Of all the men who were said to be my contemporaries, it seemed to me that John Brown was the only one who had not died. . . . I meet him at every turn. He is more alive than ever he was. He has earned immortality. He is not confined to North Elba nor to Kansas. He is no longer working in secret. He works in public, and in the clearest light that shines on this land.

Henry David Thoreau

Search This Blog & Links



Popular Posts

Total Pageviews

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Dwight Jenkins: "Inescapable thoughts and music upon visiting John Brown's grave"

Thursday, July 07, 2016

John Brown’s Iowa Correspondence, July 1857

If the record of his correspondence tells us anything about John Brown in 1857, it is that this was perhaps the busiest and most active year of his public life as a radical abolitionist.  By my reckoning, Brown wrote just over 160 letters in 1857, and unfortunately about fifty-six of them are no longer extant, and can be accounted for only because Brown kept a record of his correspondence in a journal. 
 The 1857 letters, when placed in chronological order, trace Brown’s movement westward, beginning with a good many letters written from New England in the first quarter of the year, and in April they show his return home to North Elba, New York, his movement within the latter state, and then his progress toward Ohio by June.  For the rest of that month, Brown moved between Ohio and Chicago, and ended up back in Ohio before moving farther west.  By July, we have Brown in Iowa, where the several letters presented here were written, including his famous autobiographical sketch for the son of his “Secret Six” support, George L. Stearns.   

For the rest of the year, Brown remained mostly in Iowa, with some trips over to the Kansas Territory, but the bulk of his correspondence shows him in Tabor, Iowa, on the extreme western side of the state.  At the end of 1857, as he proceeded eastward, the record shows his last letter written from Springdale, Iowa, on the northeastern corner of the state, on December 30; he remained in Springdale with his Quaker friends well into January before making an extended visit at the home of Frederick Douglass in Rochester, New York.

Iowa, July 1857

In the summer of 1857, Brown’s intention for Iowa was to reach Tabor, where he had intended to set up a training camp for his men.  Tabor was located in Fremont County, in the far southwestern section of Iowa, near the border of Kansas.  It had been his intention to have the training of his men overseen by the Englishman Hugh Forbes, ostensibly a former associate of the Italian patriot, Garibaldi.  Forbes disappointed Brown first by becoming difficult and abandoning his men in Iowa, and then by becoming a whining traitor who was far more interested in money than in liberation.  The more obvious issues that plagued Brown in the summer of 1857, however, were his lack of solvency despite promises of support from friends in the east.  Likewise, Brown was struggling with the Ague, a malarial kind of prairie fever and sickness that afflicted him off and on into the last year of his life.

Reaching Iowa City in Johnson County, in the northeastern section of the state, Brown wrote his first July letter of 1857, updating his wife Mary back home in New York State.  It is hard not to think that Brown was not thinking of his efforts in light of his Revolutionary forebears, noting that he had arrived in Iowa City two days before.  What follows is a literal transcription: 

Iowa City, Iowa, 6,th July, 1857.

Dear Wife & Children every one.  I reached this place on the 4th inst leaveing Owen behind with a team at Davenport, which we brought from Ohio; as the freight Cars did not run on the 4th. I expect him on today; & to start on our overland route in a day or two.  I have been midling well of late; & Owen is well.  I tried hard to send you some more Flour & some Leather from Ohio, & from Chicago; but could not make it out.  Possibly I may be able to send another small Draft before long.  I hope to hear all about how you get along all of you; when I get to Tabor; & I wish you to continue writing (Nelson Hawkins [)] at Tabor: till I direct differently.  To the God of my Fathers I commend you all. 

Your Affectionate Husband; & Father,

John Brown1

Brown mentions leaving his son Owen with a team of livestock at Davenport, which is located on the extreme eastern side of the state, while he had proceeded farther, though still in eastern Iowa.  This brief letter reveals Brown’s ongoing concern to provide for his family back home, and his constant need of cash, the latter being one of his biggest problems throughout the summer of 1857.  He instructs Mary to write to him at Tabor (on the extreme western side of the state), and to use a pseudonym, Nelson Hawkins.  In my research some years back, I discerned that this is not an invented name.  Nelson Hawkins was a young carpenter from the Akron area, and an associate of his adult sons Jason and John Junior. 

A Curious Issue

At this point, a curious issue arises in the chronology of Brown’s July 1857 letters from Iowa.  Not included here is the famous autobiographical letter that the abolitionist wrote to young Henry Stearns, the son of one of his most faithful supporters, George L. Stearns of Medford, Mass.  Brown apparently penned the sketch while he was waylaid in Iowa as a result of financial and physical problems, as his letters from this period reveal.  The autobiographical sketch is presented within his letter to young Stearns dated July 15, and written from “Red Rock, Iowa,” a town that was located at Red Rock, southeast of Des Moines.  However, the student’s curiosity arises when noting that Brown wrote letters to his wife and his son, John Junior, on July 17 and 18, respectively, further east in the town of Wassonville.   In other words, why would Brown have gone as far west in the state as Red Rock in Marion County on July 15 and then go back in an eastward direction to Wassonville in Washington County by July 17?

There are a few possible explanations for this curious movement.  

The first is that Brown could have misdated the letter to young Stearns when he wrote from Red Rock.  Did he write July 15 mistakenly, instead of, for example, July 25?  Boyd Stutler, the godfather of John Brown studies, made the observation that the abolitionist was known to date his letters incorrectly, and there are a number of cases where clearly he did so.  Of course, in fairness to Brown, these few dating errors over were made over a lifetime of letter writing, so I would not rush to the conclusion that the Red Rock letter is misdated.  My sense is that this does not provide a suitable explanation.  Still, if Brown was in Wassonville on July 17-18, the fact that he was farther west two days before still poses a question for students.

