"Posterity will owe everlasting thanks to John Brown for lifting up once more to the gaze of a nation grown fat and flabby on the garbage of lust and oppression, a true standard of heroic philanthropy, and each coming generation will pay its installment of the debt. . . . John Brown saw slavery through no mist or cloud, but in a light of infinite brightness, which left no one of its ten thousand horrors concealed." Frederick Douglass

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Monday, March 19, 2018

Defaced But Not Defeated: The Quindaro John Brown Statue and Its Heroes

Defaced: The John Brown Statue in Quindaro, Kansas City, Kan.
(photo by Keith Myers, Kansas City Star)
The Kansas City Star (Mar. 18) reports that a revered statue of John Brown in Quindaro Township, Kansas City, Kan., was discovered to have been defaced with racist Nazi graffiti.1  It is not clear when the the racist attack on the statue took place, but it was recently discovered by Fred Whitehead, a longtime admirer and student of John Brown.  Whitehead called it a "sickening sight" and concluded that "John Brown provokes a visceral reaction" in racists.  A local scholar says the statue was erected in 1911 and was thought to be the first statue of John Brown.

The Black Men Behind the Statue

According to newspaper reportage at the time, the plan for the Quindaro statue was announced in 1909, the fifty-year anniversary of Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry and subsequent execution in Virginia.  The statue was to "be erected upon the campus of Quindaro University by the negroes of Kansas," although the name of the school actually was Western University, the first black university west of the Mississippi.  One of the leading proponents of the statue project was W. W. Fisher (1865-1955?), who served both as the clerk of the First African Methodist Episcopal [AME] Church of Kansas City, Kan., and as the clerk of the Quindaro Post Office, which was relocated to the campus of Western University in 1909.2

Bishop Abraham Grant
However, perhaps the more influential proponents of the John Brown statue project were two notable AME clergyman, Bishop Abraham Grant and Rev. Dr. W. T. Vernon.  It was the former who apparently "went east to place the contract for the monument." (However, I have not been able to determine the sculptor thus far.  As always, I'd be pleased to include any further information provided by readers.)  Grant (1848-1911) was born into slavery in Florida, his mother having given birth to him in an ox cart.  Like all enslaved people, Grant's African identity and family name were lost to the oppressive forces of white supremacy, and prior to emancipation, he wore his oppressor's name.  After emancipation, the young man took his first name from Abraham Lincoln, and his last name from General Ulysses S. Grant of the Union army.  In slavery,  Grant was permitted to learn to read by his master; but his schooling was enabled after the Civil War by various AME bishops and elders that met him while working as a head waiter in  Jacksonville, Fl.   Grant lived for a time in San Antonio, Tex., and then made his way to Kansas City, Kan.  Subsequently, he traveled twice to Africa and several times to Europe, where he studied "the solution of the race problem." He was elected the 19th bishop of the AME Church on May 19, 1888, and ordained on May 24.  However, Grant died in 2011, only months after seeing the John Brown statue installed at Quindaro.3

Bishop W. T. Vernon, ca. 1920
Kansas City Sun
Like Grant, the Rev. Dr. William Tecumseh Vernon bore a name in tribute to a Union champion of the Civil War.  Vernon was born after the end of slavery to parents who had been victims of the so-called "Peculiar Institution" in the mountains of southwest Missouri.  Vernon's father had been an AME minister, but William first became a teacher before embarking upon his ministry vocation.  In fact, at the time of the launching of the John Brown statue project, Vernon was only three years out of serving as President of Western University.  At the time of the statue project and its completion, he was serving as the U.S. Register of the Treasury, an appointment made by President Theodore Roosevelt.  Vernon served in this capacity until 1914.  Afterward, he served as President of Campbell College for six years, then a pastorate in Memphis, Tenn., and culminated his life mission by serving as the 45th Bishop of the AME Church from 1920-1936.4

From Conception to Unveiling

When the project was first conceptualized, Bishop Grant "urged that it be built with money contributed by the colored race," apparently because "[t]he memory of John Brown" was "held sacred by the older colored people of Kansas."  These sentiments were taken up by the others promoting the project.5  W. W. Fisher thus told a reporter from the Topeka Daily Capital:
Not a penny towards this fund will be received from white people.  The negroes want to pay for it out of their own pockets.  They want to show their lasting love for the man who started the movement that resulted in making them a free people, and decided that the best way to do it was to erect a monument on the campus of their own university."6
When it was completed, the significance of the event was revealed by the make up of the audience that turned out to witness the unveiling.  On June 9, 2011, the grounds of the Western University were filled for the unveiling.  On hand were the sitting governor and assistant governor of the state, as well as a former governor and other "leading personages."  However, there were ten times as many blacks present as whites, the African American presence reportedly having reached three thousand.  As the Oskaloosa Independent put it: "The statue is the first ever erected to the memory of the man of Harper's Ferry and every cent that went into it was contributed by grateful negroes of Kansas."7

