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John Brown (abolitionist)

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John Brown
1846-47 John Brown by Augustus Washington (without frame).jpg
Photo by Augustus Washington, c. 1846–1847
John H. Brown

(1800-05-09)May 9, 1800
DiedDecember 2, 1859(1859-12-02) (aged 59)
Cause of deathExecution by hanging
Resting placeNorth Elba, New York, U.S.
44°15′08″N 73°58′18″W / 44.252240°N 73.971799°W / 44.252240; -73.971799
OccupationTanner; cattle, horse, and sheep breeder and trader; farmer
Known forInvolvement in Bleeding Kansas; Raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia.
Dianthe Lusk
(m. 1820; died 1832)

Mary Ann Day
(m. 1833)
Parent(s)Owen Brown (father)
Ruth Mills (mother)
Conviction(s)Guilty of all counts
Criminal chargeTreason against Commonwealth of Virginia; murder; inciting slave insurrection
Partner(s)21 other participants, Secret Six
DateOctober 16–18, 1859
State(s)West Virginia (since 1863)
Location(s)Harpers Ferry
John Brown signature.svg

John H. Brown (May 9, 1800 – December 2, 1859) was an American abolitionist leader. Brown felt that violence was necessary to end American slavery, as years of speeches, sermons, petitions, and moral persuasion had failed.[1]

A religious man more than anything else,[2][3] Brown believed he was raised up by God to strike the death blow to American slavery.[4] "He also believed that in all ages of the world God had created certain men to perform special work in some direction far in advance of their countrymen, even at the cost of their lives. He believed that among his earthly missions was to free the American slave...and it must be performed. He was very strict in his religious duties and he regarded this as sacred.[5]:189 "I am an instrument of God."[5]:248

Brown first gained national attention when he led anti-slavery volunteers during the Bleeding Kansas crisis of the late 1850s, a state-level civil war over whether Kansas would enter the Union as a slave state or a free state. He was dissatisfied with abolitionist pacifism: "These men are all talk. What we need is action—action!" In May 1856, Brown and his supporters killed five supporters of slavery in the Pottawatomie massacre (May 24), a response to the sacking of Lawrence by pro-slavery forces (May 21), and possibly also to the caning of the Free Kansas supporter, Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner (May 22). Brown then commanded anti-slavery forces at the Battle of Black Jack (June 2) and the Battle of Osawatomie (August 30, 1856).

In October 1859, Brown led a raid on the federal armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (today West Virginia), intending to start a slave liberation movement that would spread south through the mountainous regions of Virginia and North Carolina; he had prepared a Provisional Constitution for the revised, slavery-free United States he hoped to bring about. He seized the armory, but seven people were killed, and ten or more were injured. Brown intended to arm slaves with weapons from the armory, but very few slaves joined his revolt. Within 36 hours, those of Brown's men who had not fled were killed or captured by local militia and U.S. Marines, the latter led by Robert E. Lee. Brown was hastily tried for treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia, the murder of five men, and inciting a slave insurrection. He was found guilty of all counts and was hanged on December 2, 1859, the first person executed for treason in the history of the United States.[6]:179

Brown said repeatedly that all of his anti-slavery activities, both in Kansas and Harpers Ferry, were in accordance with the Golden Rule.[7][8] He said the most famous sentence in the Declaration of Independenceall men are created equal—"meant the same thing".[9][10][11][12]:721

Historians agree that the Harpers Ferry raid and Brown's trial (Virginia v. John Brown), both covered extensively by the national press, escalated tensions that led a year later to the South's long-threatened secession and the American Civil War. Southerners feared that others would soon follow in Brown's footsteps, encouraging and arming slave rebellions. He was the hero and icon of the North; from 1859 until Lincoln's assassination in 1865, he was the most famous American. Union soldiers marched to the new song "John Brown's Body", that portrayed him as a heroic martyr whose "truth is marching on"; it was the origin of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic". Newly-freed blacks walked to the same song,[13] and they lowered their voices speaking of Brown, as if he were a saint.

As Brown's son, John Brown, Jr., told a visitor just before the raid on Harpers Ferry, "as only force and fire-arms kept slavery out a Kansas, so nothing else will overthrow it in the Southern states", the visitor adding that this was a belief "daily gaining adherents". The violence Brown used makes him a controversial figure even today. He is both memorialized as a heroic martyr and visionary, compared sometimes with Moses[14][11] or Christ, and vilified as a madman and a terrorist.[15]

Early life and family

Brown's birthplace, Torrington, Connecticut, photographed in 1896

The Library and Historical Association of Hudson, Ohio, Brown's home town, has prepared annotated listings of Brown's many ancestors, siblings, and children.[16]

Family and childhood

John Brown was born May 9, 1800, in Torrington, Connecticut.[17] He was the fourth of the eight children of Owen Brown (1771–1856) and Ruth Mills (1772–1808); he described his parents as "poor but respectable".[18]:7 Owen Brown's father was Capt. John Brown (1728–1776), who died in the Revolutionary Army, at New York, Sept. 3, 1776.[19] According to the inscription on his tombstone, now in North Elba, New York, he was of the fourth generation, in regular descent, from Peter Brown, one of the Pilgrim Fathers, who landed from the Mayflower, at Plymouth, Mass, December 22, 1620."[20] Ruth Mills was the daughter of Gideon Mills, also an officer in the Revolutionary Army.[19] She was of Dutch and Welsh descent.[18]:5

While Brown was very young, his father moved the family briefly to his home town, West Simsbury, Connecticut.[19] In 1805, the family moved again, to Hudson, Ohio, in the Western Reserve, which at the time was mostly wilderness,[18]:5, 7 but went on to become arguably the most anti-slavery region of the country.[21] The founder of Hudson, David Hudson, with whom John's father had frequent contact, was not only an abolitionist but an advocate of "forcible resistance by the slaves".[18]:17 Owen Brown became a leading citizen of Hudson.[19] He opened a tannery. Owen participated fully in Hudson's anti-slavery activity and debate, offering a safe house to Underground Railroad fugitives.[citation needed]

John's mother Ruth died in 1808. In his "Memoir" he wrote that he pined after her for years. While he respected his father's new wife, he never felt an emotional bond with her.[18]:8

John had little taste for formal education.[18]:8 With no school beyond the elementary level in Hudson at that time, John studied at the school of the abolitionist Elizur Wright, father of the famous Elizur Wright, in nearby Tallmadge.[22]:17

Owen was one of the founders of Hudson's Western Reserve College and Preparatory School, the first (1826) and for many years the only such in the Western Reserve. It would soon (1832–33) become consumed and torn apart by the issue of slavery (see Beriah Green and Lane Rebels). Owen also became a supporter of the Oberlin Collegiate Institute in its early stage, but was ultimately critical of the school's "perfectionist" leanings, especially renowned in the preaching and teaching of Charles Finney and Asa Mahan. Brown[which?] withdrew his membership from the Congregational church in the 1840s and never officially joined another church, but both he and his father were fairly conventional evangelicals for the period with its focus on the pursuit of personal righteousness.

Brown's father had as an apprentice Jesse R. Grant, father of Ulysses S. Grant.[23]

John leaves home

At 16, Brown left his family and came east with the design of acquiring a liberal education. His ambition was the Gospel ministry. In pursuance of this object, he consulted and conferred with the Rev. Jeremiah Hallock, then clergyman at Canton, Connecticut, whose wife was a relative of Brown's, and in accordance with advice there obtained, proceeded to Plainfield, Massachusetts, where, under the instruction of the late Rev. Moses Hallock, he prepared for college. He would have continued at Amherst College,[12]:13[22]:17 but he was attacked with inflammation of the eyes, which ultimately became chronic, and precluded him from the possibility of the further pursuit of his studies, whereupon he returned to Hudson.[19] Another source reports him studying at the Morris Academy in Litchfield, Connecticut.[24]

Back In Hudson, he taught himself surveying from a book,[25]:31 and in his will he had surveyor's implements. He worked briefly at his father's tannery before opening a successful tannery of his own outside of town with his adopted brother Levi Blakeslee[22]:17 (much later a Republican representing Oneida County in the 90th New York State Legislature). The two kept bachelor's quarters, and Brown was a good cook.[22]:17 However, he had been having his bread baked by a widow, Mrs. Amos Lusk, and as the tanning business had grown to include journeymen and apprentices, Brown persuaded her to take charge of his housekeeping, "mov[ing] into his log cabin" with her daughter Dianthe, whom Brown married in 1820.[22]:18 He described her as "a remarkably plain, but neat, industrious and economical girl, of excellent character, earnest piety, and practical common sense."[25]:32 She was also described as "as deeply religious as her husband". Their first child, John Jr., was born 13 months later. During 12 years of married life Dianthe gave birth to 7 children, but she died from complications of childbirth in 1832.[22]:18–19

The tannery with the secret room

The John Brown Tannery Site, a historic archaeological site which includes the remains of Brown's tannery in Pennsylvania

In 1825, despite the success of the tannery and having built a substsntial house the year before, Brown and his family, seeking a safer location for fugitive slaves, moved to New Richmond, Pennsylvania. There he bought 200 acres (81 hectares) of land, cleared an eighth of it, and quickly built a cabin, a barn, and a tannery, the latter with a secret room to hide escaping slaves.[26] The John Brown Tannery Site was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978.[27] It "was a major stop on the [Underground] Railroad, marking its place in history from 1825 to 1835." During that period, "Brown aided in the passing [to Canada] of an estimated 2,500 slaves."[28]

Within a year, the tannery employed 15 men. He made money surveying new roads, and was involved in erecting a school, which first met in his home, and attracting a preacher.[22]:23 He also helped to establish a post office, and in 1828 President John Quincy Adams named him postmaster of Randolph, Pennsylvania; he was reappointed by President Andrew Jackson, serving until he left Pennsylvania in 1835.[22]:23[29]:325 He carried the mail for some years from Meadville, Pennsylvania, through Randolph to Riceville, some 20 miles (32 km). He paid a fine at Meadville for declining to serve in the militia. During this period, Brown raised cattle, operating an interstate cattle and leather business along with a kinsman, Seth Thompson, from eastern Ohio.[citation needed]

In 1829, some white families asked Brown to help them drive off Native Americans who hunted annually in the area. Brown replied, "I will have nothing to do with so mean an act. I would sooner take my gun and help drive you out of the country."[30]:168–69 As a child in Hudson, John not only came into contact with tbe local Indians, he "hung about them... & learned a trifle of their talk".[18]:7 Throughout his life, Brown maintained peaceful relations with Native Americans, even accompanying them on hunting excursions and inviting them to eat in his home.[31][5]

Mary Ann Brown (Day) wife of John Brown, married in 1833, with Annie (left) and Sarah (right) in 1851.

