Geary and Kansas by John H. Gihon, M.D.



Sherrard's abettors--Attempt to assassinate Governor Geary--Action of the legislature--Conduct of Judge Cato--Public indignation meetings--Outrage at a Lecompton meeting, resulting in the shooting and death of Sherrard.

    ALTHOUGH Sherrard possessed passions that were uncontrollable when once aroused, and was constantly committing acts of violence for which there could be no reasonable excuse, he was less reprehensible than certain prominent parties in Lecompton, who, having discovered his temper, used him simply as a cat's-paw to consummate some of their most infamous designs. Their cool and calculating brains conceived the deeds, which his irritable disposition could easily be provoked to perpetrate.

    On the night of the assault upon the governor's secretary, there was a jollification in the office of the surveyor-general, and many were the surmises as to the final result of that affair. Sherrard was present, and so were Sheriff Jones, and A. W. Jones, of the Lecompton Union, and Surveyor Calhoun, his clerk Maclean, and Gen. Geo. W. Clarke. They had a merry time that night. The governor, they exultingly maintained, could not help but understand that these abuses of his subordinates were nothing more than intended insults to himself; and if repeated, he could not otherwise than attempt to resent them, and then his doom was sealed. So reasoned the conspirators; and as the room grew thick with clouds of smoke from the clay pipes, and the heads of the party still thicker with the frequent potations from the whiskey bottle, the unfortunate man who was to do their villanous work and become their victim was instigated to attempt the commission of a crime which, had it succeeded, would have involved the country in a bloody civil war.

    On Monday morning, February 9th, accompanied by Dr. Gihon and Richard McAllister, Esq., the governor visited successively the Supreme Court, the Council, and the House of Representatives, all of which were in session. As they passed into the latter hall and took their seats within the bar among the members, Sherrard, who occupied a seat in one corner of the room, unseen by the governor, was observed to manifest a strange uneasiness of manner, and with a heavy scowl upon his countenance, and muttering some unintelligible words, he suddenly arose and quitted the apartment. The governor remained a half-hour or more, and then took his leave. As he was about to step from the main hall into the adjoining ante-room, Sherrard stood in the door, having gone off and procured an extra pistol to the one he usually wore, both of which, contrary to his custom, he had placed conveniently in a belt, buckled on the outside of all his clothing. In his breast he also carried a huge bowie-knife. Before the governor had closed the door, Sherrard accosted him with "You have treated me, sir, like a d---d scoundrel." The governor passed on without noticing the man, much less his opprobrious salutation. Mr. McAllister followed, and as they passed toward the outer door, his person interposed between that of Sherrard and the governor. Dr. Gihon was the last to leave the hall and enter the ante-room, when he saw Sherrard spitting after the governor, at the same time uttering oaths and threats of defiance, his right hand firmly grasping one of the pistols in his belt. Adjoining the ante-room was another small room, the door of which was partially opened, and there stood several ruffians who had been apprised of the intended assassination, and were ready to take their part in the bloody work. The governor and his friends were unarmed. Had he halted to speak to Sherrard, or turned upon him, or in any possible way given an excuse for the deed, he would have been shot down like a dog, and himself and companions riddled with balls; and the murderers only would have been left to tell the story and justify their infamous crime. To the presence of mind and cool courage of the governor, who was then in as great peril as he ever had been on the field of battle, does he owe his life. The ante-room is in the second story of the building, the stairs leading to the ground being on the outside, and as the governor descended, Sherrard stood upon the platform above, with pistol in hand, hesitating whether even yet to fire or not. He followed on, and did not abandon his purpose until the length of the building was traversed, when pronouncing an audible oath, he turned off and took a different direction. In a few moments after, he was closeted with his abettors and instigators in the office of the surveyor-general. It would be no difficult matter to prove that the extra pistol provided for this and a subsequent occasion was borrowed for the purpose by a prominent member of that establishment. The governor and his party proceeded directly to the executive office without naming this occurrence. Sherrard, on the other hand, stopped all he met, and boasted that he had endeavored, but without success, to provoke the governor to a quarrel, by spitting in his face.

