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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, June 29, 2011

As a Matter of Fact--
Libby to Stiehm: Tubman Did Not Say "No" to Brown

On June 24, The New York Times"Opinionator" section featured an interesting piece by Jamie Stiehm, a journalist and author of a forthcoming book on the abolitionist Lucretia Mott. Stiehm writes about the "parallel lives" of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, both of which emerged as anti-slavery giants after escaping from the eastern shore of Maryland. Steihm notes that while Tubman became a freedom fighter, Douglass became an orator--"They were as night and day," Stiehm writes, adding:
But their lives continued to run parallel. In 1859 Douglass and Tubman were both asked, independently, by John Brown to take part in his failed raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry. Brown regretted not having Tubman fighting on his side; not for nothing did he call her “General Tubman.” Both she and Douglass, who was close with some of the “secret six” who provided funds to Brown, refused his entreaties — and likely saved their own lives.1
"Articles that isolate John Brown from his true support among African Americans, among whom Harriet Tubman is justly counted, feed the terrorist frenzy."

In response, Jean Libby submitted a response to the Times, expressing particular criticism of Stiehm's characterization of Tubman as having "refused [Brown's] entreaties." In a personal email, Libby writes: "Articles that isolate John Brown from his true support among African Americans, among whom Harriet Tubman is justly counted, feed the Terrorist frenzy."2 Her response, published on June 25, extends the point of Tubman's clear support of John Brown:
Jean Libby
There is documentation from Douglass himself that he did not support the raid at Harpers Ferry, and from African Americans in Philadelphia and in his group that raided the Federal arsenal that Brown had repeated meetings during the summer of 1859 to attempt to change his mind.

Tubman told her biographer Sara Bradford in 1860 that she was delayed in reaching John Brown in October 1859 because of illness, but she was close enough to guide several local slaves who supported Brown in escaping to Canada in two months later, in January 1860. This is supported in contemporary newspaper accounts as well.

James Montgomery, who guided by Harriet Tubman to raid plantations on the Combahee River in South Carolina in 1863, was directly involved with John Brown in Kansas. He came to Pennsylvania with a group who tried to organize a rescue of Brown in prison in November, 1859, which Brown refused saying he was 'worth much more to the cause of ending slavery now to die.'

I submit this documented evidence of Harriet Tubman's active support of John Brown shows that the author of this commentary (and/or later biographers) are incorrect in stating that she refused to join him at Harpers Ferry.

My published work includes Black Voices from Harpers Ferry; Osborne Anderson and the John Brown Raid (1979), and Mean To Be Free: John Brown's Black Nation Campaign (Dept. of African American Studies, UC Berkeley. 1986), and John Brown's Family in California (Allies for Freedom publishers, 2006)."3


     1 Jamie Stiehm, “Opinionator: Parallel Lives from the Eastern Shore,” The New York Times (24 June 2011).
     2 Libby to DeCaro et al, 25 June 2011. Electronic communication.
     3 “Readers’ Comments [No. 5]: Jean Libby,” The New York Times (25 June 2011)

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Family Matters--
Let Owen Brown Rest Out West

This week (June 21) I made note of a well-intended idea that came forth from the Old Man's admirers, the goal of which was to relocate the remains of Owen Brown, son of the liberator, from his neglected resting place in California to the Brown family farm in Lake Placid, a New York State historic site.  It was my suggestion, affirmed immediately by others, that the idea of moving Owen Brown is really a matter for the Brown family descendants to decide.  Shortly afterward, Alice Keesey Mecoy wrote to us, and I have her permission to share her thoughts on the matter.  Of course, we would only add our "Amen."

A few years ago, Brendon Mills, Ranger/Curator of the John Brown Farm in North Elba, contacted me regarding my giving permission to have Owen Brown's body disinterred, and brought to North Elba for burial. At that time, I was more than happy to say yes to this unique request. My reasons were, I thought, sound – the man who owns the land had fenced off the site; Owen died without heirs; the headstone was missing; what difference could it make where Owen was buried?

I was very naive back then, to say the least. I am no longer in agreement with the plan to have Owen's body moved, and will adamantly oppose any plans to do so. My reasons are below.

At the time of the first request, I had only attended a couple of funerals, and had not visited many cemeteries. Now, after years of studying the Brown's and working so closely with the genealogy, I find that the very act of visiting the graves of my ancestors invokes strong feelings and emotions that are at times overwhelming and indescribable. While I am sure that the feelings would be the same no matter where Owen rests, I feel that the original place of burial is an important part of the history not only of the family, but of America as well.

Buried near the top of what locals called "Brown's Peak," Owen is at home. He lived there for many years, interacting with the prominent citizens of the neighboring towns. He was one of the 21 founding settlers of Altadena, and well respected. Close to 2000 mourners attended his funeral in town and around 300 braved the treacherous route up the mountain for the graveside service. In 1900, attendance at the dedication of the stone gravestone was high, as was the picnic held on Brown's Peak to celebrate the 100th anniversary of John Brown's birth. The people of Altadena and surrounding areas are proud to have a "son of the liberator" buried there.

The Sierra Club near Altadena took the landowners to court twice to ensure continued free access to the gravesite. In 2006 they succeeded – based on previous historical access; the property owner lost and now must allow any and all who wish to visit the gravesite complete access. In 2008, The Sierra Club rebuilt the trail up to the former sites of Owen and Jason's cabins and the gravesite.

If we move Owen, where do we stop? Do we go to Put-In-Bay Ohio and remove John Jr. from his final resting spot? What about Frederick, who died during the Osawatomie uprising, do we remove him to North Elba? What of Brown's wives, Dianthe and Mary, shall we uproot them as well? Do we move only the sons, who fought beside Brown; all eight children who outlived "the old man"; or do we also move all of the little children that were lost along the way? If we move the Brown's, do we also move the family members? Where would this end?

American history is full of stories about the movement and scattering of family members. Gravesites show us the routes taken by our ancestors as their lives flowed and ebbed with the changing times. By moving Owen, we would disrupt the profound impact he, and others like him, had on the world as they moved through their lives.

 My answer is no, please do not move Owen Brown from the resting place he himself chose.

 Alice Keesey Mecoy

Great-Great-Great Grand Daughter of John Brown, Abolitionist
Alice Keesey Mecoy
 Daughter of Paul Keesey
  Son of Beatrice Cook
   Daughter of Bertha Adams
    Daughter of Annie Brown
     Daughter of John Brown, Abolitionist

Thursday, June 23, 2011

New and Noteworthy--
David Reynolds' Biography of a Book: Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin
David Reynolds, our friend and fellow John Brown biographer, has published his latest effort, Mightier than the Sword: Uncle Tom's Cabin and the Battle for America.  Dr. Reynolds presented his new book on June 15 at the Barnes & Noble bookstore on Broadway and 82nd Street on Manhattan's west side.  A veteran biographer and historian of antebellum era studies, he noted that he had thought of writing the "biography" of a book and certainly Uncle Tom's Cabin is one of the most notable and influential works of fiction in U.S. history.

I will not endeavor to duplicate his remarks, since the reader can check out his recent Op-Ed contribution in The New York Times entitled "Rescuing the Real Uncle Tom" (June 13).

"The original Uncle Tom was physically strong and morally courageous, an inspiration for blacks and other oppressed people worldwide. In other words, Uncle Tom was anything but an 'Uncle Tom.'” David Reynolds
David Reynolds autographs his new book,
June 15, 2011, at B&N in Manhattan
(photo by L. DeCaro Jr.)
You may also read a portion of the book and listen to an interview of Dr. Reynolds on The Diane Rehm Show on American University Radio (WAMU 88.5: Washington, D.C.) on June 13.  Interestingly, one reader of the Op-Ed piece, James Tackach, an English professor at Roger Williams University, differs with Reynolds' thesis: "Unlike Prof. David S. Reynolds, I, and most of my students over the years, believe that Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom deserves his Uncle Tomish reputation. He refuses to escape from enslavement when he has the opportunity and dies praying for his tormentors."

What do you think?

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Tentatively Speaking--
Should Owen Brown's Remains be Relocated?

Owen Brown was the fourth son/child of abolitionist John Brown and Dianthe Lusk Brown, born November 4, 1824, in Hudson, Ohio.  Like the rest of his siblings, he was a devoted antislavery man in his own right and his involvement both in the Kansas and Harper's Ferry episodes is a matter of historical record.  In later years, Owen moved westward and lived with his older brother Jason (b. 1823) in near seclusion, six miles north of Pasadena, California, in the Las Casitas homestead.  While Jason (who was married) returned to Ohio where he died in 1912, Owen died on January 10, 1889.  His closest residing relatives were his brother-in-law Henry Thompson (b. 1822) and sister Ruth Brown Thompson (b. 1829), of Pasadena.  Owen was well loved and regarded and in his later years was featured in newspaper articles and interviews.  When he died, he was given a notable burial and his gravesite was for many years a place of historical pilgrimage for white and black admirers.

