“Yellow Chrysanthemums": William Leeman and Mrs. Todd
by H. Scott Wolfe*
“Twas better for thee that while young,
Thou joined that holy band…”
William Leeman, January 1855
Long ago during the antediluvian age, when gas was cheap and Congressmen did not carry concealed weapons, I developed an overpowering interest in John Brown. I set forth to walk the ground from Torrington to Harper’s Ferry, and began to assemble, and to read, a collection of all the biographical material previously written about the Old Man.
As I surveyed this historical literature, I began to observe allusions to Brown’s associates…in particular, the members of his “Provisional Army of the United States.” Such references were customarily brief, sometimes only a sentence or two. But I soon discerned that, like the prophesies of the noted economists seen on the evening news, no two accounts ever appeared to agree with each other.
So I was propelled in a new direction, and began to seek biographical references to those other men who, with Brown, “proceeded to the Ferry.” True, there had been pioneer chroniclers such as Richard J. Hinton (John Brown and His Men, 1894) and Thomas Featherstonhaugh (John Brown’s Men: The Lives of Those Killed at Harper’s Ferry, 1899), but modern scholarship remained conflicting and scanty. Therefore, I had a new mission…or should we call it a mania? And it began when my parents welcomed a frisky miniature schnauzer into their household…and we called him “Willie Leeman.”
William Pillsbury Leeman (he preferred the middle name “Henry”) was the youngest soldier of Brown’s Provisional Army…a mere eleven days younger than the Old Man’s son Oliver. Both boys were to die at Harper’s Ferry while, as the former wrote his mother, “waring with Slavery, the greatest Curse that ever infested America.”
So why, of all the raiders, did Leeman first pique my curiosity? What led me to literally recreate his trail across the country? And why did we seriously alter the life of an innocent schnauzer? My reasons were threefold.
First, it was his seemingly tender age. Here was a youthful son of working-class New England who, amazingly, by his mid-teens, had mastered a trade, participated in a pitched battle in Kansas, and had been appointed to a committee to select officers for a projected provisional government. A comparable youth of our era would still be mastering the skateboard and wandering the malls, an iPod secured in one ear, a smart phone crammed into the other. Yes, they did grow up fast in those bygone times.
The Extent of His Wanderings
Secondly, I was intrigued by the extent of his wanderings…from Massachusetts mill towns to the seat of war in Kansas…from black refuges in Canada West to a fated Federal armory in Virginia. And all of this transpired in the course of his brief candle of a life. So I made a decision: I shall tread wherever Bill Leeman had trod. I visited his birthplace, the once bustling Kennebec River port of Hallowell, Maine. There I explored the old riverside neighborhood called “Joppa,” once the home of 19th century factory operatives, and where young Leeman grew up, his father worked the coasting boats of the Boston trade, his two sisters toiled at the red-brick cotton mill, and his mother sat worrying and fretting about all of them. (Note: It was here also that the everlasting aspirations were knocked out of my self-confidence. I naively barged into the public record repositories and exclaimed: “I am here to study William Leeman!” The dry response: “Who?” I then rallied to say: “You know, the man with John Brown at Harper’s Ferry!” Dry response #2: “With who?” It was in Hallowell that I realized it would be a long, lonely journey.)
I sojourned in tiny Oakdale, Massachusetts, where I scoured “High Plains,” the pioneer cemetery, seeking the graves of the two forgotten artisans who taught Leeman the craft of shoemaking. It was in nearby Worcester that young Bill attended the antislavery rally that would infect him with Kansas Fever.
In Kansas itself, I struggled through the underbrush on the north bank of Pony Creek, three miles from the Nebraska line. There, in 1856, Massachusetts men had founded “Plymouth,” namesake of one of the Bay State’s most hallowed shrines. And it was here that Bill worked a claim, begged his family and friends to join him in prosperity, and proudly signed his letters: “William Henry Leeman of the Teritory of Kansas.”
I meandered through the old Connecticut Western Reserve of northeastern Ohio, that “abolition hole” which bred both the philosophy and much of the manpower for the Harper’s Ferry incursion. It was here, in towns called Lindenville, Wayne and Richmond, that the Old Man’s recruits awaited the call to arms and the opportunity to change history. And it was here that Leeman, engaged in cutting hay and running machinery in an oar factory, gave his family the first hints of the momentous task at hand: “I am engaged in a better Cause…in a Cause that will concern thousands, aye Millions…and a company of 12 of us have been nearly a year drilling and Studying Milatary Works…."