This portion of an 1860 map of Iowa shows where Brown left his son Owen at Davenport on the far eastern 
side, then moved on to Iowa City; from there he seems to have proceeded westward as far as Red Rock, 
where he started his autobiographical sketch on July 15; then, two letters from Brown were written on July 17-18, f
rom the more eastward location of Wassonville

The better explanation is that he had some reason to backtrack eastward after July 15, after he had begun writing his autobiographical sketch. As an aside, it is doubtful that Brown completed the entire sketch in one day, and probably was working on it for weeks.  Those acquainted with the manuscript of Brown’s autobiography know that it includes a letter to the elder Stearns, dated August 10, and written from Tabor, in Fremont County, on the extreme western side of Iowa.  Thus, while the autobiographical sketch is not of immediate concern here, it is likely that Brown had written it in snips and bits as he continued his painful trek across Iowa, finally completing it at his destination at Tabor.

As far as his backtracking eastward between July 15 and 17, the better explanation seems to have been necessity.  By all accounts, Brown was deeply frustrated during the trip due to the failure of supporters back in New England to come through with the monies that had been promised him in the earlier months of the year.  Then, too, he was sick with both the Ague and at some point he sustained a back injury, perhaps while loading and unloading the supplies that he was attempting to move to Kansas for the free state cause. 

However, the main reason that Brown backtracked eastward probably was money. The following month, Brown wrote to another supporter that after his time in New England (between January and April 1857), he had often been sick with the Ague and had “exhausted my available means towards purchasing such supplies as I should certainly need if again called into active service” in Kansas.  The dearth of cash, Brown wrote, forced him to “beg in my journey” to cover his expenses and the cost of freighting the supplies he was taking west.  Indeed, throughout his difficult trek westward, he wrote in another letter that he and his son Owen had lived on canned herring, crackers, and “sweetened water” for nearly a month, likewise sleeping outdoors in their wagon.  “This being the case,” Brown concluded, “I was obliged to stop at different points on the way & to go to others off the route to solicit help.”2

Wassonville on the English River
in Brown's era Project Wassonville 2007
Wassonville does not exist today, and local historians in Iowa refer to it as a ghost town of the mid-19th century.  But in Brown’s time, Wassonville was still vibrant if not thriving as a frontier trading post dating back nearly twenty years to its founding in 1849.  Wassonville was known for its mill site on the English River and became the early center of activity. Wassonville quickly grew into a significant trading post on the early trail leading up to Fort Des Moines.  More importantly, in the early 1850s, Wassonville served as a center for representatives of the Massachusetts Emigrant Aid Society, working to see Kansas admitted into the union as a free state.  If Brown was strapped for cash and needed to go “off the route to solicit help,” he may have been drawn to Wassonville for that purpose.

Interestingly, Wassonville would not otherwise have been a place of great comfort for Brown since it was a known for its whiskey sales, and was a place where hunting was popular.  Still, it was an active community with millwork and antislavery friends, so it was a good place to go for a Kansas hero looking for support.  Local records suggest that Brown came to Wassonville because of a sick mule (the problem actually was a sickly horse), but if Brown had gone as far west as Red Rock, it is more likely he had gone to Wassonville in the hopes of gaining financial assistance from antislavery sympathizers.

Brown wrote the first of two letters from Wassonville to his wife back in North Elba, on July 17.

Wassonville, Iowa, 17th July 1857

Dear Wife & Children every one

Since I wrote last I have made but little progress; having Teams & Waggons to rig up, & load: & getting a horse hurt pretty bad.  Still we shall get on just as well; & as fast as Providence intends: & I hope we may all be satisfeyed with that.  We hear of but little that is interesting from Kansas.  It will be a great privilege to hear from home again: & I would give any thing to know that I should be permitted to see you all again in this life.  But Gods will be done.  To his infinite grace I commend you all.

Your Affectionate Husband & Father

John Brown3

Brown’s frustration is close to the surface in this letter, although he was yet the master optimist, typically concluding that “we shall get on just as well” and “hope we may all be satisfyed [sic] with that.”  In his more detailed letter of disappointments to George Stearns on August 8, Brown thus concluded that although he was “mortyfied” (one of his favorite—albeit typically misspelled—words to express embarrassment and shame) by his many disappointments and problems, he had not given up.4 

A "Last & Final Separation"?

Mary Brown with Annie and Sarah
about seven years earlier, before
the birth of baby Ellen
A more poignant point of this letter is his passing statement that “I would give any thing to know that I should be permitted to see you all again in this life.”  One should not take these words lightly lest the bravery of the man is overrated to the exclusion of his true feelings and apprehensions.  In letters to Franklin Sanborn at this time, Brown revealed how hard it had been for him to leave Mary and their youngest children (Annie was barely fourteen, Sarah was eleven, and Ellen was not quite three).  It bothered him deeply that he was leaving them in economically vulnerable and difficult circumstances.   But he worried deeply that there was “at least a fair chance that it was to be a lastfinal separation.”  His concern—that he might die while fighting proslavery forces in Kansas, never to see his family again—“had lain heavily” on him.  In retrospect, one might forget this aspect of Brown’s humanity, that despite his much-attested bravery and his determination to carry out his plan beyond Kansas, he was quite aware of his own mortality and he worried for his loved ones should he die.  As Brown wrote to Sanborn in the summer of 1857, it quite pained him that he might fall while “far away” in Kansas, “perhaps never to return” home to Mary and the children.5

John Brown Jr.
Still stranded in Wassonville the following day, Brown wrote to his namesake back in Ohio.  Brown was close to John Junior, but it was quite clear that he would no longer be able to enlist his two elder sons, John and Jason, or his trusted son-in-law, Henry Thompson.  All three men were married, and all three had suffered in Kansas during the previous year, especially the Browns, whose homes had been burned by proslavery thugs, and whose families had been traumatized amidst the hardships, dangers, and sorrows they had known while in the territory. Besides the loss of property and frightening encounters with proslavery terrorism, they had lost their brother Frederick to murder the previous year; but more so, they had learned the lesson of Pottawatomie, that sheer bloodshed, even the most brutal kind of martial killing, would be necessary if they intended to fight slavery.   Kansas had brought them directly into civil war and they were repulsed by its realities. “The boy[s] have all determined both to practice & learn war no more,” Mary had written to her undaunted husband.  Yet it was now clear to John Brown that his beleaguered sons had “declined to return” to Kansas. This antipathy toward Kansas seems to have prevailed among the Brown men in 1857, with the great exception of thirty-four-year-old son Owen, bold and devoted albeit suffering with the disability of a “lame” arm.  Owen had joined his father straightaway, determined to assist him in the travel and labor of freighting arms and supplies to Kansas.

