"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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Friday, December 08, 2017

A Rediscovered, Peculiar Account of John Brown in Jail

Despite the extensive, protracted research that went into the production of my book, Freedom’s Dawn: The Last Days of John Brown in Virginia, an unknown vignette of the Old Man in jail has emerged that I never came upon before.  I suspect the same will be said for other Brown scholars and researchers at present.  What is most interesting about this account is how it reflects Brown’s humanity—particularly the struggle he surely felt as a prisoner in Virginia, being both the most notable antislavery figure in the nation and a Christian who felt a moral and spiritual obligation to respect his enemies, especially the slaveholding Christians whom he disdained.  

A Man of Measured Words

To be sure, Brown’s visceral contempt for the self-assured, self-righteous evangelical slaveholders of the South made itself known, as did also his famous restraint and courtesy, the latter reflective of his strong Christian belief that even his enemies merited respect.  To be sure, John Brown temperamentally was a man of few words, and this characteristic surely reinforced his profound religious avoidance of reckless, ungodly speech. 

It was not simply that Brown would never use a four-letter word, a curse word, or a minced oath.  Rather, he was intentionally measured and deliberately gracious in speaking to antagonists, even when he was cursed and verbally abused as he was, for instance, by J.E.B. Stuart after his defeat at Harper’s Ferry.  To my knowledge, Brown always exercised a great deal of restraint at the most tense moments whether in personal argument or formal debate.  He often employed a conciliatory tone in communicating with critics and opponents, and even at his sharpest, Brown never allowed his speech to degenerate into insult and vulgarity, believing as he did that he stood accountable to Christ for even his spoken words.  However, I suspect it would have been easier for John Brown to confront a cursing Border Ruffian than a self-righteous proslavery preacher, and I’d suggest that this vignette bears this out precisely.

An 1860 Account

It is very likely that I am referring to this account for the first time since it was published in the fall of 1860, less than a year after the Harper’s Ferry raid and Brown’s execution.   The vignette was included in an installment of series in The Spirit of Jefferson, one of a few small newspapers published in Jefferson County, where the Harper’s Ferry raid took place.  Unfortunately, there seems to be no complete run of this paper from the fall of 1860, so only two installments of the series—entitled “The John Brown Conspiracy”—have survived.  (Certainly, if the reader is aware of others, I would be most grateful to be informed.)  The two installments that survive are numbers three and four (called "Chapters") in the series, published on September 15 and 22, respectively.  The vignette of Brown in jail is found in number four and published under the subtitle, “A Recital by a Visitor to John Brown, in His Cell.”

The Editor and His Series

In the fall of 1860, the owner and editor of The Spirit of Jefferson was Benjamin F. Beall, a resident of Jefferson County.  Beall appears in the Slave Schedule for Jefferson County as having held one 35-year-old woman as a slave in his home.  Local historians may provide more information about Beall, although it appears that he was a sincere believer in the slaveholders’ brand of Christianity.  That form of Christianity upheld a perverse kind of orthodoxy—the kind of orthodoxy that sustained a precise confessional integrity while maligning abolitionists and infidels for their impiety and heresy, while also daily exploiting the bodies of enslaved people in the name of Christian paternal responsibility. 

The purpose of Editor Beall’s “John Brown Conspiracy” series apparently was to provide a political, social, and religious framework for local Virginians to understand the recent Harper’s Ferry raid.  Since there is an incomplete run of the paper for 1860, it is unclear how many installments were included in the series.  It appears that Chapter I and Chapter II are lost, as are the installments that followed Chapter IV. 

In the third installment or Chapter III (Sept. 15), Beall’s words suggest that he was a proslavery unionist.  He thus writes that both abolition and secession were born of “an infernal spirit.”  As to the Harper’s Ferry raiders, fallen and fled, he makes a biblical allusion, noting that the Virginians had “put to flight the devil and all his imps.”  Chapter III thus ends with an admonishment that readers should “learn patience from the old Commonwealth and heed the lesson, ‘Never Tire.’”


Prisoner Brown and His Pious Guest


In Chapter IV, Beall introduces the vignette of Brown, an account written by an unnamed writer --the writer claiming to have made a number of visits to the Charlestown jail at the end of November, only days before Brown was hanged.  He also claims to have interviewed all of Brown’s men in captivity during his visits to the jailhouse.

While the writer does not identify himself, there is internal evidence that he was a local resident, a pious Christian, a slaveholder, and one acquainted with Governor Henry Wise.  Indeed, it was Wise who had made an “eminent voucher” of Brown’s character to him.  In other words, Wise was impressed with his prisoner and recommended that the writer visit him in jail.  He adds also that he was introduced to Brown by another “gentleman of distinction,” whom he does not identify, but describes as having been “at least the equal” of Governor Wise “by position and character.” An educated guess is that this was Andrew Hunter, who had successfully prosecuted John Brown’s trial, and who continued to have communication with the abolitionist until his execution.

