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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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Friday, January 24, 2014

Is Springfield's "Puritan" Statue John Brown in Disguise?

Stephen Jendrysik, an educator and historian of the town of Chicopee, Massachusetts, has an interesting piece on the news website, Mass Live, discussing some interesting local history and John Brown.  Readers will recall that John Brown lived in Springfield, Mass., from 1846-49, when he was engaged in business in that city.  
"The Puritan"

In his column, Jendrysik suggests that a famous local statuary, "The Puritan," by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, might actually have been modeled on Brown's face.

Previously, Jendrysik writes, he believed that "The Puritan" was based upon "a purely imaginary" figure of Chester W. Chapin, a wealthy resident of Chicopee, near Springfield.  This is commonly believed because "The Puritan" is a tribute to an early ancestor of the Chapin family.  However, he has reconsidered this belief.  Noting that the sculptor, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, "was an admirer of the violent abolitionist," he now believes that John Brown is the "hidden" image behind the tribute to Chapin.  "The Puritan," was unveiled in 1887, and has been relocated once within town to its present site in Springfield's Merrick Park. 

"The Puritan"
Jendrysik points out that for years, "experts have debated the possibility that Saint-Gaudens' image of one of Springfield's Founding Fathers was in fact a muted tribute" to Brown, who himself consciously identified with Puritan theology and militancy.  Apparently there is no definitive way to prove whether or not Saint-Gaudens modeled his statue from images of Brown, or whether he used a descendant of Chapin.

The rest of Jendrysik's column reflects upon John Brown vis-a-vis David Reynolds' biography, the author concluding that Brown was both a "saintly liberator" and a "bloodthirsty terrorist." Jendrysik is positive toward Brown and seems to understand that his reputation declined in this nation's history because society at large did not share his passion for racial justice.  However, his conclusion that Brown could be both a saintly man and a terrorist is nonsense.  If Brown's famous/infamous actions in Kansas were as they are commonly portrayed, it is hard to imagine he was also a saintly figure.  Rather, it is more likely that the "bloodthirsty terrorist" is a misrepresentation of the facts.  As I have argued in my biography, Brown was hardly perfect, and he was no saint in the Roman Catholic sense of the term.  But he was very much a saint according to the Protestant definition.

Still, Jendrysik's piece is certainly interesting.  It seems arguably possible that Brown was the "hidden" model and inspiration for "The Puritan."  Jendrysik concludes: "The bushy eyebrows, the chiseled features and the dominant nose belong to John Brown."  I don't know that Brown had "bushy eyebrows"; however, the face of the sculpture could very well be that of the old man.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

155 Years Ago Today--
John Brown's Last Letter from Kansas in 1859 Was a "Twin"

On January 11, 1859, one hundred fifty-five years ago today, John Brown wrote two brief, personal letters to his wife and to his adult son, John Brown, Jr., reflecting his last personal communication from Kansas to family members back east.  The half-page letters, written from Osawatomie, Kansas Territory, are essentially "twins," although not identical.

Background to the Letters

Brown had been in the Kansas Territory since the summer of 1858, mainly because his plan to invade Virginia had been jeopardized by the betrayal of the English mercenary, Hugh Forbes. Forbes, an antislavery man, was retained by Brown to train his men in Iowa, even as Brown was endeavoring to raise black support in the expatriate black community in Ontario, Canada.  After his optimistic "quiet convention" in Chatham, Ontario, in early May 1858, Brown was informed that Forbes--a whining, opportunistic, and disingenuous man--was threatening to expose his plans because he had not received the monies he was demanding from Brown's backers in the east. Most of his supporters immediately urged Brown to take a hiatus, in order to discredit Forbes claim of an imminent raid on Virginia.  Brown finally did so against his wishes.  Returning to the Territory, his presence energized the free state side in their struggle against proslavery thuggery. However, the Old Man ultimately disappointed free state settlers because his primary focus was on Virginia, not Kansas.

In fact, Brown had conducted a raid into Missouri on December 20, breaking his men into two parties and liberating eleven enslaved people from two different slave holders.  Brown and his men kept the party of liberated people in Kansas until early February, when he escorted them into Nebraska, then into Iowa.  Traveling across state and remaining at Springdale, Iowa until early March, the liberated party were then taken by railroad to Chicago, Ill., and then Detroit, Mich., where they finally were sent by ferry to Canadian freedom on March 12, 1859.  Prior to leaving Kansas in January, Brown wrote his famous "Parallels," which defended his actions against conservative critics.
Artist Jacob Lawrence recalled Brown's 1859
Missouri rescue in his series, The Legend of John Brown
Thus, the context for the January 11th notes is Brown's dangerous circumstances, living in hiding in Kansas while overseeing the people he had rescued with the intention of moving them out of the reach of the proslavery government of the United States.  He is a wanted man who has been parted from his family for months, and likely would not see them for months to come.  He wants them to know he is "midling well," a term Brown used often, reflecting his optimistic tendency to see the best in even the worse circumstances. Actually, he had been afflicted with sickness--"the Fever and the Ague"--while in Kansas, and was still struggling with his health--an affliction that generally affected his vision, sinuses, and hearing.  As Jean Libby has established, Brown had likely experienced another health crisis, probably Bell's palsy (or perhaps a small stroke), which caused the right side of his face to droop.  This probably encouraged him to grow his legendary beard as a disguise, although the beard was also cosmetic.  An Iowa friend from this period describes his afflictions as somewhat grossly affecting his eye as well.  Certainly, Brown was a sick man throughout the trek into Iowa, and had health concerns well into the Spring of 1859.

Location of Original Letters

The original letter to Mary Brown and children in North Elba, N.Y., is found in the Boyd B. Stutler Collection, #MS02-0034 (see an image of the original by clicking here).  A reliable transcription by Katherine Mayo is found in the John Brown - Oswald Garrison Villard Papers (Box 5, Letters through 1859 folder).  The original note to John Junior is in the John Brown Jr. Papers, Ohio Historical Society (Box 3, folder 2), and a "sanitized" transcription in F. B. Sanborn's Life and Letters of John Brown, p. 489.

Mary A. Brown
Going Home

The letters are both brief and convey the same basic message, except the one written to Mary Brown expresses his "anxiety" to hear about his wife and children, and directs them to send any inquiries to John Junior.As the notes reveal, he had not been able to write to his family since December 2 (a year to the day before his death). [His letter of December 2 is also found in the John Brown Jr. Papers]. Brown assumes they had all heard about his bold liberation raid in Missouri from the newspapers. In fact, he would only have two more brief periods at home in 1859, from mid-April to early May, and again, for about two weeks in June.  Bolstered by his successful liberation raid into Missouri, he finally left for Maryland and Virginia in the early summer, when he set up headquarters for the "grand rescue" he was planning in Virginia.  Of course, following the failure of the raid in October 1859, only his remains would return to his family.

Exact Transcriptions

Osawatomie, 11,th Jany, 1859.

Dear Wife & Children All

I have a spare moment barely
to tell you that I am in middling health but have not been able to
but have not been able to finish up my business as fast as I had hopes of doing when I wrote you
in Decem (2d) last.  You will I suppose get Kansas news through the
newspapers.  As to telling you where to write me I can only now
say as I said in my last "write John for me."  This I very much
regret: as I have great anxiety to hear from you.  I hope it will not
be so long.  May God Allmighty bless, & save you all.

Your Affectionate Husband & Father
John Brown

Osawatomie, Kans, 11,th Jany, 1859.

Dear Children all
I have but a moment on which to tell
you that I am in middling health; but have not been able to
tell you as yet where to write me.  This I hope will be dif
-ferent & soon.  I suppose you get Kansas news generally
through the papers. May God ever bless you all.
 Your Affectionate Father
John Brown

Sunday, January 05, 2014

"We Are Going Home and Soon Shall Be": Aaron Stevens Writes to John Brown's Daughter

