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
At approximately 2:30 P.M. on October 30, 1992, two maintenance men lowered a white fiberglass child’s coffin into a shallow grave in the Fourth Street Cemetery, in Dover, Ohio. The coffin contained the skull of a Confederate guerrilla named William Clarke Quantrill. As a drizzling, cold rain fell, they filled in the grave, tamped down the dirt, covered it with sod, and then threw their shovels into the back of their truck and drove away. Their departure signaled an end to more than a century of shenanigans with regard to Quantrill’s bones, which have been stolen, bartered, put up for sale, used in fraternity rituals, and displayed in glass museum cases and have come to be buried in three graves in three different states.
I knew little about Quantrill before I moved to Massillon, twenty miles north of Dover, his hometown, in 1982. Then a neighbor of mine committed a monstrous crime, which led me to become curious about the person who has been called “the bloodiest man in the Annals of America.” The first thing I learned about him was the bizarre history of his bones, and I was so intrigued that I set out on what proved to be a five-year course of visiting archives and battlefields in seven states and the District of Columbia to research and write his biography.
All because of Jim Huberty.
The other neighbors warned me about Huberty when I moved onto Fifth Street. He was crazy, they said, a gun nut with a short fuse. He had two huge German shepherds that he let run loose; if one of his dogs got after you and you complained, he would threaten to kill you.
There were other, wilder stories, but by the time I heard them I had become acquainted with Huberty, and I tended to discount them. I used to stop to talk to him as he sat on his side stoop, petting his dogs. He had a sociology degree from a Quaker college and had been an apprentice embalmer—a job he loved—but he had been fired because he couldn’t get along with living human beings. More recently he had worked as a welder; however, he had been laid off. Mostly we spoke of the weather, the troubles at the steel mill, or the losses of the area sports teams. One day he abruptly asked me to buy his house; he had decided to make a new life for himself and his family in Mexico.
He got as far as San Ysidro, California.
On July 17, 1984, having been hearing voices for several days, Hubert called a mental health clinic and asked for an appointment. He was put on the waiting list. The following afternoon, at approximately four o’clock, he walked into a McDonald’s, wearing a black T-shirt and camouflage pants with a 9-mm Browning automatic pistol stuck in the waist, an Uzi submachine gun slung over his shoulder, and a 12-gauge pump shotgun in one hand. He cried, “Everybody get down on the floor or I’ll kill somebody!” and then opened fire. Over the next hour and seventeen minutes, until a SWAT team sniper put a single bullet in his chest, he walked back and forth in the restaurant, coolly shooting people point-blank. Just before he died, he shouted, “I’ve killed a thousand, and I’ll kill a thousand more!” In fact, he shot forty and killed twenty-one, thus becoming for a time the leading one-day mass murderer in American history.
Near midnight a few years later on the anniversary of the massacre I sat at a bar down the block from his house, drinking from a frosted mug, thinking about him, and half listening to some locals play a can-you-top-this game of naming monsters and murderers native to Ohio. Quantrill’s name came up along with the dubious, stale old epithets attached to it by Northern historians: “the bloodiest man in American history,” “the most hated man in the Civil War.”
The next day, my mind still on Huberty, I drove to Dover. The historical society is housed in a lovely old Victorian mansion, and a young woman gave me a guided tour. On display in a glass case were Quantrill’s powder horn and a couple of nineteenth-century dime novels about him. At the end of the tour I allowed as how I was interested in Quantrill and asked if the society had anything else of his.
“Well, we have his head,” the guide answered. “Would you like to see it?” For an instant I tried to imagine what a cadaver’s face would look like 120 years after death. I came up with a fantastically grotesque image.
“Absolutely,” I said. “Love to.”
As the guide led me back down through the mansion and out into the gardens and into the carriage house, she told me this story:
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.
Anyway, I find it difficult not to feel some sympathy for her. She was an orphan whose parents died in an epidemic when she was quite small, and she had little education and no trade. Thus, when her husband succumbed to consumption in 1854, she was left destitute. Four of her eight children died in infancy; a fifth, a daughter named Mary, suffered from curvature of the spine and was dead at twenty-five. Her eldest son, William Clarke, died in 1865, of course, and her second son, Franklin, died in 1881, leaving behind a widow and four daughters with whom Mrs. Quantrill quickly fell out. Her last surviving son, Thomas, proved unambitious and irresponsible, unable to provide much support for her. Thus for much of her adult life Caroline Clarke Quantrill was beset by successive familial tragedies and dire, grinding poverty.