In 1831 Brown's youngest son died, at the age of 4. Brown fell ill, and his businesses began to suffer, leaving him in terrible debt. In the summer of 1832, shortly after the death of a newborn son, his wife Dianthe also died, either in childbirth or as an immediate consequence of it.[32]:35 He was left with the children John Jr., Jason, Owen, and Ruth. On June 14, 1833, Brown married 16-year-old Mary Ann Day (1817–1884), originally from Washington County, New York.[33] They eventually had 13 children; those alive at John Brown's death were Salmon, Annie, Sarah, and Ellen. Watson and Oliver died at Harpers Ferry (see below).[34][35] "He evinced a good deal of pride in stating that he had seven sons to help him in the cause" of abolishing slavery.[36]

In 1836, Brown moved his family from Pennsylvania to Franklin Mills, Ohio (now Kent, Ohio). There he borrowed money to buy land in the area, land along canals being built, building and operating a tannery along the Cuyahoga River in partnership with Zenas Kent.[37] He became a bank director and was estimated to be worth $20,000 (equivalent to $495,677 in 2019).[25]:50 However, following the heavy borrowing trends of Ohio, many businessmen like Brown trusted too heavily in credit and state bonds and paid dearly for it. Brown's wealth was on paper; he suffered great financial losses in the Panic of 1837 and following it the economic crisis of 1839. In one episode of property loss, Brown was jailed when he attempted to retain ownership of a farm by occupying it against the claims of the new owner.

For three or four years he seemed to flounder hopelessly, moving from one activity to another without plan. Like other determined men of his time and background, he tried many different business efforts in an attempt to get out of debt. He bred race horses briefly, did some surveying, farmed, and did some tanning.[25]:50–51 In 1837, in response to the murder of Elijah P. Lovejoy, Brown publicly vowed: "Here, before God, in the presence of these witnesses, from this time, I consecrate my life to the destruction of slavery!"[38] Brown declared bankruptcy in federal court on September 28, 1842. In 1843, four of his children died of dysentery; three were buried in a single grave.

As Louis DeCaro Jr shows in his biographical sketch (2007), from the mid-1840s Brown had built a reputation as an expert in fine sheep and wool, and entered into a partnership with Col. Simon Perkins of Akron, Ohio, whose flocks and farms were managed by Brown and sons. Brown eventually moved into a home with his family across the street from the Perkins Stone Mansion on Perkins Hill. The John Brown House (Akron, Ohio) still stands and is owned and operated by The Summit County Historical Society of Akron, Ohio.

Transformative years in Springfield, Massachusetts

Two daguerreotypes of Brown, taken by African-American photographer Augustus Washington in Springfield, Massachusetts, c. 1846–47. On the right Brown is holding the hand-colored flag of Subterranean Pass Way, his militant counterpart to the Underground Railroad.[39]

In 1846, Brown and his business partner Simon Perkins moved to the ideologically progressive city of Springfield, Massachusetts. There Brown found a community whose white leadership—from the community's most prominent churches, to its wealthiest businessmen, to its most popular politicians, to its local jurists, and even to the publisher of one of the nation's most influential newspapers—were deeply involved and emotionally invested in the anti-slavery movement.[40] Brown's and Perkins' intent was to represent the interests of the Ohio's wool growers as opposed to those of New England's wool manufacturers—thus Brown and Perkins set up a wool commission operation. While in Springfield, Brown lived in a house at 51 Franklin Street.[41]

Two years before Brown's arrival in Springfield, in 1844, the city's African-American abolitionists had founded the Sanford Street Free Church—now known as St. John's Congregational Church—which went on to become one of the United States' most prominent platforms for abolitionist speakers. From 1846 until he left Springfield in 1850, Brown was a parishioner at the Free Church, where he witnessed abolitionist lectures by the likes of Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth.[42] In 1847, after speaking at the Free Church, Douglass spent a night speaking with Brown, after which Douglass wrote, "From this night spent with John Brown in Springfield, Mass. [in] 1847[,] while I continued to write and speak against slavery, I became all the same less hopeful for its peaceful abolition. My utterances became more and more tinged by the color of this man's strong impressions."[40] During Brown's time in Springfield, he became deeply involved in transforming the city into a major center of abolitionism, and one of the safest and most significant stops on the Underground Railroad.[43]

Brown also learned much about Massachusetts' mercantile elite; while he initially considered this knowledge a curse, it proved to be a boon to his later activities in Kansas and at Harpers Ferry. The business community had reacted with hesitation when Brown asked them to change their highly profitable practice of selling low-quality wool en masse at low prices. Initially, Brown naïvely trusted them, but he soon realized they were determined to maintain their control of price-setting. Also, on the outskirts of Springfield, the Connecticut River Valley's sheep farmers were largely unorganized and hesitant to change their methods of production to meet higher standards. In the Ohio Cultivator, Brown and other wool growers complained that the Connecticut River Valley's farmers' tendencies were lowering all U.S. wool prices abroad. In reaction, Brown made a last-ditch effort to overcome the wool mercantile elite by seeking an alliance with European manufacturers. Ultimately, Brown was disappointed to learn that Europe preferred to buy Western Massachusetts wools en masse at the cheap prices they had been getting. Brown then traveled to England to seek a higher price for Springfield's wool. The trip was a disaster, as the firm incurred a loss of $40,000, of which Perkins bore the brunt. With this misfortune, the Perkins and Brown wool commission operation closed in Springfield in late 1849. Subsequent lawsuits tied up the partners for several more years.[citation needed]

An 1851 poster warning the "colored people of Boston" about policemen acting as slave catchers

Before Brown left Springfield in 1850, the United States passed the Fugitive Slave Act, a law mandating that authorities in free states aid in the return of escaped slaves and imposing penalties on those who aided in their escape. In response Brown founded a militant group to prevent slaves' capture, the League of Gileadites. In the Bible, Mount Gilead was the place where only the bravest of Israelites gathered to face an invading enemy. Brown founded the League with the words, "Nothing so charms the American people as personal bravery. [Blacks] would have ten times the number [of white friends than] they now have were they but half as much in earnest to secure their dearest rights as they are to ape the follies and extravagances of their white neighbors, and to indulge in idle show, in ease, and in luxury."[44] Upon leaving Springfield in 1850, he instructed the League to act "quickly, quietly, and efficiently" to protect slaves that escaped to Springfield—words that would foreshadow Brown's later actions preceding Harpers Ferry.[44] From Brown's founding of the League of Gileadites onward, not one person was ever taken back into slavery from Springfield. Brown gave his rocking chair to the mother of his beloved black porter, Thomas Thomas, as a gesture of affection.[40]

Some popular narrators have exaggerated the impact of the demise of Brown and Perkins' wool commission in Springfield on Brown's later life choices. In actuality, Perkins absorbed much of the financial loss, and their partnership continued for several more years, with Brown nearly breaking even by 1854. Brown's time in Springfield sowed the seeds for the future financial support he received from New England's great merchants, introduced him to nationally famous abolitionists like Douglass and Truth, and included the foundation of the League of Gileadites.[40][41] During this time, Brown also helped publicize David Walker's speech Appeal.[45] Brown's personal attitudes evolved in Springfield, as he observed the success of the city's Underground Railroad and made his first venture into militant, anti-slavery community organizing. In speeches, he pointed to the martyrs Elijah Lovejoy and Charles Turner Torrey as whites "ready to help blacks challenge slave-catchers."[46] In Springfield, Brown found a city that shared his own anti-slavery passions, and each seemed to educate the other. Certainly, with both successes and failures, Brown's Springfield years were a transformative period of his life that catalyzed many of his later actions.[40]

Homestead in New York

John Brown's Farm, North Elba, New York

In 1848, Brown heard of Gerrit Smith's Adirondack land grants to poor black men, called Timbuctoo, and decided to move his family there to establish a farm where he could provide guidance and assistance to the blacks who were attempting to establish farms in the area.[47] He bought from Smith land in the town of North Elba, New York (near Lake Placid), for $1 an acre ($2/ha), and spent two years there.[48] It has a magnificent view[11] and has been called "the highest arable spot of land in the State, if, indeed, soil so hard and sterile can be called arable."[49]

After he was executed on December 2, 1859, his widow took his body there for burial; the trip took three days, and he was buried on December 7. Watson's body was located and buried there in 1882. In 1899 the remains of 12 of Brown's other collaborators, including his son Oliver, were located and brought to North Elba. They could not be identified well enough for separate burials, so they are buried together in a single casket, with a collective plaque. Since 1895, the John Brown Farm State Historic Site has been owned by New York State and it is now a National Historic Landmark.[47]

Actions in Kansas

After the Harpers Ferry raid, trial, and Brown's execution, Brown was linked forever to those events in Virginia, and to a lesser extent to his burial site in remote North Elba, New York. However, while alive, Brown was thought of as a Kansan. According to a Lawrence newspaper of 1881:

John Brown belongs to Kansas. It was here that he really entered upon his mission. Here he did his first fighting, endured much of his suffering, won many of his triumphs; and here was planned the movement that finally carried him to the grave.[50]

It was in Kansas that he first received national attention, approaching for some New England abolitionists the status of a cult figure.[51] He is the subject of a controversial mural in the Kansas State Capitol. The Kansas Historical Society went on record in suggesting that John Brown be one of Kansas's two statues in the National Statuary Hall, in the U.S. Capitol.[52][11]

Kansas Territory was in the midst of a state-level civil war from 1854 to 1860, referred to as the Bleeding Kansas period, between those who wanted and those who opposed slavery in the future new state of Kansas. The issue was to be decided by the voters of Kansas, but who these voters were was not clear; there was widespread voting fraud in favor of the pro-slavery forces, as a Congressional investigation confirmed.[53]

Move to Kansas

In 1855, Brown learned from his adult sons in Kansas that their families were completely unprepared to face attack, and that pro-slavery forces there were militant. Determined to protect his family and oppose the advances of slavery supporters, Brown left for Kansas, enlisting a son-in-law and making several stops just to collect funds and weapons. As reported by the New York Tribune, Brown stopped en route to participate in an anti-slavery convention that took place in June 1855 in Albany, New York. Despite the controversy that ensued on the convention floor regarding the support of violent efforts on behalf of the free state cause, several people gave Brown financial support. As he went westward, Brown found more militant support in his home state of Ohio, particularly in the strongly anti-slavery Western Reserve section, where his boyhood home of Hudson is located.


Brown in 1856

Brown and the free-state settlers were optimistic that they could bring Kansas into the union as a slavery-free state.[54] After the winter snows thawed in 1856, the pro-slavery activists began a campaign to seize Kansas on their own terms. Brown was particularly affected by the sacking of Lawrence, the center of anti-slavery activity in Kansas, on May 21, 1856. A sheriff-led posse from Lecompton, the center of pro-slavery activity in Kansas, destroyed two abolitionist newspapers and the Free State Hotel. Only one man, a Border Ruffian, was killed. Preston Brooks's May 22 caning of anti-slavery Senator Charles Sumner in the United States Senate also fueled Brown's anger. A pro-slavery writer, Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow, of the Squatter Sovereign, wrote that "[pro-slavery forces] are determined to repel this Northern invasion, and make Kansas a slave state; though our rivers should be covered with the blood of their victims, and the carcasses of the abolitionists should be so numerous in the territory as to breed disease and sickness, we will not be deterred from our purpose".[55] Brown was outraged by both the violence of the pro-slavery forces and what he saw as a weak and cowardly response by the antislavery partisans and the Free State settlers, whom he described as "cowards, or worse".[56]

The Pottawatomie massacre occurred during the night of May 24 and the morning of May 25, 1856. Using swords, Brown and a band of abolitionist settlers took from their residences and killed five "professional slave hunters and militant pro-slavery"[57] settlers north of Pottawatomie Creek, in Franklin County, Kansas.

