- Historic Sites
Drawn to the story of the fearsome Confederate raider by a modern act of violence, the author finds a strange epic in the Rebel’s restless remains
July/August 1995 | Volume 46, Issue 4
In 1887 William W. Scott, a boyhood friend of Quantrill, traveled to Kentucky, opened his grave, and took the remains back to Dover for reburial. Not all of the skeleton went into the ground, however. Scott secretly retained the skull and at least five bones. After his death the skull “disappeared,” only to resurface in 1972, when it was donated to the Dover Historical Society. The director sent it to the anthropology department at Kent State University, where a wax head and face were constructed, using the skull as a model, complete with glass eyes and a wig.
The historical society put the skull and the head side by side in a glass display case, but summers get hot in Ohio, and it was feared that the wax would soften. Until funds for an atmospherically controlled case could be raised, a cool storage place was wanted.
By now the guide and I had arrived in the society’s kitchen display area and were standing in front of an ancient, wheezing refrigerator in which staff and volunteers kept their lunches. She swung open the door, and there, behind the deviled eggs in wax paper and the tuna-fishsalad sandwiches in Baggies, peering out at me from between sixteen-ounce Coke bottles, was a dead-eyed, smooth young face. Cold or static electricity had caused the hair of the cheap toupee to rise slightly, giving its owner a startled look, as if he had been caught red-handed.
From the moment I glimpsed that head through the forest of bottles, I knew Quantrill was in my line of work.
William Clarke Quantrill was from a family of Northerners, but at the onset of the war he served as a Confederate soldier, then became a “bushwhacker,” or Southern guerrilla, fighting mainly in Kansas, Missouri, and Kentucky. Quantrill’s followers, among them Jesse James, Frank James, and Cole Younger, were mostly in their teens or early twenties. As the war went on, his band became increasingly vicious, and perhaps to impress them and keep them in line, Quantrill told them an elaborate lie: Before the war he and his elder brother had been ambushed on the Santa Fe Trail by a band of thirty-two jayhawkers, Yankee guerrillas; his brother had been killed instantly, and he himself had been seriously wounded and left for dead. Found by a Shawnee Indian and nursed back to health, he had then avenged himself by joining the jayhawkers and, sent out on scouting patrols, killing them one by one until all but two were dead. Although there was no truth to the preposterous story, his men swallowed it whole.
Quantrill fought in many battles and skirmishes and led many raids, but his most infamous deed occurred on August 21, 1863, when he and four hundred followers attacked the abolitionist town of Lawrence, Kansas. There was no organized resistance, and after securing the town, many of the bushwhackers proceeded to get wildly drunk on looted liquor. During the next four hours they slaughtered perhaps as many as two hundred men and teenage boys, nearly all of them unarmed and pleading for their lives. Most of the town’s business district and at least one hundred houses were burned for a loss estimated at $1.5 million in Civil War-era dollars. When a small cavalry force was spotted in the distance, Quantrill ordered a retreat. The Lawrence Massacre is still considered by many to be the worst atrocity of the Civil War.
Quantrill was mortally wounded in a skirmish on the Wakefield farm near Taylorsville, Kentucky, on May 10, 1865, while on the way to surrender his band to the Louisville garrison commander. Paralyzed below the shoulders by a bullet in his back, he was carried by wagon to a military prison infirmary in Louisville, where he lingered for a month before dying on June 6, 1865. He was twentyseven years old.
Shortly before his death he was converted to Catholicism by Father Michael Power, and he sent word to a Missouri woman named Mrs. Olivia D. Cooper who was holding the last of his ill-gotten gains—eight hundred dollars—that a portion was to be given to Father Power to buy a grave plot and headstone (the rest was to go to his mistress, Kate King, who would later deny having received it). The priest bought a plot in Louisville’s St. Marys Cemetery and buried Quantrill but disregarded his wish for a headstone, fearing that the corpse would be stolen. He instructed Patrick Shelly, the sexton, to make the grave flat and unmarked.
At this point in the odd drama Quantrill’s mother takes center stage. I know little about her personality in her youth, but in her later years she became querulous, manipulative, and quarrelsome, quick to take offense, to turn on relatives and friends, and to attack these newly perceived adversaries with vitriolic rhetoric. On the other hand, she was also a devoted and long-suffering wife and mother, and the many tragedies she endured and the hard life she led likely soured her.