Owen Brown from
Hinton's John Brown
and His Men
The simple (and actual) grave stone that marked Owen's final resting place was a point of interest well into this era but was never made a historical landmark and so remained on private property.  Unfortunately, in recent years the land and burial site fell into the hands of an owner who by all accounts has proven hostile toward tourists and pilgrims coming to visit Owen's resting place on his property; more recently, we have been told that the simple stone marker bearing Owen's name has disappeared--perhaps removed by the landowner, although this is speculation.

Lately there has been some interesting emailing going on about the possibility of having Owen's remains disinterred and moved from California to New York State, to be reinterred at the John Brown Farm at Lake Placid (North Elba, N.Y.), with the legendary body of his father, as well as his half-brothers and many of the Harper's Ferry raiders.

This is an exciting, admirable, and worthy idea given the fact that Owen's resting place has been subjected to the whims of a landowner who by all accounts seems something of an ogre.  It is easy to imagine that such a project could become quite a cause célèbre in John Brown circles from coast to coast.  However, in my opinion (and I have already expressed this via email to the friends of John Brown), any idea of moving Owen's remains from California to New York should have the approval of as many Brown family descendants as possible.  Owen never married nor had children, but there are direct descendants of his siblings and half-siblings (the children of John and Mary Day Brown), and a genuine effort should be made to poll their opinions as a family in order to determine whether they approve or not.
This stone marked the site of
Owen Brown's grave for many years

In the event that a sufficient basis of family approval can be determined, then we should be willing to strategically consider the effort, particularly from the standpoint of interstate concerns and funding since we cannot expect either the Golden State or the Empire State to take an interest in bearing the cost of such an effort.

On the other hand, depending on the outlook of Brown family descendants, we may want to consider whether it might be more worthwhile to consider a nationwide campaign to bring pressure to bear upon the landowner to make that portion of his property accessible to tourists and pilgrims, and to accept assistance in placing a worthy marker on Owen's gravesite.  

These are matters to be considered.  Owen Brown evidently chose to live out his days in California and perhaps we should begin by respecting this point in our best intended plans.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Osawatomie Notebook--

Atwater: John Brown and Psychological Warfare

* Grady Atwater, the administrator of the John Brown State Historic Site in Osawatomie, Kansas, has recently written about John Brown’s use of psychological warfare against pro-slavery forces as a guerilla fighter.
“Those who are afraid may go back, but I will cross at the Fuller Crossing. The Lord has marked out a path for me, and I intend to follow it. We are ready to move.” John Brown, January 1859
Read the entire article posted on The Osawatomie Graphic [Osawatomie, Kan.]

Atwater Honored 

* Atwater a recepient of the 2011 We Kan! Award

On May 7, 2011, Grady Atwater was one of ten people to be recognized for his contributions in receiving the annual We Kan! Award, provided by the Sampler Foundation for grassroots leadership in Kansas. Congratulations, Grady!
“Realistically, it’s an award for the entire community and people who support efforts to educate the public at large about John Brown’s role in history.” Grady Atwater
Read more about it The Osawatomie Graphic [Osawatomie, Kan.], 17 May 2011

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Harpers Ferry News:
The Unlucky Irishman Gets a Monument

Private Luke Quinn and his fellow leathernecks rolled up on Harper’s Ferry, [West] Virginia, in a special train provided by the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, arriving at eleven o’clock at night on October 17, 1859. Quinn was among the ninety or so marines at the barracks in Washington D.C. when called into duty by First Lieutenant Israel Green.  He was twenty-four-years-old, and certainly  had no idea that he was about to go down in the history books as the only marine casualty in one of the most famous incidents of his century.
The Luke Quinn Monument
(Kevin Gilbert, Herald-Mail photo

Most readers know that the marines successfully stormed the armory engine house where Brown, his men, some enslaved black allies, and hostages were holed up. Jean Libby has noted that a valiant effort was made to storm the engine house the previous afternoon, led by some brave railroad men. Although they were driven back by Brown’s ferocious firepower, the railroad men left the ladder in the yard that they had used to ram the doors of the engine house. As Libby has noted, this likely was what raider Osborne Anderson saw as he fled for his life from Harper’s Ferry, mistaking it for the final marine assault that took place the following day. This is an important point since historians discredited Anderson’s eyewitness account entirely, as if he had lied about what he saw. However, despite his having confused the details of what took place on Monday (Oct. 17) afternoon with Tuesday's (Oct. 18) marine assault, the the former justifies Anderson’s testimony. It also explains where the marines got that ladder that they used for their successful attempt to break into the engine house the next morning. [See Jean Libby, Black Voices from Harpers Ferry (Palo Alto, Calif.: Printed by the author, 1979), 154 and n. 13.]

It is typically assumed that when the marines initially burst through the engine house door that Brown’s men began to fire upon them. For instance, Boyd Stutler, the preeminent John Brown scholar, wrote: “Up until the door was broken in but little firing was done, but at this time a volley from the defenders killed Private Luke Quinn and seriously wounded Private Rupert. Lieutenant Green sprang through the breach with his men, and, being armed only with a light dress sword, attacked Brown with the frail weapon. . . .” [see Boyd B. Stutler, “Old John Brown’s Fort,” The West Virginia Review (June 1926): 336-38.]

According to marine historian Bernard Nalty, after the engine door was rammed open, “the Leathernecks came spilling into the building just as Brown was reloading his weapon.”  But he identifies Israel Green as being the first to jump from cover and bound through the opening. Armed only with his light dress sword, Green jumped from the cover of the abutment and bounded through the opening. Fortunately for Green, who would later become a Confederate officer and a great liar--he was not shot by Brown or his men. [See my entry, “The Slavemaster’s Butcher: Answering Leatherneck Magazine and Israel Green," August 10, 2010.]

Typically, the fact that Green was not shot dead has been attributed to Brown’s coincidental need to reload his Sharps rifle. But Brown was not the only one with a rifle, and it is more likely that Green was spared because Brown and his men actually were trying to surrender and chose not to fire on him when he entered through the breach. Furthermore, Green had no weapon, except for a costume sword that he forgot to exchange for the real thing.

Military scholars may clarify or correct me on this point, but it seems unlikely that Lieutenant Green would follow his men into the engine house when the doors were broken through.   Nalty points out that the next marine to enter after Green was Major William W. Russell, the marine paymaster. (Russell went to Harper’s Ferry as an assistant to Green because he was a staff officer and not permitted to take command over the marines in this action.)  Curiously, Russell was no better armed than Green, entering the engine house with kind of bamboo (rattan) switch. So actually it appears that the first two officers to enter the engine house were not armed with rifles/bayonets. [Bernard C. Nalty, “The United States Marines at Harper’s Ferry, 1859” (Washington, D.C.: Department of the Navy Headquarters United States Marines/Historical Branch, G-3 Division, 1962), 2-7.]

If this is a feasible description, then we may understand more fully why neither Green nor Russell were shot down immediately upon entering the engine house. Not only did Brown and his men probably hold back their fire because they were trying to surrender at the last minute (as Brown later stated), but they also may have refrained from shooting Green and Russell because they were unarmed.

However, in Private Quinn’s case, coming in third place was anything but lucky for the young Irishman. He was armed, although he never had a chance to discharge his weapon or impale anyone on his bayonet, as the marines did who followed in afterward. Quinn took a bullet to the abdomen from one of Brown’s men, who by then probably realized that their surrender plans were going badly. Private Matthew Rupert, the marine who followed Quinn, also took a bullet—in the mouth—but survived. But poor Quinn was not so fortunate. His funeral was presided over by another Irish immigrant, Fr. Michael A. Costello of St. Peter's Roman Catholic Church in Harper’s Ferry. Costello seems to have been the same priest who tried to visit John Brown after his defeat but was harshly ordered away by the Old Man (who wanted nothing to do with either proslavery preachers or Roman Catholic priests—particularly proslavery Roman Catholic priests.)  Like Costello, Quinn was also an Irish immigrant, the latter having come to the U.S. as a boy, later to join the marines in Brooklyn, New York. Perhaps he had no family in the United States to claim his body. Regardless, he was buried in the cemetery of St. Peter's Roman Catholic Church. Quinn's gravestone is still in the church cemetery today, as is the gravestone of Father Costello.

