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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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Friday, April 08, 2011

Writing Home, April 7, 1859

According to Katherine Mayo's invaluable chronology,1 John Brown was absent from his family between early June 1858 and mid-April 1859. Students of Brown's story will recall that his original intention was to carry out his raid in the South in 1858, following a "quiet convention" in Chatham, Ontario, Canada, with black expatriates and border-crossers from nearby Detroit. Unfortunately, his plans were derailed when a former associate named Hugh Forbes began to threaten to expose the movement. Since most of Brown's influential supporters were panicked by the Forbes fiasco, Brown grudgingly consented to a postponement and went back to North Elba, N.Y., where he spent about two weeks with his wife Mary and family in their Adirondack home. Then he departed for the west, reaching the Kansas Territory by late June 1859.

Brown remained in the Territory until his famous raid in Missouri on December 20, when he and his men rescued eleven enslaved people and began a long, difficult trek across several states, hounded by the marshals in the dead of winter. Brown, his men, and the fugitives actually were in hiding in Kansas for about a month before setting out through Nebraska on February 1, 1859 and reaching Springdale, Iowa, on February 25, and West Liberty, Iowa on March 9. From West Liberty, the fugitives were smuggled on a train going into Chicago on March 11, and from Chicago were placed on another train going into Detroit on March 12--the same day they were ferried across the Detroit River into Canadian freedom. With his mission accomplished, Brown passed through Ohio, stopping in Cleveland, Jefferson, and Kingsville, where he wrote the following letter on April 7, 1859. From Kingsville, Brown stopped in Rochester, N.Y., to see Frederick Douglass and then was in Peterboro, N.Y. for a few days, under the roof of Gerrit Smith. He arrived in North Elba on April 19. It was his second-to-last visit home. He stopped at North Elba once more, in mid-June, before making one quick trip to Ohio and then down to Maryland.

The Letter

I have provided this overview so the reader can appreciate how precious such letters home were for the Brown family, and the prevailing circumstances in which the April 7th letter was composed. Brown mentions having written to the family on March 25. In the body of the transcript below I have provided a link to this letter in the Stutler Collection (MS02-0037). Brown also mentions having sent $150 to the family in his second memorandum book (now held by the Boston Public Library). “Wrote wife and children to write me, care of American House, Troy, N.Y.," Brown scrawled. "Enclosed draft for $150.” It is not clear whether Brown stopped at Troy before finally reaching North Elba on April 19, but the trail provided by his surviving letters does not show him at Troy, N.Y. until May 6. Brown knew Troy, N.Y. because he had traveled through New York State over the years, particularly in the fine sheep-and-wool business, and one of his firm's cases was brought to trial in Troy. I do not know why he preferred the American House Hotel over the other five leading hotels in that city; perhaps he liked the name, since likewise he favored an establishment of the same name in Boston, Mass. That Brown raised $150 (no small amount in 1859) suggests the deep pockets of supporters like Gerrit Smith or George L. Stearns.


In the letter, Brown makes a peculiar reference to being sick for more than one week "with a terible [sic] gathering in my head; & with the Ague."  We should recall that really Brown was sick for much of the last few years of his life, often struggling with that notorious malarial prairie virus known as "The Ague" or sometimes, "the fever and the Ague." The term "Ague" is obsolete now, although it was obviously prominent in 19th century U.S. vocabulary. "Ague" is based on the French, "Aigue," which first entered English usage in the 14th century. According to one medical source, "Ague" has the same etymology as "acute," from the Latin,"acutus," meaning "sharp or pointed."  Thus the "fievre aigue" was an acute fever with additional symptoms of chills and sweating.2 As to the "gathering" in his head, it is possible that Brown is describing symptoms of another condition that also afflicted him, perhaps indicative of Bell's Palsy--which probably explains why his face looks contorted in one daguerreotype. Regardless, Brown was living with sickness.

Brown mentions having seen family letters from Henry and Ruth (Brown) Thompson in North Elba, to John Brown Junior, as well as letters from Watson and Oliver, indicating that Brown had spent time with Junior and other family members in Ohio. He likewise mentions having stopped in at Hudson, Akron, and West Andover. Kingsville itself was a burgeoning villege situated on Conneaut Creek in Ashtabula County. It was less than seventy miles from Cleveland along a railroad line. It is further understandable that Brown stopped there because West Andover in Ashtabula County was the place where his Harper's Ferry weapons were stored until being shipped eastward later in the year, and it was the penultimate "headquarters" for Brown's men prior to moving into the Kennedy Farm in Maryland in the summer of 1859.

Lastly, Brown writes that his "best wish for you all is that you may truly love God; & his commandments." This is no passing religious sentimentality. From the early 1850s he was quite distraught over the fact that almost all of his children had abandoned the evangelical faith of their fathers. Perhaps the only adult children sustaining an evangelical commitment were Ruth and her husband Henry Thompson. But the rest of his children were, by his standards of confessional orthodoxy, apostate. Thus, it was his desire that they would "truly love God"--which is to say, that they would conform to the doctrines of salvation in Jesus Christ according to Scripture. Brown was the archenemy of slavery indeed. But many of his devoted admirers might find him a little less appealing in his strident devotion to evangelical Reformed faith. Contrary to what some respected scholars have written in recent years, he was not into any form of dissenting evangelicalism, spiritualism, or any sort of religious novelty. As a biblicist and old school Calvinist, Brown believed that the ability of one to love God in truth (i.e., according to Scripture) was indicative of God's love for that person, and not the other way around. Certainly, Brown's most strident, politically minded admirers tend to ignore his religious views, which they undoubtedly find difficult to handle. Yet this, too, was part of the man and his worldview.

My transcript of the letter is literal, based upon a digital image of the original, which appeared on the Swann Auction Galleries website, where it was featured with this description: "Sale 2204, Lot 23, (SLAVERY AND ABOLITION.) BROWN, JOHN OF OSOWATOMIE. Autograph Letter Signed, 7 April, 1859. Small 8vo, written on one side. Kingsville, Ohio, 1859. Estimate $2,500-3,500. Swann Auction Galleries (New York)." (Retrieved on 8 February 2010.)

Kingsville, Ohio, 7th April, 1859.

Dear Wife, & Children All I wrote
you March 25th enclosing Draft for
, saying write me Care of American
House Troy, N Y, to say what articles you
need of provisions, clothing, Shoes, &c. Have
you written? I still wish you to retain
what money you can for a few days; as
I hope soon to be at home; to advise with
you about laying it out. I have been entire
-ly laid up for more than a week with a
terible [sic] gathering in my head; & with the
Ague: but am much better now. I have [^seen]
letters sent to John from Henry & Ruth,
Watson, & Olive[r]: for all which I am very
glad. All well at Hudson, Akron,
West Andover, lately. May write again
befor[e] getting home. My best wish for you all
is that you may truly love God; & his com-
-mandments. Your Affectionate Husband & Father
John Brown


1 The chronology appears in Oswald Garrison Villard's 1910 biography, John Brown: A Biography Fifty Years After, and subsequent editions of the book. However, Villard does not appear to have done much of the actual research; he hired Mayo to do that for him, and she did far more than he actually used. Mayo constructed this chronology--the only extensive chronology of Brown's public life and activities in print--by painstakingly recording dates in her field research, especially in making transcriptions of Brown's letters. (Her transcriptions are exact and thorough.) Mayo used a series of pocket memorandum books to reconstruct Brown's movements for the chronology, and these little books are among the John Brown - Oswald G. Villard Papers in the Rare Books and Manuscript Collection, Columbia University.

2 See "Definition of Ague," Medicine.Net.

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