The collapse of a women’s prison 154 years ago led to the bloody Lawrence Massacre

Memorials come and go. But what stays are the stories. The Union Prison Collapse of 1863 set off border guerrilla warfare in the area, culminating in the Lawrence Massacre.

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Harper’s Weekly drawing depicting the Lawrence Massacre.

Collapse of a Prison in Kansas City Led to the Lawrence Massacre 154 Years Ago

By Diane Euston

   August 13th marks the 154th anniversary of the Union Prison collapse during the Civil War that killed four women instantly and was the spark that led to the deaths of innocent men and boys in Lawrence, Ks.

 In what is now the heart of the city at 1409 Grand Ave. near the Sprint Center was the location where a three-story brick building owned by the estate of George Caleb Bingham’s father-in-law. This building was transformed from a tavern into a jail in July 1863.

 Brigadier General Thomas Ewing, who was in charge of the District of the Border (including all of Kansas and western Missouri), was growing desperate to find a solution to the guerilla warfare along the border. It was known that young women in the area, including many living in the area of southern Jackson Co., were aiding bushwhackers, including infamous William Clarke Quantrill.

Border Wars to Civil War

 Jackson County rural farms had been under attack well before the Civil War broke out in 1861. Starting around 1854, anti-slavery bands had begun pouring into the area, pillaging properties and burning homes. Pro-slavery “border ruffians” began to form in small communities and storm into Kansas. The women of the area were left behind, many with their husbands gone “in the brush.” After the Civil War began, these men opted to stay in guerilla bands instead of enlisting into service and continued to invade neighboring Kansas, seeking shelter with allies along the border.

 Wishing to “keep the peace” and find a non-violent solution to a growing problem, Gen. Ewing ordered that Union officers begin arresting young women who were known to be attached to these fearless, violent guerillas. Women during the Civil War were considered to be off-limits, so the arrests came as a surprise to many.

 Nevertheless, young women with bushwhacker ties were found with gunpowder up their skirts and suspicious amounts of cash. They were arrested and held with no bail with the intention of removing them to St. Louis, Mo. where they were to be put on trial. Makeshift prisons around Kansas City had to be erected to hold them. The three-story building at 1409 Grand was chosen to hold about 20 women prisoners.

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Marker at 1409 Grand Ave in downtown Kansas City.

Union Prison Collapse

 The prisoners were held on upper floors, including the third floor that once was George Caleb Bingham’s art studio and was added by the artist himself. Guards were stationed on the main floor and in the cellar. To make extra space available, it was said that the Union removed some support beams of the brick structure.

 Elijah M. McGee was present at Union Prison before it fell. In an affidavit, he swore two or three beams “had been cut away from the girders or center beam” and the remaining building supports “had already sunk some two or three feet.”

 Around dinnertime on August 13th, the building cracked and crumbled to the ground with 17 women, one boy and one guard inside. Four women were killed from being crushed by the collapse and another died days later from her injuries.

 One prisoner, the youngest sister of William “Bloody Bill” Anderson, had been chained to a bed for being disobedient. She suffered a crippling back injury and two broken legs. Charity Kerr, sister of John McCorkle (one of Quantrill’s men), was killed. Susan Vandever and Armenia Whitsett Selvey, cousins of Cole Younger (another member of Quantrill’s men and later a member of the James-Younger gang), were also among the victims. To add insult to injury, another of Bloody Bill Anderson’s sister’s, 15-year-old Josephine, was crushed to death on this fateful day.

Border Ruffians Enraged

 John McCorkle, who lost his sister in the collapse, wrote after the war, “We could stand no more. . . innocent and beautiful girls had been murdered in a most foul, brutal, savage and damnable manner. We were determined to have our revenge.”

 Quantrill and his men were enraged when they heard the news of the death of their allies and family. Taking refuge at farmhouses nearby, Quantrill and his men plotted their revenge. Lawrence, Ks., a Union town with strong ties to the Jayhawkers who had consistently attacked farms in western Missouri, was a perfect target.

 Farms in Washington Township, which includes present-day Martin City, Grandview and Raytown, had suffered serious damage by these Jayhawkers in the past. In March 1863, the Jayhawkers had invaded the area to remove the civilian support of these guerillas.  They used severe tactics, including the burning of homes and execution of many, to get their message across. In “The History of Washington Township” written by historian Harvey H. Kemper, he wrote, “Before the raid [on Lawrence] a small army concentrated in Washington Township which was believed to have been at or near what is now Kernodle’s Park” (just east of Blue River Rd. on Martha Truman Rd).

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William “Bloody Bill” Anderson

Quantrill’s Sack of Lawrence

 Quantrill and his men considered any crime against women- especially Southern, “God-fearing” women- to be a severe, punishable act. Quantrill and the guerillas meticulously mapped their route and headed into Kansas on August 21st, just eight days after the prison collapse. Arriving at dawn with about 400 Confederate guerillas (including McCorkle, Cole Younger, “Bloody Bill” Anderson and George M. Todd, whose father had built the original Red Bridge), they rode into Lawrence with payback on their minds.

 As the men stormed into Lawrence, Quantrill yelled his last order to his men. “Kill every man big enough to carry a gun,” he shouted as he secured four revolvers on his belt.

 The first victim, Rev. Snyder was ambushed near his home as he harmlessly milked his cow. The attack was well-organized; every man had an assignment to carry out. They screamed and shouted as the 400 men swooped through the streets, setting fire to over a quarter of the buildings, homes and barns.

 Rev. Hugh D. Fisher, a Methodist minister who escaped the Lawrence Massacre by concealing himself under a rug, transcribed his eyewitness account in “Gun and the Gospel.” He wrote of numerous events he saw that day, including the murder of John Carpenter. Carpenter, in ill health, had tried to run from his home to escape the guerillas. He was chased by the armed men, and as his wife knew he was certainly going to be caught,  she fell on top of Carpenter and sheltered him in her skirt.

 Rev. Fisher wrote, “She fell with him and again they tore her partially from him and finished their crime by repeatedly turning their revolvers upon him while still she clung to him and begged for mercy and his life.”

The Aftermath of Vengeance

 This repulsive, unrelenting raid became known as one of the most significant and bloody events against civilians during the Civil War. Called “Quantrill’s Raid” or the “Lawrence Massacre,” around 160 to 190 men and boys were murdered. Corpses littered the dusty streets of Lawrence, then a town of about 3,000.

 The Union Prison collapse 154 years ago created the foundation of one of the most unimaginable attacks on innocent civilians in American history. These two inconceivable events steered the course of the war along the border, reminding us even today that hearts were heavy with resentment. There was demand for retribution that seethed on both sides of the state line.


*In the next issue, learn about the highly controversial General Order No. 11, which was in direct response to Quantrill’s Raid on Lawrence and how it devastated the area.

Diane writes a blog about the history of the area. To read the stories, go to


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