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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, July 28, 2010

Kansas News & Views

The Underground Railroad in Topeka

Local historian Dee Puff talks about underground railroad sites in Topeka with the familiarity of a homeowner talking about past neighbors or describing a local landmark before it changed 20 or 30 years ago.

But Puff is talking about houses, tunnels and camouflaged hideouts that sheltered people fleeing slavery more than 150 years ago during the fiery days of territorial Kansas and the Civil War.

In Topeka, Puff, a longtime researcher, has identified 23 sites that were underground depots in Topeka and in Shawnee County outside the capital. The city and county had one of the most sophisticated underground railroad systems in the United States, Puff said, and it never lost anyone fleeing slavery during its operation.

Topeka had a number of depots or stations, the railroad jargon used to identify a hiding place where people fleeing slavery and headed north to Canada could rest and eat, and tired horses could be traded for fresh mounts. People were led from station to station by guides called conductors.

Three of Puff's favorite sites are the Sheridan homestead, 2303 S.E. Pennsylvania; the Armstrong house, 429 S.E. Quincy; and the Owens house, 3212 N.W. Rochester. Abolitionist leader John Brown and his men would hole up at the sites, Puff said. Conductors stationed near Topeka included John Henri Kagi, Aaron D. Stevens, John C. Cook, George P. Gill and Richard Realf.

The Sheridan homestead had a tunnel beneath it, and at the Armstrong house, 30 travelers could be hidden in a large sugar barrel built beneath the house. The original Sheridan and Armstrong buildings are gone, but the Owens house survives.

The underground railroad in the west and how it influenced the national and territorial struggle on whether Kansas would enter the Union as a slave state or a free state will be the topic of a four-day conference in Topeka starting July 28.

"Kansas has a big story that is nationally significant," Diane Miller said of the state's ties to the underground railroad. Miller is the national program manager of the National Park Service National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Program in Omaha.


Osawatomie, Kansas - The Adair Cabin, Where John Brown Stayed

Inside a substantial native rock building is the cabin of  Samuel & Florilla (Brown) Adair, John Brown's sister and brother-in-law.  The Adairs preceded the Browns in going to the Kansas territory, where the Reverend Adair, a staunch abolitionist like his wife, sought to engage in Christian ministry.  Caught up in the terrorist invasions by pro-slavery forces, the Adairs supported their militant brother, John Brown, although Samuel was skeptical of Brown's ideas regarding the use of force.   The avowed militant abolitionist took shelter here while he was in Kansas, particularly during a period of extended illness in 1858. The John Brown State park maintains the Adair cabin its original condition, and offers the visitor an encapsulated history of the turbulent times when pro-slavery and those opposed to slavery were in armed conflict in Kansas and Missouri. The building was constructed in 1928, when the original cabin was moved from its original site to the new park.


Kansas Notebook
Grady Atwater: “Raid on Lawrence Sparked Retaliation”

John Brown was cooking breakfast for his men on the morning of May 23, 1856, and was incensed. Pro-slavery forces had raided Lawrence on May 21, and the peaceful abolitionists had stood by and watched while the free-state town was sacked. Grady Atwater

Jason Brown, one of his sons, listened while his father told Theodore Wiener, one of his men: “Now something must be done. We have got to defend our families and our neighbors as best we can. Something is going to be done now. We must show by actual work that there are two sides to this thing and they cannot go on with impunity.”

Brown conducted a war council, and John Brown Jr. stated: “It was now and here resolved that they, their aiders and abettors who sought to kill our suffering people should themselves be killed and in such a manner as to cause a restraining fear.”

Brown was going to strike pro-slavery forces that had threatened free-state settlers in a preemptive strike, planning to make the raid a statement that drove home the point that free-state forces were willing to fight. Brown selected four of his sons (Owen, Frederick, Salmon, and Oliver Brown), his son-in-law Henry Thomson and militant abolitionists Theodore Wiener and James Townsley for the raid. The abolitionist guerillas prepared, and H.H. Williams gave Brown a list of the most dangerous pro-slavery men in the area along Pottawatomie and Mosquito creeks.

