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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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Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Part II
John Brown & New York

John Brown entered the public eye in the later 1850s when he became an activist and guerilla in the struggle for Kansas. A newly opened territory ripe for settlement and statehood, Kansas became the focal point of conflict between pro-slavery and free state settlers, and even though the latter were in the majority, the pro-slavery side was determined to use threats, vote tampering, and terrorism in order to secure control of the territory. Much has been made of Brown’s violent campaign in Kansas, and unfortunately the slant of historical writing since the early 20th century has largely set the stage for the latest trend of journalists and scholars in branding John Brown a terrorist. In fact, the popular notion of John Brown as a wild-eyed fanatic and marauding killer represents a fascinating blend of personal resentment, Southern vendetta, conservative politics, and pacifist bigotry. Brown’s first critics were jealous contemporaries who attacked his reputation in the later 19th century in order to uplift themselves. These old timers were shortly joined by younger writers who did not share the previous generation’s sympathies for the emancipated community, and tended to reflect the nation’s post-Reconstruction shift toward the political and cultural reunification of white society. To them especially, the celebration of John Brown’s legacy seemed a great embarrassment, and his violent measures in Kansas and Virginia became the basis for dismissing him from the pantheon of American heroes. Yet no single writer did more to undermine Brown’s legacy than a liberal New York pacifist and scion of the abolitionist movement.

When Oswald Garrison Villard, the wealthy grandson of William Lloyd Garrison, published a definitive biography of Brown in 1910, his ambiguous interpretation proved quite damaging. Villard probably resented Brown for stealing his grandfather’s thunder, especially since grandpa Garrison, orator and publisher of The Liberator, had labored so strenuously to advance abolition when Brown was still counting sheep in Ohio. But most of all, the pacifist Villard despised any notion of violence, and thought nothing of telling blacks to their faces that it would be better for them to be murdered by racists than to defend themselves by force. In the name of scholarly objectivity, Villard seemed determined to diminish John Brown. In 1909 he used his controlling ownership in The Nation and The Evening Post to publish a harsh criticism of the admiring and eloquent biography, John Brown, by the premier black intellectual, W. E. B. DuBois. Even though they were supposedly friends and colleagues in civil rights efforts, Villard refused to publish DuBois’s response, and treated his further protests with condescension. When Villard published his own biography to the acclaim of scholars and journalists the following year, he prefaced his own work as unbiased and definitive, and pronounced John Brown guilty of being a “principled murderer.” The problem with Villard’s biography was that–regardless of the facts--Brown had to be wrong in light of the author’s pacifist beliefs. His treatment of the Kansas conflict, for instance, was decidedly skewed by the assumption that nothing could vindicate John Brown for his role in the killings of five unarmed pro-slavery settlers in 1856. [Readers may find an expanded discussion about Villard and DuBois in my article, "Black People's Ally, White People's Bogeyman," in The Afterlife of John Brown, edited by Eldrid Herrington (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005)].

However a careful examination of the evidence (much of it in Villard’s own files, now held by the Rare Book and Manuscript Collection, Columbia University Library) shows that Brown and the others involved in the killings were acting in desperate concern for their own safety, especially at a time when free state settlers were under heavy siege by armed “border ruffians” from Missouri and other Southern terrorists. Brown had gone to Kansas in the fall of 1855 after receiving an appeal from his sons, several of whom had migrated westward when the territory was opened for settlement. The boys wrote that they needed weapons, real weapons, since the free state settlers were being threatened and assaulted by pro-slavery thugs. The “border ruffians” killed and terrorized settlers and were tampering with ballots in an attempt to force a pro-slavery constitution upon the territory. With the federal government essentially turning a blind eye to these Southern intrusions, the free state settlers found themselves without recourse to federal or territorial protection, even though many naively expected that democracy would somehow prevail in the face of brute force. With the murders of several free state men, the South had already set the precedent for “Bleeding Kansas.” Indeed, the arming of free state activists was inevitable as long as Southern leadership showed its determination to force slavery upon the territory. While conservatives criticized their own free state warriors for exacerbating the violence, the reality is that there was nothing between them and pro-slavery domination except the counter-attacks of John Brown, James Montgomery, and other Kansas leaders who were determined to fight fire with fire.

In their own community of Osawatomie, the Browns were already distinguished for being hard-headed free state men and advocates of black equality–two positions that did not necessarily go hand-in-hand. As unabashed friends of the black man, the Browns were thought too extreme by conservative free state settlers, and were especially despised by pro-slavery neighbors in their vicinity. In the spring of 1856, a large party of Southern troops were watching Osawatomie, and some of the Browns’ pro-slavery neighbors became informants, identifying them among other free state men as primary targets in an imminent assault. Posing as a pro-slavery surveyor, Brown actually penetrated the Southern camp, talked with the enemy, and learned that the “damned Browns” had been marked for attack. When pro-slavery forces struck at Lawrence, the center for free state leadership in the territory, late in May 1856, it signaled that Osawatomie would soon be attacked as well. With the help of free state leaders in the area, Brown thus obtained a list of pro-slavery neighbors who were clearly conspiring with the Southern camp as informants and collaborators. Swords were honed razor sharp, and a wagon was obtained to carry a handful of men in the dead of night along Pottawatomie Creek where most of the informants lived.

John Brown Jr. said in later years that his father and the other Pottawatomie killers “got the jump” on their enemies. Leading them out of their homes at gunpoint, Brown’s sons Frederick, Owen, and Salmon, along with his son-in-law Henry Thompson and their neighbor, a burly Polish Jew named Theodore Weiner, escorted the informants into the darkness. Brown looked on in grim determination as they were hacked to death. At the home of a Tennessean named Doyle, the wife scolded her husband in panic: “I told you what you were going to get!” But her frightened admission that her husband and adult sons were indeed involved in “devilment” did not save their lives. The free state sword fell on all three with horrible precision, bringing the total number of men killed to five. Afterward John Brown fired his pistol once into Doyle’s dead body, as if to punctuate the episode with lead.

Even though it arguably derailed a local conspiracy and was generally acknowledged as a positive turning point for the free state side, this brutal episode became the Achilles heel of the John Brown legend in later years. While Brown’s critics presented one-sided accounts of the incident in the late 19th century, it was Villard’s inherently negative and condemnatory biography that made the so-called Pottawatomie massacre the most controversial and distorted aspect of the John Brown story. Indeed, the incident still remains the greatest opportunity for any detractor with an ax to grind, especially in the trendy literature that connects Brown with anti-abortion bombers and Osama bin Laden. Villard’s contention that the killings were politically unnecessary and morally inexcusable has ultimately been appropriated within every subsequent attack on Brown, no matter how slipshod or meretricious. In fact, few figures in U.S. history have been so regularly subjected to blatant misrepresentation and distortion under the heading of scholarship.

In popular culture these biased representations are not only basic to textbooks and fiction, but have been conveyed in almost every cinematic portrayal of Brown’s life from Santa Fe Trail (1940) to the recent PBS documentary, John Brown’s Holy War (2000)--both of which present him as a religious fanatic and a delusional killer. For the record, however, Brown deserves greater consideration. While there is no doubt that he supervised and thereafter defended the Pottawatomie killings (as did the killers themselves), it is hardly fair to make this episode into something akin to the Charles Manson story. The killings represented a consensus of desperation among many of Brown’s family and neighbors, and the killers were all willing participants who clearly believed they had no alternative if they wanted to prevent an imminent attack upon them and their families. Without protection from the law, overshadowed by hostile invaders, and vulnerable to the conspiracies of hostile neighbors, the Browns found themselves with their backs to the wall of history. That they chose a violent recourse might be disturbing, but in an age when we are overshadowed by threats of terrorism, perhaps we should ask ourselves if we would act any differently in the total absence of governmental security.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

This daguerreotype of John Brown taken circa 1846-47 was in the Brown family for five generations before the Hall Family Foundation purchased it for the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art at a Dec. 7 auction.

The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art has acquired a rare daguerreotype of abolitionist John Brown. The Hall Family Foundation purchased the work for the museum at a Dec. 7 auction in Cincinnati for $97,750. The foundation was one of four telephone bidders for the work, according to Cowan’s Auctions.