Last month (24 May) it was reported by the Herald-Mail [Hagerstown, Md.] online that a 3,500-pound granite monument honoring Private Quinn was placed at Harper’s Ferry on May 24, 2011. It sets less than a quarter-mile from where Quinn fell "while assaulting Brown's position.” According to the Herald-Mail, the Quinn monument was built in three sections and stands almost seven-feet in height, and was designed by Hank Happy of Charles Town, West Virginia, a Civil War re-enactor who portrays a marine at Harper’s Ferry. The monument shows a marine dressed in the antebellum uniform, standing at attention. The inscription reads:
IN MEMORY OF PVT LUKE QUINN only Marine killed in John Brown's raid October 18, 1859. Pvt. Luke Quinn came from Ireland in 1835 and enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1855 in Brooklyn, N.Y. He was sent to sea duty then transferred to Marine Barracks in Washington, D.C.. He came to Harpers Ferry with Lieut. Col. Robert E. Lee. Then was killed in the storming of the engine house. His funeral was in St. Peter's Catholic Church (in Harpers Ferry) by Father Michael Costello and he was buried in St. Peter's Catholic Cemetery.
The Herald-Mail points out that the monument inscription errs by stating Quinn came from Ireland in 1835, when actually he was born in Ireland that year.

Interestingly, a monument to the little known Irish marine is especially well greeted by the owner of a Harper’s Ferry drinking establishment named after him, The Pvt. Quinn Club on Potomac Street. "That's great. Now I won't have to keep trying to explain it," says the pub’s owner. "Customers are always asking who Pvt. Quinn was. Now I know he was a real person."  [Richard F. Belisle, “Memorial Honors Only Marine Killed in John Brown Raid,” Herald-Mail [Hagerstown, Md.], 24 May 2011.]

Postscript: Nalty makes the passing observation that marines were utilized in the aftermath of the Nat Turner rebellion of 1830--once more a reminder that in the antebellum era, the Leathernecks served double duty as hunters and killers for the slavocracy of the United States.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Fantasie versus Fact: "Violent John
Brown" is the invention of prejudiced
historians and artists too
Distorted Vision:
LaFantasie’s “Violent” Fantasy about John Brown and “America”

If it were not already a paradigm, it surely would be a cliché by now—the “violent John Brown” thesis frequently put forth by Civil War historians. Over the years the “violent John Brown” has been reiterated in various forms.  Throughout most of the 20th century it was mostly John Brown insane-and-violent; in recent years it has been John Brown violent terrorist; and now, from the pen of another Civil War historian, it’s “John Brown and American Pie Violence.” These “violent” theses may seem different, but actually they are all of a kind because they emanate from the same place.

Professor LaFantasie

The latest “violent John Brown” theme comes from Glenn W. LaFantasie, the Richard Frockt Family Professor of Civil War History at Western Kentucky University. Professor LaFantasie is what we would call an expert on all things Civil War. He is the author of Gettysburg Requiem: The Life and Lost Causes of Confederate Colonel William C. Oates, Twilight at Little Round Top: July 2, 1863—The Tide Turns at Gettysburg, and Gettysburg Heroes: Perfect Soldiers, Hallowed Ground and is currently preparing a book about Abraham Lincoln and General Grant. Notwithstanding his achievements and the respect due him as an accomplished scholar, Professor LaFantasie has lost his way in pursuing John Brown in a recent essay published on Salon.com entitled, “The Thoroughly American Soul of John Brown.”

LaFantasie's Thesis

Prof. Glenn LaFantasie
LaFantasie’s point is that there is something essentially “American” about violence, and that John Brown is the obvious heir to this tradition of violence. He writes that “we”—meaning himself and other scholars like him—would prefer to think of Brown being mentally ill because “it is far too horrifying to acknowledge that Brown sprang from a long tradition of American violence and that he was, in so many respects, a product of the American soul.” LaFantasie says that people in the United States “find it very difficult to face up to the fact” we are a violent nation to the core—quite in contrast to our claims of being a peaceful people. For that reason, he concludes, “John Brown attracts us and repels us at the same time” since he is “quintessentially American.” No, LaFantasie opines, Brown is not the aberrant character portrayed by some writers. To the contrary, “[w]hat we truly cannot face is that John Brown is us.”

To be sure, LaFantasie does not indulge in cheap psycho-historical postmortems as other writers have done in recent years. Perhaps he recognizes that portrayals of Brown as mentally unstable have no historical foundation. This would be good news except that LaFantasie adheres to the notion of Brown being a violent figure—indeed, a significant link in the chain of our nation’s violent history. To LaFantasie, Brown “sprang from a long tradition of American violence" and "was, in so many respects, a product of the American soul.”

The Pretense

LaFantasie starts with the recent killing of Osama bin Laden by the U.S. government, and how many people in this nation responded with delight and expressions of relief. Although he raises the question of whether our nation had the moral authority to kill the Muslim terrorist, this is just the hook, the pretense--the "artifice" as Old Brown would say. In fact, LaFantasie immediately demurs from the question of our nation's moral authority in killing Osama bin Laden, and instead poses a different theme: “I can tell you as a historian [meaning, “I'm speaking as an expert here”] that the connections between violence and terrorism and our country's long history of responding to violence with violence always leads me to think about John Brown and his raid on Harpers Ferry, Va." [my emphasis].

The immediate question for Professor La Fantasie is, "Why does the connection of violence and terrorism" in U.S. history always lead you back to John Brown? Why doesn't the connection of violence and terrorism lead you back to the genocide of Native Americans, something that was taking place before Brown came on the scene? Why is it that when violence and terrorism are coupled in such essays, that writers like Professor LaFantasie don't start with the enslavement of Africans, an "institution" premised on the consistent use of violence and terror? What is the historical justification for starting with John Brown in discussing violence and terrorism in the United States?

In fact, Professor LaFantasie seems to be using the opportunity provided by bin Laden's killing to flush out some visceral contempt for John Brown and dress it up as a historical-philosophical reflection. This is nothing new; a large segment of white historians have repeatedly used contemporary violence to implicate Brown over the years. It is a habit of mind with them, just as they habitually overlook the prevalence of violence in everyday life in antebellum slavery. For instance, LaFantasie begins with comparing John Brown's violence with the bucolic peacefulness of scenic Harpers Ferry at the time of the raid. I wonder, though, how peaceful and bucolic it was for enslaved people?

Frederick Douglass better
understood Brown's "violence" as
antithetical to the pervasive
violence of slavery
The Grounding Truth of White Society?

To be sure, LaFantasie is better than most Civil War historians because he introduces the black perspective on Brown in contrast to the standard “American” perspective. He even references Malcolm X and Frederick Douglass, so he is aware that black people see Brown as a hero. Yet he treats this view superficially—blacks may see Brown as a hero, albeit a violent hero. Yet LaFantasie is not concerned to delve more critically into the virtually unanimous African American reading of Brown as a hero. Indeed, the implication of LaFantasie’s article is that apart from the “violent” aspect, the black perspective is subjective and biased, and has no bearing on the “real” reading of Brown. In contrast, LaFantasie proposes the real meaning of John Brown. After all, the grounding truth is what white society says is true, especially white Civil War historians.

LaFantasie's Violent Fantasy

Yet it is LaFantasie who is not only subjective, but highly prejudiced. His essay offers no real historical evidence, no scholarly discussion—only a personal “interpretation” of the famous Black and Batchelder 1859 daguerreotype made of Brown (the only image we have of him with a beard). LaFantasie writes that this image "suggests why we [again, by “we,” he means white society at large, especially the Civil War historians that he represents] feel so much uneasiness about him." He continues:
Take one look into his eyes. There's fire in them. . . . In that disquieting stare something much clearer than his mental state is immediately evident. You can see this is a man of deadly purpose. With the zeal of a true believer, for he was convinced that God ordered and condoned his actions, John Brown took up the sword and used it ruthlessly and bloodily -- and, it must be said, without giving much contemplation to what he was doing or to the malevolence he was spreading. His violence seemed almost instinctive and reflexive, like the violence that leads troubled souls to shoot random victims in a shopping mall or on a college campus. John Brown was convinced that his righteous cause justified his violent means, just as religious terrorists down through time and now, in our own uneasy age, have shed blood in the name of their gods and prophets.
This is incredible nonsense, at once scurrilous and meretricious--a work unfitted to a scholar holding a position of academic leadership.  Likewise it demonstrates how easily Civil War/Lincoln scholars get away with historical homicide where John Brown is concerned. In fact, these remarks are so baseless and unfair that they should embarrass the man who wrote them, since he is a professional historian.  In any sense, "reading" someone's eyes in a photo is little more than a parlor game, and certainly LaFantasie's reading of John Brown's eyes is pure prejudice.  Indeed, the professor is imputing his own sick fantasy of Brown upon this portrait, entirely indifferent to the historical record of the man who lived.
John Brown, 1859

Let it suffice to say that in 1859, John Brown was sick, weary, and worn.  Furthermore, this was before people learned to "smile for the camera," when photographic images were still an extension of older portraiture, where people "sat" for a painted portrait.  One could find "violent" eyes in almost any antebellum daguerreotype if one wished.   Indeed, without context, one could impute almost anything to a photographic image.  I could easily impute haughtiness, arrogance, and conceit to Professor LaFantasie's eyes in the photo above, but that would hardly be fair.  Rather, I would prefer to judge him by the train of his thought, and the nature of his writing. As Salmon Brown, son of the liberator, wrote about the malicious writings of Hill Peebles Wilson, “He must be a fool or a knave.  He writes well, not as a fool, so he must be a knave."