Speaking of the threats that were supposedly the justification for the massacre, Free State leader Charles L. Robinson stated:

When it is known that such threats were as plenty as blue-berries in June, on both sides, all over the Territory, and were regarded as of no more importance than the idle wind, this indictment will hardly justify midnight assassination of all pro-slavery men, whether making threats or not ... Had all men been killed in Kansas who indulged in such threats, there would have been none left to bury the dead.[58]

In the two years prior to the Pottawatomie Creek massacre, there had been eight killings in Kansas Territory attributable to slavery politics, but none in the vicinity of the massacre. The massacre was the match in the powderkeg that precipitated the bloodiest period in "Bleeding Kansas" history, a three-month period of retaliatory raids and battles in which 29 people died.[59]

Palmyra and Osawatomie

A force of Missourians, led by Captain Henry Clay Pate, captured John Jr. and Jason, destroyed the Brown family homestead, and later participated in the Sack of Lawrence. On June 2, John Brown, nine of his followers, and 20 local men successfully defended a Free State settlement at Palmyra, Kansas, against an attack by Pate (see Battle of Black Jack). Pate and 22 of his men were taken prisoner.[60] After capture, they were taken to Brown's camp, and received all the food Brown could find. Brown forced Pate to sign a treaty, exchanging the freedom of Pate and his men for the promised release of Brown's two captured sons. Brown released Pate to Colonel Edwin Sumner, but was furious to discover that the release of his sons was delayed until September.[citation needed]

In August, a company of over 300 Missourians under the command of General John W. Reid crossed into Kansas and headed towards Osawatomie, intending to destroy the Free State settlements there, and then march on Topeka and Lawrence.[61]

On the morning of August 30, 1856, they shot and killed Brown's son Frederick and his neighbor David Garrison on the outskirts of Osawatomie. Brown, outnumbered more than seven to one, arranged his 38 men behind natural defenses along the road. Firing from cover, they managed to kill at least 20 of Reid's men and wounded 40 more.[62] Reid regrouped, ordering his men to dismount and charge into the woods. Brown's small group scattered and fled across the Marais des Cygnes River. One of Brown's men was killed during the retreat and four were captured. While Brown and his surviving men hid in the woods nearby, the Missourians plundered and burned Osawatomie. Despite his defeat, Brown's bravery and military shrewdness in the face of overwhelming odds brought him national attention and made him a hero to many Northern abolitionists.[63]

On September 7, Brown entered Lawrence to meet with Free State leaders and help fortify against a feared assault. At least 2,700 pro-slavery Missourians were once again invading Kansas. On September 14, they skirmished near Lawrence. Brown prepared for battle, but serious violence was averted when the new governor of Kansas, John W. Geary, ordered the warring parties to disarm and disband, and offered clemency to former fighters on both sides.[64] Brown, taking advantage of the fragile peace, left Kansas with three of his sons to raise money from supporters in the North.[citation needed]

The raid at Harpers Ferry

Brown in 1859

Brown's plans

Brown's plans for a major attack on American slavery go back at least 20 years before the raid. He spent the years between 1842 and 1849 winding up his business affairs, settling his family in the Negro community at North Elba, New York, and organizing in his own mind an anti-slavery raid that would strike a significant blow against the entire slave system, running slaves off Southern plantations.

According to Karen Whitman,

Brown was doing research for his plan all during the 1840s and 1850s. While living in Springfield, from 1845 to 1849, he studied maps of the South, Underground Railroad routes, and census tracts to discover where Negroes were living. In 1849 he went to Europe on business and studied military fortifications in England, France, and Germany. ...Brown had read all the books on insurrectionary warfare that he could lay his hands on; ...he had studied Toussaint L'Ouverture's liberation of Haiti and the history of Jamaica. [See First Maroon War.] And, beginning with his conversation with Douglass in 1847, Brown purposefully solicited the support of black leaders in the planning and execution of a massive antislavery undertaking.[65]

His daughter, Ruth Brown Thompson, described Brown's scheme thus:

Twenty years before Harper's Ferry father had solemnly pledged himself—and his family took the vow with him—to do anything and suffer everything to wipe out slavery. His [second] wife was in full accord with him.[29]:325

His wife was interviewed on her way to Charles Town to see him for the last time and then to take his body home for burial:

She is a large and noble-looking woman, and worthy of being John Brown's wife. She says that she has always prayed to God that he might fall in battle rather than by the hands of slaveholders; but that now she does not regret his capture, for the sake of the noble words he has been permitted to utter. She says that she is the mother of thirteen children, of whom but four survive; but that she would willingly see the ruin of all her household, if it would only help the cause of freedom.[66]

As put by Frederick Douglass, "His own statement, that he had been contemplating a bold strike for the freedom of the slaves for ten years, proves that he had resolved upon his present course long before he, or his sons, ever set foot in Kansas."[67] According to his first biographer James Redpath, "for thirty years, he secretly cherished the idea of being the leader of a servile insurrection: the American Moses, predestined by Omnipotence to lead the servile nations in our Southern States to freedom."[68]

Brown was careful about whom he talked to. "Captain Brown was careful to keep his plans from his men", according to Jeremiah Anderson, one of the participants in the raid.[69]:358 He did discuss his plans at length with Frederick Douglass, trying unsuccessfully to persuade Douglass to accompany him to Harpers Ferry (which Douglass thought a suicidal mission that could not succeed):

He often stopped over night with me, when we talked over the feasibility of his plan for destroying the value of slave property, and the motive for holding slaves in the border States. That plan, as already intimated elsewhere, was to take twenty or twenty-five discreet and trustworthy men into the mountains of Virginia and Maryland, and station them in squads of five, about five miles apart, on a line of twenty-five miles; each squad to co-operate with all, and all with each. They were to have selected for them, secure and comfortable retreats in the fastnesses of the mountains, where they could easily defend themselves in case of attack. They were to subsist upon the country roundabout. They were to be well armed, but were to avoid battle or violence, unless compelled by pursuit or in self-defense. In that case, they were to make it as costly as possible to the assailing party, whether that party should be soldiers or citizens. He further proposed to have a number of stations from the line of Pennsylvania to the Canada border, where such slaves as he might, through his men, induce to run away, should be supplied with food and shelter and be forwarded from one station to another till they should reach a place of safety either in Canada or the Northern States. He proposed to add to his force in the mountains any courageous and intelligent fugitives who might be willing to remain and endure the hardships and brave the dangers of this mountain life. These, he thought, if properly selected, on account of their knowledge of the surrounding country, could be made valuable auxiliaries. The work of going into the valley of Virginia and persuading the slaves to flee to the mountains, was to be committed to the most courageous and judicious man connected with each squad.[69]:350–351

The previous quote is from some time before the raid, perhaps 1858. Closer to the event, Douglass described his changed plan:

The taking of Harper's Ferry, of which Captain Brown had merely hinted before, was now declared as his settled purpose. ...He did not at all object to rousing the nation; it seemed to him that something startling was just what the nation needed. He had completely renounced his old plan, and thought that the capture of Harper's Ferry would serve as notice to the slaves that their friends had come, and as a trumpet to rally them to his standard. He described the place as to its means of defense, and how impossible it would be to dislodge him if once in possession.[69]:355–356

Here is how it was put by one of Brown's daughters:

Mrs. Adams: It was father's original plan, as we used to call it, to take Harpers Ferry at the outset, to secure firearms to arm the slaves, and to strike terror into the hearts of the slave-holders; then to immediately start for the plantations, gather up the negroes and retreat to the mountains, send out armed squads from there to gather more and eventually to spread out his forces until the slaves would come to them or the slaveholders would surrender them to gain peace. He expected...that if they had intelligent white leaders that they would be prevailed on to rise and secure their freedom without revenging their wrongs and with very little bloodshed.[70]

Brown thought that "A few men in the right, and knowing that they are right, can overturn a mighty king. Fifty men, twenty men, in the Alleghenies would break slavery to pieces in two years".[12]:426 As he put it later, after the failure of his raid, "I had, as I now think, vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed [through the revolt supposed to start with Harpers Ferry] it [ending slavery] might be done.[71]

Gathering forces

Brown c. 1856 (daguerreotype)

Brown returned to the East by November 1856, and spent the next two years in New England raising funds. Initially he returned to Springfield, where he received contributions, and also a letter of recommendation from a prominent and wealthy merchant, George Walker. Walker was the brother-in-law of Franklin Benjamin Sanborn, the secretary for the Massachusetts State Kansas Committee, who introduced Brown to several influential abolitionists in the Boston area in January 1857.[41][18]

Amos Adams Lawrence, a prominent Boston merchant, secretly gave a large amount of cash. William Lloyd Garrison, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Theodore Parker and George Luther Stearns, and Samuel Gridley Howe also supported Brown. A group of six wealthy abolitionists—Sanborn, Higginson, Parker, Stearns, Howe, and Gerrit Smith—agreed to offer Brown financial support for his antislavery activities; they eventually provided most of the financial backing for the raid on Harpers Ferry, and came to be known as the Secret Six[72] or the Committee of Six. Brown often requested help from them with "no questions asked" and it remains unclear how much of Brown's scheme the Secret Six were aware of.[citation needed]

In December 1857, an anti-slavery Mock Legislature, organized by Brown, met in Springdale, Iowa.[4]

On January 7, 1858, the Massachusetts Committee pledged to provide 200 Sharps Rifles and ammunition, which were being stored at Tabor, Iowa. In March, Brown contracted Charles Blair of Collinsville, Connecticut for 1,000 pikes.[citation needed]

In the following months, Brown continued to raise funds, visiting Worcester, Springfield, New Haven, Syracuse, and Boston. In Boston, he met Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. He received many pledges but little cash. In March, while in New York City, he was introduced to Hugh Forbes, an English mercenary, who had experience as a military tactician fighting with Giuseppe Garibaldi in Italy in 1848. Brown hired him as his men's drillmaster and to write their tactical handbook. They agreed to meet in Tabor that summer. Using the alias Nelson Hawkins, Brown traveled through the Northeast and then visited his family in Hudson, Ohio. On August 7, he arrived in Tabor. Forbes arrived two days later. Over several weeks, the two men put together a "Well-Matured Plan" for fighting slavery in the South. The men quarreled over many of the details. In November, their troops left for Kansas. Forbes had not received his salary and was still feuding with Brown, so he returned to the East instead of venturing into Kansas. He soon threatened to expose the plot to the government.[citation needed]

William Maxon's house, near Springdale, Iowa, where John Brown's associates lived and trained, 1857–1859. Brown himself lived at the home of John Hunt Painter, less than a mile away.