Wassonville, Iowa, 18th July, 1857.

Dear Son & Family

Owen Brown
As we are detained by getting a horse hurt, I have time to write a few words.  We (Owen & self) are travelling with Two teams; 3 Mules, & one horse.  Horse hurt himself pulling at his rope.  Think he will be able to go on soon.  I have had various hindrances, & some success; & some Ague since I left you.  Have things to make us quite comfortable on the road.  Have very hot days, & cold Nights.  Have heard but little from Kansas of late & that little would seem to indicate peace, till Fall; at any rate.  We both are midling well now; & would be very glad to hear from you (through Nelson Hawkins) at Tabor.  We want to know of your prosperity in all aspects; so far as consistent.  With earnest desire for your best good I remain

your Affectionate Father

[no signature]

Write what you hear from any of the family6 

In this letter, Brown provides some details, showing that Owen, who was previously left behind in Davenport, had rejoined his father in Wassonville—perhaps yet another reason why Brown may have digressed eastward in the state.  This brief letter is yet rich in details about difficulties and conditions, and Brown’s great desire both to get news from Kansas and from home.  Given Brown’s penchant for optimism, statements like “things to make us quite comfortable on the road” and that they were “midling [sic] well” more likely suggests the father and son were struggling to get along with minimal comforts in travel, although at least Brown seems to have been feeling better for the moment.   He continues to direct them to send all correspondence ahead of him to Tabor, where he intends to reach as soon as possible. 
      The last detail worth noting of this letter is its lack of signature. In later years, Brown’s children mutilated many of his letters by cutting away his signature for the purpose of sale or gift.  However, it appears that Brown intentionally did not sign this letter, no doubt for reasons of security.  It should be remembered that in 1857 he was a wanted man, and that he was approaching war-torn Kansas Territory once more.  He could not risk any of his correspondence falling into the wrong hands.--LD



            1 John Brown to Mary Brown, 6 July 1857, John Brown - Oswald Garrison Villard Papers, Rare Book and Manuscript Collection, Columbia University Library, New York, N.Y.
            2 John Brown to Franklin B. Sanborn, 13 August 1857, a copy of which is found in the Rosenbach Library and Museum Collection, Philadelphia, Pa.
            3 John Brown to Mary Brown, 17 July 1857, John Brown Collection, #299, Box 1, Folder 25, Kansas State Historical Society, Topeka, Kan.
            4 See John Brown to George L. Stearns, 8 August 1857, a copy of which is found in the Clarence S. Gee Collection, Hudson Library and Historical Society, Hudson, Oh.
            5 John Brown to Franklin B. Sanborn, 13 August 1857; and Brown to Sanborn, 27 August 1857, in Chicago History Museum.

          6 John Brown to John Brown Jr., July 18, 1857, Box 2: Folder 2, John Brown Jr. Papers, Ohio Historical Society, Columbus, Oh.

Monday, June 27, 2016

A Commendable Effort, But John Brown Was No Insurrectionist: My Letter to Bio.com 

 [27 June 2016, electronic communication]

 To Whom it May Concern:

 I am a scholar of the life and letters of the abolitionist John Brown, and I’m writing to express appreciation for the tone and content of your bio on his life. I have written several books on Brown and am often frustrated by unfair and inappropriate portrayals of the man in various media. I’m writing because I believe that your website is true to its word in striving for accuracy and fairness. My only suggestion is that you might consider revising the notion that Brown wanted to launch an “insurrection.” This is a prominent belief, although it originated with slave holders and proslavery reporting at the time. Brown actually denied this charge repeatedly, although a jury of slaveholders and slaveholding prosecution brought this indictment against him and found him guilty of insurrection.

Historically speaking, insurrection would have involved servile war, the idea of arming enslaved people to rise up with the intention of killing slave masters and often their families. Insurrection destroyed slavery by literally eliminating slave owners. The classic insurrection would be Spartacus in ancient Rome, or Nat Turner’s “revolt” in antebellum Virginia, where women and children (the children of slaveholders) were also killed. Brown had no such intention, and was acutely concerned over the possibilities of mass bloodshed, and actually wanted to avoid a full scale insurrection. He denied insurrectionary intentions in court and made it clear in a final written statement that he had hoped to avoid great bloodshed. What Brown had in mind was more like an armed rescue—which is how he described it to a journalist from the NY Tribune after his capture, or at least how this journalist relayed his words—“a grand rescue.”

 Brown did not want to use full scale violence, but wanted to fight only in self-defense and put more emphasis on eluding militia by forming small groups that moved through the mountain system. His actual plan was to render instability in the security and operation of slavery in the South over a period of time. He intended to do this by drawing enslaved people into his movement across the southern states. I have more extensively documented and discussed Brown’s intentions in my latest narrative, published by Rowman & Littlefield, Freedom’s Dawn: The Last Days of John Brown (2015).

Thank you for your consideration and for your commendable treatment of John Brown.

