Inside Spencer: The KSRL Blog

“My Dear Mother”: Letters by William Clarke Quantrill

August 20th, 2019

One of the most renowned collections in Spencer Research Library is a series of letters written by William Clarke Quantrill to his mother, Caroline Cornelia Clarke Quantrill, between 1855 and 1860. During this period, Quantrill wrote sporadically to Caroline, letting her know his whereabouts, describing his plans for the future, promising he would come home soon, and vowing to send money when he could. Quantrill rarely revealed his views on politics or current events in these letters, and nothing in them hints at the course he would choose after he stopped writing home altogether. On August 21, 1863, 156 years ago this week, Quantrill gained infamy for organizing and leading a guerrilla raid on Lawrence in support of the Confederate cause.

Quantrill was born in Dover, Ohio, on July 31, 1837. After graduating from high school at age sixteen, he began teaching school in Dover, a career he would return to off and on several times. His father passed away in 1854, leaving Quantrill, as the eldest of eight children, the male head of the family. Caroline took in boarders, and his oldest sister took in sewing jobs, but the family remained very poor.

In the summer of 1855, Quantrill joined a group of other Dover residents and traveled to Illinois to seek better farmland and to see what other opportunities may lie a little farther west. In the letter below, dated August 8, 1855, he tells Caroline of his safe arrival, indicates he will try to send her some money, and mentions the possibility of getting a teaching position. “This country is a great deal different from Ohio,” he writes, “for miles around I can see nothing but tall grass.”

Image of a letter from William Clarke Quantrill to his mother Caroline, August 8, 1855
Image of a letter from William Clarke Quantrill to his mother Caroline, August 8, 1855
William Clarke Quantrill’s letter to his mother Caroline, August 8, 1855. A transcription of the entire letter is available online. Call Number: RH MS 75. Click images to enlarge.

By July 1859, Quantrill had tried his luck at various occupations, in addition to teaching, and had explored business enterprises in Mendota, Illinois; Fort Wayne, Indiana; and the Kansas and Utah Territories. He had even tried his luck in the gold mines of Colorado. He was restless, and nothing seems to have satisfied him. The letter below, written to Caroline on July 30, 1859, was from Lawrence, Kansas, the place where he would gain his notoriety. In it, he relates a story to his mother that must have stirred her worst fears for her son’s safety.

Image of a letter from William Clarke Quantrill to his mother Caroline, July 30, 1859
Image of a letter from William Clarke Quantrill to his mother Caroline, July 30, 1859
William Clarke Quantrill’s letter to his mother Caroline, July 30, 1859. A transcription of the entire letter is available online. Call Number: RH MS 75. Click images to enlarge.

It has been some time since I wrote to you, and I am now a long ways distant from the place I last wrote to you. I have seen some pretty hard & scaly times, both from cold weather & starvation & the Indians & I am one of 7 out of a party of 19 who started from Salt Lake City for the Gold Mines of Pikes Peak which are talked of all over the country & undoubtedly the Humbug of all Humbugs. I say so because I spent two months in the gold region haveing [sic] my own experience & that of a number with whom I was acquainted to prove it conclusively…

I am now in Lawrence after having spent over $300 & many a day & night when I expected either to be killed or freeze to death & at last when nearly in the settlements to have my horse and all taken from me & a companion of mine shot in 3 different places & left for dead & all that saved my head was I was out hunting away from the camp about a mile and a half & hearing the firing hurried to camp in time to see the indians driving off our horses & my friend lying on the ground apparently dead but still breathing with difficulty having been shot 3 times, his leg broke below the knee, shot in the thigh with 7 iron slugs & last shot through the body with an arrow which I first thought would kill him but he lives yet & if taken care of properly will be as well as ever in 6 or 8 weeks. I hardly know what to do at present nor where to go but in my next letter I will be able to tell you some more. I think my friend & myself will make goverment pay us for our losses by the Indians if possible when he gets well.

You would hardly know me if you were to see me I am so weather beaten & rough looking that every body says I am about 25 years of age.