Inspiration and Memory

I have not sufficiently researched the subject to discern the genesis of the idea for the Quindaro statue.  Clearly, it was the brainchild of black leaders in Kansas, although the question remains as to what sparked or prompted the idea in the first place.  One suggestion that might be considered is that certain leading black men and women in Kansas had become aware of the newly published biography of John Brown by W.E.B. DuBois.  Indeed, DuBois' John Brown was first published in September 1909, so it may be that the excitement and interest that was stirred up in the black community by the DuBois book triggered reignited Kansas enthusiasm for the Old Man.  Of course, it is possible, that Grant, Vernon, and others were simply mindful of the fiftieth anniversary of the Harper's Ferry raid that fall of 1909, and that the statue was their way of paying tribute, especially in deference to the older black population that remembered Brown with affection.   However, it is quite possible that the DuBois book was the catalyst for the apparent fervor that drew the money and attention to support the statue project in Kansas.

Defaced, But Not Defeated

It is unfortunate that one or more low-life racists would think themselves clever in desecrating the 107-year-old Quindaro John Brown statue.  It is possible that some miscreant defaced it in reaction to the recent pulling down of Confederate statues, although it seems just as likely that the criminal who defaced the statue was simply acting out of a sense of self-justification and disdain. 

Regardless, the vile act of defacing the Quindaro statue certainly suggests the perpetrator's sense of history too, however warped and perverted.   The defacing of the statue proves that there is a deep and enduring bond between the legacy of John Brown and the freedom struggle.  As such, he is as hated by the enemies of black people as he is revered and appreciated by their friends and allies.  That black people no longer celebrate Brown is not a great surprise either.  Progress has been made over 150+ years; black men and women of great power and accomplishment have arisen as leaders--and some have fallen as martyrs.  It has naturally become more important that these heroes have been honored by succeeding generations instead of the 19th century figure of a white "monomaniac."  Indeed, I would argue that it is much more important today that whites celebrate John Brown, if only that he represents a positive figure whose life and actions can impact whites, perhaps even inspire them to oppose racism and strike at the root of prejudice in their own communities.

After all, the Old Man is not a marginal figure in the ongoing story of the struggle for justice.  As Larry Lawrence says, John Brown is still quite a contemporary figure.  That he still bothers and irritates the advocates of white racism should not only comfort us, but also prove that "his soul goes marching on."


    2 "John Brown Statue On Quindaro Grounds," Topeka Daily Capital, Dec. 16, 1909, p. 4; "First A.M.E. Church," National Review [Kan. City, Kan.], June 21, 1913, p. 3; "W.W. Fisher the Clerk in Charge at Western University," Gazette Globe [Kan. City, Kan.], Oct. 16, 1909, p. 1.
     3 "John Brown Statue On Quindaro Grounds"; "Colored Bishop Dead: Abraham Grant, An Ex-Slave Died Yesterday," Daily Republican [Cherryville, Kan.], Jan. 23, 1911; Jae Jones, "Abram [sic] Grant: Former Slave & 19th Bishop of the A.M.E. Church in Florida," BlackThen (May 22, 2017).  Retrieved from: https://blackthen.com/abram-grant-former-slave-19th-bishop-m-e-church-florida/.  Also see Grant's resting place at Find-A-Gravehttps://goo.gl/rZqZDy
     4 "John Brown Statue On Quindaro Grounds"; "Dr. W.T. Vernon," The Kansas City Sun, Apr. 24, 1920, p. 1; "Rev. William Tecumseh Vernon" at Find-A-Gravehttps://goo.gl/C1mNih.
     5  "Monument to John Brown," Arkansas City [Kan.] Daily News, June 9, 1911, p. 6.

     6  "John Brown Statue On Quindaro Grounds."

     7  "Negroes Honor John Brown," Oskaloosa Independent [Kan.], Jun. 23, 1911, p. 2; "Monument to John Brown."

Tuesday, March 06, 2018

The Fire That Time: David Hunter in Charlestown

Although I am not a student of Civil War history, one episode did grab my attention recently as it has some resonance of the John Brown story: when Union General David Hunter brought the war to Charlestown (formerly Virginia), West Virginia in the summer of 1864.   The incident has provoked a ticklish interest for me in that it involved the burning of the home of John Brown's prosecutor, Andrew Hunter, who was also the general's cousin.  

There is a good description of Gen. David Hunter on the Fort Pulaski National Park Service website, so I will only mention a few biographical points.   Although Hunter had relatives in the South, he was born in Princeton, New Jersey, in 1802.   After being graduated from the U.S. Military Academy in 1822, Hunter did a stint in the army, then sold real estate in Illinois, and then reenlisted in 1842, the year that John Brown filed bankruptcy in Ohio and Abraham Lincoln got married.  Hunter was stationed in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, in 1860, corresponded with Lincoln, and rode on the train with the President-elect to Washington the following year.  