By January 1860, all of John Brown's Harper's Ferry raiders held prisoner in Virginia had been executed except Aaron D. Stevens and Albert Hazlett, the latter having assumed the name, "William H. Harrison" at the time of his arrest. Historian Oswald Villard says he borrowed the name from abolitionist Richard Hinton (Brown's future biographer), who employed it as his nom de guerre in the battle against slavery.  Villard also gives some account of the hopeless effort to rescue the last surviving raiders in Virginia captivity, noting that Stevens and Hazlett were finally hanged on March 16, 1860.1
Aaron Dwight Stevens
During Stevens' incarceration, some interest was expressed to have handed Stevens over to the federal government for trial.  Brown's raid had been centered upon the federal armory and at first there was reason to believe that the Old Man and his raiders might be taken into the custody of the federal government and tried in a court of the United States.   According to the New York Tribune, President James Buchanan and Robert Ould, District Attorney for the District of Columbia, met on October 18, 1859, after Brown and his men had been taken by U.S. marines at Harper's Ferry.  The report notes the problem arising concerning jurisdiction, since Brown had invaded both the State of Virginia and federal property.  Ould was immediately dispatched to Harper's Ferry, where he met Governor Henry Wise, although he probably had a good idea of what to expect.  Even the Tribune reported: "Governor Wise will, it is said, claim the prisoners now held by the United States troops, to be dealt with according to the laws of Virginia."2
D.C. District Attorney, Robert Ould (left, closest to soldier)
stands with Governor Wise during the initial interrogation
of Brown and Stevens at Harper's Ferry on Oct. 18, 1859
(Frank Leslie's Illustrated News, 29 Oct. 1859)

Ould seems hardly to have put up a fight in the matter, for almost immediately Wise took complete control of matters, and Brown and his men--defeated on the grounds of a federal facility by federal troops, were summarily handed over to Virginia authorities as Ould humbly withdrew to Washington city.  According to another Tribune report, "Wise said to United States District Attorney Ould that he has no objection to the General Government proceeding against the prisoners--that is, what will be left of them by the time the Virginia authorities have done with them."3

Initially, some thought was given to handing over one of the raiders to federal jurisdiction.  According to Steven Lubet, raiders John Cook and Aaron Stevens were considered as possible offerings to the federal government.4  Some, like Alfred Barbour, the superintendent of the Harper's Ferry armory, were eager to see Cook hang on a Virginia noose, and so to let Stevens be handed over to the federal government.   Cook had lived in Virginia for nearly two years, married a local woman, and had won the trust of the entire community.  The revelation that he was one of the Harper's Ferry "insurrectionists" outraged local Virginians.  Barbour warned Governor Wise that the people of Harper's Ferry would “die” before seeing Cook removed from State jurisdiction, since he was “the greatest villain of the party.”5 
Governor Henry A. Wise
(Harper's Weekly, 20 Aug. 1859)

Ultimately, Cook was hanged in Virginia, leaving Aaron Stevens the only possible candidate for federal prosecution.  In December, following the executions of Brown and several of his men, Prosecutor Andrew Hunter was concerned after receiving a telegram from President Buchanan, asking if Stevens had been handed over to federal officers, or if he would be tried under Virginia law.   Hunter stalled, writing to the President that Stevens' case had not yet been determined.  Privately, Hunter informed Wise that he had refused to surrender Stevens to a federal marshal, but wanted the Governor and State Legislature to make a determination.  Wise responded to Hunter, stating that Stevens "definitively" should not be handed over to federal authorities, and expressed the belief that there was some political design to get Stevens' case moved to federal court.  "[Stevens] is the deepest felon in guilt of all," wrote Wise.  "He will not be delivered up with my consent."6  

In retrospect, it is clear that Governor Wise had no real intention of letting Brown and his captured raiders slip from the clutches of Virginia.  While he he may have entertained the possibility of placating President Buchanan and federal interests, Wise was more interested in using the raiders to find other accomplices and associates of Brown who might also be brought to slave master justice in Virginia.  Wise was clearly determined to see Stevens hang, and he was finally tried and executed in 1860.

On January 5, 1860, Stevens received a letter from Anne Brown, the daughter of his fallen leader.  Anne knew the raiders, having stayed with them and her father in their Maryland headquarters prior to the Harper's Ferry raid.  Later in life, Anne would remember Stevens as a "fine looking man" with a "fine soul within."  Besides having a fine voice for singing, she recalled that he was "an earnest good talker," cheerful, fun, and well-liked.  Stevens was, she wrote, "Happy himself in trying to make others happy."  Stevens' detractors have pointed out his insubordination as a soldier in the Mexican War, particularly the fact that he had attacked a superior officer and was sentenced to prison on the charge of mutiny.  Stevens must have told Anne the story from his perspective, telling her that he had struck an officer who was evil and abusive in temperament, and who was doing harm to another soldier.   This is probably true, since Stevens' record otherwise suggests, as Anne put it, he was "high minded, noble, and generous."7  Stevens was likely drawn to Brown's side precisely because they shared a common concern for the underdog, and shared a similar passion to intervene for the oppressed.

