150 YEARS AGO TODAY
John Brown, a prisoner awaiting execution in Charlestown, [West] Virginia, wrote two letters from his jail cell. The first was written to Rebecca Buffum Spring, the kindly if not eccentric abolitionist who visited Brown in his jail cell, accompanied by her son, a few weeks before (Nov. 6). Spring was not the only abolitionist woman to express interest in helping the incarcerated Old Man. Lydia Maria Child wrote to Brown in jail on October 26, 1859, expressing her desire to come and “nurse” him and “speak to you sisterly words of sympathy and consolation,” but then so involved herself in extensive polemics with Virginia’s Governor Wise and his wife that she evidently decided not to actually come to Virginia to “nurse” Brown after all. Child did not know Brown but her husband had earlier corresponded with Brown while the latter was endeavoring to raise support for the free state cause in Kansas. Lydia Child was undoubtedly sincere in her original intention of coming to Brown’s aid, but like so many abolitionists (and like so many of us!), she tended to talk more than take action. It seems that appropriating Brown’s circumstances as an abolitionist platform from which to send forth dignified abolitionist missiles at Virginia’s first family was more important to Child than was actually risking her own safety to stand with Brown in his hour of crisis.
|Artist: Jacob Lawrence, "The Legend |
of John Brown" Series
The following letter, written 151 years ago today by Brown to Rebecca Buffum Spring is accessible to us only through the transcription of Franklin Sanborn, who included it in his Life and Letters (pp. 599-601). Unfortunately, like all of Sanborn’s transcriptions, this transcription is purged of its “Brownesque” style: the inevitable use of the ampersand (&) in place of “and” (in the overwhelming number of Brown’s extant letters, “and” rarely appears), the typical peppering of misplaced, interruptive semi-colons, and the frequent use of underlining. James Redpath features only an excerpt from this letter on page 360 of his authorized biography, The Public Life of Captain John Brown (1860), and although he likewise edits Brown’s style somewhat, at least he retained some of Brown’s underlining, which he conveys in italics on page 360. (I should add that on November 24, Brown also wrote to his young attorney, George B. Hoyt, but time does not permit to describe this letter in more detail except to say that, to my knowledge, it survives only in transcription.) Thus, I have culled some of the original features of Brown’s letter from Redpath’s transcription, combining them with my (reasonably imagined) transcription of the full letter from Sanborn’s book, to wit:
Charlestown, Jefferson County, Va, 24 Nov. 1859.
My Dear Mrs Spring,
Your ever welcome letter of the 19th inst., together with the one now enclosed, were received by me last night too late for any reply. I am always grateful for anything you either do or write. I would most gladly express my gratitude to you & yours by something more than words; but it has come to that, I now have but little else to deal in, & sometimes they are not so kind as they should be. You have laid me & my family under many & great obligations. I hope they may not soon be forgotten. The same is also true of a vast many others, that I shall never be able even to thank. I feel disposed to leave the education of my dear children to their mother, & to those dear friends who bear the burden of it; only expressing my earnest hope that they may all be come strong, intelligent, expert, industrious, Christian housekeepers. I would wish that, together with other studies, they may thoroughly study Dr. Franklin's "Poor Richard." I want them to become matter of fact women. Perhaps I have said too much about this already; I would not allude to this subject now but for the fact that you had most kindly expressed your generous feelings with regard to it.
I sent the letter to my wife to your care, because the address she sent me from Philadelphia was not sufficiently plain, left me quite at a loss. I am still in the same predicament, & were I not ashamed to trouble you further, would ask you either to send this to her or a copy of it, in order that she may see something from me often.
I have had very many interesting visits from pro-slavery persons almost daily, & I endeavor to improve them faithfully, plainly, & kindly. I do not think that I ever enjoyed life better than since my confinement here. For this I am indebted to Infinite Grace, & the kind letters of friends from different quarters. I wish I could only know that all my poor family were as much composed & as happy as I. I think that nothing but the Christian religion can ever make any one so much composed.
"My willing soul would stay In such a frame as this."
There are objections to my writing many things while here that I might be disposed to write were I under different circumstances. I do not know that my wife yet understands that prison rules require that all I write or receive should first be examined by the sheriff or State's attorney, & that all company I see should be attended by the jailer or some of his assistants. Yet such is the case; & did she know this, it might influence her mind somewhat about the opportunity she would have on coming here. We cannot expect the jailer to devote very much time to us, as he has now a very hard task on his hands. I have just learned how to send letters to my wife near Philadelphia.
I have a son at Akron, Ohio, that I greatly desire to have located in such a neighborhood as yours; & you will pardon me for giving you some account of him, making all needful allowance for the source the account comes from. His name is Jason; he is about thirty-six years old; has a wife & one little boy. He is a very laborious, ingenious, temperate, honest, & truthful man. He is very expert as a gardener, vine-dresser, & manager of fruit-trees, but does not pride himself on account of his skill in any thing; always has underrated himself; is bashful & retiring in his habits; is not (like his father) too much inclined to assume & dictate; is too conscientious in his dealings & too tender of people's feelings to get from them his just deserts, & is very poor. He suffered almost everything on the way to & while in Kansas but death, & returned to Ohio not a spoiled but next to a ruined man. He never quarrels, & yet I know that he is both morally & physically brave. He will not deny his principles to save his life, & he "turned not back in the day of battle." At the battle of Osawatomie he fought by my side. He is a most tender, loving, & steadfast friend, & on the right side of things in general, a practical Samaritan (if not Christian); & could I know that he was located with a population who were disposed to encourage him, without expecting him to pay too dearly in the end for it, I should feel greatly relieved. His wife is a very neat, industrious, prudent woman, who has undergone a severe trial in " the school of affliction."
