JOHN BROWN SERENDIPITY
by H. Scott Wolfe *
SERENDIPITY: The faculty of making fortunate and unexpected discoveries by accident.
All researchers encounter them, those “fortunate and unexpected discoveries” which seem to reveal the fact that it was all meant to be. For example, I often reflect upon such an incident back in the early 1990s…
I took my wife on a western trip. Having graduated from the University of Montana…long ago, when giant reptiles still roamed the earth…I hoped to give her a tour of some of my old mountain haunts, and prove that this former botanist could recollect the Latin names of the flora of the Rocky Mountains.
We had spent a cold autumn night at West Yellowstone, encased in multiple layers of clothing. And in the morning we continued on through Madison County to Virginia City, Montana…an old gold mining camp where ghosts still seem to flit among its historic collection of rustic buildings. We sought breakfast, but first we had to devise a way to shed some of those extra garments. The sun had come out, and we had begun to broil a bit. Scanning the horizon, I spotted the Virginia City Cemetery, a “Boot Hill” kind of graveyard, atop a distant rise. It would be a private place to remove our exoskeletons, and would also provide the opportunity for one of my favorite pastimes…reading tombstone inscriptions. Randomly stopping among some low conifer trees, I set off to meet some of Virginia City’s past residents. The first stone I encountered was a sizable one, of gray granite, and beneath a tilted cross it read: WILLIAM F. KAMMERER, DIED JAN. 9, 1908, AGED 43 YEARS.
Hitting Close to Home. . .
the grave of William Kammerer
But it was to end tragically. Near Ruby, Montana, on that January day in 1908, Willie Kammerer was employed as the second shift “flume man” on a dredge boat. While unwinding a winch, he lost control of the handle…it struck him on the head…and Willie was killed instantly. He was buried in the Virginia City Cemetery, “a man whom acquaintances could not but admire and respect.”
Why this story of a random tombstone inscription? Serendipity. William F. Kammerer was born in Galena, Illinois…in a stone house built in 1852 by his father Xavier. William F. Kammerer was born in MY HOUSE.
Such strange occurrences have also transpired during my many years of chasing John Brown and his men…moments of serendipity illuminating what otherwise may seem rather mundane research. Last month, in a contribution entitled “Farmer Maxson’s Newel Post,” I told of a research trip to Iowa, where I sought information on the razed farmhouse in which John Brown’s men boarded during the winter of 1857-58. Not only did I unearth historical data, but I came home with an actual piece of that house’s walnut staircase. Serendipity, indeed. So I thought I might take the liberty of sharing a couple other such stories of strange happenings on my “Road to Harper’s Ferry.”
FROM THE PAGES OF THE MIDLAND MONTHLY
It was during my rookie season as a John Brown aficionado. My travel options were then restricted by time and geography, but the State of Iowa…a mere twenty minutes away…tempted me as a rich field for researching the Old Man.
I had noted numerous references to Brown in a certain periodical, The Midland Monthly, published in Des Moines during that golden age of such periodicals, the 1890s. I was particularly tempted by an article entitled: “John Brown and His Iowa Friends,” which appeared in two numbers of that publication in the winter of 1897. Its fascinating subject was the, so called, LETTER OF WARNING.
Secretary of War John B. Floyd,
recipient of the "Letter of Warning"
They have one of their leading men (a white man) in an armory in Maryland…As soon as everything is ready, those of their number who are in the Northern States and Canada are to come in small companies to their rendezvous, which is in the mountains of Virginia. They will pass down through Pennsylvania and Maryland, and enter Virginia at Harper’s Ferry…They have a large quantity of arms at their rendezvous, and are probably distributing them already….The communication ended, cryptically: “I dare not sign my name to this, but trust that you will not disregard the warning on that account.”
But Secretary Floyd disregarded this warning. He later testified: “ I receive many anonymous letters, and pay no attention to them…I knew there was no armory in Maryland…” and “was satisfied in my own mind that a scheme of such wickedness and outrage could not be entertained by any of the citizens of the United States.”
Two months later the hammer fell at Harper’s Ferry…in a manner almost identical to the letter’s prophecy.
The authorship of this warning remained controversial for years, the suspects ranging from a Cincinnati editorial writer…to various Springdale, Iowa intimates of the Old Man, particularly a farmer named Moses Varney (“who had used all powers of persuasion and entreaty to induce John Brown to abandon a scheme so hopeless”)…and even to some of Brown’s recruits, men such as Richard Realf and Charles W. Moffett.
The article I sought in Midland Monthly, written by Iowan B. F. Gue, was said to reveal both the writer of this Letter of Warning (“There are but two persons now living who know the origin of this letter…They are the author of the letter and the writer of this sketch.”) and its purpose (“…to induce the Secretary to send a strong military guard to Harper’s Ferry, which would at once become known to the Old Emancipator, and avert the dreadful tragedy.”)