Yours truly,
Louis A. DeCaro Jr., Ph.D.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Big-Axe-to-Grind Dept.
Answers.com and a Bogus "Expert"

Several years back I came upon Answers.com, a website that alleges to provide expert answers to a variety of questions.  The question I came upon dealt with my area of expertise and I left my comments on John Brown.  More recently, I observed another--quite loaded--question that I felt compelled to address: "Was John Brown a Radical Murderer or Hero?"  I answered the question and moved on, expressing the view of the story, with which my blog and book readers are already quite familiar--of course in support of the Old Man.  The other day, I was alerted that my answer had been replaced, and when I read it, the new answer was both unstudied and hostile.  I revisited the website, removed the interloping idiocy that had replaced my first response, and wrote the following:
John Brown was among many antislavery people in the antebellum period, but he was ultimately distinguished by his determination to use force when necessary against proslavery violence. In 1855, Brown joined his sons, who had moved to the Kansas territory, which was then in a ballot contest between proslavery and antislavery settlers over whether Kansas would enter the Union as a free state or slave state. The majority of settlers were antislavery people, but proslavery terrorists flooded into Kansas from Missouri and the South, and used violence and terrorism to force slavery. Brown's sons were avowed antislavery people and drew the hostility of proslavery neighbors who plotted against them with the intention of bringing armed terrorists against them. With no recourse to law or protection from territorial or federal forces, they were in certain danger. Learning of this, Brown and a group of men, including some of his sons, identified the key conspirators and killed them in order to thwart their attack. In modern terms, Brown's actions were taken in a wartime context and while they were martial killings, they were undertaken to preempt a terrorist assault. These facts mitigate against labeling Brown a "radical murderer," although this if often the assumption of prejudiced and unlearned people. The killings of five men had no collateral damage and were strategic, so they were comparable more to modern attacks on terrorist cells or terrorist leaders. Leading biographers and students of Brown, such as David Reynolds, Paul Finkelman, and Louis DeCaro would disagree with the conventional 20th century notion of Brown as a radical murderer. This view tended to reflect the pro-Southern revisionism that dominated historical writing during the era of the Civil Rights era. However unpleasant, there is substantial evidence that the "Pottawatomie massacre" actually was a preemptive strike that primarily involved securing the immediate security of the Brown family and other free state neighbors placed in jeopardy by proslavery conspirators in their neighborhood.
There it was--a realistic, studied, and responsible answer, including references to leading scholars, all in defense of my contention that Brown is not the "radical murderer" and non-hero that many folks still believe him to be.

Send in the Clown

Within a day or two, I received a message from Answers.com, stating:
Good News. Your question was answered by an expert!
          Hi Louis DeCaro,
Our community put their collective heads together and answered your question (pat-on-the-back).
How exciting.  The corporate mind of Answers.com had informed me that they had come up with an "expert" answer to their loaded question, "Was John Brown a radical murderer or hero?" When I followed the link and returned to Answers.com, there it was, the expert opinion--even emblazoned as such--written by a fellow named Chuck Siata.

Here was my nemesis, the anti-John Brown "expert" of Answers.com--indeed a contributing member since 2007, with (drum roll please) 5.6 thousand "confidence votes" on the website.  Who is this well-trusted "expert" to whom thousands of Answer.com communitarians look for the final, defining word on John Brown?

As his Answer.com banner proclaims, Siata is self-proclaimed political scientist with a "strong focus on US History," including both political and military aspects of the Civil War.   Further investigation yielded further proof of Siata's undoubtable "expertise" on the subject of John Brown: He holds an A. B. degree in Political Science from Rutgers College (class of 1972), which is (I guess) his qualification for referring to himself as a political scientist.  To add further weight to his expertise on John Brown, Siata did graduate level studies in 1978 at the Federal Reserve school of Banking & Finance--an institution evidently well known for its John Brown studies.   Siata is also a professional photographer, so there is no doubt that he's a thoughtful and curious type, who has marshaled his undergraduate degree in political science, his finance studies, and photographic talents toward an expertise in John Brown, and generally as the go-to-guy for Answers.com on all matters Americana.

Doctor Siata

Well, there it is.  How could I ever hope to win the long term trust of thousands of Answers.com readers, or dream of floating my quaint little theories about John Brown in the midst of such a giant of history, and particularly an "expert" on the controversial abolitionist?

Notwithstanding, Doctor Siata's many contributions to Answers.com and his much touted expertise (the likes of which apparently muted anything further to be added on my part), it is well worth publishing his expert answer concerning John Brown here.  However, I will intersperse some comments in italics to help readers of this blog to maximize their appreciation of Siata's "expertise."

Thus, Siata begins:
John Brown and his sons committed murder in Kansas. Brown and his sons traveled to Kansas from his home in Connecticut in the wake of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1856. 
Of course, this is always where any historical discussion begins concerning Brown by the "experts."  No historical background is provided except "the wake of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1856."  Of course, one would expect an "expert" like Siata to know that the Kansas-Nebraska Act was passed in 1854.  Furthermore, Siata is incorrect in saying that Brown traveled to Kansas with his sons.  In fact, his sons went to Kansas on their own, and Brown only went there to help them under the looming threat of proslavery violence in the fall of 1855.   Siata further tells us nothing about Southern intrusions, and the terroristic murders of free state men, the lack of governmental protection for free state people, or the particular threat that brought John Brown and others to the extreme point of making a preemptive strike against proslavery neighbors, or the fact that these neighbors were plotting the killing of the Browns.  But keep in mind, this is Answer.com's "expert."
Brown was a radical abolitionist and left an infamous record in Kansas due to the Pottawatomie Creek massacre. 
Siata is at least correct that Brown was a "radical abolitionist," although Siata probably thinks "radical" synonymous with evil and violent.  His use of the term suggests a bias that runs deep in popular discourse, particularly common among conventional and hackneyed summaries like this one made by ill-informed and prejudiced whites.

Whether or not the Pottawatomie killings really was a "massacre" is open to discussion.  Certainly it was an episode of gross violence; but if it was a pointed, carefully executed strike made against a small and specific number of terrorist associates, we might not see it as a massacre, which usually involves a mass killing of innocent people.  It is quite arguable that all five men killed by Brown's men at Pottawatomie were criminals, conspirators, and thugs caught in the very snare they had intended for the Browns.
There Brown and his sons invaded the home of a pro-slavery family and dragged them outside. They shot the father in the head and hacked and mutilated his sons with broad swords. These were deemed ritual murders and committed in front of the families female members. 
With "Experts" Like This,
Who Needs Trolls?
Yes, Brown and his men forcefully removed these thugs from their homes and killed them.  Yes, these men were dispatched with swords.  The father in question--a proslavery thug named James Doyle--was only shot in the head by Brown AFTER his death, the reason for which is not clear, although the evidence weighs heavily against any notion that Doyle was shot first.

