History, Research, and Current Themes

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

Search This Blog & Links


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

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Remembering Aaron Dwight Stevens: John Brown's Brave Young Lieutenant

Strong men with strong passions have been known to change the way things are to the way they think they should be. This story is about one of those men who lived locally in nearby Lisbon [Connecticut].

Aaron Dwight Stevens was born there in 1831 and lived on what is now Route 169, spending his youthful years on his father's farm. He had friends, but mostly worked the farm where he grew tall and strong. By the time he reached his early 20s, the issue of abolition was becoming a controversial one in New England and he got caught up with those anti-slavery feelings. At this time, only one out of every nine African-Americans in this country were free.

He had heard in the Kansas Territory there were others who felt the way he did and were doing something about it. He left Lisbon and joined forces with men who were against those promoting slavery there called "Border Ruffians." By 1859, young Aaron had earned a reputation as a courageous force in battling the rebels.

Denouncing slavery

This reputation had caught the attention of a fiery proponent of the anti-slavery movement, John Brown. A Torrington native born in 1800, Brown had attended the Morris Academy in Litchfield and had publicly denounced slavery.

In 1840, after being forced into bankruptcy, he was jailed in Akron, Ohio, for resisting arrest. Four of his children from his second wife died in an epidemic in 1843 and eventually he became a resident of North Elba, N.Y. It was in 1855 when he moved to the Kansas Territory and rushed to the defense of Lawrence, Kan., which had been threatened by pro-slavery forces. After fighting in Lawrence, Brown, now joined by Lisbon's Aaron Stevens, attacked a band of pro-slavery men near Osawatomie and slayed them. Brown then traveled New England, raising money and building strong associations with prominent abolitionists. In Ontario, Canada, Brown finalized his "constitution" for a provisional government in a slave-free nation and these projections lead directly to the historic and dramatic Harpers Ferry raid in Virginia (now West Virginia).

Brown and his allies, including Stevens as his second in command, convened in an abandoned farm house near Harpers Ferry. Brown made his plans to free Virginia's slave population. But first, they had to seize the arsenal at the ferry. Oct. 16, 1859, Brown and 21 other men, some black and some white, started their raid by cutting communication wires. Then they overpowered the sentries and engaged in a fierce, bloody battle finally owning the arsenal. However, Brown was wounded in a battle and taken prisoner by state and federal soldiers. A trial followed -- he was found guilty and sentenced to hang at a public hanging, which was common in those days. His hanging took place Dec. 2, 1859, at Charles Town, Va., where a thousand troops were present, as well as hundreds of spectators. Among the observers was an actor and assassin-to-be, John Wilkes Booth.

And Aaron Dwight Stevens? What had happened to him? One version of his exploits depicts him surrendering due to insurmountable odds carrying a white flag of truce. However, a saloon keeper, misinterpreting the action, intercepted Stevens' intent and fired at him, hitting him seven times, seriously wounding him. In spite of his injuries, he recovered, stood trial and a grand jury found him guilty of treason and conspiring with slaves. A sentence to be hanged March 16, 1860, also at Charles Town, just as his driven leader had, was the consequence.

Eyewitnesses at the hanging were later quoted as saying, "He was lionhearted, handsome, courageous, cheerful, a perfect specimen of man, towering over the deputies who led to his execution."

Had he lived, Stevens would have participated with those other Lisbon boys he knew in fighting for the north in the war between the states.

Historically and culturally, the songs and stories handed down speak of both Stevens and Brown and of their daring adventures.

Source: Richard Curland, "Historically speaking: Lisbon native joined fight for abolition of slavery." The Norwich Bulletin [Norwich, Conn.], on line, posted June 27, 2007.

Monday, June 25, 2007

JB-Related News

Excerpted from Michael McAuliffe, "Church's fate to be decided," The Republican [Springfield, Mass.], June 24, 2007.

Church's fate to be decided

SPRINGFIELD - Old First Church needs a miracle.

The oldest church in Western Massachusetts, founded in 1637 and located in the heart of the city at Court Square, could be shuttered by the end of the year because a dwindling congregation of barely 150 - half of whom are senior citizens and about two-thirds of whom do not live in the city - can no longer afford to keep up with badly needed maintenance and improvements to the 1,000-seat white-steepled Congregational church.

The congregation will decide the fate of the church and the adjoining parish house in September. In the meantime, a breakfast meeting is set for Thursday morning at the church to attempt to stir the community to action before it is too late. . . .

