The history of Leavenworth is about more than beautiful buildings, prisons and antique shops or her place in the great American stories of manifest destiny, Bleeding Kansas, the wild west and Prohibition. Leavenworth has been the stage for some of history's most interesting actors, and all have marked, or been marked by, their time in our town.
The earliest recorded Leavenworth residents are the Kansa Indians and their allies, the French, who traded in this vicinity. Lewis and Clark passed by in July 1804 on their great journey of western discovery. They remarked in their journals that this would be a good site for a city. The Delaware and Kickapoo Tribes once had reservations covering most of today's Leavenworth County, Delaware Chiefs Black Beaver and Panipakuxwe or "He Who Walks When the Leaves Fall" served as scouts and leaders for the Union army in the Civil War.
David Brewer was a gold miner, Sunday School teacher and the first US Supreme Court Justice appointed from west of the Mississippi River. Justice Brewer loved a good story and told some good ones himself. Mark Delahay was a newspaper publisher who made people so mad with his editorials that they chopped a hole through the ice to sink his printing press in the river. Bishop John Baptist Miege was so thrilled to be appointed Bishop to the Wild West that he sent the appointment back and asked the Pope to reconsider, writing that he would be a thousand times more willing to go back to Europe than take on this task. He went on to build a cathedral in Leavenworth that was the largest house of worship in the United States. Mother Xavier Ross was a founder of St. Mary College, St. John Hospital and the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth. She was born Ann Ross, the daughter of a Methodist Minister. She converted to the Catholic faith as a teenager and her brothers used to lock her in the closet to prevent her from attending Mass.
Abraham Lincoln came to Leavenworth in 1859, seeking the Republican nomination for President. After having sparse audiences at earlier meetings he was delighted with his reception in Leavenworth where thousands gathered to hear him speak. He stayed almost a week, sampling the famous Leavenworth beer, converting his hosts to outspoken advocates of abolition and causing the town authorities to close Mrs. Reiley's brothel for the duration of his visit. John Wilkes Booth performed here in 1863 from the same stage Lincoln used. His performance was described as a "thrilling representation of hate, revenge, and ambition combined and intensified".
D. R. Anthony served Leavenworth as mayor, post master, newspaper editor, military officer and horse thief. He was the veteran of many battles, and fought with words as well as weapons. In the Civil War he was executive officer of the 7th Kansas Volunteers under the famous Jayhawker Charles R. Jennison (who also settled in Leavenworth). Anthony shot it out in the street on at least three occasions, once wounded so badly that his sister dropped her speaking tour and came to Leavenworth to nurse him back to health. While Susan B. Anthony was here she ran his paper and gave a boost to Kansas suffragettes. D R. Anthony Jr. was elected to the US House, where he introduced the 19th Amendment to the Constitution which gave women the vote. The family remained prominent in Leavenworth publishing for 63 years.
Horace Greely, the famous New York newspaper editor, came through Leavenworth in 1859. He marveled at the transportation empire of Russell, Majors and Waddell, strolled along the Leavenworth Landing and proclaimed the town destined to become one of the three great urban centers of the United States. His son-in-law settled here on his advice. Hyram Revels II, an early pastor of Leavenworth's historic Bethel AME church, later became the second US African American senator. The church was spiritual home to many Buffalo Soldiers including Benjamin O. Davis, the first African-American US general officer, and Colin Powell.
The prisons in town have kept many well-known criminals off the streets. The Federal Penitentiary has been the home of Kansas City Boss Tom Pendergast, George Machine Gun" Kelly, "Bugs" Moran, Manuel Noreiga, and Leonard Peltier. Their most famous prisoner was Robert Stroud, known in the movies as the "Bird Man of Alcatraz". It's interesting to note that he did all of his bird work here, serving 28 years in Leavenworth, before being transferred to Alcatraz. The Disciplinary Barracks on the fort was the site of the execution of Nazi prisoners of war who murdered other POWs for collaboration. "Rocky" Graziano got his start in boxing while incarcerated there.
Wild West figures were common sites on the streets of Leavenworth in the 1800's. Buffalo Bill Cody is counted as a native son, having grown up in the Salt Creek Valley. His father was killed in the Bleeding Kansas troubles and he used to roam the streets of town with his boyhood friends. He began his career here, working first for Russell, Majors and Waddell, then serving under Anthony in the Kansas Volunteers and finally leaving to work as a buffalo hunter for the Kansas Pacific railroad. Wild Bill Hickok lived in Leavenworth for a time, served with Leavenworth Redleg unit in the Civil War, and rode his horse into a second floor pool hall on a bet. He wrote in his autobiography of meeting Calamity Jane while she was in Leavenworth.
The restaurateur Fred Harvey bought a mansion in Leavenworth at the height of his success and lived here until his death. He created the chain of depot restaurants called the Harvey Houses with their charming waitresses the "Harvey Girls". Harvey was the classic American success story, coming to this country with little but the clothes on his back and rising to great wealth through hard work and a good idea.
The list of Leavenworth residents and visitors who have been touched by fame or infamy could go on and on. Academy Award winning actor Wallace Beery, the glamorous June Haver and British writer Oscar Wilde represent the arts. Professional baseball players Murray Dickson and Del Crandel started their careers here, while the first black heavyweight champion of the world, boxing great John Johnson, ended his as physical education director for the Federal Penitentiary. Generals like Custer, Sherman, MacArthur, Eisenhower, Patton and Powell have walked the streets here, as have Prohibitionist Carry Nation and Abolitionist John Brown, Grammy award winner, singer Melissa Etheridge, actor Richard Sanders ("Les Nessman" of WKRP) and author Tom Oliver (To Watch the River) are current famous faces first seen in Leavenworth.
Come visit historic Leavenworth, either to walk in the footsteps of those who have made history here, or to make a little history of your own while "doin' time"!
Written by: Kelvin Crow