Brown and his raiding party rode to Pottawatomie Creek and hid during the daytime on May 24, 1856. Night fell, and Brown led his men down to the cabin of the Doyles, who had worked as bailiffs for the pro-slavery court ran by Judge Sterling Cato. Their efforts to enforce pro-slavery laws had put their names on Brown’s list. Salmon and Owen Brown killed James, Drury and William Doyle with swords. John Brown spared the life of John Doyle because he was a mere 14 years old. Brown and his men then moved on the cabin of Alan Wilkerson, who was a member of the pro-slavery territorial legislature; Wiener and Thompson killed him with swords. Midnight struck, and Brown’s forces went to the cabin of James Harris; Wiener and Thompson killed pro-slavery advocate William Sherman with swords. John Brown questioned Jerome Glanville and James Harris and found that they were not active in the pro-slavery movement and let them go.

The raid created a firestorm of conflict and exacerbated tensions between pro-slavery forces in Kansas. Proslavery forces rode into Kansas Territory, seeking revenge. Osawatomie was a prime target, for it was known as Brown’s headquarters. Indeed, the Pottawatomie Massacre led to the Battle of Osawatomie on Aug. 30, 1856.

Brown had wanted to make the statement that free-state men would strike back and did so in a dramatic fashion.

— Grady Atwater is site administrator at the John Brown State Historic Site in Osawatomie, Kansas.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

John and Abe: Two Moments in 1859
“I say, then, in the first place, to the Kentuckians, that I am what they call, as I understand it, a "Black Republican." I think slavery is wrong, morally and politically. I desire that it should be no further spread in--these United States, and I should not object if it should gradually terminate in the whole Union.”
Excerpted from a speech at Cincinnati, Ohio, September 17, 1859
“I do myself feel in the least degraded by my imprisonment, my chains, or the near prospect of the gallows.  Men cannot imprison, or chain, or hang the soul.  I go joyfully in behalf of millions that 'have no rights' that this great and glorious, this Christian Republic 'is bound to respect.'   Strange change in morals, political as well as Christian, since 1776!  I look forward to other changes to take place in God's good time, fully believing that 'the fashion of this world passeth away.'” (1 Corinthians 7:31)
Excerpted from letter of John Brown to Thomas B. Musgrave, November 17, 1859
[The complete entry is available only in the forthcoming book, John Brown: Emancipator]

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Recycling racist imagery:
Liberating "Saint Ossawotamie"

Adalbert John Volck (1828–1912) was a German (Bavarian) born artist whose pro-Confederate work was done under the pseudonym, “V. Blada.”  A dentist by profession, Volck emigrated to the United States sometime after 1848, when a national revolution in his native country seems to have fizzled out.  Soured by this outcome, Volck’s passion for dissent and undoubted racism perhaps drew him to the cause of the South.  He first resided in St. Louis, Missouri (where a considerable German immigrant population was located), and then in Baltimore, Maryland, where he remained the rest of his life. Volck earned his doctorate in dentistry from the Baltimore College of Dental Surgery in 1852 and established a practice in that city, becoming an active representative and leader in his field.
Adalbert Volck
Despite his advocacy of republican revolution in Europe, Volck did not hold similar hopes for the blacks slaves in his new country.  To the contrary, he became a strong pro-slavery and anti-Union figure, and during the Civil War covertly published his clever but polemical political cartoons attacking northern leaders, especially President Abraham Lincoln.  Furthermore, Volck worked as a smuggler for the Confederacy and also acted as a courier for Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

Although his work was not widely circulated during the Civil War due to federal surveillance, Volck’s work made an impact.  Most notable was his scathing cartoon, “Lincoln Writing the Emancipation Proclamation” (1864).  In this cartoon, he pictures President Lincoln as the devil writing the act to free enslaved blacks in Confederate territory.  The clever drawing shows a small demon holding Lincoln’s ink well, and the President’s foot resting on top of the Constitution of the United States.  There are other symbols of evil, but most notable are two pictures portrayed on the wall of the President’s study: a macabre slave rebellion in Santa Domingo, picturing the murders of white women and children by black slave rebels; and an icon of “St. Ossawotamie” – John Brown holding a plant and a pike, with a halo over his head.  In portraying this images on Lincoln’s wall, Volck was obviously rendering the erroneous southern belief that Lincoln and Brown were of the same outlook, and that Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation would result in the widespread slaughter of white slave masters in the South.