The city literally grew up around the church, which was first built in 1645 and for a time was where residents came to pay their taxes and to hold town meetings. The current building, constructed in 1819, is the fourth church and meeting house, and through its doors came the abolitionist John Brown and the statesman and orator Daniel Webster. The body of the country's sixth president, John Quincy Adams, even lay in state in Old First Church in 1848.

The church was designated a state historical landmark in 1971, and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972.

But the Rev. J. Thomas Gough, the church's 23rd senior pastor, said just the critically needed improvements - a new heating system, a new roof, drastically improved handicapped accessibility - would cost $800,000 to $1 million. At the same time, Saunders said, the church brings in only about $80,000 a year in pledges from the congregation, meaning the church has had to dip into its endowment.

"What we've been doing is eating our seed money," said Robert A. Walker, who has been attending Old First Church for 51 years and is chairman of the board of trustees. "We've been talking about that. You don't have corn if you eat your seeds." . . . Gough believes that should the end come for Old First Church, the city would suffer an important loss.

"I think what's lost is, simply by virtue of its location and the theological inclinations of the congregation, I think the city loses a prophetic voice," Gough said. "It loses a piece of its conscience."

"It loses its tie to its own history." . . .


For more information on John Brown's life in Springfield, Massachusetts, and his relations with the church in general, see my biography, "Fire from the Midst of You": A Religious Life of John Brown.--LD

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Carte-de-Visite of John Brown to be Auctioned Has Interesting Story of Its Own

Among a number of interesting items relating to John Brown that are being auctioned by Heritage Auctions (see this blog, entry for June 2), a small image--a carte-de-visite--of a beardless Brown is perhaps the most interesting. The John Brown carte-de-visite is being sold as part of a number of manuscripts that are related to various abolitionists.

In the 19th century,
cartes-de-visite were all the rage. To no surprise, the abolitionist John Brown, being quite the modern man, made use of them as well. According to the American Museum of Photography, cartes-de-visite were small "albumen prints mounted on cards 2-1/2 by 4 inches." They were extremely popular, especially because they could easily be exchanged, even sent through the mail. No big deal today, but prior to this time, it was not possible to mail images without worrying about breakage, since earlier photographic images, such as daguerreotypes, were done on glass plates. The small size of the cartes-de-visite "also made them relatively inexpensive, and they became so widespread that by 1863 Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes would write, 'Card portraits, as everybody knows, have become the social currency, the "green-backs" of civilization.'"1 This John Brown carte-de-visite is all the more interesting for two reasons. First, the origin or source of the image itself, and secondly the envelope bearing the printed name of James H. Holmes which contained the carte-de-visite.

As to the image on the carte-de-visite, I consulted my friend and associate, Jean Libby, who is the undoubted expert on many aspects of John Brown documentary work, especially given her recent, authoritative research on Brown's extant daguerreotypes (see this blog, entry for June 5, 2006). Upon examining an internet image of the carte-de-visite, Jean has concluded that the image is from a daguerreotype made during a sitting in Boston, in early 1857, when Brown was touring the east to raise funds for his efforts in Kansas. The original exists as a quarter-plate daguerreotype in the Massachusetts Historical Society. The photographer was either Josiah J. Hawes or John A. Whipple; the daguerreotype has a pasted note on verso by Amos Lawrence, stating it was made in 1856. Libby points out, however, that it could not have been made until 1857, when Brown came to New England. She adds:
A cabinet card print from this daguerreotype in life perspective is inscribed "To my Beloved Daughter Mrs. Ruth Thompson from her Affectionate Father John Brown." A copy of the cabinet card, with other Brown artifacts sold to the Chicago Historical Society by Ruth Thompson [Brown's eldest daughter] and [Kansas associate] H.N. Rust was made by Crandall of Pasadena in 1894. A tintype of the M[assachusetts] H[istorical] S[ociety] daguerreotype was made by Winnie of Topeka at an unknown date. It is owned by the Kansas State Historical Society.2
Libby adds that this is the first carte-de-visite that she has seen of it, "but as there was a cabinet card made it is perfectly logical. . . . I believe it is authentic!"3

Of equal interest is the envelope that accompanies the carte-de-visite, and which evidently held the image over a century-and-a-half. As pictured on the auctioner's website, the envelope has an unidentified handwritten note that reads: "Photographs--John Brown." Also, the envelope bears the printed words: "James H. Holmes, No. 11 Vandewater St., Washington, P.O. Lock Box No. 2, New York."

