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A Midwest Gothic

The Raid on Lawrence, Kansas

by KATHLEEN WALLACE

Men hid in the cornfields, some even opted for potato patches, a poor choice, of course, due to the low lying nature of the crop. If you ever have to hide, pick a crop that is tall, or you will have a long day trying to will your body to a ridiculous and miniscule width. That steaming August day had men and boys looking for any measure of safety, any concealment. One man was rolled up in an ornate carpet. His wife dragged it out of their burning home, begging Southern sympathizing Bushwhackers to allow her but this rolled rug– a memento of the house they were burning down. They strangely agreed., ignorantly creating a survivor. Some men jumped in wells, while others went to retrieve bodies in wells, only to have their own life extinguished when the rope broke. So wells played a big part in the day’s drama. Some men jumped out windows. It made no difference if you begged for mercy because it was all in the wispy nature of reflex. The thin moment of decision which led most of the Bushwhackers to decide on death. This was their imperative, to loot and kill all men and older boys.

This was the raid on Lawrence, Kansas which occurred about 150 and a half years ago,  part of the shocking violence of the Bleeding Kansas/Civil War years. Termed Quantrill’s Raid for the handsome schoolteacher turned fashionably attired guerrilla leader, this event is compelling for its historical relevance as well as the incredibly slight turns of fate from things like a smart wife or a candle blowing out. The trajectory of everyday existence is fraught with similar aggressive whimsy. A settled  cesium particle that you slurp in on that day your body was tired, the patch of black ice unobserved, the high-schooler who put the gun back at home on that dark day of their mind.  All, mired in the background, a delicate play of the gods or electrons (or both)–what might happen, what didn’t happen? Sometimes it is incredible to examine small moments of a historical episode to consider how tenuous it all really is.

This raid was accomplished when over 400 hastily assembled men, loyal to the Southern cause, opted to attack Lawrence, a town founded by staunch abolitionists from New England. Downtown Lawrence,  the place of so much carnage on August 21st , 1863 is named Massachusetts Street for the home state of those who founded this anti-slavery outpost. The thought was to arrive and outnumber the pro-slavery sympathizers. Those in Missouri found this to be a terrible thing, these outsiders showing up with such plans.

The very fact that this enormous raid occurred was brought about by happenstance synergy. Raids had became common, going back and forth between the Jayhawkers of Kansas and the Bushwhackers of Missouri, often nothing but retaliation for theft fueling the bulk of the hate, politics often a secondary, but chest thumping inclusion. It was simply a chance to steal for many. It became so dangerous that even in this fertile land, many farmers opted not to plant crops for the fear of being ambushed while out working them.

In an attempt to prevent the Bushwhackers of Missouri from obtaining aid and comfort through female relatives, the women were rounded up if they were thought to be helping the guerrillas in any manner. They were placed in a dilapidated three story house in Kansas City which served as a makeshift prison. It was notoriously unstable, and the keeping of hogs underneath the home did not serve to shore up the foundation in any manner.  The building collapsed , killing (among others) Cole Younger’s cousin and the sister of Bill Anderson (soon to be known as Bloody Bill Anderson). The men believed that the house was brought down on purpose to kill the women, and this served as an excellent recruitment tool for William Clark Quantrill’s long-standing desire to raid Lawrence. There was a sense of chivalry along with a panting desire to punish the freshly wealthy town that might as well have been in New England, for the sensibilities of it.

