It is a matter of discussion among historians that not everything that has happened in the past is worthy of being considered “historical.” That Alexander the Great may have spilled his wine on a given day is not itself a point of real historical value, unless by spilling wine, for instance, he ruined a valuable map, the lack thereof afterward having impacted his military success in a given campaign. Not all that is past is history in this sense. However, the seeming insignificant details of a life remain a point of interest for the biographer, who is always somewhat other than a historian notwithstanding s/he is nothing other than a historian.
First, those insignificant details may reveal aspects of the subject of interest, aspects that otherwise are valuable in reflecting the subject in more weighty contexts, historically speaking. Second, the details simply speak to that palate of colors, shapes, and textures that make biography one of the more appetizing aspects of “history.” After all, steak on a plate may be the meal, but who would not prefer steak on a plate garnished with small, tasty additions?
A Letter of No Great Value
Such is the case with a letter from John Brown, written 169 years ago this month, and sent to an inn keeper in eastern Pennsylvania. This letter that has nothing to do with the abolitionist’s historic antebellum role, nor even of the less interesting aspects of his career as a wool merchant in the mid-19th century. The letter, written on January 25, 1849, is charged with frustration and a desire for justice, yet has only to do with the most mundane of matters—sleeping in at a 19th century version of a motel because the manager failed to give him a wake-up call.
|Owen Brown, who died|
Nevertheless, the letter is interesting because it provides insight into the unscrupulous manner in which John Brown pursued justice as he perceived it, regardless of the matter—and how, for John Brown, justice-delayed was not only justice-denied, but a thorn in his flesh that sooner or later demanded action. Yes, slavery was the supreme thorn in the flesh of John Brown’s moral and spiritual being; in a lesser sense, so was the exploitation of wool growers by wealthy manufacturers in the 1840s, or the abuse of humble settlers by elites and bureaucrats in the 1820s. But there were other thorns in his life, miscellaneous episodes of disadvantage and disgust, just as there are in our lives—from that unfairly given parking ticket, the overcharged bill at dinner, or the failure “to get what I paid for.”
The Letter as Document
Interestingly, the only reason this letter has survived is that it was sent by Brown as a business letter, although it most certainly was a personal complaint. At the time, he was in partnership with the wealthy Ohio tycoon, Simon Perkins Jr., and was operating a wool commission house in Springfield, Massachusetts. However, neither the original letter nor a response from the addressee have survived for history. We know about this letter only because a handwritten copy of it exists in the letter book of the firm of Perkins & Brown, now held in the Boyd B. Stutler Collection in West Virginia. The handwritten copy exists in Brown’s own hand.1
To no surprise, the late Boyd Stutler was the only one who knew about this letter, and likewise it was of no apparent interest to anyone else, other than perhaps his friend and correspondent, the Reverend Clarence Gee. In 1954, Stutler wrote a two-part article about this minor incident for a newspaper published in the town where Brown had overslept, Bedford, Pennsylvania.2 In contextualizing the story behind the letter, Stutler sought to find greater significance in the episode by observing that John Brown subsequently made stops in Bedford while preparing for the Harper’s Ferry raid in the following decade. This made interesting reading for the Bedford Gazette in 1954, but has hardly been a point of interest since that time.
|Bedford, Pa., in the 1840s|
In September 1848, John Brown and his father Owen, aged seventy-eight, were traveling together from the east to Ohio, probably after the elder had visited his son and family in the town of Springfield, Massachusetts. The two had likely traveled by train from Springfield down to New York City, and then purchased tickets for a long ride, first from New York to Philadelphia by train, and then by stage coach from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh. From there, they could pass up through the rest of western Pennsylvania and reach home in Ohio’s Western Reserve in the northeastern section of the state.
The trip westward from Philadelphia by stage continued into the evening, so Brown purchased tickets that allowed for a layover in the town of Bedford, Pennsylvania, about two hundred miles west of Philadelphia. In the 1848, Bedford was a small but active town (based on an 1850 description3) with a sheriff, inns, school teachers, doctors, a printer, and two clergymen. There were about one hundred and forty seated lots, and a few hundred taxable inhabitants including over sixty free black residents.