John Brown, For the Record

Let us be clear that John Brown lived a life of non-violence but hesitantly came to the conclusion that slavery’s evil had so corrupted the nation, and had become so entangled in the life of the nation that only a forceful strategy could remove it from the body politic. He was not alone in this “violent” conclusion—many abolitionists moved increasingly from religious abolitionism to political abolitionism in the horrible decade of the 1850s, when pro-slavery terrorism and violence had run roughshod over the nation, from Washington D.C. to Kansas Territory. Brown was never more than an advocate and practitioner of self-defense and armed resistance to slavery, and this goes for Pottawatomie too.   It was slavery, Brown said, that was war being carried out against unarmed and unprotected black people with the aid of the corrupt rule of law. It may be true that violence is as "American" as apple pie, but Brown's response was the antithesis.  My fellow biographer David Reynolds has responded to Professor LaFantasie along these lines with great clarity and merits quotation:

Reynolds: "Brown was
not naturally given to
using weapons"
As I make clear in my book John Brown, Abolitionist, John Brown's violence was not an innate American trait but rather was Brown's means of reacting to slavery and to the Southern culture of violence. Brown was not naturally given to using weapons. Early in his life he had refused to enter the military on ethical grounds. For two decades, he used peaceful means of advancing the antislavery cause: his preferred tactics were educating blacks, participating in the Underground Railroad, and helping blacks with their farming and surveying. Like most other abolitionists, including Garrison and Thoreau, he preferred nonviolent means. But the proslavery events of the 1850s made him see that violence was the only way that so deeply entrenched an evil as slavery was going to be uprooted. Slavery he regarded as a state of war against an entire race. In Kansas, proslavery settlers used violence, murder, and intimidation to take over elections and elect a fraudulent government. The South itself was a culture of rampant violence: a place of bowie knives, duels, deadly family feuds, and ceaseless violence against slaves and suspected abolitionists. In Kansas, John Brown, as one journalist noted, "brought Southern tactics to the Northern side." At Harpers Ferry, Brown had hoped, as he said, to accomplish his slave rescue there without firing a shot before fleeing to the mountains with a band of freed blacks; but the invasion went awry and turned into a gun battle. Former pacifists like Thoreau and Harriet Beecher Stowe loved John Brown (comparing him to Jesus and the Founding Fathers) because they saw that violence was needed to rid the nation of slavery. Also, they saw that John Brown was not wholly about violence. The jailed Brown's compassionate, generous words about America's enslaved blacks--words widely reprinted in the press--were, as Thoreau noted, Brown's most powerful weapons. Brown's unprecedented expressions of compassion for blacks and his moral protest against slavery are what inspired thousands of Union soldiers to sing as they tramped southward: "John Brown's body lies mouldering in the grave, but his soul is marching on."
Professor LaFantasie is quite wrong: Brown was never “quintessentially American” because the quintessential “American” always put white prerogatives and white priorities first, even as Professor LaFantasie himself has done in his essay.  In the end, LaFantasie has told us nothing about John Brown in this deplorable piece of speculation disguised as history.  But what he has revealed about himself is more than meets the eyes.

Friday, June 10, 2011

When Art & History Meet:
"Voices from Harpers Ferry" Recalls John Brown's Noble Black Raiders

On Monday evening, June 7th, it was my honor to attend the reading of "Voices from Harpers Ferry," a play that is centered on the black men who joined John Brown in his raid on the town and armory of Harpers Ferry, Virginia (today West Virginia) in October 1859.  The role of Osborne P. Anderson was played by Reg E. Cathey, Dangerfield Newby by Danny Johnson, Shields Green by Brandon Gill, Lewis Leary by Keldrick Chowder, and John Copeland by Keith Eric Chappelle.  The performance, one of five plays presented in The New Black Fest reading series, was held at the Audubon Ballroom in Manhattan as part of the American Slavery Project in collaboration with the Classical Theater of Harlem.   The New Black Fest guest curators are Judy Tate and Godfrey L. Simmons Jr.

"Voices" was well attended and enthusiastically received--the story being an artistic dramatization of the interrelationship of Brown's black raiders, only one of which escaped after the failure of the raid.  The title of the play itself was inspired by raider Osborne Anderson's 1861 book, A Voice from Harper's Ferry, which was written to counteract the slave master propaganda put forth by the press following the raid--especially the notion that local blacks were too afraid to fight.  Playwright Dominic Taylor has skillfully crafted a moving story about these men that takes place on both the physical and metaphysical plane.  Taylor presents the black raiders as men of varying philosophies and outlooks, from devoutly Christian to atheist, from good natured to hard-shelled and cynical.  Obviously the playwright is artist, not historian, but a good work of art that involves historical figures should find some grounding in historical evidence, and Taylor certainly is mindful of the men who lived and the story of the raid although he is addressing truth first through the heart and feeling, which is the right of the artist.  Yet key to the play is the central figure of Osborne P. Anderson, the surviving black raider who later fought in the Civil War and died in the early 1870s, largely overlooked in his passing.  The story begins with the discovery of Anderson's body on the street in Washington, D.C., and then the playwright carefully leads us back through the story of the black raiders in all their humanity and sacrifice, and then their final reunion with Anderson, the last of their circle to die.
Osborne P. Anderson:
His legacy grounds
"Voices from HF"

It was my pleasure to be invited to participate in a post-reading panel discussion with Mr. Taylor, hosted by Judy Tate, which allowed us to further discuss the meeting of history with the play.  Most importantly, curators Tate and Simmons designed the New Black Fest series as a response to the popular revisionism of the Civil War sesquicentennial.  The American Slavery Project is not only concerned with honoring the work of black playwrights, but also initiating "new conversations about theater's role in counteracting revisionism in our nation's discourse about the Civil War and slavery."

Yours truly chats with playwright Dominic Taylor,
as the souls of John Brown and Malcolm X go marching on
Playwright Dominic Taylor is a seasoned writer, director, and Assistant Professor at the University of Minnesota.  As a playwright, he has been commissioned by The Goodman, Steppenwolf, and New York Theatre Workshop, and is the winner of various awards and grants.  He is also the Associate Artistic Director at Penumbra Theatre Company where he spearheads the OKRA New Play Development Program.   His latest play, "I Wish You Love," will be staged at the Kennedy Center this month and at Hartford Stage next month.  Mr. Taylor has taken his undergraduate and graduates degrees from Brown University and is a board member of the Givens Foundation for African American Literature.

LouMike Strikes a Pose After the Play
As a postscript, it was very moving for me to participate in the panel discussion also because it took place in the renovated space that once was the Grand Ballroom of the Audubon Ballroom in Manhattan, the site where Malcolm X held regular meetings of his Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU) in 1964 and early 1965--including the OAAU meeting of February 21, 1965, when he was brutally assassinated by a team of "Black Muslim" hit men sent from the Nation of Islam "mosque" in Newark, New Jersey.  As a graduate student in the late 1980s, I gained entrance to the same ballroom space, which at that time was quite in ruins.  I still remember the morbidly poignant "tour" that I took--the swollen, warped floorboards, the scattered chairs, and the bullet marks still on the wall--a haunting reminder of the malicious and wicked attack that ended Malcolm's life at thirty-nine years.  Today the walls of that space are filled with large, panoramic scenes from his life, and a few of the original floorboards are left visible as a reminder of the days when Malcolm's voice echoed in the ballroom.  The Audubon now has a mini museum on a lower level (I think about where the old San Juan Theater used to be) dedicated to Malcolm's memory, where people can view educational videos about him.  It has been a good while since I transitioned from being a Malcolm X scholar to being a student of John Brown, but this evening gave me a unique opportunity to see two phases of my own life, along with two very important historical themes in the history of black struggle, come together in a resonant and meaningful way.  I think John Brown would call it a "kind Providence."

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

In Remembrance of Free Spirits:
Frances Ellen Watkins Harper and the John Brown Story

I. A Journalist Finds Her Resting Place

Journalist Annette John-Hall recently did a column about her experience as a volunteer in the clean-up of historic Eden Cemetery in Collingdale, Pennsylvania, in the Philadelphia area. According to John-Hall, Eden is a historic black cemetery where a number of notable African Americans now rest: Marian Anderson (1897-1993), freedom fighter Octavius V. Catto (1839-1871), abolitionist William Still (1821-1902), architect Julian Abele (1881-1950), and track-and-field gold medalist John B. Taylor Jr. (1882-1908), “along with hundreds of other notable African Americans whose achievements left an enduring mark on the world.” Unfortunately, Eden has suffered from vandalism—the defacement of headstones, trash dumping, and even graceless dog owners who have left their pets’ excrement on the burial grounds. As if that were not bad enough, arsonists burned down the cemetery’s administrative offices twice. In response to these problems, Mina Cockroft, the general manager of the cemetery, put out a call for volunteers through the media for assistance in cleaning up Eden. A hundred volunteers, including John-Hall, showed up to clean headstones, plant flowers, and prune trees, answered the call.

