On the night of May 24, 1856, John Brown and his company of Free State volunteers murdered five men settled along the Pottawatomie Creek in southeastern Kansas. The victims were prominently associated with the pro-slavery Law and Order Party, but were not themselves slave owners. This assault occurred three days after Border Ruffians from Missouri burned and pillaged the anti-slavery haven of Lawrence, and two days after Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner was severely beaten by Senator Preston Brooks of South Carolina. The action on the 24th occurred at three different houses:
At the Doyle farm, James and two of his sons, William and Drury, were dragged outside and hacked up with short, heavy sabres donated to Brown in Akron, Ohio. Mrs. Doyle, a daughter, and fourteen year old John were spared. The gang then moved on to Allen Wilkinson's place. He was 'taken prisoner' amid the cries of a sick wife and two children. Two saddles and a rifle were apparently confiscated. The third house visited that night was owned by James Harris. In addition to his wife and young child, Harris had three other men sleeping there. Only one of them, William Sherman, was executed. Weapons, a saddle, and a horse were confiscated from the house. While members of the rifle company, including four of Brown's sons, asserted that their Captain did not commit any of the actual murders himself, he was the undisputed leader and made the decisions as to who should be spared.