Contrary to our "expert," the swords used as implements of death were done to minimize noise and the "mutilations" were defensive wounds--that is, arms and hands were cut because these men reflexively blocked the lethal blows.   Over against Siata's ridiculous assertion, these killings were NEVER "deemed ritual murders," nor were they "committed in front of the families['] female members.

The hogwash that Siata offers here to Answers.com is deplorable and idiotic.  It is a demonstration of how gross error and prejudice becomes memorialized in the public mind as a result of the jingoistic nonsense of bogus "experts" like Chuck Siata.  This ham-handed and erroneous "answer" suggests that Siata might stick to taking pictures of trees or old wagon wheels rather than opining on John Brown.

Alas, the lies continue:
In 1859, Brown, somehow escaping prosecution, bought a farm under a false name in Maryland.
No, Mr. Expert, Brown RENTED a farm in Maryland.  He did use a pseudonym.
There he plotted a slave revolt and left a paper trail as to his intentions.
No, Mr. Answers.com, Brown had been planning his move upon Virginia and the South for years.  He never planned on a "revolt" or insurrection, which he understood as entailing widespread killing of masters--something he wanted to avoid.  To the contrary, Brown intended to launch what he described as an armed "rescue," which drew enslaved people away, and armed them only to fight in self-defense as they drew away other enslaved people.

No, Mr. Final-word-on-the-subject, Brown left no "paper trail"--the notion of which suggests he thoughtlessly left documents that led authorities to him.  Brown left no trail of papers, although he deliberately seems to have left certain key documents as a self-testimony, where they were found after the raid at his rented farmhouse, but all this was after the fact.   Amazingly, despite all of what Brown left behind, we know little of his intentions thanks to proslavery interference and the poor, hackneyed writing of biased 20th century historians--apparently the ones that Siata read some years back, and has foggily attempted to reiterate for Answers.com.
He needed weapons to start the revolution and so took over the US arsenal at Harper's Ferry, Virginia. 
Perhaps Siata the expert might want to read my THIRD book on John Brown, where I expose the fallacy that Brown invaded Harper's Ferry for weapons.  This is simply not true.  Brown boasted having had superior weapons than what was available at the arsenal, and there is no evidence whatsoever that he made any attempt to remove any of the Harper's Ferry weapons.  Indeed, he explicitly denied doing so after he was arrested.

By the way, Doctor Siata, Brown seized control of the town of Harper's Ferry, and occupied the entire armory works, NOT JUST the arsenal.  
His scouts could find no slaves willing to join the revolt. 
Here the expert demonstrates what a hack and bumpkin he is, repeating the erroneous claims of slaveholders rather than what is stated by eyewitnesses.  Brown found sufficient response from the enslaved community and actually was quite pleased.  The problem was NOT lack of response from enslaved people, but his own tactical delays in the town.
After a few more innocent people were killed, Brown was captured by then Colonel of the Marines, Robert E. Lee. 
Yes, one of the "innocent" people killed in the fighting at Harper's Ferry was a slaveholder who had murdered one of his enslaved people.  Well, for the most part the "innocent" people were armed and shooting back, except for the mayor of the town, who probably should not have been walking around during a gun fight--and a free black porter, who seems to have been desperately trying to get away in order to alert his white slaveholder friends.  But they were all "innocent," I suppose, at least as far as a Slave State can call a man innocent.   

Robert E. Lee was not a colonel of the marines.  He was a member of the U.S. army, but was dispatched to supervise the marines who had been called over from Washington D.C., the marines also having their own officer on site.
Brown was found guilty of treason and hanged. 
Brown was found guilty of murder, insurrection, and treason by a court presided over by slaveholders--especially the jury and the prosecution.   Brown had invaded federal property and should have been handed over to the federal government, but was instead tried by a proslavery state that refused to give him up.  The notion of his "treason" was highly contended, and can only be justified in a very specific sense not commonly associated with treason.   Brown committed no murder in Virginia and explicitly denied that he wanted to launch an insurrection.

His last words testify that he had hoped to end slavery without widespread bloodletting.
He was certainly no hero, and clearly a traitor and murderer.
Well, Chuck Siata, you are entitled to an opinion, although you should be reminded that not all opinions are equal, and yours certainly is neither equal to nor worthy of John Brown.

Defamers and Disclaimers

In the end, Chuck Siata answers Answer.com with feeble and flawed details, with an attitude toward Brown evidently fueled more by bigotry and prejudice than expertise.  By this kind of regular and long-term oafish contribution over twelves years, Siata has been able to win his reputation on Answer.com.  Thus, when it comes to venting his bias and ignorance against John Brown, he is declared "expert," all further discussion is closed, and his answer is reckoned as right and final because of his confidence rating!

It is probably fitting to close by pointing out that the real villain here is not a self-inflated history buff who hates John Brown, but Answers.com, which works like a public toilet, since apparently anybody can take a whizz in their facilities in the name of providing "answers."  No wonder the fine print tells the story under the website's "Terms of Use":
You are darn right you don't, Answers.com.  When you allow a photographer with a Bachelor of Farts knowledge of John Brown to offer such a shabby, error-ridden screed in the name of a historical "answer," you had better issue a disclaimer.  I don't know what else Chuck Siata knows about history, but as one of the contemporary experts on John Brown, I know this kind of pretended expertise is not only wrong, but it is insidious and destructive to any kind of broadening and deepening of the public's understanding of history.

