Picking the Pocket of Charles Wesley Moffett:
A Cherished Reminiscence
by H. Scott Wolfe
|Excerpt, Isaac Smith [John Brown] to John H. Kagi, 12 July 1859 |
(Historical Society of Penn.)
"Please write Charles Moffett as well as Tidd, to come on to Chambersburg, as I think we shall be ready for them as soon as they get on. . . ." John Brown
South of Montour, Tama County, Iowa, Murry and I sat at a table in his farmhouse kitchen, coffee cups filled, an old shelf clock ticking, ticking. A jovial, red-faced man, his bright eyes peering through the tinted lenses of monstrous 1980s eyeglasses, he had the singular appearance of a benevolent owl. His hands, bent and calloused with years of outdoor labor, plucked at his ever-present black suspenders...while he told me the story of the traveling salesman:
Murry Moffett, Jr. holding court at the Moffett homestead
(Collection of H. Scott Wolfe)
“Grandpa built this here house about 1879, a year after he lost his entire herd of hogs to cholera. Every stick of lumber had to be hauled by horse and wagon from Iowa City, for there was not a tree to be found out here on the prairie. It replaced the log house that he and Grandma built in 1860, right after they got married. . . .”
“I have to tell you a story,” an impish grin crossing Murry’s face. “Grandpa had a neighbor whose boy was going to medical school. He’d come home summers, and he’d bring with him a cadaver to study on. Well, it come to be that the boy had finished with all the muscles and nerves, and he needed to take off the flesh so as to study the bones.”
“So Grandpa offered him his iron cauldron, which he used to boil hogs during butchering time. So they stoked up a big fire out in our yard, and tossed in the body to loosen things up a bit. There was an arm draped over this way...a leg draped over that way.”
“As Grandpa and everybody stood around watching, lo and behold a traveling salesman came trotting up the lane with his wagon full of wares. Now that salesman took one look at that there cauldron and they say it took an hour for the dust to settle! Never saw a horse run so fast!”
Every time Murry told me this story, he would literally explode with mirth. Tears ran from his eyes, as he vigorously slapped his knees with those calloused hands.
And before he died in April of 1998, I heard many stories from that Iowa farmer, Murry J. Moffett, Jr. But those I cherish the most were those that dealt with “Grandpa,” Charles Wesley Moffett...who rode with John Brown.
|Portrait of a |
In the days of yore, my John Brown research trips and personal vacations were synonymous. I would traverse the country in search of any obscure facts concerning the Old Man and his men. I would cross the State of Iowa, following the old “Jim Lane Trail,” tarrying at the Free State way station of Tabor, exploring the Nemaha country of eastern Kansas and, finally, taking a hard, wooden chair at the Kansas State Historical Society in Topeka, in order to sift through the John Brown and Richard J. Hinton manuscript collections.
I would sometimes devote a week in the Western Reserve, at Hudson, Ohio, (where John Brown the tanner grew to maturity), exploring the rich Clarence Gee Collection at the local historical society (where Tom Vince and Jim Caccamo then reigned).
Or I might find myself in Lake Placid, New York, sitting over lunch with the late, great Edwin Cotter, Jr., the beloved Superintendent of John Brown’s farm and gravesite. In Ed’s office, beneath the penetrating gaze of de Blezer’s sculpture of the Old Man, we would talk for hours of Brown’s “Provisional Army,” and the story of their exhumation and reburial in what was then Ed’s front yard.
But one journey, to the West Virginia Department of Archives and History in Charleston, lingers in my mind as one that led to a series of unforgettable and cherished experiences. In those prehistoric times, the indispensable Boyd B. Stutler Collection was not available, as it is now, on the ubiquitous internet. In those simple days, when computers were as large as Murry’s chicken coop, I was compelled to drive to West Virginia to examine this, the richest lode of John Brown lore.
I lived for a week out of a Red Roof Inn, taking my meals at a local pancake house. I would commute to the library, past the innumerable refineries spewing who knows what into the foggy atmosphere, and my days were spent in an expansive reading room, poring over cartloads of primary source materials. At that time, my principal interest was raider William Henry Leeman...but anything in regard to Brown’s soldiers would catch my eye. And one morning, such an item suddenly appeared:
Charles Wesley Moffett (seated at center) with his
surviving Kansas comrades, Topeka, 1882 (Kansas St. Hist. Soc.)
It was a newspaper clipping, taken from the Topeka Capital in 1882. Headed “John Brown: A Reunion of His Surviving Associates,” it told of a meeting held in the rooms of the State Historical Society...a meeting which added “much to the knowledge of the old hero’s character and achievements for freedom.” But what set my alarm bells ringing was the following notation: “The prime mover in the matter was Mr. C.W. Moffett, of Montour, Iowa, who is for a time visiting relatives near this city.”