As the October elections saw a free-state victory, Kansas was quiet. Brown made his men return to Iowa, where he told them tidbits of his Virginia scheme.[73] In January 1858, Brown left his men in Springdale, Iowa, and set off to visit Frederick Douglass in Rochester, New York. There he discussed his plans with Douglass, and reconsidered Forbes' criticisms.[74] Brown wrote a Provisional Constitution that would create a government for a new state in the region of his invasion. He then traveled to Peterboro, New York, and Boston to discuss matters with the Secret Six. In letters to them, he indicated that, along with recruits, he would go into the South equipped with weapons to do "Kansas work".[citation needed]

Brown and 12 of his followers, including his son Owen, traveled to Chatham, Ontario, where he convened on May 10 a Constitutional Convention.[75] The convention, with several dozen delegates including his friend James Madison Bell, was put together with the help of Dr. Martin Delany.[76] One-third of Chatham's 6,000 residents were fugitive slaves, and it was here that Brown was introduced to Harriet Tubman, who helped him recruit.[77] The convention's 34 blacks and 12 whites adopted Brown's Provisional Constitution. Brown had long used the terminology of the Subterranean Pass Way from the late 1840s, so it is possible that Delany conflated Brown's statements over the years. Regardless, Brown was elected commander-in-chief and named John Henrie Kagi his "Secretary of War". Richard Realf was named "Secretary of State". Elder Monroe, a black minister, was to act as president until another was chosen. A. M. Chapman was the acting vice president; Delany, the corresponding secretary. In 1859, "A Declaration of Liberty by the Representatives of the Slave Population of the United States of America" was written.[78][79]

Although nearly all of the delegates signed the constitution, very few volunteered to join Brown's forces, although it will never be clear how many Canadian expatriates actually intended to join Brown because of a subsequent "security leak" that threw off plans for the raid, creating a hiatus in which Brown lost contact with many of the Canadian leaders. This crisis occurred when Hugh Forbes, Brown's mercenary, tried to expose the plans to Massachusetts Senator Henry Wilson and others. The Secret Six feared their names would be made public. Howe and Higginson wanted no delays in Brown's progress, while Parker, Stearns, Smith and Sanborn insisted on postponement. Stearns and Smith were the major sources of funds, and their words carried more weight. To throw Forbes off the trail and invalidate his assertions, Brown returned to Kansas in June, and remained in that vicinity for six months. There he joined forces with James Montgomery, who was leading raids into Missouri.

Portrait of Brown by Ole Peter Hansen Balling, 1872

On December 20, Brown led his own raid, in which he liberated 11 slaves, took captive two white men, and looted horses and wagons. (See Battle of the Spurs.) The Governor of Missouri announced a reward of $3,000 (equivalent to $85,367 in 2019) for his capture. On January 20, 1859, he embarked on a lengthy journey to take the liberated slaves to Detroit and then on a ferry to Canada. While passing through Chicago, Brown met with abolitionists Allan Pinkerton, John Jones, and Henry O. Wagoner who arranged and raised the fare for the passage to Detroit[80] and purchase clothes and supplies for Brown. Jones's wife, Mary, guessed that the supplies included the suit Brown was later hanged in.[81] On March 12, 1859, Brown met with Frederick Douglass and Detroit abolitionists George DeBaptiste, William Lambert, and others at William Webb's house in Detroit to discuss emancipation.[82] DeBaptiste proposed that conspirators blow up some of the South's largest churches. The suggestion was opposed by Brown, who felt humanity precluded such unnecessary bloodshed.[83]

Over the course of the next few months, he traveled again through Ohio, New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts to drum up more support for the cause. On May 9, he delivered a lecture in Concord, Massachusetts, that Amos Bronson Alcott, Emerson, and Thoreau attended. Brown reconnoitered with the Secret Six. In June he paid his last visit to his family in North Elba before departing for Harpers Ferry. He stayed one night en route in Hagerstown, Maryland, at the Washington House, on West Washington Street. On June 30, 1859, the hotel had at least 25 guests, including I. Smith and Sons, Oliver Smith and Owen Smith, and Jeremiah Anderson, all from New York. From papers found in the Kennedy Farmhouse after the raid, it is known that Brown wrote to Kagi that he would sign into a hotel as I. Smith and Sons.[84]


Leslie's illustration of U.S. Marines attacking John Brown's "Fort"

As he began recruiting supporters for an attack on slaveholders, Brown was joined by Harriet Tubman, "General Tubman," as he called her.[85] Her knowledge of support networks and resources in the border states of Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Delaware was invaluable to Brown and his planners. Some abolitionists, including Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison, opposed his tactics, but Brown dreamed of fighting to create a new state for freed slaves and made preparations for military action. After he began the first battle, he believed, slaves would rise up and carry out a rebellion across the South.[86]

Brown asked Tubman to gather former slaves then living in present-day southern Ontario who might be willing to join his fighting force, which she did.[87] He arrived in Harpers Ferry on July 3, 1859. A few days later, under the name Isaac Smith, he rented a farmhouse in nearby Maryland. He awaited the arrival of his recruits. They never materialized in the numbers he expected. In late August he met with Douglass in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, where he revealed the Harpers Ferry plan. Douglass expressed severe reservations, rebuffing Brown's pleas to join the mission. Douglass had known of Brown's plans since early 1859 and had made a number of efforts to discourage blacks from enlisting.

In late September, the 950 pikes arrived from Charles Blair. Kagi's draft plan called for a brigade of 4,500 men, but Brown had only 21 men (16 white and 5 black: three free blacks, one freed slave, and a fugitive slave). They ranged in age from 21 to 49. Twelve had been with Brown in Kansas raids. On October 16, 1859, Brown (leaving three men behind as a rear guard) led 18 men in an attack on the Harpers Ferry Armory. He had received 200 Beecher's Bibles—breechloading .52 (13.2 mm) caliber Sharps rifles—and pikes from northern abolitionist societies in preparation for the raid. The armory was a large complex of buildings that contained 100,000 muskets and rifles, which Brown planned to seize and use to arm local slaves. They would then head south, drawing off more and more slaves from plantations, and fighting only in self-defense. As Douglass and Brown's family testified, his strategy was essentially to deplete Virginia of its slaves, causing the institution to collapse in one county after another, until the movement spread into the South, wreaking havoc on the economic viability of the pro-slavery states.[citation needed]

The raid

Initially, the raid went well, and they met no resistance entering the town. They cut the telegraph wires and easily captured the armory, which was being defended by a single watchman. They next rounded up hostages from nearby farms, including Colonel Lewis Washington, great-grandnephew of George Washington. They also spread the news to the local slaves that their liberation was at hand. Two of the hostages' slaves also died in the raid.[88]

Things started to go wrong when an eastbound Baltimore & Ohio train approached the town. After holding the train, Brown inexplicably allowed it to continue on its way. At the next station where the telegraph still worked, the conductor sent a telegram to B&O headquarters in Baltimore:

Monocacy, 7.05 A. M., October 17, 1859.
Express train bound east, under my charge, was stopped this morning at Harper's Ferry by armed abolitionists. They have possession of the bridge and the arms and armory of the United States. Myself and Baggage Master have been fired at, and Hayward, the colored porter, is wounded very severely, being shot through the body, the ball entering the body below the left shoulder blade and coming out under the left side.[89]

The railroad sent telegrams to President Buchanan and Virginia Governor Henry A. Wise.

News of the raid reached Baltimore early that morning and Washington by late morning. In the meantime, local farmers, shopkeepers, and militia pinned down the raiders in the armory by firing from the heights behind the town. Some of the local men were shot by Brown's men. At noon, a company of militia seized the bridge, blocking the only escape route. Brown then moved his prisoners and remaining raiders into the fire engine house, a small brick building at the armory's entrance. He had the doors and windows barred and loopholes cut through the brick walls. The surrounding forces barraged the engine house, and the men inside fired back with occasional fury. Brown sent his son Watson and another supporter out under a white flag, but the angry crowd shot them. Intermittent shooting then broke out, and Brown's son Oliver was wounded. His son begged his father to kill him and end his suffering, but Brown said "If you must die, die like a man." A few minutes later, Oliver was dead. The exchanges lasted throughout the day.[citation needed]

Illustration of the interior of the Fort immediately before the door is broken down. Note hostages on the left.

By the morning of October 18 the engine house, later known as John Brown's Fort, was surrounded by a company of U.S. Marines under the command of First Lieutenant Israel Greene, USMC, with Colonel Robert E. Lee of the United States Army in overall command.[90] Army First Lieutenant J. E. B. Stuart approached under a white flag and told the raiders their lives would be spared if they surrendered. Brown refused, saying, "No, I prefer to die here." Stuart then gave a signal. The Marines used sledgehammers and a makeshift battering ram to break down the engine room door. Lieutenant Israel Greene cornered Brown and struck him several times, wounding his head. In three minutes Brown and the survivors were captives.[citation needed]

Altogether, Brown's men killed four people and wounded nine. Ten of Brown's men were killed, including his sons Watson and Oliver. Five escaped, including his son Owen, and seven were captured along with Brown; they were quickly tried and hanged two weeks after John. Among the raiders killed were John Henry Kagi, Lewis Sheridan Leary, and Dangerfield Newby; those hanged besides Brown included John Copeland, Edwin Coppock, Aaron Stevens, and Shields Green.[91][92]

The trial

Brown has just been captured and is interrogated by Virginia Gov. Henry A. Wise and others, October 18, 1859.

Brown and the others captured were held in the office of the armory. On October 18, 1859, Virginia Governor Henry A. Wise, Virginia Senator James M. Mason, and Representative Clement Vallandigham of Ohio arrived in Harpers Ferry. Mason led the three-hour questioning session of Brown.

John Brown - Treason broadside, 1859.png
The old Court House at Charles Town, Jefferson County, Virginia, where John Brown was tried; it stands diagonally across the street from the jail (c. 1906)
The Jefferson County Jail at Charles Town, Virginia (since 1863, West Virginia), where John Brown was imprisoned during and after his trial, since torn down and now the site of the Charles Town post office

Although the attack had taken place on federal property, Wise wanted him tried in Virginia, and President Buchanan did not object. Murder was not a federal crime, nor was inciting a slave insurrection, and federal action would bring abolitionist protests. Brown and his men were tried in Charles Town, the nearby seat of Jefferson County, just 7 miles (11 km) west of Harpers Ferry. The trial began October 27, after a doctor pronounced the still-wounded Brown fit for trial. Brown was charged with murdering four whites and a black, inciting slaves to rebel, and treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia. A series of lawyers were assigned to him, including Lawson Botts, Thomas C. Green, Samuel Chilton, a lawyer from Washington D.C., and George Hoyt, but it was Hiram Griswold, a lawyer from Cleveland, who concluded the defense on October 31. In his closing statement, Griswold argued that Brown could not be found guilty of treason against a state to which he owed no loyalty and of which he was not a resident, that Brown had not killed anyone himself, and that the raid's failure indicated that Brown had not conspired with slaves. Andrew Hunter, the local district attorney, presented the closing arguments for the prosecution.