The image, one of six known daguerreotypes of Brown, was made by Augustus Washington, a highly respected African-American photographer and abolitionist based in Hartford, Conn. The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery owns a Washington portrait of Brown, believed to have been taken at the same sitting. Keith F. Davis, the Nelson’s curator of photography, calls the new acquisition “a pivotal daguerreotype from the period.”

The half-length portrait was taken circa 1846-47, when Brown was active in the abolitionist movement in Hartford and Springfield, Conn., where he had a wool brokerage. His importance to local history stems from his activities a decade later in Kansas, where he led attacks against pro-slavery forces, including the widely publicized killing of five pro-slavery settlers along Pottawatomie Creek.  Brown’s anti-slavery efforts culminated in his 1859 raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Va., for which he was tried and hanged.

Before its purchase by the Hall Family Foundation, the work had been in Brown’s family for five generations. The family decided to sell it to pay for some medical expenses, Cowan’s Auctions said.
At the Nelson, Brown’s portrait joins roughly 800 daguerreotypes in the museum’s photography collection, including 200 displayed in the ticketed exhibit “Developing Greatness: The Origins of American Photography, 1839-1885.”  The museum will exhibit the Brown portrait beginning in March in the museum’s free photography galleries.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Rare John Brown daguerreotype sold Friday for $97,750

By TERRY KINNEY Associated Press Writer

A rare daguerreotype of abolitionist John Brown was bought by an unidentified bidder by telephone for $97,750 on Friday, auctioneer Wes Cowan said.

The buyer declined to be identified or to talk about the purchase, Cowan said.

Experts say probably no more than a half dozen original daguerreotypes exist of the man best known for his ill-fated raid on a federal arsenal in Harpers Ferry, Va.

Brown was born in 1800 in Connecticut, lived in Ohio for a time and was a free-state activist in Kansas before the October 1859 raid that he hoped would inspire an anti-slavery rebellion. He was wounded and captured, and was tried and hanged by the state of Virginia for treason two months later. Although revered by some for his anti-slavery militancy, Abraham Lincoln called him a "misguided fanatic."

A daguerreotype was an early form of photography popular in the 1840s and 1850s in which an image is formed on a chemically treated metal plate. The method was named for Louis-Jacques-Mande Daguerre, the French painter who developed the process.
The photo auctioned Friday remained in Brown's family through five generations until descendants contacted Cowan, asking him to broker the sale to help them pay medical bills, he said.

"It's the most important photograph we've handled in our 13 years of existence," said Cowan, an occasional appraiser on "Antiques Roadshow" and host of the PBS series "History Detectives."

He had estimated a sale price of $60,000 to $80,000.

The last daguerreotype of Brown that sold at auction went for $115,000 in 1997, Cowan said. It is displayed at the Smithsonian Institution's National Portrait Gallery.

"That one shows him holding a flag with one hand, and one hand raised as if taking an oath and has a lot of drama to it," Kansas historian Karl Gridley said. "This one is more of straight-on shot."

In it, Brown is wearing a jacket with several buttons _ the same one or similar to the jacket in the National Gallery portrait _ and has his arms crossed in front of him.

"This extremely rare and riveting portrait is doubly significant not only as one of the earliest daguerreotypes of the revolutionary abolitionist but also because the long-lost image was made by the remarkable African-American photographer Augustus Washington," said Theresa Leininger-Miller, an art history professor at the University of Cincinnati.

Washington had been a teacher but turned to photography to pay off his college debts. He had one of the most successful daguerreotype studios in Hartford, Conn., before emigrating to Liberia, where he became a planter, politician and newspaper editor.

The auction catalog described the portrait this way:
"A self-assured and clean-shaven Brown stares intently and directly at the viewer with steely, blue-gray eyes and the hint of a knowing smile as the left side of his mouth upturns slightly and puffs out the cheek near his hawk-like nose."

Later, better-known portraits show Brown with a long, bushy beard. Experts believe the National Gallery daguerreotype and the one offered Friday were made during the same sitting at Washington's Hartford studio in 1846 or 1847.
On the Net:
Cowan's Auctions: http://www.cowans.com/

Saturday, December 01, 2007

John Brown Daguerreotype Resurfaces Again
(from The Cincinnati Enquirer on line, December 1, 2007)

A daguerreotype is an image captured on a thin layer of silver recognizable by its distinctive mirrored surface. It's the earliest type of commercial photography. The value of antique daguerreotypes is driven by the artifact's condition and, even more important, the uniqueness of the subject matter.

An early photograph of the famous abolitionist John Brown by noted photographer Augustus Washington is an excellent example of a rare and highly sought subject. Captured in 1846-47, the image hangs in the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., and is recognized to be the earliest photograph of Brown.

Recently, a second daguerreotype of Brown taken by Washington surfaced in Cincinnati and is believed to have been captured at the same time as the image in the National Portrait Gallery.

John Brown is best known as the passionate abolitionist who was hanged for treason in 1859. Born in Connecticut, he spent much of his life in Ohio. In 1837, Brown publicly declared, "Here, before God, in the presence of these witnesses, from this time, I consecrate my life to the destruction of slavery!" He later founded the "Subterranean Pass Way," as the militant counterpart to the Underground Railroad.

Long lost to history, the portrait descended directly from the family of Brown. It was passed from Brown's daughter to her granddaughter and was given to her grandson as a wedding present in 1949.

The identity of the photographer also can add value and desirability to a piece of early photography. The son of a South Asian mother and a man who had been a slave in Virginia, Augustus Washington was born free in Trenton, N.J. He enjoyed reading antislavery literature and attending abolitionist meetings. Thanks to some assistance by abolitionists, Washington attended several colleges in the late 1830s and early 1840s.

While attending Dartmouth College, he supported himself by taking portraits of Dartmouth faculty and citizens of Hanover, N.H. He continued his photography while living in Hartford, Conn., and opened a studio. This studio is the site of the famous images of John Brown.

Washington succeeded in capturing the evangelical character and stubborn rigidity of an independent-minded loner. Both Brown's pious and militant nature is evident in his striking portrait.

Wes Cowan, owner of Cowan's Auctions Inc. , Winton Place, can be seen on PBS' History Detectives and Antiques Roadshow. Contact him at info@cowanauctions.com. Research by Theresa Leininger-Miller.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Part I
John Brown & New York City

Louis A. DeCaro Jr.

Unlike his final visit, most of John Brown’s previous trips to New York City had gone unnoticed by the public. More accustomed to rural life, businessman Brown probably felt a bit awkward walking the streets of the city, though in later years as a celebrated Kansas guerilla he learned to wear his frontier bearing like an exotic costume in the great cities of the east. But in the early days, he was just one more struggling traveler hoping to complete his mission and get out of New York as soon as possible.

An Early Visit to NYC

Brown’s earliest documented visit took place in December 1838, when he spent the better part of a week in “new York,” writing to his wife back home in Ohio that “I have not yet succeeded in my business, but think the prospect such that I do not by any means despair of final success.” But this kind of optimism would often decorate his disappointments. After a decade of doing reasonably well in Pennsylvania, for some reason Brown had returned to his home state of Ohio in the mid-1830s and gotten himself involved in land speculation, as well as buying western cattle for a firm in Connecticut. When the former venture collapsed, he used money from the latter to pay off some debts, determined that he would quickly replace the borrowed funds with the profits from his livestock venture. When his cattle sales proved disappointing, Brown somberly packed his bag and headed eastward in the hopes of securing a loan from a New York bank. But interviews and applications came to nothing, and after being likewise disappointed in Boston, 38-year old John Brown found himself returning home empty handed–the first leg of a journey of miles and tears that ultimately led to bankruptcy in 1842.