While Volck’s portrayal of the John Brown icon (“St. Ossawotamie”) was intended as a condemnation of emancipation and black freedom, it is only fitting that his clever art be turned against him and in favor of Brown.  By the way, for those who don't know, "Ossawatomie" was the name of a burgeoning free-state settlement in the Kansas territory, named for the confluence of the Osage River and Pottawatomie Creek.  Although Ossawatomie was attacked by a large force of pro-slavery thugs in 1856, Brown was nicknamed "Ossawatomie Brown" because of his valiant fighting there.  He became so famous at the time that a play about "Ossawatomie Brown" was performed on Broadway. 

By cutting away the “St. Osowatamie” portrait from the hostile context intended by Volck, the purpose of the image has been changed: “St. Ossawotamie” can now be viewed as an admiring if not amusing image of John Brown.  Volck was an enemy of freedom and was hostile to the legacy of Brown; but by “liberating” his cartoon of Brown from its racist framework, Volck’s skillful hand is forced to provide us with an iconic tribute to John Brown the abolitionist, who was not only a saint in the Protestant sense of the term, but a saint-of-a-guy.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010


Lithgow and Covey: Scenes in the Life of John Brown

David C. Lithgow, "John Brown's Trial" (1923)Essex County Historical Society, Elizabethtown, N.Y.

Arthur Covey, "Episodes in the Life of John Brown" (1937)Torrington, Conn. Post Office (above and below)

The first work is mostly self-explanatory, Lithgow's obviously providing a stylized rendering of John Brown's trial in Charles Town, Virginia [now West Virginia] (October-November 1859).  When Brown's body was returned for burial, his remains were kept overnight at the Essex Country Court House in Elizabethtown before finally being interred at the John Brown farm in North Elba, Essex County.

In contrast, Covey's themes may be complemented with some biographical commentary.  

The moving scene of Brown, resting a rifle on his shoulder and walking in advance of a group of blacks with an ox and wagon, will be recognizable to Brown's students as the real episode of the Missouri liberation raid and freedom flight that took place December 20, 1858 through March 12, 1859, led by Brown.  In that liberation effort, Brown was not only acting strategically to liberate eleven enslaved people (including a pregnant woman), but sending a message back east to his supporters that he was ready to bring "the war into Africa," that is, do fairly much the same thing on a grand scale in the South.  Brown and his men were prepared to arm these people, including the women.  Covey portrays the trek in scenic beauty, although it was a drawn out and difficult process carried out in the dead of winter that involved going from Missouri into Kansas, then into Nebraska,  through Iowa by wagon.  In Iowa, the rescued party were put on a train for Chicago, Illinois, whence they departed by rail for Detroit, Michigan.  From Detroit they were successfully ferried away from the reach of the racist government of the United States into the care of Canadian liberty.

On the lower right is a photo of Covey's portrayal of a young John Brown in Torrington, Connecticut, a theme rarely taken on by artists.  In the childhood theme, Covey nicely portrayed the Brown homestead, which had unfortunately burned down a little more than two decades before this painting was done.  John is pictured at about the age of five years (he was born in 1800 and his family left Connecticut in 1805), with his mother, who died three years later, after the family had relocated to Hudson, Ohio.  Both the mother and the son gesture toward the livestock, which likely references John Brown's famous 1857 autobiographical sketch written for Henry Stearns, the son of his supporter, George L. Stearns.  In that sketch, Brown recounts the impact of losing his mother at a young age, and his great love of livestock from youth.  Like the liberation trek painting, this portrayal is extremely sentimental.