Quantrill was one of those opportunists who found purpose and plunder in wartime. He was a teacher oddly enough for a few years, then a man involved in petty schemes, often taking place in and around the town of Lawrence. He would do things like arrange to steal cattle and horses in Missouri, bringing in Jayhawkers, to  help do the deed, only to help steal the livestock, and then sneak away to tell the owners he knew who took them. He became something of a hero in Missouri as they didn’t realize he was instrumental in organizing the initial theft. He was a master of the double-cross, and during this time he generally went by the name Charley Hart. Eventually warrants for him became abundant in Lawrence and he went full guerrilla and returned to his birth name.  By most accounts, he kept his hands fairly clean of direct death, even being known as a gentleman by some during the raid. Watkin’s Museum in Lawrence has a delightful spinning wheel that he magnanimously allowed a woman to retrieve from her burning house, all while the town was descending into the bloodshed and chaos he orchestrated, clean hands, but the soul being a different matter. The town of Lawrence has a strange relationship with his notoriety–  growing up there, I remember an 80′s antique’s flea market named “Quantrill’s”. I always found that odd, thinking back to that name, it almost seems like naming a new shop on Ground Zero Bin Laden’s Cupcake Creations or Dick Cheney’s Nipple Piercing Salon, depending on your proclivities for cupcakes or nipple piercing.

When the force moved towards Lawrence from Missouri, there were ample moments that could have thwarted the whole thing. People seeing the massive rag-tag group noticed some of the men had blue on……so yeah, they must be Union troops. The normalcy bias is frightening, and can occur even in the presence of over 400 raiders. One woman was going to have none of this, Mrs. Jennings (I could not find her first name, which sadly fits with her story) knew these guys were up to no good and she set off on foot to get to a neighbor with horses who might be able to rush ahead and warn someone before they arrived. A man named Guest essentially called her a hysterical woman and ignored her plea, most likely an act of cowardice.  Behaving in this manner, he had no call to be brave. He wouldn’t even allow an employee, who happened to be black, to go try to stop the terror, even though the man believed Mrs. Jennings and wanted to do so. As if written to outrage old white Fox news dudes in the future, the woman and the black man were thwarted in their attempts to save the town, so of course a member of the Shawnee tribe was the next to try to do something valiant on this day. Pelanthe, also known as the Eagle, set off on a very fast horse towards Lawrence in an attempt to warn them of the danger headed their way. The horse was taken to the point of exhaustion and Pelanthe made a heart-breaking decision. He made deep cuts on the horse and filled them with gunpowder to extract a few more miles out of her. It is said that he felt great sorrow doing it, but thought he could save many lives even if it would be at the cost of this lovely animal. The horse finally stumbled and died, still outside of town. Pelanthe took off running and brought himself to exhaustion. The sickening realization that it was all for nothing hit him as he made it to the outskirts of town at dawn– only to hear shrieking and see walls of fire. He was just a little behind the raiders. The troop movements to warn Lawrence also came too little and too late.

If someone could have reached Lawrence with even 10 minutes of warning, then the guns, which were all locked up in a central armory for safekeeping, could have been accessed and distributed. As it was, the town had no means of defense. The mayor (who suffocated while hiding in a small well house) decided that it would be best for the weapons to be locked up. We can thank this man for one of those NRA stories with a small basis in fact that they extrapolate from to indicate that individuals need 40 megaton personal heart seeking rockets to keep for personal protection. Thanks, long dead Mayor George Washington Collamore. Thanks a lot.

The day created so many outrageous stories. The darkly comic manner in which women turned  one husband into a  homely aunt, all with the cunning use of a bonnet and dress. Her unpleasing visage and whiskers were given an askew glance by confused and disgusted, but ultimately passive raiders. The women continued to read to their ugly aunt through the day to calm “her”. Moments of this nature were rare– the norm was shooting men and teenage boys in the back as they ran for safety.

When the day ended, around 200 men and older boys had been murdered. The town was a smoking ruin, filled with wandering homeless widows, acrid smells of death weighing down the already humid air. So many small events came into play to make this happen, so many tales of revenge, fueling the insanity. A not so funny comedy of errors which allowed a huge force of men to ride unmolested into a city that half expected to be attacked.  And on a smaller level, the arbitrary nature of who lived and who died. That one man could lay in a potato patch and remain unseen is unlikely to say the least…… or the man who said a raider motioned for him to run, that it was a chance he could use to escape death from the others.  So many layers that make up the moment, creating the lines of the future, who will have descendents and such. One man was about to be shot in his home when a breeze blew out a candle, making it impossible for the raiders see him, unable to murder him.