Gen. David Hunter
The Fire That Time

In 1862, Hunter was Commander of the Department of the South, and after taking Fort Pulaski, in South Carolina, he famously issued the ill-fated General Order No. 11, which emancipated enslaved people in Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida.  His premise in doing so was that martial law in the rebellious states he occupied was incompatible with slavery, and so enslaved people were "declared forever free."  

The general's emancipation was a great idea that quickly fell prey to Lincoln's friendly fire.  Always a moderate in matters of black freedom, Lincoln was more concerned with the impact that Hunter's actions would have on the loyal border slave states.  And so the "Great Emancipator" shortly un-emancipated the victims of Southern "stewardship" in Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida, until he felt it was more politically expedient to do so with the Emancipation Proclamation (January 1863).

. . .But John Brown's Man

Although Hunter never fell into the hands of rebel armies and leaders, it is plain that they were infuriated at him for striking at the very heart of Southern secession--the continuance of African enslavement.  Jeff Davis, the rebel "President," even issued a warrant for Hunter's death if captured.  To Davis and the rest of the rebel ilk, Hunter was but another felon--another John Brown, "to be executed if captured."

But if Hunter appeared to be a Brownian figure worthy of death to the slaveholding rebels, the general would not have been offended by the comparison.  He was, perhaps more than any other Union officer, the most like John Brown, since he not only wanted to immediately end chattel slavery, but also wished to arm black men to fight.

According to Edward A. Miller, Jr., one of Hunter's biographers, John Brown "was well known" to Hunter while in Kansas.  "To Hunter," writes Miller, "[John] Brown was a hero, and he thought that a million Union soldiers shared this view."1  Gary C. Walker writes that Hunter "felt that it was his mission to reap vengeance on Virginia because of the ‘suppressing (of) John Brown.”2  I am not impressed with the tone of these biographers regarding Brown, especially Miller, who makes a gratuitous reference to Brown's role in the Pottawatomie killings in Kansas, as if that mattered in the context of this episode.  

Since the 20th century, many Civil War scholars, including the "big name" guys of the academy, were deeply biased against John Brown.  That tradition has often continued among many of the leading Civil War/Lincoln set.   Boyd Stutler dealt with this bigotry in the middle of the 20th century, referring to them in tongue-and-cheek manner as "scientific historians," even though he knew far more about Brown than the best of them.  Over a half century later, the tone that many military historians and Lincoln writers take toward Brown often bears the same tone of prejudice and unstudied bias, engendered by a somewhat sterilized view of the Civil War.  It is no wonder that there is little sympathy for what marks General Hunter's contribution to the John Brown story in this episode.

Burning Down the House

According to Miller, General Hunter's decision to burn the home of Andrew Hunter was spurred by the burning of the home of Maryland Governor Augustus Bradford on July 11, 1864.  In fairness to the rebels, however, the burning of Bradford's home was itself in retaliation for the burning of the home of Governor John Letcher (the successor of Governor Henry Wise, who engineered Brown's execution in Virginia).  Of course, the more obvious reason for General Hunter's choice was that Andrew Hunter had spearheaded the prosecution of John Brown in the fall of 1859, having made it legally certain that the abolitionist would hang, along with his surviving raiders.

Andrew Hunter
Slaveholding Prosecutor
of John Brown
On Sunday, July 17, 1864, General David Hunter thus issued orders, sending Capt. Franklin G. Martindale with a detachment of the First New York Cavalry to Charlestown, directing them to burn both the "dwelling-place and outbuildings" of his cousin, Andrew Hunter.   By now, the latter Hunter had added more treachery to his curriculum vita besides have pushed John Brown up the gallows' steps.  With the rebellion, he had become a "state senator" among rebel Virginians.  He was the enemy.

It appears that Andrew Hunter was hidden and then hustled to another site at the time that his house was burned; he was eventually found hiding at a neighbor's home and was arrested.  One source says that he was jailed for the remainder of the war.3  Andrew Hunter's family were all removed, and were allowed only what they were wearing, and took refuge in a neighbor's home.  The "outbuildings" that were burned probably included former slave residences, although I assume by 1864, John Brown's prosecutor had been stripped of his slaves.   (I wonder what ever happened to the young "mulatto" boy of his--ostensibly his sire--who was listed in the 1860 slave census?)  Men in blue uniforms carried hay into the house and set it afire, and burned the elegant mansion to the ground.   Perhaps what goes around, as they say, comes around.

