John Brown, Philadelphia, and an Empty Coffin
I. A Wife's Mournful Sojourn
After they hanged him in Virginia on December 2, 1859, John Brown's body was cut down and dumped into a crude pine coffin. The doctors who presided at the gallows were not satisfied that he was dead, even though he had hung, swaying in the December breeze, for half an hour after the trap door had swung out. Adjourning for an afternoon repast, the doctors made their final inspection later in the day, officially declaring that the hated abolitionist was dead. To underscore their contempt, they left the noose around his neck.
|DeWitt Hitchcock made this sketch of|
Mary Brown at Harper's Ferry for The
New York Illustrated News (17 Dec. 1859)
Mary Brown, widow of the abolitionist, set out from the family home in North Elba, near present-day Lake Placid, N.Y., with the intention of seeing her husband in his Virginia jail cell. She was warmly received in Boston on November 3, where she was given gifts and money by Brown’s supporters and admirers. She proceeded by rail to Philadelphia and was greeted by the city’s abolitionist leadership, especially James Miller McKim, president of the Philadelphia Anti-Slavery Society. But when she reached Baltimore, Maryland, Mary Brown received a telegram from her husband’s lawyer, George Sennott, demanding on her husband’s behalf that she not come any farther into the South. Frustrated and disappointed, she was obligated to turn around and go back. But instead of going home, Mary went back as far as Philadelphia, where she shuttled back and forth between the homes of abolitionists William Still and Lucretia Mott, and Rebecca Buffum Spring in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, while awaiting the day of her husband’s execution, set for December 2.
Brown’s hesitance about having his wife come down to Virginia seems to have been a blend of practical apprehensions and painful emotions, not the least of which was that he was thinking of the expense of her travel given the long winter ahead after his death. Before learning that she had begun to make her way southward, he had written on November 8 appealing that she not come to Virginia at all. Afterward he wrote to a close associate, asking him to persuade Mary to remain at home for a time, at least until he directed her otherwise–which probably meant that he was hoping to receive monetary support for the family’s expenses. Perhaps too, Brown was being a bit selfish, writing that Mary’s presence would only “deepen my affliction a thousand fold,” worried as he was that she would lose her composure and go “wild” on his account, as he put it.
|John and Mary together for the last time,|
Dec. 1, 1859. Published in Frank Leslie's
Illustrated Newspaper on Dec. 17th
On December 1, the day before the execution, John and Mary Brown were permitted a few fleeting hours together, being allowed to enjoy a final meal and discuss family plans and concerns. After being denied permission to spend their last night together, Mary was escorted back to her hotel in Harper’s Ferry. The next day, she remained there with the McKims and Tyndale, who held hands and prayed with her at the hour of execution. After the hanging, Tyndale received Brown’s coffin at Harper’s Ferry, causing something of a stir when he demanded that it be opened for inspection. A rumor was going about that the southerners were going to steal Brown’s body and replace it with another corpse, perhaps that of a dead black man. Observing the hatred and contempt that Virginians expressed toward Brown, Tyndale later said the incident brought him the nearest to personal violence of any part of the experience.
The widow and her brave friends thus escorted the coffin by rail from Harper’s Ferry to Philadelphia with the intention of being met by an undertaker, who would duly prepare John Brown’s body for its final interment outside the family home in North Elba,New York. But Philadelphia was already bubbling with protest, and it would have been impossible for the Old Man’s body to have rested peacefully over the weekend in the city without significant demonstrations taking place.
While the black representation at National Hall was by no means scant, black Philadelphia held other vigils for John Brown on the day of his hanging, most notably at the Shiloh Baptist Church, located at South and Clifton Streets, where Jeremiah Asher was pastor. One of the several speakers in this program was the eloquent Jonathan Gibbs, the Dartmouth graduate and pastor of the First African Presbyterian Church, whose eloquence so impressed the racist reporter from the Philadelphia Press that he declared Gibbs’ oratory “almost entirely free from the ordinary peculiarities of Negro speech.” Expressing the deepest sympathy for John Brown “that brave man,” Gibbs decried the doctrine that the black man had no rights that the white man was bound to respect, and in a booming voice lifted a prayer of such anointed proportions that the Press reporter found the scene at the church had become almost excitingly frightening, with shrieks and cries, “Lord hear us! Hear our prayer! Remember old John Brown! If he must die, remember his soul!”
With such words, the congregation exploded into responsive shouts, noted the Press reporter,“long, loud, and more boisterous than ever.” Campbell was actually late in pronouncing Brown dead since he had already swung out on the gallows at half-past 11 o’clock A.M. But he was absolutely right that a kind of John Brown earthquake was only beginning.