The Reverend, Perhaps

One of the frequent themes of Brown’s last days in jail was that he was sought out by clergymen, almost all of them proslavery ministers who hoped to win his penitence.  These proslavery clergymen found no such success, and at least one was shown to the door by the Old Man, whose patience had worn thin.  On principle alone, of course, Brown would grant no such satisfaction to the slaveholding clergy, whom he considered the greatest hypocrites.  It is this kind of contempt that is revealed in this vignette; for this reason my sense is that he was a clergyman who had flattered himself with the idea that he might win Brown’s friendship and penitence to the satisfaction of the Christian South.  

The writer thus came with two gifts in his initial meeting with Brown, a bouquet of freshly picked garden flowers, and a “neat little book” entitled, The Two Prisoners.  As he described it, the book was a religious devotional based upon the biblical episode of the incarceration of Saints Paul and Silas in the Philippian jail.  Thus far, I have failed to find The Two Prisoners online, but it may be that it actually was a published sermon, which was a common practice in the 19th century.  As to the flowers, the writer says that a “label” was included with a verse of poetry.  Imagine Brown reading them:
Bring flowers to the captive’s lonely cell, 
They have tales of the joyous woods to tell; 
Of the free blue streams and the glowing sky,   
And the bright world shut from his languid eye.
Although it is impossible to determine the identity of the writer, my best guess is that he was the Reverend Jacob H. Waugh, the local pastor of the Methodist Episcopal Church in Charlestown.  Waugh is one of the local clergy mentioned in newspaper reports for his visits to Brown and his men in jail at Charlestown (I refer the reader to Freedom's Dawn).


A Prompt Protest

According to the writer’s account, he thus made every effort to approach John Brown in a warm, conciliatory manner by giving him the book and the flowers.  However, while he hoped to finesse his way into Brown’s good graces, he made quite a different impact by making an inscription in the book that clearly offended the old man.  When Brown man examined the text, he found that his visitor had thus inscribed it, “From a servant of Christ, even a slaveholder.”  In response, as the writer recalled, 
[Brown] responded with the utmost courtesy—but promptly protested, in a firm yet polite manner, against the profession claimed in the title I had prefixed to my signature—declaring that he could not hold communion with any one, as a Christian, who apologized, in any way, for the institution of domestic slavery.
Of course, this is classic John Brown, who similarly wrote while in jail: “These ministers who profess to be Christian, and hold slaves or advocate slavery, I cannot abide them.  My knees will not bend in prayer with them while their hands are stained with the blood of souls.”1 When he wrote these words, undoubtedly he was thinking of men like this visitor, whether or not it was the Reverend Waugh.

Incidentally, another reason that Waugh might fit the profile of the writer is that he was a slaveholder, and kept a sixty-four-year-old female and a fourteen-year-old female enslaved in his home.2   The writer’s response to Brown may also indicate that he was a pastor, since he seemed quite specific about asking of the abolitionist if he was a church communicant. When Brown answered in the affirmative, he then asked Brown to which denomination he was affiliated.  The answer, as recorded, is true enough—Brown saying that he was affiliated with the Congregational church, and that his last membership was in Summit County (most likely the First Congregational Church of Richfield, Ohio, which he joined in 1842).3



A Rejoinder, Then an Apology

The author of the vignette writes that on another occasion when he visited Brown, he had given him some kind of “tract,” which most likely was another religious booklet.  When he returned for yet another visit, Brown “jumped from his couch” and rushed across the room to a shelf, and picked up the same tract and handed it back to him.  As he did so, Brown told him that he had “made some marks on it, for his eye.”  When his guest turned to the opening blank page, he found that Brown had scrawled on it, “To the slaveholding [name of the writer]—man, woman, and baby thief!

Surprised by Brown’s polemical response, his pious visitor reproached him: “Captain Brown, you profess to be guided by the same Spirit that inspired the Apostles.  One of those Apostles wrote, for you and for me, these words: ‘Be courteous.’  Now, sir, appealing to the same Spirit, I ask you, is this courteous?”  Although one may believe that Brown was completely correct in his polemical inscription, the old man reacted immediately by acknowledging his fault, “stating that he had forgotten that those words were in the Testament, and that his was not courteous language.”  

The writer says during another visit he dared, “with all delicacy,” to tell Brown that he thought him “not in his right mind.”  The basis of his presumption was that Brown had used a pseudonym (Isaac Smith) when preparing for his invasion in the summer of 1859.  “How could you change the name of John Brown, as given you in baptism. . . deceiving multitudes for many months under a false name?” According to the writer, Brown responded to this charge with meekness, even sorrow.  The old man explained that actually he had found “great difficulty in changing his name—that he hesitated about it for two weeks; and added, that perhaps that was the cause of his scheme’s failing.”

Audacity and Meekness

There is no reason to doubt the basic truthfulness of this vignette, and despite its peculiarity, it seems to ring true.  John Brown was fearless, brave, and often time resolute and determined to follow out his own plans, even if it meant hurting others’ feelings.  As one of his siblings described him in younger days, he could be quite “imperious.” 

