In The Line of Duty: Cyrus Butler

Resting place of Cyrus Butler, Brookville Cemetery, Brookville

Note: In order to avoid confusion, I’m going to use Lansberry as the spelling of the last name of Joseph. In the earliest articles about the death of Cyrus Butler, Joseph’s name is spelled Lounsberry. When his name appears in the 1875 newspaper trial transcripts, it is spelled Lansberry, which is the spelling of the name Joseph was using when he died.

Also, in some newspapers, George Van Vliet’s first name listed as being Daniel. The spelling of his last name is also recorded as “Van Vleet,” “Van Fliet,” and “Van Fleet,” but I’ll be using the Van Vliet spelling of the name.

In researching the events of “Bloody Knox,” I encountered a name which is briefly mentioned as a part of the events leading up to the night of December 13, 1864. The name Colonel Cyrus Butler is recorded as “being shot and killed on October 30, 1864 by Joseph Lansberry,” but this event is almost always passed over and mostly ignored when the story of “Bloody Knox” is retold. However, it is Butler’s death that directly led to the event known as “Bloody Knox,” a stand-off between the U. S. Army and residents who did not support the war. Note: More about “Bloody Knox” can be found here: Bloody Knox.

With the events of “Bloody Knox” still in mind, I left Philipsburg behind and headed westward on Route 322. An hour later, I entered Brookville, I navigated the maze of streets and after passing under Interstate 80 turned right onto Cemetery Road. The road ends at the Brookville Cemetery and I made my way to the Veteran’s Section, which is watched over by a soldier standing atop a large pillar.

Parking in the shade, I stepped out of the vehicle and scanned the cemetery grounds. Immediately south of where I stood, vehicles passed quickly by on the interstate – as many times as I’ve passed this location I was surprised I had never noticed the cemetery before.

Turning my attention to the historic grounds I wandered among the stones of those who had served over the years. After I finished paying my respects to the regional veterans resting here, I followed the roadway to where the pavement ended – just off the edge of the roadway stood the Butler family stone. At the top left corner of the stone was the name I had come to remember – Colonel Cyrus Butler.

In 1861 Butler enlisted as a member of Company K, 11th Pennsylvania Reserve Corps and was wounded during the Battle of Chancellorsville. After his wounding in 1863, he would resign his position and became a Deputy Provost Marshal for the Bureau of the Provost Marshal General. One of his duties was to track down and arrest deserters and draft dodgers.

In late October 1864, Colonel Butler and Lieutenant George Van Vliet were sent by Provost Marshal Campbell to arrest Joseph Lansberry for being a draft dodger. The two deputies arrived at the residence of Martin Owens, which was located roughly three miles north of Clearfield borough. On Saturday, October 29, Butler and Van Vliet arrived under the cover of night with Joseph Miller, a local who was familiar with Lansberry and knew what Joseph looked like.

In the early morning hours of October 30, the trio watched as a man left the house and went to the barn to feed the animals. When the man came out of the barn, Miller recognized him as Lansberry. Butler stepped out of the shadows and commanded Lansberry to halt, hoping to stop Lansberry before he entered the house. Lansberry entered the house through a rear door they had not noticed and fled up a steep stairwell. Butler and Van Vliet entered the house and Butler went up the steps next, followed by Van Vliet. As Butler arrived at the top of the stairs, gunshots were exchanged.

The events as presented in the newspapers at the time were: Lansberry fired through the door, striking Butler in the abdomen. Butler returned fire before Lansberry came out of the room and struck Butler in the head with a rifle – the blow was so savage that the gunstock shattered. Van Vliet then struck Lansberry, knocking him down the narrow stairwell. Lansberry managed to get to his feet and escape. Outside – depending upon the source – Miller may or may not have shot at the fleeing Lansberry.