Upon arrival in Bedford, the Browns found their way to an inn owned by John [Johan?] Ottinger, who is listed in the same 1850 record as a “gentleman,” which seems to mean he was a property owner in town. Given the hour and his father’s weariness, Brown obtained a room from Ottinger, apparently on the basis that he also “personally” agreed to awaken them in the night so they could board the first stage to Pittsburgh, which was scheduled to arrive in Bedford before daylight.
Unfortunately, the travelers were left to their slumbers while two stage coaches passed in the night. Although he did not awaken in time, John Brown was an early riser and awoke before Ottinger. By the time the proprietor was up and about, Brown had already spoken to his night staff, who had informed him that they knew nothing of Ottinger’s promise to awaken them. Much to his disgust, Brown also learned of the two stage coaches that had passed through town, and that there was sufficient seating had they boarded. For Brown, this offense was compounded when Ottinger—perhaps out of embarrassment—tried to cover his failure with a lie, telling Brown that he had let them sleep through because the night coaches were full. But Brown had already had already conducted his own inquiry and more than suspected that Ottinger was lying to him.
Obviously, Brown must have been quite outraged, but his immediate concern was to escort his father back to Ohio and attend to pressing business matters. Now, he could not leave Bedford for another day, and to make matters worse, he had to choose between an uncertain place on the next west-bound stage coach, or pay for a different conveyance. Brown apparently chose the latter, which carried him and his father along some route through the town of New Cumberland4 toward their destination. These unforeseen expenses cost Brown an additional $20, which really became a festering issue over the next several months. While $20 might not seem like a reason to get steamed, one may think differently when considering the value of this amount with an inflation calculator. According to one online inflation calculator that allowed me to compare the U.S. dollar in 1848 with the same in 2018, it seems these additional costs amounted to around $600 for Brown. No wonder he was still brooding over it in the new year of 1849!
It is interesting that Brown did not write this letter until four months after the incident—as he put it in the letter, “the thing” had “lain up to this time.” Why Brown waited so long to contact Ottinger is not known, nor does the letter suggest previous efforts were made to reach the inn keeper with his complaint. Perhaps Brown had told Ottinger at the time that he expected some form of remuneration, and waited to hear from him in vain. Or it may be that Brown initially decided to let it go, but it had increasingly bothered him until he could not remain silent any longer. I suspect there is some unrecorded back story that we will never know, and admittedly we do not have Ottinger’s side of the episode either. But given that Brown was typically honest to a fault in matters of money and business, I am inclined to believe his account.
A Little Intimidation?
Whatever the case, the other interesting aspect of this episode is that Brown addressed Ottinger with a letter from the firm, not personally from himself. Writing on behalf of the firm in regard to Brown, he signed the letter as “Perkins & Brown,” and sent it to Ottinger through some of his clients named Patterson and Ewing, who happened to live in the offender’s vicinity. In the body of the letter, Brown refers to himself in the third person, as “John Brown of this firm,” and otherwise uses terms like “this firm” and “us.” Since we have only his handwritten copy in the firm’s letter book, we have no idea if he also wrote the actual letter with his own hand, or if he had an employee do so. Regardless, the letter sent to Ottinger was as corporate as it was intentional.
The reason for this method is obvious enough: John Brown hoped that Ottinger would be more likely to refund his money if intimidated by a firm rather than challenged by an individual. “Now sir,” Brown wrote in the name of Perkins & Brown, “it happens that this firm is extensively known in P[ennsylvania] & in other States [and] unless you immediately refund to us the Twenty Dollars you may expect such measures will be taken with you, & such exposure made of your character as will possibly give you a little trouble” [my emphasis].
It appears that we will never know the outcome of the Brown-Ottinger episode. We have neither Brown’s original letter nor any reply from Ottinger as far as the documents are concerned. Furthermore, the episode seems not to have been discussed or recalled by any of his family members, probably because they were not involved, or because there proved no memorable outcome. As noted, we have only Brown’s side of the story, so we can only reconstruct Ottinger’s side based on what Brown said—that he probably forgot and then tried to cover over his error by misrepresentation. However, in the “moral vineyard,” as Stutler liked to say, it does appear Ottinger’s row was shorter than Brown’s, and this may be why there is no known response from the offender.
