- Historic Sites
Abolitionist John Doy
Tempers flare and violence reigns in the pre–Civil War battleground of Kansas
Spring 2009 | Volume 59, Issue 1
The jail in St. Joseph was “a paradise after the cell at Platte City,” and the jailer, named Brown, “proved to be a very humane man.” The jury at the first trial in St. Joseph deadlocked, so the judge set Charles free and scheduled a second trial for the elder Doy on June 20. The second jury found him guilty and sentenced him to five years’ hard labor. While Doy’s counsel filed an appeal to the state supreme court, prosecutors planned a dozen more indictments against him on charges of stealing other slaves in the ill-fated expedition. He faced up to 65 years in prison.
But help was on its way. On the evening of July 23 a young man visited him in the jailhouse and slipped him a note reading “Be ready at midnight.”
That night a storm hit St. Joseph. Amid its fury a man knocked on the jailhouse door and shouted to Brown the jailer that he had a horse thief he wanted locked up. Somewhat reluctantly, Brown went downstairs and opened the door. Two men held the alleged criminal, his hands bound. The jailer led them upstairs and opened the door to the cell. Suddenly the horse thief whipped off his bindings and one of his “captors” jammed a revolver against Brown’s chest. “If you resist or try to give an alarm, you’re a dead man,” he warned. “We’ve come to take Dr. Doy home to Kansas, and we mean to do it; so you’d best be quiet.”
Doy emerged from the cell, shook the jailer’s hand, and left with his rescuers. He was so weak that two men needed to support him through the storm and down to the river, where boats were waiting. “By dint of hard pulling, for the current of the Missouri is very strong there, we soon landed on the Kansas bank, which I had often gazed at longingly from the window of my cell,” Doy wrote. His rescuers bundled their charge into a covered wagon for the 90-mile journey back to Lawrence, where Doy was “restored to my home, to my family and friends, and to the soil I love so well.”
His ordeal was over, but the country’s was just beginning. In October 1859 Doy’s friend and fellow abolitionist John Brown led a raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia. Civil War erupted a year and a half later.
Editor’s note: As we approach the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, American Heritage has decided to publish a column, “Civil War Chronicles,” which will document events in our nation’s life that occurred 150 years ago. Over the next half a dozen years, “Civil War Chronicles” will offer an ongoing narrative of the unfolding events of the war and, in doing so, illuminate its profound effects on American history and our national character.