- 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 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.
When John’s sober, his name is Sharp,” commented one local who knew the man, “but when he’s drunk he’s the cruel Quantrell.”
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.