In his final letter to Caroline, written on June 23, 1860, Quantrill inquires about the money he says he sent to her, tells her he will send more when he can and talks about the weather and his health. H also speaks of wanting to visit, but says he cannot get away. After this letter, Caroline would contend that she had no more word from him, relying on rumors and reports that she heard from the newspapers, her neighbors, and strangers to try to know his whereabouts.

Image of a letter from William Clarke Quantrill to his mother Caroline, June 23, 1860
William Clarke Quantrill’s letter to his mother Caroline, June 23, 1860. Handwritten copy of the original. A transcription of the entire letter is available online. Call Number: RH MS 75. Click images to enlarge.

Caroline loved her son and found many of the stories about him quite hard to accept or even untrue. Caroline wrote the letter below on February 24, 1889, to the childhood friend of her son, William W. Scott. In it, she rails against Scott for what she perceives as his attempt to vilify and profit from her son. “You have told me a great-deal to hirt [sic] my feelings,” she tells him. Scott had become like a son to Caroline and often provided for her. He also wanted to write a book about Quantrill, but out of respect to Caroline, he was waiting until her death to do it. When she found out about the book, she turned on him, writing

Now I will tell you some thing of your Self The foalks in these parts did not have any confidence in you from the fact of you Being a Yankey Man They could not depend on your word They didnt know but you were a Son of Some Old Yankey. hunting up something to make money out off. I have had to tell as much as fifty time all about your place of birth, and that my Husband educated you along with My Son. & that you Boath graduated at the same time, & were fine scholars. So you see I had a goodeal [good deal] of talking to do to make it good on your side…

You may as well give up writing a History of my Dear lost Boy, for you never will get any thing correct. no one but His men & friends and my-self could get up a correct History of him. His men never will Enlighten the Yankeys on the Subject. So what they gather up will be mostely Lies.

Image of a letter from Caroline Clarke Quantrill to W.W. Scott, February 24, 1889
Letter from Caroline Clarke Quantrill to W. W. Scott, February 24, 1889. A transcription of the entire letter is available online. Call Number: RH MS 75. Click images to enlarge.

Caroline defended her son until her death in 1903.

Kathy Lafferty
Public Services


William Clarke Quantrill Correspondence. RH MS 75. Kansas Collection, Kenneth Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas Libraries.

Leslie, Edward E. The Devil Knows How to Ride. New York: Random House, 1996.

Happy Birthday, John Brown

May 8th, 2019

Spencer Research Library holds three letters written by American abolitionist John Brown, who was born in Connecticut on May 9, 1800. Brown was raised in a deeply religious family, and his father taught him that slavery was a great sin. This conviction was so ingrained in Brown that he worked his entire life to end it. “Though a white gentleman,” Frederick Douglass said, Brown “is in sympathy, a black man, and as deeply interested in our cause, as though his own soul had been pierced with the iron of slavery.” Eventually, Brown came to believe that the only way to rid the United States of slavery was through violence. He played a large role in the chaos that reigned in Kansas during the late 1850s.

Image of a letter from John Brown to Orson Day, February 21, 1856

Letter from John Brown to his brother-in-law Orson Day, February 21, 1856.
John Brown Letters. Call Number: RH VLT MS P2. Click image to enlarge.

John Brown wrote the first letter in Spencer’s collections approximately four months after he arrived in Kansas in October 1855. He joined his five sons and his brother-in-law, Samuel Adair. Brown’s eldest son, John Brown, Jr., had moved to Kansas in the summer of 1854, after the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. He named his settlement Brown’s Station, and, like his father, was heavily involved in the abolition cause.

