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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Monday, August 19, 2013

Take Note-- 


Elizabeth Cady Stanton
and Gerrit Smith
By Norman K. Dann, PhD

Women's Equality Day Program

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Gerrit Smith Estate National Historic Landmark
5304 Oxbow Road
Peterboro, NY 13134

$3 Adults
Free for Students

Elizabeth Smith Miller
In the Kitchen Tea

Celebrate the namesake of our favorite costume
Amelia Bloomer

Tea catered by The Copper Turret of Morrisville
Hosts dressed in 1951 Bloomer costumes
September 22, 2013 - 12:30 pm
Smithfield Community Center
Peterboro, NY
Reservations needed - $35 by September 1, $40 by September 15
Mail checks to: Smithfield Community Association,
PO Box 72, Peterboro, NY 13134 or
National Abolition Hall of Fame and Museum
2013 Induction Weekend

Jonathan Walker

Myrtilla Miner

Elijah Lovejoy

John Rankin


Saturday, October 19, 2013

Abolition Symposia
1 pm - Elijah Lovejoy presented by Ary J. Lamme III
2 pm - Myrtilla Miner presented by Christopher Anglim
3 pm - John Rankin presented by Dr. John R. Kaufman-McKivigan
4 pm - Jonathan Walker presented by Alvin F. Oickle

5 pm - 19th century Antislavery Dinner, catered by the Copper turret of Morrisville, NY (Reserve)

7 pm - Induction Ceremony with 19th century Readings and Music, directed by Hugh C. Humphreys

Sunday, October 20, 2013
9 am - Heritage Sites Open
9:30 am - Guided Tour Gerrit Smith Estate National Historic Landmark
10:30 am - Guided Tour National Abolition Hall of Fame and Museum

Harriet Tubman 2013 Commemorative Year
1 pm - Harriet Tubman: Myth, Memory, and History by Milton C. Sernett, PhD
2 pm -North of the Law by Linda Robertson (Video about Sarah Bradford, Tubman biographer)
3 pm - Beyond the Underground Railroad: Harriet Tubman, Moses of her People by Tubman relatives 


Quick Links


 About Us

   The Peterboro Mercantile, a community heritage shop, the Gerrit Smith Estate National Historic Landmark (GSENHL), and the National Abolition Hall of Fame and Museum (NAHOF) are open Saturdays and Sundays from 1-5 pm beginning Saturday, May 19 and ending Sunday September 23, for special events and tours, and by appointment. The GSENHL is a site on the National Park Service Network to Freedom (national Underground Railroad trail) and both sites are on the Heritage NY Underground Railroad Trail, a program of the NYS Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation. Adult admission is three dollars. Students and 2013 Stewards are free. The projects are recruiting volunteers for the 2013 season.
 For more information and the check updates on programs: 

Thursday, August 15, 2013

A Novel Approach--
The Color of Historical Fiction: James McBride Spoofs the John Brown Story in The Good Lord Bird

I'm never really sure of how I feel about historical fiction in general, especially when it takes on themes that are dear to me.  The only work of fiction about the Old Man that I have both enjoyed and actually read from cover to cover is Terry Bisson's Fire on the Mountain, which is an amazingly thoughtful effort that engages counter-factual history (which is fiction) in a manner that is moving and multi-perspectival.   I would recommend Fire to anyone and everyone, and I keep it with my John Brown books.  While Russell Banks' widely praised Cloudsplitter (which I keep behind my John Brown books) illustrates the author's great ability as a novelist, I never read it all the way through.  I just got tired of watching the author telling me a story that was not the story I knew to be true, period.  Like the late Boyd Stutler, the godfather of John Brown studies, I'm just not that fond of historical fiction--and frankly there's already too much to read in terms of history to spend more time reading someone else's fictive portrayal of the Old Man. (Still, I have promised to read Marilynne Robinson's Gilead, which has been fervently recommended to me.) Now there's James McBride's The Good Lord Bird.
. . . it seems a lot of people think that they can engage in meaningful historical reflection by reading novels about real people.  

