Civil War one fifty

Commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Civil War & the Missouri-Kansas border region's unique place in the bloody four-year conflict.

The Kansas City Star
Harper’s Weekly’s 1861 version of Federal soldiers searching the home of rebellious Southern women for incriminating weapons and letters.

Mystery still surrounds 1863 jail collapse, deaths

The Kansas City Star

The screams of frightened women carried up and down Grand Avenue.

Then, as passers-by turned and stared, two buildings collapsed in a crunch of brick and a cloud of plaster dust.

Minutes later, soldiers and civilians, some swearing, all sweating in the August heat, tore at broken beams, trying to extract the prisoners from the rubble.

*Teenage girls, weeping from broken limbs and dangerous cuts, were pulled out. *

A crowd gathered, many angrily gesturing at the four bodies laid nearby.

*No accident, some muttered. The Yankees did it. *

As conspiracy theories go, this one had legs. The victims were Southern women, kin to notorious bushwhackers.

Josephine, 15, little sister to William Anderson — a man whom it was unwise to anger — perished in the Aug. 13, 1863, collapse. Another victim was Charity Kerr, whose brother, John McCorkle, would say:

“We could stand no more.”

Days later, they and hundreds more galloped through the streets of Lawrence, getting their revenge on the male citizens of that unlucky town, although historians agree William Clarke Quantrill had been planning his raid well before the jail disaster.

But the mystery lingers: Why did No. 13 on Grand fall?

One clue leads to the cellar.

Federal authorities had been arresting Southern women to eliminate the material and moral support they offered to bushwhackers.

Some got released; more often they were shipped off to the large Gratiot Street Prison in St. Louis and banished from the state with little more than the clothes on their backs.

A dozen or so ended up lodging on the second floor of the No. 13, better known as the Thomas Building. It was just south of what today is the Sprint Center.

The first floor was a Jewish grocery. The third level apparently was empty. That floor had been added for a studio by artist George Caleb Bingham, who possessed the property.

That cellar? Be patient.

Paul Petersen, author of three books on Quantrill, agrees with the old talk that vengeful Yankees “premeditated their designs” of sabotage.

While few go that far, it appears that Gen. Thomas Ewing, headquartered in Kansas City, had been made aware of the deterioration at No. 13, but did not act on it.

Bingham, a strong Union man but one who hated Ewing’s guts, vainly sought federal reimbursement, claiming his building was “destroyed while thus occupied, by the act of soldiers in removing columns.”

While Southerners saw a dastardly plot, Federals groped for other theories. Many histories contend the structure was dilapidated — although it was built in the late 1850s — and victim to a gust of wind. Other folks blamed hogs rooting around the foundation.

As late as 1910, Kansas historian William E. Connelley was still writing how the women brought their fate down upon themselves by digging through the foundation. How they would dig out from a second floor was not explained.

What is obvious is the key role of the smaller Cockrell Building used as a guardhouse next door. It likely collapsed first, bringing down the Thomas Building with it.

That the Thomas Building was stressed is clear. Cracks appeared in walls and ceilings. The worried merchant had removed much of his stock.

Now, it’s time to descend into that cellar.

Eleven years after the disaster, Dr. Joshua Thorne, the Union surgeon responsible for the medical needs of the prisoners, came forward.

While the second floor housed gentile Southern ladies, he testified, the cellar held women “of bad character and diseased.”

To soldiers barracksed next door, however, it was a harem only a few bricks away. Thorne said they tore out large holes in the common cellar wall, weakening the buildings above.

Edward Leslie, in his 1996 book about Quantrill — “The Devil Knows How to Ride” — slyly called the theory of the prostitutes “as natural as a sudden gust of wind.” Bruce Nichols, finishing his third volume of “Guerrilla Warfare in Civil War Missouri,” finds that theory more likely than any plot to kill the women.

Petersen, however, contends that Thorne had changed his story. His book, “Quantrill of Missouri: The Making of a Guerrilla Warrior,” refers to Mattie Lykins, wife of a former mayor, who quoted the doctor at the scene that day as saying:

“Not a blue coat will be found (in the debris); every man who has been detailed to stand guard at this prison for the last few days and weeks knew the house to be unsafe and have kept themselves at a safe distance from the trembling walls. I knew the building to be unsafe and notified the military authorities of the fact, and suggested the removal of the women prisoners, but my suggestion was not heeded and before you is the result.”

