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"The world needed John Brown and John Brown came, and time will do him justice." Frederick Douglass (1886)

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Thursday, June 17, 2021

The John Brown Portrait by Selden Woodman


The Woodman Portrait
Sometime in early 1858, probably the week of February 28, John Brown was in New York City amidst a busy schedule of meetings, but took time to visit the Great Hall of the Cooper Union, which had opened a year in advance of the completion of this famous Manhattan structure (now the home of the Cooper Union Institute, near Astor Place in Greenwich Village's east side). Perhaps Brown was in attendance to hear an abolitionist or women's suffrage presentation. Regardless, his visit to the famous site would have been lost to history were it not for Selden J. Woodman, an artist who, as a young man, met Brown and enjoyed a "very animated conversation in the hallway" of the Cooper Union.

In the early 1880s, Woodman met A. G. Hawes, formerly a Kansas associate of Brown, who complained that none of the portraits he had seen were pleasing to his memory of the abolitionist. Afterward, Woodman stopped at the Kansas State Historical Society (KSHS), in Topeka, and examined a number of images of Brown in that collection, none of which impressed him until his eyes fell upon "an old photograph." This image had been sent to the KSHS from Boston. 

Winnie Tintype 
Kansas State Historical Society


According to Francis Adams, then Secretary of the KSHS, the image had been sent along with a collection of materials compiled by Thomas H. Webb of Boston, formerly Secretary of the Kansas Emigrant Aid Company. Woodman later recalled that it was this image, along with his own memory of Brown from 1858 from which he made his portrait. According to John Brown documentary expert Jean Libby, the KSHS image from which Woodman worked is a "copy tintype" (attributed to Winnie of Topeka, Kansas)--one of three images that Brown had made while in Boston in January 1857. Based on Libby's essential work on the John Brown images, we know that Brown's associate James Redpath remembered these images being made, and that Brown had given one of them to Webb in Boston. Libby finds that all three images are attributed to Hawes (or John A. Whipple) in that city. 

The Cole Engraving of
Woodman's Portrait
When Woodman's illustration appeared on the cover of The Century Magazine in July 1883, it was highly regarded—including by Brown's widow, Mary, who saw it in Kansas and afterward wrote that "the more I see it, the more I like it."  In more recent years, however, Alice Keesey Mecoy, a direct descendant of John Brown (through Anne Brown Adams), made an investigation, noting that what The Century Magazine actually featured was an engraving by Timothy Cole, a notable woodcut engraver at the time. As Alice has observed, we have mistakenly attributed the Century image of Brown to Woodman, but should distinguish the engraving in Century from the original portrait done by Woodman based on the tintype in KSHS.  You may read Alice's extensive article about her analysis and conclusions on her blog, John Brown Kin.  See "A Mystery About an Engraving of John Brown," Sept. 17, 2017.  








Saturday, March 27, 2021

Responding to a "1619" critic who says, "Don't create resentment"

A letter to the editor appeared yesterday in the Quad City Times, published in Davenport, Iowa, under the title, "Don't create resentment."  It reveals the thinking of a conservative who considers truth-telling about racial injustice in US history as being unnecessarily divisive and "creating resentment."  In particular, the writer is critical of the controversial New York Times "1619 Project."  I am quite aware that the 1619 Project has faced some legitimate historical criticism, and that while many of these criticisms have been answered, there remains disagreement among historians, some of the harshest criticism coming -- to no surprise -- from some historians who represent the "top-down" reading of US history, including the Lincoln priesthood.

As Leslie Harris of Northwestern University has written in Politico (6 Mar. 20), the best-known of the scholarly critics of the 1619 Project actually "built their careers on an older style of American history—one that largely ignored the new currents that had begun to bubble up among their contemporaries."  Harris acknowledges that one of the central claims of the Project is questionable--that the American Revolution was driven by proslavery interest.  However, Harris is concerned that in challenging the errors of the 1619 Project, a flawed perspective will find opportunity to persist among historians "that consistently ignores and distorts the role of African Americans and race in our history." In other words, the fault-finding critics are still invested in presenting "white people as all powerful and solely in possession to the keys of equality, freedom and democracy."  At least, "the corrective history" of the Project may be imperfect, Harris concludes, but it is moving in the right direction--a direction that its dignified opponents refuse to take.

As a John Brown biographer, I cannot help but sympathize with the 1619 Project, even though it is apparently flawed in some of its notable claims.  Like Harris, I have no problem scoring the journalists of the Project for their errors.  As historians, we need criticism and critical evaluation if we are indeed interested in truth-telling about history.  However, I have seen how some of these same critics of the 1619 Project have misrepresented and maligned John Brown, revealing to me that even dignified Princeton historians can be grossly incorrect, and even use their "gatekeeper" status in order to embed bias and error in the historical record. 

Worse, hostility toward the 1619 Project has become associated with the right-wing and reactionary MAGA mentality toward "American history." It is bad enough that critics in the academy cannot separate the wheat from the chaff when it comes to the Project, but as objections trickle down to the larger population, it further depreciates the important direction that the 1619 Project has taken in order to reinforce simplistic, rightwing notions of history that exist in the public, such as the following letter to the Quad City editor charging that the 1619 Project creates "resentment."

I am writing to voice concerns about treating the 1619 Project as "history." It is based on the premise that American prosperity was built on the back of slavery. The historical record states differently.

Early in the formation of the United States, slavery was rejected by the northern states. For decades, Congress tried to maintain a delicate balance between free and slave states. The balance was so tight that a free state could not come into the union without a slave state. This is evidenced by the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and the Kansas-Nebraska Act. The Mason-Dixon line divided these two ideologies. Bloody Kansas and John Brown’s attack on Harpers Ferry unraveled the political balancing act.

What has this to do with the 1619 Project? By the start of the American Civil War the free North held overwhelming advantages in population, industrial capacity and railroads. Investment and immigration favored the North because there opportunity was to be found. The North used these advantages to march into the South and crush the Confederacy. With this advantage the North invaded the South with an edge in warships, cannon, logistics, troops, and the ability to move them. Had slavery been the foundation of American prosperity, these conditions would have been reversed.

We can enhance the history of Americans of color without fabrication. There are great heroes from before the Revolution to our astronaut corps today. Let’s add examples that we should all look up to rather than creating resentment and division.

The author of this letter probably thinks he is saying something of a corrective nature, but unfortunately he is reflecting how resistance to the 1619 Project is more than just a matter of historical criticism, but rather is reactionary and determined to sustain a view of US history that does not offend his sensibilities.  This is what he means by saying, "don't create resentment."  This is very typical of rightwing and conservative complaints, which accuse anyone who is critical of the political and social status quo as being divisive or as creating resentment.  It does not seem to occur to such people that for many years, the narrative of history that they embraced has created a great deal of resentment for people of color and for any people wishing to tell the truth about the racist priorities of the US in historical terms.

The writer's objection to the idea that the US was built upon slavery is an incredible denial.  It is a matter of great historical consideration, for instance, that the US in the antebellum era was built upon the backs of slaves.  As Eugene Dattel writes in Cotton and Race in the Making of America, cotton--picked by enslaved Africans from 1803 until the end of slavery, "stimulated economic growth more decisively than any other single industry or crop." Even setting aside the fact that the cheap, oppressed labor of black people after Reconstruction further enriched the US, the point is that cotton was the foundation of the industrial revolution.  In other words, contrary to the letter writer, "American prosperity" was indeed built "on the back of slavery." The centrality of slavery in the building of the US is not a point missed by the 1619 Project, but it is a point that will not be widely appreciated if its opponents are given the final word.

The letter-writer goes on, in retrospective Pollyanna, appreciating "the delicate balance" that existed between free and slave states, and then blames John Brown for "unraveling" the "political balancing act." This is a revealing statement.  The writer seems to credit the compromise that prevailed in this nation, which kept four millions of Africans enslaved, as "delicate balance."  Conversely, the writer is resentful of Old John Brown, for allegedly destroying that "delicate balance." The question is, what kind of mind would have such a retrospective view of the US, to speak of the hellish compromise of the antebellum era in such precious terms?

The letter-writer clearly is dealing in a kind of self-serving naivete, writing about the contrasting economies of the North and South as if they were competing--the strong industrial North versus the inferior slave-based South.  But this is simply not true.  The truth is far more complicated and unpleasant because while the North was based on industrial growth, that growth was premised on cotton and other "slave crops."  Northern factories produced cotton goods and northern banks and insurance companies grew prosperous on slaveholder wealth.  The wealthy sons of the South came North for education and specialized training. In the antebellum era, the North had deep connections to the South, and when John Brown did strike, it was the business community and their workers who protested most loudly against him because they understood what this letter-writer does not.  They understood that the economic condition of the North was bound to the operations of the South.  Indeed, this was one of the features of northern conservatism before the Civil War.

The letter-writer reflects an insular mentality, one that prefers to believe that US history is about "delicate balances" and "great heroes."  To suggest anything else is to--as he concludes--"create resentment and division."  But the division has been there all along--the division between white supremacy and its victims; the division between "top down" readings of US history and grassroots narratives that reveal a nation steeped in racism and injustice; the division between privileged white people and those who see this nation's history as anything but exceptional and "great."

John Brown Today, "Letters and Friends" Feature: John Brown to Mary Brown, Jan. 30, 1858


In "John Brown Today" (Season 2, Episode 6),  I speak with Dr. Margaret Washington of Cornell University, my first guest for the new segment, "Letters and Friends."  Here is a complete transcription of the letter we are discussing.

-------

John Brown, Rochester, N.Y., to Mary Brown, North Elba, N.Y., 01-30-58
Transcribed by Louis A. DeCaro, Jr.

Rochester N Y, 30,th Jany, 1858, My Dear Wife & Children every one

I am (praised be God) once more in [New] York State. Whether I shall be permitted to visit you or not this Winter or Spring I cannot now say; but it is some relief of mind to feel that I am again so near you Possibly; if I cannot go to see you; that I may be able to devise some way for some one, or more of you to meet meet me some -where. The anxiety I feel to see my Wife; & children once more; I (^ am) unable to describe. I want exceedingly to see my big Baby; & “Mums Baby”: & to see how that little company of Sheep look about this time. The cries of my poor sorrow stricken despairing children whoose [sic] “tears on their cheeks” are ever in my Eye; & whose sighs are ever in my Ears, may (^ however) prevent my enjoying the happiness I so much desire But courage Courage Courage the great work of my life * (: the unseen Hand that “girded me; & who has indeed holden my right hand; (^ may hold it still) though I have not known Him”; at all as I ought;) *I may yet see (^ it) accomplished; (God helping;) & be permitted to return, & rest; (^ at) Evening.” O my Daughter Ruth could any plan be devised whereby you could let Henry go “to School” (as you expressed it in your letter to him while in Kansas;) I would rather now have him “for another term”; than to have a Hundred average sc(^h)ollars [sic]. I have a particular (^ & very important; (but not dangerous( place for him to fill; in the “school”; & I know of no man living; so well adapted to fill it. I am quite confident some way can be devised; so that you; & your children could be with him; & be quite happy even; & safe but “God forbid” me to flatter you into trouble. I did not do it before.

[page 2]
My dear child could you face such music: if on a full explanation Henry could be satisfyed [sic] that his family might be safe? I would make a similar enquiry of (^ my) own dear Wife; but I have kept her tumbling “here & there”; over a stormy & tempestus [sic] sea for so many years that I cannot ask her such a question. The natural ingenuity of Salmon: in connection with some experience he, & Oliver have both had; would point him out as the next best man I could now select; but I (^ am) dumb in his case; as also in the case of Watson, & all my other sons. Jason[’]s qualifications are some of them like Henry[’]s also.  I want to hear from you all if possible before I leave this neighborhood. Do not noise it about; that I am in these parts; & direct to N Hawkins; Care of Fredk Douglas Esqr Rochester NY. I want to hear how you all are supplied with Winter clothing, Boots, &c. God bless you all
Your Affectionate Husband & Father 

[postscript in the hand of Frederick Douglass:] My dear Friends:

Your brave husband and father is now my guest-and has been since Thursday of this week. Gladly indeed we hailed him, and joyfully we entertain him. It does not seem safe-or desirable for him to come to you just now-though he could most gladly do so. I shall retain him here as long as he desires to remain and would be glad for yo you to meet him here.

[vertically along left fold]
I remember with pleasure the pleasant moments spent under your roof-and take know no small satisfaction
in the thought of your Friendship

[vertically along right fold]
I shall be truly glad to see either of you or both of you at my house-at any time during Capt Brown’s stay-
Fred. Douglass-


Tuesday, February 02, 2021

The Biter is Bitten: A Ross Snaps Back

Well folks, the biter is bitten.  I've been told off, exposed, and rebuked from an angry Canadian named Don Ross in response to my feature on Dr. Alexander Milton Ross (Jan. 12), "Catch Him if You Can: The True Story of John Brown's Fraudulent 'Friend.'"   I appear to have done it this time, and it looks I've offended a descendant.

Today I found this message in my blog mail, and rather than simply publish it under the aforementioned article, I post it here for your reading interest:

This attack on Dr. Alexander Milton Ross is scurrilous and unwarranted from an American pseudo-theologian, who really knows very little about the biography of AM ROSS, Dresden, Uncle Tom, Buxton or any other parts of Black History in Ontario.
Well, it is more than evident that Mr. Don Ross is angry at me for making what he calls a "scurrilous and unwarranted" "attack" upon the late A.M. Ross (AMR), whom I describe as a faker and fraud, at least in regard to his claim of being a friend and associate of John Brown. I said nothing about AMR's actual antislavery role in Canada, his professional attainments, or his life in Canada.  

Certainly, I would like to apologize to Don Ross for offending his family, as it appears he is a descendant of AMR.  It really was not my intention to offend the living in criticizing the dead, and insofar as I have created offense, I do regret it as human feelings go. I once offended the descendant of a miscreant Southern murderer, but I cannot say that I had any sense of regret in interrogating the record of her murderous forebear.  But I do not see AMR as an enemy of Brown's legacy and so I do not see him as an enemy.  Still, insofar as John Brown is concerned, he was a fake and a liar, and I was not the first one to make this claim.

Don Ross responds vindictively with an ad hominem, calling me an "American pseudo-theologian."   I forgive him this bite.  Actually, I am a theologically trained historian and religious educator with two real earned masters degrees in theology and history, and a real earned Ph.D, but nowhere do I claim to be a professional theologian.  As to Don Ross's second charge, that I know "very little" about the biography of AMR and any other aspect of black history in Ontario, it's probably fair to say that I know enough as has been of interest to me thus far, although there's always more to learn.

Finally, Don Ross, if you're going to lambast me, you must also lambast the late great Boyd B. Stutler, whose expertise on the John Brown theme, including his correspondence with Canadian historians in the mid-20th century, drew this conclusion about AMR long before I was born.  As I shared, I found while doing my own subsequent research on the Ross-Brown correspondence that Stutler was correct in calling AMR a liar and a fake. If I thought otherwise were possible, I would have written that too.  

Of course, I would be happy to rescind my publication on Ross if you can prove me and Stutler wrong.  Unlike AMR, I really do prefer the truth to deception and error.  If you have historical evidence that proves both Stutler and me as being incorrect in our readings of the evidence concerning AMR and John Brown, then please do let me know and I will publish it with an apology besides.  

Don Ross, I hope you will accept that I have no intention of wounding your feelings or family pride. But neither am I willing to alter my understanding of history because it is offensive to you or anyone else.  My writing was neither an "attack" nor was it "unwarranted."  It was perfectly warranted by the burden of historical research and the quest to understand the past, particularly as it relates to my study of John Brown.

I turn the other cheek here, Don Ross, but I wonder if you have any substantial evidence beyond insult and accusation.  Otherwise, my response, borrowed from John Brown in Virginia, is simply this: you have your opinion of me, and I have my opinion of you.  

Let's leave it at that.--LD


Friday, January 22, 2021

John Brown's Bankruptcy Bookshelf

     As a biographer of John Brown, I have found that often the portrayal of his business life by writers  is simplistic, and over the years likewise it has been used to set him up as a kind of ne’er-do-well whose entry into antislavery zealotry was something of an attempt to redeem himself from a failed life. Even one of Brown’s better biographers in the twentieth century, Stephen Oates, tended toward caricature when he wrote: “He was lonely and restless, and when he left the agency in the evening, after a maddening day with his disorderly accounts, he changed roles from a much-maligned businessman to a lone crusading abolitionist.”1  Perhaps the worst example of this is found in the writing of the late Chester G. Hearn, whose treatment of Brown is malign, and fraught with the author’s malicious liberties and misinterpretations that regretfully approximate the work of a scoundrel. In the introduction of his anti-Brown screed, Hearn thus writes: “As Brown grew older, he became acutely aware of his failures, and thrusting them aside, he became a sleuth in search of his own destiny. He followed many trades without ever achieving a permanent measure of self-satisfaction or success.”2  This poisonous nonsense not only flattens the history of John Brown’s business life, but also suggests that the basis of his antislavery zeal was some sort of private quest to find redemption from what otherwise was a life of failure.  

Biographically speaking, ad hominem slurs and dramatic sensationalism aside, Brown did not have an easy time of it in the late 1830s and well into the first half of the following decade. However, he did recover and even enjoyed a measure of success and notoriety as a specialist in fine sheep and wool—frankly something that none of Brown’s biographers have adequately focused on, probably because most biographers are too much in a hurry to get to “Bleeding Kansas” than to spend time looking at businessman Brown’s story in context. Be that as it may, it remains true that this period of business failure was the nadir of his first fifty years, and so a sketch of this chapter of his life should be better understood.

Like many others in the western states in the mid-1830s, John Brown could not have apprehended the downturn that was about to overtake him.  In simple terms, what brought him down was a boom in land speculation, a reliance on credit, and a lack of financial backups, from business insurance to the limited liability corporation, instruments that are part of the modern businessman’s tool chest.  Brown had none of these and he was out of his element, since his professional specializations were in livestock and farming. In fairness to him, however, it was not sheer ambition that caused him to abandon his primary expertise as much as it was desperation.

