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Kansas Historical Quarterly - John Brown and the Manes Incident

by James C. Malin

November 1938 (Vol. 7, No. 4), pages 376 to 378
Transcribed by lhn;
digitized with permission of the Kansas Historical Society.

Kansas Historical Quarterly, November 1938IN view of the neglect of the John Brown theme as a subject of research by American historians one might be led to the conclusion that it had been exhausted. It is a fact, which seems to pass unnoticed, that no professional historian has written a biography of John Brown, and even more significant that the profession has produced scarcely an important monograph on any phase of the subject. The only recent contribution which may serve as the exception that emphasizes the generalization is the article by R. V. Harlow on Gerrit Smith. [1]

Several years ago the present author began work on a phase of the subject which appeared to be of only magazine-article size. After several year's work, that innocent beginning has developed into a project for a large book, "John Brown and the Legend of Fifty-Six," the story of one year of the Old Hero's life and the way it has been transformed into folklore. It is surprising how historians and biographers of Brown have overlooked even the most obvious materials, an example of which is presented here.

Oswald Garrison Villard's John Brown is usually referred to as monumental, and at the time of its publication the reviewers, almost without exception, seemed to be convinced that the research had been complete and exhaustive. Villard declared that the place assigned John Brown in history depended to a large degree on the view taken of the Pottawatomie massacre (p. 148). In searching for the evidence upon which justification of the murders could be based, he eliminated most of the incidents traditionally alleged, concluding that the evidence "establishes in the neighborhood of Osawatomie only five definite Proslavery offences." This list of five was headed by one which "seems to be established beyond doubt that Poindexter Manes, [2] a Free-Soil settler, was knocked down and beaten for having a New York Tribune in his pocket" (p. 172). It is not the intent of this paper to trace Villard through the mazes of his forty-one page chapter on the Pottawatomie massacre. The Manes incident alone, the strongest buttressed of his five Proslavery offenses, is to be discussed.



Villard cited as his authority for this story, "established beyond doubt," three references: The statement of John B. Manes, a son of Poindexter Manes, published in the Garnett Plaindealer, January 9, 1880; the reminiscences of S. J. Shively [3] and the Andreas-Cutler History of the State of Kansas. As a sample of the principles of historical criticism used by Villard this is a good illustration, although friends of Villard might insist that it is not typical. The Andreas-Cutler history was a commercial subscription project assembled in about one year's time by untrained writers, and published in 1883. The authority for the Manes story as given in this work was not indicated. [4] The Shively reminiscences were read before the Kansas Historical Society in 1903 and were written by a man who was born in Missouri in 1861, five years after the event, and grew up in Kansas in the Pottawatomie creek community. This paper was, therefore, reminiscences of other people's reminiscences, and was flagrantly erroneous in most respects, and in particular, he assigned the Manes incident to the year 1855 and had John Brown, Jr., organize his Pottawatomie Rifles to avenge it, although this particular military company was not in existence until 1856. It is difficult to comprehend how Villard should have felt justified in using such citations as support for his decision that the Manes incident was "established beyond doubt." Certainly he did not examine with any degree of care the history of these particular publications.

By process of elimination it would seem that any authority for the Manes incident cited by Villard really depended upon the statement of John B. Manes, the son of Poindexter, but that needed careful examination. Although Villard did not inform his readers John was eleven years of age in 1856 and wrote the statement over the date line of December 29, 1879-the twenty-four-year-old reminiscences of an eleven-year-old boy. [5] This was just after the Townsley "confession," published December 11, 1879, had completed the explosion of the legend that John Brown had not even been near the Pottawatomie and did not have anything to do with the murders. Now that the crime was pinned positively upon him, many of the friends of Brown were hard put to reverse suddenly their positions


and collect incidents, to invent outrages, or to juggle chronology to make it appear that John Brown was justified in the crime. It was under these circumstances that John B. Manes came forward with his contribution, but in justice to him it must be said that the story had been long current as a community tradition and that James Hanway, who always had insisted that John Brown was the leader of the massacre party, had used it in the same manner since 1869 in his newspaper publication of local history. It was out of this kind of historical evidence, however, that Villard's house of cards was built.

It is not necessary to prolong the matter further, as the New York Daily Tribune, August 11, 1856, has the full answer. Buried in a long communication "From Our Special Correspondent" (probably W. A. Phillips) is the following under a Leavenworth date line of August 2, introduced by the comment that the incident happened a week ago:

A settler had been to the post-office at Osawatomie to get his mail. On his return these gentry [Border Ruffians] waylaid, stopped and searched him. Besides the Topeka paper, and one or two Eastern journals, he had the Tribune. He was at once accused of carrying incendiary documents, knocked down, beat and kicked. He contrived to get away from them. When they had him down they swore that any man who would take a paper that supported Fremont ought to be hung. . . .

There is no question about the identity of the incident, although the Manes name was not mentioned, or of the date, which was the last week of July, 1856. The Pottawatomie murders had occurred the night of May 24-25 preceding. The Manes incident was a result, therefore, and not a cause of John Brown's crime, and it was that unprovoked massacre of Proslavery settlers that brought down upon the innocent Free-State men of that region the worst of the outrages they suffered at the hands of the Border Ruffians.


1. R. V. Harlow, "Gerrit Smith and the John Brown Raid," The American Historical Review, v. 38 (October, 1932), pp. 32-60.
2. The name has been variously spelled; Manes, Maness, Manace, etc.
3. Kansas Historical Collections, v. 8, pp. 177-187.
4. The present author has been able to determine with reasonable certainty, however, that the source was James Hanway, whose first published version of the incident thus far found was printed in 1869 in the Ottawa Republic.-"J. H. Hanway Scrapbooks," v. 4, 184 ff. in the Kansas Historical Society library.
5. The determination of the age of John B. Manes is derived from the Kansas state census records for 1865 and for 1875. In 1856 Poindexter Manes was 47 years of age.