On the other hand, the John Brown that often is forgotten is the man who displayed a kind of overly sensitive (if not worrisome) piety.   As a parent, he was capable of hard discipline and yet also a self-sacrificing, motherly compassion and care that his sons and daughters always remembered.  As a neighbor, he could be stringent about the observation of the law, and could go out of his way to enforce it; but then he would go doubly out of his way to bring consolation, help, and kindness to the same neighbor who had suffered penalty because of his stringent manner.  

Even as a militant and a soldier, Brown could both lay down steel and show extravagant mercy, bravely battling his enemies and bringing kind succor to his prisoners.  It is probably the case that his debacle at Harper’s Ferry was largely due to this characteristic--resulting in hesitance in pushing the dagger of his plan to the hilt, and instead becoming enthralled and distracted by the tears and apprehensions of his slaveholding captives.







Final Reflections

Brown was no mystic, but it is understandable that he would ponder over his failure at Harper’s Ferry with respect to the divine purpose, notwithstanding that the mainstay of his regret was his own tactical failure.  He said as much more than once while in the Charlestown jail, that he was defeated by not staying to his own plan.  Yet despite the practicality of this perspective, John Brown saw the sovereign hand of God in his defeat.  “[E]ven all the follies that led to this disaster,” he told Thomas Russell in a jail interview, “were decreed to happen ages before the world was made.”4 Still, a consistent Calvinist never discounts human responsibility while also uplifting divine sovereignty, and so Brown was left to reflect upon his own responsibility.  Was it to be found in the disingenuousness of a pseudonym?  

I have nowhere seen the slightest suggestion that Brown considered his use of a “nom de guerre” in Virginia or elsewhere as a sin, let alone as an offense that might prompt the Almighty’s chastisement.  Indeed, I’ve never considered it an ethical problem myself, although many years ago the late, beloved Marjory Blubaugh of the Kittochinny Historical Society shared her disdain of Brown’s ploy in correspondence with me.  However, as this peculiar account suggests, it could be that Brown did after all have some reservations about using a false name while preparing for the raid.   Nor do I think the writer had any reason to fabricate this episode; rather, I tend to think that the visitor’s criticism may have found a tender mark in Brown’s vulnerable conscience, even as he faced imminent death.   

Finally, we should not think that Brown took his failure at Harper’s Ferry lightly, particularly since it resulted in the deaths of his sons and his men, just as it also derailed his entire plan for a mountain-based campaign in the South.  It is my hope that before he died, John Brown had dismissed the scruples of his slaveholding visitor, who was acting the role of the proverbial Pharisee, finding fault with the speck in John Brown's eye while overlooking the beam in his own.  Certainly, whatever issues troubled his mind and soul, I am sure that Brown made peace with his God and Savior well before the hour of the noose.  Like any Christian martyr worth his salt, John Brown's legacy is not premised on his perfection, but upon his witness.--LD  
============

Notes

1  John Brown to Rev. James W. McFarland, Nov. 23, 1859, in New York Tribune, Dec. 21, 1859, p. 7.  
2 According the Slave Schedule of 1860 for Jefferson County, Virginia.
3  According to the research of the Rev. Clarence S. Gee.

4  See “Interviews with Old Brown; A Visit to Charlestown,” New York Times, Nov. 7, 1859, 4.

Saturday, December 02, 2017

Eulogy, December 2

On December 2, 1859, the Christian abolitionist John Brown was hanged in Charlestown, Virginia (now West Virginia) after being convicted in what certainly was a slave holders court.  After a failed attempt to initiate a liberation movement at Harper’s Ferry on October 16, 1859, Brown was tried and found guilty on November 1, spending the last month of his life in a little jail cell receiving curious visitors and scrawling letters to family, associates, and admiring strangers.  Henry Wise, the Governor of Virginia, lamented that Brown was not summarily executed upon capture—perhaps prescient of the problems he would pose as a prisoner of the state.    
Indeed, in the several weeks of his captivity, the old Calvinist excited the nation—the South now pushed to outrage, and the North awakened to a growing admiration for Brown as reports of his words and conduct reached the press.  In fact, John Brown shortly became the “celebrity of the day,” perhaps even the most famous figure of the antebellum era.  While he sat in his jail cell as serenely as a monk, major dailies published wired reports covering even the slightest incidents taking place in quaint little Charlestown, including the reports about John Brown that were smuggled out by a brave reporter working clandestinely for the antislavery New York Tribune.  Otherwise, the only reporters permitted in town either were Southerners or Northern journalists from proslavery papers like The New York Herald.  Across the North, Sunday sermons often included discourses on the old man—either in praise or condemnation of his audacious attempt to undermine black enslavement in the South.
Brown himself was sufficiently aware of the impact that his imprisonment and impending execution were having upon the nation, and he was pleased—sometimes quoting from Psalm 71, “Now also when I am old and gray-headed, O God, forsake me not; until I have shewed thy strength unto this generation, and thy power to everyone that is to come.”  Although he regretted delaying so long in Harper’s Ferry that he was captured, he wrote, nevertheless he greeted his coming execution as his greatest opportunity to witness for Christ.  As a willing martyr for the antislavery cause, Brown’s reported testimony in court and his jailhouse letters—a good many of which appeared almost immediately in newspapers across the North—revealed him as a man of great religious conviction, one whose devotion was an expression of Christian necessity and evangelical duty.  He renounced even friendly efforts to have his sentence commuted in the name of insanity, although most of them declared him a “monomaniac,” which by today’s standards means he was distastefully extreme in his antislavery devotion as far as white people were concerned.  Even his jailer could not deny him a certain admiration—and it was not unusual for him to bring his little son into the jail cell to play and frolic at the old man’s feet—Brown sometimes pausing as he played with the child to tell reporters that children just naturally took to him.