Annette John-Hall
John-Hall interestingly describes how she accompanied Cockcroft to a section of the cemetery located on a southern ridge to “a section of the cemetery named for revolutionary abolitionist John Brown.” Given the importance of Philadelphia in the 19th century as a center of African American life and activity, perhaps it is no surprise that a black cemetery would have a section named for the Old Man. Many African Americans today have no idea how highly Brown was revered by the black community in the aftermath of the Harper’s Ferry raid and well into the 20th century. After all, a lot of water has gone under the bridge since those days—the progress of the black struggle and the rise of modern black martyrs of great stature have understandably mooted the reverent attachments of past generations. Yet people with a historical memory retain a sense of loyalty to the Old Man and happily are willing to defend his name and legacy.
Annette John-Hall at the gravesite
of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper

The story comes to a beautiful conclusion at the burial site of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825-1911), one of the great black activist orators and literary figures of the 19th century. As John-Hall describes it, she had inadvertently come upon the grave of “one of my cherished role models. . . . The visionary who fearlessly refused to give up her seat on the horse-drawn trolley in Philadelphia, a century before Rosa Parks.”

John-Hall then mentioned Watkins Harper’s beloved poem, “Bury Me in a Free Land,” the message of which resonated as she realized this was where the poet was actually buried. She closes the story by interspersing her narrative with Harper’s memorable verse:

Make me a grave where'er you will / In a lowly plain, or a lofty hill. . . .

Cockroft [the cemetery manager] asked if I would like to keep up Harper's plot as part of a new adopt-a-grave-site program the cemetery has started. I'd be honored, I said.

Make it among earth's humblest graves / But not in a land where men are slaves.

"Don't worry Mrs. Harper," I thought as I grabbed a bucket and wiped down her headstone, along with the adjacent one of her daughter, Mary. "I think you'd be mighty pleased with your resting place."1

II. Epistles of Comfort

Following the Harper’s Ferry raid and the aftermath of its trial and judgments, Frances Ellen Watkins (she had not yet married Fenton Harper) coincidentally found herself in Philadelphia in November 1859, probably in her capacity as a traveling anti-slavery lecturer. According to William Still’s epic Underground Railroad, “Mrs. Harper passed two weeks with Mrs. Brown at the house of the writer [Still] while she was awaiting the execution of her husband, and sympathized with her most deeply.” At the moment I cannot date this more precisely, but her stay certainly dates to early November.

Mary Ann Day-Brown,
the "noble wife of the
hero of the 19th century"
Mary Brown had left her Adirondack home, traveling first to Boston, where anti-slavery friends greeted her during the first week of November. Leaving Boston, she proceeded southward; but when Brown heard that his wife was coming to Virginia, he panicked for fear that she would face Southern hostility and appealed to friends to send Mary back home. Mary did not return home, but she did turn around at Baltimore and returned as far as Philadelphia, where she seems to have first taken refuge in the home of William Still at 107 Fifth Street. Apparently, it was during this time that she met Frances Ellen Watkins and formed a bond of friendship with her. (Mary Brown stayed in the Philadelphia area for the rest of the month, making one visit to the home of Rebecca Buffum Spring in New Jersey, but otherwise remained in Philadelphia, staying in the home of Lucretia Mott until—with Brown's permission—she went to Virginia on December 1, the day before the execution.)

By the second week of November, Frances Ellen Watkins had continued on her speaking tour, but was still carrying the burden of Mary’s imminent loss in her heart. Writing from Farmer Centre, a town in northwestern Ohio, Frances reached out to the woman who would soon become the widow of John Brown:

Farmer Centre, Ohio, Nov. 14th.

My Dear Madam:

In an hour like this the common words of sympathy may seem like idle words, and yet I want to say something to you, the noble wife of the hero of the nineteenth century. Belonging to the race your dear husband reached forth his hand to assist, I need not tell you that my sympathies are with you. I thank you for the brave words you have spoken. A republic that produces such a wife and mother may hope for better days. Our heart may grow more hopeful for humanity when it sees the sublime sacrifice it is about to receive from his hands. Not in vain has your dear husband periled all, if the martyrdom of one hero is worth more than the life of a million cowards. From the prison comes forth a shout of triumph over that power whose ethics are robbery of the feeble and oppression of the weak, the trophies of whose chivalry are a plundered cradle and a scourged and bleeding woman. Dear sister, I thank you for the brave and noble words that you have spoken. Enclosed I send you a few dollars as a token of my gratitude, reverence and love.

Yours respectfully,
Frances Ellen Watkins
"Yours in the cause of freedom":
Frances E. Watkins Harper
(Moonstone Arts Center)
In postscript, Frances noted that all correspondence should be directed to William Still in Philadelphia. She added:
May God, our own God, sustain you in the hour of trial. If there is one thing on earth I can do for you or yours, let me be apprized. I am at your service.2
As she continued lecturing, Frances now turned her focus directly to John Brown, to whom she wrote about ten days later from a town in northeastern Indiana:
Kendallville, Indiana, Nov. 25.

Dear Friend:

Although the hands of Slavery throw a barrier be¬tween you and me, and it may not be my privilege to see you in your prison-house, Virginia has no bolts or bars through which I dread to send you my sympathy. In the name of the young girl sold from the warm clasp of a mother's arms to the clutches of a libertine or a prof¬ligate, — in the name of the slave mother, her heart rocked to and fro by the agony of her mournful separations, — I thank you, that you have been brave enough to reach out your hands to the crushed and blighted of my race. You have rocked the bloody Bastile ; and I hope that from your sad fate great good may arise to the cause of freedom. Already from your prison has come a shout of triumph against the giant sin of our country. The hemlock is distilled with victory when it is pressed to the lips of Socrates. The Cross becomes a glorious ensign when Calvary's pale-browed sufferer yields up his life upon it. And, if Universal Freedom is ever to be the dominant power of the land, your bodies may be only her first stepping stones to dominion. I would prefer to see Slavery go down peaceably by men breaking off their sins by righteousness and their iniquities by showing justice and mercy to the poor; but we cannot tell what the future may bring forth. God writes national judgments upon national sins; and what may be slumbering in the storehouse of divine justice we do not know. We may earnestly hope that your fate will not be a vain lesson, that it will intensify our hatred of Slavery and love of freedom, and that your martyr grave will be a sacred altar upon which men will record their vows of undying hatred to that system which tramples on man and bids defiance to God. I have written your dear wife, and sent her a few dollars, and I pledge myself to you that I will continue to assist her. May the ever-blessed God shield you and your fellow-prisoners in the darkest hours. Send my sympathy to your fellow-prisoners; tell them to be of good courage; to seek a refuge in the Eternal God, and lean upon His everlasting arms for a sure support. If any of them, like you, have a wife or children that I can help, let them send me word. . . .

Yours in the cause of freedom,
F[rances] E[llen] W[atkins]3
In Her Later Years:
A Representative Figure
(Moonstone Arts Center)
I will leave the reader to contemplate Frances Ellen Watkins’ words to Mary and John Brown, but certainly they reflect the preponderant feeling about Brown in the African American community. Although the high-minded renderings of the New England literati are often cited with respect to the apotheosis of John Brown, it is important to point out that blacks did not need the Emersons and Thoreaus of this world to portray him in heroic terms. From Frances Ellen Watkins to Harriet Tubman, there is an ample store of tribute sufficient to secure the Old Man’s reverential place in history.

III. The Martyrs’ Poet

“Not forgetting Brown's comrades,” writes William Still,” who were then lying in prison under sentence of death, [and] true to the best impulses of her generous heart, she thus wrote relative to these ill-fated prisoners, from Montpelier, Dec. 12th.” Scholars of Frances Ellen Watkins have placed her in Montpelier, Vermont, when she wrote this letter, although it is worth noting that there is also a town called Montpelier in eastern Indiana, and it is possible that she wrote the following words to an ally (Still?) while on a Midwestern speaking tour. The text, likewise provided by William Still, includes his editorial remarks in parenthesis:
Montpelier [Indiana?], Dec. 12th.