The article also included what was termed “Mr. Moffett’s Narrative,” which told the fascinating tale of his association with, and recruitment by, John Brown...the winter of military training at Springdale, Iowa...his presence at Brown’s Constitutional Convention at Chatham, Canada West...and his personal explanation as to why he DID NOT join his comrades at Harpers Ferry.
I knew of Charles Wesley Moffett...but I knew very little. Montour, Iowa was immediately circled on an Iowa highway map. And did I hear someone say ROAD TRIP?
A crisp April morning found me roaming Maple Hill Cemetery, the shiny Montour water tower looming in the distance. My search was, happily, shorter than most. For I soon espied a substantial red granite monument, its summit crested with a block letter “M,” a bold MOFFETT at its base. Surrounding it were a number of individual headstones, and my eye was immediately drawn to the inscription: CHARLES W. MOFFETT...JUNE 20, 1827...AUG. 19, 1904. My inner voice proudly announced: “Well, you’ve found another of Brown’s boys!” But then, suddenly, the heart rate accelerated all the more. For before the Moffett stone were strewn clusters of plastic flowers! Now, I am no fan of plastic flowers. But their presence led to two rock-solid conclusions: 1) Someone cares, and 2) That someone may be living close by.
Montour, Iowa, on the edge of the Meskwaki Indian Settlement, will not soon grace the cover of “House Beautiful.” It’s “commercial” district, as I drove down Elm Street, was a strange amalgam of wild west village and auto salvage yard. To this day, the principal industry is “Rube’s Steak House and Lounge,” where one can “grill your own steak and Texas toast.” Actually, the Boston Globe once called Rube’s one of their “eight favorite places in the world.” Unbeknownst to me, I would soon gain an intimate familiarity with that institution.
But I was seeking the United States Post Office, and I soon stood before a squat, red brick building, strongly resembling a Depression-era bank. I almost expected Dillinger to burst through the front door...guns blazing. The postal clerk could not speak. So through a combination of frantic hand signals and hastily scrawled notes, I inquired if any residents of Montour and vicinity carried the surname of Moffett. Again, the stars were aligned...and I received a name and a postal box number. The name was Murry Moffett.
Upon my return home, I penned a polite letter to Mr. Moffett...describing my experiences in the cemetery and the post office...and revealing my fascination with all of those who rode with John Brown. I invited his response, and then returned to such mundane tasks as making a living. And I waited...and waited. At the one-month mark my hopes were rather unsteady but, by exhibiting good behavior and eating my vegetables, I was rewarded with a letter. It did not come from Murry Moffett but, rather, from one Alice Olds Wolcott of Toledo, Iowa.
Alice apologized for her cousin Murry, for he just wasn’t a letter writer. But she introduced herself as the “family historian,” and welcomed my interest in their GRANDFATHER, Charles Wesley Moffett. I know that this intelligence excited me greatly...for the footprints are still visible on the ceiling.
Carousing at Rube's in Montour, Iowa (l to r)
Murry Moffett, Jr. & wife Carole,
Alice Olds Wolcott and the author
(Collection of H. Scott Wolfe)
So did I mention the words ROAD TRIP?
Toledo, Iowa. On that Saturday when I knocked on the door of the modest house on South School Street, I really didn’t know what to expect. But meeting Alice Wolcott exceeded whatever expectations I could have contemplated. If one could design and build the prototype of the dearest, sweetest female mortal on the planet...might I suggest Alice? A slight, silver-haired dynamo of eighty-five, her perpetual smile could be considered the principal factor in creating global warming.
Before I could open my mouth, lunch was served. We then retired to the living room, where a huge stack of books and manila folders reposed. Within the hour I was aware of the ancestry of Charles Wesley Moffett...of his father Hoshea and his mother Polly Porter...of his birth in Genesee County, New York and his upbringing in Bristolville, Trumbull County, Ohio (where his childhood friend was John Henrie Kagi, John Brown’s future “Secretary of War”)...of his wandering life as a farmer and lead miner (the latter right in my own bailiwick)...and finally, in the spring of 1855, his removal to Kansas with his brothers Erastus and Orlando.
I sat agape, as the Moffett saga rolled off her tongue...until, of course, it was time for her to prepare supper.
“Alice,” I insisted, “I really should be heading home. I have already taken up too much of your time.”
“Fiddlesticks,” she answered. “I will show you your bedroom.”
“But I...,” is all I could murmur before being shown my accommodations.
“And what can I get you to drink before dinner?” she chirped.
I awoke, sun streaming into the bedroom, the atmosphere redolent of bacon and eggs. The coffee cup was kept perpetually full, while Alice proudly told me how her paternal grandfather...just TWO generations back...had been born in 1776. And then back to the books. She told me of Charles in the Free State militia under Jim Lane...of his service as an election judge in the Shawnee Precinct...and how he barely escaped imprisonment with Kagi and brother Erastus at Lecompton.