Over at the National Hall, the police kept the meeting from violent outbursts from white hecklers and other racists, although there was little ability to prevent the clash of competing remarks and sentiments. Throughout the program, sympathetic tears and cheers were contradicted by jeering, hissing, and loud cursing. The Reverend Furness, a seasoned anti-slavery warrior, spoke first, boldly declaring that “out of the grim cloud that hangs over the South, a bolt has darted, and blood has flowed, and the place where the lightning struck”–speaking of Virginia–“is wild with fear.” William Still later recalled these fiery words, admitting that he and other abolitionists feared that Philadelphia, the foremost black center in the United States in that era, “would be selected as the spot where Slavery would make its first mortal onslaught, and the abolitionists there the first victims.”
As noted by a reporter for The Republican Compiler, when Furness concluded his speech by declaring that “Today, [John Brown] has bequeathed his blood in which to write the great act of emancipation for four millions of slaves,” his words were greeted both with applause and hisses. Then, two competing waves arose, the first of hisses, then one of applause. Lucretia Mott of Philadelphia and Theodore Tilton of Brooklyn likewise spoke with similar responses from the mixed audience. But when the African American abolitionist Robert Purvis arose to speak, the sound of hisses and moans nearly drowned out the applause.
Racists in the audience reacted more strongly to his words than to the other speakers by making loud hisses, groans, and cries which added to the confusion of the competing spirits in the Hall. Undaunted, Purvis concluded by predicting, “the time shall come when John Brown shall be looked upon as the Jesus Christ of the nineteenth century!” This final remark nearly caused an uprising of such confusion that the journalist from the Compiler could not record the rest of his speech for the noise filling the Hall.
The explosive event at National Hall on the day that Brown was hanged is instructive in reminding us that white Philadelphia, like the majority population of New York City, was largely sympathetic to the South and the interests of the Union over the concerns of enslaved blacks. No wonder, as Russell Weighley tells us, the “storm center” of Philadelphia for decades was the black community, which in the 1850s had grown to about 12 percent of the total population. Although the white population was significantly larger, African Americans lived “immediately adjacent to the business, commercial, and upper-class residential heart of the consolidated city,” thus being quite visible and capable of bringing disquiet to the city. Blacks were disdained to Philadelphia’s elite families, which were closely knit to the South in social and economic interests, just as they were despised by lower class whites as well as the Irish immigrant community. In fact, not long after the pro- Brown event at National Hall, a counter-event was held in Philadelphia which drew 6000 whites, all of them declaring disgust over the Harper’s Ferry raid and their full support of the constitutional rights of southern slave holders.
III. Back Story: John Brown and Frederick Douglass in Philadelphia
John Brown’s brief, posthumous visit to Philadelphia was not the first trip he ever made to the city. As an anti-slavery activist, actually he made several visits during 1857-59. Among those appropriate to our story, the first took place between March 9-16, 1858, when the Old Man was canvassing for African American support for his intended raid into the South.
In his third and final autobiography published in 1881, Frederick Douglass wrote that he learned of Brown’s intention of attacking Harper’s Ferry during a secret meeting that took place within three weeks of the raid on October 16, 1859. In fact, the meeting took place nearly two months before, when Douglass met with Brown in a quarry near Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, in late August 1859. As Douglass fashioned the story, it was during this meeting that he first learned of Brown’s determination to make an attack on Harper’s Ferry as a preliminary move in his mountain-based campaign. Despite Brown’s urging, Douglass wrote, he had refused to join the venture and warned the Old Man that he would be caught in a “perfect steel-trap.” Douglass did acknowledge that Brown had previously spoken of raiding Harper’s Ferry but had “never announced his intention of doing so” until the Chambersburg meeting, a claim that has never been questioned by scholars. However, Douglass seems to have conflated the developments of 1859 in his memoir, entirely overlooking a clash with Brown that took place during a meeting in Detroit in March 1859. Indeed there is good reason that Douglass’ dissent from Brown’s plan originated at this point, and not seven months later as the former recorded in his autobiography.
|Brown and Douglass in Chambersburg, Aug. 1859|
Given that their association dated back to the late 1840s, it seems that Douglass had supported his blue-eyed amigo’s plans as long as Brown kept to the basic strategy of initiating raids on plantations and establishing a mountain-based campaign in the South. When Brown decided to seize Harper’s Ferry, probably early in 1859, Douglass began to back off. Brown’s ally and biographer, Franklin Sanborn, would agree, suggesting that Douglass knew of the Harper’s Ferry plan earlier than he portrayed in his autobiography. This is significant because it explains a number of things about the John Brown story, most notably that despite their ongoing friendship, Douglass was steadily opposing Brown’s plan throughout 1859, and to some degree dampened his ability to gain black recruits. Douglass’s friendly dissent was certainly no secret to other black leaders, and this dissent evidently took its toll in Philadelphia.