I thank you for complying with my request. (She had previously ordered a box of things to be forwarded to them.) And also that you wrote to them. You see Brown towered up so bravely that these doomed and fated men may have been almost overlooked, and just think that I am able to send one ray through the night around them. And as their letters came too late to answer in time, I am better satisfied that you wrote. I hope the things will reach them. Poor doomed and fated men! Why did you not send them more things? Please send me the bill of expense. . . . Send me word what I can do for the fugitives. Do you need any money? Do I not owe you on the old bill (pledge)? Look carefully and see if I have paid all. Along with this letter I send you one for Mr. Stephens (one of Brown's men), and would ask you to send him a box of nice things every week till he dies or is acquitted. I understand the balls have not been extracted from him. Has not this suffering been overshadowed by the glory that gathered around the brave old man?. . . Spare no expense to make the last hours of his (Stephens') life as bright as possible with sympathy. . . . Now, my friend, fulfil this to the letter. Oh, is it not a privilege, if you are sisterless and lonely, to be a sister to the human race, and to place your heart where it may throb close to down-trodden humanity?4
Brown was hanged on December 2 but there was still a great deal of attention paid to his men, black and white, who followed him to the gallows in mid-December (black raiders Green and Copeland and white raiders Cook and Coppoc) and mid-March 1860 (Hazlett and Stevens). Evidently, Frances had written similar words of comfort in corresponding with the raiders--although too late for her to write back to some of them before they were hanged in December. Frances thus turned her attention to Stevens and urged her correspondent to do whatever possible to send comfort to him in the final weeks of his life in Virginia. (Recall that after mid-December’s executions, the only other surviving raider in captivity besides Stevens was Albert Hazlett, who went under the name of "Harrison" from the time of his capture in the hopes of escaping conviction. Brown and the other raiders had pretended not to know him in the hope that he might escape condemnation since there was insufficient evidence of his presence at Harper’s Ferry. Although the effort failed and “Harrison” went to the gallows along with Stevens, he used this pseudonym in correspondence throughout his incarceration. This may explain why Frances mentions only Stevens by name, since he was the only acknowledged raider yet alive in the hands of Virginia authorities after December 15, 1859.5)

Raider Aaron D. Stevens:
Copied "Bury Me in a Free Land"
by hand while awaiting execution
(Dickinson College image)
Along with her obvious generosity in sending gifts to the raiders and paying expenses for every possible kindness, Frances tells Still that she had a letter to Stevens [mistakenly rendered as “Stephens”] sent in his care. Unfortunately, correspondence between Frances Ellen Watkins and Aaron Dwight Stevens is not extant, but there is one strong piece of evidence that her letter[s] indeed reached the doomed raider. According to researcher Jean Libby, Albert Hazlett, who was hanged with Stevens on March 16, 1860, sent a copy of Watkins’ poem, “Bury Me in a Free Land,” to Rebecca Buffum Spring.6 Spring was a Quaker abolitionist who visited John Brown during his incarceration in Virginia and afterward became something of a mother to the raiders as they awaited execution.7

Excerpt of Aaron Dwight Stevens' handwritten copy of
"Bury Me in a Free Land," perhaps sent to him by the poet herself
(John Brown-Villard Papers, Columbia University)
Although Frances Ellen Watkins did not compose the poem in response to the Harper’s Ferry raid, she may have shared it in writing to Brown’s men in Virginia because Hazlett had a copy of “Bury Me in a Free Land” and sent it to Rebecca Buffum Spring prior to his execution. In fact, it is likely that the copy that Hazlett sent to Spring was copied out on two pages by Aaron Stevens, the original of which is now in the Villard Papers.8 In preparing his 1910 biography of Brown, Villard somehow acquired a number of letters from Spring’s possession, including the Watkins poem in Stevens’ handwriting.
Make me a grave where’er you will,
In a lowly plain, or a lofty hill;
Make it among earth’s humblest graves,
But not in a land where men are slaves.

I could not rest if around my grave
I heard the steps of a trembling slave;
His shadow above my silent tomb
Would make it a place of fearful gloom.

I could not rest if I heard the tread
Of a coffle gang to the shambles led,
And the mother’s shriek of wild despair
Rise like a curse on the trembling air.

I could not sleep if I saw the lash
Drinking her blood at each fearful gash,
And I saw her babes torn from her breast,
Like trembling doves from their parent nest.

I’d shudder and start if I heard the bay
Of bloodhounds seizing their human prey,
And I heard the captive plead in vain
As they bound afresh his galling chain.

If I saw young girls from their mother’s arms
Bartered and sold for their youthful charms,
My eye would flash with a mournful flame,
My death-paled cheek grow red with shame.

I would sleep, dear friends, where bloated might
Can rob no man of his dearest right;
My rest shall be calm in any grave
Where none can call his brother a slave.

I ask no monument, proud and high,
To arrest the gaze of the passers-by;
All that my yearning spirit craves,
Is bury me not in a land of slaves.9
It often strikes me that the story of John Brown’s raid and last days, along with the final days of his noble young men, is a world of study in itself. As even this brief episode demonstrates, the story has depth and dimension—even more, it has the tissue, ligaments, and nerves of a living narrative that continues to move, even as it moves upon us in reflection. Surely, the Harper’s Ferry raid and its aftermath was not merely the prologue to the Civil War as many historians assume, but also the prophetic watershed of generations and the spiritual meeting place where men and women of profound character and conviction found common fellowship in their opposition to slavery—as it were, in the sacrifice of John Brown and his noble young raiders.


      1 See Annette John-Hall, “Community Cleanup at Historic Cemetery.” Philly.com (24 May 2011). Originally published in the Philadelphia Enquirer.  Also see Annette Hall, "Maintaining History in the Garden of Eden," Blinq (a blog at Philly.com), 24 May 2011.

      2 William Still, Still’s Underground Railroad Records [revised, 1879 version entitled, The Underground Railroad] (Philadelphia: William Still, 1886), 762-63.

     3 Francis Ellen Watkins to John Brown, 25 November 1859, in James Redpath, Echoes of Harper’s Ferry (Boston: Thayer and Eldridge, 1860), 418-19. Redpath probably received the letter from Mary Brown after her husband’s death, and when he reprinted it in this book, along with many other letters to Brown, he was careful not to reveal the names of the writers by using only their initials.

     4 Still’s Underground Railroad Records, 763.

     5 See Stephen B. Oates, To Purge this Land with Blood: A Biography of John Brown (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1970), 328-29 (also see note on p. 329), and 350.

     6 Jean Libby, notes from the Rebecca Buffum Spring Papers, Stanford University, 2001.

     7 W. H. Harrison [sic] to “Dear Mother” [Rebecca Spring], 15 March 1860, in R. B. Spring file, Box 16, John Brown – Oswald Garrison Villard Papers, Rare Book and Manuscript Collection, Columbia University Library.

     8 Ibid.

     9 “Frances E. W. Harper, “’Bury Me in a Free Land’ (1858),” under “The Poetry and Poetic Legacy of Frances E. W. Harper” (2010), Moonstore Arts Center website (Philadelphia, Pa.).

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Louis Ransom's Portrait Paradigm: The Story Behind Ransom's John Brown on His Way to Execution

by Dot Willsey*

In 1857 an obscure portrait painter named Louis Ransom opened a studio on busy Genesee Street in downtown Utica. Three years later Ransom would stun his friends and others from Central New York when he completed his life-sized and life-like depiction of John Brown being led to the gallows.

Warren F. Broderick, Archivist Emeritus New York State Archives, will present an illustrated program on Ransom and his famous painting at 1 p.m. Sunday, June 12 at the Smithfield Community Center, 5255 Pleasant Valley Road, Peterboro during the 19th Annual Peterboro Civil War Weekend.

The landmark depiction of Brown on the Charlestown court house steps became the favorite image of Brown among abolitionists, in part because of Ransom’s controversial inclusion of Brown “kissing the Negro baby.” The painting’s history following its completion was most noteworthy. Its brief exhibition by P.T. Barnum in New York City in 1863 led in part to the onset of the infamous draft riots. The scene on the court house steps in 1859 is now known primarily from two lithographed versions of this painting created by the firm of Currier and Ives. The monumental painting itself received shabby treatment from Oberlin College and is believed to have been destroyed.

"Its brief exhibition by P.T. Barnum in New York City in 1863 led in part to the onset of the infamous draft riots."

The son of a millwright in rural Herkimer County, Louis Ransom (1831-1926) executed many portraits in his long career and some classical and religious tableaux as well. This Renaissance man was also a debater, civic leader, writer, and an inventor who first proposed a self-propelled street car. During his life Ransom resided in four states; in New York he called Salisbury, Little Falls, Utica, Lansingburgh, and Stratford his home.

John Brown On His Way to Execution,
1863 lithograph of the Ransom
portrait, no longer extant
Research conducted in a number of original sources has revealed much new information on Louis Ransom and his work. In a collection of family photographs in the Herkimer County Historical Society a previously unknown signed carte de visite of John Brown, bearing a cryptic inscription, was discovered. Determining how this photograph was obtained by the artist, and deciphering the meaning and origin of the inscription, constitutes another intriguing aspect of the Louis Ransom story.

