silvia tuscano | 26/10/2022

James Burnett Abbott, an abolitionist sceptical about the medicine of his time

December 3, 1818, Hampton, Connecticut, USA – March 2, 1897, De Soto, Kansas, USA, Major

During the guerrilla episodes of the “Bloody Kansas“, he was a comrade-in-arms of Andrew Taylor Still, but he was also the first to induce him to reflect critically on the medicine of the time.

Born in 1818 in Connecticut, he attended school and later the Potsdam and Gouverneur Academies in New York. Initially employed as a teacher, shoemaker and entrepreneur, from 1840 to 1854 he was active in several manufacturing sectors. He worked in the production of cutlery and glasses and became an expert in plating. In 1851 he lost his first wife and the following year married Elizabeth Watrous.

He was one of the first colonists to settle in Kansas; He arrived in the town of Lawrence on October 10, 1854 with the third group of emigrants organized by the New England Emigrant Aid Company and his house, located on the road to Hickory Point, became a meeting point for the abolitionists of the area.

From 1855 he was a Free State activist in Kansas. When he was sent to Boston to procure a load of weapons (a hundred Sharpe rifles and a howitzer gun) he managed to take them adventurously to Kansas territory under assumed name. He sent the weapons on different boats, disassembled and packed. He was said to be dangerous to confront with because he was made of “iron, ice and fire.”1

In June 1855 he traced the borders that would then host the city of Palmyra on a plot of land together with other men, Andrew Taylor Still was one of them.2

On July 4 of the same year, in the city of Lawrence, the Independence Day was celebrated with a big festival and a parade. Nevertheless, everybody was affected by the drastic disagreements between the pro-slavery faction and the the antislavery one. Such a dispute had become even more critical after the Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act. This law decreed that each new annexed state would independently determine whether to allow slavery or not by means of a referendum.

It was becoming more and more clear that the situation would escalate. Along with Captain Saunders, Major Abbott, then thirty-seven, was the commander of an abolitionist troop of eighty men to whom Abbott entrusted the weapons he had previously smuggled.

In addition, secret societies were created that met every week to develop operational strategies. Abram, Andrew, Thomas, John e James Still probably belonged to a militia called Hickory Point Company, whose members would carry nameplates on them on which they had written their name backwards in order to be identified in case of death.

In Autumn 1855 John Brown joined James Lane, an Indiana congressman who had arrived in Kansas to support the Free State. Together they led various guerrilla episodes.

The spark ignited on 21 November 1855, and gave rise to the so-called Wakarusa War. During a quarrel over the ownership of a plot of land, a slave driver named Franklin Coleman killed an unarmed abolitionist named Charles Dow. In retaliation, two abolitionists burned Coleman’s hut, who fled and sought the protection of anti-abolitionist authorities. Perhaps there would have been no consequences if, shortly after the shooting, a man called Jacob Branson had not found Dow’s body in the street and brought it home. The sheriff enlisted a gang of twenty men and arrested Branson, accusing him of threatening a man with pro-slavery convictions. Several abolitionists, fearing that Branson would be hanged, met in Major Abbott’s hut and, while discussing what to do, saw the sheriff pass by with his men and the prisoner. Without hesitation, they blocked the road and got the prisoner back after an exchange of vehement words and a shot accidentally fired by Abbott’s revolver. The sheriff informed the governor that an insurrection was underway and demanded three thousand men to be sent there to bring Branson to justice and arrest those who had freed him.

The city of Lawrence sent an appeal for reinforcements. When at two o’clock in the morning a boy came to the Still house to raise the alarm, informing that many men from Missouri were ravaging the farms, Andrew’s family set out in the woods to go to a neighbor’s house, about a mile away, where the whole neighborhood was gathering to wait anxiously for the arrival of dawn. Terrified of making noise and taking turns in carrying the children, Andrew’s mother, Martha Still, and his two sisters Cassie and Marovia joined the company and arrived safely at the designated building.

They were joined in the early hours of the day by an allied militia, the Hickory Point Company, among whose ranks there was Thomas Still, marching to defend Lawrence. Later in the morning the militia accompanied the Still family back home and Martha went out to take some meat from the smokehouse and feed the men. Just then, an armed gang arrived and told her to go home and send her sons out. The attackers were surprised when not only the Still brothers emerged from the door, but also about twenty of their companions with their guns blazing. They decided to withdraw, but warned that they had targeted Andrew Taylor Still, Major Abbott, and Captain Saunders because they had participated in the liberation of Branson.

Before leaving though, they had challenged them to fight in the evening of that very day in Franklin. The Hickory Point Company, with the support of James Lane’s troops, presented themselves at the appointment and prevailed with relative ease. However, after that episode Andrew Taylor and Major Abbott felt it prudent to hide in the woods for some time.2

Later, Major Abbott commanded the Third Regiment of the Free State Troops during the Sack of Lawrence in 1856, and fought alongside John Brown at Black Jack. He was also a member of the First House of Representatives of Kansas, elected under the Topeka Constitution, and in 1857 became a senator.