So I needed to find a copy of “John Brown and His Iowa Friends”… and was soon met by more serendipity.
I traveled to Madison, Wisconsin…to the State Historical Library…and buried myself in “the stacks.” I loved that place. It appealed to all of the senses…from the kaleidoscope of colored bindings to, literally, the SMELL of history. (What does a Kindle smell like?) It was so unlike other research facilities I had visited…where one sits in a sterile reading room and orders a book like an egg salad sandwich (Hold the mayo and appendices, please!)
I found the Midland Monthly in bound volumes, and took several to a small desk near a sunny window. I lacked a specific reference, so I turned to the table of contents and began to run my finger down the page. And then I saw it…the short story, that is.
"Scott Wolfe," a short story in the
pages of Midland Monthly
It was written by a forgotten author named M.L. Fox…and had a forgettable plot based upon “Western North Carolina Character and Life.” Its protagonist was a callow young man who was always “mopin’ round like he’s in a dream.” His life becomes a series of misadventures…harassment in college, disappointment in love, uncertainly in his spiritual orthodoxy. He becomes a rootless wanderer to “remote and unheard-of-places.”And he finally commits suicide in the cemetery of his home town in the hills of Carolina. All Victorian claptrap.
Serendipity? Well, how about the TITLE of the story?…and the NAME of the principle character?…They were both a name quite familiar to me. It was my own. “SCOTT WOLFE.”
John Brown wrote the autobiographical letter at Red Rock, Iowa in July of 1857. First published in James Redpath’s Public Life of Capt. John Brown (1860), it became the standard primary account of the Old Man’s childhood. It was reprinted in the succeeding classic biographies of Sanborn (1885), Hinton (1894) and Villard (1910), a striking chronicle of both admirable optimism and personal loss.
During the winter of 1857, Brown had visited the wealthy Massachusetts industrialist and antislavery crusader George Luther Stearns. This producer of lead pipe and linseed oil would later become a member of Brown’s celebrated “Secret Six.” In Redpath, one learns the origin of Brown’s famous letter to Stearns’ young son, Henry:
When the old man was preparing to return to Kansas, Master Henry…asked his father’s permission to give all his pocket money to Captain Brown. The permission was readily given, and the old hero received the money. He promised, at the same time,- if he ever should find the leisure for it, - to write out for his young friend an account of his own early life.The letter, though addressed to young Henry, was directed mainly to the youth’s prominent and well-heeled father, George.
Brown presents his case as “a most determined Abolitionist,” who had sworn “Eternal war with Slavery.” And he also stresses his reliability in the cause…despite the personal setbacks he may have already endured. He is a man who “habitually expected to succeed in his undertakings;” one who has had “success in accomplishing his objects,” and who “followed up with tenacity whatever he set about;” and who possessed the ambition “to excel in doing any thing he undertook to perform.” Reassuring words directed to a potential contributor.
George Luther Stearns, Brown supporter
whose son Henry received
the "Red Rock" letter
With the death of Ruth Mills Brown he is “left a Motherless boy,” a loss he calls “complete and permanent.” A treasured “Yellow Marble” is “lost beyond recovery.” His “little Ewe Lamb,” a gift from his father, suddenly sickens and dies. And then there is a pet squirrel named “Bob tail.” Brown tells the story of capturing “a young Squirrel,” while “tearing off his tail in doing it.” He “held on to the little bob tail Squirrel; & finally got him perfectly tamed so that he almost idolized his pet.” But “this too he lost; by its wandering away; or by getting killed: and for a year or two John was in mourning; and looking at all the Squirrels he could see to try & discover Bob tail, if possible.”
These were serious boyhood tragedies…even though some may seem trivial…that had, obviously, greatly affected the man. All brought “protracted seasons of mourning,” for “so strong & earnest were his attachments.”
One of the first “Civil War Round Tables” which I addressed upon the topic of John Brown was located in downstate Illinois…in Champaign/Urbana. I knew what I wanted to say, but I found it necessary to review various aspects of the Old Man’s life…just in case some wise guy fired a .58 caliber trivia question in my direction. As an old Boy Scout, I heeded the warning: “Be Prepared.”
It was a beautiful day, so with a handful of Brown biographies I crawled into a swinging hammock on the stone patio…ready to “study up.” Opening Oswald Garrison Villard’s John Brown 1800 – 1859: A Biography Fifty Years After, I was immediately presented with a transcription of Brown’s letter to young Henry Stearns.
I reread his account of the incidents of his youth…his avowals of how he “habitually expected to succeed”…and, of course, his litany of personal losses. As I read the story of his capture of “Bob tail,” that old acquaintance, serendipity, paid another visit.
* 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.