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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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Saturday, June 22, 2013

Chain, chain, chain--
John Brown's Alleged Leg Irons Sell at Auction

Today (Sat. Jun. 22) a set of leg irons allegedly worn by John Brown while imprisoned in Virginia in 1859 were sold today for $13,145 by Heritage Auctions in Dallas, Texas.  A number of internet news sources announced the sale with a report from The Associated Press:

DALLAS -- The leg irons used on abolitionist John Brown after his failed 1859 raid on the federal arsenal in Harpers Ferry, W.Va., sold at auction for $13,145 Saturday. The winning bidder declined to be identified at the Heritage Auctions event. 
Many scholars believe Brown and his raid hastened the start of the Civil War. The Connecticut native and some followers seized the arsenal, hoping to provide 100,000 weapons to slaves who never rose up as envisioned to join them. Brown later was hanged for treason, murder and inciting a rebellion.
Typically, reports of this nature convey one or more conventional errors based upon generations of misinformation and skewed representation.  In this case, the AP report erroneously says that Brown "seized the arsenal," which is at least imprecise.  Actually, Brown and his small army of raiders seized the town of Harper's Ferry and the entire government armory, which included the arsenal.

Second, the notion that Brown wanted to convey the "100,000 weapons" to enslaved blacks is also mistaken.  There is no evidence whatsoever that Brown attacked Harper's Ferry with the intention of seizing the arsenal weapons.  Yet is almost impossible to uproot this error because it has been repeated so often by so many different people that it has become accepted as a fact.  To the contrary, one or two people in Harper's Ferry, and some Virginia politicians said it after the fact.  But it is interesting to point out that Brown posted raiders at the arsenal--although it seems likely that they were placed there to prevent others from getting the weapons during their occupation of the town.  There is no evidence that Brown's men removed these weapons, even after staying so long (too long!) overnight on October 16-17, 1859.  Brown's men may have looked at a case or two of the weapons, but there were no guns removed from the arsenal and, as Brown said afterward, he brought better guns (Sharps repeating rifles) with him.  Of course, I don't expect too many people to believe me.  There are so many questionable "givens" about Harper's Ferry that I'm convinced only the minority of people who actually are willing to read are going to have their assumptions challenged.
If you believe this image is historically accurate, I have another pair of leg irons to sell you.  David H. Strother's propaganda cartoon in Harper's Weekly, Nov. 1859, pictured loyal enslaved men rallying behind the paternal slaveholder, ready to fight off John Brown and his men.  It was either this, or portray black men as fearful, lazy, simpletons.  This was all part of the lie that the "slaves never rose up to support John Brown."
Third, the AP's biggest fallacy is that the slaves "never rose up as envisioned to join" Brown.  Once more, the notion that local blacks did not respond is the version of the raid ingrained in the "American mind."  Few seem to realize that the notion that few or no enslaved people responded to John Brown is based upon the reports of southern newspapers and politicians, which had a vested interest in promoting the lie that enslaved blacks either were: (1) afraid and cowardly; (2) fiercely loyal to their masters; or (3) lazy and indifferent.  The "no response" nonsense was conveyed to the northern press and completely accepted in a bipartisan fashion--assumed as true by the Republicans as much as the Democrats.   Not only do we have evidence that local blacks were responsive (and would have been even more so had Brown not gotten bogged down in the town of Harper's Ferry), but we know that many local slave masters were quietly terrified and some didn't even sleep at their homes following the raid until they were assured there was no insurrection afoot.  The politicians' braggadocio claims of slave loyalty was disproved by the deep southern fear of insurrections as a reality.  It was also disproved by the contradictory claim that enslaved black men were afraid and terrified even to pick up a weapon, but would fight like lions in defense of their slave masters.  That the majority of whites still believe John Brown had no impact on the enslaved community is simply evidence that the great majority has an unrealistic, apolitical, and often ahistorical view of the past--especially as it involves chattel slavery.

Fear of What?

By the way, the auction description also includes this problematic statement:
The actions at Harper's Ferry, in contrast, raised the fear of servile insurrection and was viewed by slave-holders as the logical outcome to abolitionist agitation. It was this fear, beyond all others, that prompted southern states to withdraw from the Union following Lincoln's election in 1860. 
In retrospect, it is true that the raid (and the consequent number of enslaved people who actually fled Jefferson county and other parts of the South as a result) created great consternation among the supposedly self-assured slavemasters.  But to say that their fear of slave insurrection, "beyond all others," is what prompted the Southern rebellion is just utter nonsense.  The Southern states were not scared into secession.  They dove headfirst into their mad rebellion because they were intent on keeping 4 millions of black people in slavery's chains.  They were not afraid that Lincoln's election would lead to servile insurrection.  They were afraid that Lincoln's party would at least keep the slavemasters from expanding slave territory.  They only fear they had was fear of losing their precious "peculiar institution."   The truth is, the slavemasters rebelled against the Union for the same reason they rushed John Brown to the gallows.

Now, About those Leg Irons

As far as the well-sold "leg irons" go, I'm going to remain skeptical--or to put it another way, I'm not so sure that $13,145 was well spent.

The auction description says that these leg irons were in the same family from the 19th century, but admits that the history behind them is "murky" and fraught with "family lore and faulty, contradictory information posted online."  I'm not suggesting the auction house is deceptive, and I'm sure they did their homework.  But I am suggesting there simply isn't enough basis to be certain that these well sold leg irons were John Brown's leg irons.  While the Rickard marking certainly attests to the leg irons being a genuine specimen of that time and vicinity, there just is not enough proof that these were the ones worn by Brown.  Even if the leg irons were associated with the Charlestown jail, they may have been worn by Brown's raiders, or other prisoners, including enslaved people, who were kept in that jail when they were sold.  By the way, it is not at all clear from the evidence that "Brown's shackles were only removed when his wife came for one last visit and once again when he was escorted from the jail to the place of execution."   For now I'll just say, Brown and his jailer got along well.

Of course, it is true that during the Civil War and afterward, people collected relics of John Brown, and there is no question that Union soldiers might have looked for Brown's chains.  But no one would have been trying to grab John Brown's leg irons for months, if not years, following his death in December 1859.  So unless it can be proved that his leg irons were "retired" after he wore them, stories about a "red flannel" marking and an "elderly black lady" just aren't sufficient.

For the record, I'm not saying these leg irons are not Brown's leg irons.  I cannot disprove it, and really have no desire to do so.  I'm only saying the auction house cannot say with real certainty that these were the Old Man's leg irons based upon their description, and the person who spent $13,145 to buy them was very trusting indeed.  Certainly, if I had $13,000 to spend on Browniana, I would have bought one of his letters, with handwriting that could be analyzed.  Still, for some people, I guess, $13,000 is "fun money," and certainly buying "John Brown's leg irons" sounds like quite an experience.

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