HIGGINSVILLE, Mo. | From the beginning, the state home for old rebels at Higginsville took in bushwhackers.
After all, the first superintendent, Mark Belt, had been one himself. Rode with Dave Pool before joining the regular Confederate army.
Always a bit blurry in Missouri’s Civil War, the lines between bandits, bushwhackers, partisan rangers, rebel recruiters and actual CSA soldiers just got more so in the years when the old men with their long white beards told their stories.
By 1950, when they played taps for 108-year-old John Graves, Missouri’s last rebel soldier, at least 14 one-time bushwhackers had slipped beneath the sod here. They lie with about 675 veterans, flanking the lovely “dying lion of the Confederacy” sculpture.
Which is our introduction to the tale of Quantrill’s bones and why this quiet spot has held one of his graves — he has three, you know — for nearly 20 years.
“I find that he is a pretty big draw,” said Kay Russell at what was once the Confederate Soldiers Home. “Almost constantly his grave is decorated by a flag or flowers.”
In late 1864, William Clarke Quantrill, Frank James and others donned Union uniforms and slipped away, knowing things in Missouri would get hot once peace came. He came close to surviving the war but took a slug in the spine and died, at 27, on June 6, 1865, in Louisville, Ky.
There, Quantrill lay in an unmarked grave until his mother, Caroline Clarke Quantrill, decided in 1887 to bring him home to Dover, Ohio. She was helped by William Walter Scott, who was researching a book on childhood buddy Willy C.
What followed? Skullduggery.
“So they dug him up and when Mr. Scott picked up the rib bones they kind of disintegrated, and so he only got the big bones,” Russell said.
So bits still reside in Kentucky.
It’s complicated, but Scott did not put the skull in the box with other bones. When he showed it to Mrs. Quantrill, she identified it as her son’s by a particular tooth. (Science would find some of the bones not be Quantrill’s, a sign his plot was recycled. Like we said, complicated.)
Back in Dover, did Scott bury the box in the Quantrill plot as he’d promised? No, he wrote to the Kansas Historical Society: “What would his skull be worth to your Society?”
The Topeka folks passed on that deal, yet ended up with Quantrill parts and a lock of his hair anyway.
When Scott died, his widow sold files and three arm bones to William E. Connelley, a Kansas historian publishing his own biography. Quantrill’s soul, he wrote, was a “hideous, monstrous, misshapen thing.”
Supposedly, Connelley tried to swap the bones for Jesse James’ pistol but ended up donating them to the society, which after public harrumphing displayed them with two shin bones (given by Scott as a bonus enticement to buy the skull) and some Lawrence massacre relics.
The skull? Scott’s son let a local fraternity have it for rituals. By 1972, the Dover Historical Society had it on display.
With new laws to make museums better respect Native American remains, the Quantrill bones, now in a tiny pine casket-like box, were stored far out of sight on a shelf at the Kansas archaeology lab.
Enter Robert L. Hawkins III.
“It came as a surprise to me that Quantrill’s bones were in a box at the Kansas Historical Society,” said the then Jefferson City lawyer and later Sons of Confederate Veterans national commander. He proposed a decent burial in the soil of Missouri.
Where better than Higginsville, amid all the other Yankee fighters?
Others, though, saw Dover as more appropriate.
“We were suggesting a very straightforward military disposal of the remains,” Hawkins said. “There wasn’t going to be anything particularly glorifying, but we did not want to see him ignored, either.”
Agreement was not attained. So on Oct. 30, 1992, without much ado, Quantrill’s skull, in a white child’s casket, went into the ground in Dover’s Fourth Street Cemetery.
Hawkins was there, with perhaps a dozen others.
“They didn’t hide it, it wasn’t like they got it done in five minutes, and every body ran. It was very brief, but appropriate.”
But Ohio is Yankee country. Missouri is not.
Six days earlier, just north of Higginsville, Hawkins and perhaps 800 people had witnessed the burial of the Kansas bones, bubbled-wrapped and snug in a glue-sealed Igloo cooler inside a regular-size, handmade oak casket.
A salute was fired by men wearing Confederate uniforms. A priest spoke, eulogies were offered, hymns were sung, including “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” a favorite of Jesse James.
As the casket was being lowered, a woman, supposedly a descendant of Dave Pool, one of Quantrill’s band, rushed up and tossed in a black flag.
“I was less than pleased,” recalled Hawkins, who now resides in Nashville. “We did not want those kinds of dramatic flourishes.”
He earlier had nixed guerrilla re-enactors riding whooping out of nearby trees.
When things died down, sacks of cement were poured into the pit, a prophylactic against grave robbers.
The bones, at least, if not the soul, deserved the rest.