On November 2, after a week-long trial and 45 minutes of deliberation, the Charles Town jury found Brown guilty on all three counts. He was sentenced to be hanged in public on December 2.

The trial attracted reporters who were able to send their articles via the new telegraph. They were reprinted in numerous papers. This is the first trial in the U.S. to be nationally reported.

November 2 to December 2, 1859

In response to the sentence, Ralph Waldo Emerson remarked that "[John Brown] will make the gallows glorious like the Cross."[citation needed]

Brown publicizes his views on American slavery

Before his conviction, reporters were not allowed access to Brown, "fearing[who?] that he may put forth something calculated to influence the public mind, and to have a bad effect on the slaves."[citation needed] This was much to Brown's frustration, as he stated that he wanted to make a full statement of his motives and intentions through the press.[32]:212 Once he had been convicted, the restriction was lifted, and, glad for the publicity, he talked with reporters and anyone else who wanted to see him. He wrote letters constantly, hundreds of eloquent letters, often published in newspapers,[93]:43 and expressed regret that he could not answer every one of the hundreds more he received. His words exuded spirituality and conviction. Letters picked up by the Northern press won him more supporters in the North while infuriating many white people in the South.

Brown is happy

Under Virginia law, 30 days had to elapse before the death sentence could be carried out. Brown made it clear repeatedly in his letters that these were the happiest days of his life. He would be publicly murdered, as he described it, but he was an old man and, he said, near death anyway. Brown was politically shrewd and realized his execution would strike a massive blow against the Slave Power, a greater blow than he had made so far or had prospects of making otherwise. His death now had a purpose. In the meantime, the death sentence allowed him to publicize his anti-slavery views through the reporters constantly present and through his voluminous correspondence. He received more letters of support than he ever had in his life, and answering as many as he could was his main occupation during that month.

Plans for a rescue

There were well-documented and specific plans to rescue Brown, as Virginia Governor Henry A. Wise wrote to President Buchanan. Throughout the weeks Brown and six of his collaborators were in the Jefferson County Jail in Charles Town, the town was filled with various types of troops and militia, hundreds and sometimes thousands of them. Among them were cadets (students) from the Virginia Military Institute, under the leadership of General Francis H. Smith and Major Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson. The Courthouse was protected by cannon. Brown's trips from the jail to the courthouse and back, and especially the short trip from the jail to the gallows, were heavily guarded. Wise halted all non-military transportation on the Winchester and Potomac Railroad (from Maryland south through Harpers Ferry to Charles Town and Winchester), from the day before through the day after the execution (see Winchester and Potomac Railroad#John Brown's raid). The military orders in Charles Town for the execution day had 14 points.[94]

However, Brown said several times that he did not want to be rescued. He refused the assistance of Silas Soule, a friend from Kansas who somehow infiltrated the Jefferson County Jail one day and offered to break him out during the night and flee northward to New York State and possibly Canada. Brown told Silas that, aged 59, he was too old to live a life on the run from the federal authorities as a fugitive. As he wrote his wife and children from jail, he believed that his "blood will do vastly more towards advancing the cause I have earnestly endeavoured to promote, than all I have done in my life before."[95] "I am worth inconceivably more to hang than for any other purpose."[96]

On December 1, Brown's wife arrived by train in Charles Town, where she joined him at the county jail for his last meal. She was denied permission to stay the night, prompting Brown to lose his composure and temper for the only time during the ordeal.

Victor Hugo's reaction

Victor Hugo, from exile on Guernsey, tried to obtain a pardon for John Brown: he sent an open letter that was published by the press on both sides of the Atlantic. This text, written at Hauteville-House on December 2, 1859, warned of a possible civil war:

Politically speaking, the murder of John Brown would be an uncorrectable sin. It would create in the Union a latent fissure that would in the long run dislocate it. Brown's agony might perhaps consolidate slavery in Virginia, but it would certainly shake the whole American democracy. You save your shame, but you kill your glory. Morally speaking, it seems a part of the human light would put itself out, that the very notion of justice and injustice would hide itself in darkness, on that day where one would see the assassination of Emancipation by Liberty itself. ... Let America know and ponder on this: there is something more frightening than Cain killing Abel, and that is Washington killing Spartacus.

The letter was initially published in the London News and was widely reprinted. After Brown's execution, Hugo wrote a number of additional letters about Brown and the abolitionist cause.[30]:408–10

Abolitionists in the United States saw Hugo's writings as evidence of international support for the anti-slavery cause. The most widely publicized commentary on Brown to reach America from Europe was an 1861 pamphlet, John Brown par Victor Hugo, that included a brief biography and reprinted two letters by Hugo, including that of December 9, 1859. The pamphlet's frontispiece was an engraving of a hanged man by Hugo that became widely associated with the execution.[97]

Death and aftermath

John Brown's last words, passed to a jailor on his way to the gallows. From an albumen print; location of the original is unknown.
Brown riding on his coffin to the place of execution.

On the morning of December 2, 1859, Brown wrote his last comment on slavery:

I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood. I had, as I now think, vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed it might be done.[71]

"Without very much bloodshed" is how he had hoped to end slavery, through the uprising that would start with Harpers Ferry; see the comment from his daughter, above. But this was vanity, self-flattery, and his project failed. Now, the volcano beneath the snow will erupt, and slavery will be ended, but with more than a little blood. It is phrased like a legal document, like a mandate ("I, John Brown, am certain that....").

He read his Bible and wrote a final letter to his wife, which included his will. At 11:00 a.m. he rode, sitting on his coffin in a furniture wagon, from the county jail through a crowd of 2,000 soldiers to a small field a few blocks away, where the gallows were. Among the soldiers in the crowd were future Confederate general Stonewall Jackson, and John Wilkes Booth (the latter borrowing a militia uniform to gain admission to the execution).[98] The poet Walt Whitman, in Year of Meteors, described viewing the execution.[99]

Brown was accompanied by the sheriff and his assistants, but no minister since he refused the ministrations of pro-slavery clergy, who were the only ones available. Since the region was in the grips of virtual hysteria, most Northerners, including journalists, were run out of town, and it is unlikely any anti-slavery clergyman would have been safe, even if one were to have sought to visit Brown. He elected to receive no religious services in the jail or at the scaffold. He was hanged at 11:15 a.m. and pronounced dead at 11:50 a.m.

Transportation of his body

Brown's tombstone, North Elba, New York
Brown's grave

Brown's desire, as told to the jailor in Charles Town, was that his body be burned, "the ashes urned", and his dead sons disenterred and treated likewise.[100][101] However, according to the sheriff of Jefferson County, Virginia law did not allow this, and Mrs. Brown did not want it. Brown's body was placed in a wooden coffin with the noose still around his neck, and the coffin was then put on a train to take it away from Virginia to his family homestead in North Elba, New York for burial.[102]

His body was supposed to be embalmed in Philadelphia, through which the train would pass. There were many Southern pro-slavery medical students and faculty in Philadelphia, and as a direct result, they left the city en masse on December 21, 1859, for Southern medical schools, never to return. However, because of the demonstrations expected from both sides, Philadelphia Mayor Alexander Henry "made a fake casket, covered with flowers and flags[,] which was carefully lifted from the coach and the train and sped onward in its destination.... In reality the train carrying Brown's body never actually stopped in Philadelphia, and thus violence was averted by a 'sham coffin'".[103][104]

In the North, large memorial meetings took place, church bells rang, minute guns were fired, and famous writers such as Emerson and Thoreau joined many Northerners in praising Brown.[105]

On July 4, 1860, family and admirers of Brown gathered at his farm for an informal memorial. This was the last time that the surviving members of Brown's family gathered together. The farm was sold, except for the burial plot. In In 1882 John Jr., Owen, Jason, and Ruth, widow of Henry Thompson, lived in Ohio; his wife and their two unmaried daughters in California.[106]

Senate investigation

Brown, sitting on his coffin on his way to the gallows. Note lines of soldiers on both side, to avoid a rescue.

On December 14, 1859, the U.S. Senate appointed a bipartisan committee to investigate the Harpers Ferry raid and to determine whether any citizens contributed arms, ammunition or money to John Brown's men. The Democrats attempted to implicate the Republicans in the raid; the Republicans tried to disassociate themselves from Brown and his acts.

The Senate committee heard testimony from 32 witnesses, including Liam Dodson, one of the surviving abolitionists. The report, authored by chairman James Murray Mason, a pro-slavery Democrat from Virginia, was published in June 1860. It found no direct evidence of a conspiracy, but implied that the raid was a result of Republican doctrines.[107] The two committee Republicans published a minority report, but were apparently more concerned about denying Northern culpability than clarifying the nature of Brown's efforts. Republicans such as Abraham Lincoln rejected any connection with the raid, calling Brown "insane".[108]

The investigation was performed in a tense environment in both houses of Congress. One senator wrote to his wife that "The members on both sides are mostly armed with deadly weapons and it is said that the friends of each are armed in the galleries." After a heated exchange of insults, a Mississippian attacked Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania with a Bowie knife in the House of Representatives. Stevens' friends prevented a fight.[109]

The Senate committee was very cautious in its questions of two of Brown's backers, Samuel Howe and George Stearns, out of fear of stoking violence. Howe and Stearns later said that the questions were asked in a manner that permitted them to give honest answers without implicating themselves.[110] Civil War historian James M. McPherson stated that "A historian reading their testimony, however, will be convinced that they told several falsehoods."[111]

Aftermath of the raid

In a famous speech 20 years after the war, Frederick Douglass described Brown's influence:

Did John Brown draw his sword against slavery and thereby lose his life in vain? and to this I answer ten thousand times, No! ...If John Brown did not end the war that ended slavery, he did at least begin the war that ended slavery. If we look over the dates, places and men, for which this honor is claimed, we shall find that not Carolina, but Virginia—not Fort Sumpter, but Harper's Ferry and the arsenal—not Col. Anderson, but John Brown, began the war that ended American slavery and made this a free Republic. Until this blow was struck, the prospect for freedom was dim, shadowy and uncertain. The irrepressible conflict was one of words, votes and compromises. When John Brown stretched forth his arm the sky was cleared. The time for compromises was gone—the armed hosts of freedom stood face to face over the chasm of a broken Union—and the clash of arms was at hand.[112]:27–28

John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry was the last in a series of events that led to the American Civil War.[113] Southern slaveowners, hearing initial reports that hundreds of abolitionists were involved, were relieved the effort was so small, but feared other abolitionists would emulate Brown and attempt to lead slave rebellions.[30]:6 Future Confederate President Jefferson Davis feared "thousands of John Browns".[114] Therefore, the South reorganized the decrepit militia system. These militias, well-established by 1861, became a ready-made Confederate army, making the South better prepared for war.[115]