Hunter's mansion, November 1859 by Berghaus (detail from an image sold by Swann Galleries in 2014)

The Hunter mansion was perhaps the most impressive structure in Charlestown.  It was constructed in 1820 in the Greek Revival style.  An interesting view of the mansion survives as part of a larger sketch that the German-born sketch artist, Alfred Berghaus, made at the time of John Brown's incarceration in Charlestown, in late 1859, in his labors for Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper.   Andrew Hunter kept race horses on his property, so we should assume the "outbuildings" also included stables.  (After the war, Andrew Hunter reconstructed his house on the foundations of the original house, and it remains a historic site of Charles Town today.)4

After burning Alexander Hunter's mansion, General Hunter authorized the burning of two other rebel properties, that of Alexander Boteler, a secessionist who served as a state congressman prior to the rebellion, and the home of a near relative of Robert E. Lee, the supreme rebel general.  According to another historian, General Hunter was prevented by President Lincoln himself, when he sought to burn down the home of  secessionist Charles Faulkner in Martinsburg.  Apparently, Lincoln intervened because Faulkner had previously been a congressman before secession.  The general would likely have done more had he not been restrained by moderate Mr. Lincoln.  One source says he threatened to burn down all of Charlestown.5  However, the best summary of the Charlestown episode came from a young soldier at the time, who observed that General Hunter "spared no rebels 'for relation's sake.'"6
Evidently historians of the Civil War trade consider the house burnings as deplorable, and perhaps tend to be heavy-handed in their judgment of David Hunter because of his evident devotion to the memory of John Brown.  Brown himself burned no buildings in Virginia and would never have driven women and children from their homes; this was always the behavior of the racist thugs that he opposed, such as in Kansas.   
However, the Civil War required extreme measures, and perhaps Lincoln would have done better had he employed extreme measures from the onset, instead of struggling with inactive and unproductive generals for the first years of the war.  The contemporary Civil War historian often lives in a bubble.  He thinks of the war as a worthy contest between two noble opponents; he extends generosity and sympathy to both sides, and sentimentalizes it to the point of bleaching out the political realities of the war.  As my friend Larry Lawrence says, military historians especially treat the Civil War like a big football game, with two worthy teams going at it.
The South rebelled from the Union in order to win its own "freedom" to harden its oppression of four millions of black people, like Pharaoh hardening his heart against Moses.  Virginians and South Carolinians in particular had been lusting for independence for a decade before John Brown's raid at Harper's Ferry.  The South wanted even more--to expand slavery into new territories in order to expand its tyrannical profits in human trafficking and stolen black labor.  This was the political reality of slavery, and this was the stuff of men like Governor Henry Wise, Andrew Hunter, JEB Stuart, and the other "beloved" Confederate characters that feature in the story of John Brown's last days in Virginia.   
General David Hunter, whatever his flaws, understood the realities of the Civil War.  He was not primarily a politician, but a soldier--and a soldier with a memory.  He not only remembered the role that men like Andrew Hunter and Alexander Boteler had played in the demise of John Brown and his men.  But he realized that their rebellion could not be soft-gloved.  There was nothing honorable in Southern secession, nothing noble about the slaveholders of the South like Andrew Hunter.  By our own standards today, they were contemptible men who talked of liberty and the gospel, and kept their bastard "mulatto" slave sire in plain sight, though pretending to be men of nobility and standing.  
There is a certain hypocrisy when historians today are more critical of David Hunter for burning down a few buildings than they are of the racist leaders of the South, who violated the Union and threw their sons into the depths of war in order to secure slavery.  Even today, many people in the South continue to romance their forebears and pretend that they were basically good people.  It is not easy to admit when your forefathers were the bad guys.
Of course, were you one of their victims, you might have a very different view of these slaveholding so-called Confederates.  You might even see a certain beauty in the radiant light of their burning mansions.  Perhaps some of the local blacks of Charlestown did.
As for General David Hunter, any friend of John Brown is a friend of mine.--LD


I was, at my own request, relieved from the command of the 
Department of West Virginia, August 8, 1864."7

David Hunter (1802-1886)


      1 Edward A. Miller Jr., Lincoln's Abolitionist General: The Biography of David Hunter (Columbia: Univ of South Carolina Press, 1997), p. 124.

      2 Gary C. Walker, Hunter’s Fiery Raid Through Virginia Valleys (Gretna: Pelican Publishing Co., 2008), p. 32.

      3 “Old Charles Town Historic District,” NPS Form 10-900 (Oct. 1990), Charles Town, West Va., p. 225.

      4 Ibid.

      5 Steven Bernstein, The Confederacy’s Last Northern Offensive: Jubal Early, the Army of the Valley and the Raid on Washington (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co., 2011), p. 95.

      6 Miller, Lincoln's Abolitionist General, p. 225.

      7 Report of the Military Services, Gen. David Hunter, U.S.A., during the War of the Rebellion, Made to the U.S. War Department, 1873 (New York: D. Van Nostrand, Publisher, 1873).

Wednesday, February 07, 2018

Op-Ed: "Martyr or Madman," Again

Perhaps we should not complain too much.  In the 20th century, John Brown was simply referred to as a "madman" by many writers.  These days, journalists and bloggers have taken to using titles like "martyr or madman?"--inferring that the reader should decide on their own since, supposedly, there's just not sufficient historical evidence to come to a conclusion about the status of the abolitionist.