Brown had returned from Pennsylvania to his native northeastern Ohio in 1836 on the basis of an offer made to him by the wealthy Zenas Kent, a prominent figure in Franklin Mills (present day Kent, Ohio). Kent knew of Brown’s solid reputation and solicited him to become a business partner in his proposed tannery operation.  Given the exciting canal developments in Ohio at the time, Brown quite reasonably saw greater chances for success back in his home state.  However the partnership was rescinded  before it had even begun, when Kent decided to rent out the facility to his own son instead.3     

As a family man finding himself suddenly without work, Brown threw himself eagerly into land speculation and construction in Franklin Mills, primarily intent upon canal-related projects.  Public transportation contracts were booming in Ohio and the west at this time, and private stock companies were formed to undertake these new ventures with state funds. For instance, a major project at this time was the linking of the Pennsylvania and Ohio canal systems, and it is understandable why Brown began to talk up the possibilities of investing in related projects to his family and associates in Ohio.  A number of sources suggest that he took some kind of construction contract on the Pennsylvania and Ohio canal system and that he was also looking to invest in projects funded by independent banks, such as an extension of the canal from Akron to Franklin Mills.  Having borrowed a large sum of money, then, Brown also purchased a sizeable farm that he intended to parcel out for sale, as he had done with his own property before leaving Pennsylvania.  He also bought land and erected office buildings in Franklin Mills that would turn a fine profit once the canal was operative.4

Initially, Brown looked successful, but by 1838 he wrote to a Meadville associate that he had “made money rather too quickly” in the previous three years.  Indeed, his wealth was essentially based on bank notes and credit, and with the Panic of 1837 (which Brown called “the change in the times”), his efforts were considerably stunted.  Still, he pressed on, further and further into credit debt, anticipating a breakthrough in the economy and a harvest of wealth with the completion of his canal and construction projects.  Ever the optimist, he wrote in mid-1838: “We in this country feel now in hope that another year will effectually relieve us,” he wrote in mid-1838.5

Unfortunately, the financial situation only worsened, not just for John Brown but for many others caught up in the boom.  As monies for projects dried up, other business ventures likewise followed, and shortly Brown was left with debt and lawsuits for unpaid notes, wages, and money due on accounts.  At one point, he was the defendant, either by himself or with partners, in twenty-one different lawsuits. Meanwhile, he was  looking and hoping for alternatives, such as the purchase of a mill.  Throughout 1838, Brown went east to scour his native Connecticut for loans, since the eastern states recovered before the western states like Ohio. By the summer of 1839, however, things had only gotten worse. New England proved a disappointment, and he returned home empty-handed, with fading hope of obtaining money from eastern banks.  “The prospect is rather dark however,” he wrote to a close associate.  “I have made every exertion in my power to extricate ourselves from the difficulty we are in but have not yet been able to effect it.” Things were getting bad and he felt “rather more depressed than usual.”6 

At this point, Brown’s story descends quickly.  In 1839,  beside overdue tax and business expenses, he had ten children to feed and clothe, including three adolescents and seven other children between newborn and ten years of age.  He was desperate. In what proved to be an unhappy coincidence, it was at this time that Brown secured a role as purchasing agent for a New England firm, which entrusted him with a sizeable purse for the purchase of western cattle. Tempted in his own desperate mind, however, Brown convinced himself that he could use the firm’s money in order to pay pressing debts and taxes, and then promptly replace the money from a loan that he confidently expected from a bank in Boston.  As if finding himself within a morale tale, when the loan was refused, John Brown found himself in hot water.

Now, I would argue that this episode—and not his later role in the Pottawatomie killings—was John Brown’s moral nadir in biographical terms. In appropriating his client’s money, he deliberately committed an unethical act, both breaking the law and violating his own keen sense of right and wrong.  Whatever one may feel about his resort to violence in the Pottawatomie crisis of 1856, Brown’s ethical stance in that case actually is far more defensible than is this bloodless crime of desperation.  Certainly, had he ended up in jail and his otherwise upright reputation soiled, Brown would have deserved it.  Fortunately for him, when he owned up to his foolish manipulation, he was treated with leniency by his client, although he was not able to survive a host of lawsuits and never was able to fully repay the client, as much he tried to do so, and as much as it weighed upon him (Brown even directed some money to be sent to the client just before his hanging in Virginia in 1859).  

Besides the complexity—perhaps even the impossibility—of untangling John Brown’s many business issues from nearly two centuries ago, what makes this chapter of his life even more difficult is the fact that he continued to pursue any opportunity that might turn his condition around, from selling cattle sales to breeding race horses and silk worms. Overall, as I have argued, although Brown merits some responsibility for his business misfortunes in this period, historians typically have focused on his troubled story without considering the circumstances of which he was a part, and which certainly troubled many other of Brown’s contemporaries. Besides failing to consider that he was among many others facing the same difficulties, and that he did not have the safety nets that modern business people enjoy, historians likewise have failed to recognize that he was caught between a financial panic 1837 and an aftershock that took place in 1839, the latter actually proving to be the context for John Brown’s financial undoing. Even his most notable biographers have missed the Crisis of 1839, as did Stephen Oates, who simplistically wrote that the Panic of 1837 “shook the national economy,” concluding that Brown “should have expected the worst” in the 1830s because President Andrew Jackson had refused to renew the Bank of the United States, leaving the national economy “extremely unstable.”  Lacking a fuller explanation of the downturns of the 1830s, however, Oates imputed greater blame to Brown than he deserves in retrospect.7

In fact, the Panic of 1837 and the Crisis of 1839 were two very different downturns in Brown’s world, and there was no way for Brown to have anticipated.  The Panic occurred as a result of domestic and foreign influences, and was largely felt in the eastern states, but especially in New York City and New Orleans, the major ports for the international cotton trade.  While the Panic was felt throughout the nation, a decline in specie, loans and discounts, and deposits was much worse in the east than in the south and west. In nearly every aspect, it was more severe for northeastern banks than for western banks in 1837.  Yet the Panic was quickly remedied by federal measures, and the economy made a comeback after 1837, which explains why Brown and many others continued to push their luck out in Ohio.  Oates fails to realize that most people could not have foreseen a serious downturn on the horizon, which is why borrowing continued in states like Pennsylvania and Ohio. As a result, the land boom was further bolstered by canal and railroad construction after 1837, which in turn engendered greater public confidence.  But things took a shocking turn for the worst in 1839, and this was the real basis of John Brown’s undoing. 

After dealing extensively in bonds, after 1837, many banks in Ohio and other western states began to find it difficult to redeem them because of the tightening of the market. As a result, they increasingly began to deal in credit, an economic pattern that filtered down into the business economy.  John Brown’s own state of Ohio especially had borrowed heavily and now found itself with enormous debt.  Unable to meet their obligations, banks in Ohio and other western states thus overreached and defaulted, resulting in a sharp decline in the money supply, and a loss of confidence in the banks.  Without depositor confidence, western banks began to collapse while banks in the northeast were in a state of improvement. Under these circumstances, Ohio and other western states experienced heavy losses in specie holdings, loans and discounts, and deposits. Indeed, between January 1839 and January 1841, the national money supply had declined by 22-percent, and the brunt of this loss was felt in western and southern states.8  Contrary to the simplistic narrative, where John Brown was an incompetent, talentless businessman, it is clear that these national economic factors were largely responsible for bringing about his and other people’s ruin in the late 1830s.  While he thrashed about for a few more years, ever hoping to find a way out, Brown finally was forced to surrender.  As he described it later, this was a time of “poverty, trials, discredit, & sore afflictions.”  Years later he wrote to his wife Mary, saluting her faithfulness in the shadowed days “when others said of me, ‘now that he lieth, he shall rise up no more.’”9     

As it happened, the United States had recently passed a new Bankruptcy Act on August 19, 1841, and it was under this new act that the disappointed John Brown submitted a petition for bankruptcy on May 11, 1842, two days after his forty-second birthday.  That month, a small notice appeared in the Akron Beacon declaring John Brown, “Tanner and Currier,” and a grocer named Meacham as having made petitions for a court hearing of bankruptcy the following month. As if to pour salt in the wound, the county commissioner published notice a week later that he was prepared to consider Brown’s claims, and that summer, and in October, he was listed under a short notice entitled “Bankrupts” with eighteen other unfortunate fellow citizens. By this time, however, Brown had already received an assignee from the court named George B. De Peyster, charged with taking a fine-tooth comb to every detail of property in the Brown household. De Peyster gave public notice in the summer that he was handling Brown’s bankruptcy case, and by late September, he had prepared a signed inventory.  Even centuries later, the document is pitiful  because De Peyster’s schedule sets forth the things that the Browns personally owned, and included things that De Peyster permitted them to keep, from household furniture and home furnishings to foods and tools. De Peyster’s schedule still exists and is held in the Boyd B. Stutler Collection in the West Virginia Division of Culture and History.

