One of John Brown’s followers in Kansas was August Bondi (1833-1907), a Viennese Jew whose family had immigrated to the United States in 1848 and settled in St. Louis. Just before his family left Vienna, Bondi participated in the student uprising in that city.
In 1855, eager for adventure, Bondi came to the territory of Kansas, where he soon met John Brown’s sons and later Brown himself. Falling ill that same year, he went to Missouri to recuperate, but returned to Kansas in May 1856, just in time to stumble upon the encampment of the Browns, who had turned out to defend the city of Lawrence from an attack by pro-slavery forces. Learning that the city had already been sacked, John Brown proceeded to order the killings of five pro-slavery settlers. Young Bondi did not participate, but later said that he had been directed to stay behind to carry messages to the men’s families. He was on hand, however, for the battle of Black Jack, the first armed clash between pro- and anti-slavery forces in Kansas, where John Brown and his men defeated a force led by Henry Pate. Bondi recalled,
When we followed Captain Brown up the hill towards the “Border Ruffians'” Camp, I next to Brown and in advance of Weiner [Theodore Weiner, another Jewish immigrant], 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 on whistling. Weiner was 37 and weighed 250 lbs. I, 22 and lithe. Weiner puffed like a steamboat, hurrying behind me. I called out to him, “Nu, was meinen Sie jetzt?” (Well, what do you think of it now?) His answer, “Was soll ich meinen? (What should I think of it?) ‘Sof odom muves” (Hebrew for “the end of man is death,” or, in modern phraseology, “I guess we’re up against it”).
In spite of the whistling of the bullets, I laughed when he said, “Machen wir den alten Mann sonst broges.” (Look out, or we’ll make the old man [Brown] angry.)
When Pate surrendered, Bondi asked him for his powder flask, which he kept, along with the 1812 musket he had carried, “like a sacred relic.” In the days after the battle, Bondi recalled in his autobiography, he and Brown’s other youthful followers discussed a plan to declare the territory of Kansas independent of the United States, but Brown, overhearing the talk, stifled it with the words, “Boys, no nonsense.”
Later in the summer, Bondi recalled, Brown and his men raided, ironically enough, the home of a pro-slavery militia captain named “Capt. Brown.” Bondi recalled, “We took his cattle, about fifty head, and while searching the house for clothing, a young woman, his daughter, just berated the abolitionists for all out. Amongst her other remarks, I caught this one: ‘No Yankee abolitionist can ever kiss a Missouri girl.’ As she uttered these words, I spied a litter of hound pups in the corner of the kitchen. I picked up one and said, ‘I would kiss a hound pup before I would kiss a Missouri girl,’ and I kissed the pup.”
Bondi last saw Brown at the end of September 1856: “[J]ust before sunup, I noticed a lonely rider crossing the Branch and coming up the California trail to the house. As he came nearer I saw it was Capt. Brown. He stopped without dismounting and told me that he was on the road to Iowa where his people intended to winter. . . . [A]s the sun rose we shook hands and he went on.” Later, Bondi eulogized Brown thusly:
We were united as a band of brothers by the love and affection towards the man who, with tender words and wise counsel, in the depths of the wilderness of Ottawa Creek, prepared a handful of young men for the work of laying the foundation of a free commonwealth. He constantly preached anti-slavery. 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 condemned them.
In Leavenworth in May 1860, Bondi met an old acquaintance, who introduced him to a friend named George Einstein. Bondi stayed overnight at the Einstein residence, where he met George’s sister, Henrietta. After just a few hours’ acquaintance, he proposed via letter. The couple were married at the end of June. In due time they had a baby, whom they transported in a converted box due to the lack of a proper baby carriage in the territory. This was to be the first of ten children born to the couple.
Bondi fought for the Union in the Civil War and was wounded; his war journal recounts not only military deeds but his return of a green silk dress to a ladies’ academy from which it was stolen and a truce that allowed Yankees and Rebels to collect melons from a patch. After the war, Bondi worked variously as a merchant, an attorney, and a judge. Eventually, he and his family settled in Salina, Kansas, where, Bondi noted, his wife and his mother hosted the first children’s party held in that town. In his old age, he paid a visit abroad, writing, “From the moment I reached Europe I found it to be a country of large beer glasses and small coffee cups.”
While visiting St. Louis on September 30, 1907, Bondi collapsed in the street with a heart attack. His funeral, held at Salina’s Masonic Temple, included both Jewish and Masonic rites. Later, his children published his autobiography, a wonderful blend of political and martial exploits, family history, and minutiae.
August Bondi, Autobiography of August Bondi, Wagoner Printing Company, 1910.
Leon Hühner, “Some Jewish Associates of John Brown,” Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society, No. 23 (1915), pp. 55-78.
(Images from the Kansas Memory site.)