Currently, Kansas Public Radio (Lawrence) is featuring a brief audio commentary by Bobbie Athon, who is identified as a writer and public information officer for the Kansas State Historical Society.  Athon chose to begin a series entitled, "Remembering Iconic Kansas" with an installment called,  "Abolitionist John Brown - Martyr or Madman?"  Athon's commentary, nicely written and narrated by Athon herself, runs under two and half minutes, and she must be commended for engaging the theme in an obvious attempt to be fair both in tone and content (you can download it here).  John Brown is, after all, an important figure to Kansans, even if the consensus of opinion about him today is not as positive among that generation of Kansans who actually knew and understood the struggle over slavery in those awful territorial days.

Nevertheless, Athon's concise narrative is not without its problems.  Perhaps the most problematic is that she says Brown's role in the Pottawatomie killings was "in retaliation" for the proslavery attack upon Lawrence in May 1856.  While it is impossible to separate the "sack of Lawrence" from the Pottawatomie killings that took place immediately afterward, Athon has engaged in an oversimplification at best.  Notwithstanding she had only minutes to give her commentary, it would have been far more correct had Athon stated that Brown and his men carried out the killings of five proslavery conspirators in their neighborhood because of the role these men were playing in bringing an invasion of "border ruffians" into the vicinity.  While the attack on Lawrence sparked the counter-attack by Brown and his men, in truth the killings were more distinctly based on local incidents and dangers involving the Browns and other free state people versus local proslavery thugs like the Doyles and Shermans.  It seems to have eluded Athon that the Browns and others were literally under threat of their lives by these neighbors, and given the invasion and the promised threat of attack upon them, the Pottawatomie attack was far more a preemptive strike than it was a "retaliation."  I should add, Athon says Brown "kidnapped" his Pottawatomie victims.  I suppose by this she means Brown forcibly removed them from their homes?  Of course, he only removed them from the immediate site for the purpose of executing them, not to "kidnap" them in the conventional sense.

There are a couple of other technical problems.  Athon says that it was the Battle of Black Jack in June 1856 that led to the epithet, "Bleeding Kansas."  I've not made a study of the immediate origin of the expression, but I would be surprised if she were correct here.  The Battle of Black Jack was not much of a blood-letting, and it would seem to me that "Bleeding Kansas" had it origins in regard to the five murders of free state men by proslavery terrorists in 1855-56, the Pottawatomie killings following them in May 1856, and perhaps also the Marais de Cygnes massacre of 1858, in which more free state men were gunned down in cold blood.   Again, this is a technical point and I'd be pleased to be either confirmed or corrected on the point as to the specific origin of the "Bleeding Kansas" reference. 

Speaking of technical errors, Athon also mentions Brown seizing the "arsenal" at Harper's Ferry, a common mistake.  Brown seized the entire armory of Harper's Ferry, which included the arsenal.  People tend to make this error, probably because they assume the Southern fallacy that he "seized the arsenal" to take the weapons--a false notion that has no substance in fact.  (See the video, "John Brown & the Harper's Ferry Weapons: Debunking a Southern Legend" on this blog.)

But if one thing is disturbing about Athon's piece, it is this gratuitously biased title, "Martyr or Madman?"  Even based upon the content of her narrative, there is nothing discussed about Brown being either a martyr or a madman.  The title reads like some clever editor at KPR slapped it on for effect.  Worse, as noted above, the "martyr or madman" cant is tired, hackneyed, and useless. 

It goes without saying that John Brown was a martyr.  Many people today may not like Brown or want to acknowledge his martyrdom, but the fact is that in historical terms this is precisely how he was understood by blacks and whites of his own generation.   John Brown was a martyr, was acknowledged as such while he still awaited execution, and was celebrated for generations afterward.  Indeed, black people for many years remembered "Martyr's Day" on John Brown's birthday.   John Brown's birthday was the Martin Luther King Jr. Day of the 19th century. 

Second, no credible writer today would engage in the biased rhetoric of the 20th century "Lost Cause" writers who fed the myth of a madman.  Even those who perhaps wish they could find sufficient proof of Brown's insanity have had to settle for equally unfounded appeals to him allegedly having been bipolar, or some other nonsense.  It has been the national past time of white writers from the 20th century, and still some today, to try to make out John Brown as mentally disturbed.  But none have been successful in this fool's errand.

I would suggest that the "martyr or madman?" choice be set aside.  It has no validity, first because all the evidence says Brown (1) was a martyr, (2) was not mad in any sense, and (3) that asking the unlearned, biased, or miseducated public to make such a hollow determination is itself just appealing to ignorance.  Those who wish to study Brown's life and legacy can do so.  There are sufficient materials and the evidence is more than clear.  Certainly, we have no use for the opinions of those who do not wish to do so, but would rather continue repeating the error and bias they've been taught. 

