1863: William Griffith, for the Marais des Cygnes massacre

One of the signal outrages of Bleeding Kansas was avenged with a hanging on this date in 1863.

“Bleeding Kansas” was the guerrilla war over slavery in the late 1850s that presaged the conflagration about to consume the Republic; here on the frontier, pro- and anti-slavery partisans traded atrocities in their respective campaigns to secure Kansas’s imminent entry to the Union as either a slave or a free state. The stakes, had America continued her antebellum course, were vital Congressional votes on which the continuance of the peculiar institution might one day hang.

The naked brutality of the conflict shocked its contemporaries; as one particularly notorious example, the sons of abolitionist crusader John Brown executed pro-slavery captives with broadswords.

The Marais des Cygnes massacre was one of the last major horrors of that conflict: a party of 30 or so pro-slavery men led by Charles Hamilton seized 11 Free-Staters. They were mostly people who knew Hamilton personally, and seem to have gone along without resistance not anticipating what he had in store for them.

But Hamilton had told his men that on this campaign, “we are coming up there to kill snakes, and will treat all we find there as snakes.” (Source)

Much to their chagrin, these “snakes” were driven into a narrow ravine and lined up before Hamilton’s men’s guns. The volleys they delivered before fleeing back over the porous border into equally restive Missouri “only” killed five of their hostages: the other six survived by playing dead.


(Via)

Five years later, one of those survivors, William Hairgrove, supplied the identification that damned William Griffith — whose claim that he only helped capture the Marais des Cygnes victims, and didn’t help shoot them was an especially lame offering at the height of the Civil War.

According to Legal Executions in Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma Including the Indian Territory: A Comprehensive History, Griffith paid the forfeit for his role in the massacre “in a wood west of [Mound City, Mo.] on the opposite bank of Little Sugar Creek” before a crowd of thousands. There,

[a] little after noon Griffith was conveyed to the wood where he stepped onto the wooden platform a few inches above the ground. His wrists, knees and ankles were bound and the noose was adjusted. The black cap was pulled over his face at 1:07 p.m., and in but a moment William Hairgrove, one of the survivors of the massacre, cut the restraining rope with a hatchet; the four hundred pound weight dropped, jerking Griffith upward. The body rebounded and hung motionless while the attending physicians monitored his vital signs, and in twenty-five minutes they pronounced him dead.

Today, the site of the massacre is a U.S. National Historic Landmark. Quaker abolitionist poet John Greenleaf Whittier also memorialized the blood that was shed there in a poem titled “Le Marais du Cygne”:

A blush as of roses
Where rose never grew!
Great drops on the bunch-grass,
But not of the dew!
A taint in the sweet air
For wild bees to shun!
A stain that shall never
Bleach out in the sun!

Back, steed of the prairies!
Sweet song-bird, fly back!
Wheel hither, bald vulture!
Gray wolf, call thy pack!
The foul human vultures
Have feasted and fled;
The wolves of the Border
Have crept from the dead.

From the hearths of their cabins,
The fields of their corn,
Unwarned and unweaponed,
The victims were torn,—
By the whirlwind of murder
Swooped up and swept on
To the low, reedy fen-lands,
The Marsh of the Swan.

With a vain plea for mercy
No stout knee was crooked;
In the mouths of the rifles
Right manly they looked.
How paled the May sunshine,
O Marais du Cygne!
On death for the strong life,
On red grass for green!

In the homes of their rearing,
Yet warm with their lives,
Ye wait the dead only,
Poor children and wives!
Put out the red forge-fire,
The smith shall not come;
Unyoke the brown oxen,
The ploughman lies dumb.

Wind slow from the Swan’s Marsh,
O dreary death-train,
With pressed lips as bloodless
As lips of the slain!
Kiss down the young eyelids,
Smooth down the gray hairs;
Let tears quench the curses
That burn through your prayers.

Strong man of the prairies,
Mourn bitter and wild!
Wail, desolate woman!
Weep, fatherless child!
But the grain of God springs up
From ashes beneath,
And the crown of his harvest
Is life out of death.

Not in vain on the dial
The shade moves along,
To point the great contrasts
Of right and of wrong:
Free homes and free altars,
Free prairie and flood,—
The reeds of the Swan’s Marsh,
Whose bloom is of blood!

On the lintels of Kansas
That blood shall not dry;
Henceforth the Bad Angel
Shall harmless go by;
Henceforth to the sunset,
Unchecked on her way,
Shall Liberty follow
The march of the day.

One thought on “1863: William Griffith, for the Marais des Cygnes massacre”

  1. Amnesty had been issued for all parties involved in massacres for both freestaters and ruffians. According to the Kansas State Historical Society, Griffith only held the mules. Six of the eleven men fired upon, lived. It is most likely the majority of the men killed were killed by the leader, Charles Hamilton who twice ordered the ruffians to open fire and none did. Hamilton himself opened fire. So what happened to Hamilton? He went back East and ran for congress and was elected to the state legislature. Griffith paid for the crimes of all.

    What the Kansas State Historical Society does not know is that my son has sprinkles of red highlights in his hair and he got those from his Great Great Great Grandpa Griffiths wife. Her flaming red hair, reaching down to her waist was the last thing seen as the wagon headed back to Parkville, Missouri with Griffith’s body. Griffith was my Great Great Grandfather. He and his wife had five little girls. Only two lived to adulthood. One of those little girls was my father’s grandmother who lived with my dad while he was growing up. This weekend, on Halloween Eve 2015, is the 148th anniversary of the Hanging of William Griffith. peace.

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