"Were I asked to say, in the fewest and plainest words, what Brown was, my answer would be that he was a religious man. He had ever a deep sense of the claims of God and man upon him, and his whole life was a prompt, practical recognition of them."
Gerrit Smith, "John Brown" [a broadleaf], Peterboro, N.Y., 15 August 1867

Sunday, June 01, 2014

Take Note--
Alice Keesey Mecoy, John Brown's 3x Great Granddaughter

For three days in June 2014 Alice Keesey Mecoy, great-great-great

Grand Daughter of abolitionist John Brown will walk at the same places as did her ancestor. Mecoy will speak at Peterboro Civil War Living History Day on Friday, June 13. On Saturday, June 14 at 11:30 a.m., Mecoy will present New York to Harper's Ferry - John Brown's Journey, the historical account of John Brown's resolve to end slavery. On Sunday, June 15 at 11:30 a.m. Mecoy will share Life after the Hanging of John Brown - A Family's Legacy, the history of his wife and children, especially the women, after Brown's hanging and the war. Mecoy has researched her family history since 1976 focusing primarily on the women in John Brown's life, whose dedication and sacrifices contributed greatly to the war against slavery. Mecoy has compiled a comprehensive Brown family genealogy of 4000 names in a database from John Brown's father Owen to descendants born in the current year. It was Mecoy who chaired the reunion of the Brown family for the Sesquicentennial of the Raid at Harpers Ferry. 

The National Abolition Hall of Fame and Museum will host Mecoy's programs at its home in the Smithfield Community Center, 5255 Pleasant Valley Road, Peterboro NY during the 22nd Annual Peterboro Civil War Weekend June 14 & 15, 2014. John Brown was selected by abolition scholars to be inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2009. Mecoy spoke during Brown's Hall of Fame commemoration in 2010.

Source: Civil War Weekend 2014 bulletin.  See http://civilwarweekend.sca-peterboro.org/
Also see The website of the National Abolition Hall of Fame

Alice Keesey Mecoy Interviewed on Extreme Genes

Alice Keesey Mecoy, our friend and associate in the John Brown community, happens to be one of the Old Man's direct descendants (through the line of John Brown and Mary Day Brown's daughter Anne Brown Adams).  She reports on her blog, John Brown Kin, that she was recently interviewed on the podcast, Extreme Genes Family History Radio.  Here is a link to the interview, which starts at 23:00.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

A 19th Century Painting of John Brown Recovered, or Nearly So!

Researcher Judy Sweets
Judy Sweets is a researcher, historian, and genealogist, and has found two interviews from the early 20th century with an artist named Jeremiah Greene.  According to these interviews in the Cleveland Leader, "Jerry" Greene made a portrait of the Abolitionist based on a daguerreotype--the likely one being identified in the same feature with the assistance of Jean Libby.  I am once again appreciative of Libby for introducing me to Sweets, who has written about Greene on her blog, Portals2History.   Sweet's article, along with images of Greene and his portrait of John Brown, are found under the category, "Images in Question." Unfortunately, the actual portrait by Greene has not yet been recovered, although we hope it may yet turn up.

Actual link: http://www.portals2history.com/p/images-in-questions.html

Friday, May 16, 2014

Take Note--
John Brown in Clouds of Glory

Yesterday's edition (May 15) of The Daily Beast featured an excerpt from Michael Korda's book, Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee, about the famous Confederate military leader.  The excerpt reportedly "describes how as a U.S. Army officer, Lee adroitly quelled John Brown’s 1859 insurrection at Harper’s Ferry."  The excerpt is fairly well done and Korda is fair to Brown for the most part, although the title of the article, "When Robert E. Lee Met John Brown and Saved the Union," doesn't make much historical sense.  Lee indeed met Brown as the commanding officer of the marines who defeated the abolitionist at Harper's Ferry in 1859.  Beyond that, Lee lent his considerable abilities to the slaveholders' rebellion, helping to worsen civil conflict as a military leader.
Unidentified artist's rendering
of Brown in Kansas, 1856

The excerpt from Korda's book has several errors that should be corrected:
For three years, from 1855 through 1858, a group of Free Soilers under the “command” of “Captain” Brown (or “Osawatomie Brown,” as he was called after his heavily fortified Free Soil settlement) fought pitched battles against “Border Ruffians” (as the pro-slavery forces were known by their enemies), in one of which his son Frederick was killed.