    Without any further information on the subject than was gained from Sherrard and his accomplices, the House of Representatives, upon whose floor the outrage and attempted assassination occurred, immediately took up the subject. A conservative member offered a resolution, mildly condemnatory of the conduct of the governor's assailant, in doing which he raised a most terrible storm. The resolution met with such violent opposition, and drew forth such vindictive denunciations against the governor, that the mover deemed it expedient to withdraw it. Joseph C. Anderson, a member from Missouri maintained that the governor had no business in the halls of the legislature, and that he should confine himself to his executive office; whilst Johnson affirmed that he knew the assault was to be made, but did not think proper to interfere, as he did not consider it any of his business. The Council, however, passed a vote of censure against Sherrard. So evident was the disposition of many of the members of the lower house to encourage these scenes of outrage, that the governor's private secretary, whose business required him to visit the hall at least once every day, refused to perform that duty without being allowed to carry weapons, contrary to former instructions, and having the attendance of an armed United States soldier.

    The governor summoned Judge Cato to his office to consult him in regard to Sherrard's conduct; but the judge seemed to think the matter of too little importance to receive any serious attention, as such outrages were beyond the pale of the law, there being no statute by which they could be punished. Other counsels prevailed at the time, and an affidavit was made out, setting forth the assaults made by Sherrard on several different persons, upon which a warrant was drawn for the purpose of arresting the offender and putting him under bonds to keep the peace. This warrant was unserved for two days, during which time, Sherrard, as usual, occupied an almost constant place in the House of Representatives. A messenger was at length sent to the judge, requesting him to have the warrant executed at once, who found Cato within the bar of the house, together with Sherrard and S. J. Jones, who, notwithstanding his pretended resignation, has always continued to exercise the functions of his office. Cato said the marshal was absent, and the writ could not therefore be served. This was clearly the duty of Sheriff Jones, then in the company of the accused and the judge. Discovering his entire indisposition to have any legal action in the matter, the governor obtained and destroyed the warrant, and took no further notice of the subject.

    Not so the people. An intense excitement pervaded all peaceable classes. The prophecies and threats of the assassination of the governor, which had of late been freely made and treated with ridicule, had begun to assume a somewhat serious aspect. It was known on every hand that Sherrard, in this whole affair, was but the tool of others. Of this, there was no longer room for doubt. Citizens from different neighborhoods, irrespective of party, thronged the executive office to offer their services. Indignation meetings were held in various sections of the country, and resolutions condemning the recent assault were passed with great unanimity and sent to the governor. Of these the following is a specimen of many that were received:--

    "In view of the late gross insult offered to the Governor of the Territory, and in view of the action taken by the House of Representatives virtually approving the deed, and in view of the general course and policy of the Legislature in opposing the measures recommended by Governor Geary:

    "We, the citizens of Big Springs, in a public meeting called for the purpose, and held on the night of February 11th, do most heartily

    "Resolve: That we regard the late insult upon the person of the governor, its endorsement by the House, and the continued indignities heaped upon him and his officials by the Legislature, as well as by certain individuals, as most gross and ruffianly, and worthy of the denunciation of every honorable and high-minded citizen in the territory. And we do further

    "Resolve, That Governor Geary, in his general course of policy, has our hearty approval; and in carrying out the tone and spirit of his late message, he will have our earnest support and co-operation.

    "Resolved, also, That we denounce the present Legislature as insurrectionary, and its spirit detrimental to the true interests of Kansas; not by any means overlooking some good men associated with that body, who labor hard to effect a beneficent legislation. These men have our gratitude; while we regard the majority as false to the true interests of the country, false to the Union, and false to the Governor, whom it is their duty to support and aid in the settlement of the difficulties of the territory. And

    "Resolved, finally, That we tender to Governor Geary our sympathies as well as our support and co-operation, and pledge him, to the extent of our power, all the assistance in this emergency that he may ask of us, feeling very confident that the honest heart and powerful arm of every freeman in Kansas will be ready at once to respond most cheerfully to these our sentiments."

    Indeed, so exasperated were very many well-disposed citizens, that had it not been for the opposition of the governor to their wishes and intentions, summary punishment would have been inflicted upon Sherrard, the Lecompton Union office would have been tumbled into the Kansas River, and the Legislative Assembly hastily expelled from the town. There were men ready and anxious to do this work; but the executive, learning their intentions, took proper measures to prevent its accomplishment.

    A call was published for a meeting of the citizens of Lecompton, and vicinity, to be held on Saturday afternoon, the 14th of February, to publicly express their views regarding the recent outrage. Sherrard and his friends (the most prominent among them being Sheriff Jones, Bennett, of the Union, Maclean and Clarke) threatened to break this meeting up with violence, and prepared themselves accordingly. Just about the time it was assembling, it was announced that General Wm. P. Richardson, formerly commander of the militia, and a member of the Council, had died, and the meeting was consequently adjourned until the following Wednesday, the 18th, at two o'clock.