"His Last Scamper into Eternity"
And finally, it was in Harper’s Ferry that I walked the muddy, shale-strewn bank of the Potomac River. As I peered into a tailrace culvert piercing the old armory wall, I imagined a frantic and fleeing Bill Leeman, on his last scamper into eternity.
And it was this, the END of Bill Leeman’s life, that intrigued me the most. It was this hideous and final act in his personal drama that both haunted and mystified me. For William Leeman had been shot in the face, at point blank range, by one George A. Schoppert, a resident of Bolivar and a blacksmith employed at the United States Armory at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. Bill Leeman, Massachusetts shoemaker and one time resident of the “Teritory of Kansas” had been lifelessly propped on a rocky outcrop amidst the rushing Potomac. Bill Leeman, “engaged in a better Cause,” had been ripped to shreds by the desultory gunfire of undisciplined militiamen.
I had so many questions. Why did Leeman’s death remain so controversial, even engendering furor into the 20th century? What were the exact circumstances of his death? Had he been armed and dangerous, and his killing thereby justifiable by the “rules of war?” Or had he already thrown away his weapons, raised his arms and been shot in the act of surrendering? Who was this Schoppert, the killer of William Leeman? And had there been eyewitnesses to this sorry affair?
It soon became evident that the death of Leeman had been controversial from the very beginning. One need only consult the original newspaper reports of the John Brown raid as they appeared in the Baltimore American: “A dozen shots were fired after him; he partially fell, but rose again; threw his gun away and drew his pistols, both of which snapped; drew his bowie knife and cut away all his heavy accoutrements, and ran for the river again. One of the soldiers was about ten feet behind when the man turned, threw up his arms and cried ‘don’t shoot.’ The soldier fired and the man fell into the water, with a part of his face blown away.”
And as to the treatment of his remains, there was other commentary. Said the American: “About the middle of the stream of the broad Potomac lies the body of one of the insurgents named Wm H. Leeman…His black hair may just be seen floating upon the surface of the water and waving with every ripple. The visitors, upon discovering the body today, saluted it with a shower of balls, but the action was one of very questionable taste and propriety.”
The Frederick (Md) Herald reported: “Leeman lay upon a rock in the river, and was made the target for the practice of those who had captured Sharpe’s rifles in the fray. Shot after shot was fired at him, and when tired of this sport, a man waded out to where he lay, and set him up in grotesque attitudes…” The Herald justified these actions by stating that: “It may be thought that there was cruelty and barbarity in this; but the public mind had been frenzied by the outrages of these men, who, being outlaws, were regarded as food for carrion birds, and not as human creatures…”
But as time passed and, as they say, “cooler heads prevailed,” the killing of Leeman is described as a regrettable, even unnecessary act. In his Annals of Harper’s Ferry (1872), Joseph Barry opines: “The killing of this young man was, under all the circumstances of the case, an act of great barbarity, as he had made signs of a desire to surrender. The man who shot him was but a temporary resident of Harper’s Ferry…(and) his name we will omit for the sake of his posterity.” (Note: It is interesting that the recollections of Harper’s Ferry residents often mention the killers of Brown’s men as “temporary residents” or “visitors.” As if the locals were incapable of such outrages.)
In an interview conducted nearly a half century after the fact, local resident E.B. Chambers stated: “Leeman was shot just below the pulp mill in the river. George Schoppert and Ben Price waded out to the rock. Leeman had thrown away his arms & now threw up both his hands but they fired close to his head…Schoppert pulled him up on the rock, cut off his accoutrements & took what he had on him & left him there….”
And how had the secondary sources treated the death of William Leeman? I immediately turned to Oswald Garrison Villard’s John Brown: A Biography Fifty Years After (1910), a volume noted for its richness of documentary material. Villard wrote:
…the death of William H. Leeman, the youngest of Brown’s men, has frequently been cited to prove the ‘savagery’ which the raiders encountered…Leeman made an attempt from the upper end of the yard to escape across the Potomac, a little above the bridge. He soon found himself under such a heavy fire that he stopped on a tiny islet. According to a generally accepted story, he was here killed, after he had surrendered, by a citizen, G.A. Schoppert, who, it was alleged, placed his weapon at the unarmed eighteen-year-old boy’s head before shooting. In 1900 Mr. Schoppert made an affidavit that Leeman had a pistol and a knife when killed, and that he refused to surrender when called on to do so. In his assertion that this was a justifiable killing, Mr. Schoppert had the support of Colonel J.T. Gibson, an eyewitness (p. 440).
An affidavit sworn by Schoppert? The man who pulled the trigger? I checked the footnote and found the following: “Schoppert’s affidavit is in the possession of Mr. Braxton Davenport Gibson, of Charlestown, who vouches for his father’s, Colonel Gibson’s, endorsement of Schoppert’s statement.”
My excitement knew no bounds. Could this affidavit still exist? Who was Braxton Davenport Gibson? He had, no doubt, gone on to his reward. But could someone still point me on the road to finding this crucial document? I vowed that, during my next visit to Harper’s Ferry and Charles Town, I would seek the words of the man who killed William Leeman.
I was sitting in the research library at Harper’s Ferry National Historic Park, gathering information in regard to the old armory “rolling mill.” It was in the vicinity of this structure, I had learned, that Leeman had scrambled into the river. A staff member was passing by, and I posed the question:
“Are you familiar with the name Braxton Davenport Gibson of Charles Town?”
“Sure,” he responded, “the son of Colonel Gibson, who commanded the Jefferson Guards during Brown’s raid.”
“Are there any descendents still residing over that way,” I asked hopefully.
“Talk to Mrs. Todd.”
“Mrs. Augustine Todd. She has the old Gibson house on the site where Old Brown was hanged. You may have to drop her a note. She spends most of her time in Florida.”
So I composed a letter to Mrs. Todd, inquiring as to the identity of Braxton Davenport Gibson…and his apparent possession of the affidavit of George Schoppert. And while I waited…for months, I waited…I went back to making an honest living (among other such frivolities). And then it arrived:
Dear Mr. Wolfe,
Col. John Thomas Gibson was my Grandfather and all important papers were turned over to him. His son, Braxton Davenport Gibson, who was my Uncle, inherited the important data and I now possess them. I would like to have a copy of what you are writing about John Brown.
Sincerely, Frances Packette Todd (Mrs. Augustine J. Todd)
Mrs. Augustine Todd could certainly have been considered the Grand Dame of Charles Town, West Virginia. Frances Davenport Packette was born at nearby “Locust Hill” on July 28, 1901, and her impeccable historical pedigree would be very difficult to duplicate.
Her maternal grandfather was, indeed, Colonel John Thomas Gibson. During John Brown’s raid, the Colonel commanded the “Jefferson Guards of Charles Town,” the first militia contingent to engage the Old Man’s Provisional Army at Harper’s Ferry. He also led the Virginia forces present at Brown’s execution. Later, as a member of the Virginia House of Delegates, he participated in those actions leading to the secession of the Old Dominion. And he also served throughout the Civil War as an officer in the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. Following the conflict, he returned to Charles Town to serve as Mayor and a member of the Jefferson County Commission.
Frances’ mother, Annie Shepherd Gibson, daughter of the Colonel, married William Bainbridge Packette, a prominent farmer and stock raiser, who just so happened to be a great-grand nephew of George Washington…the “Father” of the country with which Colonel Gibson has so assiduously attempted to sever all ties.
On October 30, 1926, Frances Packette married Augustine Jaquelin Todd. Their reception was held in the grand residence, of “eclectic design,” which had been built by Colonel Gibson in 1891 at 515 South Samuel Street in Charles Town. This imposing brick structure, incorporating the “Norman, Romanesque and Queen Anne modes,” occupied the very site of John Brown’s execution on December 2, 1859. The Todds eventually inherited it, utilizing it mainly as a weekend retreat. (Note: The Gibson/Todd house has recently been up for sale. See the posting of Lou DeCaro, Jr. for 8/22/11.)
Following the receipt of the note from Mrs. Todd, I immediately contacted her by telephone. During a pleasant chat, I again mentioned my desire to obtain a copy of the Schoppert affidavit. But she seemed unfamiliar with it and, surprisingly, kept referring to what she called “The John Brown Commission,” which had been passed down through her family. “It’s in the safe deposit box,” she said, “and next time I get downtown I’ll have a copy made to send to you.”
|Captain's commission of William Leeman's bearing John Brown's signature (copy in Wolfe Collection)|
Never averse to viewing items relating to the Old Man, I readily consented to accept whatever she might be so kind to send to me. And, within a week, I received a copy of a document that led me to attempt my first pirouette (along with sundry leaps) across the room.
