who the free state party took seriously. Reese Brown, Stephen Sparks, and the other guards at the Easton polls came with the expectation that they would try something. Motter set out to prove them retrospectively right. Kookogey’s missive would bring, among others, J.M. Lyle. He served an official in the bogus legislature and played a role in the lynching of the more obscure William Phillips. Given the already warm relations between armed proslavery and antislavery Kansans in the area, what could go wrong?

On the other side of the dispute, J.C. Green came into Easton with Reese Brown. He didn’t join the others in rescuing Stephen Sparks, but after Brown left his company heard the “considerable firing.” Brown, Sparks, and company returned to Minards and there stayed until morning. They had some breakfast and started out.

After riding about six miles, we met two wagons filled with men, who told us to stop. Mr. Brown told the driver to go on, and we passed them; and then their two wagons turned about and followed us. Some of them jumped out of their wagons, and said they would see if we would not stop. We then jumped out of our wagon, and Mr. Brown, I think, told them if they wanted anything to come on. We then saw in the road in front of us some forty or fifty more men armed, some with horses and some with wagons. They had stopped at a house near there. We kept walking along until we came up to them. They began cursing us, saying that they had got us, and were going to hang us.

Brown, Green, and company had met the Kickapoo Rangers, and probably some men out of Leavenworth too, that Motter and Kookogey summoned. Green doesn’t name them as such, but none of the witnesses I’ve seen mentions another large band of proslavery men coming into Easton on the eighteenth. He recognized Lyle among their number.

At its most, Brown’s company boasted around twenty men. By the time they met with the Rangers, Sparks and probably others had separated from them. The proslavery men had the advantage in numbers and superior positions, both ahead of and behind the party. Whatever else one might say about the shortcomings of free soil Kansans, they knew how to count and understood their precarious situation. The Rangers insisted that everyone hop into a wagon and come with them back to Easton. Brown’s men objected, but on the grounds of safe transport rather than out of a desire to hazard a fresh gunfight. The Kickapoo men conceded the point and divided Brown’s company between two wagons.

The Kickapoo Rangers remained mindful of their own safety too. One of them spotted Green’s revolver and asked its surrender:

I told him I would give it to the captain of their company, if they had any captain. He said they had, and that his name was Martin. Presently Martin came along on horseback by the side of the wagon, and I gave him two revolvers. I had one in a belt, and the other I had in my pocket.

In short order, Brown’s party found themselves back in Easton. This time they ended up in Dawson’s store, which connected to Dr. Motter’s office.

“My son was wounded and knocked down” Trouble at Easton, Part Eight

The Howard Committee

The Howard Committee

Thursday last, I promised a some gunplay. A mistake and my regular schedule got in the way, but we have come to the gunfight at last. Stephen Sparks had his confrontation with the proslavery men at Easton. Reese Brown and his men came to his rescue. The two groups mingled and moved along, but parted at a fork in the road. Brown smelled trouble coming and urged Sparks, his son, and his nephew into the center of the free state group. It took three tries, but Sparks finally obliged. At the same time, Brown

was marching backwards looking towards the other crowd, conversing with them not to fire, and told them that if they did, he would return fire.

I don’t know what kind of conversation Brown had whilst walking backwards and shouting across a distance between sixty and eighty yards, but the proslavery men found it unpersuasive. They opened fire. The antislavery men returned the favor at Brown’s order and “a great many guns were fired.” This went on for some time, though Sparks understandably doesn’t have a clear sense of just how long. He had more pressing things on his mind, both in his personal safety and that of his loved ones:

My son was wounded and knocked down, within six or eight feet of men, at the second fire, but he raised again and fired. He would wounded in the arm and head slightly.

Sparks doesn’t say just how the gunfight ended, but it seems that his side prevailed as they “marched back to Minard’s” rather than fled or retreated while still under fire. Resounding victory or no, they chose to go back to Easton rather than take Sparks home and disperse.