Before the war Quantrill had been a good son and devoted family man, writing solicitous letters home as he traveled around the country trying desperately to make his fortune, but after he settled in Kansas Territory and became involved in the pre-war strife along the MissouriKansas border, he completely cut himself off from his family, not even notifying his mother that he was dying.
At first she claimed to make no connection between her son and the notorious guerrilla “Quantrell,” as the newspapers most often spelled his name. In 1869 or 1870 she sent young Thomas out to Kansas to find out what had happened to William. Thomas was treated kindly by the Kansans he met, and he repaid them by stealing a man’s gun and a girl’s horse, saddle, and bridle.
Mrs. Quantrill next enlisted the help of William Scott, a Dover newspaper publisher, who slowly pieced the story together. Scott would continue through the end of the century to collect information on Quantrill with the intention of publishing a biography, but he put off writing it, waiting for Mrs. Quantrill to die so he could tell the truth without hurting her.
In early December 1887 Scott and Mrs. Quantrill traveled to Louisville and arrived on the seventh at what had become known as the St. John’s Cemetery. Mrs. Quantrill persuaded Bridget Shelly, who upon her husband’s death had replaced him as sexton, to allow the grave to be opened and the bones placed in a zinclined box. (Mrs. Quantrill had originally wanted to take the bones to Dover, but Shelly, an Irish immigrant fearful of the authorities if proper legal procedures were not followed, would not hear of it.) It was agreed that the grave would be opened the following afternoon.
The weather turned unpleasant overnight, so while Mrs. Quantrill remained in her hotel room, Scott went alone to the cemetery. At 3:00 P.M. he stood in the sexton’s yard, watching the gravedigger, Louis Wertz, scratch at the ground with a spade. Wertz was not enthusiastic; Scott slipped him a dollar and paid Mrs. Shelly $2.50. The bones were uncovered in an hour. “Every vestige of coffin had disappeared except a rotten piece [of board the] size of a man’s hand,” Scott wrote in his notes of the trip. “His hair had slipped off in a half circle around the skull and was of a bleached yellow color.”
Scott wrapped the skull in newspaper. Although the ribs and part of the backbone crumbled when touched, everything else went temporarily into a small box (which was not zinc-lined). Then Wertz filled in the grave, burying the box near the surface.
Scott carried the skull back to the hotel and showed it to Mrs. Quantrill the following morning. She was “much affected,” identifying it by means of a chipped molar in the lower right jaw. She refused to let him take the skull back to Mrs. Shelly, insisting instead that it be buried beside Quantrill’s father in the Fourth Street Cemetery in Dover.
Scott and Mrs. Quantrill then took the train to Samuels Depot, Kentucky, leaving the skull behind in the hotel checkroom, wrapped in newspaper and nestled in a basket. Quantrill had spent the last months of his life fighting and hiding out in north-central Kentucky, and his mother wanted to meet some of his friends and former comrades. She was invited to stay the winter with Donny Pence and his wife; Donny was related to the Jameses. Mrs. Quantrill pressed Scott to return to Louisville, get the bones under the pretext of having them put into a zinc-lined box, take them and the skull back to Dover, and bury them. Scott protested, but Mrs. Quantrill persisted. She promised to visit Bridget Shelly and “smooth the matter over.”
“I did not approve of the deception,” Scott wrote in his notes, but “I … secured them and brought them home and placed them where agreed upon.” The last statement is false: He did not bury them in the family plot; he stored them in his newspaper office in a box. Mrs. Quantrill was not above a bit of prevarication herself: She did subsequently call on Mrs. Shelly to arrange for the selling of her son’s now empty plot, but her idea of smoothing things over was to blame Scott for the theft of the bones and deny she had anything to do with it.
On December 17, 1888, Scott wrote Franklin G. Adams, secretary of the Kansas State Historical Society, enclosing a lock of Quantrill’s hair. “What would his skull be worth to your society?” he asked. “I am not speculating in dead men’s bones, but if I could get a part of the money I have spent, I see no reason why the skull might not as well be preserved in your cabinet, as to crumble in the ground.
“Please consider this letter strictly confidential, and mark your answer ‘Personal.’ Destroy this letter when read, and I will do the same with yours. No one in the world knows I can get the head, but I can.”
Adams disregarded his instruction to burn the letter, which is today on file at the historical society. He offered to raise twenty-five or thirty dollars to buy the skull, but Scott feared the newspapers might get hold of the story. “The mother is now old, and I would not for any money have her feelings hurt. In a short time she will pass away, and then publicity would not matter.”