Perhaps most interesting is the painting on the lower left, picturing Brown, with hand upraised as if making a vow.  This painting is based upon another actual incident, but not the more famous episode when John Brown vowed to give his life to the fight against slavery--a scene that took place in Hudson, Ohio, in 1837.  Rather, this painting is another Torrington episode, when businessman John Brown was moving about New England in pursuit of financial stability, probably in late 1838 or early 1839.1  According to William Beebee Carrington (1824-1912), who was a schoolboy at this time in Torrington, one day his classroom was visited by John Brown, who proceeded to give an impromptu lecture on Africa and Africans, and the travesty of the slave trade.  Then Brown solicited the sincere promise of the boys present that they would do everything in their power to support the enslaved and oppressed African.  As Carrington recalled, Brown concluded his presentation saying,

Now may my Father in heaven, who is your Father, and who is the Father of the African; and Christ, who is my Master and Savior, and your Master and Savior, and the Master and Savior of the African; and the Holy Spirit, which gives me strength and comfort when I need it, and will give you strength and comfort when you need it, and that gives strength and comfort to the African, enable you to keep this resolution which you have now taken.2

Covey thus effectively captures this scene from local Torrington history, picturing a younger John Brown soliciting the promises of his young listeners to oppose slavery as a solemn work of Christian faith.  If this is how Brown taught a classroom of children in passing, one should not be surprised that he was able to enlist all of his sons in one way or another in his anti-slavery cause.   This scene also serves as a great rebuke to white Christians from that time until this very day, most of whom have trained their children on a version of "Christianity" that slights the realities of racism and fails to connect the theological sensibility of humanity the image of God with black people and their struggle against racism.  Quite in contrast to his racist detractors (then and now) as well as his heterodox allies in abolition, John Brown struck a harmonious and exemplary balance of orthodox Protestant faith and radical abolitionism.   

1 Villard dates this incident as probably in 1838, over against the estimation of Carrington, who apparently told Villard it was in 1836 (Villard, p. 47).  Based on the chronology of Brown's letters, however, Brown was in Connecticut a lot early in 1839 as well.  Due to oversight on my part, as a new biographer of Brown I made the reprehensible error of dating this incident much later, confusing this appearance with Brown's later touring of New England in the 1850s, when it seemed more likely (at the time) that he would be asked to speak to a classroom of children.  Happily, David Reynolds recounts this episode (p. 71) in keeping with Villard's record.  

Sunday, July 18, 2010

"Never for One Moment!"  John Brown as Remembered by His Daughter Ruth

"The very idea of slavery is galling  to my feeling that I can hardly endure the thought.  How many times I have heard my dear sainted Father, say he 'hoped to live to see the day when the slaves would all be free.'  What an awful sin is slavery, yet how quietly the people of this country sleep over it.  How many sleepless night Father used to pass, thinking of the poor slaves, years before he made an attempt to rescue them.  His great kind heart was ever 'awake to their wrongs.'"

Ruth Brown Thompson to Mary Stearns, June 10 (13), 1860, Stutler Collection, MS05-0061.

"Father had been father and mother to me, and the separation was terrible to me.  When I was a little girl I used to go off in the woods by my self and cry thinking how I should miss him if he should die.  I long to see him so now, that it seems as though I can hardly wait."

Ruth Brown Thompson, Pasadena, Calif.,  to Nettie Boynton, Brasher Falls, NY, November 19, 1898, in archives of the St. Lawrence County Historical Association, Canton, N.Y

"A few years ago when in conversation with a daughter of old John Brown I unwisely asked her if on any occasion she had ever felt ashamed that her father died on the gallows.  With an almost indignant expression she immediately replied, 'Never, never for one moment!'”