    Of particular interest to me in this episode are the books De Peyster listed on the bottom of the first page, for they provide a particular insight into Brown’s life and interests at this period. I should add that among these household items on another page De Peyster mentions that there were “about 36 volumes of school & miscellaneous books” in the household, so the books under consideration were the only ones he considered of value.  Doubtless the “school & miscellaneous books” represent the texts that Brown used for the education of his children (and other people’s children, as was the case during his Pennsylvania years), although De Peyster provided no title information. Fortunately, he did list several other volumes, and evidently did so because they had greater value, and evidently because they were John Brown’s own books. 

In listing these more valuable volumes on Brown’s bookshelf,  De Peyster offered scant information as to titles although assigning dollar value to each. Fortunately,  with a little help from Google books and other internet sources, I was able to identify almost all of them, thus gaining insight into the kinds of things that John Brown was reading in the late 1830s and early ‘40s, some of which are interestingly when keyed to his biography. 

    To no surprise, the first item listed  is “11 Bibles & testaments.” De Peyster valued these copies of the sacred text at $6.50, which according to one online inflation calculator is equivalent in today’s money about $200.  Of course, the testimony of the Brown children in later life is that on Sunday evenings, John Brown regularly passed out Bibles for a time of family worship and prayer, the family standing—not kneeling—in prayer, and Brown himself famously handling the chair (tipping it backward on its back legs) as he prayed. (As I recall, John Junior and his siblings only saw their father kneel in prayer once to make a sacred vow against slavery sometime between the late 1830s and early 1840s.) Certainly these Bibles were undoubtedly part of the family’s sacred regimen from week to week.

    The second item was “1 Vol Beauties of the Bible.” De Peyster valued this book at eighty-six cents, actually about $25 today. And no, this was not a book about the pretty women of the Bible (although that probably would make an interesting book). Rather, the “beauties” refers to notable selections of biblical text. In typical style for that era, the subtitle goes on and on: A Selection from the Old and New Testaments with Various Remarks and Brief Dissertations Designed for the Use of Christians in General, and Particularly for the Use of Schools, and for the Improvement of Youth. Interestingly, the editor and commentator of this book was Ezra Sampson of Hudson, New York. According to the old Appleton’s encyclopedia, Sampson (1749-1828) was a Massachusetts clergyman, writer, and a veteran of the Revolutionary War, afterward a chaplain at Roxbury, Mass. Sampson later co-founded a publication called the Balance, then served as editor of the Connecticut Courant [Hartford, Conn.], served as a county judge, and also wrote a number of theological and historical works, including Beauties of the Bible, first published in 1802. Given its publication date, it is likely that John Brown was first introduced to this work as a teenager, and possibly was given this book as a gift after his church membership was made official on March 31, 1816, when he was barely sixteen-years-old. Interestingly, in the preface, Sampson begins with the lamentation that at one time, the Bible was the only textbook used in public schools, but subsequently other books had been introduced along with the Bible as textbooks. Sampson writes that it should humble Christians to realize that “while we have neglected to make the knowledge of the bible any part of the school education of our children, the Mahometans [sic] have been teaching their children the Alcoran [sic] with most diligent care. Will not Mahometans rise up in judgment against us and condemn us?” (p. iii)

The next item is not religious, but rather “Flints Surveying.” De Peyster valued this work at eighty-seven cents, again, about $25 today. John Brown buffs will recall that later in life, he was an active and experienced surveyor, and that he surveyed lands in western Virginia in 1840 on behalf of the Oberlin Institute, and that likewise he surveyed property in the Kansas territory for his sons.  Interestingly, Brown quite intentionally went to the aid of local Indians (presumably the Sac and Fox Nation) by surveying their lands in order to restrict the intrusions of proslavery interlopers in the territory. In one or two cases, when surveying did not convince these Southern intruders, the Brown boys escorted them forcefully off Sac and Fox Nation land at gunpoint.   Brown also quite intentionally Used his surveying abilities as a means of conducting surveillance on proslavery terrorists, which is how he and his sons confirmed that they were marked for death in 1856, and what motivated the Pottawatomie killings. Interestingly, John Brown aficionado, Boyd B. Stutler, prepared an article about the Old Man in The Empire State Surveyor (1969), the official professional publication of New York State surveyors. In that article, Stutler wrote that “John Brown did not have a formal college training in surveying. He did have a propensity for math and geometry. His training in surveying was self-taught from the text of a book known as “Flints Surveying,” written sometime before 1820.” In his own famous autobiographical letter written in 1857, Brown described this informal education, writing of himself in the third person: “He however managed by the help of books to make himself tolerably well acquainted with common Arithmetic; & Surveying: which he practiced more or less after he was Twenty years old.” The book that Brown primarily alludes to is Abel Flint’s 1806 publication, A Treatise on Geometry and Trigonometry with a Treatise on Surveying in which the Principles of Rectangular Surveying without Plotting are Explained. I have not located the 1806 version that Brown likely used, but an 1839 version is accessible through Google Books.

 Once more dependent upon the old Appleton’s encyclopedia, we learn that Abel Flint (1765-1825), was from Connecticut, a graduate of Yale University, and served as a tutor at Brown University until 1790. He studied theology and afterward became a minister (often young clergymen took their training as mentors of established ministers, rather than going to seminary), pastoring a Congregational church in Hartford, Conn. He edited the Connecticut Evangelical Magazine, helped compile a Congregational hymnal, and was one of the founders of the Connecticut Bible Society in 1809. In 1818, he received an honorary doctorate in divinity. Fortunately, this encyclopedic entry gives us the publishing date of his surveying work as 1806. 

The four book on John Brown’s shelf is listed by De Peyster as “Dicks Works,” which he valued at $2.00, about $60 in contemporary terms. Thomas Dick was a Scottish theologian and astronomer who sought to advance a Christian form of science in the face of rising secular science. In the pre-Darwinian era, Dick’s concerns were more broadly focused on how theology, which was still considered a science too, could be broadly applied to the "natural sciences," earth, space and social sciences. This may sound odd to us, particularly since we have been largely influenced by modern scientists who have philosophically demanded the absolute break between the secular and the sacred (some of whom have also presumed to make grandiose judgments about the sacred despite being limited to the more narrow notion of “science” that prevails today.) But Dick's approach is actually a logical outcome of the Protestant Reformation, particularly Calvinism, which presumed that the normative role of humanity as imago Dei, the image of God, was to explore and measure the creation. Since John Brown clearly inherited a Puritan’s curiosity for just about every study including science, it is no surprise that he would have had Dick’s writings on his home library shelf. There is an interesting vignette that relates to this theme, preserved in an 1879 article in The Atlantic Monthly, written by the journalist William Addison Phillips.  In this article, Phillips recalled meeting John Brown on three different occasions, but the first was in 1856, in Brown’s camp in Kansas in a wooded area where the Kaw and Wakarusa Rivers converged.  Phillips recalled:

The sun went down as we looked at it, and as I turned my eyes to his I saw he had drunk in the glorious beauty of the landscape.

"What a magnificent scene, captain!" I exclaimed.

"Yes," he said, in his slow, dry way; "a great country for a free State."

As the sun started to set, Phillips and Brown put their saddles down together, and lay down for the night, covered with a blanket under the broad night sky. “He seemed to be as little disposed to sleep as I was,” Phillips recalled, continuing

and we talked; or rather he did, for I said little more than enough to keep him going. I soon found that he was a very thorough astronomer and he enlightened me on a good many matters in the starry firmament above us. He pointed out the different constellations and their movements. “Now,” he said, “it is midnight,” and he pointed to the finger marks of his great clock in the sky.

Phillips continued:

In his ordinary moods the man seemed so rigid, stern, and unimpressible when I first knew him that I never thought a poetic and impulsive nature lay behind that cold exterior. The whispering of the wind on the prairie was full of voices to him, and the stars as they shone in the firmament of God seemed to inspire him. “How admirable is the symmetry of the heavens; how grand and beautiful. Everything moves in sublime harmony in the government of God. Not so with us poor creatures. If one star is more brilliant than others, it is continually shooting in some erratic way into space.”10

We do not know precisely what volume of “Dick’s Works” that De Peyster assessed on Brown's bookshelf, but it could easily have been Dick’s Celestial Scenery, or the Wonders of the Planetary System Displayed; Illustrating the Perfections of Deity, and a Plurality of Worlds (1837).  This work is essentially a Christian astronomer’s reading of his science. Interestingly, in this volume, Dick includes arguments for “plurality of worlds,” or other inhabited planets in the universe. More central to the work, however, is a theistic understanding of the cosmos as a divinely created and operated system, what in his preface Dick calls “the perfections and the empire of the Creator.” Demonstrating a certain knowledge of astronomy, Dick concludes that the “harmony and order” of heavenly bodies “evince [God’s] wisdom and intelligence” (p. 21), and amidst his astronomical speculations, concludes that the starry heavens “answer purposes in the Creator’s plan worthy of His perfections and of their magnitude and grandeur” (p. 27).