Why did Scott try to sell the skull? His research had given him a decidedly negative view of his old school chum, allowing him to traffic in his bones with a clear conscience. He was not rich, and he had made several trips on Mrs. Quantrill’s behalf and had paid her travel expenses; his stated purpose in trying to sell the skull was to recoup some of the money he had laid out. Ironically, Scott was trying to sell Quantrill’s skull to his worst enemies: Quantrill’s raids into Kansas had made him a hated man there.
During the winter, Mrs. Quantrill visited many of her son’s Kentucky friends and former comrades; she went to the Wakefield farm, where her son had been mortally wounded, looked over the terrain, heard James Wakefield describe the fatal skirmish and her son’s brief time as an invalid in his house. She gradually wore out her welcome at the Fences’. Her personality was grating, and, to people who were not wealthy themselves, her poverty burdensome. Thomas, rather than settle down and support his widowed mother, had drifted to Tucson, Arizona, and a succession of low-paying jobs.
In the spring of 1888 Mrs. Quantrill persuaded Scott to meet her in St. Louis and escort her to Independence, Missouri, where she looked up still more of the friends of her “lost Son” and searched for photographs of him. By now she had heard about the eight hundred dollars Quantrill left at his death, and, desperate for money as always, she sniffed around for it. Being among Southern sympathizers, she quickly adopted their point of view, ranting in her letters against “dirty, low-lifed Union Men.” She was generally treated as visiting royalty, but when she related the true family history, those who chose to believe Quantrill’s lies about the murder of his brother branded her an impostor.
Scott left her in Independence and traveled alone to Lawrence, rendezvousing with officials from the Kansas State Historical Society. Scott had secretly lugged the skull all the way from Dover, but there was still no sale despite his having given the seemingly irresistible inducement of Quantrill’s two shinbones. (He stipulated that their existence be kept secret until Mrs. Equatorially’s death.) Scott went on to Abilene and interviewed some ex-guerrillas before returning to Dover with the skull.
While Mrs. Equatorially was still in Independence, several veteran bushwhackers paid her way to Blue Springs, so that they might hold a reception there in her honor. She ARrived wearing a cheap calico dress and a worn calico sunbonnet. The old guerrillas passed around a purse, filled it with money, and chose a delegation of wives to escort her back to Independence and buy her a new outfit.
The “ice cream social” took place on May 11 at the City Hotel. Tables bearing food and drink had been set outside on the lawn, and Mrs. Equatorially sat “stiffly upright in a chair,” her gray hair drawn tightly into a bun and her “dark eyes bright and quick.” While the women debated in hushed tones whether she was really Equatorially’s mother, the men quietly reminisced among themselves about their wartime exploits. A reporter from the Kansas City Journal was impressed with their Gentile demeanor: “They were an intelligent and well behaved lot of men, and did not seem possessed of any of the bloodthirsty characteristics ascribed to them.” One by one they stopped by Mrs. Equatorially’s chair and “talked with her about her son, and told her of the parts in the great internecine strife that they had enacted while with him.”
Mrs. Quantrill returned to Dover sometime in the spring of 1889. The town fathers at first resisted the idea of buryKing the remains of so notorious a native son in the town cemetery but finally agreed so long as the ceremony was prixovate and the plot unmarked. Just five people attended the funeral: Scott, Mrs. Equatorially, her minister, a distant relative, and a family friend. How many bones went into the ground is uncertain; in addition to the shinbones already donated to the Kansas State Historical Society, Scott secretly retained at least three arm bones and the skull. (He had already didvided Equatorially’s hair with “the mother.” He was a sort of Johnny Appeased with the hair, occasionally giving away little sprigs to someone he was trying to impress or from whom he sought a favor.)
On February 17, 1890, Thomas Equatorially wrote to his mother for the last time: “Dear Mother, i Take The Pleasure of Drooping you a fie Lines To Let you know That i am Well and hope you are Well also i Think of you day and night and Will Send for you in The Spring I have Left that Part of The Country i Was in and am goying To The Capital i Think i Can Catch on to Something There. …” No one knows his fate, although it has been theorized that he encountered a hard case who bore an old grudge against his brother.