James H. Holmes is no anonymous figure in the John Brown story, and it makes sense that he would have possessed a carte-de-visite of the abolitionist since they were friends in association during the Kansas conflict of the 1850s. Holmes was a free state man from upstate New York, although he seems not to have met Brown until after he went to the Kansas territory in June 1855 from New York City. Holmes studied agricultural chemistry and went to the territory, not only to support the anti-slavery settler movement but to associate himself with vegetarians and to promote the development of educational institutions. Like other free state settlers, after arriving in the territory, Holmes was forced into militant action in the face of pro-slavery terrorism and it was during his involvement in fighting near Osawatomie in the summer of 1856 that he met John Brown.4 According to Brown's biographer Villard, when he left Kansas in late 1856, he left Holmes in charge of his fighting men with orders to "carry the war into Africa"--"Africa" being Brown's reference to the South, where blacks were held as slaves in such vast numbers. Holmes effectively continued Brown's work, raiding in Missouri and earning the same status as an outlaw in the eyes of Kansas authorities.5 His militancy subsequently earned him the epithet of "John Brown's little hornet."

Among other things relating to Holmes, the Kansas State Historical Society holds two letters written by Holmes ("your constant friend") to "Dear Friend Brown" in the spring of 1857. It is not clear when Brown gave Holmes the carte-de-visite, or whether he gave it to him in person or mailed it to him. In later life (years after climbing Pike's Peak with his feminist wife, Julia Archibald), Holmes was living back in New York City and seems to have done some research and writing on Brown in the 1890s. Biographer Villard availed himself of Holmes's correspondence with Brown's surviving children and other materials when preparing his 1910 biography. That Holmes resided in New York City in later years is verified by the printed envelope citing his address on Vandewater Street, which seemingly no longer exists in the city. But the picture below in the New York Public Library's Digital Gallery portrays Vandewater Street during the Civil War
. (The reference to "Washington" on the envelope is not clear, although it may have been an intersecting street close to Holmes's address on Vandewater.) Trivial perhaps, but James H. Holmes is a figure that bears further research from Brown scholars, and the carte-de-visite of Brown in his envelope strongly suggests that it was in his possession from the beginning, subsequently passing into the hands of collectors.


1 Retrieved from "A Brief History of the Carte-de-Visite," The American Museum of Photography. Retrieved on June 16, 2007.

2. Jean Libby to Louis A. DeCaro Jr., 15 June 2007, electronic correspondence.

3. Ibid.

4. Testimony of James H. Holmes for the Journal of Investigations, Kansas, December 8, 1856 (National Kansas Committee, Thaddeus Hyatt, recorder), No. 101588, Thaddeus Hyatt Collection, No. 401 (1:5), Kansas State Historical Society.

5. Oswald Garrison Villard, John Brown: A Biography 1800-1859 (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc., 1910, 1929), 261.
Brown Remembered as Prophetic Character

For Werner Lange, a professor of sociology at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania and an ordained minister, it’s appropriate that Saturday’s second annual Juneteenth Scholarship Walk-A-Thon leads to Richmond Township’s John Brown Museum.

While Brown’s actions are credited by many with precipitating the Civil War, Lange sees the abolitionist’s 1859 raid on the federal arsenal in Harpers Ferry, W.Va., in a very different light.

“Northwestern Pennsylvania should be forever proud that this great abolitionist leader lived, worked and worshiped here,” he told the group who gathered Thursday afternoon for a press conference detailing plans for Thursday’s walk.

“We are still in an ongoing struggle because we have fallen short — so far,” he continued. “The last five words of the Pledge of Allegiance remain an ideal. Slavery has ended but racism persists.”

Lange said during a post-press-conference interview that the pioneering book that tells the true story of John Brown was written in 1935 [actually 1909--Ed.] by W.E.B. DuBois, a civil rights leader, author and one of the founders of the organization that would become the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

“DuBois looked at the whole history of this and recognized John Brown for the prophetic character that he is,” Lange explained. “He explicitly wrote that book to get away from all those stereotypic images of him being some wild-eyed, violent fanatic.”

Brown, Lange continued, “knew exactly what he was doing. He was doing it as a committed American Christian, based on the principles of America and the principals of Christianity. So if he’s wild-eyed and radical and off-the-wall, then our country is, too. And so is Christianity.”

For Lange, “northwestern Pennsylvania, being this strong, hard-working, family-oriented, Christian-oriented community, nurtured his deep dedication to the principals of the country and Christianity,” he explained. “He was filled with righteous anger — I think he got that from here — at the treatment of brothers and sisters of a different race through the institution of slavery.”