This tends to distort the basic facts of the narrative.  Brown arrived in Kansas in October 1855 and did not become involved in any militant action until the spring of 1856, when it was clear that proslavery forces would not honor the democratic process, but had increasingly turned to the use of terrorism.  Nor did Brown consistently command men for the three-year period described by Korda.  After significant crises and conflict in the field, Brown left the territory in late 1856 with the reputation of a Kansas freedom fighter.  He was absent from Kansas throughout almost the entire year of 1857, and spent only about one month there from November to December.  After his Virginia plan was nearly betrayed, he returned to Kansas in June 1858 in order to throw off any notion that he was planning his attack in Virginia.  Back in the territory, he interacted with free state leaders, sought to support free state settlers, and evaded capture.  Brown remained in the territory until rescuing eleven enslaved people in December, and escorting them across country to Canadian freedom (Dec. 1858-Mar. 1859).  Brown's son Frederick was not killed in a battle or skirmish, but was murdered near his home by some proslavery scouts in August 1856.
Harpers Ferry, Sunday, October 16, 1859
Sketch of Brown, Oct. 1859, in
Frank Leslie's Illustrated News

Shortly after eight o’clock at night, having completed his preparations and his prayers, a broad-brimmed hat pulled low over his eyes, his full white beard bristling like that of Moses. . .
This is Korda's description of Brown at Harper's Ferry in October 1859.  By way of description, Brown did not wear a "broad-brimmed hat."  One witness says he was wearing a soft fur cap, probably the same cap that has been described in accounts of Brown from Kansas.   More important, Brown's beard at Harper's Ferry was closely cropped.  He had grown his famous beard long as late as the spring of 1859, as visible in his most famous daguerreotype.  But in the South, he cut his beard short, as can be seen in the contemporary newspaper sketch of Brown that was made after the raid.
Brown now had thirty-five hostages and possession of the armory, but the slave uprising on which he was counting did not take place, and during the night, one by one, things started to go wrong.
 Following conventional notions of the raid, he mistakenly writes that Brown was counting on some sort of "slave uprising" to take place.  This was the claim of slaveholders, but in actuality, Brown had no intention of sparking an uprising.  Historically, uprisings typically involved insurrectionary violence and the killing of slave masters and their families.  Brown had no such idea.  There is ample evidence that he intended to draw away enslaved people from their masters, retreat to the mountains, and fight only in self-defense when pursued or attacked.  His plan was not insurrection or uprising, but to destabilize slavery and upset the economy of slavery sufficiently to allow for enslaved people to establish a guerilla nation out of reach of slave patrols and U.S. military acting on behalf of slave holders.
[J.E.B.] Stuart got along well enough with his old opponent from Kansas— except for their difference of opinion about the legitimacy of slavery, they were     the same kind of man: courageous, active, bold, exceedingly polite, and dangerous.
Artist's rendering of the
Stuart-Brown parley at
Harper's Ferry

