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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, October 26, 2013

News and Views--

Historic Trail for John Brown’s Connecticut Birthplace

The Torrington Historical Society is teaming up with the Northwest Connecticut YMCA’s Torrington Trails Network to create a hiking trail at the birth site of the city’s most famous native.  The two groups are coordinating volunteers to clear a new hiking trail of three-fourths of a mile at the John Brown Birthplace site on Saturday. The work is being done as part of the group’s efforts to make the historic site more accessible to the public. The site has been owned by the Torrington Historical Society since 2000.

New Daguerreotype of John Brown Emerges

John Brown documentary scholar and image expert, Jean Libby, contacted me earlier this month to examine a daguerreotype that has surfaced recently, the owner evidently intending to sell it at auction.   The dag is not characteristic of images of Brown that are more familiar to historians and students, and so it required closer examination.   My own inclination upon first hearing of the image was skepticism.  After all, in 150 years, it seemed logical to me that there were no surviving images of Brown that we have not seen. However, the longer that I examined it, studying the particulars of the face, it seemed harder and harder to deny that it is indeed the face of John Brown.  Jean Libby, the leading authority on Brown daguerreotypes and derivative images, pointed out that the photographer likely prepared the daguerreotype in two phases.  Since daguerreotypes are reverse images, he then made a daguerreotype of the first daguerreotype, thus effectively producing a real-life image of Brown.

The reversal correction on the part of the photographer probably accounts for some of the initial unfamiliarity evoked by the image.  However, the image is also unfamiliar in certain details because of Brown's appearance--especially his long, dark sideburns and a frontal view of his face, which provides a slightly different perspective on his nose.  Brown's sons humorously described their father's nose alternatively as resembling a "meat axe" or a "bird of prey."  These descriptions are better appreciated in this new daguerreotype.

Another unusual feature of the image is that he is very well attired, and even has a stud in his shirt collar.  However, this is probably explainable by the fact that it seems to have been taken in the early 1850s, at the point when Brown was still collaborating with the wealthy Simon Perkins, Jr.  Although the wool commission house of Perkins & Brown had folded in 1849, Brown actually continued a fairly successful partnership with Perkins, who had his own flocks and wool business.  Brown was also entangled in a number of law suits and legal demands that stretched through the early 1850s, requiring him to travel from Akron, Ohio throughout the northeast.  The image of Brown is perhaps the most "bourgeois," and this seems consistent with his profile as a businessman and wool expert in that era.   Too many have been poisoned by half-baked historical presentations and unfounded exaggerations of Brown's rocky business life prior to 1855, so this will surprise many who think he was just an abject failure.  However, notwithstanding his financial difficulties in the late 1830s and 1840s, Brown had somewhat improved through his highly successful work in sheep and wool in the later 1840s, and by his association with notable Ohio names like Oviatt and Perkins.   Most narrators in popular culture are clueless as to Brown's great success and reputation as an expert in "fine sheep and wool."  At any rate, Harvard University archives possesses a stud with small diamonds in the shape of a "B" that was owned by Brown, probably in this period.  (It was later gifted to Abraham Lincoln.)   So despite the novelty of seeing Brown attired like a prosperous businessman, there is nothing untenable about the dag in this regard.

I shared the dag with a prominent illustrator who has worked extensively in portraying Brown, and he too was stunned at the familiarity of important details, especially the hairline, which he found to be the same as in other dags of Brown.  There are other notable facial features--the shape of his closed mouth, the lines and shaped of the flesh near his nose, and the "wear-and-tear" around his eyes, all of which suggest Brown's aged appearance was already starting before he went off to Kansas in 1855.  While his hair was already starting to show signs of gray in the first part of the 1850s, he was obviously far more grayed in the late 1850s.

For evident reasons, I cannot post the image made accessible to me.  However, the image will probably be generally available once the dag is placed on auction.  Assuming its authenticity  and the general nod of approval from Brown scholars and others associated with his image, there is no doubt that this dag will bring a lot of money to the owner.   The appearance of this dag reminds us that just because we had not seen it, does not mean there wasn't more history to uncover.  This is true both in regard to images and documents. These discoveries are far more accessible to us today because of the internet, and so we should not be surprised that other discoveries are made.  For instance, I was recently informed about a letter, written the week after the Harper's Ferry raid in October 1859, by the superintendent of the armory, which had also gone to auction online.

This is a good lesson for narrators and cultural "experts" who think they know all there is about the Old Man, and rely on the opinions and hearsay of tour guides and academics with little grounding in the primary documents.   Much of what is already believed about Brown is untrustworthy and negative; and there is still more that may yet be uncovered that demands a revision of popular notions about the Old Man.

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