Another book on Brown’s shelf is identified by De Peyster the work of “Dr Rush.” Valued at $2.00 (again, about $60 today. In this case, the book is undoubtedly Essays, Literary, Moral, and Philosophical, published first in 1789 and again in 1806 by Benjamin Rush (1746-1813). Rush was a physician and one of the founding fathers of the United States, a signatory of the Declaration of Independence, and a leading educator and humanitarian who opposed slavery. Although Rush was a Universalist, Brown undoubtedly appreciated him because of his anti-slavery views and his contributions to educational theory. Rush may have entertained peculiar biological views of “race,” but he believed blacks were equal with whites and opposed chattel slavery. Brown’s story resonates with two particular essays in Rush’s book: the first was an essay dating from 1786 in which Rush set forth a plan to establish public schools in Pennsylvania, and his defense of public schools as being consistent with a republican form of government. John Brown was always a defender of the public school system, but this essay may have been of special interest to Brown during his decade in northwestern Pennsylvania, where he acted as a kind of community father in his own right—particularly as one who planned for the schooling of his children and others in his vicinity. Not only was he an advocate of public school education, but apparently he had held a seat on something similar to a school board in the Meadville area, and likewise dreamed if not planned on starting a school for black youth in the same area. Another essay in this book that would likely have been quite meaningful to John Brown is Rush’s inclusion of an essay by Anthony Benezet (1713-84), a Huguenot abolitionist. Benezet’s essay is more than fascinating—a short story called “Paradise of Negro Slaves—A Dream.” In Benezet’s fictive dream, he finds himself intruding upon a peaceful colony of black people at worship, only to discover that he is in the afterlife with black people who had suffered and died in slavery.

    The sixth book that got De Peyster’s attention is listed as a “Church Members Guide,” valued at twenty-five cents, about $7 in today’s currency. The exact identification of this book is somewhat difficult to determine since there would have been a variety of such works available. Assuming that Brown would have preferred a volume reflecting his own church heritage, a likely candidate is The Church Member’s Guide by John Angell James, published in England in 1822. This appears to have been a prototypical work of its kind in the early 19th century. The problem here is that it was not published in the U.S. until 1855; so if Brown had a copy of the James Church Member’s Guide, it was a British edition. A second possibility is that Brown had a copy of  A Manual for Young Church-Members (1841) by Leonard Bacon, a clergyman from New Haven, Conn., one of the founders of the anti-slavery New York Independent. Of course, this might have been another church membership book, published locally or otherwise. Generally, church member’s guides or handbooks set forth distinctive themes of Protestant denominations as well as major theological and ecclesiastical doctrines. 

Finally, De Peyster listed “Balls narrative,” another book valued at twenty-five cents, about $7 today. While it is no surprise to find an authentic so-called “slave narrative” on John Brown’s bookshelf, it is nonetheless interesting to know what he was reading about slavery at this time. The Narrative of Charles Ball is one of the more notable antebellum narratives, a genre of antislavery writing that tended to be edited by those not associated with radical abolitionism. According to the late historian John Blassingame, Ball’s editor was a lawyer named Isaac Fisher, and the first printing of the narrative was published in Pennsylvania in 1836—the same year that Brown returned to Ohio from Randolph Township near Meadville, Pennsylvania. Pro-slavery critics tried to debunk Ball’s narrative without success, and ultimately it has proven highly reliable to historians.11 If you’re interested, an 1854 edition of Ball’s narrative is available through Google books.

This short list of books from John Brown’s bookshelf in 1842 provide a sense of the man, certainly that he was deeply religious, practical in his studies, and interested in matters like astronomy while constantly being mindful of the plight of the enslaved.  At the same time, of course, De Peyster’s document is a reminder of a particularly painful period in John Brown’s life in which he, like other aspiring frontier entrepreneurs in the 1830s and ‘40s, had experienced devastating failure. In his younger days, Brown had envisioned himself as becoming a successful abolitionist tycoon who could do the kinds of things that his later associates among the “Secret Six” did by funding his antislavery. But in his early forties, John Brown was far from reaching the success that he had hoped to attain, while the nation itself had not yet come to the point when hope for the peaceful demise of slavery would vanish, finally pushing him across the line toward taking radical antislavery measures.  

In 1848, six years after his bankruptcy, Brown confided to a friend: “I believe I received my Bankrupt discharge in the Fall of 1842 at which time all I possessed would not pay near the expense of getting it, so that I then had to go into a debt on annual interest which took me several years to pay. I then had a wife & Twelve minor children, & we were so destitute of clothing that the greater part of us stayed away from [church] meetings till we had nearly lost the habit of going entirely.”  By 1848, he concluded, he had “paid a good deal on my old debts,” as he wrote, and was looking forward to a good year in the wool business.12  More could be said about John Brown’s troubled business story, but suffice it to say that while he never found success, he did not finish his professional life a defeated soul.  There would be more ups and downs, but he would never again taste the bitterness of this period. In early 1849, writing from his wool commission operation in Springfield, John Brown informed his father back in Ohio: “Our business is prosperous; to all appearance.  Money is becoming more easy.”13

-LD


Notes

      1 Stephen B. Oates, To Purge This Land With Blood: A Biography of John Brown (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1970), 72. 

       2 Chester G. Hearn, Companions in Conspiracy: John Brown & Gerrit Smith (Gettysburg: Thomas Publications, 1996), 1.

       3 Marvin Kent later wrote: “The tannery . . . was just completed when I rented the same from my father for my own business.  This put John Brown out of a job and led him to take a construction contract on the line of the P&O Canal from Kent to Akron.  During this period, he traded many hundreds of dollars with my family.”  Quoted in a letter from Dudley Weaver to Boyd B. Stutler, Aug. 12, 1952, RP05-0042, in the Boyd B. Stutler Papers; Also see “John Brown, of Harper’s Ferry,” Kent Courier, Sept., 7/14?, 1906, Box 4, John Brown – Oswald Garrison Villard Papers.

 4 “John Brown Had Faith in Kent, O,” Plain Dealer [Cleveland, Ohio] (July 6, 1926); Mary Land, “John Brown’s Ohio Environment,” Ohio Archaeological and Historical Quarterly (Jan. 1948): 33; J.B. Holm, “John Brown Was Resident of Kent; 100th Anniversary of Harper’s Ferry Is Today,” Record-Courier [Ravenna-Kent, Ohio] (Oct. 16, 1959), 9; Dudley Weaver to Boyd B. Stutler, Aug. 12, 1952, RP05-0042, Boyd B. Stutler Papers.

 5 John Brown to H. J. Huidekoper, July 5, 1838, in the John Brown Collection of Pelletier Library, Allegheny College, Meadville, Pa.

 6  Oswald G. Villard, John Brown: A Biography 1800-1859 (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc., 1910, 1929), 36-37; Holm, “John Brown Was Resident of Kent,” 9; John Brown to Seth Thompson, Dec. 13, 1838, Box 1, Folder 63, University of Atlanta.

 7  It is interesting, too, that Oates relied heavily on John Brown Jr.’s testimony, yet too easily rejects Brown’s claim that he was largely undone by dealing in credit.  Cf. Stephen B. Oates, To Purge This Land With Blood, 36-37

 8  John J. Wallis, “What Caused the Crisis of 1839?” Historical Paper 133 (Cambridge, Mass.: National Bureau of Economic Research, Apr. 2001), 10.

 9   Mary Land, “John Brown’s Ohio Environment,” 33; “John Brown: Citizen of Kent,” The Kent Historical Society Home Page (Kent, Ohio). Retrieved from https://bit.ly/39R1SFa;  “John Brown Had Faith in Kent, O”; John Brown to Mary Brown, Mar. 7, 184[6], MS01-0016, Boyd B. Stutler Papers; also see DeCaro, “Fire from the Midst of You” A Religious Life of John Brown (New York: NYU Press, 2002), 115-20.

        10 See William A. Phillips, “Three Interviews with Old John Brown,” The Atlantic Monthly (Dec. 1879). See Slave Testimony: Two Centuries of Letters, Speeches, Interviews, and Autobiographies, edited by John W. Blassingame (Baton Rouge: University of Louisiana Press, 1977, 2002), pp. xxiii-xxvi. John Brown to Seth Thompson, Dec. 12, 1848, in Washington University Library collection. John Brown, Springfield, Mass., to Owen Brown, Hudson, Ohio, January 10, 1849, Kansas State Historical Society.

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Catch Him if You Can: The True Story of Alexander Ross, John Brown’s Fraudulent “Friend”



A. M. Ross
Alexander Milton Ross (1832-97) was a distinguished Canadian physician and a specialist in the study of North American animal and plant life. As a youth he worked as a newspaperman and studied in New York City, earning a degree in medicine at the age of twenty-three. In a colorful and adventurous career, Ross was decorated by European royalty and was renowned in his own nation as an outspoken leader in the medical community as well as a preeminent naturalist.1 Ross also embraced Spiritualism, which in the 19th century was an avant garde religious movement that often attracted unconventional religious thinkers and socially-minded activists, including many abolitionists. 

