PROGRAM NOTES: Moxie Theatre invited me to dramaturge its latest production. My notes for the program grew beyond its confines, so I decided to present them here.
Kate Walat’s Bleeding Kansas begins in 1855, the year Walt Whitman wrote, “Democracy is a great word whose history…remains unwritten because that history has yet to be enacted.”
The play’s set in one of our country’s most tempestuous periods: the Kansas Territory between 1855 and 1856. Abolitionists, Free Staters, and proslavery forces took up arms. It’s a story, writes historian Thomas Goodrich, about “blood and fire and war and how Americans learned to hate and kill each other.”
In 1855, the Kansas Territory was headed for statehood. But which kind? Free or proslavery? Kansas had become a free territory on March 6, 1820.
Southern states demanded “popular sovereignty.” But in order to take hold in Kansas, they had to settle there (and in Nebraska) to qualify as voters. In 1855 proslavery “Border Ruffians” from Missouri and elsewhere began infiltrating the territory. They threatened to rig the ballot box and remain “as long as the whiskey lasts.”
Fearing Kansas could become a slave state, Abolitionists from New England migrated to the region. Fiercely religious, they took intolerant, uncompromising stands against evil. Many brought two kinds of Bibles: the Good Book and “Beecher’s Bibles” — Sharps rifles, in boxes marked “books,” donated by the famous minister Henry Ward Beecher.
Caught in the middle: Free Staters from the North who came to start new lives. Most were against slavery. But many were also racist, not wanting blacks in Kansas.
Free Staters called the Border Ruffians “pukes” but also thought most Abolitionists were, in the words of Thomas Frank, “the kind of folks who, were they alive today, would set the Wall Street Journal howling about political correctness, threats to the Constitution, and elitist, know-it-all meddling in the affairs of others.”
A pro-slaver called Abolitionists “people who keep turning over rocks and making everyone else look at what’s under there or, worse, smell it and touch it. Westerners hate that.”
At stake: Kansas would cast the deciding vote for America. “This is the summit of the mountain,” a reporter wrote for the New York Herald. “The water will fall one way or the other. If it falls to the south, then in a generation or two there will be slaves in Massachusetts, and free labor will be everywhere driven out. If it falls to the north, then the south will be free in the same period of time. But it all depends on Kansas.”
As more and more Abolitionists came to Lawrence, a pro-slaver wrote to the Squatter Sovereign, “Wherever you meet a few men collected together you are sure to hear such expressions as: ‘War to the knife and to the hilt,’ and ‘Let the watchword be extermination, total and complete.’ ”
Sara Robinson, an Abolitionist who had a home on a hill west of Lawrence, wrote: “[It’s] difficult to feel that destruction is sworn against our homes and a price set upon the heads of some dear to us,” including her husband Charles, leader of the Free State movement. “Will they dare, in this nineteenth century, in this boasted land of freedom, to make a raid upon us, crying ‘Extermination and no quarter’?”
On November 21, 1855, a Ruffian shot Charles Dow, a Free Stater. Threats roared, small armies amassed. John Brown and other Free Staters erected barricades in Lawrence. Then winter set in. Everyone went home, and the brief Wakarusa War ceased.
On May 21, 1856, silhouettes of Border Ruffians rimmed the hills around Lawrence. They stormed “Yankeetown,” smashed two printing presses, and demolished the fortresslike Free State Hotel. Then they set homes — even crops — on fire.
The next day, Charles Sumner of Massachusetts gave an impassioned speech on the Senate floor: “[For] the first time in history has an American town been besieged by Americans.”
South Carolina’s Preston Brooks assaulted Sumner with a gutta-percha walking cane. Brooks beat him with such ferocity, Sumner couldn’t return to his senate post for three years.
John Brown was wrapped so tight, people said, the 56-year-old made no sound when he laughed; he just trembled. Incensed at Sumner’s treatment, Old Brown led an attack on a proslavery settlement at Pottawatomie Creek, murdering and then mutilating five men with broadswords.
Henry Pate, whom Brown later took prisoner, said if a man stood “between [Brown] and what he considered right, he would take his life as coolly as he would eat his breakfast.” Brown swore to push his antislavery crusade “to Africa” if necessary.
After the attack at Pottawatomie, Kansas lost a safety zone. You were either Free State or proslavery: no choice — or place to hide.
Southerners had a simple test: where do you stand on the “goose question”? In Jane Smiley’s novel, The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton, a character says: “The goose question is slavery. If you are a proslavery man, then you are sound on the goose. [If not] you got to sound like you [are] or sussss-pissshhhhuns WILL be aroused.”
Thousands of Southerners marched into Kansas. John Brown’s forces battled them, often with guerilla tactics. The territory became, wrote Horace Greeley, “Bleeding Kansas.”
“Here it seems like anything is a reason to kill you,” wrote a correspondent, “disagreement on the slavery question is one thing, but just how you talk or how you look is another, or, maybe just how the killer feels at that moment.”
Even if there were no war, the region itself was hostile. Wanting to populate the territory with Free State voters, Eastern newspapers promised weather that rivaled Eden. Newly arrived Easterners became shocked by the furnace/iceberg extremes and the tornadoes and straight-line winds that could level structures without warning. “Though slavery and violence made the headlines,” writes Thomas Goodrich, “it was the mundane that weighed most on the minds of Kansans.”
Few built adequate homes. The holes between boards (sometimes stuffed with newspapers) let in rattlesnakes during summer and freezing temperatures in winter. At the first cold spell, newcomers left their tents, lean-tos, and mud-walled cabins and sought shelter. “Except for a few small hotels,” writes Goodrich, “accommodations in the territory were virtually nonexistent.” And of those available, lodging was “of the most primitive kind.” One “hotel” was just an A-frame hut.
Strangers became housemates for the winter. “Our bill of fare is limited,” wrote Miriam Colt, who arrived that summer “wide-eyed” with hope: “Over and over again hominy, Johnny cake, Graham pudding, some white bread… Disappointment has darkened every brow. We are as much shut out from the world here as though we were on some lonely island in the oceans.”
Diseases festered. Many died from cholera. Huddled in tight quarters, the new Kansans feared they wouldn’t last the winter. And if they did, come spring they faced devastation.
In this environment, gossip became viral. “One thing I learned,” a woman wrote home, “in K.T. [Kansas Territory] four of every five rumors are true.” It was said a person could believe something one minute and the opposite the next.
Allegiances changed with the weather. In the play Bleeding Kansas, five people with diverse beliefs come to the territory. Strangers become neighbors. Then, caught in the cauldron of history, they hurtle to extremes.
“K.T. was already old with conflicts,” writes Jane Smiley, “that was the sharpest lesson.… It was as if a bride and groom turned to one another at the altar, each expecting the other to be new and young and strong and beautiful, and found instead old age, old acquaintance, old battles, old hatreds. Where else in the whole United States had there been no honeymoon at all, no short space of good feeling? Nowhere else but K.T.”
Smiley has an observation that illuminates Walat’s play. In the novel, a woman complains that K.T. had “coarsened” her. The change wasn’t all that bad, replies Lidie Newton. “In my opinion, K.T. made you see the world as it was. Your actions followed that.”
Frank, Thomas, What’s the Matter with Kansas? (Metropolitan Books, 2004).
Goodrich, Thomas, War to the Knife: Bleeding Kansas, 1854–1861 (Stackpole Books, 1998).
Robinson, Sara T.L. Kansas: Its Interior and Exterior Life (Crosby, Nichols, and Company, 1856).
Smiley, Jane, The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton (Alfred Knopf, 1998).