William Clarke Quantrill was born in Canal Dover, Ohio, in 1837, the son of school teacher Thomas Henry Quantrill. However, his father died of TB in 1854, and his mother was forced to open their home as a boarding house to make ends meet.
The young Quantrill was well educated and had become a teacher, like his father, when he was sixteen, but there was something wild and reckless about him. Soon after his father’s death, he headed for Mendota, Illinois, and a job in the lumberyards, unloading timber from rail cars.
One night while working the late shift, Quantrill shot a man to death. He claimed that the killing had been in self-defence and since there were no witnesses and the victim a passing stranger, Quantrill was released by the authorities but advised that it might be better if he left town.
He briefly taught in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and though he was a good teacher the pay was poor and Quantrill eventually returned to the family home in Canal Dover no richer than when he left.
It was around this time that people were moving to build new lives in the west and Quantrill’s mother persuaded him to join them. If she hoped that this would help him turn his life round then it was in vain because if anything the lawlessness of the west gave him the freedom for even worse behaviour – stealing from fellow settlers, card sharping, cattle rustling and the like.
Politically, Quantrill was anti-slavery and called the pro-slavery Democrats ‘the worst men we have for they are all rascals, for no one can be a democrat here without being one’. But it seems his lawless and avaricious nature changed his point of view. He discovered that there was a profit to be made in capturing runaway slaves for the reward.
In 1860 he wrote to his mother condemning the abolitionists, particularly John Brown saying that hanging had been too good for him.
When the increasingly inevitable civil war broke out in 1861, Quantrill enlisted in the Confederate cause, fighting in the Battle of Wilson’s Creek and Lexington, but he believed that secessionists were not campaigning ruthlessly enough and he deserted to form his own guerilla army with a core of ten desperadoes that included Frank and Jesse James.
Quantrill and his men then set about murder and mayhem across the southern states, but the event for which he is most notorious took place on 21st August 1863.
The town of Lawrence in Kansas was an abolitionist stronghold and a base for the Jayhawkers, the anti-slavery guerillas who were no less bloody than Quantrill’s men. If this wasn’t enough to make the town a target, several female relatives of Quantrill’s group had been held there and killed or badly injured when their makeshift prison collapsed.
Quantrill stuck early in the morning with a force of as many as 450 of his irregulars with orders to kill any man old enough to carry a rifle. In all 183 men and boys were killed, ranging in age from 14 to 90, many dragged from their homes and executed in front of their families. The town was looted and left to burn.
The massacre became infamous and led to bloody reprisals, including the depopulation of several Missouri counties on the Kansas border when tens of thousands of civilians were forced to abandon their homes and the land devastated to prevent them giving succour to other raiders.
Quantrill and his band quarrelled and split into smaller groups, some of them even bloodier than before, such as ‘Bloody Bill’ Anderson’s gang who carried the scalps of slain Unionists on their saddles.
Shortly after the surrender of the Confederate army in April 1865, Quantrill rode into a Union ambush and was shot in the chest. He was taken to the military prison in Louisville, Kentucky, where he died on 6th June.
Quantrill’s legacy is a controversial one. For many in the south he was a hero and his raiders continued their reunion meetings into the 20th century. Others regard him as an opportunistic outlaw and murderer who killed for profit as well as for the cause.
And like many ‘heroes’, it was hard for some to believe that he had died and in 1907 several newpaper articles appeared stating that a member of a Michigan cavalry troop that dealt with Quantrill’s raiders during the Civil War, had met Quantrill at Quatsino Sound, on northern Vancouver Island in Canada.
It is said that Quantrill claimed to have survived his wounds and had gone to live in Chile before returning to the US, working as a cattleman in Texas and Oregon. He arrived in Canada in 1890, he said, and ended up as a mine caretaker in Quatsino, living under the name of John Sharp.
Within weeks of the articles appearing, Sharp was found severely beaten, dying several hours later without giving information about his attackers. The murder was never solved and neither was the mystery of the man claiming to be Quantrill