Answers.com does not provide answers, but rather a vote-based "expertise" tallied according to readership.  As far as Chuck Siata the "expert" is concerned, I can only close with another question for Answers.com: "With John Brown experts like this, who needs trolls?"

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Take Note--
John Brown in the News

John Brown Medal for Sale on Antiquarian Booksellers of America website

"Commemorative medal, in white metal, DeWitt SL-1859-1, cleaned. n.p., n.d.. 1" diameter.  Fine condition.  Obverse pictures a bust of John Brown circumscribed ""SLAVERY THE SUM OF ALL VILLANIES"" (sic). Reverse pictures John Brown hanging, flanked by the words ""JOHN"" and ""BROWN."" Clockwise around the gallows: ""GIVE ME / LIBERTY / OR GIVE ME / DEATH"" Circumscribed ""RESISTANCE TO TYRANNY IS OBEDIENCE TO GOD 1859""At the July 10-13, 2014, Summer FUN US Coins Signature Auction held by Heritage Auctions in Orlando, a similar DeWitt SL-1859-1 John Brown medal sold for $1,997.50. " (Inventory #: 60655)

Former Deputy Mayor of Akron Lectures on John Brown in Summit County Program

On Thursday, June 23, David Lieberth, the chairman of the Summit County Historical Society, is lecturing on the life and legacy of the abolitionist John Brown.  Brown, a native of Ohio's Western Reserve, spent a good many years living in Akron, particularly during his association in business with the ill-starred Ohio magnate, Simon Perkins Jr.  Lieberth, who is also the former deputy mayor of Akron, is speaking in a summer long program that focuses on the famous Ohio county's relationship with the 19th century movement to abolish slavery and the modern history of civil rights.  Throughout the summer these events take place from 4-6 P.M. at the John Brown House, 550 Copley Road, Akron.  For his presentation,  Lieberth also will be joined by artist and sculptor Woodrow Nash, who will speak on working as an artist in the Maple Valley neighborhood of Akron.

Source: Akron Beacon-Journal, 17 June 2016.


A New Commemorative Quarter Features the Harper's Ferry Engine House, Site of John Brown's Last Stand

"This new [Harper’s Ferry quarter] recognizes one of the most historic towns in West Virginia – known for its significant role during the Civil War. The quarter’s reverse side depicts John Brown’s Fort, the site of John Brown’s last stand during his raid on the Harpers Ferry Armory.... 

Thomas Hipschen is the artist behind the design of this new quarter. Hipschen is a member of the Artistic Infusion Program at the United States Mint and has been a regular visitor to Harpers Ferry for the past 40 years. This is the first time one of his designs will appear on a circulating coin, and Hipschen says he chose John Brown’s Fort because it’s so iconic.

'It’s the only part of the original arsenal that still exists,' Hipschen explained, 'It’s a major point in history; it was almost a trigger point for the Civil War. Later on, it became a meeting place for black groups that turned into the NAACP organization. It just has so many different points in history that makes it important.'

Harpers Ferry National Historical Park is one of four other national park sites in West Virginia and one of 411 sites in the country."

Excerpted from Liz McCormick, "New Quarter Featuring John Brown's Fort Released in Harpers Ferry."  West Virginia Public Broadcasting, 9 June 2016.

Also see Rachel Charlip,  "'John Brown' Quarter Released, Public Spends Thousands."  Your4State.com (Hagerstown, Md.), 8 June 2016.

Sculptor of Harper's Ferry Commemorative Quarter is Descendant of Hector Tyndale, Who Escorted Mary Brown to Virginia in 1859

"Philadelphia-born sculptor Phebe Hemphill created the image that adorns the new quarter. A graduate of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, she has worked for the U.S. Mint for 13 years.

And though she has never spent time in Harpers Ferry, she does have a unique tie to John Brown. In a phone interview, Hemphill recounted that she’s a descendant of Hector Tyndale, a Philadelphia businessman who agreed to escort Brown’s wife to Charles Town in late 1859, for a final jail visit and then to recover his body following his execution for treason."

Excerpted from Christine Snyder, "Harpers Ferry coin to be unveiled at Wednesday ceremony."   The State Journal [Charleston, W. Va.], 6 June 2016.


The Harper's Ferry Commemorative Quarter: History versus Portrayal

"Harpers Ferry National Historical Park is being celebrated with a quarter featuring the firehouse used by John Brown during his history-changing October 1859 raid. The image on the coin is an accurate depiction of the current firehouse and its location in the lower town of Harpers Ferry. However, the firehouse and its location are very different from the actual building and setting that ignited America’s Civil War. This is the challenge for historians and park personnel. In his famous book, Sacred Ground: Americans and their Battlefields, Edward Tabor Linenthal, provides examples of how we change our history by the ways we preserve and honor it."

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

The Terrible Parable of Mrs. Huffmaster

In the summer of 1859, John Brown, using the pseudonym Isaac Smith, moved into a rented farmhouse in Maryland as the first step in his invasion of the South, culminating a few months later with the seizure of the nearby federal armory at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia [today West Virginia].  The Kennedy farmhouse thus became John Brown’s headquarters, where likewise he gathered and sequestered his raiders, black and white, over the difficult weeks before the raid.
"Isaac Smith" seated in front of his rented Maryland home where

he lived in the summer and fall of 1859 before the Harper's Ferry Raid
For understandable reasons, Mary Brown had refused to join her husband in Maryland, choosing to remain at their New York farm in NorthElba, Essex County, with their younger children.  Mary was not pleased with daughter Annie’s decision to support her father in the South, but the teenager went anyway being joined also by twenty-year-old Martha Brewster Brown, the wife of Oliver Brown, one of the two Brown boys who became casualties of their father’s tactical errors at Harper’s Ferry.  The two young women provided an appearance of domesticity to the household, which ostensibly was headed by the northern farmer and speculator known as Isaac Smith (as I've suggested elsewhere, Brown did not typically invent names, but rather borrowed them from contemporaries.  There was a prominent umbrella manufacturer in Boston and New York named Isaac Smith, and Brown likely appropriated his name for the field).  Martha, who was a fairly good baker, assumed control of the kitchen, aided by Annie, whose real job, however, was to act as a lookout.  “I was there to keep the outside world from discovering that John Brown and his men were in their neighborhood,” Annie recalled in later years.