    This announcement created considerable commotion, and the parties above-named declared in the streets and grog-shops, with many profane oaths that a respectable compositor would not wish to put in type, even should they be presented in this manuscript, that no such meeting should be held in Lecompton. Still the meeting was held. Before the hour specified, numbers of persons came pouring in from the surrounding country; and it was soon discovered that Brooke's Hotel, where the assembly was to have met, was too small to accommodate half the persons present, and it was therefore adjourned to Capitol Hill.

    Just before the time appointed for organization arrived, those who had threatened to disperse the meeting by violence, discovered that they were so largely in the minority that the undertaking was to be attended with far more difficulty and danger than they had imagined possible. Yet, ashamed to shrink from the position they had assumed, they were somewhat at their wits' end. In their extremity, they sought Judge Cato, who, with a man named Boling, formerly a member of Captain Emory's company at Leavenworth, was deputed to call on the governor, to induce him to interpose his power to prevent the citizens from assembling.

    Having listened to Judge Cato's representation that certain parties had determined to create a breach of the peace, should the meeting be held, and that bloodshed would probably be the result, the governor inquired of the judge, who were the parties that were threatening to deny the people by violence and bloodshed the right peaceably to assemble and express their opinions? "If," asked his excellency, "you know of persons thus contemplating a breach of the peace, is it not your duty to have legal process issued against them, and proper measures thus taken to prevent the consummation of their evil designs? So far as I am concerned," continued he, "I have no right whatever to step in between the people and the exercise of their constitutional privilege to meet together peacefully, to express their opinions upon what they consider subjects of public interest. I know not the objects of this meeting. The call is for citizens without distinction of party, to assemble for the purpose of giving their views concerning the recent outrage upon the governor and the conduct of his administration. It would ill become me to interfere with such a meeting. The object may be to condemn my own course of action. Shall I assume the part of a tyrant, and, in violation of my oath of office, and my sense of right and justice, say to these people, you shall not assemble for such a purpose? No, gentlemen; the act would no sooner be accomplished than you would be among the first to assail me for an assumption of arbitrary power, and use my unlawful procedure as a pretext to do me injury."

    Cato hung his head with shame, acknowledged the truth of the governor's positions, and took his leave, remarking, "I never before felt so much like a fool!"

    The meeting assembled at two o'clock. Nearly four hundred persons were in attendance, composed of all classes of the community, and was organized by the appointment of Owen C. Steward, Mayor of Lecompton, a pro-slavery man, as chairman. A committee of five was then appointed to draft resolutions expressive of the sense of the meeting, who having retired, Captain L. J. Hampton, also pro-slavery, made a very mild and sensible address, which was received with universal approbation. Having concluded, R. P. Bennett, junior editor of the Union, obtained the stand. He had, in order to screw up his courage to the sticking point, poured down such liberal quantities of Thompson's vitriolic whiskey, that it required some considerable effort to keep his feet, for, in the language of the Psalmist, "he reeled to and fro, and staggered like a drunken man!" Bennett's speech was a gem. It was well known by all present that his object was to create a disturbance, and it was therefore resolved to pay no serious attention to anything he should say or do, as he was considered a mere boyish tool, and too insignificant of himself to merit especial notice. Hence he was permitted to amuse the assembly whilst waiting for the return of the committee.

    "I tell you," said Bennett, "this meetin' is not a meetin' of gen'lemen--(hic). It aint the law'd order party--(hic)--that's sure."

    His tongue was as thick as his brain was addled, and his words were chopped off very often in the middle.

    "I say--I tell yer--(hic)--this meetin's the rag--(hic)--the rag-tail and the bob-tail--(hic)--of the ab'lishonists-- that's what I--(hic)--what I tell yer, and by G--d, I know it!"

    As Bennett halted for breath, the boys cried out, "Go it, Bennett; that's the way to talk!" "You're one of the orators--you are!'' "Have a little more whiskey, Bennett!" "Why don't you pitch into the governor?"

    "I tell yer," continued the speaker, "Sherrard is--(hic)--so he is, by g--d, the soul of--(hic)--chiv'l'ry, and it's a pity he did'nt--(hic)--yes it is--for d--n Governor Geary--(hic)--. Them's my sentiments, and I don't kere a d--n who knows it!"