It was the “military commission” of William H. Leeman, issued “near Harpers Ferry, Md.” on October 15, 1859…the day before the men commenced their march. Signed by “Commander in Chief” John Brown, it appoints Leeman “Captain in the Army established under the Provisional Constitution.” My thoughts flew back to the initial newspaper reports of Leeman’s death. With misspellings and misplaced initials, the Baltimore Sun told the story: “His coat skirts were cut from his person, and in the pockets was found a Captains commission to Captain E.H. Leeman, from the Provisional Government. The commission was dated October 15, 1859, and signed by A.W. Brown, Commander in Chief of the Army of the Provincial Government of the United States….”
George Schoppert, after killing young Leeman, had rifled his pockets…finding the commission and a small compass. He had passed them on to the local militia commander…Colonel Gibson…whose granddaughter had just made my day.
So what chivalrous act could this Yankee perform for this kind Southern lady? Well, I ordered her some yellow chrysanthemums, to be delivered to the door of the Gibson/Todd mansion. Another note arrived shortly thereafter:
Dear Mr. Wolfe:
How did you know that yellow chrysanthemums are my favorite flowers? (WHEW!, said I) The exquisite plant with beautiful blossoms came several days ago and I do thank you so very, very much. I do not recall seeing “the affidavit sworn by G.A. Schoppert” but when I am next able to go to the Bank I will look again and will send you a copy, if I find it…I appreciate your thought of me.
Quite the contrary, Mrs. Todd. Like so many kind people who have, over the years, assisted this humble John Brown researcher…I appreciate YOUR thought of me.
|"William Leeman II"|
A Brief Epilogue. . . The Schoppert Affidavit
Fear not, the affidavit sworn by George A. Schoppert was found. After requesting Leeman material from the Oswald Garrison Villard Collection at Columbia University, I was sent a typewritten transcription of this document…which had actually been published in the February 15, 1900 edition of the Shepherdstown (WV) Register. This transcription contained notations in the hand of Braxton Davenport Gibson, who had apparently sent it to Villard for use in the latter’s projected biography of John Brown. The affidavit gives a detailed account of Schoppert’s actions during Brown’s raid, including those related to the killing of William Leeman. In fact, in the document’s conclusion, he restates his denial of any wrongdoing:
I wish to call public attention to one other account by some one who must have maliciously misrepresented the killing of Leeman in the river. It was stated that he was shot after he surrendered. I say this is a baldfaced lie, and I know whereof I speak. If he had ever raised his hand he would not have been shot. But instead of showing any signs of surrender, he drew his knife, which was a very large butcher knife, cut his belt, disposed of his cartridge-box and coat,…retaining his knife in one hand and a six-shooter in the other, looking me squarely in the face, and, in my opinion, decided to take chances with me, knowing I had but one charge.
In a statement signed on August 17, 1909, Braxton D. Gibson stated: “My father was Colonel of the 55th Virginia Regiment of Infantry, and was as such the first in command at Harper’s Ferry then. He saw the pursuit of Wm. H. Leeman by Capt. Geo. A. Schoppert, when Leeman was trying to escape across the Potomac River, to join the forces of the enemy on the Maryland side of the river. My father said that Capt. Schoppert’s account of the shooting of Leeman is correct as he remembered it. That there was nothing cruel nor barbarous about the shooting. It was merely the killing of an enemy armed and trying to escape; in the rules of war, it was a proper act and justifiable….”
That this war of words continued into the first decade of the 20th century…over fifty years after the death of William Leeman…confirms the persistency of that event’s controversial nature. The preponderance of the primary sources seem to indicate that Leeman was seeking to surrender. Of course, as the above shows, those responsible for his killing swear otherwise.
William Leeman sleeps with his Commander in Chief in North Elba, New York. But the battle goes on.
* H. Scott Wolfe is the Historical Librarian of the Galena, Illinois, Public Library District and now a regular correspondent and contributor to this blog. He has devoted many years of grassroots research on John Brown, the Harper's Ferry raiders, and related themes.
Authors note: Mrs. Frances Packette Todd died in Clearwater, Florida on January 23, 1987. R.I.P. The military commission of William Leeman is today in the collections of the Jefferson County Museum, Charles Town, West Virginia. The bulk of the surviving correspondence of William Leeman can be found in the Richard J. Hinton Collection, Kansas State Historical Society, Topeka. The Oswald Garrison Villard Collection at Columbia University is a rich source of information for all of John Brown’s men.