“Blast that Woman!”

Although unexpected visitors from outside the neighborhood were relatively rare, Brown and company were beset by the constant intrusions of a nearby neighbor, Elizabeth Huffmaster, the thirty-three-year-old wife of a Maryland laborer whose home inconveniently faced the Kennedy farmhouse from an angle that made Brown's plan vulnerable to discovery.  Apparently, since the Kennedy farm lacked an inside stairway to the second floor, the Huffmasters had a good view of the outside stairway that had to be used to get to the second floor of the Kennedy farm.  According to Annie, they also kept a ladder outside the house so that the hidden raiders could ascend to the attic in the event of a sudden visitor.  Furthermore, Annie was under constant pressure to conceal the presence of the raiders, white and black, and if need be, even create diversions or distractions that bought enough time for the men to hide on the upper floors when strangers appeared.

In this regard, the only challenge to Annie’s task of “constant watchfulness” was Mrs. Huffmaster, with her “brood of little ones.”  The Huffmasters had a small troupe of four children, mostly girls, between the ages of eight and three years.  Huffmaster’s sudden and unwelcome visits proved a “pestering torment” to Annie and the rest, since she might appear, children in tow, at almost any time, and did so quite frequently.  Martha called them “the little hen and chickens,” but Annie more frankly considered Huffmaster a “haunting” “plague and torment.”  The hiding raiders shared Annie’s apprehensions, as did the agitated raider Charles P. Tidd, who exclaimed in disgust, “Blast that woman, what a torment she is!”

Spy or Pest?

According to Annie’s reminiscences, in the later weeks of the raiders’ sequestered existence in the Maryland farmhouse, Huffmaster inadvertently got the better of her—appearing suddenly at a number of times and catching glimpses of curious sites that inevitably raised questions, including seeing some of the raiders in the house with her.  The most problematic episode prompted by Huffmaster’s intrusion was when she came uninvited into the farmhouse, only to see raider Shields Green—the valiant black fugitive from slavery who had chosen to follow Brown back into the South against the apparent wishes of abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass. 

According to Annie, Huffmaster believed Green was a runaway, evidently concluding that "Isaac Smith" and family were antislavery people giving aid to fugitives.   When John Brown heard about the episode, he told Annie to somehow fix the problem.  Not being a terrorist, Brown had no intention of silencing his nosey neighbor by violence, but rather hoped that the favors of friendship could be won by placating her with kind gestures since he was short on cash.  Following the incident, Annie made some effort to explain that the men that Huffmaster had seen in the house were only friends passing through, and then offered her milk, salted meats, and other things needed by the humble mother of four.

Notwithstanding these efforts and Huffmaster’s apparent willingness to be bribed, Brown and company lived under the shadow of the threat posed by this prying neighbor for the rest of the time leading up to the raid.  Brown had to consider the possibility that Huffmaster was a spy, although in reality the woman seems to have been far more interested in taking advantage of the situation.  Annie recalled: “She used her power over me every time she thought of anything she wanted that we had, she made free to ask for things, and of course I gave them to her.”  Indeed, there is no evidence that Huffmaster was any worse than a troublesome snoop, and perhaps had even taken a liking to her new neighbors, who were by all accounts kind to her.  Even if she did have suspicions about “Isaac Smith” and his family aiding fugitives from slavery, it is also possible that Huffmaster was sympathetic.  Although the wife of a Maryland man, actually she was Pennsylvania born and it is possible she had no great desire either to help or hinder black people--a common attitude among northern whites in the antebellum era.

The Tumor

Another reason that Huffmaster ultimately proved more of a pest than a threat was that Brown had been genuinely kind to her from the start.  Undoubtedly, her awareness of the curious goings on at the Kennedy farmhouse had amped up the neighborly kindnesses of Brown.  However, he had established himself already in the vicinity as a kind, Christian man willing to share with his neighbors—something he had always done wherever he had lived.  More importantly, however, is that John Brown had taken an interest in Elizabeth’s health. According to Annie’s reminiscences, Huffmaster had an obvious condition that undoubtedly afflicted and embarrassed her.  Evidently, the woman had an unsightly growth or tumor on her neck, something which she apparently was living with for some time, either being without the means to retain a surgeon or the concern of her own husband to do so.

Anne Brown as a teenager
John Brown Kin blog
When Brown saw the woman’s unsightly affliction, he offered his services in cutting out the tumor, something that goes far beyond our contemporary sense of neighborliness.  But the Old Man was seasoned by life on the farm and the field, and this was likely not the first time he had laid a knife to flesh in order to help friend or family, or certainly to remedy a problem with his livestock.  Brown was not a queasy, delicate sort, either, and one can almost imagine the confidence and gentleness that accompanied this procedure: with tools carefully prepared and the woman biting down on leather to fend off the pain, the Old Man, assisted by Annie and Martha, cut out the tumor from the flesh of Mrs. Huffmaster, then sewed up the bloody wound as she cried and groaned—the hidden raiders listening the whole time from upstairs.

The Parable

I like to think of the episode of this procedure on Mrs. Huffmaster as a kind of parable of John Brown’s whole purpose for entering the South.  Slavery was, in his thinking, a deep and abiding affliction upon the body politic of the United States.  Slavery—in Brown’s mind—was not synonymous with the United States, even though one might argue with him in retrospect that his view of the motivations and intentions of the Founding Fathers was too generous.  After all, the Constitution of the United States sanctioned and supported slavery, and the Declaration of Independence that he so revered was written by a liberal slaveholder.  Still, to John Brown, slavery was not essential to the identity of the United States, even though its presence in antebellum society had grown upon the republic like some horrid tumor—its roots going deeper and deeper into the flesh of the nation.  Like the intrusive and annoying Mrs. Huffmaster, it was not the South itself that Brown despised, nor did he wish to do her harm.  It was only her slavery—the tumor that had infested her national flesh—that he so wished to excise.