Ross is also remembered by many Canadians as a strong abolitionist and a daring activist who used his studies in naturalism as a pretense to assist fugitives escaping from slavery. During the years of the Civil War, Ross served as the vice-president of the Anti-Slavery Society in Toronto, Ontario, and was well known among his countrymen as an anti-slavery orator and writer. Later in life, he enjoyed the reputation of one who had smuggled many of the enslaved to freedom in Canada, and wrote two memoirs pertaining to his activism. He is undoubtedly best known for his 1875 publication, Recollections and Experiences of An Abolitionist.2 It is Ross’s involvement with the anti-slavery movement that allegedly brought his story in contact with that of John Brown the abolitionist. 


In his memoir, Ross records meeting with John Brown twice within two years of the Harper’s Ferry raid, and also claimed to have had correspondence from him as well. According to Recollections and Experiences, Ross claimed one meeting lasted late into the night, and that Brown presented him certain “letters from friends in Boston and Philadelphia” which he carefully examined.3  To round out his story, Ross wrote that not only did he do advance surveillance in Virginia for Brown, but after the failure of the Harper’s Ferry raid, he tried to get Governor Wise of Virginia to permit him to see Brown, but was instead forced to leave the state, whence he returned to Canada and prepared for another underground railroad mission.4   


But this was the story that Alexander Milton Ross published in two editions over the years, and which eventually helped him to gain access to Brown’s contemporaries and adult children.  In reality, Ross was a complete fake.  He may have been a minor-league antislavery figure in Canada, but his relationship with Brown and involvement in his story was a complete fraud.  In fact, Ross was such a good liar that he was never discovered in his lifetime.  Fortunately for history, however, despite the extent of his deception, one man finally interrogated, exposing the the complete deception of Alexander Milton Ross. But no one since Stutler has examined Ross closely since then even though more documentation has further confirmed his fraudulence.  So in this episode, you will finally get the whole story.

Boyd B. Stutler

In the mid-20th century, Boyd B. Stutler, the foremost documentary scholar of John Brown, became increasingly convinced that the testimony of Ross was not trustworthy. Stutler was an exacting and tireless researcher who had amassed myriads of primary and secondary sources, and could analyze with the mind of a historian and sniff out the scent of questionability with the nose of a journalist.5 In an independent scholarly career that spanned five decades, Stutler was not only the most conversant in John Brown literature, but was well-versed in collateral historical and biographical material pertaining to the antebellum and Civil War periods. He was particularly frustrated by the anti-Brown bias that permeated the writing of leading Civil War scholars in the mid-20th century.6


Naturally, Ross’s memoir must have been appealing to Stutler at first. But the more he examined Ross’s book, the more he became convinced that Ross could not be trusted. “Too bad,” he wrote to the Reverend Clarence Gee, his life-long colleague, since Ross had long been considered “a good witness for the defense.” But now Stutler had become certain that Ross was a false witness. In fact, according to his research, Ross had not only fabricated stories about John Brown, but he had also lied about his war time collaboration with President Abraham Lincoln. Stutler wrote to Gee in 1953 that “we can safely write Dr. Ross off as one who invented intimacies in order to bask in the refulgent light of reflected glory.”7 Following Stutler's brilliant lead, my own examination of evidence regarding Ross only confirms that the beloved Canadian abolitionist was one of the greatest frauds in North American history. 


Missing from the Record 


First, it seems peculiar that Ross is largely absent from the major biographical sources on John Brown, whether primary or secondary. Given his repeated claims of having been well acquainted with the abolitionist, his absence from contemporary eyewitness accounts and related correspondence is quite telling. Nothing that survives from the writings of Brown or his colleagues includes a reference to Alexander Ross—nothing, that is, except alleged correspondence that Ross presented in his dubious memoir. So, for instance, when Richard Hinton mistakenly included Ross in his popular 1894 book, John Brown and His Men, the only source he had to do so was Ross himself.8


Secondly, for one purporting to have been a trusted associate of John Brown, Ross is missing from the Brown family’s correspondence until he appears by self-introduction in the 1870s. In fairness, it is not necessary that Brown’s sons and daughters would have had correspondence with Ross prior to the Harper’s Ferry raid. However, if Ross’s claims were true, one would think that John Brown Jr. and Owen Brown, who were both in their father’s inner circle, would have had some knowledge of Ross, or at least some knowledge of him in the preparatory phase of the raid. 


In his bogus memoir, Ross presents himself as having been a key figure of interest to John Brown, being sought out by him in 1857-58, and later being asked by him to take a daring assignment at the crisis hour in 1859. Yet there seems to be nothing about him in any of the several major collections of Brown family correspondence except that which he himself initiated in the 1870s and afterward. Ross likewise is not mentioned in Brown’s memorandum books, now held in the Boston Public Library collection, in which the abolitionist kept a careful record of his correspondence and contacts.9 


As biographers go, it is likewise notable that Oswald Garrison Villard, the grandson of abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, made no reference to Ross in his monumental biography of John Brown, first published in 1910. Although Villard’s interpretation is biased in significant respects, his work undoubtedly was the most well-researched scholarly effort regarding Brown up to that point.10 Writing fifty years after Brown’s death, Villard drew from rich resources based almost entirely on the field research of his assistant, Katherine Mayo.11 


The fact that Villard made no reference to Ross in either the text or the note section of his book is not simply evidence of a lack of historical presence in the John Brown story. A search of Villard’s papers at Columbia University revealed that he actually had two significant items on Ross, but he elected not to include them in his work. Not surprisingly, too, researcher Mayo had made thorough notes from the second edition of Ross’s Recollections and Experiences of an Abolitionist (1876). Why did Villard choose to overlook the inspiring account of Ross’s interaction with John Brown as well as his claim to having been a daring “undercover” abolitionist in the South? He likewise made no mention of a letter written by his famous grandfather, abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison to Ross in 1875, apparently in response to Ross’s request for John Brown materials. Garrison’s letter to Ross conveys no sense that he was writing to one who was familiar to John Brown.12  It seems clear that biographer Villard overlooked Ross altogether because he had quietly determined that the Canadian’s memoir was untrustworthy. 


Ross and the Browns 


If the absence of Alexander Ross from prominent historical record is significant, so are his rigorous efforts to correspond with the Brown family in their later years. While Ross seems to have been sincerely interested in befriending the surviving Browns, his motivations also appear to have included a desire to gain personal papers and information, as well as to bolster his self-styled role as John Brown’s friend and compatriot. 


If not the earliest, at least one of the earliest letters between Ross and the Browns was written to John Brown Jr. and Owen Brown on November 15, 1877. In this letter, Ross made no familiar greeting, nor any familiar reference by way of introduction. Instead, he had enclosed photographic copies of the last written words of John Brown, made for one of the Charlestown jail staff on the day of his hanging in 1859 (this is the famous so-called prophecy where Brown predicts that slavery would have to end in widespread bloodshed).13 In the letter, Ross repeatedly used “thy” instead of “your,” apparently to create the favorable impression that he was an antislavery Quaker. Ross claimed that he had received the document from a “gentleman” in Charlestown, Virginia, which was true—although Ross had clearly obtained it for opportunistic reasons, not only for display, but in order to wile his way into the Brown family’s confidence.14


Newspaper sketch ca. 1880s
John Brown Jr.
In the same letter, Ross wrote that he had “the good fortune to meet thy father on several occasions & entertain feelings of profound veneration & admiration for his noble character.” Ross also mentioned his published memoir, but apologized that he had no copy to send them, but would send them the new third edition when it was published in the spring of 1878. It is telling that Ross did not expand much more on his alleged association with John Brown in this initial letter to his sons. In his next letter to John Brown Jr., Ross slightly continued the fraud, writing: “I knew your illustrious father and loved & respected him and revere his memory.” Perhaps it seemed strange to John Jr. that Ross had waited so many years before establishing communication with Brown’s family, but it seems that Junior was somewhat credulous if not eager for attention from outsiders because he had always enjoyed the greatest share of public attention given to John Brown’s family. 


Still, Ross was as thorough as he was cunning in his ploy. In 1877 he also initiated correspondence with Brown’s widow, Mary Brown, by then living in California. This enabled Ross to passingly mention that he had received a letter from her only “a few months ago.” In fact, Ross referred to Mary Brown as “thy mother,” which may suggest that Ross did not know that Mary actually was Junior’s stepmother.15 Ross continued to correspond with John Jr., frequently asking for photographs of the family, replete with endearing references to the interest of his son Garibaldi Ross in the Brown story. Meanwhile, Ross made certain to provide the rest of the Browns with photographic copies of their father’s last writing, as well as sending off ten copies of the new edition of his Recollections and Experiences for Mary Brown and the rest of the family.16 By elevating their correspondence to an exchange of materials between himself and the Browns, Ross established a strong foothold that would now enable him to entrench himself in the Brown’s family’s confidences and exploit them further for primary documents that would in turn be used to lend credence to his own fraudulent story.