Osawatomie, K T [Kansas Territory], 21st Feby, 1856

Orson Day Esqr [Esquire]
White Hall

Dear Sir

Yours of the 17th Jany is at last received. Deep Snow drifts have prevented the arrival of the Mail several times of late. We shall endeavour to be ready for you by the first of April; & I think you need not hesitate about starting with a view to reach by that time. Such has been the state of the weather; that we could not well undertake to set a time for you before. I know of no further hints to give you; than those which I & my Son John Jr have previously sent you. There should be a regular Mail Waggon to leave Westport every Monday Morning but it sometimes fails. Westport is Three or Four Miles from Kansas City. This route is direct to this place; & is much the most convenient. It is 35 Miles from Browns Station, to Lawrence; & no regular carriage conveyance. When you get here; inquire for Mr Adair who will receive you as a friend. He is a half Brother in Law of mine; & a Missionary to Kansas. We are about 60 Miles from Kansas City; which is near the Missouri line. I think that Free State people who go quietly along their way will not now meet with any difficulty in Missouri. I have been a number of times of late into the State; & though I always (when asked) frankly avow myself a Free State man; have met with no trouble. I would advise to frankness; & quietness. The Contractors on the route from here to Westport are good Free State men; & Friends. Can think of no more to say now.

Respectfully Your Friend
John Brown

Image of a letter from John Brown to his children, August 11, 1856

Image of a letter from John Brown to his children, August 11, 1856

Letter from John Brown to his children, August 11, 1856. John Brown
Letters. Call Number: RH VLT MS P2. Click images to enlarge.

The second letter in Spencer’s collections illustrates Brown’s single-minded focus on destroying slavery and his increasing militancy. Much had occurred in the six months since the first letter. On May 22, 1856, South Carolina Representative Preston Brooks severely beat Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner on the floor of the U.S. Senate, responding to Sumner’s “Crime Against Kansas” speech days earlier. When he heard of this, Brown said that “we must fight fire with fire. Something must be done to show these barbarians that we, too, have rights.” On the same day, Lawrence, Kansas, a free-state headquarters, was raided and sacked by Missouri pro-slavery men. Two days later, on May 24th, Brown – with four of his sons and three others – directed the brutal murder of five pro-slavery settlers in a settlement near Pottawatomie Creek, Kansas. On June 2nd, Brown and his men defeated a larger pro-slavery force at the Battle of Black Jack, Kansas.

Topeka, Kansas Ter[ritory], 11th Aug 1856

Dear Children every One

We all reached Nebraska (near Iowa line) well or much improved. I there left the company to return back with the long looked for L [Lawrence] emigrants. Left the train all safe yesterday at day light. Got in here last night. May be on hand for a good while; & may go off in another half hour. Have made by particular request of those who have charge of the contributed Eastern funds a statement of the suffering of yourselves, & brothers; which I have no doubt will receive attention; & that some part of your losses will [be] made up to you. At all events let none of you be disheartened for God still lives; & “blessed be his great & holy name.” The boys may go on soon for the East; & may hold on for me to join them. Say to Mr. Day that I have never had the most distant thought of wronging him to One Cent; & that so soon as force of circumstances will allow me to take up his matters I shall do so; & have them made right on my part at least. If he or his wife think; that I have had no responsibilities resting on me that call for my attentention before I should make up with their account & have a full settlement; I must differ with them on that point as I came on a particular business to the territory; & I supposed they understood that fully when they requested my assistance in their business. I feel that I have done all in the discharge of my duty to them that they could have any right to have expected untill I am further relieved for other cares. I trust they will be inclined to do right by Henry. I send you a kind of order on my friend Jones. If you or John ever get any thing on that account I wish you to divide it between you equally. Have heard no word from home since in June. Found one of henrys brothers amongst the emigrants; but only saw him for a few moments. Have received a little assistance within Three or Four days past. May possi[bly] be out to see you very soon. Shall write you when I can. May God for Christs sake abundantly bless & finally save you all.

Your Affectionate Father
John Brown

Image of a letter from John Brown to his daughter Ellen, May 13, 1859

Letter (photocopy) from John Brown to his youngest child, five-year-old Ellen,
May 13, 1859. John Brown Letters. Call Number: RH VLT MS P2. Click image to enlarge.