As a Christian historian and biographer who has studied John Brown for nearly twenty years, often I find that the man whom I have come to know in my research is starkly different from the figure that is popularly represented either as a terrorist or as mentally unstable.  However, it is not simply that Brown’s story is frequently skewed and biased by agenda-driven biographers and writers, but that his profile as a deeply religious man either is overlooked in the history of Christianity in the United States, or he is characterized by secular writers as a dangerous religious fanatic—“a bearded fundamentalist,” as one journalist referred to him in a New York Times piece that compared “9/11” with the Harper’s Ferry raid of 1859.
It is true that John Brown was extreme both in his antislavery convictions as well as his belief in human equality—although historians are beginning to appreciate that such extremism is quite virtuous compared to the pervasive, blatant racism of that era.  It almost goes without saying, too, that Brown may seem far more appealing considering that we have a President in the White House who soft-pedals white supremacists and greets Native American veterans quite condescendingly in front of a portrait of the white supremacist President Andrew Jackson.  Indeed, the more that white Christians develop an anti-racist consciousness, the more they may yet need to find inspiration and instruction in a white believer who exemplified an absolute commitment to racial justice and equality.
It is also true that in 1856, Brown resorted to violence amidst crisis, although typically the backstory of “Bleeding Kansas” is skewed to his disadvantage by a selective reading of the record. As a devout Christian, nevertheless he was a soldier who adopted wartime measures when his family faced an imminent threat from proslavery terrorists.  Without recourse to protection either by federal or local law enforcement, John Brown took up the sword to eliminate the threat.  But when one of his sons was later murdered, he refused an opportunity for revenge, telling his associate, “People mistake my objects.  I would not hurt one hair of his head.  I would not go one inch to take his life; I do not harbor the feeling of revenge.  I act from a principle.  My aim and object is to restore human rights.”
On December 2, 1859, John Brown was driven in a wagon to an open field, seated on the wooden crate that held his coffin.  With proslavery dignitaries and journalists watching amidst ample militia, he stood on the gallows—a small cannon fixed on him just in case of an attempted escape or rescue.  Despite his limbs being tied, he guided the sheriff to a pin in his lapel, with which to fasten the hood over his head because of the strong breeze swirling around them.  Journalists watched closely, hoping to see the old man tremble as he stood on the trapdoor of eternity.  Instead, John Brown stood firm on the gallows until falling, his body turning in the wind as he slowly strangled to death to satisfy the wounded honor of Virginia: 
Bonhoeffer
John Brown’s body lies a moldering in the grave.
Over the years I have quietly pondered the parallel of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and John Brown.  Both men were devoted Christians committed to Scripture; both men chose to set aside their own privilege to oppose terrible injustice; both saw the necessity of measured violence in opposing oppression; both failed and were hanged; and both left a witness that has been notable in history.  Yet whereas Dietrich Bonhoeffer is beloved and celebrated by many Christians in the United States, John Brown is either despised or contemptuously marginalized in both the history of his country and the history of the Christian church.  This is no wonder, however, since obviously it is much easier for Christians in the United States to renounce Nazis than their own slaveholding forefathers. 
I do not expect things to change in regard to the old man.  It is unlikely that John Brown will ever be celebrated let alone appreciated by Christians in any significant manner.  The old man himself called the United States a “slave nation,” and we have yet to come to terms with the depth of his words.  Still, I am content:

His soul goes marching on.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Katherine Mayo and the 1909 Altstadt Interview

Katherine Mayo ca. 1918
(Philadelphia Inquirer)
Interestingly, Katherine Mayo (1868-1940) may be most famously remembered as a character in Cloudsplitter (1998), the Russell Banks historical fiction that put John Brown back into the spotlight for a new century of readers.  Banks modeled his fiction upon the role of the real Mayo, who served as the field researcher for Oswald Garrison Villard, author of a 1910 biography of the martyred abolitionist.  Apart from her role as Villard’s better biographical half, Mayo gained far more notoriety for her own controversial book, Mother India (1927), which still is considered an offensive work of pro-colonialist and racist sentiment. Gandhi himself described Mayo’s portrayal of India and Hindu society as “abominable and patently wrong.”  A graduate of Wellesley College, Mayo admittedly was a gifted author who wrote several books in her career.  However, it is Mother India that seems to have kept her memory alive in contemporary political discussions.  For instance, in the London Daily Mail of June 7, 2013, Sandipan Deb summed up Mayo’s legacy as an author, concluding that she was “something beyond a white supremacist” who believed nonwhites were inferior. “Hers was an Anglo-Saxon Protestant racism,” Deb concluded.   This is an unfortunate profile for the most formidable John Brown researcher prior to the rise of Boyd B.  Stutler in the 1920s.         