An especially tragic moment in the aftermath occurred when a large plume of smoke was spotted towards Eudora near the banks of the Wakarusa River. The rumor spread rapidly; the raiders were coming back. The survivors ran into that old standby, the cornfields. Of course the height of the corn in August is impressive, and the citizens rushed to the field, filled with terror. They huddled there into the night when the only thing to break the oppressive heat of this time of year arrived. The dramatic lightning glowed ominously in the distance, much like the fire by the Wakarusa. The atmospheric tipping point was reached, and the sky dropped hail, as well as the temperature, leaving the pathetic and crying survivors to cower in the new fury, not man, but nature. The cruel twist was that the fire in the distance was simply a hay fire accidentally set. The brutal storm surely put it out. The shaking and frozen staggered out of the field the next day.

The fruit of this event was brutal for other innocents as well. Order Number Eleven was quickly enacted to remove all occupants on the Missouri side of the border, an area mapped out to be 85 miles long and 50 miles wide. Everything was torched, including the homes and barns of the area. There was to be no refuge for the raiders should they return to their old haunts. Destitute families, most with nothing to their names at this point, wandered from the area, refugees created in response to the raid that most of them had nothing to do with. Quantrill and his gang floated around the plains, even ending up in the friendly territory of Texas. Some from the group raided  pro-southern towns there as well, infuriating Confederate leaders, showing the propensity for thievery was stronger than political affiliation for many. Quantrill was eventually hunted down and shot, suffering a paralytic injury that did not kill him immediately.

The town of Lawrence, against all practical odds, came back. Downtown Lawrence is vibrant in current times,  sporting all manner of delights including a  “Honk for Hemp” man (often seen on the Douglas County courthouse steps), and of course Dennis, a downtown mainstay who on good days puts his plastic baby doll in a stroller, but on bad days carries her by the hair as he walks with grim determination past the shoppers on Mass Street. Restaurants pay him to help clean tables when he feels like it, but I don’t think Dennis probably respects clocking in. Dennis also has a wife (I think they are married)–anyway, she is a mannequin, a la “Lars and the Real Girl”, but with more latent hostility. I once watched him push her in a cart, her shapely gams kicking startled sidewalkers in a manner I am 100% sure was seen, and then inspired The Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony” video. Stores downtown even have dramatic photos of Dennis next to a collection jar to make sure he can keep doing his thing. The freedom of Dennis is important to many.

So I’m saying present-day Lawrence is alive and freaky, proof you can come back from anything, given enough time, even husky murderous bandits. As I stood downtown with my little one watching Santa get rescued from the top of Weaver’s Department store by the Fire Dept last year (after a fire-eater on a unicycle entertained the crowd), I had a creepy thought of all the slaughter on this very street so many years ago. Thankfully my midwest gothic moment got interrupted by a drunk guy so happy with the fire-eater that he bellowed out “Yeah, so now it’s Christmas!” This little stretch of earth has had many demons exorcised through sheer whimsical moments, but the ghosts still lurk and we need to remember them.

This bizarre and gruesome moment in the life of  Lawrence, Kansas should give pause to us all when we consider the small and the large of our own lives. The unseen and unplanned for commands so much of this bizarre ride. Of that we should always be aware, because if nothing else, the precious and precarious nature of it all is about the only thing that can be extrapolated from that knowledge. This is true even if the day is not notable to history, still–each of our days is a fragile web of interconnections, hurling us to all the unknowns, breezes saving our lives as well.

Kathleen Wallace writes out of the US Midwest and can be reached at klwallace@riseup.net (on a personal note, thank you for the comments from previous articles– I have been asked if I am new to writing on CP, but I should clarify that my old pieces were under the name Kathleen Peine.  No, not a Charley Hart issue like Quantrill. I’m not wanted (officially) under that name for livestock rustling double-crosses. Let’s just leave it at that.)