One of the main problems that I constantly face as a biographer of the man is this stubborn notion that John Brown was an insurrectionist.  Yet there is nothing in the record of his words or deeds that proves him an insurrectionist.  Not only did Brown explicitly wish to avoid rampant violence against slaveholders and their families, but also he consistently denied insurrectionary intentions in his letters and statements as a prisoner in Virginia in 1859.  Of course, the South did not believe him, especially since slaveholding society perceived any attempt to trifle with their human property as “insurrection.”  Many historians still do not believe Brown, in large part because they have not studied the evidence or the man closely, but rather have picked over the same tired opinions of unstudied authors or superimposed their own presuppositions upon him.

After a full twenty years of investigating and observing John Brown, if I have come to any firm conclusion about his intentions for invading Virginia, it is that he was no insurrectionist.  Indeed, he seems to have been seeking an alternative to either insurrection or doing nothing at all to end slavery, the latter being the path that even so-called antislavery moderates were taking in the months leading up to the 1860 presidential election.  Like a surgeon willing to draw some blood for the well-being of his patient, it was John Brown’s intention to destroy slavery—to root it out of the neck of the nation, since it was the neck that turned the head of state and society.  Had he been successful in getting out of Harper’s Ferry and launching a south wide movement in October 1859, it was his intention to destabilize and destroy slavery’s operation, not to ignite a servile war or massacre proslavery people.  It was no more his intention to massacre Southerners and slaveholders en masse than it was to cut the throat of Elizabeth Huffmaster. 

Brown and his men leaving the Kennedy Farm on
Sunday evening, Oct. 16, 1859, for Harper's Ferry
The story of Mrs. Huffmaster adds to the drama of the Harper’s Ferry narrative, but the parable of Mrs. Huffmaster may yet serve as a lesson for historians and biographers still mired in the muck of misreading John Brown.  It was not his desire either to destroy the federal government or the union of its states; rather it was his hope that he could send the nation on its way, bloodied and trembling perhaps, but bandaged, live, and whole, just as he had sent home his pesky neighbor and her brood of hungry, sniffling children.  “I had as I now think,” Brown wrote on the day of his hanging, “vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed, it might be done.” 

Even though some historians still deny it, with slavery so deeply rooted in the greed and racism of white society, it was quite impossible for it to be ended without bloodshed.  This is what Brown understood, and why he tried to use a moderate but radical approach that avoided full scale war and bloodletting.  The argument that gradualism and patient waiting for the eventual decline of the “peculiar institution” may sound reasonable to some today, but the idea is as morally insensitive and ruthless as it is strategically nonsensical.  Long before the Harper's Ferry raid, many leaders in the South were designing secession and the establishment of an unhindered slave holders' democracy.  While they found an excuse to secede in Brown's invasion, it is shallow thinking to suggest this was not already a process underway.  The prominent argument in 1859 between whites in the North and South was not the moral question of slavery’s existence, nor even immediate emancipation, but whether or not the tumor would be allowed to spread into other parts of the nation (and even into other parts of the Americas) for the enrichment of slaveholders and the corporate interests collaborating with them in the North.  Even Lincoln did not at first wish to dig out the malignancy, as long as the South remained loyal and did not attempt to expand slavery.  It would take the stench of a horrible bloodletting and the nudging and chiding of liberal Republicans to awaken Lincoln, late in his presidential career, to the necessity of destroying chattel slavery—something that John Brown had understood all along.

From Jacob Lawrence's series, "The Legend of John Brown"
Had Brown succeeded in his south wide plan undoubtedly there would have been skirmishes, battles, and conflicts along the landscape of a collapsing slave society and a panicked southern economy.  There is no guarantee that he would have succeeded, but his plan has been belittled although slave holders in Virginia, for instance Congressman Boteler, believed that Brown's movement would have taken off nicely had he made it into the mountains.   There was no large, sophisticated federal military in 1859, and Brown's intention of conducting his men as slave recruiters working in small cadres deep into the South would not have been a movement easily defeated, especially as it was a mountain-based campaign.  Numerous examples of similar military ventures exist in history, all of them proving difficult if not impossible to defeat.  

Where Brown failed was at the point of initiation, and his lapse at Harper's Ferry says nothing about the viability of his larger plan.   He would die a martyr in Virginia before the end of the year, and without his plan, it would now fall upon the federal government to deal with the reality of an aggressive, malignant, and putrid disease that would either spread or be destroyed.   It is unfortunate that still so many commentators insist that John Brown was simply an agency of civil war, when in reality he was perhaps this nation’s last hope against its terrible dawning.  With Brown failed and hanged, all that now was left was the spread of the inflamed malignancy--and in response the far less sympathetic hands of federal might, intent upon putting down rebellion with the very same violence and widespread bloodletting that Brown had hoped to avoid.  Lincoln sought to rein in this violence at his second inaugural, appealing to charity and the end of malice between whites.  But it had been left to Lincoln to deal with the fullest extent of slavery's intentions, whereas Brown had sought to make a preemptive strike.  It was a great risk, and failure unfortunately has left Brown more a figure to blame than to appreciate for the hopes and intentions of his effort.

In our parable, then, we must not think that the tumor was finally excised by John Brown, but rather that the malignancy undergirding it was only destroyed at the expense of Mrs. Huffmaster’s life.  Here Mrs. Huffmaster writhes in agony like the nation in civil war, wallowing in a crimson pool—her throat cut and her children grieving at her side, bloodied and weeping for their mother.--LD  

Sources: Oswald G. Villard, John Brown (1910, 1929) and materials in the Annie Brown Adams folder, Box 1, John Brown-Oswald G. Villard Papers, Columbia University’s Rare Book and Manuscript Collection.