            Furthermore, without Mayo, it is doubtful that Villard could have produced such a weighty and substantially researched effort—an aspect of his privilege that allowed him to denigrate the good effort of the less privileged W.E.B. DuBois, who lacked the resources that Villard employed as an heir to wealth.  Yet Mayo’s research was almost an embarrassment of riches for Villard, who did not utilize all of the materials that Mayo gathered in 1908-09.  Indeed, Villard’s papers are still an important resource for historians and biographers, thanks to the rigor of Mayo’s efforts. It should be added that despite Villard’s resources, Mayo’s research, and his use of the press to downgrade others and uplift his own work, Villard (with Mayo’s assistance) bent the facts somewhat to suit his thesis, especially his problematic conclusion that Brown had murdered men without warrant at Pottawatomie in 1856.  Boyd Stutler would rightly say in retrospect that Villard “slipped at times, mostly, I think, in evaluation and conclusion.”[i]

Villard’s Assistant

 Notice of Katherine Mayo in Kansas as Villard's research assistant;
Villard is mistakenly referred to as "O.J." instead of "O.G."
(Lawrence Daily Journal, July 29, 1908)
            I am not clear how Mayo came to know Villard, or when he determined to offer her a position as his researcher.  Katherine Frick, writing for the Pennsylvania Center for the Book, writes that Mayo had lived in Dutch Guyana for eight years with her father, and afterward worked as a journalist, having some articles published under a pseudonym.[ii]  It may be that their association took place through some journalistic association with the New York Evening Post, which was owned by Villard.  Regardless, as Frick points out, Villard became Mayo’s mentor as well as employer—although she actually seems to have been his senior by a few years.  However, Villard’s influence upon her is undoubted, particularly in introducing her to activist-oriented writing. 

            On the other hand, Mayo seems to have brought a developed journalistic skill set to the John Brown effort, and according to Villard her contributions were invaluable.  Although he acknowledged her great work in the pages of his John Brown, Villard wrote to Mayo early on that she could very well have written the book herself.[iii]  Indeed, Villard was not exaggerating when he wrote in the preface of his John Brown biography, that Mayo’s efforts in search of material had taken more than two years and brought her along thousands of miles.  “But for her judgment, her tact and skill, and her enthusiasm for the work, it could hardly have approached its present comprehensiveness,” he concluded.[iv]

Oswald G. Villard 
            Anyone who has worked extensively in the Villard papers will have observed the extent to which Villard’s John Brown was all but co-authored by Katherine Mayo.   She was the first and only researcher to scour the continental United States (especially the regions associated with Brown and his circles of influence) fifty years after Brown’s death.  This not only meant that she tracked down documents of all kinds for her boss, but that she had access to Brown’s family and associates still living at the time.  Mayo brought her journalistic skills to bear in interviewing a wide range of people (including the Thomas Allstadt transcript featured below).  She also proved a formidable researcher with an expansive success in collecting documents, which was a monumental achievement in and of itself.  Another aspect of her research and documentation was in providing the book a chronology of events, covering Brown’s life from when he went to Kansas in 1855 until his death in Virginia in 1859.  As can be seen in the Villard papers, Mayo recycled a number of pocket calendar books, which she reconfigured as a chronological record of Brown’s last four years, adding dates and events as she inspected new sources and reconstructed Brown’s story. As unusual as it may be, I agree with Blake Gilpin’s conclusion that without Mayo’s “judgment. . .tact and skill, and her enthusiasm for the work,” Villard’s biography would have lacked comprehensiveness.[v]  Indeed, it is the comprehensive nature of the work has proven to be the greatest value of his contribution, since the book itself is not particularly well written. Ultimately, the Villard biography pales in comparison to his archived papers—a high tribute to Katherine Mayo.

And the Raid--the Rest is History?

               The rest, as they say, is history—although unfortunately much of what is considered history about the raid is open to question.   I have endeavored to remedy some of these ensconced errors in my book, Freedom’s Dawn, including the widespread notion that Brown raided the armory to seize the weapons—something which he expressly denied and for which there is not the slightest evidence.  The raid was a political demonstration, most likely aimed at the Democratic administration because of its failure to prosecute Southerners involved in raiding a federal arsenal in Missouri in 1856.  Unfortunately, Brown belabored and delayed in Harper’s Ferry and became hopelessly bogged down.  Allstadt’s reminiscence thus involves the last hours, when Brown, some of his men, some of the liberated black community, and his hostages were holed up in the engine house near the entrance of the armory works.   As I have pointed out, it is often overlooked that Brown was beaten and brutally stabbed with a bayonet (or bayonets) by marines after falling under the blunt attack of Israel Green, who could not seem to kill the Old Man despite his worst intentions.  Of course, Brown lived, stood trial, and lived another month after being found guilty and sentenced to death by a jury of slaveholders.  His wounds were barely healed when he was hanged on December 2, 1859.