Brown's Hatred of Slavery

The prevailing view of many historians is that John Brown’s zeal for the anti-slavery cause grew in proportion to his failures in business. However, the reality is that he was reared in a devotedly abolitionist home where it was expressly taught that Africans and Native Americans were human beings made in God’s image. John Brown’s father was a stubborn Yankee who moved his family to the frontier in 1805, settling on Connecticut’s “western reserve” lands in the wilderness of northeastern Ohio. Owen Brown was a tanner known for his piety, his abolitionist zeal, and his tendency to stutter in speech–except when addressing the Almighty in prayer. He had been converted to the anti-slavery cause by Puritan revivalists in Connecticut, and took these sentiments with him to Ohio where he befriended local Native Americans and aided fugitives from slavery coming up from Kentucky and other slave states. A good businessman, Owen did quite well in land sales, and it was undoubtedly his example that first inspired young John to dream of surpassing his father’s attainment of wealth and support of the anti-slavery cause.

Later in life, when he wrote an autobiographical sketch for a friend in New England, Brown discussed his early years on the frontier, his inclination toward livestock and sheep farming, and a painful experience with slavery that he never forgot. After single-handedly herding some of his father’s “beef cattle” a great distance for sale to federal troops during the War of 1812, Brown recalled being treated very kindly by his white host. The man doted over 12-year old John, making much of his bravery and independence. But John was aghast when the same kind man acted out in sheer brutality and violence toward a black youth right before his eyes. John Brown always remembered this young man–fatherless and vulnerable–as representing the plight of enslaved blacks throughout the South. With all that his father had taught him, it was nevertheless this incident that solidified his unrelenting hatred of slavery.

Businessman Brown

Brown has often been portrayed as being a terribly reckless and untalented businessman, and his failures have usually been highlighted in order to discredit his later anti-slavery activities. However, while he was hardly a great businessman, the economy of the nation was shaky and uncertain. Many more capable businessmen also failed in the first half of the 19th century, especially in the western states which suffered for lack of a national bank, and where currency was inferior and entrepreneurs often found themselves entangled in debt involving unreliable promissory notes and drafts. Indeed, what is interesting about Brown’s business career is that despite major setbacks, his sterling reputation went unquestioned and some of his ideas–though not his tactics–were later implemented by other businessmen to some success.

Throughout the 1830s and 1840s, John Brown dreamed of using the profits of capitalism to advance the anti-slavery cause and provide assistance to the black community. Others were already so engaged, such as Gerrit Smith, a pious magnate in upstate New York, and the brothers Arthur and Lewis Tappan down in New York City, who generously funded educational and religious efforts among abolitionists. Brown’s early ideas were conservative, such as establishing a school for blacks. But with the passing of years and the worsening of conditions in the antebellum era, he undoubtedly became more militant in his plans. In between business trips, Brown thus applied himself to aiding blacks en route to Canada. Sometimes he was known to make forays into Kentucky and Indiana for the purpose of smuggling fugitives under the cover of a furniture wagon. Gradually, however, it became clear that he would never attain great wealth, and John Brown began to reassess his place in the anti-slavery cause, although it would take another decade before he willingly exchanged his role of entrepreneurial facilitator for that of militant freedom fighter.

Wool and Justice

By the mid-1840s he began to distinguish himself in the area of livestock, especially fine sheep and wool. In partnership with Simon Perkins, a wealthy investor from Akron, Ohio, Brown traveled throughout the northeast, examining flocks and conferring with wool growers, especially those with anti-slavery sentiments. By 1845 he had become something of an authority, writing pieces for agricultural journals, preparing certificates of quality for wool growers, developing cures and treatments for sheep, and making the Perkins flock one of the best in the country. In the midst of these activities, Brown came to the conclusion that the wool growers of the nation were at the mercy of the manufacturers in New England. As he saw it, U.S. wools had a bad reputation abroad partly because the wool growers themselves were careless and even dishonest in preparing their product for market. But they were nevertheless at the mercy of capitalists who controlled prices and manipulated the wool growers accordingly.

To answer this injustice, in 1846 the two Ohio partners set up a wool commission business in Springfield, Massachusetts, where Brown himself would carry the mandate of the wool growers to the New England manufacturers. By uniting the wool men and providing standards for quality and pricing, or so he believed, the whole nation would benefit. At the same time, Brown began to associate with leaders in Springfield’s black community, especially those affiliated with the city’s leading black Methodist church. While bankers thought him somewhat eccentric and stubborn in business matters, whites working closest to him were probably more put off by Brown’s passionate interest in the slavery question. Conversations with black employees and associates sometimes kept him in the office until late in the evening. John Brown was developing a plan to undermine slavery on a grand scale, and he wanted to recruit black men to help him.

But the wool venture failed, and while its demise was bound up with Brown’s business decisions, the firm was far more hurt by a lack of unity among the wool growers as well as the subterfuge of the manufacturers, who moved against him in the market and even placed an agent inside his wool commission. Furthermore, the wool venture was a partnership, and certainly Simon Perkins shared the blame for the failure, especially since he made no effort to contradict Brown’s management at any time. Some writers have exaggerated the significance of the firm’s failure to John Brown’s personal life, though in truth it was more a hassle than a heartbreak, and Perkins absorbed the loss without complaint. Indeed, he thought so highly of Brown’s skills and work ethic that he pressed upon him to continue the management of his flock and farm back in Ohio. Sitting in a lackluster hotel room in Manhattan in February 1851, Brown thus wrote home that his disappointed partner still seemed “anxious to have us go back to Akron, and wants me to go on with him.”

The Browns, New York City, & Phrenology

In the aftermath of business failure, the partners faced a good many lawsuits involving manufacturers and former clients, and these kept Brown living out of a suitcase. Besides business stopovers, his visits to New York City in 1849-50 also entailed seeing his eldest son, John Jr., who had become an associate of the phrenology firm of Fowler & Wells. In the antebellum era, phrenology was upheld as the science of measuring human intellect, ability, and personality according to the shape of the skull. Inspired by a European theory that was carried across the Atlantic in the 1830s, traveling phrenologists in the U.S. lectured widely, providing skull-based evaluations and advice, and promising a future where advanced knowledge could be applied to practical use for the betterment of society. Unlike their European counterparts, advocates of phrenology in the U.S. blended scientific claims with other popular therapies and moral reforms, such as water-cure, temperance, mesmerism, and spiritualism.

Unlike his Puritan father who believed mainly in the Bible and the Declaration of Independence, John Jr. was always attracted to novel ideas ranging from science to the supernatural. In this case, however, it appears that both father and son were impressed by phrenology, perhaps after encountering Orson Fowler who, with his brother Lorenzo, were its foremost advocates in the country. The Fowlers lectured, advertised, and published a variety of materials applying phrenology to many social problems in their American Phrenological Journal and Miscellany. With branch offices in Boston and Philadelphia, they kept their headquarters and publishing company in New York City, where they formed a partnership with Samuel Wells. It is not clear which John Brown, father or son, was first attracted to the claims of phrenology, though they apparently became aware of it during their time in Springfield. Perhaps the Browns had heard Orson Fowler lecture at Springfield’s Town Hall, or had read about Fowler & Wells in newspapers like the Springfield Republican and the New York Tribune, which they favored for their anti-slavery sympathies.

Interestingly, the earliest document linking the Browns with phrenology is Orson Fowler’s handwritten “Phrenological Description of John Brown.” How it actually came about that Brown got a skull reading by Fowler is not known, though it is possible that his own curiosity as well as the urging of John Jr. compelled him to seek out the Fowlers while visiting New York City. The Fowler & Wells office was located at 131 Nassau Street, not too far from the American Tract Society at 150 Nassau Street, where Brown probably shopped for his favorite Puritan theological texts whenever visiting the city. He thus appeared at the door of the Fowler & Wells office on February 27, 1847 to have his head analyzed. Of course no one could have known at the time that businessman John Brown, yet to emerge as a public figure in the anti-slavery struggle, was joining a small circle of famous people, including Mark Twain, John Greeleaf Whittier, and Walt Whitman, all of whom had their skulls squeezed and measured by the chief apostles of phrenology in America.

Fowler’s “Description” is quaint and at some points seems no more revelatory than a popular horoscope:

Your mind. . .is of the kind that is continually expanding and improving. . . . You are very active both physically and mentally–are positive in your likes and dislikes. . . . You have strong domestic feelings, and are very fond of children. . . .It would be an advantage to you if you had a little more hope, and would allow yourself to look more on the bright side of things.