John Brown wrote the third letter in Spencer’s collections six weeks before he left for Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, with the intention of seizing the federal armory and starting a slave uprising. Brown, with twenty-one men, led his attack on October 16, 1859. After two days, U.S. marines stormed the building, capturing Brown and six of his men. Ten men, including two of his sons, were killed. Brown himself was wounded.

Boston, Mass. 13th May, 1859.

My Dear Daughter Ellen

I will send you short letter.

I want very much to have you grow good every day; to have you learn to mind your Mother very quick; & sit very still at the table; & to mind what all older persons say to you; that is right. I hope to see you soon again; & if I should bring some little thing that will please you; it would not be very strange. I want you to be uncommon good natured. God bless you my child.

Your Affectionate Father
John Brown

Convicted of treason, multiple first-degree murders, and inciting insurrection, Brown was hung on December 2, 1859. His last words, written shortly before his execution, prophesized the coming Civil War: “I John Brown am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land: will never be purged away; but with Blood. I had as I now think: vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed; it might be done.” On April 12, 1861, Confederate forces fired on Fort Sumter.

Kathy Lafferty
Public Services

Remembering the Lawrence Tornado of April 12, 1911

April 9th, 2019

On April 12, 1911, the weather in Lawrence had already been unseasonably humid for two days. All through the day, it was obvious that a powerful storm was brewing. Wind speeds had steadily increased, reaching forty miles per hour at noon. By that evening, a full-blown thunderstorm was underway.

Seasoned Kansans knew that weather conditions such as these could foreshadow a coming tornado, and this was no exception. Five minutes before seven o’clock, in a surge of rain, the tornado dropped down. For twenty-five minutes, it passed through the city in a northeastern direction. In its path, it destroyed businesses along Massachusetts Street and homes in West and North Lawrence. Reporting on the event the next day, the Lawrence Daily Journal-World described the massive loss of property, estimated to be $200,000. The paper also estimated that repairs would cost $133,950.00, which would be over $3.5 million in today’s dollars. The extensive damage can be seen in the photographs included in this post, which were taken the day after the tornado.

Photograph of Massachusetts Street looking northeast after the tornado, April 13, 1911

Massachusetts Street looking northeast after the tornado, April 13, 1911. Lawrence
Photograph Collection. Call Number: RH PH 18 M 6:2. Click image to enlarge.

Coverage of the tornado by the Journal-World contained reports of the dead and injured. Miraculously, only two Lawrence residents perished.

Image of the tornado casualty list, Lawrence Daily Journal-World, April 13, 1911

The tornado casualty list from the Lawrence Daily Journal-World,
April 13, 1911. Image via Click image to enlarge.

Included in the newspaper’s reports were details about the death of Margaret Sullivan, who was seventy-one years old.

When the full violence of the storm became apparent to the inmates of the Sullivan [home], George, a crippled son called to his mother to take refuge in the cellar. Mrs. Sullivan remembered an open transom, and fearing that the rain which was falling in torrents would stain her carpet, paused to lower the sash. Before she could join her son, the house was swept from its foundation and both inmates buried beneath a pile of wreckage.

Photograph of 636 Illinois Street, home of Mrs. Joe Sullivan, April 13, 1911

636 Illinois Street, the home of Mrs. Joe Sullivan, after the tornado, April 13, 1911.
Lawrence Photograph Collection. Call Number: RH PH 18 M 6:21. Click image to enlarge.

The Journal-World also provided detailed information about the death of Ethel Wheeler, who worked as a “domestic” on the Doubleday farm southwest of town.

The Doubleday farm was in the very vortex of the tornado. [Mrs. Wheeler] lived with her husband in a small annex to the chicken house not fifty feet from the Doubleday home. Just as the woman left the house to go to this small room in which she and her husband lodged, the Doubleday’s heard a terrific crash as the Sibley barn was blown against the farmer’s house a quarter of a mile away. An instant later, their own home was bombarded with flying wreckage, and looking towards the window they saw two faces pressed close against the glass. The faces were those of Phil Olmstead and Joe Badsky, who had been blown from, they did not know where. They were admitted to the Doubleday home, and with the passage of the tornado a few minutes later, they began searching for two Wheelers.

