- 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
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.”