On the other hand, some of the analyst’s remarks seems quite true to the subject, probably demonstrating Fowler’s keen perceptions as an interviewer more so than the reliability of his science:

You have a pretty good opinion of yourself–would rather lead than be led. . . . In making up your mind you are careful & judicious, but are firm as the hills when once decided. You like to have your own way. . . . As a religious man you would become inclined to “deal justly and love mercy” than to pay much regard to forms and ceremonies. . . .You like to do business on a large scale, and can make money better than save it–you want it for its uses (in one form of another) rather than for its own sake.

To be sure, while Brown’s ability to make money was quite uneven, he never seems to have had any great passion for wealth in itself. Indeed, his supposed predisposition toward “business on a large scale” and the acquisition of money “for its uses” were never more evident than when he became a full-time soldier in his own personal war on slavery.

Judging from the manner in which the family seems to have treasured Fowler’s skull reading, John Brown was apparently impressed by the analysis, and seems to have had no problem when his namesake decided to become a professional phrenologist under the employ of Fowler & Wells. The younger Brown and his wife moved to New York City, but after less than a year, his career seems to have been cut short when he developed throat problems that interfered with his lecturing responsibilities. When John senior learned that his son and daughter-in-law were returning to Ohio, he wrote: “I am taken somewhat by surprise; but am exceedingly gratified to learn that you have concluded to quit that city.”

"That City"

It is no surprise that Brown was pleased that his son was leaving New York. While the booming metropolis undoubtedly had its benefits, its liabilities were all too evident, especially for someone accustomed to open land and mountain air. New York City was experiencing the birth pangs of modernity, and had already outgrown Philadelphia as the largest city in the country. By mid-19th century, the population swelled to a half a million, and although the city grid had already been expanded to accommodate growth, most residents were crammed into noisy, muddled areas in the lower third of the island. The sound of carriage traffic alone could be deafening at times, and one Manhattan resident wrote to the Tribune complaining that the city had become “a large, crowded, ill-ventilated, vulgar collection of bricks and mortar, and dirty streets and unsightly wharves.” John Brown must have worried at the thought that his family members were living amidst the racket and congestion of “new York.”

The same writer in the Tribune also complained about the influence that foreign immigrants were having on the city’s more pleasant sections, such as the Battery, which now seemed “about to be surrendered to the most vulgar occupation” of “thousands of unwashed immigrants who are vomited forth from the cities of Europe upon our shores.” Broadway too, “our great thoroughfare, is to be blocked up by these wandering hordes,” and “the lowest beggars and lazzaroni” were spreading “ship fever and small-pox and other loathsome diseases” to the point of creating a “deadly, polluting effect.” The city was indeed changing, even as the conventional notion of the so-called Caucasian race was being stretched painfully wider to include new waves of Irish, Italian, and other European immigrants, particularly Jews and Roman Catholics whose very presence would challenge the traditional dominance of Protestant culture. It was these “unwashed” peoples who were swelling the population, even as they laid the groundwork for a future metropolis where their descendants would outnumber those whom the writer called “the old citizens of New-York.”

Although John Brown was hardly xenophobic, his Puritan heart was probably a bit discomforted by the idea of an influx of Roman Catholics in the United States. However, if he had anything against the immigrants, particularly the Irish, it was probably that they seemed to be feeding into the worst aspects of race and racism in the city and nation as a whole. Despite their own flight from famine and oppression in Europe, the Irish–followed by other European immigrants in later years–quickly adapted to the racist norms of white society. “It bears terrifying witness to what happened to everyone who got here, and paid the price of the ticket,” James Baldwin writes. “The price was to become ‘white.’” In their quest to distinguish themselves from the most despised minority, the new immigrants often became far more virulent and antagonistic in their prejudices than even the Anglo-Saxon Protestants. These prejudices eventually exploded in the Draft Riots of 1863, when the resentment of immigrants in New York City turned in violent rage against black men, women, and children. In his visits to major eastern cities like New York and Boston, John Brown undoubtedly saw the vivid impact that white racism was having on the new immigrants, and how it was only worsening the condition of the despised black population.

Racist New York & Slave "Renditions"

To be sure, it would be nearly a century before New York became the “Big Apple” that jazz musicians adored, nor was the great black metropolis of Harlem even a remote possibility in the 1850s. Indeed, from the perspective of an abolitionist visitor like John Brown, New York City was one of the worst places for African Americans to live. Flagrant acts of racism were common, and blacks not only faced regular occurrences of open insult and physical assault by white ruffians, but lived under a system of de facto segregation. For black people in New York, every aspect of life was poisoned by white prejudice, from housing and employment to public facilities and entertainment. Apart from their own organizations and protest efforts, blacks had few choices, even fewer allies, and certainly no options whenever whites decided to pull rank according to skin privilege.

In 1855, the Rev. James W. C. Pennington, the prominent pastor of the Prince Street Presbyterian Church, found himself in such a dilemma when he was violently removed from a Sixth Avenue street car by the driver and conductor. Determined to have justice, Pennington held onto the back of the car, running behind it all the way downtown to the depot, where he found a policeman and demanded that the officer arrest the driver who had assaulted him. Instead of receiving justice, however, the minister was told to forget his complaint and move on. Outraged, Pennington argued with the policeman, only to find himself arrested and jailed. While a magistrate dismissed charges against the prominent pastor, nothing came of Pennington’s complaint–the incident only serving to suggest how much worse things were for blacks of no reputation or social standing. Unlike the Pennington incident, the injustices blacks experienced on a daily basis in the city were hardly reported in the Tribune or any other city newspaper. Although New York would one day become a haven for white liberals and black nationalists, in the antebellum era it was essentially a hostile environment for African Americans and white abolitionists. Indeed, compared to New York City, John Brown’s “western reserve” section in Ohio was a far more liberal and progressive society.

With the passing of the Fugitive Slave Act in the fall of 1850, things in New York and throughout the North could only get worse for blacks. While the law of the land already supported the capture and return of fugitives from slavery, the pro-slavery precept empowered the institution in unprecedented ways. Marshals and man hunters were authorized with the maximum support of the government, and those who refused to cooperate and assist them could be fined and imprisoned. Judges were awarded more money for blacks they sent back into slavery than for those they released, and blacks themselves had no voice in their own trials. Within a short time of the passing of the law, several black New Yorkers were seized, tried, and sent to the South in chains. The most notable incident was that of Henry Long whose case became noteworthy because the despised abolitionists of the city rallied to provide him legal aid, postponing his return and creating financial inconvenience for the Southerner who claimed to be his master. In response, the “Union Safety Committee” was formed by city merchants and businessmen, who successfully raised money to hire additional legal assistance on behalf of the slave owner. Thanks to their intervention, Long was finally returned to slavery.

Another case was that of Horace Preston, a fugitive living in Brooklyn who was not aware that a policeman from New York’s 6th Ward had conspired with a city lawyer to seize and return him to slavery in Maryland. According to the Tribune, in April 1852 Preston was arrested on false charges and jailed “in the lower part of the Tombs, not under the control of the regular Warden of that prison.” When friends offered to pay Preston’s bail, they were refused, as was the offer of counsel. He was secretly arraigned with no legal representation so that the false charge could be laid aside and the slave law invoked. By the time any effective action could be taken on Preston’s behalf, it was already too late, the conspirators having made sure of their reward.

Ally For Freedom

John Brown greeted the Fugitive Slave Law with a peculiar theological optimism. He followed the reports of “slave renditions,” noting that the Long case in New York City had sent shock waves throughout the black community, including his friends up in Springfield, Massachusetts. But rather than see the law as an overwhelming monster, Brown believed it was God’s way of fueling the fire of the anti-slavery cause. “It now seems the fugitive slave law was to be the means of making more abolitionists than all the lectures we have had for years,” he wrote to his wife Mary during a business trip. But Brown also saw the passing of the law as an opportunity for action, and he gathered black friends and associates together in Springfield, organizing a self-defense group which he called “The United States League of Gileadites”--an allusion to the biblical story of a small army of Israelites who organized to fight against foreign invaders. He then drafted an organizational document for the Gileadites which included advice and strategies for militant struggle resistance. According to Brown, there were to be no Henry Longs or Horace Prestons taken from Springfield, as the Gileadites should expediently kill any agent of slavery who dared to operate in their town. According to local black history, one Sunday morning after service at the Zion Methodist Church, Brown stood in the back of the sanctuary passing out Bowie knives to the parishioners. Interestingly, the presence of the Gileadites not only seems to have dissuaded man hunters from coming into town, but in a real sense the organization also established John Brown as the most influential militant leader in Springfield’s black community until “Temple No. 13" of the Nation of Islam was established by Malcolm X over a century later.