Reminiscence of a conversation with Ruth Brown Thompson by the Rev. Nathan R. Johnston.  Quoted in Looking Back from the Sunset Land (1898)

Saturday, July 10, 2010

John Brown in "Abe Lincoln in Illinois"

A.L. in the ILL

Although both John Brown and Abraham Lincoln have been frequently portrayed in film and television it is no surprise that Brown's overall portrayal has been negative, while Lincoln's has been heroic.  However, from my perspective, one of the most interesting if not positive portrayals of Brown is found in the 1940 RKO Radio Pictures film, "Abe Lincoln in Illinois," starring Raymond Massey as Lincoln, Ruth Gordon as Mary Todd Lincoln, and Gene Lockhart as Abe's rival, the "Little Giant," Stephen Douglas (By the way, I once read a quote from [I think?] Charles Sumner, who described Douglas as being a greasy, smelly man in need of a "shower-bath."  TMI?]  Notwithstanding the license that screenplay writers take with history--including this one by Grover Jones, based upon the play of the same name by Robert E. Sherwood, and notwithstanding my belief that Lincoln is highly overrated as slavery and racism are concerned, this is an enjoyable film.  It certainly shows the frustration that Old Abe had with Mary, who was quite a difficult woman by all accounts.  Students of John Brown's portrayal in film will immediately recognize that Massey switched boots to play John Brown the same year in the horrendously pro-Confederate feature film, "Santa Fe Trail."  Subsequently, Massey reprised his role as Brown in "Seven Angry Men" (1950), equally problematic but at least it was not as worshipful and adoring of the Slave South and its leaders as "Santa Fe Trail."

JB at Hollywood Ferry's Engine House

In "Abe Lincoln in Illinois," there is actually a couple of minutes devoted to John Brown, a vignette that is introduced by a montage of newspaper headlines about the Dred Scott decision, the Kansas imbroglio, and finally John Brown's raid at Harper's Ferry. At this point the portrayal is highly stylized and nothing follows the actual course of events that took place: after the ramming of the Harper's Ferry engine house doors is shown, the marines (looking more like regular army) storm in, without being fired upon; the engine house is huge compared to the actual structure; there are no visible hostages, and only one black man standing near Brown unarmed; Robert E. Lee personally addresses John Brown as his prisoner; there is no violent marine assault, although Brown is portrayed with a big gash on his forehead; instead, Brown stands holding a dying son (who seems to represent both sons lost in the raid), whose body is resting upon some sacks of whatever; then this "informational" dialogue:
Lee:  Are you John Brown?
JB: I am, Sir, “Osawatomie” John Brown. . . .
JB’s dying son:  Don’t try to fight ‘em anymore. . . .
Lee:  I place you under arrest for treason, for bearing arms against the government of the United States.
JB:  I’d like to ask who’s making this arrest?
Lee:  I am Lieutenant Colonel Robert E. Lee of the 2nd Calvary, acting under orders from President Buchanan.
JB’s dying son:  It’s no use, Pa, you gotta give in to them.  Somebody else’s has gotta finish this job. His head drops backward in death.
JB:  Very well Colonel, I submit to this arrest, knowing full well that I shall hang for this attempt to end the evil of slavery.  But after I’m dead, the evil will remain, and you and all other patriots will learn it can be purged from this guilty world, only with blood. (Looking down at the body of his dead boy)  Goodbye, my son.
JB lets go of the body, which falls lifelessly to the ground, and walks determinedly out of the engine house
Obviously the writing here is trite, full of information for the viewer, and intended to validate Lincoln's rising role as the so-called Great Emancipator.  Grover Jones, who wrote the screenplay, particularly does this by having John Brown's dying son say, "Somebody else has gotta finish this job."

For the Record

As the historical record goes, the scene seems a bit silly.  Brown's bloody gash is inexplicable, since he actually received his head wound after the marines broke through the engine house doors.  He did not walk out of the engine house a prisoner, but was dragged out unconscious after being bludgeoned by Lt. Israel Green and probably stabbed by another marine, who fortunately dealt no mortal wound. In fact, the intention of the marines was to give no quarter. (Brown wrote to his wife that he had sustained wounds from a bayonet too--not just the bruises received by Green's sword hilt.)  To be sure, the marines were being fired upon, but their orders were to kill all the white men inside (except the hostages, of course) but to take care not to kill any of the blacks--after all, they were property.  It must be embarrassing to the marines that not even two of them could kill John Brown when he was on the ground, without a weapon, and fairly well laid out.  Semper Fi?  No, Uncle Sam, Deus est imperium.

