History, Research, and Current Themes

"The world needed John Brown and John Brown came, and time will do him justice." Frederick Douglass (1886)

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Tuesday, May 15, 2012

From the Field--

by H. Scott Wolfe *

“This has been to us all a bitter cup indeed, and we have drunk deeply…They were all children towards whom perhaps we might have felt a little partial but they all now lie in a little row together." John Brown to John Brown, Jr., 25 September 1843

      In days of yore, I would travel to Hudson, Ohio. . . John Brown’s “hometown”… to conduct research at the splendid Hudson Library and Historical Society. There, under the able guidance of Brown researchers Tom Vince and Jim Caccamo, I would sift through the expansive collection amassed by the late Dr. Clarence Stafford Gee…once Hudson’s Congregational pastor, and a noted authority on the life of The Old Man.
For many an hour, I examined primary source materials relating to Brown’s associates…and, also, Gee’s meticulous work on the Brown family genealogy. I have always possessed a certain fascination with those unsung family members…both the “soldiers” who marched off to make war on slavery, and those loyal, hardworking members who remained on the more mundane (but equally important) “home front.” In more recent times, the historian Robert E. McGlone, in his John Brown’s War With Slavery, has commented that most biographers have dealt “summarily” with the Old Man’s family, and that his “emotional universe of a large, stable and supportive clan thus disappears in the background.”
I heartily agree. The life of John Brown consists of much more than his final dramatic actions in Kansas and at Harpers Ferry. And the Gee Collection was always an excellent means to delineate not simply John Brown the militant abolitionist …but also John Brown the “family man” and John Brown the “business man.”
Photo by H. Scott Wolfe
While laboring in Hudson, I would lodge in the nearby community of Peninsula…a quaint, historic village set astride the old Ohio & Erie Canal. Despite its proximity to the Cleveland metropolitan area, Peninsula and its environs remain quite “wild” and scenic…for it sets within the bounds of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park.
My amiable hosts during my sojourns were Jay and Mona Ruoff, the former a retired foreign service officer, who kept a well-preserved Queen Anne bed and breakfast called “Centennial House.” Most mornings I was reluctant to set off for Hudson, for the conversations at the breakfast table were so jovial and entertaining.  I would deliver soliloquies upon the life and death of Brown raider William H. Leeman…at that time dominating my personal research…and they would relate exciting tales of their experiences in such faraway places as France, Pakistan, Turkey, Mali, Laos and, most interesting of all (to one who had negotiated the maze of the military draft), Vietnam. I sat spellbound while Jay told of his stirring departure in one of the last helicopters to escape the American embassy in Saigon.
I treasure these experiences…for, although my visits to sundry John Brown sites and repositories were ostensibly for the collection of research materials, they also resulted in valued friendships and knowledge of topics far removed from antebellum American history.
      But one morning, at breakfast, it was suggested that I begin my day by traveling in a different direction…not east to Hudson, but west to Richfield. There, I was informed, on the Brecksville Road, just north of its intersection with State Highway 303, I would find the Fairview (or East Richfield) Cemetery. And it was at that place, on a serene wooded hillside, that four children of John and Mary Ann Brown had been buried following a tragic epidemic in September of 1843.
Photo by H. Scott Wolfe
The cemetery was easily found, and I soon espied the final resting place of what was (in 1843) a third of the Brown children. A tall, upright slab of white marble…shaded by a cluster of sizable conifer trees…was clearly inscribed with the names and death dates of:
CHARLES BROWN…died Sept. 11th, 1843
AUSTIN BROWN…died Sept. 21st, 1843
PETER BROWN…died Sept. 22nd, 1843
SARAH BROWN…died Sept. 23rd, 1843
Four children, ranging in age from one to nine years, were swept away in the short space of twelve agonizing days. Perhaps the father had these children in mind when, in his famous 1857 autobiographical letter, he mentions “the severe but much needed course of discipline which he afterward was to pass through; & which it is to be hoped has learned him before this time that the Heavenly Father sees it best to take all the little things out of his hands which he has ever placed in them.” Again, to quote McGlone: “To Calvinists like Brown, God, through death, took loved ones from them to remind them that eternity was all that really mattered.”

Economic necessity had brought John Brown to Richfield, Ohio. Devastated by the financial panic of 1837…and beset by a welter of lawsuits arising from his speculations in land…he had signed a business agreement in January 1842 with Heman Oviatt, one of his creditors. Under the terms of this pact, the Browns would tend Oviatt’s flocks of sheep…while Oviatt would supply them with hides and calfskins of which, once tanned and sold, a set percentage of their wholesale value would be earmarked to liquidate the outstanding debt.
Oviatt, a pioneer of the Ohio Western Reserve and a prosperous landowner, also allowed the Browns to occupy an “old whitewashed log house” on his Richfield property. Although this arrangement provided a measure of security to the Brown family, their economic crisis finally culminated in a formal bankruptcy settlement in September of 1842.  And it was exactly one year later…in September of 1843…that personal tragedy struck their Richfield household. The best extant primary source describing these events is a letter the bereaved father sent to his son, John Jr.:
      Richfield 25th Sept 1843
Dear Son
God has seen fit to visit us with the pestilence since you left us, and Four of our number sleep in the dust, and Four of us that are still living have been more or less unwell but appear to be nearly recovered. On the 4th Sept Charles was taken with the Dysentery and died on the 11th, about the time that Charles died Sarah, Peter, & Austin were taken with the same complaint. Austin died on the 21st, Peter on the 22nd & Sarah on the 23rd and were all buried together in one grave. This has been to us all a bitter cup indeed, and we have drunk deeply, but still the Lord reigneth and blessed be his great and holy name forever. In our sore affliction there is still some comfort. Sarah (like your own Mother) during her sickness discovered great composure of mind, and patience, together with strong assureance at times of meeting God in Paradise. She seemed to have no idea of recovering from the first, nor did she ever express the least desire that she might, but rather the reverse. We fondly hope that she is not disappointed. They were all children towards whom perhaps we might have felt a little partial but they all now lie in a little row together….1
The children were buried together in a hillside plot which, less than two years later, was to become the East Richfield Cemetery. At that time (April 1845), Orson M. Oviatt (a son of Heman Oviatt and the same person who accompanied John Brown and his brother Salmon to the New England academies in 1816) and his wife Lucretia donated ¾ of an acre to the Trustees of the First Congregational Society for the purpose of creating this burial ground.
Based upon John Brown’s letter of 25 September 1843, the actual cause of death of the children appears to be the “Dysentery” mentioned. Thus the household may well have been struck by an epidemic of cholera.
Photo by H. Scott Wolfe
But, interestingly, local tradition in the Richfield area clings to the recollections of one “Aunt Fanny” Oviatt, who claims to have nursed the stricken children, and which describes their cause of death as “black diphtheria” or the “black plague.” This disease, like cholera, can thrive in crowded or unclean conditions. It is an infection of the upper respiratory tract in which a gray or black membrane clogs the air passages.  The Richfield “tradition” is based upon an Oviatt family chronology kept at their local historical society. These documents contain the recollections of several granddaughters of Mason and Fanny (nee Carter) Oviatt…Mason being a nephew of Heman Oviatt. The following account appears within:
John Brown, the famous abolitionist, lived in three different houses in Richfield. The first home was in the vicinity of Fountain Rd. or Boston Mills Rd. as it’s now called. It was there that four of his children fell ill with diphtheria, a potentially fatal bacterial infection. Sophie Sheldon, a neighbor to the Brown family who had helped to nurse the children, became worn out. A buggy pulled up to the front door and Fanny Oviatt stepped out.  “Go away Fanny, you can’t come in here. It’s a house of death.”  “Of course I can,” Fanny replied. “You don’t suppose I am afraid of sickness, do you? How is the little boy?”  “Dead. Dead, I tell you! And Sarah doesn’t know us any more when we talk to her. Go home before your children get it too.”  “Sophie, your father is waiting for you outside and you are to go home with him. When you get there, take off your clothes in the woodshed and burn them, every one. Then wash yourself all over with lots of soft soap and water before you go into the house. You’ll not get it or give it to anyone else.”
            Fanny turned to Mrs. Brown and said, “My husband Mason didn’t want me to come but I said to him, ‘Mason Oviatt, what would you think if it was our children sick and no one to help?’ He was ashamed of himself then and said of course I should come.”
           Later, two children, Austen and Peter, lay dead. And the third, Sarah, which she cared for, died during the night. They were buried the next day in one grave beside their brother Charles, who had died ten days before. They are buried in the East Richfield cemetery. Due to the precautions taken by Fanny, none of her eleven children contracted the deadly disease.2
Whatever the cause of the epidemic, the Brown family had been handed “a bitter cup indeed,” and the specter of loss again had visited their Ohio household.


After a long absence, I again visited the grave of the four children of John and Mary Ann Brown during this past month of April. All looked familiar as I climbed the hill to the shady opening where the marble gravestone stands.  The stone itself is unmarred…although the inscription is becoming so weathered as to make reading a bit difficult. But something seemed amiss about the marker’s location. At some point in time, cement had been poured around its base in order to stabilize it…and this mass still adhered to the stone. But the marker…and the cement…were completely ABOVE ground, resting precariously between two large tree roots.
        Although approximately in its correct position, it appeared to me that the stone had been moved since my earlier visits. A significant number of marble markers lie, uprooted and broken, against the trunk of a nearby tree. So it may be that some prior act of vandalism may have resulted in the movement of the Brown children’s stone.
        This discrepancy remained on my mind when I returned home…so I compared one of my photographs, taken years ago, with one from my recent trip. The backgrounds, showing other nearby grave markers, do not match. So I do fear that the stone has wandered a bit from its true location.
But the site in Fairview Cemetery is still worth a visit…and continues to conjure (at least to me) images of John Brown the family man. Images few people, assailed by visions of the warrior of Kansas and Harpers Ferry, seem to know or appreciate.

* 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.


       1 I have transcribed John Brown’s letter of 25 September 1843 from A John Brown Reader, edited by Louis Ruchames (London-New York: Abelard-Schuman, 1959), p. 50. A reference lists the original letter as being in the possession of the Illinois State Historical Society, Springfield.
       2 The account of “Aunt Fanny” Oviatt nursing the Brown children comes from an Oviatt family chronology compiled by Leah and Lynn Krulik. This work is in the possession of the Richfield Historical Society, Richfield, Ohio.

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