Kansas Territory was notorious for its outlaw element during the late 1850s. The town of Leavenworth was no exception and had more than its fair share of desperados making trouble in one fashion or another. Many were horse thieves, robbers and murderers. Of course, there were sheriffs, deputy sheriffs and U.S. marshals around to provide very good law enforcement, but even at that, they were sorely outnumbered by the sometimes troublesome outlaws. So local citizens were known to take the law into their own hands at times.

One such incident took place in Leavenworth on July 31, 1857, after James Stephens was murdered and robbed of $108. It was reported that two thugs named John Quarles and W.M. Bayes caught Stephens alone down by the river and proceeded to make short work of him. The perpetrators were taken into custody by the law and locked up in the pokey to await trial. But the trial was never allowed to take place as the townsfolk jumped in and took over.

The people had become so fed up with the series of crime sprees taking place across Leavenworth that they gathered by the hundreds in front of the jail and demanded the two murderers.

Judge Samuel D. Lecompton and the U.S. marshal pleaded with the mob of more than 1,000 citizens, but their pleas to wait for a fair trial and the observance of law and order were all in vain, to say the least.

The police were finally hustled out of harm’s way as the mob stormed the jail with a battering ram to bust down the locked door. They took Quarles first from his cell to the sawmill where they threw a rope over a limb of an old elm tree. Whoever placed the hangman’s noose over his head did a poor job of adjusting it properly, and when the accused murderer dangled free from his horse, Quarles managed to grab the rope with his hands, thus saving himself from instant death. That caused the crowd to become quite noisy, but according to a newspaper account at the time, a rather stout and heavy-set ruffian jumped up in the air and latched onto Quarles’ feet, and thus snapped the neck of the accused murderer. The mob then returned to the jail for the second man, but were confronted with a little more resistance from the authorities, and Bayes’ wife had arrived and she pleaded and fought to save her husband. But once again, they were no match for the angry Leavenworth citizens. Bayes was hustled off to the same elm tree down by the sawmill, where he swung freely with a little less drama this time.

Deplorable as those lynchings were, it seemed to have the desired effect on the neighborhood lawless element, and the crime spree settled down for awhile in the border town.

The first legal hanging in Leavenworth County, according to the records of the Kansas State Historical Society, occurred on Feb. 13, 1863, a couple of years after statehood.

Judge Lecompton sentenced Carl Horn to be hung by the neck until dead for the murder of Charles Freund. A gallows was erected on the lawn of the county jail, a school holiday was called and most people in Leavenworth gathered on the grass, in the streets and on roof tops, some even packing a picnic lunch to watch the public hanging. An order was also issued by Col. Burris of the Eighth Kansas Volunteers directing a company of men to report to Sheriff Alexander Repine for police duty to maintain order during the hanging.

Ref: “Tales of Old Leavenworth,” by J.H. Johnston III

To reach Ted W. Stillwell send email to Ted@blueandgrey.com or call him at 816-896-3592.