If true, that hardly proves murder. Lykins, an outspoken cousin of Confederate Lt. Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, soon was banished herself.

While the soldiers did chop away at the cellar’s supporting brickwork, Petersen said, no women were down there.

Charlie Harris, who researched all of this for the Missouri Historical Review, also discounts the hookers-below theory. Too dark and dank, reasoned the Wichita lawyer, related to three women in the collapse.

“You couldn’t keep people down there for any length of time.” Besides, he argued, why would the soldiers go to the trouble of digging through? “They’d just walk around.”

The soldiers removed structural supports in the Cockrell Building simply to enlarge a first-floor common area, he believes.

No dastardly plot at all.

“If you were going to kill these girls,” Harris asked, “wouldn’t you do it in a little more efficient manner rather to bring down a building and hope it causes the other building to fall, too?”

While the conflict in the Kansas City region was exceedingly personal and violent, physical harm to women was rare. The war occurred during the Victorian era, and many combatants adopted a chivalric code of sorts. Only one black woman may have died in the Lawrence raid, Cole Younger said, shot by accident.

To that, Petersen notes the rising fury of Kansas soldiers that summer. Just in June, George Todd’s band killed 16 troopers of the 9th Kansas Cavalry in an ambush on the Fort Scott Road (today’s Wornall Road) south of Westport.

“They wanted retaliation,” he said in an interview, “but the Kansans couldn’t take it out on the guerrillas because they couldn’t catch them.”

But the jailed women, bushwhacker family, were handy.

Not all were girls, as many say: Charity McCorkle Kerr was 32.

Armenia Crawford Selvey and Susan Crawford Whitsett Vandever were both married and in their late 20s. They were not twins, as some histories report.

Their brother was Riley Crawford, one of the youngest members of Quantrill’s band in 1863. Cole Younger was a cousin. The sisters had been arrested on a trip to Kansas City to buy flour and cloth, allegedly destined for guerrillas.

Anderson’s sisters were young: Mary, known as Molly, was 18; Josephine, probably 15; and Martha, called Mattie or Jenny, just 13.

Harris found one report that alleged they were caught with percussion caps for firearms.

Seeming determined to spoil all the good tales, Harris also does not believe reports that irritated Union jailers had chained a 12-pound ball to Martha’s ankle. She suffered two broken legs in the disaster, but it was Mary who was “crippled for life.”

Charity Kerr’s widowed sister-in-law, “Nannie” Harris McCorkle, either 19 or 20, managed to leap out a window.

The bodies of the Crawford women and McCorkle’s sister were taken to the small Davis-Smith Cemetery beyond the village of Raytown.

“I was a girl of eleven at the time as I remember that the Union men sent three caskets containing my cousins to Little Blue,” Eliza Harris later would write. “With the caskets was the satchel of trinkets and dry goods that my sister and Charity had gone to town to buy.”

Their resting place, now on private property between the lanes of Missouri 350 east of Westridge Road, is overgrown with weeds. Local historians hope to mark it in some way.

Josephine Anderson is buried in Union Cemetery, not far south of the grave of Bingham.

Yet there’s another mystery. Who was the fifth victim, a “Mrs. Wilson,” who lingered a spell before dying?

A Union spy, some think, placed to eavesdrop on the women; a Mrs. Wilson had tried to warn Federals before they were surprised in the 1862 Battle of Independence.

Women spies were not unheard of in the West. One was Elizabeth W. Stiles, whose husband reportedly was killed Oct. 15, 1862, in Todd’s raid on Shawneetown. Afterward, Federal records showed her employed “as a Spy & Secret Agent on this border.”

Todd had his own spy, but she wasn’t as effective as Stiles. Arrested trying to get a pass to leave Independence, a Miss Eliza Brown confessed, “that she was sent in by Capt. Todd to ascertain if possible the number of our forces then in town with the promise if she did so, he would make her a present of some fine dresses.”

Connelley wrote of another young woman, Alice Van Ness, who escaped injury in the collapse.

She was a favorite among her Union captors for her singing voice. Lt. Cyrus Leland Jr. was such a friend that he arranged to have her banished — so she could join a passing theatrical company and start a fine career away from the war.

The surviving Anderson sisters? Less popular, a year later, they were arrested again, sent to St. Louis, placed on a steamboat and dumped in Arkansas.