Replica Head of Confederate Raider Quantrill
"It is nothing more than a curiosity."
Dover City Historical Society President Jim Nixon is conflicted when he discusses the replica human head in his care. He would like nothing better than to see it vanish or destroyed, yet he is honor-bound to protect it.
The replica head, like the man who it is sculpted to resemble, is loved by some, and hated by all the rest. It's somehow fitting that the reconstructed countenance of William Clarke Quantrill, Civil War raider, continues to vex its keepers at the Dover Carriage House Museum. Site managers Jim and his wife have probably disciplined themselves to suppress audible groans when yet another Civil War buff or student calls and asks to see the head.
What makes Quantrill's head our kind of attraction, aside from being an odd Confederate artifact in the Union state of Ohio, is that the Society stores it in a vintage refrigerator, alongside a bottle of ketchup and other condiments. The wax sculpture was found to be sweating and softening during warm summer months, and the fridge was a convenient way to assure its preservation.
The head isn't shown on regular tours unless someone asks.
"Very few people are familiar with Quantrill," explains Jim. "It would require a lengthy explanation. It's not a ninety second talk. THIS is not the focus of our existence. It is, quite honestly, a very small part of what we do."
Captain William Quantrill was a terrorist, or freedom fighter against an occupying force, depending on your perspective. He conducted a merciless guerilla campaign behind Union Lines, from Kansas to Kentucky, in what was called the Border War. Quantrill's Raiders ambushed supply wagons, destroyed telegraph lines, raided farms, and killed plenty along the way. Quantrill was shot by Union troops in 1865 near Taylorville, Kentucky, and died in a hospital in Louisville on June 6, 1865. The 27-year old hero of the Confederacy was buried without fanfare in an unmarked grave, in what later became known as St. John's Cemetery, Louisville.
In 1887, a newspaperman and Quantrill's boyhood friend, William W. Scott, dug up the grave at the prompting of Quantrill's mother, a Dover school teacher. He brought the bones back home. Or at least some bones. Experts believe more remain in Kentucky. And what guerilla leader worth his salt is buried in only two places? A Quantrill grave in a Confederate cemetery in Higginsville, Missouri holds still more fragments.
In Dover, Quantrill remains were buried in the Fourth Street Cemetery in 1889 -- maybe. No one knows what was in the box that went into the ground. Scott kept the bone fragments and the skull for himself, unsuccessfully attempting to sell it over the years -- in secret so he wouldn't hurt Mrs. Quantrill's feelings.
After Scott's death, his son gave the skull to a club formed by a group of Dover teenage boys, which later became the Zeta Chapter of the Alpha Pi fraternity. The skull was shellacked and named "Jake." From 1905 to 1942, the skull was part of a fraternity initiation rite, a candle lit ceremony where inductees would touch the skull, and then dip their hand into a cauldron of molten lead (hot water coated with aluminum powder paint). In 1972, an aging alumnus of the fraternity donated it to the Dover Historical Society.
In the early 1990s, it was finally time to bury Quantrill. Prodded by the Missouri division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, the Kansas State Historical Society negotiated with Dover, and managed to get three arm bones, two shin bones, and some hair. They buried them under a simple headstone, with full military honors, on Oct. 24, 1992 at the Old Confederate Veteran's Home Cemetery in Higginsville, Missouri, where six of his raiders rest.
The skull stayed in Dover -- buried in a plastic child's casket at the Quantrill family plot on Oct. 30, 1992. The casket was surrounded by concrete to prevent theft. A marker had been donated by the Sons of the Confederacy in the 1980s.
While the skull was above ground, the Kent State anthropology department made a cast and reconstructed Quantrill's facial features. The University has one stuck in a box, somewhere; the other sits in the fridge in Dover.
The refrigerator is a 1929 General Electric model, used for emergencies, "if we have a banquet or something." The head has been dressed up for parties, and suffered a flattened nose after someone slammed the fridge door on it.
Worried that the fridge might break and the skull would melt? Jim says, without hesitation, "That'd be wonderful."
Jim is tough on the old wax guy, calling it more of a burden than an asset for the historical society, but we also catch him referring to it as "Bill" occasionally. "Our own board has very mixed feelings on the subject. Some people think it's kinda neat, kinda fun, and others think the whole thing's disgusting, and we should forget about this guy. He was a scoundrel as far as Northerners are concerned. His own aunts in town would not mention him; would not admit that he was a relative."
The museum needs visitors, and money, and there is plenty of history to see during the Mansion guided tour, which costs $6. But the fridge and the head are in the Carriage House, which is free -- a double whammy for frustrated Jim. If it were up to us, we'd move the fridge over to the Mansion -- and charge an extra dollar for a peek inside. Lincoln + Washington = Quantrill. Jim jokes that the Society might as well "set up a beverage stand" if it followed that path and, you know, that's not such a bad idea....