During this period, Brown, his wife, and younger children had settled into a small community nearby a colony of African Americans in the chilly Adirondack community of North Elba, known today as Lake Placid. Even as the wool business in Springfield was winding down, Brown had become enamored with the idea of joining the efforts of free blacks who had received land grants from the wealthy abolitionist, Gerrit Smith of Peterboro. Smith had inherited thousands of wilderness acreage from his father, and devised the plan of giving parcels of land to blacks from New York State, thus enabling them to overcome racist voting restrictions that limited suffrage to property owners. Contrary to what has sometimes been reported, none of the black grantees were ex-slaves or fugitives from the South, but hailed from cities like Troy, Albany, New York, and Brooklyn. All they needed to do was claim their deeds and settle their lands.

Brown was delighted to hear about Smith’s plan and imagined himself settling along with them as a kind of fatherly consultant, particularly since they were urban folks who would need guidance and instruction in the ways of the wilderness.

The problem with Smith’s land grant program was that its strength was in sentiment rather than practicality. It would have been hard enough for city dwellers to learn the skills necessary to establish an agrarian based settlement. But when they arrived, the black settlers found that much of the land was not arable. In addition, the climate seemed enduringly cold, the planting season short, and vegetation stunted. Nor were they free of the subterfuge of unscrupulous whites who set about scamming some of the settlers out of their deeds. Notwithstanding the many challenges facing the colony, Brown had irreversibly determined that the program was full of potential, and then threw himself and his family head-first into the effort. Moving into a rented farmhouse in the spring of 1849, the Browns began to reach out to the fledgling black community, which called itself “Timbuctoo” after the great cultural center in African history. Throughout 1849-51, Brown was frequently moving back and forth between Springfield and the Adirondacks, struggling to close out business affairs while providing for his family and looking out for the interests of the “Timbuctoo” colonists.

But even before moving to North Elba, Brown had established regular communication with Willis Hodges, the foremost black leader associated with the grantee program. Hodges, a Brooklynite with roots in Virginia, was distinguished as one of the leading blacks in the state, and had co-founded a newspaper called The Ram’s Horn with the black restauranteur Thomas Van Rensselaer, whose popular eatery was located on the corner of John and Williams Streets in Manhattan. Brown had made great efforts to promote and support The Ram’s Horn, and even wrote a quaint piece for the paper under the guise of a black writer. The article, entitled “Sambo Mistakes” (not “Sambo’s Mistakes” as many of us have previously supposed), was Brown’s way of identifying a set of behaviors and attitudes–Sambo mistakes–that diminished black manhood, weakened the struggle for justice, and reinforced prevalent racist stereotypes. The article showed real chutzpah, but John Brown was not patronizing and he wore his literary black face with genuine determination; if the editors actually ever read it, they probably felt Brown’s audacity more thoughtful than offensive. Nevertheless, it has long been a scholarly presumption that Hodges and Van Rensselaer published Brown’s little essay sometime between 1848 and 1849. Unfortunately, almost nothing of the paper has survived, and our only source for the piece comes from Brown’s own copy pad. If “Sambo Mistakes” was actually published, we have no way of telling from the few extant fragments of The Ram’s Horn.

Regardless, Hodges and Brown thereafter carried on a warm correspondence in the early days of the black colony experiment in the Adirondacks. Hodges himself had headed up another Adirondack colony called “Blackville.” From time to time, Brown wrote letters of encouragement to Hodges, and purchased food and supplies to be shared among the colonists. By the later 1850s, however, most of the grantees from “Timbuctoo” and “Blackville” had fled the cold wilderness, leaving only a few determined settlers on the land. Hodges himself pulled out sometime in the early 1850s and returned to his home in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The next time he saw his somber blue-eyed friend, John Brown was sporting a long white beard and plotting a raid upon the slave states.

Though African American leaders knew of him a whole decade before the raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859, Brown remained on the margins of the abolitionist community and was unknown to prominent white leaders like the fiery writer and orator, William Lloyd Garrison of Boston. Not only was he stubbornly independent, but he increasingly dismissed abolitionists for their talk-only inclinations. Most of all, Brown was convinced that the pacifist doctrine of “moral suasion” was nonsense, and that the institution of slavery had become so monstrous, unrelenting, and morally reprobate that the only manner it could be defeated was through the use of force. [continued]

John Brown & New York City

According to the famous New York diarist George Templeton Strong, nine-tenths of the city’s population in 1859 were quite opposed to John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, and were equally vociferous in opposing the outpouring of Northern sympathy in newspapers and rallies resulting from his execution. Like many Northern whites in the antebellum period, Strong was nevertheless disgusted by the demands and threats of the Southern slave states, and had grown weary of “seeing the North on its knees, declaring it is a good boy, and begging the South not to commit the treason and violence it is forever threatening.” Even though he disapproved of the tributes to Brown that appeared in the New York Tribune, Strong could not help but see the impact that the abolitionist had made on people throughout the free states. “His simplicity and consistency, the absence of fuss, parade and bravado, the strength and clearness of his letters, all indicate a depth of conviction that one does not expect in an Abolitionist,” he wrote the week after Brown’s execution in Virginia. “Slavery has received no such blow in my time as his strangulation.”

John Brown, one of the nation’s leading authorities on fine sheep and wool, had been anything but a good boy. For nearly four years, dating from his first trip out to the Kansas territory until his assault on the [West] Virginia town of Harper’s Ferry in October 1859, Brown waged a full time war against slavery--one that cost him virtually all he owned as well as the lives of three of his sons. Finally, it required that he hang by the neck on a Virginia gallows while his enemies watched with satisfaction, declaring him aloud to be an “enemy of humanity.”

Yet George Templeton Strong and other conservative Northerners could not escape the forces in the wind that made the swaying of John Brown’s body something of a national pendulum, as if marking the months, days, and hours that remained before the whole nation exploded into civil war. Soldiers dressed in blue would soon be singing John Brown’s anthem as they marched into battle, and a troubled President Abraham Lincoln would finally be forced to follow John Brown’s example by putting guns in the hands of black men. But it would take years before Lincoln was ready to do so.

In February 1860, barely three months after Brown’s execution, presidential hopeful Lincoln told an audience at the Cooper Union in New York City that the late abolitionist was a brooding, delusional fanatic whose unwarranted invasion of Virginia merited the harshest penalty. John Brown deserved to be hanged, Lincoln declared before an audience of 1500 New Yorkers. As for slavery, he concluded, “we can yet afford to leave it alone where it is." He made quite a stir with his Cooper Union speech, and many think it was a turning point in his quest for the presidency. Yet it was in cleverly distancing himself from John Brown and black liberation that Abe Lincoln won the nomination of the Republican party in 1860. On that snowy night in Manhattan, it was quite apparent that John Brown’s body was a burden to Lincoln and the Republicans, and that they believed the problem of slavery was a matter best postponed for the sake of the Union. Brown had forcefully disagreed, insisting that the plight of oppressed millions should be the first order of business for American democracy. To the dismay of the Republican party, the South presumed that Brown fairly illustrated the Northern agenda. Thus, figuratively speaking, Lincoln had tried to unload John Brown’s body in New York City–a point that has a certain resonance only because the real body had actually been unloaded in the city twelve weeks before.

