Sunday, October 16, 2005

Murder in the Streets

It was in 1950 that I went to central Kentucky as part of a funeral party to bury my grandmother. I recall seeing nearby the monument of a tree trunk cut off. It was many years before the significance of that image finally hit me.

The grave site was that of Henry Bruce Vallandingham (yes, he was first cousin to the Copperhead). Henry was my third great-grandfather, and he was murdered in 1856 by pro-slavery people in Lexington, Missouri. He was 49 years old. In effect he was cut down, like the image of the tree that covered his grave.

On July 18, on a Friday at noontime, a man named Fred Meyers stepped out from behind a tree on a busy street. In his hands was a shotgun. With one shot he blew away Henry's stomach and left him to die in the street.

The penalty for helping slaves escape was death. Not too many questions were asked when a man was killed for that reason. Of course Fred Meyers walked. It was a pro-slavery town. It had all been prearranged. And, because the murder was committed in plain sight during the day, one could easily conclude that it was a warning to other anti-slavery people in the area. No one attended the next anti-slavery meeting.

Not far away in miles or time John Brown had hacked to death some six or seven slave owners. He gained lots of sympathy for them. It was yet another reason no one was going to raise his eyebrow if an Abolitionist were cut down.

Henry Bruce Vallandingham had left central Kentucky a few months previously and moved to Lexington, MO to open a new kind of business called a 'restaurant .' You see, nearby Kansas Territory was about to become a state, and the town of Lexington saw many folks who were moving into Kansas. Some were on their own, but many others were fronted or outfitted either by Abolitionists from New England or by Pro-slavery folks from the South. Many went through Lexington on their way into the Territory. The restaurant business was brisk

It was very important to both sides which way Kansas voted--slave or free. The South saw Kansas as the beginning of a domino effect--all states could lose their slaves if Kansas were free, and the North saw Kansas as pivotal in another way. Both sides were sending in people with guns. War was inevitable.

Slowly but carefully, terrible stories were circulated about Henry Bruce Vallandingham in order to justify his eventual murder. He was a threat to the pro-slavery people, the local newspaper indicated. One of the stories involved the young wife of Fred Myers, but since Henry's wife was in Lexington with her husband, the stories were false, designed to make Henry look bad. In reality, Henry's wife had his body moved back to Kentucky in 1881 where she could be buried beside him.

That is the way these things were done--blacken a man's name and then kill him. If a jury is ever involved the defense can try the victim. One kills the reputation of a man before one actually pulls the trigger.

Kansas entered the Union as a free state, but not until representatives of Southern states had stalked out of Congress in 1861, determined to set up their own country. Perhaps the Civil War really began when John Brown hacked to death his first victims, or when Henry Bruce Vallandingham was brutally murdered in public in Lexington, Missouri.

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