Just prior to meeting Brown at Chambersburg on August 20-21, 1859, Douglass stopped in Philadelphia. According to historian William McFeeley, he participated in a secret meeting in a local church and found the attenders fearful of bearing retaliation for what Brown might do. Unfortunately, McFeeley missed the full meaning of the incident, which is born out in a memoir of black leader William Henry Johnson published in 1900.
According to Johnson, Douglass’ secret meeting would have followed immediately the events that had taken place in Philadelphia on August 15-16. Johnson writes that a newly formed “colored military company” had scheduled a parade in Philadelphia which involved men who were already enlisted by Brown. Johnson recalled that Brown was disturbed by news of this public display of “armed and disciplined” blacks, fearing that their demonstration would draw undue attention from authorities. Johnson says further that Brown came up to Philadelphia on August 15, in the hopes of discouraging the parade. But he felt further undermined that evening during a public meeting at the Shiloh Baptist Church. The guest speaker was another one of Brown’s black collaborators, J. J. Simons of New York City. According to Johnson, Simons “made a speech in which he commended the Negroes of Philadelphia for organizing a military company and stated there was a grand project on foot to invade the South with an army of armed northern Negroes” in order to liberate the enslaved. He then called for recruits from Philadelphia’s black community who would “march through the South with a gun in one hand and a bible in the other.”
Johnson says that Brown was present at this meeting and was appalled by Simons’s lack of discretion. Later that night Douglass and Brown called an emergency meeting at the home of Thomas J. Dorsey, a famous caterer and another leading figure in Philadelphia’s black community. Johnson was in attendance at this meeting and remembered Brown as having a “very kindly face” although shaded with “deep sorrow” because of Simons’s indiscrete remarks at the church. Despite efforts at damage control, Johnson says that the incident created irreversible problems for Brown. Always reticent about his plans, Brown believed the whole affair had jeopardized his operations and might possibly bring the authorities down upon black leaders in the city.
When these realities hit home for Philadelphia’s black leadership, it is understandable that some began to worry over the possible repercussions of their association with the Old Man. Yet, incredibly, there remained sufficient interest in Brown’s plans among some black Philadelphians. According to Franklin Sanborn, in late September 1859, “certain colored citizens” wrote a letter to Douglass urging him to support their efforts to join Brown. “We think you are the man of all others to represent us,” they wrote, even pledging to support Douglass’s family if he himself would join Brown’s efforts. “We have now quite a number of good but not very intelligent representatives collected,” they concluded in their appeal.
In the last Philadelphia meeting, Johnson says Douglass held a list of young black Philadelphians, but apparently none of them finally chose to join Brown in Virginia. To what extent Douglass actively went to discourage black enlistment in Philadelphia will never be known, but Douglass later said that he had done all that he could to that effect, and there is no reason to doubt the adverse impact he made with all good intentions. Certainly, John Brown’s family thereafter had no friendly words for Douglass--the prominent sentiment among them being that he had broken his long-standing promise to support their father when the trumpet was blown. For his part, Douglass was a kind of celebrity in 1859, and it is understandable that he would prefer not to risk his life in Brown’s southern campaign. Perhaps this drama is concealed in his famous words written in tribute to Brown years later, to the effect that while he could live for the slave, John Brown could die for the slave. Frederick Douglass clearly preferred to live for the slave as an orator, activist, and politically respected leader. We should be grateful that he chose to do so. Leaving it for you to read between the lines of history, I would only add that I have yet to find a single personal letter written between Douglass and the Browns after 1859. Such historical silence may be very significant indeed.