Shipped north by train from Harper’s Ferry to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on December 2, John Brown’s remains were accompanied by his widow Mary Brown and James Miller McKim, a prominent abolitionist from the city of brotherly love. Mary needed to rest among friends over night, but the excitement and curiosity surrounding Brown’s body prompted the mayor to insist that his coffin not remain in town. Of course he claimed that he had Mary Brown’s best interests in mind, fearing that the uproar would interrupt her mourning. But the mayor was far more concerned that the excitement might lead to public demonstrations in sympathy for the Old Man, and as the New York Tribune reported, “he preemptorily insisted that another stopping place should be selected.” And so John Brown’s body was tossed northward like the proverbial hot potato, and he entered New York for the last time, on December 3, 1859, inside a crude pine coffin, dressed in tattered, war-torn clothes, with the hangman’s rope still around his neck--a Southern salute to the people of the North.* (continued)


*Some of the material in this section has been re-presented in the epilogue of my book, John Brown--The Cost of Freedom.

Two Harper's Ferry Raid Items Under Auction

The Heritage Auction Galleries are currently conducting an auction of Civil War era items, including two items pertaining to John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry, [West] Virginia, in October 1859. The items are pictured and described below, based on the Heritage Auction website.

According to the Heritage Auction description:

THE ONLY KNOWN PERIOD IMAGE OF JOHN BROWN'S CARBINE [left] On the reverse of a post-Civil War carte de visite photograph, taken by R.A. Lewis of New York City, is penned the following bold browned ink inscription, which definitively proclaims a most historic declaration:

The gun taken from the hands of John Brown at Harper's Ferry, now in possession of H.T. Drowne, New York, The lad holding it is Drowne's son. Presented to me by Mr. Drowne, Oct. 4th, 1870. The well-dressed lad on the obverse of the CDV does indeed solemnly hold an example of what has come to be known as the "John Brown model" of Sharps carbine, but no other supporting evidence of the veracity of the written testimonial is offered. Additionally, at his feet on the floor of the photographer's studio there appear some mysterious folded documents or papers for which there is also given no explanation.

Then, in 1998, out a family estate in Cooperstown, New York, the identical carbine surfaced with great fanfare and is currently on display at the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. Most amazingly, an envelope containing an 1870 dated letter of provenance was still with the firearm and provided a wonderfully unbroken chain of ownership up to that time, that letter being the exact one shown in this carte de visite.

According to the letter, which was written on behalf of the widow of Confederate General George W. Randolph by former Confederate Major Thomas G. Peyton, the "rifle used by John Brown at Harpers Ferry" was secured by General Randolph in his presence and further states that "the fact of the rifle being the one used by Brown and captured in his hands in the Engine house" can be corroborated by the Governor of Virginia H.A. Wise. The recipient of the letter, one J. Lyttleton Adams, may have been an associate of noted New York historical collector Henry Thayer Drowne, in whos appreciative hands the carbine was placed very shortly thereafter.

Correspondence with Harpers Ferry National Historical Park and a xerox copy of the actual letter and cover accompany this lot. An incredibly significant and extremely important photograph, backed with impeccable documentation. Condition: Very Fine, with great contrast Estimate: $2,500 - $3,500.


A JOHN BROWN CARTRIDGE...SAVED BY ONE OF HIS RAIDERS [top]. During the summer of 2006, a grouping of Civil War personal effects and ephemera attributed to a Federal officer (whose family had moved to Ohio from Boston at some point after the war ended) was sold at an estate auction held near Cincinnati. The officer, Benjamin H. Ticknor, first served as a 2nd Lieutenant in the 45th Massachusetts Infantry, but was later commissioned as a Captain in the 2nd Massachusetts Artillery.

A number of his more treasured mementos had been stored in labeled and rather colorful "PRIDE OF VIRGINIA" tin tobacco boxes made by the J. Wright Company of Richmond, actually highly collectible pieces in their own right. In the box marked "Political" was something extra special, an original wrapped .52 caliber Sharps cartridge from John Brown's Raid.

Written in old browned in on the back of one of his engraved calling cards was the true history of this singularly unique and most extraordinary relic, penned in the hand of Captain Ticknor himself:

This bullet was carried on the John Brown raid by Francis Jackson Merriam and was by him given to Dr. David Thayer by whom he was secreted after his escape. Given by Dr. T. to me today. August 31st, 1889. B.H.T.

An official solder of Brown's Provisional Army, Francis J. Merriam is described by one source as "one-eyed and mentally challenged." Born into an elite Boston abolitionist family and wielding a modest inheritance, he joined the raiders late in the game and was assigned to help guard their farmhouse stronghold and also supply weapons and distribute munitions to arriving slaves at their schoolhouse rendezvous point. Upon the failure of the Raid, Merriam escaped and eventually fled to Canada with the able assistance of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, as well as the above mentioned Dr. David Thayer. He later returned to the U.S. and became an officer in a colored infantry regiment, where his wild and quirky behavior soon earned him a leg wound. He died mysteriously in late 1865.

An incredibly intriguing artifact with wonderful period provenance. Full details, plus additional background and particulars upon request. One of the most interesting Civil War cartridges one is ever likely to encounter.

Condition: Fine, powder is falling out Estimate: $2,500 - $3,500.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Response to a Blogger Who Calls John Brown a "Bully"

John Brown was not a bully. He was by nature an advocate for the underdog.

What happened in Kansas was pro-slavery terrorism unchecked. Brown went there to protect his family. The [Pottawatomie] killings [of May 1856] that he and others committed are famously misrepresented. They were not random attacks on pro-slavery neighbors. They were specifically aligned to remove the collaborators of pro-slavery terrorists (euphemistically known as "border ruffians") who were intent on "removing" the Browns. Brown did his homework--he always did his homework, and he knew specifically which men were working to undermine his family. Keep in mind, too, that there was a pro-slavery government in Washington D.C., Kansas was a territory overrun by pro-slavery thugs and terrorists, and there was no local constabulary or law enforcement that would provide them with immediate protection against terrorist assault; Lawrence had just been assaulted and Brown had done surveillance on the "ruffian" camp, having learned that his family were marked for attack. He made a hard choice, and he knew it was problematic; but he chose to strike first and save his sons. Note too that none of the men who were involved with him were forced; they assented and agreed, including one of the sword-wielding neighbors. This incident has been misrepresented, largely because of ignorance and prejudice, which seems to be the blight on Brown's legacy.

As a biographer of the man, I and a few others doing primary research are constantly up against the deep-seated prejudice and misinformation about Brown that saturates the thinking of people in this country--yes, mostly white males (and I say that as one myself).

Your comments on Lincoln likewise suggest you do not know the man. You speak of Douglass, but you should take the time to read what Douglass said about Lincoln and Brown, respectively, in his third and final autobiography. He says of Lincoln that he was primarily a white man's president, and that his choices and judgments as president were for whites, not blacks' advancement. In Douglass's thinking, no "white" man was closer to the cause of black people than John Brown. This was also the judgment of Harriet Tubman and the rest of Douglass's contemporaries. The "Lincoln the Great Emancipator" hype that we've all been fed is a post-1865 propaganda and it is an attempt to make the proverbial half-full glass seem full to the brim. But Lincoln was a politician, not a liberator, and if he did liberate people, he did so when it was politically expedient, or (if Lerone Bennett is correct) even unavoidable.

Lastly, as to Harper's Ferry, the conventional understanding of the raid is wrong, and that error has likewise informed historians and school book authors, where most of us have gotten our basic predisposition and understanding. You say Brown had courage but Douglass had wisdom. That's only half true.

Douglass repeatedly acknowledged afterward that he lacked courage to die for his people, but he never accused Brown of lacking wisdom. Douglass himself did not know what Brown knew about HF. If you examine Brown's strategy, you'll find it was not unreasonable at all. HF had no military guard and it was close to the mountains. Historians like myself and others have likewise found evidence that many enslaved people indeed turned out to support him, so the essence of Brown's plan was feasible at least. Douglass never objected to Brown's basic plan; what he objected to was seizing the armory. Brown failed not because his plan was foolish, but because he lingered too long "parleying" and sympathizing with his whimpering hostages--most of them slave masters. Some bully! His own man, Osborne Anderson wrote this in his memoir of the raid[A Voice from Harper's Ferry-1860]

Brown was no bully. By nature he was a very compassionate man who always fought for the downcast. As a school boy he was known to always take up for the weak guy when he was being bullied. We have that from local history. As a businessman he aligned his interests with white farmers being victimized by industrialists. Of course he was always trying to assist black people, the perennial victims of Jeffersonian democracy. You have incorrectly characterized him, but it's not your fault. It's the fault of biased historians and journalists. Brown is the most skewed and violated historical figure in U.S. history, and a lot of it has to do with race and politics in the post-civil war era leading into the civil rights era. You don't get Brown, but you think you do, and that's been the problem of the majority of bloggers, journalists, and even U.S. historians--the vast majority of them being white males who never do more than a basic reading of a few interpretations. I'm a two-time biographer of the man John Brown, and as I said, you don't get him at all, and because of that your bully notion falls flat.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Heritage NY includes John Brown Farm in Underground Railroad tour

LAKE PLACID — The John Brown Farm is participating in a new project with Heritage New York that will be in place by 2009. Many of the stops on the Underground Railroad are now private homes, and the John Brown Farm will be a central hub for visitor information in the region.

