It’s the Eldridge Hotel now, but it stands on the site of what was called the Free State Hotel. On May 21, 1856, pro-slavery Missouri militiamen, riding under a red flag inscribed with the words “Southern Rights” sacked Lawrence. Using a cannon, kegs of gunpowder, and eventually an incendiary device they finally reduced the Free State Hotel to a pile of smoking rubble. They also looted the downtown and ransacked the two publishing houses in Lawrence, destroying the presses and throwing the type into the river*.
Technically speaking, the raid was perfectly legal. At least as legal as the raid on David Koresh’s compound in Waco, TX, in this century. Federal Marshal J.B. Donaldson issued an order that declared the abolitionist citizens of Lawrence to be engaged in what we would now call an “insurgency” against the pro-slavery state legislature that Washington, D.C., officially recognized as the legal government in the territory. (Surprise: the government isn’t always on the side of good.) Donaldson approved the “counter-insurgency measures” that ended in the destruction of the Free State Hotel.
It wasn’t the first or last scuffle Lawrence would be involved in. The previous November, the Wakarusa War broke out, following a series of tit-for-tat killings between pro- and anti-slavery camps. The siege on Lawrence that followed ended peacefully, but Lawrence and the most famous participant in the Wakarusa War–abolitionist John Brown–went on to bigger and bloodier things.
Seven years later, William Quantrill would lead more than 300 bushwhackers on a raid into Lawrence. They killed nearly 200 men and boys, many of them unarmed, and burned almost every building in town to the ground, including the Free State Hotel, now known as the Eldridge Hotel.
As for John Brown, well, he went on to start the Civil War. He was a radical, a dangerous man, a brave man, a religious man. An extremist. A terrorist. A visionary. He died just before noon on December 2, 1859, with a noose around his neck. His last wish–denied–was that his wife be allowed to spend a last night with him.
*Legend has it that this ruined press type was later melted down and turned into shot and cannonballs, which were used to fight the Civil War.