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Katherine Mayo, ca. 1920
(Muncie Evening Press)


The Altstadt Interview

            Among the many interviews that Mayo conducted for Villard was a 1909 meeting with Thomas Altstadt, the son of John Altstadt, one of the slaveholders; both father and son were taken by John Brown’s men as hostages during the Harper’s Ferry raid of 1859. Although Brown originally intended to keep his hostages outdoors, he had eventually retreated to the watchman’s office adjoining the fire engine house of the Harper’s Ferry armory works.  He later said that he did so because of the cold, and it was by these kinds of humanitarian concessions that Brown ultimately undermined himself and his men, tactically losing a strategic advantage by a number of kindly measures that added up to tactical loss.  When opposition from drunken townsmen mounted, Brown selected the Altstadts among a smaller number of hostages that were moved into the fire engine house. A local newspaper at the time listed the hostages in the engine house, omitting the younger Altstadt but mentioning Altstadt senior.  Also transferred into the engine house were Lewis Washington, Benjamin Mills, A. M. Ball, J. E. P. Dangerfield, Terrance Byrne, George Shope, Joseph Brua, Israel Russell, and John Donohoe.[vi]  Of the names listed, Washington held ten people in slavery, Alstadt held eleven people in slavery, Dangerfield held five people in slavery (including a teenage girl), and Russell held a young male "mulatto."  The rest either held no people in slavery or somehow are not listed as slaveholders in the 1860 Slave Schedule for Jefferson County, Virginia.  The younger Altstadt was the only surviving captive of John Brown's in 1909.

              Mayo conducted her interview of Thomas Altstadt on April 15, 1909 and an original transcription in her handwriting is found in the Villard Papers at Columbia University.  This original transcription includes some handwritten notes at the end by Altstadt Junior, and a sketch of the engine house interior showing the positioning of Brown, his men, and his captives at the time of the raid. Mayo afterward prepared an edited version, the transcription of which is also found in the Villard Papers.  This also became the basis of an article that appeared in Villard's New York Evening Post on October 16, 1909, which was part of a series by Mayo about John Brown that ran weekly from October to December, marking the fiftieth anniversary of the Harper's Ferry raid.[vii]  The transcription provided here is that raw, unedited version. 

          How reliable is this interview?  One must remember that not only was Altstadt recalling the 1859 incident fifty years later, but even at the time he could not have had a comprehensive view of what happened that day.  For instance, Altstadt was clearly incorrect that the marines did not use their bayonets.  It is generally believed by historians that two of Brown's men were killed by bayonet; Brown was also wounded by bayonet.  At the same time, much of the reminiscences of this interview are still highly valuable, both for what occurred when Brown's men seized the Alstadts and liberated their enslaved men, and also the details from the engine house.  What is most interesting, again, is Altstadt's strong contention that no one was killed by bayonet, and his self-assurance that he would have known it had such killing taken place.  It may be that he simply did not see these killings with the rush of the final moments of the marine breakthrough.  But it may also mean that, like Brown's beating and stabbing on the engine house floor, Altstadt did not see the bayonet violence because it did not happen until afterward--after he and the prisoners were removed.  If this interview is substantive, then it is possible that Brown's two men allegedly killed at the breakthrough were actually murdered after being taken prisoner.   One must wonder why the younger Altstadt did not at least remember the wounded and dying raiders in the wake of the marine assault.

=================             

Katherine Mayo’s Transcription and Notes of the interview with Thomas Altstadt, April 15, 1909

“I had gone to the ‘protracted meeting’ that night, and had been not more than an hour at home and abed when the raiders reached our house.  This was, I think, between 1 and 2 o’clock.  I slept upstairs, my father and mother below.  The crash of the fence rail against the door awoke me with a jump.  My sister, Ludie Allstadt, and my second cousin (whom we always called aunt,) Miss Hannah Hall, both of whom also slept above, sprang to their windows and leaned out crying ‘Murder.’ ‘Take in your heads or I’ll blow out your brains!’ shouted a colored man below, levelling his gun at them as he spoke.

 I—I was a lad of eighteen at the time—having hustled on my clothes, seized my old country gun and ran for the stairs.  Aunt Hannah, clinging to me, stooped and peered down the stairway, under my arm.  “The men all have guns.  Leave that behind or they will surely kill you!” she begged—so I dropped the gun and ran down unarmed.  My mother lay in her bed.  The room was full of armed men.  “What are you going to do?” I asked.  “To carry you and your father to Harper’s Ferry.  John Brown has taken possession of the Government works.”  “Taken possession of the Government works!  That isn’t much!” said I.  “Only one watchman there!”  “You shut your damned mouth or I’ll blow your brains out!” Stevens exclaimed, and ordered a negro to keep me quiet with a revolver at my breast.  The negro, collaring me, obeyed.