At other sites, Heritage New York is helping historic locations along the Underground Railroad driving tour make new brochures, put packages together and conduct workshops.

The Underground Railroad in New York in the mid 19th century started in Albany or Troy and went up to the Canadian border, helping slaves escape to freedom. The Emancipation Proclamation ended slavery in the U.S. in 1863. No civilized nation currently has slavery.

In the Adirondacks, the Underground Railroad wasn’t as large of a network as other places, and most of the border traffic went around the mountains. When the well-known corridors were being watched by slave catchers, however, some slaves began to go through this area.

John Brown was a towering figure in the anti-slavery movement and died after seizing the federal armory at Harper’s Ferry, W. Va. His attempt at a slave insurrection got him hung on Dec. 2, 1859.

—Erika Lorentzsen (Adirondack Daily Enterprise, Oct. 11, 2007)

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Jefferson County Jail, West Virginia, Where John Brown Spent His Last Days

From his arrest his October 1859 until his execution on December 2 of the same year, John Brown the abolitionist was held prisoner in the jail at Charles Town, Virginia, now West Virginia. The original jail, pictured in this undated, colorized image, was also residence of the jailer John Avis and family. Brown and his surviving men from the Harper's Ferry raid were all incarcerated here until their executions, the last of which took place in March 1860.

Recently photographer J. J. Prats of Springfield, Virginia, has visited and photographed the Charles Town Post Office, which now stands on the site of the old jail in town. Several of his photos are posted on the Historical Markers Datebase (see link below), two of which are posted here showing the post office as the original site where Brown was held prisoner by the State of Virginia.

The inscription reads:

"On the site of this Post Office stood the Jefferson County Jail where John Brown and his fellow prisoners were confined after their raid on Harpers Ferry in October 1859. After court trial John Brown was taken from the Jail here to his death on the gallows December the Second in the year 1859. From the Post Office in Charles Town, West Virginia, was started the first Rural Free Delivery service in the United States, under Postmaster-General Wm. L. Wilson, October the First, 1896. Erected 1932 by the Jefferson County Historical Society of West Virginia."

According to the Historical Marker Database, the location is 39° 17′ 19.5″ N, 77° 51′ 36.18″ W., at the intersection of South George Street (West Virginia Route 115) and Washington Street (West Virginia Route 51), post office area Charles Town WV 25414, United States of America.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

John Steuart Curry murals spread an important message about Kansas

Story by Dana Davis (49ABCnews, Topeka, Kansas)

A large, striking, portrait of controversial abolitionist John Brown, painted in all his fury.

Towering images of a Kansas frontiersman and Spanish explorers.

Vivid murals in deep rich colors of burnt orange, chocolate brown, indigo and emerald painted by John Steuart Curry in the State Capitol.

"The murals that Mr. Curry painted in the Capitol was done in the the early 1940s. Mr Curry was commissioned to paint the East Wing where we are now, the West Wing, also the rotunda," said Don Dunn, Tour Guide for the Capitol.

Perhaps the most famous and one of the most controversial paintings of Curry is that of John Brown. Dunn says critics did not like the use of John Brown, the color scheme, and the overall menacing look of the mural, including the tornado and fire.

"Mr. Curry explained any person that he painted, which he felt was important to Kansas history, he was gonna paint larger then life," Dunn said.

"The tornado, he explains, as the gathering of the storms of war. The fire as fires of war, but it's also put there so show the destruction that the Civil War caused across the Kansas territory," Dunn said. . . .

Curry was also commissioned to paint the rotunda, but it didn't happen.

"After he completed the paintings in the West Wing, Mr. Curry was basically fired by the legislators," Dunn said.

Curry left the state, never signing his artwork. He declared it unfinished because he didn't paint the scenes planned for the rotunda.

John Steuart Curry died of a heart attack in August of 1946 at the age of 48. His wife said it was of a broken heart, being rejected by his home state. But, Kansas finally did apologize to Curry in 1992 the legislature issued an official apology for its treatment of the artist.

Postscript: The Curry murals were nominated for the Eight Wonders of the World.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

FYI: John Brown Sites of Interest

Jefferson County Courthouse Where John Brown Was Tried
Photo by Roger Dean Meyer, September 30, 2006

Marker is in Charles Town, West Virginia, in Jefferson County, at the intersection of North George Street and East Washington Street (U.S. 340), on the right when traveling north on North George Street.

[Iowa] State historians are hot on the trail of abolitionist John Brown, documenting the 15 Iowa stops he made after returning with a dozen freed slaves from raids in Kansas and Missouri. . . .

"That was a big event before the elections in 1860," when Abraham Lincoln won the presidency, said Lowell Soike, deputy state historic preservation officer.

Brown's Iowa stops included one at the Jordan House in what is now West Des Moines.

A meeting is scheduled for this week with Kansas and Nebraska officials to see whether those states would be interested in marking their portions of the route taken by Brown's raiding party. Image source: The Weekly Gazette [Davenport, Iowa], Nov. 1877.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

John Brown's Great-Great-Granddaughter: A Long-Distance Phone Chat with Eleanor Clausen Blangsted

Following the news of the death of John Clausen, a descendant of John Brown the abolitionist (see this blog for July 9), I was prompted to make contact with his surviving sister, Eleanor Clausen Blangsted, a woman in her ninth decade of life and living on the west coast. I introduced myself to her over the telephone, finding her lucid, thoughtful, and highly appreciative of my passionate interest in her great forebear.

Ms. Blangsted made it clear that she and her late brother made every effort to continue their great-great-grandfather's legacy by advocating for justice and equality for all people. Indeed, she informed me, she had marched with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and was even an invited guest for the 10th anniversary celebration of King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference. An accomplished artist, two of her works hang in the Martin Luther King Jr. Center in Atlanta.

Besides being an artist and activist, Eleanor Blangsted was also a professional dancer. According to the San Diego Visual Artist's Guild website, Eleanor Blangsted

started her professional career as a teenager under contract to Warner Brothers Studio in the late 1920’s. She had a successful stage career as an actress and dancer before she switched to fine art. She taught art for many years in both Los Angeles and San Diego. Her artwork has won several awards and she has exhibited widely in galleries, museums, and juried exhibitions throughout Southern California, New York, and overseas. These include the San Diego Museum of Art, Nehushtan Museum in Israel, Downey Art Museum, Mount Saint Mary’s College, University of Southern California, Los Angeles County Art Museum, Oceanside Art Museum, and the Hunter Gallery in New York City. Her work is featured in numerous public and private collections.
In our converstation, Ms. Blangsted acknowledged that many people hate her great-great-grandfather, and that she is glad to know that there is a growing interest in him that is positive. She was especially delighted to learn that Brown has been chosen to be inducted into the National Abolitionist Hall of Fame this October.