Southern Democrats charged that Brown's raid was an inevitable consequence of the political platform of what they invariably called "the Black Republican Party". In light of the upcoming elections in November 1860, the Republicans tried to distance themselves as much as possible from Brown, condemning the raid and dismissing its leader as an insane fanatic. As one historian explains, Brown was successful in polarizing politics: "Brown's raid succeeded brilliantly. It drove a wedge through the already tentative and fragile Opposition–Republican coalition and helped to intensify the sectional polarization that soon tore the Democratic party and the Union apart."[115]

Many abolitionists in the North viewed Brown as a martyr, sacrificed for the sins of the nation. Immediately after the raid, Wm. Lloyd Garrison published a column in The Liberator, judging Brown's raid "well-intended but sadly misguided" and "wild and futile".[116] But he defended Brown's character from detractors in the Northern and Southern press, and argued that those who supported the principles of the American Revolution could not consistently oppose Brown's raid. On the day Brown was hanged, Garrison reiterated the point in Boston: "whenever commenced, I cannot but wish success to all slave insurrections".[117]

As Douglass put it in the speech just cited, "His zeal in the cause of my race was far greater than mine—it was as the burning sun to my taper light—mine was bounded by time, his stretched away to the boundless shores of eternity. I could live for the slave, but he could die for him."[112]:9

Views of contemporaries

Between 1859 and Lincoln's assassination in 1865, Brown was the most famous American, hero and icon to the North, and traitor to the South. According to Frederick Douglass, "He was with the troops during that war, he was seen in every camp fire, and our boys pressed onward to victory and freedom, timing their feet to the stately stepping of Old John Brown as his soul went marching on."[118] Douglass called him "a brave and glorious old man. ...History has no better illustration of pure, disinterested benevolence."[30]:254

Other Black leaders of the time—Martin Delany, Henry Highland Garnet, Harriet Tubman—also knew and respected Brown. "Tubman thought Brown was the greatest white man who ever lived,"[119] and she said later he did more for American blacks than Lincoln did.[120]

Black businesses across the North closed on the day of his execution.[6]:180 Church bells tolled across the North.[6]:179

According to W. E. B. Du Bois in his 1909 biography, "John Brown was right". Brown's raid stood as "a great white light—an unwavering, unflickering brightness, blinding by its all-seeing brilliance, making the whole world simply a light and a darkness—a right and a wrong."[121]

Shortly after Brown's death, Victor Hugo predicted it "would open a latent fissure that will finally split the Union asunder", and many poets responded to the event. In 1863 Julia Ward Howe wrote the popular hymn the Battle Hymn of the Republic to the tune of "John Brown's body", which included a line "As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free", comparing Brown's sacrifice to that of Jesus Christ.[6]:179

Views of historians and other writers

Writers continue to vigorously debate Brown's personality, sanity, motivations, morality, and relation to abolitionism.[15] In his posthumous The Impending Crisis, 1848–1861 (1976), David Potter argued that the emotional effect of Brown's raid exceeded the philosophical effect of the Lincoln–Douglas debates, and reaffirmed a deep division between North and South. Malcolm X said that white people could not join his black nationalist Organization of Afro-American Unity, but "if John Brown were still alive, we might accept him".[122]

Some writers describe Brown as a monomaniacal zealot, others as a hero. In 1931, the United Daughters of the Confederacy and Sons of Confederate Veterans erected a counter-monument, to Heyward Shepherd, a free black man who was the first fatality of the Harpers Ferry raid, claiming without evidence that he was a "representative of Negroes of the neighborhood, who would not take part".[123] By the mid-20th century, some scholars were fairly convinced that Brown was a fanatic and killer, while some African Americans sustained a positive view of him.[124] According to Stephen Oates, "unlike most Americans at his time, he had no racism. He treated blacks equally. ...He was a success, a tremendous success because he was a catalyst of the Civil War. He didn't cause it but he set fire to the fuse that led to the blow up."[125] Journalist Richard Owen Boyer considered Brown "an American who gave his life that millions of other Americans might be free", and others held similarly positive views.[126][127][128]

Several 21st-century works about Brown are notable for the absence of hostility that characterized similar works a century earlier (when Lincoln's anti-slavery views were de-emphasized).[6]:181–89 Journalist and documentary writer Ken Chowder considers Brown "stubborn ... egoistical, self-righteous, and sometimes deceitful; yet ... at certain times, a great man" and argues that Brown has been adopted by both the left and right, and his actions "spun" to fit the world view of the spinner at various times in American history.[15] Toledo (2002), Peterson (2002), DeCaro (2002, 2007), Reynolds (2005), and Carton (2006) are critically appreciative of Brown's history, far from the opinions of earlier writers.[129] The shift to an appreciative perspective moves many white historians toward the view long held by black scholars such as W. E. B. Du Bois, Benjamin Quarles, and Lerone Bennett, Jr.[130]


Once the Reconstruction era ended and the country distanced itself from the anti-slavery cause and the martial law imposed in the South, the historical view of Brown changed. In the 1880s, Brown's detractors—some of them[who?] contemporaries now embarrassed by their former fervent abolitionism—began to produce virulent exposés, emphasizing the Pottawatomie killings of 1856. Historian James Loewen surveyed American history textbooks prior to 1995 and noted that until about 1890, historians considered Brown perfectly sane, but from about 1890 until 1970, he was generally portrayed as insane. After that, new interpretations[which?] began to gain ground.[6]:173–203

Although Oswald Garrison Villard's 1910 biography of Brown was thought to be friendly (Villard being the grandson of abolitionist Garrison), he also added fuel to the anti-Brown fire by criticizing him as a muddled, pugnacious, bumbling, and homicidal madman.[15][131] Villard himself was a pacifist and admired Brown in many respects, but his interpretation of the facts provided a paradigm for later anti-Brown writers. Similarly, a 1923 textbook stated, "the farther we getaway from the excitement of 1859 the more we are disposed to consider this extraordinary man the victim of mental delusions."[132]

In 1978, NYU historian Albert Fried concluded that historians who portrayed Brown as a dysfunctional figure are "really informing me of their predilections, their judgment of the historical event, their identification with the moderates and opposition to the 'extremists.'"[133] This view of Brown has come to prevail in academic writing as well as in journalism. Biographer Louis DeCaro Jr. wrote in 2007, "there is no consensus of fairness with respect to Brown in either the academy or the media."[134] More recent portrayals of Brown as another Timothy McVeigh or Osama bin Laden[15][135] may still reflect the same bias Fried discussed a generation ago.

  • Some historians, such as Paul Finkelman, compare Brown to contemporary terrorists such as Osama bin Laden and Timothy McVeigh,[136] Finkelman calling him "simply part of a very violent world" and further stating that Brown "is a bad tactician, a bad strategist, he's a bad planner, he's not a very good general—but he's not crazy".[15]
  • Historian James Gilbert labels Brown a terrorist by 21st-century criteria.[137] Gilbert writes: "Brown's deeds conform to contemporary definitions of terrorism, and his psychological predispositions are consistent with the terrorist model."[138]
  • Biographer Stephen B. Oates has described Brown as "maligned as a demented dreamer ... (but) in fact one of the most perceptive human beings of his generation".[139]
External video
video icon Presentation by Reynolds on John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights, May 12, 2005, C-SPAN
  • Biographer David S. Reynolds gives Brown credit for starting the Civil War or "killing slavery", and cautions others against identifying Brown with terrorism.[140] Reynolds saw Brown as inspiring the Civil Rights Movement a century later, adding "it is misleading to identify Brown with modern terrorists."[141]
  • Biographer Louis A. DeCaro Jr., who has debunked many historical allegations about Brown's early life and public career, concludes that although he "was hardly the only abolitionist to equate slavery with sin, his struggle against slavery was far more personal and religious than it was for many abolitionists, just as his respect and affection for black people was far more personal and religious than it was for most enemies of slavery".[142]
  • Historian and Brown documentary scholar Louis Ruchames wrote: "Brown's action was one of great idealism and placed him in the company of the great liberators of mankind."[143]
  • Biographer Otto Scott introduced his work on Brown by writing: "In the late 1850s a new type of political assassin appeared in the United States. He did not murder the mighty—but the obscure. ... his purposes were the same as those of his classic predecessors: to force the nation into a new political pattern by creating terror."[144]
  • Lawyer Brian Harris writes: "Whatever view you take of the consequences of Harpers Ferry, and for all that it was a botched job which resulted in the unnecessary deaths of innocents, it had at least the merit of having been undertaken for the noblest of motives. The same cannot be said for the sadistic butchery that was Pottawatomie. It served no useful purpose other than to vent an old man's rage, and Brown is the smaller for it."[145]


Anti-Donald Trump protestors remember John Brown, Greensboro, NC, 2017. Note the image of Brown from Tragic Prelude.

The connection between John Brown's life and many of the slave uprisings in the Caribbean was clear from the outset. Brown was born during the period of the Haitian Revolution, which saw Haitian slaves revolting against the French. The role the revolution played in helping to formulate Brown's abolitionist views directly is not clear; however, the revolution had an obvious effect on the general view towards slavery in the northern United States, and in the Southern states it was a warning of horror (as they viewed it) possibly to come. As W. E. B. Du Bois notes, the involvement of slaves in the American Revolutions, as well as the "upheaval in Hayti, and the new enthusiasm for human rights, led to a wave of emancipation which started in Vermont during the Revolution and swept through New England and Pennsylvania, ending finally in New York and New Jersey".[25]:80–81 This changed sentiment, which occurred during the late 18th and early 19th century, undoubtedly had a role in creating Brown's abolitionist opinion, during his upbringing.

The 1839 slave insurrection aboard the Spanish ship La Amistad, off the coast of Cuba, provides a poignant example of John Brown's support and appeal towards Caribbean slave revolts. On La Amistad, Joseph Cinqué and approximately 50 other slaves captured the ship, slated to transport them from Havana to Puerto Príncipe, Cuba, in July 1839, and attempted to return to Africa. However, through trickery, the ship ended up in the United States, where Cinque and his men stood trial. Ultimately, the courts acquitted the men because at the time the international slave trade was illegal in the United States.[30]:54 According to Brown's daughter, "Turner and Cinque stood first in esteem" among Brown's black heroes. Furthermore, she noted Brown's "admiration of Cinques' character and management in carrying his points with so little bloodshed!"[32]:46 In 1850, Brown would refer affectionately to the revolt, in saying "Nothing so charms the American people as personal bravery. Witness the case of Cinques, of everlasting memory, on board the Amistad."[30]:54–55 The slave revolts of the Caribbean had a clear and important impact on Brown's views toward slavery and his staunch support of the most severe forms of abolitionism. However, this is not the most important part of the many revolts' legacy of influencing Brown.

