A public meeting in Lecompton on Sunday was marred by bitter partisan division, accusations of voter fraud, arguments about guns and troubling examples of violence in American society.
Those might sound like current issues today, but this meeting at the Constitution Hall State Historic Site was actually a re-enactment of an 1850s town hall meeting. The major issue of the time was slavery, the politicians who came to debate it were often armed to the teeth, and northeastern Kansas was a powderkeg about to explode into a cycle of revenge killings known as the Bleeding Kansas era.
The re-enactment, a historical play called "Kansas Territorial Characters," is one of two written by J. Howard Duncan and regularly performed by the Lecompton Re-enactors, an acting troupe associated with the Kansas Historical Society. Duncan wrote the play based on historical records from the period of 1854 to 1861, and it is designed for middle school audiences.
Sunday's performance brought Constitution Hall back to life, re-creating a time when Lecompton was the seat of government for territorial Kansas. In the 1850s, the hall was the place where the governor, senators from Kansas and Missouri, and area residents debated politics, including whether Kansas should be a free state or a slave state.
Many came armed with guns and knives, and death threats were routine. Abolitionist John Brown, played by Alan Shirrell, of Tecumseh, interrupted the meeting brandishing a crude spear made from a Bowie knife. Douglas County Sheriff Sam Jones, who during the 1856 Sack of Lawrence burned the downtown hotel later rebuilt as The Eldridge, was there, too, played by Paul Bahnmaier, of Lecompton.
"Traitors should be hung," was a typical comment shouted from the back of the room, directed at any speaker.
In the Bleeding Kansas era, this was politics as usual. Two governments existed in Kansas, one free-state and the other pro-slavery, and each accused the other of starting the violence. At times on Sunday, the rhetoric was extreme: Kansas Sen. Jim Lane closed his speech by calling for all Missouri slavery supporters to have their throats cut.
Lane was played by Tim Rues, administrator of the Lecompton historic site, who said the abolitionist senator was not speaking figuratively.
"His solution was, basically, 'kill them all,'" Rues said.
The play shows the consequences of the violence, too. A widowed settler, played by Charlene Winter, of Lecompton, wept as she recounted how John Brown killed her husband and two of her sons. Brown was also accused on Sunday of kidnapping a man, shooting him in the head, cutting open his chest, and cutting off his left hand.
"This is the most evil place I have ever heard of," Winter said.
The Lecompton Re-enactors perform about 35 times a year for schools or tour groups visiting the Lecompton historic site. Some of the local actors actually portray their own ancestors from the area.
Audience members are encouraged to participate as if they were attending the meeting as Kansas residents of the time. Of about 40 spectators Sunday, several took the opportunity to interrupt speakers by hooting, hollering or calling them "criminals."
Todd Fertig, of Topeka, and his son Carter, 12, were in the audience but not doing much shouting. Fertig said he knew the broader story of Bleeding Kansas and came to the show partly because movies such as "Lincoln" had put history on his mind.
"The specific characters bring it to life," he said. "I wasn't familiar with the individuals."
Three more performances of "Kansas Territorial Characters" will be given in the next few months, on March 3, April 7 and May 5. Each is on a Sunday at 2 p.m. at Lecompton Constitution Hall, 319 Elmore St. Admission is $3 for adults, $1 for students, and free for children under 5 and members of the Kansas Historical Foundation.
For more information about those performances or the Constitution Hall State Historic Site, call Rues at 785-887-6520 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.