The little room the latter had occupied was merely a heap of heavy timber. Searching in its vicinity with an electric flash light, Floyd Doubleday heard a faint moan coming from beneath the tangled mass of wreckage. With the aid of the two lads, this was lifted up and Dave Wheeler released. He could only moan pitifully and ask brokenly for his wife. His injuries consisted of a compound fracture of the arm, serious internal hurts, and severe scalp wounds.

Securing lanterns the little searching part began looking for Mrs. Wheeler, the woman who had rushed into the very arms of the storm. In the center of a field a long distance from the house, Olmstead suddenly stepped on something yielding. Leaping hastily to one side he stooped over the cold corpse of the negro woman…

[Dave and Ethel Wheeler] were married last October and came to Lawrence only three weeks ago.

Photograph of Massachusetts Street looking south after the tornado, April 13, 1911

Massachusetts Street looking south after the tornado, April 13, 1911. The Thompson
photography studio
was at 615 Massachusetts, where Quinton’s Bar and Deli is located now.
Lawrence Photograph Collection. Call Number: RH PH 18 M 6:3. Click image to enlarge.

Photograph of the ruins of an unidentified home after the tornado, April 13, 1911

The ruins of an unidentified Lawrence home after the tornado, April 13, 1911.
Lawrence Photograph Collection. Call Number: RH PH 18 M 6:19. Click image to enlarge.

Kathy Lafferty
Public Services

The Vacant Chair: Thanksgiving 1861

November 20th, 2018

The Carl N. and Dorothy H. Shull Collection of Hymnals and Music Books, housed in Kenneth Spencer Research Library, includes bound volumes of sheet music. One of those songs is “The Vacant Chair,” with lyrics written by poet Henry Stevenson Washburn (H.S.W.), and set to music by George F. Root.

Image of the cover page for the sheet music of The Vacant Chair

Root, Geo. F. and H.S.W. “The Vacant Chair, or, We Shall Meet, but We Shall Miss Him: (Thanksgiving, 1861).”
Chicago: Root & Cady, 1861. KSRL call number: Shull Score E45, item 14


Henry Stevenson Washburn was born on June 10, 1813. He spent his childhood in Kingston, Massachusetts. Throughout his career, he was in manufacturing, was president of Union Mutual Life Insurance Company, and served as both a state representative and state senator. Best remembered for his poetry, he published a book of his collected works in 1895, at the age of 82.

Detail from the Frontispiece Portrait of Henry S. Washburn from his poetry collection, The Vacant Chair (1895)
Washburn, Henry S. The Vacant Chair and Other Poems.
New York: Silver, Burdett and Company, 1895, frontispiece portrait detail.
Image from copy obtained via InterLibrary Loan.

Washburn wrote “The Vacant Chair” in 1861 during the first year of the American Civil War, to memorialize the death of John William Grout, known as Willie, an eighteen-year-old lieutenant in the Union Army from Massachusetts. In his book, The Vacant Chair and Other Poems, Washburn tells the story of how Grout lost his life, selflessly helping his men retreat across the Potomac river under heavy enemy fire at the battle of Ball’s Bluff, Virginia, on October 21st in that first year of war. Mortally wounded, his body, and those of the men who fell with him, floated down river. He was not found until November 5th, identified by his clothing and the letters in his pockets. He was returned to his family, and was buried on November 12th, shortly before the nation, and Willie’s own family, observed Thanksgiving on the 28th. The song became popular throughout the remainder of the war, as many families would experience a “vacant chair.”

Carte de Visite showing "Lt J. W. Grout" in uniform, August 1961
John William “Willie” Grout, 1843-1861, 15th Massachusetts Regiment, Albumen carte-de-visite
by C.R.B. Claflin, Worcester, August 1861. American Antiquarian Society.
Image included in Almanac: American Antiquarian Society Newsletter. No. 81 (March 2011), p. 6.