In 1859, a certain Dr. John Doy was arrested near Lawrence by anti-abolitionists, who falsely accused him of fleeing slaves and led him to St. Joseph, where he was tried and sentenced to five years in prison. On that occasion Major Abbott organized a team of ten men who became the protagonists of a daring rescue.1

In 1861, after the adoption of the Wyandotte Constitution, Abbott became a member of the Lower House of the Kansas Legislative Assembly. In the same year he moved to DeSoto and was appointed Shawnee Indians agent, a post he held until 1866.

In 1864, when Major General Sterling Price attacked Missouri and Kansas in an attempt to reconquer St. Louis and turn the tide of the Civil War in favor of the Southerners, Abbott led a group of Shawnee Indians who fought against the Confederates.

He was a great worker, a lover of the territory, ready to help others. He did not belong to a specific religious creed, rather he was a man endowed with spiritual and mental independence that brought him to seek the truth. He believed in brotherhood and good works.

He died in De Soto, Johnson County, on March 2, 1897,1 two days before the State of Missouri passed the Osteopathy Act, a circumstance that Dr A.T. Still did not neglect to mention in his speech during the celebrations.

Major Abbott’s fundamental contribution to osteopathy consisted in instilling in the mind of a young A.T. Still the doubt that the conventional medicine of the time could be criticized.

Not only was Major Abbott a man of culture, but he was also an expert in many areas. Shortly after settling in Kansas, he had demonstrated his mechanical skills by building the Blanton Bridge, but he was also a well known naturalist, art collector, inventor and avid reader.

Talking to such a cultured person during the period in which they were forced to remain hidden near the Kaw River was profitable for a 27-year-old A.T. Still,2 who, nevertheless, was astonished when Abbott said to him that one day something would come up that would take the place of allopathy, eclecticism and homeopathy. As the same A.T. Still remembered many years later. At the time though he loved allopathy and trusted its treatment methods, therefore he thought that the Major was a little out of line.3

E.R. Booth, author of the first book on the history of osteopathy, confirms the same anecdote with different words, quoting an article published in 1898 by Colonel Conger. According to this source, Major Abbott, A.T. Still’s fraternal friend, had once told him “Do you know that I have lost all faith in medicine? I am satisfied that it is all wrong, and that the system of drugs, as curative agents, will some day be practically overturned, and some other system or method of curing the sick without drugs will take its place in healing the sick.”

The reminiscences of Colonel Conger continue with another anecdote: one day Major Abbott had gone to Kirksville and had recalled together with Dr A.T. Still and Dr Thomas Still the times when they had been trusted lieutenants of John Brown and Jim Lane. On that occasion they had taken a photo-souvenir and gave it to both the colonel and Mrs Foraker. The latter had mounted the photo together with some other, tying them together with a red, white and blue ribbon, and hanging them on a wall of her cottage. A few months later, Conger and his wife spent a few days in Kirksville and resided in Senator Foraker’s cottage. During their stay they received a visit from Dr A.T. Still, who arrived in a gloomy mood, and when they asked him why he reported some terrible news: Major Abbott had died the day before.

Lifting the photo hanging on the wall underneath the others with the tip of his stick, A.T. Still turned it around to face the wall. When Mrs Conger asked him why, he replied: “it is hard to bear this separation.” Immediately his eyes filled with tears, and putting the photo back as it was: “That was one of the best friends I ever had. He was the first man who put into my head the idea of Osteopathy, or the science of healing without drugs.”4

On the occasion of his 68th birthday celebration, Dr A.T. Still mentioned in his speech that at the time of the “bloody Kansas” he had spoken to Major Abbott about clairvoyance as a curiosity, an attribute that God could instill in human being in the form of a more or less powerful intuition.

The original text of the speech, reported in the Journal of Osteopathy, mansions two episodes in which the Reverend Abram Still, father of A.T. Still, could not ignore a sort of intuition he had, or perhaps it was the voice of Providence, and had changed its plans.

In the first case he had returned home to discover that his bad feeling about a horse was in fact true and the poor animal had died.

On another occasion he had stopped out of the blue in the middle of a sermon and had grabbed the saddlebags to put on the saddle (containing medical equipment) and had thrown himself out the door where he found Jim Bosarth, who had come to call him urgently to examine a boy’s thigh. About fifty people had witnessed this episode, and many wondered how old Dr Abram Still knew when to grab his saddlebags and jump onto the saddle. This is one of the attributes that God puts in man.5

1. Green, L.F. “James B. Abbott of Kansas” Kansas State Historical Society, January 18, 1898. Collections of the Kansas State Historical Society, vol. 6.

2.Trowbridge, C. (1991). Andrew Taylor Still. The Thomas Jefferson University Press, Northeast Missouri State University, Kirksville.

3. “Dr. Still” Journal of Osteopathy, March 1897, vol. 3, n. 8:2.

 4. Booth E.R. History of Osteopathy and Twentieth-Century Medical Practice. The Caxton Press, Cincinnati, Ohio (USA), 1924:45-46.

5.  “Dr. Still’s Address” The Journal of Osteopathy, September 1896, v.3, n. 3:3

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