Edward Motter, who had trailed behind the proslavery men at a distance, had a bit more to say. He hung back out of the expectation that hot lead would fly, though he pins responsibility on Brown’s men rather than his own side:

We arrived at the forks of the road, where an Indian trail led off, and they had got between 80 and 90 yards ahead of us, when there was a pistol fired from Brown’s party.

With all due respect to the Doctor, and fully cognizant of judging him too harshly before, I don’t buy this. It doesn’t make sense for the free state men. Who had what they came for and aimed to leave the area behind, would suddenly turn and open up. Sparks could hardly have missed a gunshot in close proximity to himself, and reports distinctly seeing the proslavery men shoot. Given the considerable distance and darkness, with everything happening past midnight, he must have seen the muzzle flash. He could have lied on behalf of his rescuers, but his version fits better with the situation than Motter’s.

Motter might have told a stretcher. People in the past, just like people today, lied often. He leads with the implication that he saw the first shots, but continues to indicate the opposite:

I came up while the firing was still going on. I stepped behind a stump, and as I did so, a man I took to be Mr. Sparks fired at me with both barrels of a double-barreled gun, loaded as I thought with buck-shot, from the way they rattled against the fence. While I remained behind the stump, there were four rifles shot into the stump, of course by some of Mr. Brown’s men.

Quite how Motter would identify Stephen Sparks in the dark and dozens of yards distant, I have no idea. He admits some doubt on the point, but clearly wanted the Howard Committee to think he had good reason to suspect it.

Motter, like Sparks, doesn’t go into how the exchange ended. He had more to say about the proslavery casualties:

One man named Richardson, on the pro-slavery side, was shot in the leg, the ball penetrating the anterior portion of the leg, striking the tibular bone, and glancing off, and lodged in the posterior portion of his leg.

After the shooting, Motter retired to his office and got word

that Mr. John Cook was shot; I went over to see him and rendered services as a surgeon. He was shot, the ball entering the groin, and passing out in the upper portion of the hip-bone. I proved the wound, and found it had cut the posterior portion of the colon; striking the spine, and passing up and cutting off the posterior portion of the right kidney. I remained with him until, through fear, I left the place about 3 o’clock that night, and did not come back until the next day between 12 and 1 o’clock.

A Vindication of Edward Motter

The Howard Committee

The Howard Committee

 

Gentle Readers, I’ve made an error and I’d best correct it before continuing. I previously said that Stephen Sparks’ version of the night of January 17-18, 1856 made no mention of Dr. Edward Motter and his attempt to defuse the situation. It turns out that he does, though he tells that part out of chronological order, in response to cross-examination, and in a page of testimony that your author managed to misplace while rifling through the multiple witnesses in the Howard Report. I print lengthy materials for ease in marking passages and transcription. Their page numbers help, but testimony on a subject often comes out of order or with significant gaps for other matters so a missing page doesn’t immediately raise any red flags.

For the record, Sparks says this about Motter:

Dr. Motter came to me in Dawson’s there, when more than twenty-five or thirty men were standing around me making threats, and said to the company, “as Mr. Sparks is on his way home and has got thus far, let him go.” He requested that of the company, and then went round between me and home, and the last I saw of him was standing there in the lane.

With both men agreed, I see no reason to retain any doubts about Motter’s testimony on the point. The doctor came forward and urged the other proslavery men to let Sparks be.

Sparks also commented on another part of Motter’s testimony that I found dubious. In Motter’s version, the free state men challenged him and then he wrote back. The doctor frames it as a personal matter between him and some drunken antislavery hooligans. Sparks doesn’t quite confirm or deny that narrative:

I do not know as any messages were sent by the men at Minard’s down to the men at Dawson’s to provoke them. I heard nothing of any challenge being sent down to the pro-slavery men to come up and fight. I sent none myself, and I never heard of any, though there might have been.