Before noting The Good Lord Bird, let me add: what annoys me about historical fiction is that it seems a lot of people think that they can engage in meaningful historical reflection by reading novels about real people.  And I think that reflects both error and laziness.  We already live in a culture and generation that is virtually ahistorical and intellectually lazy when it comes to history.  In John Brown's case, it's worse, because lots of people are already grossly misinformed and prejudiced in their thinking due to terrible high school texts, bad TV documentaries, and lots of prejudiced talking heads.  A work of fiction about Brown (even if it is basically friendly) is absolutely the last place that one ought to start thinking about Brown in historical terms.  Yet, inevitably, many will do so, as the following comment reveals from a reader on Goodreads:
Was John Brown a terrorist, martyr, hero, lunatic, saint or deluded fool? After reading The Good Lord Bird I would still hesitate to give a straight answer, although James McBride does appear to be leaning toward a heroic, almost saint-like depiction of the raider of Harper’s Ferry toward the end of this rollicking ride through the latter part of Brown’s life.
I would hope you would hesitate, lady.  I wonder how many biographies of Brown she's read?  Now, this may be something that just happens to John Brown, especially among whites, too many of which presume he is "complicated" and "troubling," and have this big historical problem in their minds about the Old Man that drives them to the latest novel.  Maybe it happens to Lincoln or Henry Ford or Richard Nixon, too, but I doubt it.  It seems to me that whenever someone writes fictional work about John Brown, it is forced to carry water for historical inquiry. Nevertheless, why the *&%! did this reader think she was going to get "a straight answer" about a historical figure from someone's fictional rendition?  Frankly, it's kind of stupid, yet this is the issue that always comes up with another work of historical fiction about John Brown.

As I said, I am a biographer and historian, and I teach history and theology.  I can never read enough across the disciplines in which I teach and research, so the idea of reading novels is pretty much out of the question.  Furthermore, to unwind by reading a novel completely misses the point for me.  That's what movies are for.  However, the fact that I have little use for fiction (yes, I know there are good arguments for "the power of story," etc.), I know many others love novels and sometimes historical fiction is a starting point for people who want to read history.  To each his own.

Now that I've done my song and dance about fiction, here's some info on The Good Lord Bird, and you can decide for yourself whether you want to read it:

Publishers Weekly

"Musician and author McBride offers a fresh perspective on abolitionist firebrand John Brown in this novel disguised as the memoir of a slave boy who pretends to be a girl in order to escape pre–Civil War turmoil, only to find himself riding with John Brown’s retinue of rabble-rousers from Bloody Kansas to Harpers Ferry. “I was born a colored man and don’t you forget it,” reminisces Henry Shackleford in a manuscript discovered after a church fire in the 1960s. Speaking in his own savvy yet na├»ve voice, Henry recounts how, at age 10, his curly hair, soft features, and potato-sack dress cause him to be mistaken for a girl—a mistake he embraces for safety’s sake, even as he is reluctantly swept up by Brown’s violent, chaotic, determined, frustrated, and frustrating efforts to oppose slavery. A mix-up over the meaning of the word “trim” temporarily lands Henry/Henrietta in a brothel before he rejoins Brown and sons, who call him “Onion,” their good-luck charm. Onion eventually meets Frederick Douglass, a great man but a flawed human being, Harriet Tubman, silent, terrible, and strong. Even more memorable is the slave girl Sibonia, who courageously dies for freedom. At Harpers Ferry, Onion is given the futile task of rousting up slaves (“hiving bees”) to participate in the great armed insurrection that Brown envisions but never sees. Outrageously funny, sad, and consistently unflattering, McBride puts a human face on a nation at its most divided."
James McBride

New York Times Book Review

"A MAGNIFICANT NEW NOVEL by the best-selling author James McBride…a brilliant romp of a novel…McBride—with the same flair for historical mining, musicality of voice and outsize characterization that made his memoir 'The Color of Water,' an instant classic -- pulls off his portrait masterfully, like a modern-day Mark Twain: evoking sheer glee with every page."

Library Journal

"McBride continues exploring the long history of America's color line, begun in his landmark memoir, The Color of Water. A young slave in the Kansas Territory, Henry Shackleford must flee with abolitionist John Brown after Brown clashes with Henry's master. Complicating matters: Brown thinks Henry is a girl, a disguise Henry maintains up to the bold raid on Harpers Ferry."

