During the Civil War, there was one name that stood out: William Quantrill. In all the carnage associated with the Civil War, Quantrill earned the title as being the "bloodiest man in the annals of America."
Leader of perhaps the most savage fighting unit in the Civil War, William Quantrill developed a style of guerrilla warfare that terrorized civilians and soldiers alike. He is most remembered for his organization of the raid on Lawrence, Kansas in August of 1863 where over 150 citizens were massacred. Although Quantrill was killed late in the war, he legacy lived on in the lives of Frank and Jessie James, and the Younger brothers who later went on to use the same tactics they learned under Quantrill in their bank robbing sprees.
Quantrill was born in 1837 in Dover to Thomas Henry and Caroline Cornelia (Clarke) Quantrill. He was the oldest of 8 children, 4 of those children dying in infancy. William’s father was a tin smith in Dover and involved in local scandals that included theft and fraud. It is reported that William's father often beat him but his mother doted on him. In reality, William was somewhat of a con-artist and used this trait to his advantage.
After his father died, William made several failed attempts at teaching, first in Dover, then later Illinois and Indiana. Never satisfied with the wages of teaching, he tried gambling, but with no success. Eventually, he made his way back to Dover. His doting mother then made arrangements with a couple local men to buy some cheap land in Kansas for William to own. William was supposed to work off his debt by working on their farms. On Feb. 26, 1857, William left for Kansas with Harmon Beeson and Henry Torrey. They trio settled in Franklin County, Kansas. After a year of trying to make a go of the land, William became restless and wanted to sell his claim, although no meeting of the minds could be reached and the matter went to court. Despite a ruling in his favor, William only received about half of what the court decreed.
Quantrill then tried several different jobs with little success, and then he realized there was money in capturing and returning run-away slaves. Even though he had no strong beliefs one way or another concerning the political discourse going on in the country at the time, he finally decided that he was more pro-south only because it was more profitable.
When the Civil War started, Quantrill joined the Confederate Army. Not satisfied with army life, Quantrill left the army and formed his own band of like-minded renegades that eventually numbered 300. They began looting and killing in Missouri and Kansas, focusing on the non-combative citizens of the state.
Eventually, Quantrill lost his support among Confederate loyalists and he became a wanted man on both sides of the War. With these problems surrounding his actions, he found it difficult to keep his men under control and they tended to go off and commit their own crimes. By 1865 he had only 33 followers left. In May 1865 after the War had finally come to an end, Quantrill was ambushed by federal troops. William Quantrill was shot and died from his wounds on 6th June, 1865.
Quantrill and his followers remained almost folk heroes to their supporters in Missouri even after Quantrill's death. Some of this celebrity later rubbed off on several ex-Raiders -- the James brothers, Frank and Jesse, and the Younger brothers, Cole and Jim -- who went on in the late 1860's to apply Quantrill's hit-and-run tactics to bank and train robbery, building upon his bloody legacy of the western outlaw that remains fixed in the popular imagination.
William Quantrill's Bizarre Burial
Quantrill was buried under a tree in the cottage yard of St. Mary’s Catholic Cemetery in Louisville, Kentucky, but his grave was not marked. The priest feared the grave would be vandalized by his enemies.
In 1887, a boyhood friend of Quantrill’s, William Scott, accompanied Quantrill's Mother to Kentucky. They were shown the burial site and asked to have the grave dug up so Mrs. Quantrill could take the remains back to Dover for reburial. Fearing the legalities of removing the remains, officials denied this request. However, it was agreed the grave would be dug up the following afternoon so the contents could be viewed.
The following afternoon Scott went alone to the cemetery. When the gravedigger finished digging up the grave, Mr. Scott examined the grave. He removed the head and wrapped it in newspaper. The rest of the remains were placed in a box and reburied near the surface. Mr. Scott took the skull and Mrs. Quantrill identified it as her son. Mrs. Quantrill and Scott then hatched a scheme to get the rest of the bones and take them back to Dover. Scott slipped back to the grave site and secretly retrieved the rest of the bones.
After she returned to Dover, she requested the her son’s remains be buried in the family plot. Town fathers resisted the idea of the infamous Quantrill being buried in their cemetery but agreed as long as the ceremony remained private and the grave was not marked. So Scott brought the box to the cemetery, but unbeknownst to Mrs. Quantrill, he had removed the skull, 2 shinbones, 3 arm bones and some hair. Scott later attempted to sell the skull to the Kansas State Historical Society and eventually all 5 bones ended up in their possession. The skull, however, was later sold by Scott’s son. After some rather sordid events, the skull was turned over to the Dover museum where it remained on display until 1992.
In 1882, Quantrill’s grave in Dover received a military marker. His 5 bones and a hair remnant were re-interred at the Old Confederate Veterans Home and Cemetery in Higginsville, Missouri in 1992 with full Confederate honors. On October 30, 1992, the skull of William Quantrill was buried in an infants coffin in the 4th Street Cemetery in Dover.