Stephen Sparks didn’t see anything, but wouldn’t rule out some kind of provocative note. This makes for far from a definitive statement on the existence of a note prior to Motter’s challenge, and Motter still suspiciously left the ballot box out of his version of events, but that he thought the scenario plausible bears notice.

One last thing: Motter found Sparks’ route home very suspicious, as it took him right past the proslavery men who he knew hated free state types and had spent all day fuming and drinking over the election. Sparks’ later testimony explains the path:

I could have gone from Mr. Minard’s house on a bee-line home, which would have been nearer home than the way I went, but it would have been over rocks and drifts. I went down the road I usually go-and go yet.

That doesn’t sound like Sparks went off in some display of machismo, or deliberately trolling for a fight. He just took the longer, but easier, path. Motter knew enough to find the choice suspicious, or at least reckless, but might not have appreciated the rough ground that Sparks would have to negotiate in the dark.

I don’t think that any of these points alter the narrative a great deal, but they do reflect somewhat better on Edward Motter than my previous read did and I do my best to keep these posts as accurate as I can.

 

“The fire was opened upon us,” Trouble at Easton, Part Seven

The Howard Committee

The Howard Committee

We left Stephen Sparks, son Moses, and unnamed nephew in the corner of a fence, surrounded by a proslavery mob armed and demanding their surrender. Sparks, himself armed, declined to oblige. When they tried to force the issue, one making a go for Moses’ gun, Stephen intervened and wrestled it back. He would come quietly over his dead body, literally telling the proslavery men that if they meant their threats they must shoot him. Whether Sparks’ bravery or the close quarters decided the issue, no one fired.

No one left either. What happened next depends on whether or not one believes Edward Motter. He told the Howard Committee that he and Mr. Kookogey

immediately ran down to where Sparks had stopped, and got on the fence and made a speech, that they should let the old man go on home; that it would not do to commit any violence on him. Ten or twelve of the men were about leaving, when Sparks commenced cursing and swearing about something-I could not tell what. I went to him, and tried to persuade him to go home, and he refused to go.

In Sparks’ version, Motter doesn’t make an appearance. They could both be right. Motter doesn’t mention the fence corner and Sparks refers to a few times when his adversaries withdrew and consulted amongst themselves. Motter’s speech might have taken place during one of those times. We can’t know whether Sparks said something that goaded the mob into further bedeviling him, but Motter previously went out of his way to make Sparks look bad on the matter of choosing his route home and probably invented a first insulting note to justify his own threats against the polls. On the balance, I think it more likely Motter invented Spark’s belligerence.

According to Sparks, the standoff lasted “some fifteen minutes.” Then Reese Brown arrived. According to J.C. Green, they got word from a Clark Tritt, who left with Sparks but apparently parted ways with him before the confrontation. Sparks doesn’t name him, but does refer to a man who was riding his horse and went back to share the news.

The first I saw of Brown he was near by, and his party afoot, stretched across the road, and inquired if I was there. I answered that I was. He told me to march to him. I started and was about halfway when Sam. Burgess caught hold of my shoulder. I told him to let me go, and prepared for defence, and he did let me go. He marched forward around me, and my son and nephew also came into the ring.

On close reading, the “he” in the last sentence must mean Brown, not Burgess.

Brown told his men to march back, and all did so, friend and foe going together in a crowd, I being in the centre. Then we went to the forks of the road; there the other party took the straight-forward road, and we, with Brown’s party, turned to the left.

With the exception of likely warning shots, the more intense phases of this affair happened at relatively close range. As the parties diverged, that range opened and the risk of friendly fire ebbed. Brown appreciated the fact keenly:

About forty or fifty yards, Brown urged me to walk in, as they were going to shoot. This he told me three times distinctly. The last time, I told him I would obey him. He was marching backwards looking towards the other crowd, conversing with them not to fire, and told them that if they did, he would return fire. When we were about sixty or eighty yards off, the fire was opened upon us.