The specific knowledge John Brown gained from the tactics employed in the Haitian Revolution, and other Caribbean revolts, was of paramount importance when Brown turned his sights to the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. As Brown's cohort Richard Realf explained to a committee of the 36th Congress, "he had posted himself in relation to the wars of Toussaint L'Ouverture;[146] he had become thoroughly acquainted with the wars in Hayti and the islands round about."[25]:216 By studying the slave revolts of the Caribbean region, Brown learned a great deal about how to properly conduct guerilla warfare. A key element to the prolonged success of this warfare was the establishment of maroon communities, which are essentially colonies of runaway slaves. As a contemporary article notes, Brown would use these establishments to "retreat from and evade attacks he could not overcome. He would maintain and prolong a guerilla war, of which ... Haiti afforded" an example.[30]:106

The idea of creating maroon communities was the impetus for the creation of John Brown's "Provisional Constitution and Ordinances for the People of the United States", which helped to detail how such communities would be governed. However, the idea of maroon colonies of slaves is not an idea exclusive to the Caribbean region. In fact, maroon communities riddled the southern United States between the mid-1600s and 1864, especially in the Great Dismal Swamp region of Virginia and North Carolina. Similar to the Haitian Revolution, the Seminole Wars, fought in modern-day Florida, saw the involvement of maroon communities, which although outnumbered by native allies were more effective fighters.[30]:106

Although the maroon colonies of North America undoubtedly had an effect on John Brown's plan, their impact paled in comparison to that of the maroon communities in places like Haiti, Jamaica, and Surinam. Accounts by Brown's friends and cohorts prove this idea. Richard Realf, a cohort of Brown in Kansas, noted that Brown not only studied the slave revolts in the Caribbean, but focused more specifically on the maroons of Jamaica and those involved in Haiti's liberation.[147] Brown's friend Richard Hinton similarly noted that Brown knew "by heart" the occurrences in Jamaica and Haiti.[30]:107 Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a cohort of Brown's and a member of the Secret Six, stated that Brown's plan involved getting "together bands and families of fugitive slaves" and "establish them permanently in those [mountain] fastnesses, like the Maroons of Jamaica and Surinam".[148] Brown had planned for the maroon colonies established to be "durable", and thus able to endure over a prolonged period of war.

The similarities between John Brown's attempted insurrection and the Haitian Revolution in methods, motivations, and resolve is still seen today: the main avenue in Haiti's capital Port-au-Prince is still named for Brown as a sign of solidarity.[149]


Of the major figures associated with the American Civil War, except for President Lincoln, Brown is the most studied and pondered. Already in 1899 a bibliography fills 10 pages, and that without including any newspaper articles.[150][151] Since then there has never been another comprehensive bibliography, although there are numerous shorter guides. A WorldCat search for books on John Brown finds 867 printed books and pamphlets, as of 2021. 391 are available online as ebooks, most but not all of them free to access.

At he same time he is the most studied, except for Lincoln, Brown is the least commemorated. Places where he lived have been conserved as museums, and there are many historical markers, but he is hardly honored. No state, federal, or local government in the United States honors Brown, beyond maintaining the small museums. For example, there is no monument to Brown in Harpers Ferry, where his raid is not fondly remembered; the popular mayor was among those killed. There is, instead, a monument to the faithful slave that allegedly refused to join him.

As early as 1861,

The people of the town [Harpers Ferry] are annoyed at the constant Inquiry about the hero of Harper's Ferry—and perhaps one cause of the bitterness is the commotion created by the arrest and death of Mr. Brown.[152]

In 1895, the Kansas Legislature selected Brown as one of two statues representing the state in the National Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol, a response to Virginia having chosen Robert E. Lee. It was never funded,[52] no sculptor was ever chosen, and in 1914 Brown was "replaced" by a statue of George Washington Glick.

At the centenary of the raid in 1959, the only thing celebrated in Harpers Ferry was the capture of Brown. A "sanitized" play about him was put on.[153]:200 "My grandpappy was a Confederate and we're not going to talk about John Brown", said Edwin M. Dale, at the time the Superintendent of the national park.[153]:195

At the 150th anniversary in 2009, a chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, calling themselves the Army of Northern Virginia held a Heyward Shepherd Day together with their annual meeting, held in John Brown's Fort.

Many today try to whitewash Brown’s crimes and call him a martyr. Mr. Hines will discuss Brown’s true motivations and his association with a group of famous Northern abolitionists (the Secret 6) who financed his plot and encouraged him to murder and commit crimes against his fellow Americans.[154]

In 2021, the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park neither mentions Brown nor the raid on its main page ([1]). While there are historical background pages on them, they are not easy to find nor highlighted in any way.

John Brown and his raid honored primarily by Blacks

Life-size white marble statue of John Brown, on the abandoned campus of the closed Western University, Quindaro ghost town, Kansas City, Kansas.
John Brown statue as it appeared on the former Western University campus
  • There is only one major street anywhere in the world honoring Brown, the Avenue John Brown in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. where there is also an avenue honoring abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner.
  • The first statue of Brown, and the only one not at one of his residences, is that located on the (new) John Brown Memorial Plaza, on the former campus of the closed Black Western University, site of a freedmen's school founded in 1865, the first Black school west of the Mississippi River. The statue is all that remains of the former campus, the buildings having been torn down after it closed in 1943. Now with a plaza built around it, giving it some context, the statue is the one surviving structure of the entire Quindaro Townsite, a ghost town today part of Kansas City, Kansas (27th Street and Sewell Avenue), a major Underground Railroad station, a key port on the Missouri River for fugitive slaves and contrabands escaping from the slave state of Missouri. The pillar and the life-sized statue of Brown were erected by descendants of slaves in 1911, at a cost of $2,000 (equivalent to $54,879 in 2019).[155] Lettering reads: "Erected to the Memory of John Brown by a Grateful People". There is a bronze plaque. In March 2018, the statue was defaced with swastikas and "Hail Satan".[156]
  • Storer College began as the first school for Blacks at any level in West Virginia, the first school teaching Blacks to read. Its location in Harpers Ferry was because of the importance of Brown and his raid. The Arsenal engine house, renamed John Brown's Fort, was moved to the Storer campus in 1909, and many students were required to practice public speaking by giving tours of it. Rooms for Blacks were available in Harpers Ferry: there was a black-owned hotel, the Hilltop House, run by a Storer graduate, and Storer rented dormitory rooms to the public in the summer. Storer, the Fort, and the wonderful views and lower summer temperatures turned Harpers Ferry into a destination for Black tourists. In the summer, excursion trains ran from Baltimore and Washington, D.C.

Harpers Ferry and Jefferson County were never proud of Storer College; they tried to have its charter revoked and its appropriations cut or eliminated. Stones were thrown at faculty. In 1898 public pressure forced Storer to stop renting dormitory rooms to Black tourists and boardeds; white tourists, what few there were, were still welcome. Storer's first Black president was greeted, in 1944, by a cross burning on his lawn.[159]

    • A Plaque honoring Brown was attached to the Fort while it was on the Storer campus:
Plaque on John Brown's Fort


In 1931, after years of controversy, a tablet was erected in Harpers Ferry by the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the United Daughters of the Confederacy, honoring the key "Lost Cause" belief that their slaves were happy and neither wanted freedom nor supported John Brown. (See Heyward Shepherd monument.) The president of Storer participated in the dedication. In response, W. E. B. DuBois, co-founder of the NAACP, wrote text for a new plaque in 1932. The Storer College administration would not allow it to be put it up, nor did the National Park Service after becoming owner of the Fort. In 2006, it was placed at the site on the former Storer campus where the Fort had been located. While the Fort is the most visited tourist site in the state of West Virginia, only a few visitors see the NAACP plaque:

AND 4,000,000 FREEDMEN
MAY 21, 1932

John Brown Day

In 2017, the Vermont Legislature designated October 16, the date of the raid, as John Brown Day.[160][161]

In 2016, John Brown Lives! Friends of Freedom celebrated May 7 as John Brown Day.[162] Brown was born on May 9, 1800.

In 1906, the Niagara Movement, predecessor of the NAACP, celebrated John Brown Day on August 17.

Meetings in honor of John Brown

In 1946, the John Brown Memorial Association held its 24th annual pilgrimage to the grave in North Elba, where there were memorial services.[163]

At the 150th anniversary of the raid In 2009, a two-day symposium, "John Brown Comes Home", was held, on the influence and reverberations of Brown's raid, using facilities in adjacent Lake Placid. Speakers included Bernadine Dohrn and a great-great-great-granddaughter of Brown, according to whom, at least in her line of the family, having Brown was a secret, something hidden from her as a child.[164][165]

John Brown sites and museums

Statue of Brown in front of the John Brown Museum, Osawatomie, Kansas


  • A small John Brown Museum and a John Brown Wax Museum have operated in Harpers Ferry.

All of the museums are places Brown lived, or stayed at.

Other John Brown sites

Lost museum

  • Barnum's American Museum in New York, destroyed by fire in 1868, contained according to a November 7, 1859, advertisement "a full-length Wax Figure of OSAWATOMIE BROWN, taken from life, and a KNIFE found on the body of his son, at Harper's Ferry".[175] By December 7 the exhibits included "his autograph Commission to a Lieutenancy as well as TWO PIKES or spears taken at Harper's Ferry".[176] Also exhibited were the Augustus Washington 1847 daguerrotype of Brown (see above) and the now-lost 7 x 10 ft. (2 x 3 m.) painting by Louis Ransom of the famous, apocryphal incident of Brown kissing a black baby on his way to the gallows, reproduced in an Currier & Ives print (see below) The Graduate Center of the City University of New York and George Mason University have recreated a virtual 3-D model of much of the museum, as well as indexing its known contents.[177]


The two most noted screen portrayals of Brown were both given by actor Raymond Massey. The 1940 film Santa Fe Trail, starring Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland, depicted Brown completely unsympathetically as an out-and-out villainous madman; Massey plays him with a constant, wild-eyed stare. The film gave the impression that it did not oppose slavery, even to the point of having a Black "mammy" character say, after an especially fierce battle, "Mr. Brown done promised us freedom, but ... if this is freedom, I don't want no part of it". Massey portrayed Brown again in the little-known, low-budget Seven Angry Men, in which he was not only the main character, but depicted in a much more restrained, sympathetic way.[178] Massey, along with Tyrone Power and Judith Anderson, starred in the acclaimed 1953 dramatic reading of Stephen Vincent Benet's epic Pulitzer Prize-winning poem John Brown's Body (1928). Three actors in formal dress recited and acted in a two-hour presentation of the poem. The production toured 60 cities in 28 states.[179]

Numerous American poets have written poems about him, including John Greenleaf Whittier, Louisa May Alcott, and Walt Whitman.[180] The Polish poet Cyprian Kamil Norwid wrote two poems praising Brown: "John Brown" and the better known "Do obywatela Johna Brown" ("To Citizen John Brown").[181] Marching Song (1932) is an unpublished play about the legend of John Brown by Orson Welles.[182]:222–26 Russell Banks's 1998 biographical novel about Brown, Cloudsplitter, was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. It is narrated by Brown's surviving son Owen.[183] James McBride's 2013 novel The Good Lord Bird tells Brown's story through the eyes of a young slave, Henry Shackleford, who accompanies Brown to Harpers Ferry. The novel won the 2013 National Book Award for Fiction.[184] A limited episode series based on the book was released starring Ethan Hawke as John Brown.[185]