Somewhat odd too is the presence of a black man alongside Brown and Lee, the whole time looking on without saying a word.  He is a symbol that evidently serves the "official" (i.e., slave master) version of the Harper's Ferry raid, namely, that only few blacks followed Brown, and even they did so out of fear of Brown's violence.  This view, conveyed to the North through the pro-slavery New York Herald, has largely gone unquestioned until Jean Libby, Barrie Stavis, and a few other truth-tellers searched the evidence and found Osborne Anderson's testimony as vindicating Brown's expectations of black support.

Cromwell's Brown

Despite all of these errors and self-serving liberties taken by the screenplay writer, the stylized portrayal of Brown is nevertheless positive and dignified.  Interestingly, the actor playing Brown in this vignette is not even listed in the film credits, but according to The Internet Movie Database (IMDb), the actor portraying Brown is none other than the director of the film, John Cromwell (1887-1979).  This may help to explain the quality of heroism and dignity that Brown receives in this otherwise stylized vignette of the engine house assault.  An Ohioan like Brown, Cromwell was a stage and screen actor as well as a director. Cromwell was president of the Screen Directors Guild from 1944-46, but had to endure political persecution between 1951-58 when he was blacklisted as a result of the so-called House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), a political witch-hunt targeting Leftists that began in 1947 and bullied Hollywood for a decade or more.  Perhaps this helps us understand why Cromwell's John Brown is not a mad, delirious, or raving fanatic.  He is first the father of a dying son, then a man who speaks with a certain authority, and in this case his being presented as conscious and purpose of mind actually serves the facts of history; and despite defeat, Cromwell's Brown walks out of the engine house to face the Virginia gallows with the bearing and dignity that the real John Brown actually displayed from the time of his capture until the moment he mounted the gallows.

Lincoln?  Who's He?

After the John Brown vignette, the movie fades into a scene with Stephen Douglas and democratic associates.  A portion of the dialogue is worth transcribing:
Douglass seated at his desk, reading the paper
Douglass: (Speaking to himself) Another fanatic has gone to meet his maker.  Why can’t these anti-slavery fools mind their own business?
Three associates burst into the room
Associate 1: Senator Douglas, the message you’ve been waiting for.  Telegram from Springfield.  They’ve nominated Abraham Lincoln to run against the Senator this fall (laughs)  My heartiest congratulations.
Associate 2:  Lincoln?  Who’s he?

Associate 3: What are they doing, giving you the election? (laughter)
Douglas: So Abe Lincoln had decided at last to come out and fight—
Associate 1:  It’s the best thing that could have happened to us!
Associate 3:  How does this Lincoln stand on slavery?
Associate 1:  Nobody knows, least of all Lincoln himself.  He’s the most undecided, hesitatingest critter you ever saw!
Associate 3:  Good, we don’t want that slave issue brought up in Illinois this year.
Associate 1:  You can count on old Abe, he’s just what we want—a peaceful man.
Douglas: We’ll start the campaign at once.  I’m going back to Springfield and I want an unprecedented welcome when I get there. . . .
How does Lincoln stand on slavery?  Nobody knows, least of all Lincoln himself!  The facetious remark, portrayed as coming from the mouth of a democrat, carries a lot of historical weight.  Contrary to what many people have been taught in school, Lincoln did not go to Washington D.C. with a personal agenda to end slavery.  He went to save the Union and his position on slavery was subject to the political prerequisites of preserving the Union and the priorities of white society, North and South.  

John Brown went to Harper's Ferry with only one intention: ending slavery. There was no need to speculate as to his position on racism and chattel slavery.  It was his intention to destroy it.  Obviously, Lincoln did not have the political luxury to attack slavery as John Brown did, but it is significant that he showed his willingness to compromise with the South regarding slavery through much of the Civil War.  So one cannot excuse him merely on the basis of the comprehensive demands that the presidency made upon him, in contrast to John Brown's free agency.  What was Lincoln's position on slavery in 1859?  Nobody was sure.  It would take four years of civil bloodletting and the force of history to shove him forward along the path that Brown had long before trod with a willing soul.