Ms. Blangsted's descent from John Brown is simply sketched as follows (unfortunately I do not have complete information)

1. John Brown + Mary Ann Day Brown--daughter Ruth
2. Ruth Brown + Henry Thompson--daughter Ella
3. Ella Thompson Towne by marriage--daughter Adelene
4. Adelene Towne + Carl Clausen [Danish immigrant]--daughter Eleanor Clausen Blangsted

Ms. Blangsted and her late brother, John Clausen, have long advocated along the lines of a progressive political viewpoint, earning the contempt of the lovers and protectors of the status-quo. A good example of her gentle wit is found in a 2003 letter to the editor of the North County Times [San Diego, Calif.], expressing criticism of the brash, abusive tendencies of the right-wing pop-media commentator, Rush Limbaugh, after his issues with drug addiction became known:
I am sorry Rush Limbaugh has had terrible problems with his back and ears. As he suffers with withdrawal from the drugs, will he spend time remembering the mean things he said on the radio, most important, making fun of Amy Carter and Chelsea Clinton when they were young teenagers? That could have been so hurtful. I wonder if he is sorry. How ugly he sounded calling some women femi-Nazis. Will he soften? Will he ever apologize for his cruel remarks?

John Brown has many children in spiritual and ideological terms, those who revere his legacy and seek to extend his work in their respective spheres of activism. But it is also the case that Brown's real descendants walk this land today, although the Brown name is no longer carried by his progeny. Eleanor Clausen Blangsted, the great-great-granddaughter of the abolitionist is a proud descendant, and makes no apology for the love she feels for him. Before our telephone conversation ended, she sent me a "hug" over the phone and thanked me "for loving her John Brown." Her John Brown indeed!--LD

Monday, July 09, 2007

John Brown's Descendant Dies at 97: John Carl Clausen
Source: The Tehachapi News [Tehachapi, Calif.] on-line, July 9, 2007

It is with a sad heart that we announce the passing of our beloved John Carl Clausen. John was born in Pasadena, Calif., in 1910 to Carl Clausen, an author, and Adelene Clausen, granddaughter of abolitionist John Brown. He has two sisters, Adelene Craig (deceased) and Eleanor Blangsted, of Alameda.

In 1938 John married his great love, Merry Waters. They were happily married for 65 years until Merry passed away in 2003. John worked for the telephone company for 40 years and in 1947 led a national strike against AT&T, founding the Communications Workers of America and serving as president for two and a half years. He also served as the president of the Los Angeles AFL-CIO in the 1950s. John and Merry settled into a house in Tujunga and raised their two children, Nancy Lomeland and John R. Clausen.

John and Merry were both very politically active. They were involved in the 1960 and 1968 presidential campaigns, and were at the Ambassador Hotel when Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated. Through the years John stayed very active and engaged in local and national politics. He was a prolific writer of letters and articles and was actively engaged to help adopt positive change in our world for all people. He was very involved with the Cesar Chavez labor union and was friends with both Cesar and his daughter, Dolores Huerta. In Tehachapi, John was a longstanding member of the Tehachapi Mountain Democratic Club and was a frequent contributor to the “liberal viewpoint” column in the Tehachapi News.

John was a lifelong dirt-bike motorcycle lover. He was a lifetime member of the Shamrock motorcycle club in southern California. He frequently took his family with him out to desert meets, and we all have amazing memories of camping in the desert and cheering on our riders. John loved the outdoors and traveling. He loved to go fishing and would take any opportunity to go to a stream or lake and catch some trout or bass. Camping trips to Yosemite were also a favorite. Once John and Merry retired, they would take their fifth-wheel and go stay at various beaches for months at a time. In 1984, they took their grandkids on a three month camping trip across the U.S. and Canada — priceless memories last of that time. John and Merry were both passionate in having fun and loving the outdoors. They passed on that passion to their kids and grandkids. John was also an avid photographer and was never happier than when he was at the controls of a slide show for friends and family. John will be deeply missed by his family and many, many friends.

John is survived by his sister Eleanor Blangsted, of Alameda; brother-in-law Clark Waters, of San Diego; daughter Nancy Lomeland, of Vacaville; son John R. Clausen, of Tujunga; grandchildren Katy Lindsay, of San Francisco; Merry Burns and her husband Bill, of Bay Point; Kelly Lomeland, of Aliso Viejo; and Robert V. Clausen, of Tujunga; great-grandchildren Mariah and Sarah Clausen, and Hailey and Ashley Burns; and many nieces, nephews and cousins in his extended family.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Independence Day Reflection
Stan Goff, a military veteran, has an essay for July 4th entitled,"'Peace is Patriotic' is the Perfect Oxymoron." It is dedicated to "three American combat veterans: John Brown, Harriet Tubman and Crazy Horse. They disobeyed." Well worth checking out, even if you're one of those folks who think that Brown was simply another "great American." (here)

Saturday, June 30, 2007

Preserving John Brown’s Letters

One of the most important archives for the study of John Brown and the Brown family in Ohio is the Hudson Library and Historical Society (HL&HS) in Hudson, Ohio. Hudson was Brown’s hometown after his family migrated there from Connecticut in 1805. Brown kept close connections with family members in Hudson throughout his life, and the HL&HS contains the most extensive collection of materials on the Brown family, as well as a vast and often overlooked collection on Brown materials. This collection is largely attributable to the research of the late Rev. Clarence S. Gee, a Congregational minister who became interested in the Browns in the 1920s when serving in the pastorate in Hudson. As a biographical researcher of Brown’s life, working in HL&HS has been one of my favorite experiences, and I recommend it as a “must” for anyone with serious intentions of studying John Brown. This article from the Cleveland, Ohio, Plain Dealer, reveals some of the concerns that archives like the Hudson Library and Historical Society face in preserving their precious collections. (You can visit the website of the HL&HS here)--LD

Hudson Public Library and Historical Society owns an important collection of journals and letters that belonged to abolitionist John Brown, including a letter he wrote just before he was executed. Historians from all over the country study the documents.

Cleveland Public Library has scores of old Cleveland City Directories, volumes that predate telephone books, that are packed with information about people who once lived here. At least once a day, someone visits the library to see one of the directories for genealogical studies and other research.

Leaders from both places were in Washington, D.C., this week as part of an invitation-only summit meeting aimed at helping libraries and museums save such treasures from time and the elements.

Heritage Preservation, a nonprofit group dedicated to conservation, invited representatives of 250 institutions nationwide to the conference held at the Smithsonian American Art Museum to talk about what it calls the crisis of poor storage, poor curating, bugs, moisture, sunlight and deteriorating conditions.

In 2005, Heritage Preservation and the Institute of Museum of Library Services published "A Public Trust at Risk," a report on the state of historical collections across the country. Among findings: 65 percent of collecting institutions have had items damaged because of improper storage.

Jill Collins, an event spokeswoman, said small-town institutions are of particular concern. "What a lot of people forget about is that in small towns, it's the library that becomes a repository for the history of the community," Collins said. "It is critical and pivotal to that community."

Hudson's John Brown collection - and executive director Leslie Pollot's interest in preservation issues - put that institution on the guest list, Collins said. Earlier this week, Pollot said she was excited about the summit and hoped to hear about what has worked at other places.

"Our budget is $2.65 million, but the majority of our dollars go to the public library end of things," Pollot said. She gave her institution "maybe a B-minus" for its preservation efforts, adding "and I'm happy it's a B-minus. I guess we're not as bad off as some institutions."

The John Brown documents are kept in a vault, reasonably well protected, but they become more vulnerable over time even with gentle handling by researchers.

Copying documents to digital files and film are two common preservation methods. Both are costly, but they can be crucial to preserving old and brittle objects. Part of the conference was devoted to helping institutions find ways to raise money for such projects.

Ann Olszewski, preservation librarian at Cleveland Public Library, said technology has advanced preservation methods. A machine called an ultrasonic welder can encase maps in clear polyester, extending their lives indefinitely, she said.

Even low-tech solutions, such as bathing brittle paper in water to restore moisture to fibers, can go a long way toward preserving items.

Olszewski said this year's budget includes $20,000 for custom boxes that provide protection from dust and light; $55,000 for moving documents to microfilm, digital files or creating paper facsimiles; and $100,000 for physical conservation done by outside sources. She said that sounds like a lot of money, but it goes quickly.

Last year, for instance, an 1884 Cleveland City Directory was disassembled so that each page could be washed and encapsulated in a protective covering, then re-bound. The cost: $7,220.

"But now that book is preserved for all time," she said. "It'll be usable by the public for hundreds and hundreds of years."

ksandstrom@plaind.com, 216-999-4810