IV. An Empty Coffin
When the train carrying John Brown’s body pulled into the Wilmington and Baltimore Station at Broad and Prime Streets, it was no secret that the Old Man was coming for his last visit to Philadelphia. Transport of the body through the city had been wired ahead and had generated a great deal of excitement. According to the Philadelphia Press, a large, “motley” crowd had gathered, comprised of blacks and whites of both sexes, young and old. The crowd was eager and tense, a prime target for the city’s pickpockets, especially the notorious Bill Oliver (who was arrested by police) and one known only as “Mysterious Jim” (who got away). The train rumbled into the station at 12:45 P.M. on Saturday, December 3, the day after the execution.
|Mary Brown by Albert Berghaus|
Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper
Dec. 10, 1859
Greeted at the station by an abolitionist committee headed by the Reverend Furness, Tyndale finally vented his rage, talking loudly and waving his arms in disgust. “A miracle has happened, Dr. Furness,” Tyndale exclaimed. “A miracle has happened! The earth never opened to swallow up those fiends!” The old abolitionist tried to calm him down, gently patting Tyndale on the shoulder. But he would not easily forget his resentments toward Harper’s Ferry and its belligerent citizens. A few years later, as Major Hector Tyndale, he probably took a measure of satisfaction when he returned to Harper’s Ferry and burned down a number of buildings in the town in the course of fighting Confederate snipers. Afterward, he would set up his office in the same hotel where he, the McKims, and the new widow of John Brown had waited to receive his body.
With the arrival of the body in Philadelphia, Mayor Alexander once more had to deal with possible explosions of protest and riot. He rightly anticipated that large numbers of the city’s black population would turn out, being both curious to see the coffin and tense with their own feelings of resentment. Likewise would come the white hecklers, many of them southern medical students and other pro-slavery sympathizers. With Brown’s body in the station, the scene could easily explode into a kind of urban civil war. Alexander was intent on avoiding any such outcome and so dispatched a strong force of officers who made no exception in blocking all entrances into the depot. Not content to merely shield the coffin from the crowd, Alexander then refused to allow the body to be delivered to the waiting Philadelphia undertaker, instead ordering that the coffin should be moved out of the city without delay.
The mayor’s final measure, afterward called a “deception” by the Philadelphia Press, was to create a decoy coffin–actually a large industrial tool box covered with blankets–which was carried by six police officers into the depot yard and placed on a wagon driven by other policemen. Of course the ploy was designed to draw the crowd away from the depot and it was quite successful. As the wagon carrying the decoy coffin pulled out, it was immediately followed by what one writer called an “almost frenzied throng.” The Press reporter described the movement of the crowd as “one of ludicrous description. It seemed,” he wrote, “as if all the boys and Negroes in town were in full speed,” and a number of women pursued the wagon too, likewise joining in “the hue and cry.” One reminiscence of the event says the decoy coffin was taken in the direction of the headquarters of the Anti-Slavery Society, but the Philadelphia Press report published on December 5th says that it was brought directly to the Walnut Street wharf to create the impression that it was being shipped on to New York. In the meantime the real coffin was quietly and quickly placed in a furniture wagon and driven to the Camden depot, where it was temporarily locked in a baggage crate and promptly shipped out after the crowd had subsided. John Brown’s body would thus be prepared for burial by an anti-slavery undertaker in downtown Manhattan, finally being carried northward by railroad toward its final destination in the Adirondacks.
Epilogue. Self-Made Men
|Brown in his coffin|
New York Illustrated News, 17 Dec. 1859
Although Douglass should have expected to be implicated in Brown’s raid and fled immediately, he strangely lingered in Philadelphia long enough to enjoy a reunion with Amanda Auld Sears, the grown daughter of the white man who once held him as a slave. When further news prompted the warnings of friends in Philadelphia, Douglass was jolted back to reality. Now in flight mode and overwhelmed with fear, he nervously boarded the ferry at Philadelphia’s Walnut Street wharf, crossing the Delaware River to Camden, New Jersey. Typically, travelers would prefer to take the railroad from Camden north toward New York City, but Douglass, so fearful of being apprehended, took a painfully slow ride by steamboat into Manhattan so that he could arrive in the city late at night. From there he fled back to Rochester, New York, and then out of the country to avoid being arrested.
|Racist sketch of Douglass in|
flight after news of the Harper's Ferry Raid
Frank Leslie's Illustrated News,
12 Nov. 1859
By not going to Virginia with Brown, Douglass had seemingly dodged a bullet, although he was still reduced to fear and flight. Two months after his hasty exit from Philadelphia, John Brown’s body left the city following along the same route. Departing from Philadelphia by ferry for Camden, New Jersey, the coffin was then placed on a steamship bound for New York. It was as if his dead friend had followed his trail. Indeed, judging from Frederick Douglass’ many retrospective speeches and written reflections about John Brown, the Old Man never stopped following him.*
Louis A. DeCaro Jr.
* This is an edited excerpt from my presentation at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, on December 2, 2009.--LD