Korda describes how Stuart was present at Brown's defeat at Harper's Ferry and had delivered Robert E. Lee's demand for surrender.  To the contrary, Stuart did not get along with Brown.  At the time of the raid, there was no significant exchange between Brown and the future proslavery rebel leader.  After Brown's defeat and capture, Stuart proved to be a sniping, sarcastic, vindictive, and verbally abusive captor.  He insulted Brown repeatedly, rudely harangued him during an interview with Senator James Mason, and cursed him.  As the record shows, Stuart may have been courageous, but he was only polite to his ilk, and he was only valiant in the cause of preserving slavery.  Hardly John Brown's counterpart, let alone his equal in any sense.
Green took the bent weapon in both hands and beat Brown around the head with it until the old man collapsed, blood pouring from his wounds.
Marine Israel Green, who tried to kill
John Brown and later revised the
story as a "capture"
As Korda describes the role of Lieut. Israel Green, the marine who allegedly "captured" John Brown at the Harper's Ferry engine house.  It is true that Green beat Brown with his bent dress sword, but the evidence shows that he did not stop when "the old man collapsed."  The evidence shows that Green continued beating Brown after he fell to the ground.  In other words, Green tried to bludgeon Brown to death on the floor of the engine house.  Even Korda points out that Green at first thought he had killed Brown.  According to a letter from Stuart to his mother following the raid, Green afterward was upset that he had not been successful in killing Brown. Historians have relied on Green's revisionist version of his "capture" of Brown, written decades afterward.  However, at the time, it did not go unnoticed by journalists and abolitionists in the North how Green had brutalized the old man.

As noted, the excerpt overall is not bad, especially compared to many things written about Brown. Still, for the sake of the historical record, I point out these issues since there is a great deal of misinformation in popular thinking about the Harper's Ferry raid.  My forthcoming book on the last days of John Brown, which will be published by Rowman & Littlefield, will address these and other hackneyed assumptions that unfortunately have become part of the popular narrative of John Brown.--LD

Some Additional Corrections from Historian Steven Lubet 

I am pleased to include input from the notable historian, Steven Lubet, author of a number of books, including John Brown's Spy: The Adventurous Life and Tragic Confession of John E. Cook, and a forthcoming work on Brown's black raiders at Harper's Ferry.  Lubet writes:

As long as we are pointing out minor mistakes, here are two more:

Korda says that twelve of Brown's men died at Harper's Ferry.  The actual number was ten. Seven more were hanged and five escaped.

He also says that Colonel Washington was "delivered to Brown in his own carriage, along with a pair of pistols that Lafayette had given George Washington."  Moving now from the unimportant to the truly trivial, the Lafayette pistols were not delivered to Brown.  John E. Cook had taken only one of the pistols, which he secretly kept for himself.  The other pistol of the pair was left behind, and it was included in Washington's estate and later sold to the New York State Library.  

Saturday, May 03, 2014


John Brown Day in Lake Placid, May 10

Margaret Washington, author of
Sojourner Truth's America
John Brown Day 2014 is scheduled for Saturday, May 10, from 2 to 4 p.m.  Events will take place at the John Brown Farm State Historic Site in Lake Placid.  Special features include the lecture, "Women and Abolition," by Dr. Margaret Washington of Cornell University. Washington is a leading authority on the abolitionist movement, and the foremost biographer of Sojourner Truth.  Also featured is Dr. Bonnie Laughlin-Schultz [see below], who will lecture on the women in John Brown's family. Admission is free.

Biographer of Brown Family Women to Speak at Lake Placid

Bonnie Laughlin-Schultz
Bonnie Laughlin-Schultz, author of  The Ties That Bound Us: The Women of John Brown’s Family and the Legacy of Radical Abolitionism, was interviewed by Robin Caudell of the Plattsburgh, N.Y. Press-Republican, in regard to her scheduled lecture in Lake Placid for John Brown Day 2014.  “There are a lot of new books on John Brown that always mention the women in his family in passing,” she said.  “You can teach classes about him but the question is what was it like to live with this guy? I have just long been interested in the antislavery movement in the 1830s and 1840s and how they were trying to live out their radical beliefs about racial equality.”

Caudell writes that Laughlin-Schultz tracked the Brown women across the country, from coast to coast, and found one of her important sources the papers of the late Edwin N. Cotter, now held at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh.  “There were a lot of archives to cover,” she said.  Laughlin-Schultz did not end her study at the hanging of Brown in 1859, but continued to trace the lives of Mary Brown and her daughter Anne, long afterward.  Mary Brown and some of her family migrated westward during the Civil War, and the abolitionist's widow died on the west coast as did several of the Brown's adult children.  "Their lives forever were affected by their relation to him, in good ways and bad.”

See Robin Caudell, "The Women Behind John Brown," Press-Republican [Plattsburgh, NY], 1 May 2014

Brown and Tubman Descendants to Speak at
Peterboro, June 14 & 15

Among the events scheduled for the upcoming Civil War Weekend in Peterboro, N.Y., Brown students should note that Alice Keesey Mecoy, great-great-great-granddaughter of the abolitionist will speak at the National Abolition Hall of Fame and Museum in Peterboro. Also featured will be the great-great-grandniece of Harriet Tubman, who will be reading about her Great Aunt's historic role during the Civil War.  The lectures will be presented twice, on Saturday and Sunday, June 14 & 15, at 11:00 a.m.

An entire program of Civil War remembrance is scheduled for both days, from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m.
To learn more about this event and the National Abolition Hall of Fame, click on this link.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Birthday Greetings--

Actor Norman Marshall, Portrayer of John Brown

On Sunday, April 27, 2014, veteran actor and John Brown enthusiast, Norman Marshall, celebrated his 75th birthday with family and friends at John Brown Smokehouse in Long Island City, N.Y. As he notes in this short excerpt from his remarks, Marshall has devoted many years to portraying Brown in a one-man play, "John Brown: Trumpet of Freedom," written by George Wolf Reily. Marshall acknowledges Reily in these remarks, along with one of his guests, the activist Lynne Stewart.   Happy Birthday, Norman!

LouMike & Norman
Strike a Pose
Yours truly with JB Smokehouse
Owner and JB enthusiast,
Josh Bowen

Saturday, April 26, 2014

John Brown Day 2014 at Lake Placid, NY

Events begin on the evening May 6 with a book discussion of "Twelve Years a Slave" at the Lake Placid Library.

The film is shown for high school students with discussion at schools; selected screening and discussion for the general public led by Dr. J. W. Wiley on Friday evening.

Historian Bonnie Laughlin-Schultz, author of The Tie That Bound Us: The Women of John Brown's Family and the Legacy of Radical Abolition, leads a full John Brown Day May 10 with "Engaging Students in Historical Inquiry: Bringing Brown's Raid (and the Raiders) Alive in the Classroom Educator Workshop" at the Heaven Hill Farm from 10 a.m. - 12 noon; at the John Brown Farm from 2 to 4 p.m. historians Laughlin-Schultz and Margaret Washington on "Women and Abolition" followed by Greg Grandin "Brown, Meliville and the Problem of American Slavery."  Other readings and performances will be at the John Brown Farm State Historic Site on Saturday afternoon, May 10--John Brown Day 2014.

John Brown Day 2014 is sponsored by John Brown Lives! a freedom education and human rights project and others; for further information call 518-744-7112 or email info@johnbrownlives.org.

Submitted by Jean Libby, Allies for Freedom
For more information, including the published schedule of events, see the John Brown Lives! facebook page

Friday, April 18, 2014

Image and History--
A New Contender Faces Close Scrutiny

Courtesy of Allies for Freedom
The internet has its share of bogus John Brown daguerreotypes for sale.  Recently, however, one surfaced that has won serious attention from Brown scholars and others with an interest in the Old Man.  The image has recently come to auction by Swann Galleries in New York, picturing a man with a strong resemblance to Brown, well-dressed, with dark sideburns, and even a stud in his collar.  If it is Brown, and there is some reason to believe it is, then this daguerreotype is most unusual, representing a view of the Old Man from a period of his life in between the famous Smithsonian "vow" portrait of the 1840s and the more familiar daguerreotypes made after he had become a prominent Kansas freedom fighter in the late 1850s.

Jean Libby, a John Brown documentary scholar and daguerreotype expert, privately brought this image to my attention some months ago; however, propriety obligated us to say nothing of it until the owner was able to bring the image to auction.  My first response to the image was admittedly skeptical.  The dark sideburns had no precedent and seemed alien.  However, the longer I pondered over the image, the more I thought perhaps the daguerreotype might be a worthy contender.  The more I looked at it, the harder it was for me to dismiss it, although at the same time I had retained uncertainty.

Under these circumstances, I thought I might quietly share it with someone else who has paid a great deal of attention to Brown's image.  So I sent a digital copy to the illustrator, John Hendrix, whose young people's book, John Brown: His Fight for Freedom, entails an extensive and brilliant rendering of Brown's images.  Hendrix greeted it positively, particularly noting the hairline as being consistent with other known images of Brown. Heartened by Hendrix's comments, I relayed a positive response to Libby--although I had no idea that the three of us would be "scooped" by Swann's Gallery.  Last month, an associate called my attention to a notice of the image being auctioned on the website Auction Zip, the posting of which even surprised Libby.

As noted, Swann presented the following description, reflective of the feedback relayed through interaction with Jean Libby and her discussions with me and Gwen Mayer, archivist at the Hudson Library and Historical Society, as well as what I relayed from Hendrix:
There are 12 previously known portraits of John Brown, 5 of which are daguerreotypes. This particular daguerreotype has been analyzed by noted Brown scholars Jean Libby, and Louis A. DeCaro, Jr., in collaboration with Hudson Library archivist Gwen Mayer and Brown illustrator John Hendrix. All have concluded that this is the 13th portrait of the militant abolitionist.

The identification is based on specific physical attributes that correspond to Brown's physical demeanor (his hairline, forehead creases, and nose). Libby, a John Brown scholar, specifically cites "the significant marker of a chevron hair loss near the middle of his right forehead" as a telling identifier. Libby also indicates that Brown's suit appears to be the same item of clothing he wore in two other portraits. 
I would have preferred if Swann had written "tentatively concluded," since there are a number of issues to be addressed before taking a firm stance on this being a long-lost image of John Brown the abolitionist.  Certainly I disagree with those who have dismissed this image outright.  If this image is not of John Brown, then one would say the man in the daguerreotype highly resembles him.  This is more so the case if, as Libby first suggested, the photographer has provided a "real life" view of Brown by reversing the original daguerreotype (since daguerreotypes present a reverse image).

While I am not prepared to die for this new image being that of John Brown, I believe that it cannot be easily waved off, as has been the manner of some skeptics.  There are bogus images that merit immediate dismissal--for example, the seller on eBay hawking a supposed collection of Brown family daguerreotypes, and the Kaplan Collection's supposed daguerreotype of Brown. Neither of these is genuine despite the owners' claims, and it doesn't take a forensic specialist to see that they are not true Brown images.  I do not think the same easy conclusion can be made of the Swann image.

On the other hand, the image should only hold a tentative place alongside the "canon" of extant Brown daguerreotypes until or unless some criteria can be satisfied.  While it is not a bogus image, it is a questionable image, and that status will not change unless the owner, in conjunction with a reasonable number of Brown scholars and researchers, (1) can prove some provenance for the image, and (2) the original image has been examined and evaluated by professional forensic specialists.  We all would like to believe that we have an eye for such things, and it is reasonable to trust your own eye.  But since there are a number of approving and disapproving eyes in this case, the scale needs to be tipped by more weighty evidence.

Jean Libby has already begun to take action on the matter of provenance.  We anticipate that her research over the next six months will continue to provide greater insight into the origin of the image.  As it stands, it is certainly an original daguerreotype, circa 1850, made by an unknown photographer, with the imprint of Martin M. Lawrence on the mat.  Libby says the daguerreotype can be traced to Albany and/or Troy, New York.

Brown's gold stud (Harvard University)
While this information is skeletal, it may show some promise. In the early 1850s, Brown had relocated his family to the Adirondacks, but he was still frequently occupied downstate regarding lawsuits involving his former wool commission house operation in partnership with Simon Perkins Jr.  Libby says the suit of the subject in the daguerreotype resembles the clothing worn by Brown in known daguerreotypes.  I have added that the subject of the new daguerreotype is wearing a stud in his collar, and interestingly John Brown owned a gold stud with a "B" set with chip diamonds, now in the Lincoln Collection at the Harvard University Library.