For instance, by the following May 1878, Ross had acknowledged the gift of an original John Brown letter, ostensibly sent by John Brown Jr. for Ross’ daughter—no doubt a gift that Ross himself had obtained through endearing insinuation. Emboldened by Brown’s generosity, Ross then asked for “some Little relic or memento of your illustrious father” as a favor to young son, Garibaldi Ross. Sure enough, John Jr. (who was generous to the point of foolishness in giving away the family’s historical treasures17) promised a special John Brown relic to Ross’s “little son.” When the treasure he sought did not come with immediacy, Ross persisted. In October 1878, he again wrote to John Jr.: “If you can send my Little Garibaldi an autograph Letter of your father or any memento by him, it will be highly prized and sacredly treasured while he Lives.”18 Meanwhile, Ross was enjoying the royalties and reputation resulting from the sales of his fraudulent story. 


Common Bonds 


Alexander Ross further was able to exploit religious commonality between himself and John Brown Jr. At the end of December 1878, Junior had written to Ross, confiding that he and his brother (apparently Jason Brown) were in communication with dead friends in the spirit world. “We are Spiritualists,” Junior wrote.19 Ross was delighted to learn this; perhaps he had refrained at first from informing the Browns that he was also a Spiritualist because he assumed they were evangelicals like their late father. In fact, many of the Brown children had begun to leave Christianity while their father was still alive, and the elder sons, especially Junior and Jason Brown seem to have been easily taken in by the faddish Spiritualism of the day.20 On January 5, 1879, Ross wrote a lengthy letter to John Junior, declaring, “I feel a bond unites us and makes us brothers indeed.” Ross revealed that he had been a Spiritualist for fifteen years, and that he had published his lectures and essays on Spiritualism against “the orthodox tyrant” of Christianity.21 Junior was probably delighted by this rhetoric, since he was happy dismiss his father’s religious convictions, just as he had disregarded John Brown’s disdain for secret fraternal orders by joining the Masons in later years.  


Not only was Ross now able to wrap himself in the confidence of John Brown Jr., but he found another Brown sibling who was even more credulous and exploited this new connection even more.  Ross now also began an extensive communication with Anne Brown Adams, Junior’s younger half-sister, who was thirty-six-years old in 1879 when they began their correspondence. Anne was a teenager at the time of the Harper’s Ferry raid and had kept house for her father and his raiders at their Maryland headquarters in 1859. In later years, Anne’s writing could be cranky and eccentric, and she claimed to know more about her father’s intentions than she probably knew at the time. Yet she remained one of the most valuable historical eyewitnesses, ultimately outliving all of John Brown’s raiders. Anne corresponded with Ross over a sixteen-year period, ending in 1895. In her letters to Ross, she often recalled incidents from youth, or vented frustrations and shared personal details concerning various players in the John Brown story. To no surprise, Ross seems to have persuaded Anne to write a lengthy, descriptive essay about the Harper’s Ferry raiders, once more allegedly as a favor to his son Garibaldi.22


The Problematic Ross Testimony 


If anything, the passing of years and intimate access that Ross had to the Brown family probably tempted him to become even more daring in his claims. In discussing Ross a half-century later, Boyd Stutler thus advised his friend Gee that Ross’s “tales grew taller as he grew older.” “He tells about his intimate connection with J[ohn] B[rown],” Stutler continued, “yet I am convinced that he never knew him and had no dealings with the man in the flesh."23


In historical retrospect, Stutler’s judgment has been more than borne out by the evidence. In his day, Stutler apparently did not have access to the Ross-Brown correspondence that I have read in the Gilder Lehrman Collection here in New York City. But Stutler was absolutely correct in surmising that Ross indeed  “rangled some letters from the family long after J[ohn] B[rown] had passed.”24 Stutler reasoned that Alexander Ross seems to have had no connection with Brown, not even in terms of manuscripts. Further, Stutler cited an 1865 letter from Ross to George L. Stearns, one of John Brown’s “Secret Six” supporters–written a decade before the publication of his bogus memoir. In the letter Ross lies about meeting Brown during his secret convention in Chatham, Ontario, in 1858—a meeting that Ross definitely did not attend. In his letter, the lying Ross then tried to get some “slight memento” from Brown as a gift for his children.25


As Stutler observed, as early as 1865, Ross was fishing for an original John Brown document. A decade later, when Ross published his fradulent Recollections and Experiences, he claimed that he had at least two different letters that Brown had written to him personally in Brown’s own hand. Stutler concluded that Ross was self-condemned by his own 1865 letter to Stearns–and that his own writings exposed him as a “monumental liar” whose own testimony weighs heavily against his later claims.26


Ross’s Historical Sleight of Hand 


Without owning any real letter in Brown’s hand, Ross at first used a deceitful method of inventing documents for his memoir, sometimes by plagiarizing other published Brown letters. For instance, he appropriated a letter Brown sent to someone else inviting him to the Chatham convention. Interestingly, the version of Brown’s letter that he plagiarized was itself a paraphrase made from memory and does not follow the actual letter form that Brown had sent out. Furthermore, the alleged invitation to Ross from Brown exists nowhere in any archive. In the book, Ross used printed text for the letter and appended an image of Brown’s signature.27 A complete fake.


Ross fabricated another document for his memoir, claiming that Brown had written to him from Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, two weeks before the Harper’s Ferry raid. In the counterfeit letter, Ross has Brown telling him he would begin the raid toward the end of October and wanted his help “in the way promised.” He signs the letter, “Your friend, John Brown,” although anything Brown wrote from Maryland in 1859 was either unsigned, or signed with the pseudonym, “Isaac Smith.”  But since Ross had no copy of letters written by Brown in late 1859, he simply appended a copy of John Brown’s signature, a fraud that seems to have been overlooked, even by the Brown family.  The invention of these fabricated letters from John Brown proved to be the nails in Ross’s historical coffin.  These letters are nowhere found in any archive, and if he had real letters from John Brown, Ross would not have written to Stearns in 1865, asking for something in Brown’s hand. 


Certainly, these initial fabrications were essential to Ross in validating himself as a key figure in the John Brown story, a lie that he continued to inflate in later years. Indeed, as late as 1893, Ross deceived biographer Richard Hinton, claiming that John Brown had confided in him at the time of the raid.28 Like so many others, Hinton accepted Ross’s story at face value, just as well-meaning Canadians also embraced the Ross deception as proud fact. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a number of noteworthy publications proudly cited Ross as a colleague of John Brown as well.29


Recall that when it came to introducing himself to the Browns in the late 1870s, Ross had sent John Brown Jr. “photographic copies” of the last words written by his father. In fact, he was quite generous in offering to make duplicates for as many of Brown’s children as were living at the time. Stutler points out that the original document resurfaced during the Chicago World’s Fair of 1892-93, which included a major John Brown exhibit. At that time, Ross sold the document to another collector, at which point it was revealed that he had only recently purchased it from Brown’s former guard through the agency of the former jailer in Charlestown. According to Stutler, however, Ross pretended to have owned the document for quite some time.30


But it seems that even Stutler did not know the extent of Ross’s deceit in the matter. If indeed Ross had only obtained the document shortly before the 1892-93 World’s Fair, it is clear that he had pretended to own it from the 1870s, especially when he sent photographs of the document to the Browns in 1877. Ross may have borrowed the original. But it is more likely that he had gotten a photograph of the document for himself through his correspondence the jailer, and then continued to pursue the document’s owner until finally purchasing it. So, in 1870s, when he frauded his way into the Brown family circle, he only had an image of the original document and had made second-generation reproductions to distribute John Brown Jr. and the others.


Ross fabricated other documents for his publication, including fake written orders of Governor Wise of Virginia (to which he also appended a facsimile signature). And most appalling, Ross manufactured a “last letter” from John Brown, which Ross dated December 1, 1859, the day before the abolitionist was hanged.31 (see "A Liar's Souvenir," Apr. 27, 2020)  To no surprise, these letters are nowhere to be found and certainly have never been documented by any historian or collector–perhaps the most pathetic testimony to both Ross’s fraudulence and his admiration for John Brown–the epitome of his fantasies as well as the deceptions he wormed into the pages of history. These fake letters also suggest how Ross both plotted and then pored over the many published letters by Brown, and then skillfully appropriated the characteristics of Brown’s personal correspondence in order to forge his own. Lastly, Ross constructed his own memoir somewhat cleverly according to his own studied and reconstructed history of John Brown’s activities. In order for him to set himself into the record as Brown’s colleague and collaborator, he cleverly selected the most dramatic and detailed period of the abolitionist’s life in the later 1850s, when Brown’s life was full of movement, secret meetings, and seemingly endless travel. The fabric of his public career at this time had pockets of dramatic mystery that Ross could exploit, bogus interviews with Brown that would not be easily questioned.  