    Whilst the speaker was proceeding in this strain, a majority of the committee announced that they were ready to report. The minority had not agreed with them, because their resolutions did not directly denounce the violent conduct of Sherrard and his abettors, and they were still engaged in preparing resolutions for that purpose. The report of the majority was then read, as follows:

    "BELIEVING, with the framers of the Constitution of our country, in 'the freedom of speech and the right of the people peaceably to assemble' and express their opinions upon all subjects of interest to themselves,

    "We, the citizens of Lecompton and vicinity, without distinction of party, in view of the recent personal assault upon our worthy executive, for an act done in his official capacity, and fully justified by all the circumstances, and necessary to preserve the peace of the territory and the rights of the people, in public meeting assembled, do hereby

    "Resolve: That we express our unqualified approbation of Governor Geary's official action; that to his impartial and vigorous administration we are pleased to attribute the present peace and prosperity of the territory, and that we believe he has not only saved us from unfortunate and destructive domestic feuds, but has also preserved the Union from a bloody civil war.

    "Resolved, That we cordially adopt, and will cheerfully maintain, the sterling principles proclaimed by Governor Geary's message to the legislature, and that the following platform, extracted therefrom, is so admirably adapted to the present condition of Kansas, that we will maintain it at all hazards with our lives and property:--

    "'Equal and exact justice' to all men, of whatever political or religious persuasion; peace, comity and friendship with neighboring states and territories, with a sacred regard for state rights, and reverential respect for the integrity and perpetuity of the Union; a reverence for the Federal Constitution as the concentrated wisdom of the fathers of the republic, and the very ark of our political safety; the cultivation of a pure and energetic nationality, and the development of an excellent and intensely vital patriotism; a jealous regard for the elective franchise, and the entire security and sanctity of the ballot-box; a firm determination to adhere to the doctrines of self-government and popular sovereignty as guaranteed by the Organic Law; unqualified submission to the will of the majority; the election of all officers by the people themselves; the supremacy of the civil over the military power; strict economy in the public expenditures, with a rigid accountability of all public officers; the preservation of the public faith, and a currency based upon, and equal to, gold and silver; free and safe immigration from every quarter of the country; the cultivation of a proper territorial pride, with a firm determination to submit to no invasion of our sovereignty; the fostering care of agriculture, manufactures, mechanic arts, and all works of internal improvement; the liberal and free education of all the children of the territory; entire religious freedom; a free press, free speech, and the peaceable right to assemble and discuss all questions of public interest; trial by jurors impartially selected; the sanctity of the Habeas Corpus; the repeal of all laws inconsistent with the Constitution of the United States and the Organic Act, and the steady administration of the government so as best to secure the general welfare.'

    "Resolved, That we hereby tender Governor Geary, the people's friend, our earnest sympathy in the discharge of his responsible duties, and we pledge him the support of all the actual bona fide settlers of Kansas, without distinction of party, so long as he shall continue to administer the government upon the principles above declared.

                        JAS. H. LEGATE,
                        JAS. G. BAILEY,
                        W. ESLEY GARRETT."

    No sooner were these resolutions read, than Sherrard sprang upon a pile of boards, and in a loud voice exclaimed:

    "Any man who will dare to endorse these resolutions, is a liar, a scoundrel, and a coward!"

    His manner was highly excited. He wore a large bowie-knife and two six-shooters in his belt, one of which had been borrowed by Maclean, for Sherrard's use, of an Englishman, also employed in the surveyor-general's office. A Mr. Sheppard, living near Lecompton, and who stood in the midst of the crowd, quietly remarked:

    "I endorse them, and am neither a liar, a scoundrel, nor a coward!"

    Whereupon Sherrard drew a revolver, and fired all the loads as rapidly as he could pull the trigger, aiming at Sheppard; though endangering the lives of others. Three balls took effect on Sheppard, and a fourth slightly wounded another person. As soon as Sherrard commenced firing, Sheppard pulled off his gloves, and attempted to return the shots; but his caps being wet, burst without discharging the loads; and seeing that Sherrard was about to draw his other pistol, he clubbed his revolver, rushed toward Sherrard and struck at him with the butt, Sherrard not having an opportunity to fire, returning his blows in a similar manner. They were separated, and Sheppard was removed, severely, and it was then supposed, mortally wounded. Whilst Sherrard was firing, some dozen or more shots were fired by other parties, none of which seem to have taken effect.

