Quantrill’s Bones

PrintPrintEmailEmail

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.

I saw Quantrill’s powder horn and some dime novels. I asked if there was anything else. “Well, we have his head,” said the guide.
 

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: