"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

Search This Blog & Links


Saturday, June 16, 2007

Carte-de-Visite of John Brown to be Auctioned Has Interesting Story of Its Own

Among a number of interesting items relating to John Brown that are being auctioned by Heritage Auctions (see this blog, entry for June 2), a small image--a carte-de-visite--of a beardless Brown is perhaps the most interesting. The John Brown carte-de-visite is being sold as part of a number of manuscripts that are related to various abolitionists.

In the 19th century,
cartes-de-visite were all the rage. To no surprise, the abolitionist John Brown, being quite the modern man, made use of them as well. According to the American Museum of Photography, cartes-de-visite were small "albumen prints mounted on cards 2-1/2 by 4 inches." They were extremely popular, especially because they could easily be exchanged, even sent through the mail. No big deal today, but prior to this time, it was not possible to mail images without worrying about breakage, since earlier photographic images, such as daguerreotypes, were done on glass plates. The small size of the cartes-de-visite "also made them relatively inexpensive, and they became so widespread that by 1863 Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes would write, 'Card portraits, as everybody knows, have become the social currency, the "green-backs" of civilization.'"1 This John Brown carte-de-visite is all the more interesting for two reasons. First, the origin or source of the image itself, and secondly the envelope bearing the printed name of James H. Holmes which contained the carte-de-visite.

As to the image on the carte-de-visite, I consulted my friend and associate, Jean Libby, who is the undoubted expert on many aspects of John Brown documentary work, especially given her recent, authoritative research on Brown's extant daguerreotypes (see this blog, entry for June 5, 2006). Upon examining an internet image of the carte-de-visite, Jean has concluded that the image is from a daguerreotype made during a sitting in Boston, in early 1857, when Brown was touring the east to raise funds for his efforts in Kansas. The original exists as a quarter-plate daguerreotype in the Massachusetts Historical Society. The photographer was either Josiah J. Hawes or John A. Whipple; the daguerreotype has a pasted note on verso by Amos Lawrence, stating it was made in 1856. Libby points out, however, that it could not have been made until 1857, when Brown came to New England. She adds:
A cabinet card print from this daguerreotype in life perspective is inscribed "To my Beloved Daughter Mrs. Ruth Thompson from her Affectionate Father John Brown." A copy of the cabinet card, with other Brown artifacts sold to the Chicago Historical Society by Ruth Thompson [Brown's eldest daughter] and [Kansas associate] H.N. Rust was made by Crandall of Pasadena in 1894. A tintype of the M[assachusetts] H[istorical] S[ociety] daguerreotype was made by Winnie of Topeka at an unknown date. It is owned by the Kansas State Historical Society.2
Libby adds that this is the first carte-de-visite that she has seen of it, "but as there was a cabinet card made it is perfectly logical. . . . I believe it is authentic!"3

Of equal interest is the envelope that accompanies the carte-de-visite, and which evidently held the image over a century-and-a-half. As pictured on the auctioner's website, the envelope has an unidentified handwritten note that reads: "Photographs--John Brown." Also, the envelope bears the printed words: "James H. Holmes, No. 11 Vandewater St., Washington, P.O. Lock Box No. 2, New York."

James H. Holmes is no anonymous figure in the John Brown story, and it makes sense that he would have possessed a carte-de-visite of the abolitionist since they were friends in association during the Kansas conflict of the 1850s. Holmes was a free state man from upstate New York, although he seems not to have met Brown until after he went to the Kansas territory in June 1855 from New York City. Holmes studied agricultural chemistry and went to the territory, not only to support the anti-slavery settler movement but to associate himself with vegetarians and to promote the development of educational institutions. Like other free state settlers, after arriving in the territory, Holmes was forced into militant action in the face of pro-slavery terrorism and it was during his involvement in fighting near Osawatomie in the summer of 1856 that he met John Brown.4 According to Brown's biographer Villard, when he left Kansas in late 1856, he left Holmes in charge of his fighting men with orders to "carry the war into Africa"--"Africa" being Brown's reference to the South, where blacks were held as slaves in such vast numbers. Holmes effectively continued Brown's work, raiding in Missouri and earning the same status as an outlaw in the eyes of Kansas authorities.5 His militancy subsequently earned him the epithet of "John Brown's little hornet."

Among other things relating to Holmes, the Kansas State Historical Society holds two letters written by Holmes ("your constant friend") to "Dear Friend Brown" in the spring of 1857. It is not clear when Brown gave Holmes the carte-de-visite, or whether he gave it to him in person or mailed it to him. In later life (years after climbing Pike's Peak with his feminist wife, Julia Archibald), Holmes was living back in New York City and seems to have done some research and writing on Brown in the 1890s. Biographer Villard availed himself of Holmes's correspondence with Brown's surviving children and other materials when preparing his 1910 biography. That Holmes resided in New York City in later years is verified by the printed envelope citing his address on Vandewater Street, which seemingly no longer exists in the city. But the picture below in the New York Public Library's Digital Gallery portrays Vandewater Street during the Civil War
. (The reference to "Washington" on the envelope is not clear, although it may have been an intersecting street close to Holmes's address on Vandewater.) Trivial perhaps, but James H. Holmes is a figure that bears further research from Brown scholars, and the carte-de-visite of Brown in his envelope strongly suggests that it was in his possession from the beginning, subsequently passing into the hands of collectors.


1 Retrieved from "A Brief History of the Carte-de-Visite," The American Museum of Photography. Retrieved on June 16, 2007.

2. Jean Libby to Louis A. DeCaro Jr., 15 June 2007, electronic correspondence.

3. Ibid.

4. Testimony of James H. Holmes for the Journal of Investigations, Kansas, December 8, 1856 (National Kansas Committee, Thaddeus Hyatt, recorder), No. 101588, Thaddeus Hyatt Collection, No. 401 (1:5), Kansas State Historical Society.

5. Oswald Garrison Villard, John Brown: A Biography 1800-1859 (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc., 1910, 1929), 261.

1 comment:

John J. Kaiser said...

Excellent post. As a history grad student who does most of my research in the area of slave rebellion, I definitely appreciate this post. Brown was such an interesting and surreal figure. I think a world class author would have a hard time writing a more interesting character than Brown.