His mother quarreled with her only daughter-in-law and grandchildren and sank deeper I I into poverty. She even fell out with Scott. A woman reporter had been nosing around Dover gathering scurrilous stories about the Quantrill clan; Scott gave her Quantrill family photographs in return for a promise that she print nothing bad about Mrs. Quantrill. When Mrs. Quantrill found out about the pictures, she was furious and sent Scott a blistering letter, contemptuously calling him a “Yankey Man” and “a Professed friend who was not true.” “You may as well Give up writing [the] History of my Dear lost Boy, for You never will get any Thing correct.”
Despite her attacks on him, Scott remained her benefactor: When she announced that she was moving to the Lexington, Kentucky, Confederate Home, he dutifully raised money for her trip. Once in Kentucky, she quickly became “dissatisfied,” and returned to Dover. As her health began to fail and she landed in the county poorhouse, Scott got her admitted to the Ohio Odd Fellows Home, establishing that her husband had been a member of the organization and doggedly overcoming the objections of its trustees, who were dismayed over the reputation of her infamous son.
On April 29, 1901, Mrs. Quantrill wrote a letter to a Dover friend, her last known correspondence. All the old hurts had healed, the old controversies been forgotten; now she was just an impoverished elderly woman: “I have a room all to My Self. … No doubt You may think That With all these surroundings I would be happy. But not so. I am miserable as the day is long, Get so dreadful homesick.”
On November 6, 1902, William Walter Scott died of a heart attack. He had delayed writing his long-planned Quantrill biography until “the mother” was gone, and she had outlived him. Scott’s widow wrote a letter to the Kansas State Historical Society pleading that her husband’s attempts to sell the skull be kept a secret; she did not want his good name sullied. She then sold all his files to one of the society’s officers, William E. Connelley—along with the three Quantrill arm bones. Connelley subsequently tried to trade the bones for Jesse James’s gun and, on another occasion, Wild Bill Hickok’s revolver, holster, and gun belt; when both deals fell through, he gave up in disgust and donated the bones to the Kansas State Historical Society.
After Mrs. Quantrill’s death in 1903, the five bones were put on display in a glass case with some relics of the Lawrence Massacre, including a partially burned Bible retrieved from the ashes of a building and the stolen wallet of a boy killed in the raid. Local preachers denounced the exhibit not because it was ghoulish but because the skeletal remains of such a monster should not be given even that dubious honor.
In 1905 some teenage Dover boys formed the D.J.S Club (even surviving members no longer recall what the initials stood for), which later became the Zeta Chapter of the Alpha Pi fraternity. Someone obtained a skull from W. W. Scott’s son, Walter, who let it be known that it was Quantrill’s. The skull was shellacked, nicknamed Jake, and used in the fraternity’s initiation rites. The initiate would enter a darkened room to see sitting on a table a triangle of three candles with the skull in the center, red lights glowing in the eye sockets. Behind the table stood four boys in black robes, monks’ cowls obscuring their faces; beside it, a cauldron of “molten lead” hung on a tripod over a fire. The molten lead was actually hot water covered with a layer of aluminum powder paint; the fire was just more red lights.
According to a member of the fraternity, when the initiate “approached the table [he] was told to place his right hand on the skull. He then swore an oath of loyalty and secrecy to the fraternity. Finally he was commanded to dip his hand into the pot to prove himself trustworthy. After this he was declared to be a member of the Alpha Pi Fraternity.”
A total of 243 boys were initiated into the Zeta Chapter during its thirty-two years. When it disbanded, a victim of declining membership in 1942, Nelson McMillan, a fraternity trustee, bought the skull. He kept it in a box in his cellar until 1960, when it was displayed at the Zeta Chapter’s fiftieth-anniversary banquet. At the end of the evening Jake was returned to the basement box. In 1972 McMillan handed the skull over to the Dover Historical Society, and the trustees had the wax head made, put it on display with the skull, then consigned it to a 1929 General Electric refrigerator.
Quantrill’s fame grew enormously in the 1870s, largely as the result of the increasing notoriety of his disciples. Biographers and dime novelists who chronicled the lives of the Youngers and the Jameses stimulated interest in their wartime leader. Before long Quantrill himself was the main character in abysmal fiction and the subject of biographies widely varying in reliability and fairness. So great became his celebrity that American popular culture bestowed upon him the rarest of accolades, reserved only for the likes of John Wilkes Booth, Amelia Earhart, and Elvis Presley: He was widely reported to be alive long after his death.