Butler would linger until the early hours of October 31, when he passed from the bullet wound. Butler’s body would be returned to Brookville and placed to rest in the family plot in the Brookville Cemetery. Note: I am not a doctor, nor do I claim to be, but if Lansberry struck Butler over the head with enough force to shatter the rifle stock, Butler had to have had a serious head injury. Strangely, there is no mention of a head injury in any of the newspapers.

Due to Butler’s death, Provost Marshal Campbell requested troops be sent into the region to arrest draft dodgers and deserters. The troops sent would be involved in the events of “Bloody Knox” just a couple weeks later.

This is where the story usually ends. The only other online site which mentions the death of Cyrus Butler ends with Lansberry being arrested for the murder in May 1865. While this statement is true, the aftermath of the shooting affair is not quite that simple.

The case against Joseph Lansberry for the murder of Cyrus Butler would stretch out over a ten-year period. In early May 1865, Lansberry was arrested in Elk County for Butler’s murder. Newspapers proclaimed Lansberry would be going to trial in June 1865 in Williamsport. It does not appear the case against Lansberry went to trial and in August 1865, a Federal Grand Jury handed down an indictment for murder.

It would be ten years later before Lansberry was arrested for the murder of Cyrus Butler. In March 1875, two officers hid in Lansberry’s barn near Jersey Shore and arrested him when he came out to tend to the animals. Lansberry was taken to Pittsburgh, placed in jail and on November 9, 1875, the case against Lansberry went to trial.

Lansberry maintained he fired at Butler in self-defense. Owens and his wife, who owned the house where Lansberry was staying, both testified Butler and Van Vliet had kicked in the door without any announcement of who they were in the attempt to arrest Lansberry. In addition, a number of prominent citizens traveled to Pittsburgh – from as far away as Iowa – to testify about Lansberry’s good character.

The defense mostly attacked the testimony of Van Vliet. They accused him of drinking that morning. The defense then questioned if the two men had threatened and cursed at Owens, then threatened to kill Lansberry. Then the defense said that neither Butler nor Van Vliet had announced why they were there and if they had – according to the defense – Lansberry would have willingly surrendered.

Then Van Vliet would make a statement that would place doubt in the jury’s mind. As recorded in the November 11, 1875 edition of the Altoona Mirror (Altoona, Pa), Van Vliet testified he “did not recognize the prisoner, having never met him except for a few minutes eleven years” prior. The final blow to the prosecution came when the defense offered the following theory: Butler and Van Vliet were firing wildly as the ran up the stairwell and it was Van Vliet who had fired the fatal shot.

 The jury had only deliberated roughly twenty minutes before coming back with a verdict on November 13 of “Not Guilty.” The jury’s reason for finding Lansberry “Not Guilty” was because 1) the prosecution could not prove that Lansberry fired the shot which killed Butler and 2) they believed that neither Butler nor Van Vliet announced their intentions when they rushed Lansberry.

Note: The one thing that I would have thought would have been a part of the prosecution’s case was the fact Lansberry struck Butler with the rifle with enough force that it shattered the rifle stock. This was only mentioned very briefly when Miller testified he saw Lansberry running away with the barrel of the broken rifle in his hand.

With Lansberry found “Not Guilty” the fatal shooting became a mere mention in the events leading up to the “Bloody Knox” standoff.

As I stood at the grave of Colonel Butler, I found it interesting that in none of the retellings is the case against Lansberry mentioned – it is only reported that Lansberry, a draft dodger, shot and killed Butler. At no point in any of the versions is it mentioned Lansberry was found “Not Guilty” of the shooting death. Did Lansberry pull the trigger for the fatal shot and did he get away with murder? Was it an accident and was Butler shot by his companion? Would Butler had survived had he not been struck over the head with the rifle? The truth of what happened in the early morning hours of October 30, 1865 will never be known as over a century has passed since that fateful day.

I finished remembering the life and service of Colonel Cyrus Butler, his tragic death and the events of “Bloody Knox” before leaving him to rest on the hilltop overlooking those who slumber with him on the hillside.

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