"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 03, 2010

Jean Libby Writes-

Mary Brown's Ordeal Remembered

Retracing the trail of John Brown's
funeral cortege, December 1859
The story of Mary Brown's journey to see her husband on the day before his execution in Virginia (December 2, 1859) and bring his body home to the Adirondack Mountains of New York is often told but seldom documented. At the 150th anniversary of the John Brown raid in 2009, a lovely self-guided tour, On the Trail of John Brown: What Mary Brown Saw, was published in a pamphlet and online (pdf) by the Essex County Historical Society and Adirondack Architectural Heritage.

On the Trail of John Brown is based upon what Mary Brown saw as the funeral cortege of her husband, John Brown the abolitionist, traveled from the train depot in Vergennes, Vermont to the family farm in North Elba, New York. We will look at the buildings that still exist along the route of the funeral cortege and describe the landscapes that they would have passed over. Of particular note are the sites relevant to the life of John Brown, the anti-slavery movement, and/or sites mentioned by members of the funeral cortege in 1859. It took two days for the cortege to travel this relatively short distance [67 miles], leaving the train depot early Tuesday morning, December 6, and arriving in North Elba on Wednesday evening, December 7, 1859.

Mary was at the exhaustive conclusion of traveling since hearing the news of John Brown's sentence of death on November 1, 1859. Moving southward through Boston and Brooklyn escorted by Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the party was stopped in Baltimore and subjected to considerable hostility. Mary retreated to Philadelphia, staying at the home of William Still, the African American often called the father of the Underground Railroad. John Brown learned of the failure of her mission from his attorney, George Hoyt, and wrote to her from prison in Charlestown on November 10, pleading that she not come but wait until "after Virginia has applied to the picture already made of me ... [if] you can afford to meet the expence and trouble of coming on here to gather up the bones of our beloved sons & your husband, and if the people here will suffer you to do so; I should be entirely willing." The full letter is published from a typescript in the Oswald Garrison Villard Collection by Louis A. DeCaro, Jr., in John Brown, the Cost of Freedom: Selections from his Life and Letters (International Publishers: 2007:149-151).

Mary Brown, from a family
portrait, early 1850s
Mary wrote to Governor Henry A. Wise to claim the bodies on November 21, receiving his affirmative response on November 27. The two original letters were in the possession of her only surviving son, Salmon, until 1893, when they were acquired by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (HSP). Languishing there with many other original documents which were used in John Brown's trial, the exchange was published by HSP in 2009.

By Thanksgiving, Mary had received the consent of John Brown to visit him while still alive, and prepared for the journey at the home of Lucretia Mott in Philadelphia. At services presided by Rev. William Furness, she received the warm support of women in the congregation and traveled to Harpers Ferry with Mr. and Mrs. J. Miller McKim and Hector Tyndale as escort. The party was met by William Taliaferro, who was in charge of the martial law order in Charlestown. Her request to receive the bodies of Oliver and Watson was refused, but Mary was allowed to come along to the prison for a last meeting with her husband on December 1.

Collegial sharing of a scanned copy of The New York Daily Tribune of December 3, 1859 by Karl Gridley of Kansas allowed me to transcribe the interview with Mary Brown published on that day, which is published online.

A new collegial sharing is occurring in December 2010, with the December 3, 1859 account of Mary Brown's experience in Harpers Ferry through the execution and accompanying his coffin forwarded to Philadelphia in the National Anti-Slavery Standard, written by J. Miller McKim. Thanks to Warren F. Broderick, an historian in New York, I will be able to transcribe this document and put it online with her interview for use by everyone.

Jean Libby, Allies for Freedom, Palo Alto, California (3 December 2010)

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