A Legacy of Deceit 


But the truth of his duplicity could not remain buried forever, and in the 20th century Canadians who knew the real Ross whispered their suspicions. Not wanting to play the role of iconoclasts, no doubt, they seem to have talked among themselves, and a few of the old-timers were overhead calling Alexander Ross a “humbug.” In correspondence with Boyd Stutler, Canadian historian Fred Landon acknowledged that Ross “took in people very widely.”32


Fortunately, Stutler was unrelenting, and the more he sought, the more the noose of history tightened around the neck of Alexander Milton Ross. In 1953, the Chief of the Manuscripts Division of the Library Congress responded to inquiries made by Stutler about Ross. Apparently, the Library had transcripts of both an antislavery speech that Ross had given in 1864, and an antislavery tract that he had published in 1865. It seemed odd to Stutler that Ross did not mention knowing either John Brown or Abraham Lincoln in either document. The Librarian agreed that Ross had proven a hustler.  Stutler must have smiled when he read the Librarian’s own conclusion: “That, I submit, is like cheating at solitaire.”33


Alexander Ross first begged and then bought an original John Brown manuscript, only to sell it for a profit, just as he also profited from publishing three editions of his fake story, a self-glorifying myth that he inflated to shameless proportions over three decades. His was an ambitious and successful program of deceit that probably even deluded Ross himself into thinking his place in history was secure. But if the Browns never knew that Alexander Milton Ross was a fraud and a charlatan and never knew their famous father, at least history exposed him before the world. “Yea, verily,” Boyd Stutler wrote to his preacher friend Clarence Gee. “Alexander Ross was a liar and the truth was not in him.”34


LD

-------

Notes


1“Dr. A. M. Ross,” Canadian Illustrated News (March 31, 1877), 196, with the letters of A. M. Ross in the John Brown Jr. Papers, Charles E. Frohman Collection (FR-5), Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center. Hereinafter, JBJR; “Alexander Milton Ross,” in Virtual American Biographies, at Virtualology.com. Retrieved in 2003. 


Alexander Milton Ross, Recollections and Experiences of An Abolitionist: From 1855 to 1865 (Toronto: Roswell and Hutchinson, 1875; rpt., Northbrook, Ill.: Metro Books, Inc., 1972). 


Ibid. 20-24.

 

4 Ibid., 48-65.

 

5 Boyd Blynn Stutler (1890-1970) was indeed both a first-rate journalist and historian. He began his career as the owner and editor of a Grantsville, West Virginia, newspaper at the age of sixteen, a position he held until being elected mayor of that town at the age of twenty-seven. He afterward worked as a war time correspondent for the American Legion Magazine, and as editor of other newspapers. An authority on the history of his home state, Stutler also served as president of the West Virginia Historical Society in the late 1950s. He wrote several books on state history and numerous articles about John Brown. See “Historian, Ex-Legion Editor Dies,” The Charlestown Daily Mail (Feb. 19, 1970). Stutler’s documentary and historical contributions to the John Brown story, though often unsung, remain unparalleled. Fortunately for students and scholars, a large part of his Brown collection is available on the excellent  West Virginia Archives and History website.


 6 For instance, Stutler wrote that he was disappointed in the portrayal of Brown in Allan Nevins’s Emergence of Lincoln, especially because he had been the author’s consultant. Though he greatly admired Nevins’s writing style, Stutler was frustrated by his bent toward treating Brown harshly, even though “his strictures were softened considerably” in the final draft of the book. He felt that many historians were clinging to “untenable ground” in their negative evaluations of the abolitionist. Boyd B. Stutler to Clarence S. Gee, Dec. 11, 1950, 1, in Stutler-Gee Correspondence, Hudson Library & Historical Society, Hudson, Ohio. Hereinafter, Stut-Gee. 


 7 Boyd B. Stutler to Clarence S. Gee, Apr. 20, 1953, 1, Stut-Gee. 


 8 Richard J. Hinton, John Brown and His Men (New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1894). Hinton apparently takes Ross’s word for it by saying that the doctor was “a faithful friend of John Brown, efficient as an ally also” (p. 171). It is interesting that Hinton, himself an associate of Brown, places Ross nowhere in the story except where Ross has placed himself. 


 9 For instance, significant correspondence of Brown’s children can be found in the Henry Huntington Library, San Marino, Calif., the Gilder Lehrman Collection, currently at the New York Historical Society, New York, N.Y., and the Hudson Library & Historical Society, Hudson, Ohio. Of course, other important archives hold Brown family correspondence dating from before the time of the raid and afterward. 


 10 See Louis A. DeCaro, Jr., “Black People’s Ally, White People’s Bogeyman: A John Brown Story,” in Andrew Taylor and Eldrid Herrington, The Afterlife of John Brown (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), 10-25. 


 11 Oswald G. Villard’s John Brown Papers, including research notes, chronology date books, primary and secondary sources, correspondence, and the author’s handwritten manuscript are held in the Rare Book and Manuscript Collection of the Columbia University Library, New York, N.Y. Hereinafter, OGV. 


 12 See William Lloyd Garrison to Alexander M. Ross, Aug. 25, 1875 in “J.B. Estimates of” folder, Box 3, OGV; and Katherine Mayo’s notes on the second edition of Ross’s Recollections and Experiences, in “JB Jail Letters 1859" folder, Box 5, and “Mrs. John Brown and Family” folder, Box 6, OGV. 


 13 Written on a small piece of paper in Brown’s hand is a kind of prophecy of the coming Civil War: “Charlestown Va 2d December 1859[.] I John Brown am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land: will never be purged away but with Blood. I had as I now think: vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed: it might be done.” The original is now in the Chicago Historical Society, Chicago, Ill. 


14 Alexander M. Ross to John Brown Jr. and Owen Brown, Nov. 15, 1877, JBJR. In subsequent letters, however, he did not continue to use this Quaker affect. 


 15 Alexander M. Ross to John Brown Jr., March 18, 1878, JBJR. Ross probably did not know that Mary Brown was actually John Junior’s stepmother, but the children of Brown’s first wife, Dianthe, often referred Mary as “Mother” anyway. 


16 Alexander M. Ross to John Brown Jr., Apr. 2 & 28, 1878, JBJR; Ross’s son was actually named Norman Garibaldi Ross, his middle name taken in honor of the Italian liberator, Giuseppe Garibaldi. 


 17 For instance, John Brown Jr. gave a letter in his father’s handwriting to an enthusiastic Presbyterian minister. When the minister wrote a moving letter of thanks, Brown gave him a second letter. Upon learning that the Browns had clipped and sold John Brown’s signatures from other letters, he expressed interest in buying the mutilated letters as well. Besides those that were sold by other Brown siblings, there is no telling how many John Brown letters have been lost to history as a result of such generosity or financial need. See Henry G. Martin to John Brown Jr., Dec. 31, 1885 and Jan. 23, 1886, JBJR 


 18 See letters from Alexander M. Ross to John Brown Jr. dated May 9 and 23, and Oct. 22, 1878, JBJR. 


 19 John Brown Jr. to Alexander M. Ross, Dec. 27, 1878, #3007 pt 2/3, in the Gilder Lehrman Collection, New York Historical Society, New York, NY. Hereinafter, GLC. 


 20 While Brown’s daughters seem to have maintained their father and mother’s evangelical faith in later years, the sons seem never to have returned to the fold, especially John Brown Jr. See my discussion in Louis A. DeCaro Jr., “Fire from the Midst of You”: A Religious Life of John Brown (New York: New York University Press, 2002), 207-09.

 

21 Alexander M. Ross to John Brown Jr., Jan. 5, 1879, JBJR. 


 22 A significant collection of letters written by John Brown Jr. and Anne Brown Adams to Alexander M. Ross can be found in GLC. Anne’s lengthy description of the raiders is found in Anne Brown Adams to “Master Garibaldi Ross,” Dec. 15, 1882, #3007.03, GLC. 


23 Boyd B. Stutler to Clarence S. Gee, Sept. 18, 1951, 1, Stut-Gee. 


24 Boyd B. Stutler to Fred Landon, Jan. 26, 1953, RP11-0035 A-I, in the Boyd B. Stutler Collection, West Virginia State Archives web site. Hereinafter, Stut-Web. 


25 Alexander M. Ross to George L. Stearns, Jan. 22, 1865, MS09-0021 A-C, Stut-Web; Stutler discusses this letter in Stutler to Gee, Sept. 18, 1951 in Stutler to Landon, Jan. 26, 1953. 


26 Ross, Recollections and Experiences, 53; Stutler to Landon, Jan. 26, 1953. 


27 See Stutler to Landon, Jan. 26, 1953. The bogus invitation is found in Recollections and Experiences, 53. 


 28 Hinton, John Brown and His Men, 174 (n. 1, par. 1). 


 29 Fred Landon to Boyd B. Stutler, Jan. 31, 1953, RP11-0035 A-I, Stut-Web. 


 30 Stutler to Landon, Jan. 26, 1953.

 

31 Katherine Mayo’s literal transcription from the second edition of Recollections and Experiences, in “JB Jail Letters 1859" folder, Box 5, OGV. 


32 Fred Landon to Boyd B. Stutler, Jan. 20, 1953, RP11-0035 A-I, Stu t- Web. 


33 Report of David C. Mearns, Chief, Manuscripts Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., to Boyd B. Stutler, Apr. 17, 1953, in A. M. Ross file, Gee Papers, Hudson Library & Historical Society, Hudson, Ohio.


34 Stutler to Gee, Sept. 18, 1951.