Except for brief entries in artist dictionaries and footnotes in John Brown biographies, now for the first time the story of Louis Ransom and his master work can be told. Louis Ransom’s studio in Utica was directly across from the asylum in Utica where Gerrit Smith was being treated in December 1859. There is reason to believe that there may be a connection to Smith and the distribution of photographs made by the family after Brown’s funeral.

At the June 12 program Broderick plans to give a brief general overview of Ransom’s life and career and concentrate on the John Brown painting–how and why he created it, and its complicated history leading to its destruction. Broderick will also deal with the discovery of the photo in Herkimer and how Ransom would have acquired it, as well as a discussion of the elements found in the panting itself, such as the kissing incident. Broderick will conclude with an analysis of the short-term and lasting effects caused by the painting and its exhibition, and legacy left behind by Ransom.

Warren Broderick is an historian and archivist by profession and is involved in art history, researching artists associated with Troy and Rensselaer County, New York, between 1800 an 1950. He lives in Lansingburgh a few blocks from the place where Ransom maintained a studio which held the John Brown masterpiece between 1862 and 1874. He is co-author of Pottery Works (1995) and numerous journal articles on local history, specifically relating to history American ceramics, early American literature and folklore, regional history, and Native American studies. He is Editor of a new edition of Granville Hicks’s Small Town (1946), reissued in 2004 by Fordham University Press. He is also active in land preservation, geographic information systems, and natural resource protection in Rensselaer County.

The Annual Peterboro Civil War Weekend is an educational and fundraising event sponsored by the Town of Smithfield, the Smithfield Community Association, and private donors. The 12th U.S. Infantry hosts the military and domestic encampments. Proceeds from the event support the preservation and promotion of the heritage of the Town of Smithfield. During the event Peterboro relives the period of the mid 1800s when the hamlet held national recognition because of Gerrit Smith’s Underground Railroad station, the visitations of famous abolitionists, and the connection with John Brown that sparked the War Between the States. Peterboro sites are on the Heritage NY Underground Railroad Trail and on the National Park Service Network to Freedom Underground Railroad Trail.

Saturday, June 11 hours are 10 am – 5 pm, and Sunday, June 12 from 10 am – 4 pm. Admission is $7 for adults, $3 for ages 6 – 12, and free for children under 6. Admission to the to the special Civil War concert at 8 p.m. Saturday may be paid at the door. Parking is free. For more info, contact 315.684.9022.  www.civilwarweekend.sca-peterboro.org

--Dot Willsey is the President of the National Abolition Hall of Fame, Peterboro, N.Y.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

From the Field--
by H. Scott Wolfe*

I revisited the spot last week, and it remains a difficult place to find for the uninitiated. I speak of the site of the farm of William Maxson.  I approached the community of Springdale, Iowa from the east, traveling upon Cedar County Road F44. This bucolic thoroughfare is rather grandiosely called “The Herbert Hoover Highway,” for it continues on to West Branch, the birth and burial place of our 31st President.

Springdale itself encompasses no more than the equivalent of three city blocks…perhaps thirty residences, old and new. A squat United Methodist Church is its only public building. The 21st century whizzes by on Interstate 80, within sight to the south, while the village appears much as it was described in the 1890s: “A quiet retreat from the turmoil of money making, political strife and daily papers.” Today it seems to exist as a mere tree-shaded interlude, before pressing on the gas toward the Hoover sites and perhaps a lunch of “Herb’s Heaper” pizza at a West Branch tavern.
No clues emanate from Springdale to reveal its storied past as a staunch Quaker bastion of abolitionism…and the training ground for the soldiers of John Brown’s Provisional Army of the United States.

The Maxson monument is beneath the trees 
in the left distance. Photo by H. Scott Wolfe
Turning on County Road X40, I proceeded north between expansive cornfields, the tiny seedlings just beginning to appear the faintest green. Amidst the field to my left, I could see the cluster of conifer trees which mark the location of the Springdale Friends Cemetery. Here are buried a host of people whose lives touched that of John Brown, their stories of stirring times and famous men seemingly present in the somber whisper of the prairie winds.

And then back to the east on 280th Street, an urban-sounding name for an unpaved country road…its only pedestrians being an occasional ground squirrel or woodchuck. No matter what your speed, a gritty rooster-tail of rock dust chases behind your vehicle. On the left, another cemetery…this one prophetically named “North Liberty.” Its tallest monument is barely visible from the road. At its base is inscribed MAXSON.

Upon reaching Hayes Avenue, I again turned north…more dust, and cattle eye me from an overgrazed pasture to my left. And finally, a crude driveway leads to a disordered collection of farm buildings…five silver grain bins, a metal pole barn, a wooden machine shed, the skeletal remains of an old windmill, muddy corrals churned by innumerable hooves. Typical Iowa farm country…cows and corn.  But what is concealed in the tall grass by the roadside? Next to the metal post displaying fire number “1779.” A hint of red granite is barely visible beneath a robust sycamore tree. At the risk of chiggers and voracious mosquitoes, I parted the grass stalks to reveal a bronze plaque. A plaque which reads:
And poetic words from Whittier:

May 21, 2011. Photo by H. Scott Wolfe
This neglected marker, erected by the Iowa Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1924, reveals that this is no ordinary farm yard. This is hallowed ground…a crucial link in the chain of events that led inexorably to Harper’s Ferry.

It was 1839 when William Maxson and Ebenezer Gray became the first to settle these fertile uplands west of the Cedar River. A decade later, Maxson replaced his log cabin with a substantial six-room farmhouse. Built in the “cottage style,” it was “a one-story structure, 24 x 38, with a roomy attic, and an annex on the north side, 16x 20. The wood work was of native walnut, with hand carved pieces at the door and window frames, and with lath split from the native oak.” The house was constructed of stone, covered with proportioned amounts of gravel, sand and lime…and was often noted as the oldest “grout” or “cement” house in the State of Iowa.

The Gray farmhouse, seen in the background, has since 
been torn down and replaced by a cornfield. 
Collection of H. Scott Wolfe
William Maxson himself, said a chronicler, was “endowed with great natural ability,” was “a deep thinker,” and “was fearless in the expression of his views.” He was a stalwart lover of liberty and his fellow man, “not alone in word, but in deed.” Of Quaker ancestry, he was not, in fact, a practitioner of that nonviolent creed. So when in late December 1857, two covered wagons carrying ten of John Brown’s disciples rumbled into his farm yard, William Maxson had no qualms about sheltering these “well tried men…all of them pledged to stand by the work.”

John Brown had recruited the men in Kansas during the previous autumn. They had rendezvoused at Tabor, in southwest Iowa, with the intention of traveling eastward to Ashtabula County, Ohio…where they would be given “the benefit of a winter’s training in military matters.” December was a bitterly cold month, as the party literally walked across the snowy prairies, sleeping in the wagons or abandoned buildings along the way.

On the 29th, Brown and his comrades reached Springdale. He had hoped to sell his teams and wagons, and then proceed via the railroad from nearby West Liberty. But money was tight, the effects of the Panic of 1857 extending to the furthest boundaries of the nation. So he decided to board, and train, his men at that antislavery enclave, while he continued eastward to meet with his financial and moral supporters. And William Maxson, his farm conveniently isolated and his freethinking philosophy amenable to military training, was willing to accommodate the recruits at the “reasonable” rate of $1.50 each, per week.

Original photographic postcard in collection of H. Scott Wolfe
The names of these men are familiar to those who know both the Chatham Constitutional Convention and the Harper’s Ferry raid: Brown’s son Owen; Aaron D. Stevens; John H. Kagi; John E. Cook; Richard Realf; Charles W. Moffett; Luke F. Parsons; Charles P. Tidd; William H. Leeman…Kansas veterans all. And Richard Richardson, an escaped slave from Lexington, Missouri. Four additional men were to be recruited in Springdale during that historic winter: the Quaker brothers Edwin and Barclay Coppoc, and Steward Taylor and George B. Gill, both residents of West Liberty.

A regular routine was soon instituted, consisting of “study, military exercise and labor.” Aaron Stevens, the notorious “Colonel Whipple” of Kansas (and a cashiered soldier formerly of the First United States Dragoons), was appointed drillmaster. His text was the “Manual of the Patriotic Volunteer,” which had been assembled by the English adventurer Hugh Forbes…the man first hired by Brown to provide military instruction. There were sessions of gymnastics and company maneuvers…along with sham battles and drilling (“each man was provided with a hickory drill sword”) in the meadow to the east of the farmhouse. One observer noted: “The passer-by often looked with wonder at the uncommon spectacle in that quiet, peaceful neighborhood of Quakers, who preached and practiced only the peaceful arts.”

collapsing east facade.  Photo taken Feb. 16, 1934 
by the Historic American Buildings Survey
Tuesday and Friday evenings were regularly set aside for debates. The men created a “mock legislature,” which governed the mythical “State of Topeka.” Stevens and Kagi were the “lions” of these occasions, sometimes arguing throughout the night. Bills were introduced, referred, and voted upon. One session involved the creation of a State Seal, which was described as “a cannon mounted on a carriage, an African standing on the cannon holding in his right hand a drawn sword, supporting in the left a banner with the inscription ‘Justice To All Mankind.’” At another, on a less serious note, John Cook was formally censured for “hugging girls in the Springdale Legislature.”