The man in the daguerreotype is well dressed and looks more like a businessman than a Kansas guerilla, and rightly so.  In the early 1850s, Brown was a "suit and tie guy," and although his efforts on the wool market had failed, he had tasted some success.  Historians have short-changed him on this front.  I have demonstrated in John Brown--The Cost of Freedom that in the later 1840s, he had established a national reputation for his knowledge of fine sheep and wool; he certainly was considered a respected and honest businessman wherever he worked.  Practically speaking, he would hardly have gone to court dressed like a farmer, and in the more hopeful years of his wool commission operation in Springfield, Mass., Brown acquired a few trappings of bourgeois success--like a walking stick and a gold stud, both of which are recorded in history.

Some have expressed skepticism due to the evident wear-and-tear of the man's face.  In some respects, the man in the new daguerreotype appears older than a man in his early fifties, as Brown would have been at this time.  However, some of the facial features follow the same lines that are evident in known Brown daguerreotypes.  Furthermore, it may be that this image reveals stress and fatigue, which would have been the case for Brown at this time of seemingly endless legal disputes, tiring travel, and frustrating loose ends of litigation.

Then there is the question of whether we are not used to seeing him in digital reproductions rather than studying original images, so that perhaps our perception of his face has been shaped more by derivative image.  Certainly, we are used to seeing Brown's face in reverse, as this is the case with all daguerreotypes.  Secondly, we have no image of Brown facing the lens at this angle.  His sons facetiously referred to him as resembling both a "meat-ax" and a "bird of prey," and this image certainly presents this effect.   On the other hand, I'm a little doubtful about the ear of the man in the daguerreotype. I'm not entirely sure the shell of the subject's ear is sufficiently similar to Brown's ear in other images.   However, all of this speaks to the need to have this image evaluated by forensics specialists.

The image came under the hammer the other day at Swann's, although I understand it was not sold.  I have little knowledge of such matters, but it might be that the right buyer simply was not present, or more likely that there is not sufficient certainty among collectors that this is indeed a John Brown image.

If there is doubt, it is reasonable.  The canon of Brown images is well known.  According to Jean Libby there are twelve daguerreotypes of Brown ranging from the late 1840s to 1859, the last being the most famous and only image of him with a beard.  She is perhaps more confident, but I have no doubt that she retains sufficient objectivity in searching out the background of the image. Readers can visit her website, Allies for Freedom, in further consideration of what is known so far.

If this daguerreotype is John Brown, then it is reasonable to ask, "Why hasn't it been included in the canon of images over 150 years?"  Were we dealing with textual documents, we would be similarly skeptical as to how such an important item had evaded the attention of scholars, collectors, and researchers over a century-and-a-half.  Still, it is not impossible for this to happen with documents too.  In 2013, a long overlooked and unknown letter by Brown to a newspaper editor in Charlestown, dating from November 1859, surfaced on auction. It is not only authentic but has added insight into the story of Brown's incarceration in Virginia.  The same might be true of this daguerreotype.  It may be the only image we have of John Brown linking the 1840s with the later 1850s.   On the other hand, it may simply be the image of a contemporary who looked a great deal like him.  I am inclined to believe the former, but as I've said, I choose to remain tentatively positive with regard to this image.

The owner would do well to undertake the expense of having this image evaluated, even by more than one specialist.  Along with further research by Libby and others, this "new" image may yet find its way into the daguerreotype canon of John Brown images.  For now, it must be taken seriously.

Postscript, 30 April 2014

Study is taking shape as public history with documentary research and workshops.  There are pointers to the original sitting ca. 1851 moving from southwestern New York (Syracuse) across the Western Reserve from Erie and Meadville to Cleveland.  You can follow progress at the Allies for Freedom website, www.alliesforfreedom.org.  Participants and opinions welcome.  Please contact Jean Libby, editor@alliesforfreedom.org