Recording artist, Kathy Mattea, recorded her version of “The Vacant Chair,” and it is available for listening on You Tube.

The Vacant Chair

We shall meet, but we shall miss him, there will be one vacant chair;
We shall linger to caress him when we breathe our evening prayer.
When a year ago we gathered, joy was in his mild blue eye,
But a golden cord is severed, and our hopes in ruin lie.

We shall meet, but we shall miss him, there will be one vacant chair;
We shall linger to caress him when we breathe our evening prayer.

At our fireside, sad and lonely, often will the bosom swell
At remembrance of the story how our noble Willie fell;
How he strove to bear our banner thro’ the thickest of the fight,
And uphold our country’s honor, in the strength of manhood’s might.

We shall meet, but we shall miss him, there will be one vacant chair;
We shall linger to caress him when we breathe our evening prayer.

True they tell us wreaths of glory ever more will deck his brow,
But this soothes the anguish only sweeping o’er our heartstrings now.
Sleep today, o early fallen, in thy green and narrow bed,
Dirges from the pine and cypress mingle with the tears we shed.

We shall meet, but we shall miss him, there will be one vacant chair;
We shall linger to caress him when we breathe our evening prayer.


Kathy Lafferty
Public Services

Commemorating the 100th Anniversary of Armistice Day

November 7th, 2018

While conducting research in a collection of family papers for an exhibit I was putting together, I came across the paper hat shown below. The accompanying note in the box that houses it, provided by Mary P. Miller, gives some context.

This paper hat was worn on Armistice Day (then called “Peace Day”), November 11, 1918, by Eva Lathrop Phillips. Eva was meeting a friend in downtown Kansas City. It took her “all day” because she had to join a parade to move in the direction she wanted to go. Eva was 24 years old and attending business college in Kansas City from her home in Blue Rapids, Kansas. Eva died at age 102.

Image of the paper hat worn by Eva Lathrop Phillips on Armistice Day, November 11, 1918

Paper hat worn by Eva Lathrop Phillips on Armistice Day, November 11, 1918.
Nothing in the collection indicates where Eva got it.
Eva Lathrop Phillips Papers. Call Number: RH MS 710. Click image to enlarge.

The Kansas City Star estimated that “60,000 to 100,000 flag waving, cheering men and women” participated in the “monster Victory Parade” in downtown Kansas City – despite the ongoing flu pandemic.

The parade, hastily planned early today, started at 10:30 o’clock from Convention Hall. There was no attempt at organization, because of the lack of time, but was made up for the most of masses of workers from downtown stores and factories, released for the day to celebrate the release of the world from threatened German bondage.

To get a sense of what the scene looked like, check out these photographs of Armistice Day parades in St. Louis (Missouri Historical Society) and Philadelphia (Library Company of Philadelphia).

Photograph of the front page of the Kansas City Star on Armistice Day, November 11, 1918

Image of the article "A March of Victory" in the Kansas City Star on Armistice Day, November 11, 1918

Front page of the Kansas City Star (top) and the article
“A March of Victory” (bottom) on Armistice Day, November 11, 1918.
Anschutz Library microfilm collection. Call Number: MRN 0269.
Click images to enlarge.

Somewhere in the crowd of Kansas City revelers described in the Star article was Eva in her paper hat.

Evangeline “Eva” Lathrop was born in Irving, Kansas, on October 1, 1894. Her brother Byron enlisted in the Army and served in France. Around the time of the Armistice, Eva moved to Kansas City to attend school. In 1924, she married Alfred G. Phillips, also a veteran. She lived in Baxter Springs, Kansas, for fifty years.

Photograph of Eva Lathrop Phillips, 1992

Photograph of Eva Lathrop Phillips at age ninety-eight, 1992.
Frowe and Lathrop Families Records. Call Number: RH MS 696. Click image to enlarge.

Kathy Lafferty
Public Services