Eastern Kansas Territory, 1856
On Thursday, May 23, 1856 John Brown, his sons Owen, Frederic, Oliver, and Salmon, along with three local anti-slavers, Thomas Weiner, Henry Thompson and James Townsley set out by wagon on the south road along Pottawatomie Creek. In their waistbands his sons toted the army surplus broadswords that Brown purchased a few months earlier on his way to Kansas. Brown the others armed themselves with pistols and knives. The swords contained a hollow bore filled with quicksilver. When brandished the quicksilver slid from the handle to the blade. The shifting weight added force to a blow. They were cruel weapons designed to mutilate and maim. The swords were ideally suited to Brown's purpose - to strike terror into the hearts of pro-slavers.
Three days earlier a posse of 800 pro-slavers ransacked the anti-slavery town of Lawrence Kansas. The "Border Ruffians" from Missouri destroyed two anti -slavery newspaper offices; they leveled the house of anti-slavery leader Charles Robinson with cannon fire, and they burnt the Free State Hotel to the ground. Despite an earthworks fortification and a trained militia the citizens of Lawrence stood by and did nothing to defend their town. Their inaction sacrificed the town but avoided bloodshed. No one was killed.
When the news of the attack reached Brown's encampment south of Lawrence he was outraged that the citizens of Lawrence did nothing to resist the pillaging of their town. He branded them cowards and he vowed pro-slaver violence would be answered in kind. As in many of his deliberations he leaned on Biblical verse for justification and an "eye for an eye" precisely fit his mood. He ignored his son John Brown Jr.'s warning, not to do anything rash. Brown was set on revenge and no argument would dissuade him. Their response to the sacking of Lawrence, he said, must be swift and dramatic. After a brief consultation with the members of anti-slavery militia the Pottawatomie Rifles Brown selected a small enclave of pro-slavers who lived in Shermanville for his revenge. Pleasant Doyle, "Dutch" Henry, and Allen Wilkerson did not own slaves themselves, but they were active pro-slavers who hunted and captured run-away slaves. They also provided information "Border Ruffians" used to bully, rob and terrorize free-state people. John Brown had his targets.
Clouds scudded by the three-quarter moon. The wagon was left behind at the previous evenings campsite. In single file Brown and his men trudged north along a seldom used wagon road that cut through woods. They moved quickly. There was no talk, only the sounds of the night and the crunching of their boots. Each man was alone with his own thoughts. None had killed before, but before the night was over they all would have blood on their hands. They crossed Mosquito Creek, a small tributary of Pottawatomie Creek and climbed an embankment. In a clearing they spotted an outline of a cabin. Brown held up his hand and the company halted two hundred yards from the home of Pleasant Doyle. Crouched in the shadow Brown whispered his orders. He directed Townsley and his son Frederick to stand guard by the road. He told Weiner and Henry Thompson to reconnoiter the road in the direction of their next target Allen Wilkinson. Then Brown motioned his three sons to follow him across the clearing. Suddenly a large dog sprang out of the brush. It halted barking, growling and snapping a few feet from the intruders Frederick swung his broadside and killed the animal with one deep gash alongside the neck.
The ruckus awakened Doyle and his wife, Mahala. His three sons asleep in an adjacent room also were awakened. Brown moved quickly to the door of the cabin and knocked. Doyle jumped from his bed and grabbed a poker from the fireplace. "Who is it?" he asked. Brown replied that he was lost and needed directions to the Wilkinson house. Doyle cracked the door to get a glimpse of the stranger. Brown and his boys shoved the door and forced their way inside the cabin. Brown pointed his pistol at Doyle and ordered him and his three sons outside. who had been asleep in an adjacent room, outside. Mahala Doyle pleaded with Brown to release her youngest son who was fourteen. Brown agreed. Doyle and his two oldest sons twenty-two year old William and twenty year old Drury marched down the road towards the Wilkinson house. When they were outside shouting range from Doyle's house Owen, Salmon and Oliver drew their swords and attacked the Doyles. In a matter of minutes Doyle's two sons were hacked to death. Doyle lay in a pool of blood, mortally wounded. Brown aimed his pistol and shot him in the head.
The band of men continued down the road to the house of Allen Wilkerson. Brown knocked on the door and asked for directions to Dutch Henry. The ruse did not work with Wilkerson and he refused to open the door. Then Brown declared himself an officer in the anti-slave Northern Army. Either come out of the house, Brown said, or we will come in to get you. Wilkerson's wife was sick was measles. He opened the door and walked into the gloom. A short distance from the cabin Weiner and Thompson cut him down with broadswords.
Next Brown and his men crossed the Pottawatomie and headed for Dutch Henry's Tavern. Several men were sleeping in the tavern. At gunpoint Brown forced them outside and interrogated them about their proslavery activities. His primary target, Dutch Henry, was not among them. Earlier in the day Henry had ridden out onto the plains to search for lost cattle. Brown released all the men except for William Sherman. They marched Sherman down to the creek and where Thompson and Wiener split his skull with their broadswords. After killing Sherman Brown and his men confiscated pistols, knives and saddles they found in the tavern. They took several horses from Dutch Henry's stable and headed back to their encampment. Along the way they washed the blood and gore from their hands and clothes in the Pottawatomie. Owen Brown wandered off a short distance and began to sob. When they arrived at their camp Owen Brown looked at Townsley with red rimmed eyes and said, "There should be no more work such as that." Owen Brown's hope went unfulfilled. The violence that was to give the territory the name "Bleeding Kansas" was just beginning.