It was usually said that he had survived the Wakefield fight, though badly wounded, and been found by an admirer and nursed back to health. Or that he had recovered while confined in the Louisville infirmary and escaped, leaving the corpse of another patient in his bed. He hid out in Chile. He went to Mexico and raised cattle. He became an Arizona schoolteacher or a rancher in Brownsville, Texas. He was a logger in Oregon. He bought a plantation in Georgia, a cotton farm in Arkansas. He took up residence in Los Angeles or New York. He was a trapper in British Columbia, a justice of the peace in Walla Walla, Washington. He emigrated to Hawaii, married a native girl, sired many children, and grew rich investing in Maui real estate. He became a Methodist minister in Hunstville, Alabama, wearing a brace of pistols under his frock coat and astounding his flock with marksmanship feats at church picnics. It was even claimed that he sometimes returned to Missouri to visit old comrades or was spotted riding near Lawrence.
Repeatedly and with growing exasperation, Quantrill relatives and Frank James—who had visited Quantrill as he lay dying—stepped forward to refute the latest electrifying rumor, but it did no good. Quantrill’s name boosted circulation, and newspapers all over the country picked up these stories, in the process further spreading his fame. In 1882 the Cleveland Leader introduced an article by sourly warning readers that it contained “The Semi-Annual Statement That the Great Guerrilla Still Lives.”
The most credible “sighting” of Quantrill occurred in 1907, when a businessman named J. E. Duffy encountered a beachcomber named John Sharp on the sands of Vancouver Island, in British Columbia. Duffy had served in the Union cavalry during the war and claimed that his unit had clashed with Quantrill’s band. He thought he recognized his old adversary in Sharp and spent several hours urging him to admit his true identity. Sharp finally relented and displayed an encyclopedic knowledge of Quantrill’s military career. He even had a scar on his back, at the shoulder blade, which roughly corresponded to the location of Quantrill’s last wound. He wept bitter tears at Duffy’s descriptions of the deaths of various old comrades. “When John’s sober, his name is Sharp,” one local commented, “but when he’s drunk he’s the cruel Quantrell.” Duffy failed to heed the gibe and subsequently gave an interview to a Canadian newspaper about his remarkable find. The story spread like wildfire and was reprinted in newspapers all over America.
On October 1 two Americans, allegedly from Lawrence, Kansas, arrived on Vancouver Island, made their way to Sharp’s shack, and beat him with a fireplace poker and the butt of a shotgun. He died the next day. His killers were never apprehended. After the Sharp story surfaced, the Kansas State Historical Society took the bones off display, but for the next eighty years curious visitors were allowed to handle them. Because the shinbones were long mislabeled as from the thigh, many remarked on how short Quantrill must have been. Actually he was five nine.
In 1982 a Quantrill buff named Mark Dugan overcame the mockery and reluctance of Dover politicians and placed a U.S. government-issued tombstone on the unmarked grave. For a century after his death Quantrill had been considered a black sheep by most Doverites, and even at this late date a local priest adamantly declined to perform a burial ceremony for “that bastard,” so a visiting priest from a neighboring community who possessed conveniently little knowledge of Civil War history was recruited.
In 1989 the Kansas legislature passed a law requiring museums in the state to appropriately divest themselves of Indian bones, and the anthropologists at the Kansas State Historical Society seized the opportunity to rid the collections of the many human bones of all races that they had accumulated over the years.
The Dover Historical Society’s trustees agreed to bury Quantrill’s bones, along with his skull, in his Dover grave. This appealed to the Kansas State Historical Society officials, but officers of the Missouri Sons of Confederate Veterans were outraged that the ceremony was to be brief and attended by invitation only. “They’re practically going to bury the bones at midnight,” one Son complained. The Sons went to work lobbying and cajoling the KSHS bureaucrats and won the bones, but the Doverites would not relinquish the skull.
The Sons buried Quantrill’s five bones and a vial containing a lock of his hair with “full military honors” on Saturday, October 24, 1992, at 10:00 A.M., at the Confederate Memorial Cemetery, Higginsville, Missouri. Six hundred people attended, some in period costumes. Inside the small white clapboard chapel, sitting on a bier, was a casket made from one-inch-thick hand-hewn oak boards. Inside it, the vial of hair and each of the bones were individually encased in museum-grade, acid-free plastic bubble-wrap.
Draped over the casket was a Confederate flag. I became aware that sitting in the second row of the chapel was a five-man squad in dress uniform from a nearby military academy, including one teenage African-American, the only one of his race in the entire crowd. Before the war Quantrill had belonged to a gang of “border ruffians” who stole slaves and ransomed them back to their owners, and during the war his men were especially quick to murder any blacks captured in Federal uniform. So I found myself wondering how much of the Quantrill story this teenager knew and what his thoughts were.