There is a parallel in this regard, with another “threatening” letter that Brown wrote to a dishonest neighbor in 1841, and for which there is no surviving response. At that time, Brown was up to his eyes in money troubles and wrote an outraged letter to Amos Chamberlain, whom we remember only because the abolitionist’s letter somehow survived. In simple terms, Brown was holding the deed of a farm and wanted to protect it from being seized in court by a man whom he deemed wicked and unprincipled in his lawsuit. When Brown emerged from that legal battle, he wanted the property returned by Chamberlain in order to satisfy other debts and creditors breathing down his neck. He was shocked, however, when he realized that Chamberlain had decided to keep the property for himself—something that Brown felt was an infuriating betrayal. Like the letter to Ottinger, it took months before Brown chose to write to Chamberlain, months after the incident. In writing to Chamberlain, Brown crafted a four-page letter, comprised partially of appeals to friendship and partially of threats of legal “war,” along with references involving the judgments of their mutual neighbors.5 In the end, it does not appear that Chamberlain ever responded to Brown, although his children spoke harshly of Brown in later years. At least from Brown’s side of these stories, both men had taken advantage of him by breaking trust, albeit not the law. In both cases, neither is there any reason to think that Brown’s demand for justice was ever satisfied, or even answered for that matter.
A Small Window
Like the Chamberlain letter of 1841, the letter to Ottinger in 1849 provides a small window into Brown’s life, one with a view that fully complements what we know of the man from other narrative details. The first is that whether in regard to matters of business and industry or human rights, Brown was heavy-handed in his quest for justice. Generally speaking, John Brown neither cheated nor lied, nor did he have moral patience with men who did.
Second, he could be longsuffering, or at least he could be overly ponderous and reflective to a fault in dealing with opponents. In this case, as in the 1841 incident with Amos Chamberlain, Brown waited months to address the issue on “final” terms. Although it would seem that he lost in both cases, he did not do so without a fight. As Stutler concluded of the incident, “it is highly probable that” John Brown “got only the satisfaction of letting off steam,” although he may have “caused the landlord some uneasiness” at best.6
Finally, Brown believed in the power—both morally and legally—of the written word. In his youth and business years, he naturally engaged in the practice of writing contracts, certificates, and other documents. As his antislavery views evolved from passive to militant abolition, he documented covenants, declarations, constitutions and organizational documents, always invoking a moral foundation. Even at Harper’s Ferry, witnesses attested that he endeavored to secure agreement and signatures with slaveholders as part of his efforts to exchange prisoners for enslaved people—a fixation that may in part have cost him his tactical advantage and led to his defeat and demise.
John Brown believed that words were the first recourse in battling injustice. He was never a writer, properly speaking, nor did he leave a legacy of literary political discourse. Yet even the most mundane record of his life reveals his belief in the power of words in the pursuit of truth and equity.
1 See Perkins & Brown to J. Ottinger, Jan. 25, 1849, MS03-0152, in Boyd B. Stutler John Brown Collection, West Virginia State Archives.
2 See Boyd B. Stutler. “Old John Brown,” The Bedford [Pa.] Gazette, September 13 & 17, 1954.
3 Excerpt from Ch. XXIV, “Borough of Bedford,” in History off Bedford, Somerset And Fulton Counties, Pennsylvania (Chicago: Waterman, Watkins & Co., 1884).
4 Brown wrote “Cumberland,” but I assume he was referring to the town of New Cumberland, which was settled in the early 1830s. If any Pennsylvania reader happens to know more details about this point, I’d be pleased to hear from you.
5 Stutler, “Old Brown.”
6 Brown’s letter to Amos Chamberlain is found in the John Brown – Oswald Garrison Villard Papers, Columbia University, Rare Book and Manuscript Collection, New York, N.Y.