Kirkus Reviews

"In McBride's version of events, John Brown's body doesn't lie a-mouldering in the grave--he's alive and vigorous and fanatical and doomed, so one could say his soul does indeed go marching on. The unlikely narrator of the events leading up to Brown's quixotic raid at Harper's Ferry is Henry Shackleford, aka Little Onion, whose father is killed when Brown comes in to liberate some slaves. Brown whisks the 12-year-old away thinking he's a girl, and Onion keeps up the disguise for the next few years. This fluidity of gender identity allows Onion a certain leeway in his life, for example, he gets taken in by Pie, a beautiful prostitute, where he witnesses some activity almost more unseemly than a 12-year-old can stand. The interlude with Pie occurs during a two-year period where Brown disappears from Onion's life, but they're reunited a few months before the debacle at Harper's Ferry. In that time, Brown visits Frederick Douglass, and, in the most implausible scene in the novel, Douglass gets tight and chases after the nubile Onion. The stakes are raised as Brown approaches October 1859, for even Onion recognizes the futility of the raid, where Brown expects hundreds of slaves to rise in revolt and gets only a handful. Onion notes that Brown's fanaticism increasingly approaches "lunacy" as the time for the raid gets closer, and Brown never loses that obsessive glint in his eye that tells him he's doing the Lord's work. At the end, Onion reasserts his identity as a male and escapes just before Brown's execution. McBride presents an interesting experiment in point of view here, as all of Brown's activities are filtered through the eyes of a young adolescent who wavers between innocence and cynicism."

Goodreads (four stars)

"Henry Shackleford is a young slave living in the Kansas Territory in 1857, when the region is a battleground between anti- and pro-slavery forces. When John Brown, the legendary abolitionist, arrives in the area, an argument between Brown and Henry’s master quickly turns violent. Henry is forced to leave town—with Brown, who believes he’s a girl.

Over the ensuing months, Henry—whom Brown nicknames Little Onion—conceals his true identity as he struggles to stay alive. Eventually Little Onion finds himself with Brown at the historic raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859—one of the great catalysts for the Civil War.

An absorbing mixture of history and imagination, and told with McBride’s meticulous eye for detail and character, The Good Lord Bird is both a rousing adventure and a moving exploration of identity and survival."


James McBride’s new novel, “The Good Lord Bird,” is his second in a row to explore the issue of slavery in the years just prior to the Civil War. It was while researching his last book, “Song Yet Sung,” that he became fascinated with the story of the abolitionist John Brown, who led the violent slave insurrection at Harpers Ferry, West Virgina.

“I’d heard John Brown’s name many times in the past but never really quite knew who he was,” McBride says. “When I started to research him, I became fascinated with his story. The challenge was to find a way to write about him that was interesting and funny.”

Given the dark subject matter of the time period and of Brown’s tragic final days, the humor is the most surprising element of “The Good Lord Bird.” The story is told through the eyes of Onion, a young slave boy who becomes a part of Brown’s crew under the mistaken assumption that he’s a girl. Over the next few years, he crosses paths with luminaries
like Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, the latter depicted making drunken advances on the disguised Onion.
“My approach is to make fun of everybody,” McBride explains. “In real life, I admire Frederick Douglass. He was a great man, but he was flawed as well. The people who built this country weren’t gods. They were flawed people, and you often wonder if the women in their lives
had the chance to write the stories of these men, how their account would read.”

McBride himself was surprised at the opportunities for satire afforded by Onion’s disguise. “The business of identity – self identity, inner identity – always drives the outer story,” he says. “I wanted Onion’s identity issues to be strong enough to push him to freedom at the end
of the book. I really didn’t consider all of the factors that would go into this character playing a girl at the outset; I just thought it was funny. Then as the book evolved and he got into these situations where he had to pretend to be a girl, it thickened the plot and just became delicious.”

In the end, McBride came to admire his subject, despite the misguided violence of some of his actions. “I think John Brown was one of the greatest Americans that ever set foot in this land,” he says. “John Brown was a man who represented an ideal and was willing to die for
it. He was way ahead of his time. I admire his sense of religion, his sense of purpose, and his unwillingness to compromise on the issue of human rights.”