An honor guard of the 5th Missouri Infantry, C.S.A., in full Confederate regalia, posted the colors on either side of the casket as dozens and dozens of cameras flashed and video cameras whirred. Father Hugh Behan gave a scriptural reading, and a young man sang “Hallowed Ground” in a lovely tenor voice, accompanying himself on the guitar.
Some people had criticized the idea of burying an “evil” man in the cemetery, but in his homily Father Behan, a self-described pacifist with a profound interest in American history, warned against judging historical figures outside the context of their times and retroactively applying “our understanding of morality and ethics, of Tightness and wrongness, back into another century.”
In his eulogy Robert Hawkins III, an attorney and the commander in chief of the Missouri division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, answered those who thought Quantrill’s bones should have gone to Dover. “We do not wish him buried where people are ashamed of him, where no one remembers or cares to recall the brutality of a partisan warfare that created men like Captain Quantrill and those who rode with him. … He belongs here—here, with those who were truly his people.” Referring to the Confederate flag draped over the casket, Hawkins remarked that “it is very difficult to overcome the wrenching away of our flag by the media who give it over to the use of hate groups who have no right to it. … Let several hundred of us meet for a memorial service and we are lucky if there is mention in local newspapers, but let five persons don sheets and hoods and dare to use this flag, and their image with the flag prominently displayed will be on the front page of newspapers from coast to coast.”
The pallbearers, all but one of whom were direct descendants of Quantrill’s raiders, wheeled the casket outside and down to the grave. Father Behan read the Roman Catholic funeral liturgy for a committal service and spontaneously prayed for an end to hatred, bigotry, and divisiveness.
At the end of the half-hour ceremony, a twenty-one-man squad of the 5th Missouri Infantry fired three volleys, and the casket was lowered into the grave. Some re-enactors had proposed rushing out of the woods at this moment, firing pistols and spurring their horses and depositing a single reverential rose on the casket, but Commander in Chief Hawkins had nixed the idea. He had also forbidden the presence of an artillery unit. As he explained to me later, “We don’t claim to be press experts, but our experience is that when you have cannons show up, all the pictures are of the cannons. And we wanted the focus to be on the grave, not on people charging up on horseback from the brush, not on cannons.” But he had not counted on a woman in period costume plunging forward as the casket disappeared below the surface to place a black flag on its lid. (There is an old myth that Quantrill’s band used a black flag as a standard.) Hawkins invited anyone who cared to to throw a handful of dirt into the grave.
Present at the graveside was a pleasant, obviously sincere young man who claimed to be Quantrill’s great-greatgrandson. There are at least fourteen families around the country professing to be linear descendants of Quantrill; however, there is no hint of evidence that he sired any children. This fellow had recently learned of the supposed lineage from the ramblings of a dying elderly relative, yet he was instantly accepted by the Missouri Sons and had been chosen as one of the pallbearers. After the service several women in period costumes fluttered around him, giddy and gushing, as if he were a Hollywood celebrity. The casket maker ceremoniously presented him with a chip of wood and a bent nail left over from his handiwork.
After the crowd departed, bags of cement were opened and dumped over the casket so that seeping rainwater would form a solid crust over it to deter would-be grave robbers, and the grave was rilled in.
Six days later Quantrill’s skull was buried in a thirty-bytwenty-two-inch white fiberglass child’s coffin. Only twenty-two people were present, including two men and three children who lived on the borders of the cemetery and had wandered up, drawn by the small crowd.
At that service Father Michael Carter led the singing of the first verse of “Amazing Grace” and then read the standard Catholic funeral liturgy and squirted a jet of holy water over the coffin from a small plastic squeeze bottle.
A hole had been dug three feet down in the Quantrill grave; it was feared that going deeper might uncover the bones buried in 1889 and thus potentially trigger lawsuits from Quantrill family descendants. The gravediggers lowered the coffin by hand, shoveled in the dirt, and went their way.
The wax head remains in the refrigerator. Not long ago someone slammed the door on it, mashing the end of the nose. A number of long, wide cracks have appeared in the wax, like ugly scars. At the society’s annual Christmas party the head is always festooned in seasonal red and green ribbons, and last year someone suggested sticking a wick in it and using it as a giant candle. The head is brought out now and again to adorn some festive occasion, and it is increasingly deemed to be hilarious.
Alive, Quantrill terrified tens of thousands, but the passage of time has taken away much of his stature and diminished his reputation to the point where he is a source of levity to the descendants of his boyhood friends and neighbors.