John Brown Sr. came to the Kansas Territory as a result of violence, sparked by the expansion of slavery into the Kansas-Nebraska territories between 1854 and 1861, a period known as “Bleeding Kansas”. To some, the man was a hero. To others he was a kook, the devil incarnate. A radical abolitionist and unwavering opponent of the “peculiar institution” of slavery, John Brown believed that armed confrontation was the only way to bring it to an end.
Brown and four of his sons: Frederick, Owen, Salmon, and Oliver, along with Thomas Weiner and James Townsley, set out on what they called a “secret expedition”, on May 23, 1856. The group camped between two deep ravines off the road that night, remaining in hiding until sometime after dark on the 24th. Late that night, they stopped at the house of James P. Doyle, ordering him and his two adult sons, William and Drury, to go with them as prisoners. Doyle’s wife pleaded for the life of her 16 year old son John, whom the Brown party left behind. The other three, all former slave catchers, were led into the darkness. Owen Brown and one of his brothers murdered the brothers with broadswords. John Brown, Sr. didn’t participate in the stabbing, it was he who fired a shot into James Doyle’s head, to ensure that he was dead.
The group went on to the house of Allen Wilkinson, where he too was brought out into the darkness and murdered with broadswords. Sometime after midnight, they forced their way into the cabin of James Harris. His two house guests were spared after interrogation by the group, but Wilkinson was led to the banks of Pottawatomie Creek where he too was slaughtered.
There had been 8 killings to date in the Kansas Territory; Brown and his party had just murdered five in a single night. The massacre lit a powder keg of violence in the days that followed. Twenty-nine people died on both sides in the next three months alone.
Brown would go on to participate in the Battle of Black Jack and the Battle of Osawatomie in the Kansas Territory. He would be hanged in 1859 after leading a group to the armory in Harper’s Ferry Virginia, in a hare brained scheme to capture the weapons it contained and trigger a slave revolt. The raid was ended by a US Army force under Colonel Robert E. Lee, and a young Army lieutenant named James Ewell Brown (JEB) Stuart.
Brown supporters blamed the 1856 massacre on everything from defending the honor of the Brown family women, to self defense, to a response to threats of violence from pro slavery forces. Free Stater and future Kansas Governor Charles Robinson may have had the last word when he said, “Had all men been killed in Kansas who indulged in such threats, there would have been none left to bury the dead.”