John Brown as Christ, en route to his execution, with a black mother and her mulatto child. Above his head, the flag of Virginia, and its motto, Sic semper tyrannis. Currier and Ives print, 1863.
  • The best-known image of Brown in the later 19th century is a Currier and Ives print, based on a lost painting by Louis Ransom.[186] It portrays Brown as a Christ-like figure. The "Virgin and Child" typically depicted with Christ are here a black mother and mulatto child (see Children of the plantation). Legend says that Brown kissed the mythical baby. (Virtually all scholars agree that this did not in fact take place.[93]:50) Above Brown's head, like a halo, the flag of Virginia and its motto, Sic semper tyrannis ("Thus always to tyrants"); according to Brown's supporters, the government of Virginia was tyrannical.
Brown in Tragic Prelude, a mural in the Kansas State Capitol. He carries in one hand a Bible and in the other a Beecher's Bible (rifle). Union and Confederate forces are fighting, with casualties. A tornado approaches in the background, as does a prairie fire, both common in Kansas.
  • In 1938, Kansas painter John Steuart Curry was commissioned to prepare murals for the Kansas State Capitol in Topeka, Kansas. He chose as his subject the Kansan John Brown, seen by many as the most important man in Kansas history. In the resulting mural, Tragic Prelude, Brown holds a Bible in one hand and a "Beecher's Bible" (rifle) in the other. Behind him are Union and Confederate troops, with dead soldiers; a reference to the Bleeding Kansas period, which Brown was at the center of, and which was commonly seen to have been a dress rehearsal, a "tragic prelude", to the increasingly inevitable Civil War. Brown's last words before his execution were that he had concluded that violence was unfortunately necessary, and desirable, since there were no other means to end slavery.[187]
Frederick Douglass argued against John Brown's plan to attack the arsenal at Harpers Ferry, painting by Jacob Lawrence.
  • In 1941, Jacob Lawrence illustrated Brown's life in The Legend of John Brown, a series of 22 gouache paintings. By 1977, these were in such fragile condition that they could not be displayed, and the Detroit Institute of Arts had to commission Lawrence to recreate the series as silkscreen prints. The result was a limited-edition portfolio of 22 hand-screened prints, published with a poem, John Brown, by Robert Hayden, commissioned specifically for the project. Though Brown had been a popular topic for many painters, The Legend of John Brown was the first series to explore his legacy from an African-American perspective.[188] Paintings such as Hovenden's The Last Moments of John Brown immortalize an apocryphal story in which a Black woman offers the condemned Brown her baby to kiss on his way to the gallows. It was probably a tale invented by journalist James Redpath.[189]

Historical markers

Archival material

Of the court material regarding the trial itself, only the "order book, as it is called, containing the minutes of John Brown's trial", was preserved. "All of the other documents and writs, the indictment, the charge of the Judge, and so on, are gone, nobody knows where."[191] Brown's judge Richard Parker evidently had this order book in his hands when writing those words in 1888.

Since John Brown moved around a lot, had a large family, and carried on an extensive correspondence, including letters to editors,[192]:167 archival material on him and his circle is abundant and widely scattered. There has never been a complete edition of his extant correspondence; the one scholarly attempt, from 1885, produced a book of 645 pages, "but I have in my hands", wrote editor F. B. Sanborn, "letters enough to fill another book, and have been not able to use them."[193]:vi

The best collection of archival material related to John Brown and his raid is at the West Virginia Archives and History, which owns the largest single collection on Brown ever assembled, the Boyd B. Stutler Collection. The extensive archive of Brown biographer Oswald Garrison Villard is in the Columbia University Library. For his activities in Kansas, the best source is Kansas Memory, a project of the Kansas Historical Society.

Another significant collection is in Hudson, Ohio, Brown's home town, in the Hudson Library and Historical Society.

Documents destroyed

After Brown's arrest, many people, such as Gerrit Smith, began destroying correspondence and other documents because they feared accusations of helping Brown and consequent criminal charges.

John Brown's missing carpet-bag

According to Prosecutor Andrew Hunter,

John Brown had with him when captured at Harpers Ferry a carpet-bag in which were his constitution for a provisional government and other papers. He had placed it in one corner of the engine house, and there it was found when the marines charged and captured the survivors. Mr. Hunter took possession of the carpet-bag and carried it to Charlestown. He kept it and its contents. He added to the papers the letters which were forwarded to the prisoners and not delivered to them. Ordinary letters were allowed to pass to the prisoners after Mr. Hunter had examined them. But those letters which seemed to contain information bearing upon the organization in the North, Mr. Hunter confiscated and kept. He had between seventy and eighty of these letters, and he placed them in John Brown's carpet-bag. Other important documents bearing upon the secret history ot the case went into the same receptacle, and much of the matter nobody but Mr. Hunter saw.[194]

There was correspondence from Frederick Douglass and Gerrit Smith, among many others. Hugh Forbes said that the carpet-bag may have contained "an abundant supply of my correspondence".[195]

Alex R. Boteler, member-elect to Congress from this district, has collected from fifty to one hundred letters from the citizens of the neighborhood of Brown's house [the Kennedy farm], who searched it becore the arnvai of thr Marines. The letters are in the possession of Andrew Hunter, Esq., who has a large number of letters obtained from Brown's house by the Marines and other parties. Among them is a roll of the conspirators, containing forty-seven signatures; also a receipt from Horace Greeley for letters, &c. receivcd from Brown, and an accurately traced map from Chambersburg to Brown's house; copies of letters from Brown, stating that as the arrival of too many men at once would excite suspicion, they should arrive singly; a letter from Merriam, stating that of the twenty thousand wanted, G[errit] S[mith], was good for one-fifth; also a letter from J. E. Cook....[196]

The carpet-bag also contained maps:

They were not ordinary maps of the country but contained such data as showed they were the plans on which campaigns were to be conducted. Besides the map of Virginia, there was one of Louisiana, one of North Carolina, and one of Kentucky. They located the State arsenals, indicated how attacks might be made successfully, and showed where strong natural retreats might be found.[194]

Another item, used at his trial as evidence of sedition, were bundles of printed copies of his Provisional Constitution, prepared for the "state" Brown intended to set up in the Appalachian Mountains. Even less known is Brown's "Declaration of Liberty", imitating the Declaration of Independence.[192]:162–163

Hunter personally took the carpet-bag to Richmond, because he thought it would be safer there. He was at the time a member of the Virginia State Senate. In 1865, when Lee advised that he could no longer defend Richmond, Hunter did not want the "Yankees" to find the carpet-bag. He thought that the Capitol was as safe a place as any in Richmond, and he asked Commonwealth Secretary George Wythe Munford if he could hide it in the Capitol. "Munford told me that he has taken the carpet-bag up to the cock-loft of the Capitol and had let down the bag between the wall and the plastering, and I believe those papers are there yet."[194]

Munford died in 1882. Between then and 1888, Sherwin McRee of the Virginia State Library "was much interested, for there is valuable historical matter in that old carpet-bag". McRee was unable to find it.[194]



  • Featherstonhaugh, Thomas (1897). "A Bibliography of John Brown". Publications of the Southern History Association. 1: 196–202.
  • Featherstonhaugh, Thomas (1899). "Bibliography of John Brown Part Ii". Publications of the Southern History Association. 3: 302–306.

Primary sources

Secondary sources

Historical fiction



Further online resources

See also


  1. ^ Foner, Philip S. (1964). Frederick Douglass: Selections from His Writings. New York: International Publishers. pp. 25–26. OCLC 911783030.
  2. ^ S[pring], R[ebecca] B[uffum] (December 2, 1859). "A Visit to John Brown. By a lady". New-York Tribune. p. 6 – via
  3. ^ Frothingham, Octavius Brooks (1879). Gerrit Smith: A Biography. G. P. Putnam's Sons. p. 252.
  4. ^ a b Smith, Narcissa Macy (September 1895). "Reminiscences of John Brown". The Midland Monthly. 4 (3): 231–236.
  5. ^ a b c DeCaro, Louis (2002). "Fire from the Midst of You": A Religious Life of John Brown. New York: NYU Press. ISBN 978-0814719220. Retrieved August 1, 2020.
  6. ^ a b c d e f Loewen, James W. (2008). Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong (Revised and updated ed.). New York: The New Press. ISBN 978-1595583260.
  7. ^ "The Harper's Ferry Outbreak". New York Daily Herald. Reprinted in The Liberator, October 28, 1859. October 21, 1859. p. 1 – via maint: others (link)
  8. ^ Mason, James M.; Collamer, Jacob (June 15, 1860). Report [of] the Select committee of the Senate appointed to inquire into the late invasion and seizure of the public property at Harper's Ferry. p. 149.
  9. ^ "John Brown's Son". Chicago Tribune (Chicago, Illinois). October 19, 1882. p. 6 – via
  10. ^ "John Brown's Son Watson". Cincinnati Commercial. October 23, 1882. p. 7 – via
  11. ^ a b c d "Watson Brown's Remains". Indianapolis Journal. October 18, 1882. p. 2 – via
  12. ^ a b c Hinton, Richard J. (1894). John Brown and his men; with some account of the roads they traveled to reach Harper's Ferry, by Richard J. Hinton. Boston: Funk & Wagnalls.
  13. ^ Thompson, George (May 6, 1865). "Letter to the editor". National Anti-Slavery Standard. p. 2.
  14. ^ Anderson, Osborne Perry (1861). A Voice from Harper's Ferry. A Narrative of Events at Harper's Ferry; with incidents prior and subsequent to its capture by John Brown and his men>. Boston: Published by the author. pp. 5–7.
  15. ^ a b c d e f Ken Chowder. "The Father of American Terrorism Archived November 7, 2018, at the Wayback Machine". American Heritage. February/March 2000.
  16. ^ "John Brown Resources". Hudson Library and Historical Society. 2021. Retrieved February 4, 2021.
  17. ^ Torrington Historical Society (2017). "John Brown Birthplace Site". Retrieved November 15, 2018.
  18. ^ a b c d e f g h Sanford, F B; Brown, John (1878). Memoirs of John Brown, written for Rev. Samuel Orcutt's History of Torrington, Ct., by F. B. Sanborn, with memorial verses by William Ellery Channing. Concord, Massachusetts. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  19. ^ a b c d e "John Brown's early history—Almost A D. D. [sic]". The Liberator (Boston, Massachusetts). November 25, 1859. p. 1 – via
  20. ^ "Capt John Brown III". Retrieved December 26, 2020.
  21. ^ Wyatt-Brown, Bertram (1995). "'A Volcano Beneath a Mountain of Snow': John Brown and the Problem of Interpretation". In Finkleman, Paul (ed.). His Soul Goes Marching On. Responses to John Brown and the Harpers Ferry Raid. Charlottesville, Virginia: University Press of Virginia. pp. 9–38, at p. 19. ISBN 0813915368.
  22. ^ a b c d e f g h Villard, Oswald Garrison (1910). John Brown 1800–1859: A Biography Fifty Years After. Houghton Mifflin.
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