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Voices from 1863 raid on Lawrence sound anew on Twitter

Updated: 2013-08-22T04:30:25Z

By EDWARD M. EVELD

The Kansas City Star

— So quiet at the start, much like the town of Lawrence 150 years ago early in the morning on Aug. 21. The sun would be up soon, and the massacre would begin.

“I heard sirens coming in on Sixth Street,” said Debra Karr, breaking the quiet as she and other re-enactors arrived and set up their computers. “I was a little freaked out.”

Her jumpiness was understandable considering what was about to happen in the expansive main hall of the Carnegie Building in downtown Lawrence:

The chronicling of Quantrill’s raid, the town’s Pearl Harbor, or maybe closer, its 9/11.

Looking down from high on the walls were images of William Clarke Quantrill, Jim Lane and John Speer, all of whom were about to speak.

But there were no costumes, no weapons, no historically correct props and sets. Just Twitter — #QR1863 — fueled by passion and research.

Wednesday marked the day in 1863 when Confederate guerrilla leader Quantrill and 400 of his riders, up to here with vengeance and alcohol, set Lawrence on fire and killed perhaps 200 men and boys in four furious hours.

Sitting at round tables, some three dozen re-enactors told the story on Twitter, moment by moment and all at once.

“First dispatch,” announced Cody Howard at 6:08 a.m. Howard was the dispatcher and timekeeper. He announced major events to the group and posted them on Twitter under @1863dispatch.

“Reports coming in of a large group of men on horses spotted at the Miller farm southeast of Lawrence,” Howard called out.

A tweet from Quantrill: “WE RIDE! BURN LAWRENCE TO THE GROUND! DEATH TO JAYHAWKERS!”

Howard said the idea to tweet the raid on Lawrence first came up several years ago around the time of the anniversary. He was working for a Lawrence TV news team then, and he and others who covered the cop beat came up with a query: “Can you imagine what we would be hearing if we were listening to the police scanner back then?”

And then, what if there were social media at the time? Christine Metz Howard of the Lawrence Convention and Visitors Bureau was involved in that discussion and spearheaded Wednesday’s community Twitter project as part of the 150th commemoration.

“One of the goals of this was to give a very personal story of Quantrill’s raid so people can connect with it,” said Metz Howard, who is married to Cody. “These were wives and mothers who lost their husbands and sons. Those killed were some of the town’s rising stars.”

The devastation was complete: a company of unarmed Army recruits nearly wiped out, 85 widows and 250 fatherless children left behind, most of the commercial district burned along with many homes.

What Twitter allowed in re-enacting the raid, Metz Howard said, was an abundance of perspectives and characters, in this case about 50.

The people who researched and played them — some tweeted as several characters — included theater people, history professionals, community members and even descendants of the 1863 participants. They drew from a rich record of letters, diaries, newspaper accounts and books.

Many stories of the massacre are well-documented, but exact times of certain events weren’t always known. Participants agreed on a timeline and stuck to it. They had been prepared to get rolling at 5 a.m., until our daylight saving time was noted; 6 a.m. was more accurate in relation to the sunrise. No one argued for the earlier time.

Ric Averill, the Lawrence Arts Center’s artistic director of performing arts, played Quantrill as well as compatriots Bill Anderson, Frank James and Larkin Skaggs, the only Quantrill rider to die there.

“It’s really like a big role-playing game,” said Averill, who has done extensive research on this era and these men. “It’s almost like an acting improvisation. This is using Twitter as a theatrical art form.”

As “Bloody Bill” Anderson, who ended up felling 14 men, he tweeted his kills with exuberance.

Shortly after 7 a.m., @banderson1863 posted, “SIX, SEVEN, EIGHT! More houses up this way across the ravine.”

The married team of Lindsey Slater and George Diepenbrock played the married characters the Rev. Hugh Fisher and his wife, Elizabeth.

Theirs is one of the raid’s most famous stories, underscoring the point that the women were heroes that day, doing all they could to hide their men from Quantrill’s shooters.

Jim Lane, a U.S. senator and chief target of the raid for his participation in a Jayhawker attack in Osceola, Mo., survived by hiding in a cornfield. Fisher initially fled but then returned to the house to huddle in the cellar.

Until the house was set ablaze. The wily Elizabeth kept the raiders at bay and finally got her husband out of the burning house by concealing him in a carpet.

“A piece of the floor just burned and fell about a yard from me,” Hugh Fisher tweeted from his hiding place.

“I hope what people take away is how Lawrence was able to rise up from such a terrible disaster,” said Diepenbrock, as himself. “I think that spirit survives today.”

There were many stories of tragedy and survival.

Abby Magariel with the Watkins Community Museum of History played Jetta Dix, who thought she had persuaded two guerrillas to spare the life of her husband, Ralph, when a third decided otherwise.

“The villain fires,” said Dix in a tweet. “Ralph is shot.”

Magariel drew her character from research by Pat Kehde, a Lawrence resident and descendant of Dix.

“Jetta is really a tragic character,” Magariel said. “She loses everything.”

Karr, an instructor of Italian at the University of Kansas, played Italian immigrant Mark V. Migliario, who tweeted in Italian, and Fannie Ross, a 12-year-old whose story is known from an interview in a 1939 Kansas City Star article.

“I sort of channeled Laura Ingalls Wilder and Anne Frank to create her character,” Karr said.

Chris Nelson played Charles Robinson, the former Kansas governor who hid in his barn atop Mount Oread. Robinson had the best view of the entire raid, Nelson said.

“The raiders move like cogs in a clock,” a Robinson tweet said. “Door to door, shot to shot, torch to torch. Unending, unyielding, ticking away. Time stops.”

There were light-hearted moments in the Twitter room Wednesday. One came when an unsanctioned character appeared on the feed, @horse1863, posting from a horse’s perspective.

No one seemed to mind too much. After all, in the room was Brittany Keegan, curator at the Watkins Museum, who took on the “character” of the cornfield where Lane hid during the raid. Her Twitter name was @lanecrackscorn.

“I just invited @horse1863 to come hang out in the field if he needs to hide,” Keegan said.

Success? The re-enactment trended worldwide on Twitter, something Metz Howard said participants only joked about happening.

“Now that it’s actually happened, it’s mind-boggling,” she said.

They hope the Twitter story will enliven the historical record and serve as an educational tool. Jonathan Earle, KU associate history professor, moderated the Twitter conversation and called such attention to history “exhilarating.”

Mike Gaughan liked what the community project says about Lawrence. A Douglas County commissioner, he played Harlow Baker, who was shot several times in the raid but survived.

“This in some respects is the essence of Lawrence,” Gaughan said. “The technology, the history, the passion for telling a good story.”

READ THE TWEETS

See the re-enactment of Quantrill’s Raid on Twitter, #QR1863, and on 1863Lawrence.com. The Twitter story also will be compiled on Storify.com/1863Lawrence.

To reach Edward M. Eveld, call 816-234-4442 or send email to eeveld@kcstar.com.

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