Despite the extensive, protracted research that went into the production of my book, Freedom’s Dawn: The Last Days of John Brown in Virginia, an unknown vignette of the Old Man in jail has emerged that I never came upon before. I suspect the same will be said for other Brown scholars and researchers at present. What is most interesting about this account is how it reflects Brown’s humanity—particularly the struggle he surely felt as a prisoner in Virginia, being both the most notable antislavery figure in the nation and a Christian who felt a moral and spiritual obligation to respect his enemies, especially the slaveholding Christians whom he disdained.
A Man of Measured Words
To be sure, Brown’s visceral contempt for the self-assured, self-righteous evangelical slaveholders of the South made itself known, as did also his famous restraint and courtesy, the latter reflective of his strong Christian belief that even his enemies merited respect. To be sure, John Brown temperamentally was a man of few words, and this characteristic surely reinforced his profound religious avoidance of reckless, ungodly speech.
It was not simply that Brown would never use a four-letter word, a curse word, or a minced oath. Rather, he was intentionally measured and deliberately gracious in speaking to antagonists, even when he was cursed and verbally abused as he was, for instance, by J.E.B. Stuart after his defeat at Harper’s Ferry. To my knowledge, Brown always exercised a great deal of restraint at the most tense moments whether in personal argument or formal debate. He often employed a conciliatory tone in communicating with critics and opponents, and even at his sharpest, Brown never allowed his speech to degenerate into insult and vulgarity, believing as he did that he stood accountable to Christ for even his spoken words. However, I suspect it would have been easier for John Brown to confront a cursing Border Ruffian than a self-righteous proslavery preacher, and I’d suggest that this vignette bears this out precisely.
An 1860 Account
It is very likely that I am referring to this account for the first time since it was published in the fall of 1860, less than a year after the Harper’s Ferry raid and Brown’s execution. The vignette was included in an installment of series in The Spirit of Jefferson, one of a few small newspapers published in Jefferson County, where the Harper’s Ferry raid took place. Unfortunately, there seems to be no complete run of this paper from the fall of 1860, so only two installments of the series—entitled “The John Brown Conspiracy”—have survived. (Certainly, if the reader is aware of others, I would be most grateful to be informed.) The two installments that survive are numbers three and four (called "Chapters") in the series, published on September 15 and 22, respectively. The vignette of Brown in jail is found in number four and published under the subtitle, “A Recital by a Visitor to John Brown, in His Cell.”
The Editor and His Series
In the fall of 1860, the owner and editor of The Spirit of Jefferson was Benjamin F. Beall, a resident of Jefferson County. Beall appears in the Slave Schedule for Jefferson County as having held one 35-year-old woman as a slave in his home. Local historians may provide more information about Beall, although it appears that he was a sincere believer in the slaveholders’ brand of Christianity. That form of Christianity upheld a perverse kind of orthodoxy—the kind of orthodoxy that sustained a precise confessional integrity while maligning abolitionists and infidels for their impiety and heresy, while also daily exploiting the bodies of enslaved people in the name of Christian paternal responsibility.
The purpose of Editor Beall’s “John Brown Conspiracy” series apparently was to provide a political, social, and religious framework for local Virginians to understand the recent Harper’s Ferry raid. Since there is an incomplete run of the paper for 1860, it is unclear how many installments were included in the series. It appears that Chapter I and Chapter II are lost, as are the installments that followed Chapter IV.
In the third installment or Chapter III (Sept. 15), Beall’s words suggest that he was a proslavery unionist. He thus writes that both abolition and secession were born of “an infernal spirit.” As to the Harper’s Ferry raiders, fallen and fled, he makes a biblical allusion, noting that the Virginians had “put to flight the devil and all his imps.” Chapter III thus ends with an admonishment that readers should “learn patience from the old Commonwealth and heed the lesson, ‘Never Tire.’”
Prisoner Brown and His Pious Guest
In Chapter IV, Beall introduces the vignette of Brown, an account written by an unnamed writer --the writer claiming to have made a number of visits to the Charlestown jail at the end of November, only days before Brown was hanged. He also claims to have interviewed all of Brown’s men in captivity during his visits to the jailhouse.
While the writer does not identify himself, there is internal evidence that he was a local resident, a pious Christian, a slaveholder, and one acquainted with Governor Henry Wise. Indeed, it was Wise who had made an “eminent voucher” of Brown’s character to him. In other words, Wise was impressed with his prisoner and recommended that the writer visit him in jail. He adds also that he was introduced to Brown by another “gentleman of distinction,” whom he does not identify, but describes as having been “at least the equal” of Governor Wise “by position and character.” An educated guess is that this was Andrew Hunter, who had successfully prosecuted John Brown’s trial, and who continued to have communication with the abolitionist until his execution.
The Reverend, Perhaps
One of the frequent themes of Brown’s last days in jail was that he was sought out by clergymen, almost all of them proslavery ministers who hoped to win his penitence. These proslavery clergymen found no such success, and at least one was shown to the door by the Old Man, whose patience had worn thin. On principle alone, of course, Brown would grant no such satisfaction to the slaveholding clergy, whom he considered the greatest hypocrites. It is this kind of contempt that is revealed in this vignette; for this reason my sense is that he was a clergyman who had flattered himself with the idea that he might win Brown’s friendship and penitence to the satisfaction of the Christian South.
The writer thus came with two gifts in his initial meeting with Brown, a bouquet of freshly picked garden flowers, and a “neat little book” entitled, The Two Prisoners. As he described it, the book was a religious devotional based upon the biblical episode of the incarceration of Saints Paul and Silas in the Philippian jail. Thus far, I have failed to find The Two Prisoners online, but it may be that it actually was a published sermon, which was a common practice in the 19th century. As to the flowers, the writer says that a “label” was included with a verse of poetry. Imagine Brown reading them:
Bring flowers to the captive’s lonely cell,
They have tales of the joyous woods to tell;
Of the free blue streams and the glowing sky,
And the bright world shut from his languid eye.
Although it is impossible to determine the identity of the writer, my best guess is that he was the Reverend Jacob H. Waugh, the local pastor of the Methodist Episcopal Church in Charlestown. Waugh is one of the local clergy mentioned in newspaper reports for his visits to Brown and his men in jail at Charlestown (I refer the reader to Freedom's Dawn).
A Prompt Protest
According to the writer’s account, he thus made every effort to approach John Brown in a warm, conciliatory manner by giving him the book and the flowers. However, while he hoped to finesse his way into Brown’s good graces, he made quite a different impact by making an inscription in the book that clearly offended the old man. When Brown man examined the text, he found that his visitor had thus inscribed it, “From a servant of Christ, even a slaveholder.” In response, as the writer recalled,
[Brown] responded with the utmost courtesy—but promptly protested, in a firm yet polite manner, against the profession claimed in the title I had prefixed to my signature—declaring that he could not hold communion with any one, as a Christian, who apologized, in any way, for the institution of domestic slavery.
Of course, this is classic John Brown, who similarly wrote while in jail: “These ministers who profess to be Christian, and hold slaves or advocate slavery, I cannot abide them. My knees will not bend in prayer with them while their hands are stained with the blood of souls.”1 When he wrote these words, undoubtedly he was thinking of men like this visitor, whether or not it was the Reverend Waugh.
Incidentally, another reason that Waugh might fit the profile of the writer is that he was a slaveholder, and kept a sixty-four-year-old female and a fourteen-year-old female enslaved in his home.2 The writer’s response to Brown may also indicate that he was a pastor, since he seemed quite specific about asking of the abolitionist if he was a church communicant. When Brown answered in the affirmative, he then asked Brown to which denomination he was affiliated. The answer, as recorded, is true enough—Brown saying that he was affiliated with the Congregational church, and that his last membership was in Summit County (most likely the First Congregational Church of Richfield, Ohio, which he joined in 1842).3
A Rejoinder, Then an Apology
The author of the vignette writes that on another occasion when he visited Brown, he had given him some kind of “tract,” which most likely was another religious booklet. When he returned for yet another visit, Brown “jumped from his couch” and rushed across the room to a shelf, and picked up the same tract and handed it back to him. As he did so, Brown told him that he had “made some marks on it, for his eye.” When his guest turned to the opening blank page, he found that Brown had scrawled on it, “To the slaveholding [name of the writer]—man, woman, and baby thief!”
Surprised by Brown’s polemical response, his pious visitor reproached him: “Captain Brown, you profess to be guided by the same Spirit that inspired the Apostles. One of those Apostles wrote, for you and for me, these words: ‘Be courteous.’ Now, sir, appealing to the same Spirit, I ask you, is this courteous?” Although one may believe that Brown was completely correct in his polemical inscription, the old man reacted immediately by acknowledging his fault, “stating that he had forgotten that those words were in the Testament, and that his was not courteous language.”
The writer says during another visit he dared, “with all delicacy,” to tell Brown that he thought him “not in his right mind.” The basis of his presumption was that Brown had used a pseudonym (Isaac Smith) when preparing for his invasion in the summer of 1859. “How could you change the name of John Brown, as given you in baptism. . . deceiving multitudes for many months under a false name?” According to the writer, Brown responded to this charge with meekness, even sorrow. The old man explained that actually he had found “great difficulty in changing his name—that he hesitated about it for two weeks; and added, that perhaps that was the cause of his scheme’s failing.”
Audacity and Meekness
There is no reason to doubt the basic truthfulness of this vignette, and despite its peculiarity, it seems to ring true. John Brown was fearless, brave, and often time resolute and determined to follow out his own plans, even if it meant hurting others’ feelings. As one of his siblings described him in younger days, he could be quite “imperious.”
On the other hand, the John Brown that often is forgotten is the man who displayed a kind of overly sensitive (if not worrisome) piety. As a parent, he was capable of hard discipline and yet also a self-sacrificing, motherly compassion and care that his sons and daughters always remembered. As a neighbor, he could be stringent about the observation of the law, and could go out of his way to enforce it; but then he would go doubly out of his way to bring consolation, help, and kindness to the same neighbor who had suffered penalty because of his stringent manner.
Even as a militant and a soldier, Brown could both lay down steel and show extravagant mercy, bravely battling his enemies and bringing kind succor to his prisoners. It is probably the case that his debacle at Harper’s Ferry was largely due to this characteristic--resulting in hesitance in pushing the dagger of his plan to the hilt, and instead becoming enthralled and distracted by the tears and apprehensions of his slaveholding captives.
Brown was no mystic, but it is understandable that he would ponder over his failure at Harper’s Ferry with respect to the divine purpose, notwithstanding that the mainstay of his regret was his own tactical failure. He said as much more than once while in the Charlestown jail, that he was defeated by not staying to his own plan. Yet despite the practicality of this perspective, John Brown saw the sovereign hand of God in his defeat. “[E]ven all the follies that led to this disaster,” he told Thomas Russell in a jail interview, “were decreed to happen ages before the world was made.”4 Still, a consistent Calvinist never discounts human responsibility while also uplifting divine sovereignty, and so Brown was left to reflect upon his own responsibility. Was it to be found in the disingenuousness of a pseudonym?
I have nowhere seen the slightest suggestion that Brown considered his use of a “nom de guerre” in Virginia or elsewhere as a sin, let alone as an offense that might prompt the Almighty’s chastisement. Indeed, I’ve never considered it an ethical problem myself, although many years ago the late, beloved Marjory Blubaugh of the Kittochinny Historical Society shared her disdain of Brown’s ploy in correspondence with me. However, as this peculiar account suggests, it could be that Brown did after all have some reservations about using a false name while preparing for the raid. Nor do I think the writer had any reason to fabricate this episode; rather, I tend to think that the visitor’s criticism may have found a tender mark in Brown’s vulnerable conscience, even as he faced imminent death.
Finally, we should not think that Brown took his failure at Harper’s Ferry lightly, particularly since it resulted in the deaths of his sons and his men, just as it also derailed his entire plan for a mountain-based campaign in the South. It is my hope that before he died, John Brown had dismissed the scruples of his slaveholding visitor, who was acting the role of the proverbial Pharisee, finding fault with the speck in John Brown's eye while overlooking the beam in his own. Certainly, whatever issues troubled his mind and soul, I am sure that Brown made peace with his God and Savior well before the hour of the noose. Like any Christian martyr worth his salt, John Brown's legacy is not premised on his perfection, but upon his witness.--LD
1 John Brown to Rev. James W. McFarland, Nov. 23, 1859, in New York Tribune, Dec. 21, 1859, p. 7.
2 According the Slave Schedule of 1860 for Jefferson County, Virginia.
3 According to the research of the Rev. Clarence S. Gee.
4 See “Interviews with Old Brown; A Visit to Charlestown,” New York Times, Nov. 7, 1859, 4.