A Risky Mission

In commemoration of the 155th anniversary of the capture, trial, and rescue of Kansan physician John Doy, KHC is featuring excerpts from “John Doy’s Escape” Shared Stories of the Civil War reader’s theater script. The Shared Stories of the Civil War reader’s theater project is a partnership between KHC and the Freedom’s Frontier National Heritage Area.                                                                              

Joseph Gardner. Image courtesy of kansasmemory.org, Kansas Historical Society, Copy and Reuse Restrictions Apply.

Joseph Gardner. Image courtesy of kansasmemory.org, Kansas Historical Society, Copy and Reuse Restrictions Apply.

Abbott’s mission was top secret.  He assembled nine men, including Charles Doy, in two horse-drawn wagons armed with three sporting rifles, 15 revolvers, and five knives. On July 22, they left Lawrence at 5 p.m. and headed east to Elwood, located across the river from St. Joseph. Posing as penniless gold scavengers from Colorado, the men rode the ferry across the Missouri River into St. Joseph on the morning of July 23. They separated. Abbott introduced himself to Dr. Edwin H. Grant, the editor of the only anti-slavery paper in St. Joseph, the Free Democrat, and inquired about John Doy’s state.

[Grant] told us further, that he was in the habit of visiting Doy in his cell as often as once a week, to take him papers from among his exchanges.  When I became satisfied of Grant’s reliability, I told him the object of our visit, and made known to him our plans . . .

Abbott told Dr. Grant that at eleven o’clock at night, the rescuers would pretend to be transporting a horse thief to the jail, and once let inside, would free Dr. Doy from his cell. Dr. Grant then arranged for the procurement of boats, which the rescuers would take across the Missouri River to safety. As Abbott and Dr. Grant prepared a safe escape route through St. Joseph after the capture, Silas Soule investigated the jail that housed Dr. Doy.

[Soule] informed the jailer that he had a verbal message from Mrs. Doy to her husband, Dr. John Doy, who he understood was a prisoner in the building. The jailer, Mr. Brown, immediately led the way to the door of the room where the Doctor was confined, and threw open the outside or heavy oaken door, leaving the iron-gated door between the Doctor and Soule. After the usual greetings, Soule informed the Doctor that . . . Mrs. Doy wished him to say to the Doctor that his friends had given up all hopes of obtaining his release through the courts, and that undoubtedly in a few days he would be sent to the penitentiary in accordance with the sentence of the court . . .           

After Soule had given his message, he succeeded in prolonging his time by giving bits of news, scandal, etc., until he had made a tolerable good survey of the premises, and succeeded in turning the attention of the jailer away from him long enough to pass to Doy, through the grates, a ball of twine and a paper, on which it was written: “To-night, at twelve o’clock.” He then bade the doctor good-bye, and thanking the jailer for his courtesy, hurried back to make his report, which was, that with the best implements that we could get, it would take at least two hours of unmolested hard work to get through the doors into the room where Doy was confined.

James B. Abbott, “The Rescue of Dr. John W. Doy,” 1889.

In spite of Soule’s doubts, the group was not discouraged. By 9 p.m. that evening, a violent rainstorm began, and the streets of St. Joseph were deserted. Around midnight, S. J. Willis — disguised as a sheriff  — knocked loudly on the door of the jail, and the jailer emerged from the second floor window in a nightshirt.

Jailer: Who’s there?  What do you want?

Willis: We’re from Andrew County, and we’ve got a prisoner we want to put into jail for safe keeping. Come down quick.

Jailer: Who is he?

Willis: A notorious horse-thief.

Jailer: Have you got a warrant?

Willis: No, but it’s all right.

Jailer: I can’t take a man in without authority.

Willis: If you don’t, it’ll be too bad; for he’s a desperate character, and we’ve had hard work to catch him. We’ll satisfy you in the morning that’s all right.

John Doy, The Narrative of John Doy, 1860.

At this the jailer suggested that “he guessed they had the right man,” and agreed to lock him up. Tom Simmons played the role of the thief (having his hands securely bound with the cord of a sling shot, holding the lead ball of the deadly weapon in one hand) while Joseph Gardner and S.J. Willis were his guards. The trio passed inside where the jailer unlocked the grated door and stood aside for the prisoner to walk in. He objected to entering, saying that he would not occupy the same cell with Negroes. He was assured that the “niggers” were all kept in another room, at the same time in order to reassure him the jailer stepped inside the door himself. At that instant he was confronted on one side by a big knife and revolver on the other.

Theodore Gardner, “An Episode of Kansas History: The Doy Rescue,” 1928.

Willis: Have you got old Doy, the abolitionist, in here?

Jailer: Doctor Doy is here.

Willis: That’s the man we have come for. Friend, we have deceived thee until now, but it was necessary for our purpose. We have not come to put a man into prison, but to take out of it one who is unjustly confined.

John Doy, The Narrative of John Doy, 1860.

Do you think the rescue party was justified in breaking John Doy out of prision?  Why or why not? Look for the ninth blog post tomorrow!