Presently they led my father and me outside.  There we saw Colonel Washington, sitting in his own team.  They put us, my father and me, on the seat of Col. Washington’s four horse wagon.  In the body, behind us, our six negroes and Col. Washington’s quota stood close packed.  As we drove inside the Armory yard, there stood an old man.  “This,” said Stevens, by way of introduction, “is John Brown.” “Osawatomie Brown of Kansas,” added Brown.  Then he handed out pikes to our negroes, telling them to guard us carefully, to prevent our escape.  “Keep these white men inside,” said he.  “There were no other local negroes within the enclosure, save Colonel Washington’s and ours.”

“We arrived at the Armory just about daybreak.  We were not taken inside the building until several men had fallen.  In the interval we were permitted to walk up and down before the engine house, east and west, but not on the East side, on which were the gates.  The citizens began shooting—and first at the Hall Rifle works—about nine or ten o’clock.   Prisoners who were brought into the yard conveyed the news of the death of Boerley and of Turner.  Turner was sitting on his horse when shot.  I was told that Dangerfield Newby and Shields Green were out in the street firing, when Turner fell, and that one or the other shot him.  But that, of course, I did not see myself.  Later these two negroes went into the arsenal, across the road from the armory yard.

When the fire of the citizens was directed upon that point, they [Newby and Green] grew frightened.  But they very much feared to cross the street.  At last they ran for it.  One succeeded in making the armory enclosure.  The other was killed in the road, and that man it was who at Stevens’s command, had held the pistol to my breast.  Then, the fire having become hot, Brown’s men began to gather into the yard.  Coppoc and one of Brown’s sons coming in, among the numbers.  And now, for protection, the prisoners were herded into the watch-house, which was the western division of the engine-house building (see plan).  The watch-house door stood open and Coppoc sat down in the door-way.  About the door and overhead was much glass.

It was at this time that Stevens fell.  One of my father’s colored boys, peering out, spied the men who were aiming at him and called my attention.  I saw Captain George Chambers and Mr. Percival standing in an upper window of the Galt House, watching Stevens until he should come well within range.  As the moment arrived, they broke the glass in order to fire true.  Stevens fell.  “Stevens is shot!” cried one of Brown’s men.  “I am sorry for that,” said Brown, “is he dead?”  “No, he is moving.”  Stevens pulled himself up upon one knee.  “Look” exclaimed our boy,” Look, Marse Tom, they’re going to fire again!”  At the second volley Stevens dropped.  He lay for perhaps half an hour, there in the road.  Then he was carried to the Wager House.

Our open watch-house door commanded a view of the trestle.  Fontaine Beckham walked back and forth on the trestle twice, or several times, but as he was unarmed no one fired upon him.  Now he went behind the water tank and began peering around its corner, as it might be to take aim.  “If he keeps on peaking I’m going to shoot,” said Coppoc, from his seat in the doorway.  I stood close by him.  Mr. Beckham peeked again and Coppoc fired, but missed.  “Don’t fire,’ man, for God’s sake!  They’ll shoot in here and kill us all,” shrieked the prisoners behind.  Some were laughing, others overwhelmed with fear.  But Coppoc was already firing again, this time six inches or so within the corner, calculating on the position of Beckham’s heart in that altitude and also of the cornerpost.  This shot killed Beckham.  Undoubtedly he would not have been fired upon but for his equivocal appearance.  Coppoc fired no more from the watch-house; in fact, no one remained in sight.  But Brown’s son, Oliver, sitting in the partly open engine house door, spied someone peeping over the stone wall of the trestle in the act of sighting a gun.  Young Brown instantly took aim; but even as he was in the act of firing the other’s shot struck him—a mortal wound that gave horrible pain.

A very few moments after this they selected fifteen of twenty of us from the prisoners in the watch-house and brought us into the engine-house—and an uneasy little trip we thought it, in the open between door and door.  John Brown now ordered one of my father’s old negroes, Phil Lucker, to pick some openings in the engine house walls, to use as port holes.  But no sooner was it done than the fact became evident that the citizens outside only awaited the fall of the bricks, to fire in.  So the port holes were after all but little used.

Shortly after our transference it began to grow dark, too dark to see to shoot accurately; but the citizens’ fire continued very heavy.  Darkness fell; and then they shut fast the engine-house door.  We had no light.  Everything grew still, except that the citizens outside shouted and whooped all night long.  Captain Rowan’s company, it was said, lay at the gate.  In the quiet of the night young Brown died.  He had begged again and again to be shot, in the agony of his wound, but his father had replied to him, “O you will get over it,” and “If you must die, die like a man.”  Now John Brown talked, from time to time, with my father and with Col. Washington, but I did not hear what was said.  Young Brown lay quietly over in a corner.  His father called to him, after a time.  No answer.  “I guess he is dead,” said Brown.

In the morning, after the colloquy of surrender and the refusal, came the breaking of the door by the marines.  It is absolutely untrue that Brown had at any time proposed to put his prisoners to the fore in case of attack.  At this moment most of us were back in the East (left as you enter) corner, crouched down.  The single engine in the room was pushed up toward the front, not quite square before the door.  It afforded but little protection to us.  Brown himself, at the moment of the breaking of the door, was just back of the engine.  I could not tell who shot Quinn, but I did see that Coppoc fired.  As Green rushed upon him, Brown lifted his gun to shoot.  Green knocked the gun up and it went off in the air.  Green instantly slashed at Brown, at his head—with his sword, and the same sweeping stroke that cut Brown’s head, in its finish knicked my father’s hat-band.  I well remember Green’s apology to my father, as we got outside, and his asking to be allowed to get my father a new hat.  Brown fell as Green struck him and did not rise again.

