John Brown (1800-1859), the radical abolitionist, remains one of the most controversial figures in American history. Some see him as a principled freedom fighter, others as an outlaw. Brown led Free State forces in Bloody Kansas, which many historians see as a rehearsal for the Civil War, and reached the height of his notoriety in a raid on the Federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in 1859.
Not well known is that three immigrant Jews were among Brown's small band of anti-slavery fighters in Kansas: Theodore Wiener, from Poland; Jacob Benjamin, from Bohemia; and August Bondi (1833-1907), from Vienna. Of the three, August Bondi left the most significant mark on history.
In contrast to Brown, whose ancestors arrived in America on the Mayflower, Bondi's family emigrated to St. Louis in 1848 in the wake of an unsuccessful democratic revolution in Austria. Bondi had been a member of the student revolutionary movement in Vienna, and his idealism carded over to his adopted country. In 1855, he emigrated to Kansas to help establish the Free State movement there.
The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 decreed that in 1855 the settlers in the Kansas Territory would decide by vote whether Kansas would be a slave or free state. Pro-slavery "Border Ruffians" and anti-slavery Free Staters poured into Kansas Territory, hoping to capture the election.
Anti-slavery forces appeared to hold the upper hand, but on election day some 5,000 heavily armed pro-slavery Missourians swarmed into the territory, overwhelmed the polling places, captured the ballot boxes and elected a pro-slavery legislature. Once in control of state government, the pro-slavery forces launched violent attacks against anti-slavery settlers.
John Brown moved to Kansas in 1855, and his anger rose at the mistreatment of the anti-slavery majority. In May 1856, Brown led a raid on a company of Border Ruffians at Pottawatomie Creek and massacred more than a dozen of its leaders. The next day, Brown and his men captured 48 pro-slavery fighters at the Battle of Black Jack, a few miles from Palmyra.
Bondi, Benjamin and Weiner all fought with Brown at Black Jack. In Bondi's account of the battle, which can be found in his papers at the American Jewish Historical Society, he recounts marching up a hill beside Brown, ahead of the other men:
We walked with bent backs, nearly crawled, that the tall dead grass of the year before might somewhat hide us from the Border Ruffian marksmen, yet the bullets kept whistling... Wiener puffed like a steamboat, hurrying behind me. I called out to him, "Nu, was meinen Sie jetzt" Now, what do you think of this?). His answer, "Sof odom muves" (a Hebrew phrase meaning "the end of man is death," or in modem phraseology, "I guess we're up against it").
Bondi later wrote of Brown's leadership:
We were united as a band of brothers by the love and affection toward the man who, with tender words and wise counsel ... prepared a handful of young men for the work of laying the foundation of a free Commonwealth.... He expressed himself to us that we should never allow ourselves to be tempted by any consideration, to acknowledge laws and institutions to exist as of right, if our conscience and reason condemn them.
John Brown left Kansas to take his quixotic last stand at Harpers Ferry. Captured, Brown was tried and hanged for treason. Benjamin only lived until 1866, and Weiner died in obscurity in 1906. But August Bondi remained true to his convictions and continued to support the anti-slavery cause in Kansas. When the Civil War broke out, he was among the first to enlist, serving as a first sergeant in the Kansas Cavalry. After the war, Bondi settled in Salina, Kansas, where he served as land clerk, postmaster, member of the school board, director of the state board of charities, a local court judge and a trustee of the Kansas Historical Society. He was known for his political integrity and idealism,
Bondi, who died in 1907, described himself as a consistent Jew throughout his life, although Salina was too much a frontier community to support a synagogue. When his daughters married, the family traveled to Leavenworth, Kansas, so that a rabbi could officiate. Although his funeral was held at the Salina Masonic Hall, a rabbi from Kansas City officiated at the service.
August Bondi's life traced a remarkable path, from guerrilla fighter against slavery to distinguished elected official and pillar of his community. Even in an age and place that could be inhospitable to Jews, Bondi always identified publicly and proudly with his Judaism.