LAWRENCE | Pat Kehde works in a bookstore just two blocks from the spot.
The horror that visited Seventh and Vermont streets, where her great-grandparents once lived, is nowhere evident today. The public library stands there, full of novels that strive for the kind of drama all too real for Kehde’s ancestors, the Dixes:
*Rousted at dawn from the house, Jetta Dix grabs her husband’s arm as marauders on horseback threaten to shoot him.
The wife won’t let go. She begs: “Oh my God, Ralph, have you given yourself up as a prisoner? Why did you do it? I know they will kill you.”
These terrorists will not kill women. But men are dying all around.
So Jetta, walking sideways, clings to Ralph as he is ordered to cross the street. She slaps at a tormentor’s horse that tries to nudge her aside.
Then she trips on a pile of rocks. She lets go.
Bang! Ralph Dix gets it in the back.*
Accounts of the carriage maker’s death in the 1863 sacking of Lawrence traveled down the bloodline of the widow Dix.
For Kehde, Missouri guerrilla William Clarke Quantrill’s August raid on the town, an abolitionist stronghold, is more than a violent chapter in history. She tries to imagine the victims up close — because they’re family and friends of family — and she ascribes to them the fears, flaws and struggles of regular people.
“I think Ralph just came out here to pursue a business — a thriving business of 22 employees,” Kehde said of the carriage and wagon operations on the ground floor of the three-story Dix home. “Because now we focus on the politics of the time … we tend to think of the players as either fire-breathing abolitionists or fire-breathing slaveholders. We don’t think of all these regular people caught in the crossfire.”
Ralph Dix was 24 when he traveled from Connecticut to the new Kansas territory, 29 when he married Jetta, 32 when he was murdered.
An 1855 letter he wrote after coming to Lawrence made only a passing reference to the explosive politics.
“I suppose you have heard what a Time we had in the Election,” Dix told his cousin.
But he withheld judgment on the activities of thousands of Missourians who staked claims in Kansas just to vote. They initially succeeded in electing a pro-slavery slate of leaders who, Dix wrote, “expect to do as they choos (sic). I don’t know but they may — that remains to be seen.”
Katie Armitage, author of a book on the Civil War raid — which left Lawrence incinerated and at least 150 men and teenage boys dead — said most of the victims were just folks, not fighters: “They were not expecting to be in a massacre.”
Thomas Goodrich’s book “Bloody Dawn” recounted Jetta Dix’s frantic efforts, as Quantrill’s Raiders galloped into town, to persuade her husband, his brother Steve and several employees to take cover.
She hid her three young children in a coal shed and discovered their nurse had locked herself in a closet.
The terrified nurse refused Jetta’s pleas to come out and to mind the children. So Jetta grabbed a cleaver and hacked open the door.
As the shooting spread, Jetta saw Steve Dix tumble with a fatal gunshot wound.
And then Ralph, on his own, chose to surrender.
By the account of resident H.M. Simpson, in a letter to a friend several days after the massacre, “Mr. Dix purchased his life by paying $1,000. As soon as the money was handed over he was killed.”
Many other details were provided 50 years later by Jetta, in a first-person account published in a magazine for the silver anniversary.
She had her home rebuilt, and it stood for a century. She remarried, left him for cruelty and married again, residing in Lawrence all the while.
“She’d have no grass growing under her feet — no way,” Kehde said, admiring a portrait of her great-grandma grinning.
“Can you imagine? Here was Jetta — widowed in her 20s, house destroyed, with a 3-year-old son and twin girls 20 months old,” Kehde said. “She had nobody to fall back on. I think she just said, ‘I’ve nowhere to go, so I’m going to stay here.’ What else you going to do? There’s no paved highway heading out of town.”
One of Jetta’s twin daughters, Isabella, married George Edwards. Voters in Kansas City elected him mayor in 1916, a year before Jetta’s death.
He and Isabella were Kehde’s grandparents.
She would grow up in the Brookside area. She just happened to return to Lawrence when her first husband landed work at the University of Kansas. Then she moved away to study library sciences.
And now she’s remarried and back in Lawrence, as if the legend of Quantrill’s attack won’t let her stray far. His raiders cut their trail just a few blocks from Pat Kehde’s current home.
“Is it karma?” she asked. “I am certain there’s some attraction. It’s family.”