Let us remember that we live in a society of great historical ignorance, layered over with a stylized and agenda-driven view of slavery, the Civil War, and the epic figures of that drama.  The mass of people actually believe Lincoln was "the Great Emancipator," that the Civil War was a noble battle between two good sides, that slavery was only a terrible inconvenience, that Jesse James was the Robin Hood of the South, and that John Brown was a madman or a terrorist.   Given these pitiful circumstances, we can only adopt Brown's own optimism and hope that we have more writers like Bobbie Athon, who has at least gotten it half right.--LD

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Miscellany: About Brown

The author had recently been in the Harpers Ferry area while John Brown was awaiting trial. Writing on the day the trial began, he offered an unsympathetic account: "They deserve death--nothing but death here & hereafter. . . . I have seen one of the spears taken from old Brown and it is a most ferocious looking weapon. It is on a long hickory staff, is fully nine inches in length, has a double edge very sharp and a sharp point. A man would easily be killed by one blow. I have also seen a likeness of old Brown and his face is a caricature of humanity. How in the world he could inspire confidence is a mystery as he carries the notice 'beware' in his countenance to all mankind."

From letter of a proslavery man, George Morton, Culpeper Court House, Va., to unknown recipient, 25 Oct. 1859.  Sale 2391, Lot 318, Swann Auction Galleries online.  Sold in 2015.


Rev. George B. Cheever, lectured in the Hall of the House of Representatives, last evening--"Emancipation"--was not very generally liked.  He thought John Brown a better Commander than McClellan.  Such speeches may do in times of peace, but when the drift of an argument tends to impair public confidence in the Government, a man had far better keep his silence.

Frank, "From Harrisburg: Correspondence of the Agitator (Feb. 6, 1862), Agitator [Wellsboro, Pa.], Feb. 12, 1862, p. 2

“We sat up till midnight, and awoke the echoes of that quarter of Richmond with the most vociferous singing of National airs, not forgetting ‘John Brown’s body,’ which was especially obnoxious to the Rebels, and therefore particularly agreeable to us.”

Junius Henri Browne, Four Years in Secessia (Hartford: O.D. Case and Company, 1865), 265.

A good critic has said "Throughout the whole life of John Brown, there is not so much of invective and bitterness as is found in a single page of Mr. Garrison.  The habitual mildness of John Brown's language, even under very strong provocation, was as wonderful as was the might of his acts."

National Baptist, February 18, 1886.  Brief notes under "John Brown Letter Extracts, Notes," Boyd B. Stutler Papers #RP06-0080 A-E

Thursday, January 11, 2018

On Sleeping in and Blowing Off Steam in 1849

It is a matter of discussion among historians that not everything that has happened in the past is worthy of being considered “historical.”  That Alexander the Great may have spilled his wine on a given day is not itself a point of real historical value, unless by spilling wine, for instance, he ruined a valuable map, the lack thereof afterward having impacted his military success in a given campaign.  Not all that is past is history in this sense.  However, the seeming insignificant details of a life remain a point of interest for the biographer, who is always somewhat other than a historian notwithstanding s/he is nothing other than a historian. 
Brown as he looked
in the late 1840s
First, those insignificant details may reveal aspects of the subject of interest, aspects that otherwise are valuable in reflecting the subject in more weighty contexts, historically speaking.  Second, the details simply speak to that palate of colors, shapes, and textures that make biography one of the more appetizing aspects of “history.”  After all, steak on a plate may be the meal, but who would not prefer steak on a plate garnished with small, tasty additions?

A Letter of No Great Value

Such is the case with a letter from John Brown, written 169 years ago this month, and sent to an inn keeper in eastern Pennsylvania.  This letter that has nothing to do with the abolitionist’s historic antebellum role, nor even of the less interesting aspects of his career as a wool merchant in the mid-19th century.  The letter, written on January 25, 1849, is charged with frustration and a desire for justice, yet has only to do with the most mundane of matters—sleeping in at a 19th century version of a motel because the manager failed to give him a wake-up call. 

Owen Brown, who died
in 1856
Nevertheless, the letter is interesting because it provides insight into the unscrupulous manner in which John Brown pursued justice as he perceived it, regardless of the matter—and how, for John Brown, justice-delayed was not only justice-denied, but a thorn in his flesh that sooner or later demanded action.   Yes, slavery was the supreme thorn in the flesh of John Brown’s moral and spiritual being; in a lesser sense, so was the exploitation of wool growers by wealthy manufacturers in the 1840s, or the abuse of humble settlers by elites and bureaucrats in the 1820s.  But there were other thorns in his life, miscellaneous episodes of disadvantage and disgust, just as there are in our lives—from that unfairly given parking ticket, the overcharged bill at dinner, or the failure “to get what I paid for.”