Other long winter evenings were devoted to visiting the neighbors and “flirting with the pretty Quaker girls,” who considered the men “an important addition to their quiet society.” Tidd scandalized one…and Charley Moffett met the woman he would someday marry.  Cook and Realf, both “of a literary turn,” lectured at nearby schoolhouses.  And long discussions were held in the Maxson parlor. Owen Brown’s diary lists an eclectic assortment of topics such as: the definition of sin; the philosophy of Northern lights; the good or bad effects of tobacco, opium and adulterated liquors; the state of the national treasury; Nicaragua; Shakespeare; mesmerism; Thomas Paine; the commerce of Asia and Japan; how to sight rifles; and the chief end of man’s existence.

John Brown returned to Springdale on April 27, 1858…and the men departed for Ohio, Canada and their ultimate date with history. “Before quitting the home of Wm. Maxson, where they had spent so long a time, each of Brown’s men wrote his name in pencil on the wall of the parlor, where the writing could at a time quite recent be seen by the interested traveler.” Yes, the Maxson farmhouse continued to have a history all its own.

now occupied by a farm machinery shed. 
(Photo by H. Scott Wolfe, May 21, 2011)
I first visited Springdale in the early 1980s, my only guide being a crude map which had been printed in an old Iowa historical journal. I walked the two cemeteries and then anxiously set off to find the site of the Maxson farm. Having previously consulted the sources, I was aware of the existence of the 1924 DAR monument…and knew that the house itself had been torn down in 1938. But I needed to “walk the ground,” and determine exactly where that noble residence had once proudly stood.
Once arrived, the scene was quite different from today. Yes, the same odd assortment of farm buildings lined the muddy drive…but the red granite monument sat, not in a welter of weeds and grass, but in the well-manicured front lawn of a substantial two-story farmhouse. I knocked on the door, hoping to gain information on the location of the old Maxson place…but there was no answer. Temporarily stymied, I then thought of Herbert Hoover.

West Branch, Iowa, the Quaker town five miles to the west, is also the site of the Hoover Presidential Library and Museum. Could their archives contain local history materials? Perhaps dealing with the neighboring villages of Springdale and Pedee? It was worth the attempt, and I soon found myself conducting my very first research at such an august institution.

It was a rude awakening. I was virtually strip searched, conducted to a seat, and allowed the use of a single pencil and sheet of paper. A camera swung precariously above, making sure that I did not run off with any of Herb and Lou’s love notes. But the archivist was exceedingly friendly and helpful, even providing me with a folder specifically dealing with John Brown. It contained an article about the demolition of the Maxson house…some interesting images…and a copy of a letter written by George Gill, one of the Springdale recruits. It was a productive visit.

While departing, I inquired whether there might be someone in West Branch who had first hand recollections of the Maxson place. After all, the year 1938 was not THAT remote. The response was instantaneous: “Why, Margery Gray. Would you like me to call her?”

Within ten minutes I was firmly implanted on the couch at the Gray residence on North 6th Street. The place was the prototype of the Grandma’s house…Victorian clutter, a wealth of handmade quilts…and that unmistakable odor, a blend of baked cookies and cold cream.

“So you are interested in John Brown,” said my hostess.
“Yes I am,” I responded, “particularly the old Maxson farmhouse north of Springdale. Do you remember it?”
“Very well,” she said, “it was my late husband’s homeplace. He helped to tear it down back in the thirties.”
Well, that hit me like the proverbial ton of bricks. But then I settled in for what can be termed Margery’s Soliloquy.

In 1890 the Maxson farm had been purchased by James W. Gray, a direct descendant of Ebenezer Gray the old settler…and Margery’s father-in-law. Her husband, Robert, had been born on the farm in 1896, in the very house I had knocked upon earlier in the day.  During their residency, the old Maxson house had been the scene of frequent reunions, both of the Gray and Maxson families, and of surviving veterans of the Kansas struggle. An account of an 1898 event quickens the imagination:
As I mingled today with the surviving friends of John Brown on ground made sacred by the tread of the feet of martyrs forty years ago, I heard the recital of their recollections of the little band who here prepared for the tragic enterprise that was to shake slavery’s hold and leave a permanent record upon all American history and this particular portion of Cedar County…The exercises were held in front of the old Maxson house among the great cedars planted by its builder nearly fifty years ago. The stars and stripes waved above us; portraits of old John Brown, Wm. Maxson, Edwin and Barclay Coppock looked down on us from the trees; (and) on the table were the Sharp’s rifle and revolver carried by Coppock in the Harper’s Ferry campaign.
But as the years passed, the house began to deteriorate. The curious, particularly the relic hunters, began to weaken it even more. Wrote one Cedar County historian: “The relic hunter is making sad havoc of what remains…The old house yet suffers when some visitor from far away is determined to carry off an entire window casing to make for himself a cane. The choicest of black walnut was used to finish the windows and doors and these casings furnish the best of souvenirs….”

By the late 1930s, the Gray family became concerned about the structure’s dangerous condition. So, despite the fact that the State of Iowa had actually approved a plan for the preservation and restoration of the house, the teetering remains were pulled down and hauled away. The cellar, the old “slave tunnel” of Underground Railroad lore, was utilized as a dumping ground.  Today, the house site is occupied by a wooden machine shed…filled with decaying equipment and the bright green and yellow of John Deere tractors.

“So your husband actually helped to take it down?,” I asked. “Yes indeed, let me show you something.” And Margery disappeared into the next room. She returned with what can only be described as the world’s ugliest lamp. The stem appeared to be composed of a turned piece of wood…trailing a long electrical cord…and topped with a 1950s patterned lampshade which could only be described as of the “delirium tremens school” of design.  “And what is that?,” I inquired. “This is the only thing Bob kept from the Maxson place. He made it himself from a piece of the walnut newel post of the stairway.”

And indeed it was, as I closely examined it. It was turned walnut, with a pair of light colored inlays…each a representation of the Maxson house itself. “Someone in Bob’s family put those inlays in,” she said. And around the base was inscribed: “John Brown 1857-8.” That historic winter.

I was flabbergasted, but recovered quickly. Having been born and raised in a capitalist country, I phrased my question carefully: “Mrs. Gray, I came to Cedar County to study the Maxson farm and view the site for myself. I had no idea that such an artifact as this existed before your kind invitation for me to come and visit. But I have to ask you, (DEEP BREATH) would you consider selling your lamp?”

Puzzlement. I rushed with the follow-up: “I will offer you $X for it…AND I will take you out to the best steakhouse in West Branch, Iowa.” (BREATH NOW BEING HELD) “Oh, it’s doing nothing but gather dust. And in that you are so interested in the Maxsons, you may buy it,” she responded. (GREAT SIGH OF RELIEF)

with image of William Maxson. 
Photo by Nancy Wolfe
So Mrs. Gray and I had a copious dinner at one of those classic Iowa “cook your own steak” restaurants. And when I left West Branch for home, I made one more trip out to the site of the Maxson farm. With the newel post occupying the passenger seat, I must say that this visit was more closely related to a religious pilgrimage…a fragment of the “True Cross” at my side.

In my notebook I had a copy of a poem written by Lydia Maxson, a daughter-in-law of William Maxson. And I paused to read these lines from "The Old Gravel House":
“A hero with his God-sent band,
Unheeding threats or frowns,
Across thy threshold planned and wrought,
And gained a martyr’s crown.”
“And thou, old house, that in thy prime,
Saw freedom’s dawning day,
No fears of clanking chains and strife,
Shall mock at thy decay.”
“Old House! We’re standing in thy shade,
That shadow made sublime,
Through solemn years and memories,
Of strange and wondrous times.”
H. Scott Wolfe
* H. Scott Wolfe is the Historical Librarian of the Galena, Illinois, Public Library District. We are pleased to introduce him as a correspondent and contributor, noting his many years of grassroots research on John Brown, the Harper's Ferry raiders, and related themes.

AUTHOR'S NOTE: I have seen many items fashioned from the wood of the Maxson farmhouse, from a set of clothing buttons to the case of a grandfather’s clock. A complete door can be viewed today in the permanent collection of the Civil War Museum in Kenosha, Wisconsin…a door panel, in the small historical museum in West Branch, Iowa.


Irving B. Richman, John Brown Among the Quakers. Des Moines: Historical Department of Iowa, 1894.
Jeannette Mather Lord. “John Brown – They Had a Concern,” West Virginia History, Vol. XX, No. 3 (April 1959).
John Brown in Cedar County. Tipton, Iowa: Cedar County Historical Society, Tipton, Iowa, n.d.