Source: Shaun Brady, "Forging a 'delicious' tale out of difficult history," Metro (15 Aug. 2013)

Review by Christine Brunkhorst in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, 17 Aug.
Review by Margaret Quamme in the Columbus Dispatch, 18 Aug.
Review by Kevin Nance in USA Today, 18 Aug.
Review by Joel Lyons, in New York Daily News, 21 Aug.

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

"Grandeur in a Degenerate Age": William F. M. Arny, New Mexico’s Link to John Brown

Here I am in the land of big sky and no humidity, New Mexico.  I love NM—it’s about as “far away” as you can travel without leaving the continental U.S.  There’s lots of history here, too.  And while the Old Man never made it this far to the southwest, there is a NM connection to the John Brown story, in the person of William Frederick Milton Arny.  Now, since I’m working on another project and writing in-between family and vacation time, what follows is a series of pasted items about Arny.
W. F. M. Arny

William E. Connelley, A Standard History of Kansas and Kansans.  Chicago: Lewis Publishing Company, 1918.

“Kansas has produced no more eccentric, generous or beloved character than William F. M. Arny. Although not a native of the state, he was a son in all that stands for its independence and humanity. He was born in the District of Columbia, March 6, 1813, and after graduating from Bethany College, West Virginia, acted for a time as secretary for Alexander Campbell, the famous Disciple preacher. At the age of twenty eight he was on intimate terms with all of the leading men of the nation, especially with such as Abraham Lincoln and others of force and originality. In 1850 Mr. Arny settled in McLean County, Illinois; was active in the organization of the republican party, and in 1856 was a committeeman in that state appointed to raise money to settle Free State men in Kansas. In that year he made a trip of investigation to the territory, and its condition so appealed to him that in the spring of 1857 he settled in Anderson County. 

The people of Kansas, who had come thither to stay and build a real commonwealth of equals, accepted William F. M. Arny as a valuable accession to their forces, electing him both to the Leavenworth constitutional convention of 1858 and the House of Representatives of the First State Legislature, which assembled with the outbreak of the Civil war. At that time he was also closing his faithful stewardship of the relief fund and the goods entrusted to him in behalf of the sufferers from the grasshopper plague of 1857. He had been elected a delegate to the Grasshopper Falls convention soon after coming to Kansas, had handled thousands of dollars and over 9,000,000 pounds of relief goods. In 1861 President Lincoln appointed him secretary of the Territory of New Mexico. He was a great favorite with the Indians in that region, and, in the prosecution of his official duties, accomplished much in exploiting the mineral resources of New Mexico. But in that matter, as in all other measures with which he was identified and prominent, he did not profit financially; in fact, seemed always careless of personal gain. Naturally he died poor, albeit honored and deeply loved  which is better than to have died financially prosperous. On his return from a trip East he stopped off at Topeka, was taken ill and died suddenly September 18, 1881. A short time before, at the theater, he had been robbed of his money and passes, and a collection of $125 was taken up among his old Kansas friends to pay the expenses of his burial. His body was forwarded to Santa Fe, where funeral services were held in the palace.”

Arny's gravestone at the
Santa Fe National Cemetary

“New Mexico Territorial Secretary. He was well educated for the day, and notably religious. He was converted from the Baptist to the Disciples of Christ Church and formed a lifelong relationship with that church to the point of traveling widely and conducting revival meetings. In 1848 a split over church matters developed and he moved to Bloomington, Illinois where he became interested in scientific agriculture, printing, and teaching. A new dispute occurred and in 1856 he moved to Kansas, settling first in Lawrence and then in Hyatt. Again he became heavily involved in political turmoil and when his friend Abraham Lincoln was elected president in 1860 Arny sought a political appointment. He was named Indian Agent to the Utes and Jicarilla Apache of northern New Mexico, succeeding Kit Carson. He found the problems immense and the resources scarce and accomplished what was possible with the means at hand. In 1862 he was appointed Territorial Secretary of New Mexico, holding that position until 1867 and serving occasionally as acting governor. In 1867 he was appointed agent for two years for the mountain Utes in Abiquiu, New Mexico and for the Pueblos along the Rio Grande. In 1870 he became Special Agent for the Indians of New Mexico and he extended his concerns to the Mimbres and Mescalero Apaches, conferring with Victorio, Cochise and other noted Apache chiefs. In seven months he made a visit to every tribe in New Mexico, southern Colorado, and southeastern Arizona, took Indian census, evaluated their condition, and made a full report. His reappointment by President Ulysses S. Grant was strongly disputed in the 1872 Senate, but he was eventually confirmed. In the summer of 1873 he was named the Navajo agent where, again, disputes and complications hampered his efforts. In 1874 he took a large contingent of Navajos to Washington, DC but his difficulties could not be overcome and he submitted his resignation on July 22, 1875. His last six years in New Mexico were lived in financial impoverishment. In 1879 he learned that he had inherited a large fortune in England, but he arrived there too late to collect.”

