- 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
Scott wrapped up the skull, carried it back to the hotel, and showed it to Mrs. Quantrill the next morning. She was “much affected.”
“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.