|A. M. Ross: Liar, Liar,|
Pants on Fire
Some of my readers may be aware of my essay, originally published on this blog, about the fabulous Canadian fraud, Alexander M. Ross, who conned his way into history books as a friend and confidant of John Brown. Ross was a man of science and an anti-slavery advocate, but despite his better qualities, he was a skillful manipulator and liar and certainly never knew Brown. He didn't let this stop him from inventing a scenario wherein he had known Brown, not to mention corresponded and collaborated with him. Ross was such a skillful liar that he powerfully deceived Brown's adult children, who generously took him into the bosom of the family by granting him access to letters and documents that he then used to further enhance and frame his deceit. Ross was not only successful in fooling John Brown Jr., Ruth Brown Thompson, and Annie Brown Adams, but also Richard Hinton, Brown's actual associate and biographer. Indeed, he has posthumously fooled a number of historians into using his memoir and betrayed the trust of many a proud Canadian with his claim to being a part of the John Brown story. Once more, Ross' fraudulence was never exposed in his lifetime, and although one or two scholars may have suspected him (Villard, for one), it was not until Boyd B. Stutler, the godfather of John Brown studies, who finally sniffed out of the evidence that Ross was a fraud, well into the 20th century. Based upon Stutler’s unpublished critique, when I read through a cache of his letters to John Brown Jr. I was able to reconstruct an extensive account of Ross the fraud, now published in my book, John Brown: The Man Who Lived.
I have on file another fake, although this one evidently was not as successful at rooting himself into the John Brown story. Richard W. Howard, from Conesett, Rhode Island, claimed to have been among John Brown’s men in Kansas and among his Harper’s Ferry raiders. Thus far, I have found only two publications conveying Howard’s story, an article published in the Atchison [Kansas] Globe in 1892, and The Historical Record (published under The Early History of Wyoming Valley [Wilkes-Barre, Pa.]) in 1893.
These articles, based upon interviews with Howard, make the convenient assertion that he was the last living Harper’s Ferry raider—a claim easily made since Howard evidently felt it was safe to concoct his lie since all of Brown’s associates were dead by this time. Of course, Howard was not as studied a liar as Ross, and evidently either he did not know or had forgotten that Annie Brown Adams, the daughter of the abolitionist, had spent some time in Maryland with the Harper’s Ferry raiders. In her testimony and reminiscences of the raid, Annie never mentions Howard as being among Brown’s men. Like Ross, Howard was obviously a fan of John Brown, and admired him so much that he became obsessively determined to weave himself into the story. In his apocryphal testimony, Howard claimed to have made a daring escape from Harper’s Ferry when the raid failed, first being in the company of Brown’s brave lieutenant, John H. Kagi, who was killed in action. Howard claimed that when they were fired upon with lethal effect, he escaped, floating in the water among the dead (!), and then made his way to Harrisburg, Pa., then St. Louis, Mo., and finally returned east to his home in Rhode Island. “He kept quiet until the war broke out when he enlisted in the 9th Rhode Island Regiment,” according to The Historical Record. Howard further said that he served the Union cause in the Civil War, claiming to have been a spy in Richmond who had “many narrow escapes.” This is not unlike Ross the liar, who not only claimed to have been John Brown's confidant, but that his tour of the South was made in conjunction with Brown's plans. While it is possible (but hard to accept without suspicion) that Howard was a Union spy in the South, there is no reason to believe his claim to have been among John Brown’s men. Some of my readers and colleagues are much more studied in the matter of John Brown's raiders, so I'd be happy to publish a retraction and apology to Col. Howard should evidence be introduced in his defense. Until then, I'm afraid that he--and A. M. Ross--must be consigned, at least in historical terms, to Dante's Malebolge, the eighth circle of hades prepared for liars, counterfeiters, grafters and other seducers. But all is not lost. Being such warm admirers of Brown, Ross and Howard at least will have plenty of time for fisticuffs with Robert Penn Warren and Otto Scott.