William F. M. Arny examined by the Senate Investigation Committee on the Harper’s Ferry Raid (Washington, D.C.: 1860)  

Excerpts only

January 16, 1860.

William F. M. Arny affirmed and examined.

. . . .

Question. Were you acquainted with John Brown, who was mixed up with the troubles and difficulties in Kansas, and who has been recently executed in Virginia?

Answer. I was. With reference to that, I should like to say a few words.

The Chairman. Certainly; any explanation you please.

The Witness. As a member and general agent of the National Kansas Aid Committee, I became acquainted with some matters pertaining to John Brown's operations in Kansas, which may throw some light on his operations at Harper's Ferry; but before I give testimony in regard to it, I would prefer to be sent home for my books and papers, so that I can give a full and accurate statement of the amount placed in my hands by individuals and committees, and how it was appropriated, so as to show definitely what was given to John Brown as far as I know, by whose order, and for what purpose. If this investigation is designed for a full exhibition of the relation of other parties to John Brown, it will be impossible for me to testify accurately, and so as not to do injustice to persons who are absent, unless I can have access to my memoranda, records, and books kept at the time, in which were recorded the events, to some extent, as they transpired.

Question. Will you state when your acquaintance with John Brown commenced?

Answer. Between twenty and twenty-two years ago.

Question. When did you first see him in Kansas ; when was your acquaintance with him resumed there?

Answer. My first personal connection with him in Kansas was after the beginning of 1857. I saw him previous to that, however, but not in Kansas. . . . I last saw him in the fall of 1858. . . . During the summer and fall of 1858, I saw him some half dozen times.

Question. Where was he then; where did you see him?

Answer. I saw him in Lawrence, Kansas. I saw him at my own house once or twice; he spent a day or two with me there. I saw him down on the borders of Missouri while I was engaged in surveying a railroad there. I think these are all the places where I saw him in the Territory during that year.

Question. Did he tell you then, in any of those interviews, of any plans that he had in contemplation to make a descent on any of the Southern States with a view to incite insurrection amongst the slaves? 

Answer. In my conversation with him, growing out of a communication that I was requested to make to him by Mr. Richard Realf, he said some things in regard to a plan that he had, but gave me no details in regard to it.

Question. What was the character of the plan? You may give that without going into details. What sort of a plan was it?
. . . .

The Witness. It may be as well to state here that in all my conversations with Brown I opposed any project of even carrying off slaves, and my connection with him was more interposing to prevent him from getting means to accomplish anything of that kind.
. . . .
The Chairman. Well, you returned to Kansas. Now, you can go on.

The Witness. I think the first time I saw Brown after I got into the Territory was while I was engaged in surveying a road through Missouri and from Missouri to the Neosho valley, and during the time of the troubles in Linn county, Kansas. It was directly after what were termed the Marias-des-Cygnes murders, when Hamilton came over from Missouri and killed a lot of men, taking them from their farms in Linn county, on the borders of Linn. After speaking to Brown in regard to the position of things in the Territory at the time, I said to him that I understood that an organization was established in that county and neighborhood in which I was very glad to learn they had decided that no invasion should take place of the territory of the State of Missouri ; I then remarked to him that I had seen [Richard] Realf in New York. He was standing a little way off. He immediately came close up to me. He said, "I am glad to hear that, for I thought Realf was gone to England and had not attended to what we had appointed him." I then told him that Realf asked me to say to him that he did not know where to write to him, and that if I fell in with him to say to him that he had been engaged in the matter to which he was appointed, and that he could not learn definitely what Forbes was after, but that he had gone to Washington; that was about the substance of the message that Realf gave me. Brown then asked me if I knew who Forbes saw in Washington. I told him, no. Well, said he, you were in Washington. I said, yes. I then immediately remarked to Brown that I thought it very strange that he would be engaged in an enterprise such as Realf had intimated to me they were engaged in. ''Why strange,"' said he. Why, said I, "Brown, when I knew you twenty years ago over in Virginia, you professed to be an abolitionist, and an abolitionist of that class that are termed non-resistants, and you refused to use arms in any shape or form; even when you were opposed, you would not resist, and you were considered ultra on that subject at that time; how is it that you have changed?" He then referred to the fact that he had sent his sons into the Territory of Kansas in 1853 or 1854 with a lot of blooded cattle and other stock with the intention of settling. “You know they did settle on the Pottawatomie, and that after they settled there, part of their cattle was stolen; they were
notified to leave the country, and they had to sacrifice their cattle."