The Letter as Document

Interestingly, the only reason this letter has survived is that it was sent by Brown as a business letter, although it most certainly was a personal complaint.  At the time, he was in partnership with the wealthy Ohio tycoon, Simon Perkins Jr., and was operating a wool commission house in Springfield, Massachusetts.  However, neither the original letter nor a response from the addressee have survived for history.  We know about this letter only because a handwritten copy of it exists in the letter book of the firm of Perkins & Brown, now held in the Boyd B. Stutler Collection in West Virginia.  The handwritten copy exists in Brown’s own hand.1

To no surprise, the late Boyd Stutler was the only one who knew about this letter, and likewise it was of no apparent interest to anyone else, other than perhaps his friend and correspondent, the Reverend Clarence Gee.   In 1954, Stutler wrote a two-part article about this minor incident for a newspaper published in the town where Brown had overslept, Bedford, Pennsylvania.2 In contextualizing the story behind the letter, Stutler sought to find greater significance in the episode by observing that John Brown subsequently made stops in Bedford while preparing for the Harper’s Ferry raid in the following decade. This made interesting reading for the Bedford Gazette in 1954, but has hardly been a point of interest since that time.

Bedford, Pa., in the 1840s

The Incident

In September 1848, John Brown and his father Owen, aged seventy-eight, were traveling together from the east to Ohio, probably after the elder had visited his son and family in the town of Springfield, Massachusetts.  The two had likely traveled by train from Springfield down to New York City, and then purchased tickets for a long ride, first from New York to Philadelphia by train, and then by stage coach from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh. From there, they could pass up through the rest of western Pennsylvania and reach home in Ohio’s Western Reserve in the northeastern section of the state. 

The trip westward from Philadelphia by stage continued into the evening, so Brown purchased tickets that allowed for a layover in the town of Bedford, Pennsylvania, about two hundred miles west of Philadelphia.  In the 1848, Bedford was a small but active town (based on an 1850 description3) with a sheriff, inns, school teachers, doctors, a printer, and two clergymen.  There were about one hundred and forty seated lots, and a few hundred taxable inhabitants including over sixty free black residents. 

Upon arrival in Bedford, the Browns found their way to an inn owned by John [Johan?] Ottinger, who is listed in the same 1850 record as a “gentleman,” which seems to mean he was a property owner in town. Given the hour and his father’s weariness, Brown obtained a room from Ottinger, apparently on the basis that he also “personally” agreed to awaken them in the night so they could board the first stage to Pittsburgh, which was scheduled to arrive in Bedford before daylight.   

The Offense

Unfortunately, the travelers were left to their slumbers while two stage coaches passed in the night.  Although he did not awaken in time, John Brown was an early riser and awoke before Ottinger.  By the time the proprietor was up and about, Brown had already spoken to his night staff, who had informed him that they knew nothing of Ottinger’s promise to awaken them. Much to his disgust, Brown also learned of the two stage coaches that had passed through town, and that there was sufficient seating had they boarded.  For Brown, this offense was compounded when Ottinger—perhaps out of embarrassment—tried to cover his failure with a lie, telling Brown that he had let them sleep through because the night coaches were full.  But Brown had already had already conducted his own inquiry and more than suspected that Ottinger was lying to him.

Obviously, Brown must have been quite outraged, but his immediate concern was to escort his father back to Ohio and attend to pressing business matters.  Now, he could not leave Bedford for another day, and to make matters worse, he had to choose between an uncertain place on the next west-bound stage coach, or pay for a different conveyance. Brown apparently chose the latter, which carried him and his father along some route through the town of New Cumberland4 toward their destination.  These unforeseen expenses cost Brown an additional $20, which really became a festering issue over the next several months.  While $20 might not seem like a reason to get steamed, one may think differently when considering the value of this amount with an inflation calculator.  According to one online inflation calculator that allowed me to compare the U.S. dollar in 1848 with the same in 2018, it seems these additional costs amounted to around $600 for Brown.  No wonder he was still brooding over it in the new year of 1849!

The Letter

It is interesting that Brown did not write this letter until four months after the incident—as he put it in the letter, “the thing” had “lain up to this time.”  Why Brown waited so long to contact Ottinger is not known, nor does the letter suggest previous efforts were made to reach the inn keeper with his complaint.  Perhaps Brown had told Ottinger at the time that he expected some form of remuneration, and waited to hear from him in vain.  Or it may be that Brown initially decided to let it go, but it had increasingly bothered him until he could not remain silent any longer.  I suspect there is some unrecorded back story that we will never know, and admittedly we do not have Ottinger’s side of the episode either.   But given that Brown was typically honest to a fault in matters of money and business, I am inclined to believe his account. 

A Little Intimidation?

Whatever the case, the other interesting aspect of this episode is that Brown addressed Ottinger with a letter from the firm, not personally from himself.  Writing on behalf of the firm in regard to Brown, he signed the letter as “Perkins & Brown,” and sent it to Ottinger through some of his clients named Patterson and Ewing, who happened to live in the offender’s vicinity.   In the body of the letter, Brown refers to himself in the third person, as “John Brown of this firm,” and otherwise uses terms like “this firm” and “us.”  Since we have only his handwritten copy in the firm’s letter book, we have no idea if he also wrote the actual letter with his own hand, or if he had an employee do so.  Regardless, the letter sent to Ottinger was as corporate as it was intentional.  