As Lange sees it, what Brown was trying to do “was something that worked very well for liberation groups of the 20th century known as guerilla warfare. His idea was that the slave owners would not give up just because of negotiation — there had to be force-versus-force.”

Instead of sending liberated slaves to Canada, Brown envisioned them gathered on bases established in the Appalachian Mountains. “From those camps of Appalachia, he would conduct raids on various plantations and within a matter of years bring the whole system to its knees,” Lange said. To arm those camps, Brown and 21 followers raided the arsenal.

His plans, however, were thwarted by no one less than Gen. Robert E. Lee. Captured and tried, Brown was quickly sentenced to death and hanged. His conduct during the trial, however, won him sympathy in the North; after his death, many regarded him as a martyr.

In his last address to the court that sentenced him to death, “I believe that to have interfered as I have done ... in behalf of (God’s) despised poor, was not wrong, but right,” Brown said. “Now, if it be deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children, and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel and unjust enactments, I submit: so let it be done.”

Source: Mary Spicer, The Meadville Tribune [Meadville, Pa.], June 15, 2007. Retrieved on June 15, 2007 from: http://www.meadvilletribune.com/local/local_story_165234943.html

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Rifle, Pike, and Portrait: Three for the Auction House

As usual, I can only make note of Brown materials that surface during historical auctions. Lord knows that I could never afford such things. But at least I can get pictures and share them with my readers. Maybe you can afford to buy them. Heritage Auction Galleries in Dallas, Texas, has recently announced the sale of a number of extremely valuable and interesting items relating to John Brown the abolitionist.

The first item for sale is a model 1853, .52 caliber Sharps Carbine rifle from the Harper’s Ferry raid. According to Heritage, the Sharps carbine is “of the lot used by abolitionist John Brown and his men as they raided the federal armory at Harper's Ferry, Virginia, an event that helped spark the fire of the United States Civil War.” It has previously been mentioned in the literature of noted firearms historian Norm Flayderman and has an excellent provenance and historical background. “This historical weapon has a 21 1/2" barrel and is stamped 'Sharp's Manufg. Co Hartford, Conn' on the top of the barrel. It has walnut stocks, an even gray patina and bears the serial number 16150. It has an attractive brass buttplate, barrel band and patchbox which is engraved as follows: Used at Harper's Ferry by John Brown's Men. On the tang by the serial number 'Sharps Patent 1848' is stamped. Provenance: The Norm Flayderman Collection; The Tharpe Collection of American Military History." Estimate: $70,000 - $80,000.Lot: 72010, Auction 663.

(Retrieved from: Heritage Auction Galleries [Dallas, Texas], http://americana.ha.com/common/view_item.php?Sale_No=663&Lot_No=72010&lighten=0&lighten=1#Photo, on May 30, 2007.)

The second item for sale is a pike used at the Harper's Ferry Raid (serial number 846). According to the Heritage Auction Galleries website, this 80-inch pike was one of a shipment of pikes that Brown had made in his native Connecticut. "At 80" long, they are wooden spear-like weapons tipped with a 10" blade." This pike has "a silver commemorative plaque affixed to the pike at 6" down from the blade on the wooden shaft as follows: 'One of John Brown's Pikes Used at Harpers Ferry, Made in Collinsville, Ct., 1857-1859. The metal haft on the pike itself is numbered '846' and is in very good condition as is the wood which is of a very nice grain and completely intact.'" Provenance: Norm Flayderman,The Tharpe Collection of American Military History. Exhibited: The Liberty Heritage Society Museum Estimate: $15,000 - $20,000, Lot: 72011, Auction: 663. (Retrieved from Heritage Auction Galleries [Dallas, Texas]), http://americana.ha.com/common/view_item.php?Sale_No=663&Lot_No=72011, May 30, 2007.)

Finally, there is an Oil Portrait of John Brown measuring 5 1/2" x 7 1/2," within the oval. This painting was completed after his death in 1859 and is matted with a thick linen mat and framed in a heavy 2" walnut frame with a plaque attached reading "John Brown 1800-1859." The artist is unknown. Despite some slight crackling of the image at the bottom right, this portrait is in excellent condition. Provenance: The Tharpe Collection of American Military History. It was previously exhibited at the Liberty Heritage Society Museum. Estimate: $20,000 - $25,000, Lot: 72012, Auction: 663.

(Retrieved from Heritage Auction Galleries [Dallas Texas], May 30, 2007, from: http://americana.ha.com/common/view_item.php?Sale_No=663&Lot_No=72012#Photo.