The Chairman. I do not think it important to know Brown's reasons for this thing. We want to get at the facts.

The Witness. I am only detailing the conversation I had with him. There were three conversations with him; he was at my house two days. 
. . . .

Question. You have said, as I understand, that Brown, in speaking of his plan, referred to some action taken by that committee, and that you were present when that action was taken. Now state what the action was that was taken, to which Brown referred?

Answer. Mr. Brown applied to that committee

Mr. Collamer. State when and where.

Answer. He applied sometime in the month of January, 1857, at a meeting of that committee, at the Astor House, in New York, for some arms, and other assistance, to organize a company of men and equip them, to repel the invasion in Kansas by Missourians. The action of the committee, to be short about it, was a refusal at that time to let him have the arms, and an agreement to let him have some other matters that would assist him in a peaceable settlement in the Territory of Kansas.

By Mr. Collamer:
Question. What were they? 

Answer. Clothing and other things.

By the Chairman:
Question. What do you mean by a peaceable settlement?

Answer. That he should settle there in the Territory of Kansas, and not go out. The policy of this committee was a policy of self-defense, and opposed to any attempt to invade the States or any Territory.

By Mr. Davis:
Question. Do you mean clothing for himself or for others?

Answer. Clothing for himself and others.

Question. For distribution?

Answer. Yes, sir; for persons that he was acquainted with and that he represented were in a destitute condition. 

By the Chairman:
Question. Was that the action that Brown referred to?

Answer. Yes, sir; he referred to that action, and 1 think I can give the exact words, after speaking of that action.

By Mr. Doolittle:
Question. Was this an application for the arms which were in Iowa at that time?

By the Chairman:
Question. You say that Brown told you of some plans that he had to arm a party of men for the purpose of stampeding slaves from the slave States, and in telling you of that plan he referred to the action taken by this committee at Buffalo, and you now tell us what that action was. That action was an application of Brown for certain arms for certain purposes, and a refusal of the committee to let him have those arms for those purposes, and a proposition by that committee to aid him in a peaceable settlement. I want to know how Brown referred to that action in connection with any plan of running off slaves. What had that to do with running off slaves?

Answer. In my conversation with him, I was finding fault with him for proposing a plan of that kind; and, in finding fault with him in regard to that matter, he classed me with the abolitionists, with the republican party, and with this committee, and he said we were all alike a set of cravens, that we all refused to give him assistance to carry the war into Africa.

Question. You spoke of applications he had made to some people in the East. What applications did he speak of there that he had made? 

Answer. After his application to the committee at the Astor House, in New York, in 1857, and a refusal by all who were there to do anything for him at that time, and after the settlement of the ownership of these arms, which was made afterwards at the same meeting, he then addressed a letter, a copy of which I have and can furnish to the committee if I have my papers, to the people of the States. 

Question. What States?

Answer. Of the free States, asking for aid.
Arny's signature from a John Brown document
excerpted from Gilder Lehrman image 

William Arny's Reminiscence at Brown’s grave, July 4, 1860

“I have known John Brown to give the last dollar from his scanty purse in Kansas to Free State men whom he met in a worse condition.  The life of him whose remains rest before us, is full and brimming with such deeds.  The record of that life he has left us, a solitary mark of grandeur in an otherwise degenerate age."  

Source: "Celebration at North Elba; The Fourth of July Among the Adirondacks," Liberator (27 July 1860): 1