    Shakspeare relieved the heaviness of his tragedies by the introduction of comic scenes; and this tragedy in real life was not without its laughable incidents. Bennett, who was one of the chief instigators of the mischief, and the loudest of all who boasted to break up the meeting, no sooner heard a pistol fired, than he was galvanized from a death of drunkenness to a life of sobriety. There are numerous instances on record where men have died of fright, but none where fear has brought the dead to life again. Bennett did not stop to see the effect of the firing; but, upon the principle of "self-preservation," he immediately took to his heels; and never did a pedestrian make better time. His speed was that of a greyhound; his coat-tail standing out behind, scarcely able to keep up with the wearer; and his path was as straight as the flight of an arrow; nor did he stop to take breath, as his workmen averred, until he had safely ensconced himself behind an iron press, in his printing office, at the extreme end of the town. He did not make his appearance again until a few days afterwards he issued a circular for foreign use, which was so grossly false in all its statements, that its circulation was suppressed among the people who were actually cognisant of the facts. A company of Mississippians, who were quartered near by, also ran away, to procure their rifles, as they said, but very prudently neglected to return to the scene of disturbance.

    Another amusing circumstance occurred during these serious disturbances. An old man, over seventy years of age, named Thomas W. Porterfield, was among the crowd. He was one of the prisoners taken at Hickory Point, but had been discharged. Seeing Sheriff Jones with a pistol in his hand, old Porterfield deliberately took off his spectacles, and pulling out his pocket handkerchief, wiped them carefully and again adjusted them. He then drew a navy revolver, and having examined the caps, placed the barrel upon his left arm, and took precise aim at Sheriff Jones, waiting for him to give the first shot. As the sheriff moved about, the old man steadily eyed him, keeping his pistol all the time properly aimed. Notwithstanding his advanced age, Porterfield is said to be a dead shot, and it is probable that Sheriff Jones was never in so great danger of being hurried into eternity as at that moment. Had he fired his pistol, a bullet from that of the old man would have sent him to his last account.

    No sooner was Sheppard taken off than Sherrard seized his other pistol and advanced, with finger on the trigger, toward John A. W. Jones, the young man whom he had assaulted a few days before, when Jones, perceiving his danger, also drew. Several shots were then simultaneously fired, and Sherrard fell, mortally wounded. One ball had struck him in the forehead, penetrating the brain, and another had grazed his side. Who fired the fatal shot, it would be impossible to determine with certainty, though Jones was accused by the friends of Sherrard, and immediately secured by Sheriff Jones, who had taken an active part in the disturbance, who went there with that avowed purpose, accompanied by Sherrard, and who is alleged to have fired his pistol. A hue and cry was raised to hang young Jones; but his friends were too numerous, and an attempt to have done so would have been attended with rather serious consequences.

    The fall of Sherrard put an end to the riot. The rioters had lost their leader, and there was no one left among them sufficiently bold and desperate to take his place; and to this fact may be attributed the defeat of a well-contrived scheme to again involve the entire community in a destructive strife. This matter had long been in agitation, and Sherrard was the chosen instrument to accomplish the mischievous purpose. His fall put an end to the plot, and saved many a valuable life. He died early on the following Saturday morning, and his remains were removed to Winchester, Va., the residence of his father, who is reputed a highly respectable gentleman. His son, naturally of uncontrollable temper, unfortunately fell into bad hands, and was the victim of evil advisers, who, after his death, were among the first to screen themselves from censure by accusing him of insane impetuosity.

    Deputy-Marshal Samuel Cramer busied himself running among the groggeries, vaporing that he intended to shoot the young assassin Jones, at sight; and five hundred dollars reward was offered by other parties to any person who should kill him. But neither Cramer nor any other person in Lecompton was willing to hazard so dangerous an undertaking. Jones was truly in the hands of his enemies; but he was surrounded by friends sufficiently numerous to guard him against personal harm. He appeared before Judge Cato, for a hearing on the charge of shooting Sherrard, who pronounced a decision against him in insulting terms, before the first witness had spoken a hundred words. Jones, perceiving that justice in Lecompton was blind, and that his life there was in jeopardy, entered bail in the sum of five thousand dollars, crossed the river, procured a guide and a mule, passed up through the northern portion of the territory into Nebraska, and safely reached his home in Pennsylvania. In the mean time, a party, supposing he would take the river route, proceeded to Kansas City, to intercept, seize and massacre him; but, being foiled in not finding their intended victim, returned with no little chagrin to Lecompton.


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