You make one request of me that I shall not be able to comply with. Am sorry that I cannot at least explain. Your own account of my plans is very well. The son I mentioned has now a small stock of choice vines & fruit-trees, & in them consists his worldly store mostly. I would give you some account of others, but I suppose my wife may have done so.
By way of content, this is a long letter with a lot of detail, but clearly there are three major themes: Brown’s expressions of gratitude for Spring’s intervention and assistance, a personal description of his jail house circumstances and some details of his interior life, and then a long section where he interestingly seeks assistance on behalf of his son, Jason, who was back in Ohio at this time.
As to the last segment concerning Jason, a great deal of commentary might be generated and frankly I cannot even skim the surface (because I’m supposed to be grading student papers and working on another project). Jason was always the “odd” Brown boy in his extremely passive, gentle, and benign manner. As his father rightly describes him, Jason tended toward self-deprecation, although on principle he was able to muster greater courage and fearlessness in the famous battle of Osawatomie, Kansas Territory, back in 1856. Notably, however, he had not mustered such courage in the case of the Pottawatomie killings and refused to support the Brown’s preemptive strike. Evidently, Jason lived to regret not having gone when he came to understand the full reasons for his father’s decision to expedite these killings. Although not having participated in the Pottawatomie killings probably saved his life at the hands of pro-slavery thugs, he and his wife sustained great losses in the whole Kansas episode. They not only lost their young son Austin en route to the territory in 1855, but their Kansas dwelling was burned by terrorists (and with it, no doubt, a good portion of Brown’s correspondence). At any rate, the Spring family evidently offered Jason aid and support following his father’s hanging in 1859, and he gratefully corresponded with Rebecca Spring at least twice that can be documented (see Villard Papers).
As to the portion regarding his daughters’ education, Brown was no sexist as much as he was practical. He writes above that he wants his “children” to become “strong, intelligent, expert, industrious, Christian housekeepers,” no doubt imbued as much with the spiritual wisdom of the Bible as with the practical wisdom of Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac, both of which had been staples of Brown family reading from his earliest Ohio days. His desire that his youngest daughters (Anne, Sarah, and young Ellen) would be “matter of fact women” was no less than what he had demanded of his sons, all of which were likewise trained to “music of the broom,” as he put it in his letter of November 16th to his wife, where he likewise extolled upon the theme of being “plain but practical.” Certainly there was no one more plain and practical than John Brown, and this is something that he wanted for all of his children—no doubt anticipating that his family would never be rich in the manner of this world, given their philosophy and values of service and sacrifice, and his refusal to pursue profit for profit’s sake. “When I say plain but practical,” Brown wrote to his wife, “I mean enough of the learning of the schools to enable them to transact the common business of life, comfortably and respectably. . . which prepares both men and women to be useful though poor, and to meet the stern Realities of life with a good Grace.”
A final note regards Brown’s evident Christian convictions. He not only emphasizes his hope that his children will become “Christian housekeepers,” but also opines: “nothing but the Christian religion can ever make any one so much composed.” An extended essay might be written on the flagrantly evangelical and evangelistic tenor of Brown’s final letters to his family and others. Contrary to the popular notion that he “reinvented himself” in the Charlestown jail, Brown’s saintly, “biblio-centric” epistles actually were quite consistent with his lifetime devotion to the classical Protestant evangelical faith. Yet his inability to take further action, along with his proximity to death, now brought his spiritual focus to the center, just as his personal concern for his children’s eternal state was only heightened in the shadow of the gallows.
The fact that most of his adult children had rejected evangelical faith from the early 1850s was a galling issue for Brown, and this seems to be the point of Browns’ reference to Jason as a “practical Samaritan (if not a Christian).” Like his brothers John Junior, Owen, and their younger half-brothers, Jason Brown was quite heterodox as far as his father was concerned. So expansive was the spiritual rebellion of the Brown children that Anne Brown, while her father was in jail awaiting execution, wrote to her father’s supporter, Thomas W. Higginson on November 29, 1859, expressing regret that she could not become a Christian in satisfaction of her father’s urgings (Higginson papers, Boston Public Library). In fact, to my knowledge, only two of Brown’s daughters followed their father in faith: Ruth Brown Thompson (Dianthe’s daughter) and Sarah Brown (Mary’s daughter). I don’t know about Ellen, for whom Brown inscribed a new Bible in April 1857.
Lastly, Brown includes a verse that Rebecca Spring would have probably recognized, as would most people in that largely Protestant-oriented time and culture: “"My willing soul would stay In such a frame as this." This is a portion of a verse from the hymn by Isaac Watts entitled, "Welcome Sweet Day of Rest" (1707). He evidently assumed that Spring could complete the stanza, which goes, “And sit and sing herself away to everlasting bliss.” This was quite in keeping with Brown’s peaceful interior life, which by all accounts was quite authentic, and certainly no pretense. “I do not think that I ever enjoyed life better than since my confinement here,” He wrote to Friend Rebecca. He had finally attained the goal of his life, despite the fact that it was not the outcome for which he had first planned. But now he was finally working to the detriment of slavery to good effect, and in his death he would seal the work for time and eternity. John Brown’s willing soul would stay in the frame of Charlestown jail, even as he walked the fine line between the temporal and the eternal, between the trials of this present age and the bliss of the age to come.
100 years ago today, 1910
Charleston, W.Va. -- The last of those who took part in the execution of John Brown died here at the age of 83. He was Louis P. Starry, the undertaker who made the coffin in which Brown's body was placed. Mr. Starry rode in the wagon with Brown from the jail to the scaffold and delivered the body afterward at Harper's Ferry to Mrs. Brown and Dr. McKim.
Source: "Out of Our Past." The Battle Creek Inquirer [Battle Creek, Mich.], 24 Nov. 2010