The Moffett homestead, ca. 1905; Emma Manfull (holding the horse),
the widow of Charles Wesley Moffett; next to her is her son,
Murry Moffett, Sr., the father of "my" Murry
(Collection of H. Scott Wolfe)
Then I took over, telling her of her grandfather’s activity, or as he called it, “running,” on the Underground Railroad...of his recruitment by John Brown in the autumn of 1857...of his experiences at Springdale and Chatham...and his life in Ashtabula County, Ohio, waiting for the call to Harpers Ferry. But then I had to go. Leaving Alice with a parting gift of an original copy of Villard’s classic 1910 biography of John Brown, we made tentative arrangements to visit her cousin Murry and the Moffett homeplace. As I drove away, I could only pity those misguided souls who say that history is a boring occupation.
The Moffett house, now bereft of its Victorian ornamentation, stood on an east-facing rise, undulating fields of waving corn in every direction. Much, no doubt, the same vista as when that traveling salesman trotted up the lane. It was far from serene, for the honking of geese and snorting of hogs kept you in mind that this isn’t heaven...it’s Iowa.
Murry and his wife Carole ushered Alice and I into their home and we soon surrounded the kitchen table for a serious family talk. Being a former Boy Scout, I had made sure that I came prepared...so a video camera was perched upon my shoulder to record the grandchildren’s commentary upon their notable ancestor. And talk they did...for nearly an hour, recounting much of the family history I had learned during my visit with Alice. And I had my own questions. For instance: “Was Charles Moffett’s association with John Brown known within the family?” “Oh yes,” was the answer...”but our Grandpa apparently never talked about it much.”
“And why do you think he was reluctant to speak of his activities with Brown?,” I asked. “Well, the family always thought he feared being prosecuted like some of his friends,” was the response.
I’ve always had my own theory on this topic. I don’t believe that Charles Wesley Moffett feared prosecution. I think he suffered from guilt. For this Provisional Army recruit...one who had joined his comrades throughout the preliminaries in Kansas, Iowa, Canada and Ohio...had succumbed not only to doubts of the wisdom of Brown’s Virginia incursion (He was one of several suspected of writing the “Floyd Letter,” which delayed the Harpers Ferry raid for a year.), he had also succumbed to that most dangerous of emotions...love.
During the winter at Springdale, Iowa, Moffett had met the pretty and vivacious Emma Manfull. And in March of 1859, stranded in Ohio with little news from the Virginia front, Charles, along with fellow defector Luke F. Parsons, headed west...the former to Springdale (where he was eventually to be among the protectors of the fugitive raider Barclay Coppoc), and the latter to test his luck at Pike’s Peak. On the 28th of March, 1860, Charles Wesley Moffett traveled to Tama County, Iowa to marry Emma at her family home. And upon an adjacent property, they were to reside for the rest of their lives.
The wallet of Charles Wesley Moffett
(Collection of H. Scott Wolfe)
Why was Moffett reticent about his association with John Brown and his men? Because they went. . . and died . . . and he did not.
The day ended with a trip to Montour’s principal attraction . . . Rube’s Steak House and Lounge. There I joined the family in choosing gargantuan sirloins from the coolers lining the walls...and then grilling our own on a huge charcoal pit in the center of the restaurant. I can assure you, we did it justice. And I distinctly remember a toast...directed to the memory of Charles Wesley Moffett.
"John Brown, Right or Wrong?"
clipping from Moffett's wallet
(Collection of H. Scott Wolfe)
It was during what turned out to be my final visit to the Moffett homeplace that the most touching moment occurred. We had again gathered about the kitchen table...and were again preparing for dinner at Rube’s. Murry had just completed the latest version of the traveling salesman story when Alice approached me with a small package, covered in holiday wrap. “The family would like you to have this,” her face aglow, “we are so happy to see your interest in our ancestor.” Tearing the paper, a 19th century leather wallet was revealed. “It was Grandpa’s,” said Alice.
"Old John Brown" clipping
from Moffett's wallet
(Collection of H. Scott Wolfe)
When I returned home with my treasure, and began to closely examine it, I found an internal pocket which contained three yellowing newspaper clippings. One was entitled: “Reed an Anti-Imperialist,” which dealt with the war in the Philippines; another was headed “Of Old John Brown, His Son Talks of His Father’s Struggles and Work;” and the third: “John Brown: Right or Wrong?”
One can only speculate on whether Charles Wesley Moffett contemplated this final question, as he worked his farm on the rolling plains of Tama County, Iowa.
This article is affectionately dedicated to my friend Alice Olds Wolcott, born 4 September 1905...died 8 September 1998. Alice, let’s eat.
H. Scott Wolfe
H. Scott Wolfe is the Historical Librarian of the Galena, Illinois, Public Library District and now a regular correspondent and contributor to this blog. As this wonderful piece reveals, he has devoted many years of grassroots research on John Brown, the Harper's Ferry raiders, and related themes.