The reason for this method is obvious enough: John Brown hoped that Ottinger would be more likely to refund his money if intimidated by a firm rather than challenged by an individual.  Now sir,” Brown wrote in the name of Perkins & Brown, “it happens that this firm is extensively known in P[ennsylvania] & in other States [and] unless you immediately refund to us the Twenty Dollars you may expect such measures will be taken with you, & such exposure made of your character as will possibly give you a little trouble” [my emphasis].

It appears that we will never know the outcome of the Brown-Ottinger episode.  We have neither Brown’s original letter nor any reply from Ottinger as far as the documents are concerned.  Furthermore, the episode seems not to have been discussed or recalled by any of his family members, probably because they were not involved, or because there proved no memorable outcome.  As noted, we have only Brown’s side of the story, so we can only reconstruct Ottinger’s side based on what Brown said—that he probably forgot and then tried to cover over his error by misrepresentation.   However, in the “moral vineyard,” as Stutler liked to say, it does appear Ottinger’s row was shorter than Brown’s, and this may be why there is no known response from the offender.  

A Parallel

There is a parallel in this regard, with another “threatening” letter that Brown wrote to a dishonest neighbor in 1841, and for which there is no surviving response.  At that time, Brown was up to his eyes in money troubles and wrote an outraged letter to Amos Chamberlain, whom we remember only because the abolitionist’s letter somehow survived.  In simple terms, Brown was holding the deed of a farm and wanted to protect it from being seized in court by a man whom he deemed wicked and unprincipled in his lawsuit.   When Brown emerged from that legal battle, he wanted the property returned by Chamberlain in order to satisfy other debts and creditors breathing down his neck.  He was shocked, however, when he realized that Chamberlain had decided to keep the property for himself—something that Brown felt was an infuriating betrayal.  Like the letter to Ottinger, it took months before Brown chose to write to Chamberlain, months after the incident.  In writing to Chamberlain, Brown crafted a four-page letter, comprised partially of appeals to friendship and partially of threats of legal “war,” along with references involving the judgments of their mutual neighbors.5   In the end, it does not appear that Chamberlain ever responded to Brown, although his children spoke harshly of Brown in later years.  At least from Brown’s side of these stories, both men had taken advantage of him by breaking trust, albeit not the law.  In both cases, neither is there any reason to think that Brown’s demand for justice was ever satisfied, or even answered for that matter.

A Small Window

Like the Chamberlain letter of 1841, the letter to Ottinger in 1849 provides a small window into Brown’s life, one with a view that fully complements what we know of the man from other narrative details.  The first is that whether in regard to matters of business and industry or human rights, Brown was heavy-handed in his quest for justice.  Generally speaking, John Brown neither cheated nor lied, nor did he have moral patience with men who did. 

Second, he could be longsuffering, or at least he could be overly ponderous and reflective to a fault in dealing with opponents.  In this case, as in the 1841 incident with Amos Chamberlain, Brown waited months to address the issue on “final” terms.  Although it would seem that he lost in both cases, he did not do so without a fight.  As Stutler concluded of the incident, “it is highly probable that” John Brown “got only the satisfaction of letting off steam,” although he may have “caused the landlord some uneasiness” at best.6

Finally, Brown believed in the power—both morally and legally—of the written word.  In his youth and business years, he naturally engaged in the practice of writing contracts, certificates, and other documents.  As his antislavery views evolved from passive to militant abolition, he documented covenants, declarations, constitutions and organizational documents, always invoking a moral foundation.  Even at Harper’s Ferry, witnesses attested that he endeavored to secure agreement and signatures with slaveholders as part of his efforts to exchange prisoners for enslaved people—a fixation that may in part have cost him his tactical advantage and led to his defeat and demise.

John Brown believed that words were the first recourse in battling injustice.  He was never a writer, properly speaking, nor did he leave a legacy of literary political discourse.  Yet even the most mundane record of his life reveals his belief in the power of words in the pursuit of truth and equity.


            1 See Perkins & Brown to J. Ottinger,  Jan. 25, 1849, MS03-0152, in Boyd B. Stutler John Brown Collection, West Virginia State Archives.
            2 See Boyd B. Stutler.  “Old John Brown,” The Bedford [Pa.] Gazette, September 13 & 17, 1954.

            3 Excerpt from Ch. XXIV, “Borough of Bedford,” in History off Bedford, Somerset And Fulton Counties, Pennsylvania (Chicago: Waterman, Watkins & Co., 1884).

            4 Brown wrote “Cumberland,” but I assume he was referring to the town of New Cumberland, which was settled in the early 1830s.  If any Pennsylvania reader happens to know more details about this point, I’d be pleased to hear from you.

            5 Stutler, “Old Brown.”

            6 Brown’s letter to Amos Chamberlain is found in the John Brown – Oswald Garrison Villard Papers, Columbia University, Rare Book and Manuscript Collection, New York, N.Y.