The recent tragedy in Arizona has captured the attention of the world and will likely alter many aspects of political life. The media is reporting many details and a host of testimony from people involved. It makes me wonder how the shooting of John Forbes Benjamin outside the post office in his home town would be treated by the media today and how it was reported in the press of the 1870's.
As a public figure and civil war general, Mr. Benjamin was known to have been supported by some and vehemently opposed by others. Case in point, his shooter. News of the incident was no doubt of interest to the community and spread quickly. Perhaps even more headlines would have been garnered when the shooter was acquitted of the public shooting inspite of the presence of witnesses. Did the fact that Mr. Benjamin survived being shot in the chest make the incident less serious in those times? After all, this was post civil war and a time when Jesse James was on the prowl with his gang. Whatever the situation might have been, the man who shot Mr. Benjamin seems to have ultimately slipped from the history books. His fame was very short-lived without the media to repeatedly broadcast his face and the accompanying backstory complete with motive. Perhaps he was weak and easy to influence, as many criminals are today.
Though not much is known about his shooter, we can take a look at the life of John Forbes Benjamin. From New York originally, like many others of the time, he heeded Horace Greely's words to "go west young man." He may have initially went a bit too far (ending up in Texas) but stories of good land in Missouri soon sent him packing! This is a well known beginning to his story in Shelby county, but it should also be the beginning of our understanding of the man. Mr. Benjamin's drive allowed him to accomplish so many things after starting as a homestead farmer in Shelby county. Unfortunately, it wasn't without controversy. If you were in his neighborhood at the time how would you have handled the news, rumors, here-say regarding this "Republican from East Coast". If a person were to convey unsettling news, would you question not only the truth of the news but why the person was so willing to share it? Should we fault Mr. Benjamin if, amidst his long list of accomplishments, some of his actions were advantageous? Hamlet once answered a question about his character with, "Sir, you confuse the man with the deed."
To own the grandest house in Shelby county was just one of his goals and he accomplished it not once, but twice! In addition to the Benjamin House, he owned a home in Shelbyville (destroyed by fire long after his death). Ironically he had not foreseen, that for the completion of his grand vision, the county would tax him the "Grandest Amount". This taxation, along with the shooting outside the post office, was the beginning of his personal frustration with life in Missouri. His rise to prominance as a politition, civil war general, and mansion maker no doubt put him in the position of lightening rod. But a driven man is driven by some need. We do not know of Mr. Benjamin's early family life or insecurities, but there was a reason that he was compelled to achieve. This need for adulation or recognition also may have made him vulnerable to the charms of the "Big City Girl" by the name of Guy Allen. Needless to say, at that time in his life a perfect storm was forming... and there would be no time to recover from its' effects. If nothing else, John Forbes should be thanked for leaving a structure that has generated so many property tax dollars for the county through the years.
Looking back, one might be inclined to wonder. Would children have helped ground John Forbes' ambition? Did being a Union general in an area with strong southern sympathies place him on a path to rejection in the county? What if he had been more involved with the community?
That opportunity is history, but perhaps we can take from Mr. Benjamin's story something that we can apply to our own situation today. Fostering improvement in ones own community might be as simple as supporting someone in need or moderating someone else who is too easily influenced.