The Marines had bayonets but did not use them.  Of course, in such an excitement, in such an excitement, no one person was likely to see all that happened.  I did not see any man pinned to the wall with a bayonet as is said to have happened to Anderson, nor can I believe that it did occur; for I think I should have seen or known of it otherwise.
           
As the Marines swarmed in, and the call for surrender came, Coppoc and the rest threw down their guns.  But while the parley for surrender had been going on earlier at the door, no one of Brown’s men spoke of surrender.  After we were taken outside they asked me to go over to the Wager House to see if I could identify the prisoner.  It was Stevens.  A heavy guard stood at his door; to prevent a repeateing of the Thompson affair, which was disapproved.  Mrs. Foulk had come out, with her servants and carried Stevens into the Wager House, from the Street.  She was the most kind hearted woman alive.

Reproduction of Mayo's sketched layout of the Harper's Ferry engine house at the time of Brown's defeat


[Miscellaneous information added based upon post-interview questions and comments]

The dog in the engine house, who belonged to Brown’s party, was a big, back, mongrel fellow with white feet, and a white stripe down his face.  He was not cross.

The men of Brown’s party did not fire from the hip, but dropped to one knee, aimed and shot.

Shields Green, during the confinement of the prisoners was very insolent and rough to them.  Toward the end he shot no more at all, but dodged and hid about, and at least tried to pass himself off for a captured slave.

When the breakfast came in from the Wager House, my father and Col. Washington remarked to each other that it might be poisoned, and refused it.  But I and a good many others ate.

Fontaine Beckham had no slaves.

I heard nothing of the Baylor matter.  But it is indisputably true that the militia were afraid to storm the engine house.

A very few minutes after we chosen prisoners were removed from the watch-house, the Martinsburg Company came and kicked open the window and let the other prisoners out.  “Are there any of Brown’s men in here?” they called. (I heard them).  “No they are all in the other part,” the prisoners called back.  When we were taken away, no guard was left over the remaineder, and there was no door between engine-house and watch-house.  They could therefore have walked out or climbed out themselves.  But they did not know what might be outside.  And Rowan’s men did not come around in front, where there was any chance for the engine-house garrison to get a shot at them.

Be careful not to mix the terms “Arsenal” and “Armory.”  The engine-house was in the Armory enclosure.  The Arsenal was across the street.

They did not close the engine house door until dark.

The window of the watch-house was on the West side.


[In Altstadt’s handwriting]

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This is all correct.  Some things I left of[f].  The first marine was killed in entering the engine house and [also] Cook and Brown sun [sic] and one of our Colerd [sic] man with them got acros [sic] in to the mar[y]land mountain our man got awy [sic] from them the way he got away they laid down to sleep and they let him watch a while and he slip of[f].  Cook was captured at the locks where the Arsenels [sic] boats pass through.  There was a store he was geting [sic] some thin to eate [sic] Brown son [Owen] never was heard of

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            [i] Boyd B. Stutler to Louis Filler, Nov. 21, 1957, RP04-0198B, John Brown – Boyd B. Stutler Papers, West Virginia State Archives.
            [ii] Katherine Frick, “Katherine Mayo,” Pennsylvania Center for the Book (University Park, Pa.: Penn State University).  Retrieved from https://goo.gl/oLgNhr.
            [iii]Oswald G. Villard to Katherine Mayo, 31 Aug. 1908, Box 9, Oswald G. Villard – John Brown Papers, Columbia University Collection.  
            [iv] Oswald G. Villard, John Brown 1800-1859: A Biography Fifty Years After (New York: Houghton & Mifflin Co., 1910), p. ix.   
            [v] R. Blakeslee Gilpin, John Brown Still Lives! America’s Long Reckoning with Violence, Equality, and Change (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011), p. 96.
            [vi] See “A Matter for Reflection,” Virginia Free Press, 27 Oct. 1859, p. 2.
            [vii] Evidently, Villard either encouraged or permitted Mayo to publish this series based upon her extensive field research done in preparation for his biography, published the following year.  The series ran in a supplementary section of the New York Evening Post as follows: “John Brown’s Raid 50 Years Ago,” Oct. 16, 1909, p. 1; “Brown in Hiding and in Jail,” Oct. 23, 1909; “In An Angry City to Visit Brown,” Oct. 30, 2009, p. 2; “Sturdy Children of John Brown,” Nov. 6, 1909, p. 3; “Sculptor’s Visit to John Brown,” Nov. 13, 1909, p. 2; “A Lieutenant of John Brown,” Nov. 20, 1909, p. 3; “Author of John Brown Song,” Nov. 27, 1909, p. 1; and “Execution of Old John Brown,” Dec. 4, 2009, p. 3.