On January 5, 1860, Stevens wrote back to Anne:
Charlestown Jail, Va., Jan. 5/60   
My dear Sister Annie              
Your kind letter came to hand today and I will try and write you a few lines in return.  I am glad to see that you are so cheerful.  It is always best not to give up to sorrow and sadness.  I am quite cheerful and happy, never felt better in my life.  It made me feel rather sad to part with my companions, but I think they are in a better land and that is a great comfort to me.             
I was in the same room with your father.  He was very cheerful all the way through and appeared as happy on the morning of his execution as I ever saw him.  Watson was shot a half minute before me, this was Monday about eleven o'clock and he lived until Wednesday morning.  I had a very hard time of it for about four or five weeks, but I am as well as ever except my face is paralyzed [sic] on one side which prevents me from laughing on that Side and my jaw bone was thrown out of place and my teeth do not meet as they did before, which prevents me from chewing anything fine.             
The boys met their fate very cheerful.  I cannot tell when I shall be tried, but I think in two or three weeks.  I am very contented having plenty of reading matter through the kindness of Mrs. Spring and others.  Mr. Harrison is in the same room with me. We may never meet again here, but we will meet in the spirit land. Give my love to Martha and all the friends.             
Goodbye, yours for the good of all.  
A. D. Stevens8
As this letter shows, during Stevens' extended time in Charlestown jail, he had healed remarkably well from the five gunshot wounds he had sustained the previous October.   Writing in response to Anne's letter, Stevens notes that he had had "a very hard time of it" for several weeks following the defeat at Harper's Ferry.  Although he was much better, the wounds he sustained had left his face partially paralyzed and his jaw disjointed.

This letter also provides moving insights into Brown's final hours, which Stevens says were "cheerful" and "happy."  He also gives brief information about her brother Watson, who was mortally wounded at Harper's Ferry as well.  As far as the other raiders--Cook, Green, Coppoc, and Copeland, Stevens says it was sad to part with them, but anticipated seeing them "in a better land"--a reference to the spiritual realm.  Unlike Brown, Stevens was a Spiritualist and believed that he would meet Brown and the rest of his comrades in the "spirit land" following death.   Of course, the Old Man's ideas about the afterlife were evangelical by nature, including a resurrection hope.  Stevens' Spiritualism was more akin to the ancient Gnostics, who saw the spiritual realm as superior to and ultimately preferable as an afterlife existence. 

In the letter, Stevens also mentions fellow prisoner Hazlett ("Mr. Harrison"), who continued to use this pseudonym to no avail for his defense, and "Mrs. Spring."  The latter, Rebecca Buffum Spring, was the daughter of a famous Quaker antislavery figure and the wife of a New York businessman.  Spring had boldly ventured down to Charlestown in early November to minister to John Brown's needs; despite the hostility of local people, she persevered until gaining an audience with Brown and enjoyed two extended visits with him before returning to her estate in Perth Amboy, N.J.   After Brown's hanging, Spring became a kind of mother figure to Brown's incarcerated men, writing to them and encouraging them until their time of death.   (A considerable number of letters from Stevens to Spring are held in a number of archives.)

As his letter shows, finally, Stevens had not yet been tried in Virginia.  

At some point, Stevens (or so it seems) composed the following verse, which was kept along with a note that Brown had given him on the day of his execution.  It fairly well bespeaks the thoughts and beliefs of this noble twenty-eight-year-old antislavery soldier, the last of John Brown's men to die on a Virginia gallows.
We are going Home and soon shall be, 
Where the Sky is clear and all are free 
Where the long dark night of time is past 
And the Morn of Eternity dawns at last 
Where the weary Saint no more shall roam 
But dwell in a happy peaceful home 
Where the brow with sparkling gems is crowned 
And the waves of bliss are flowing around 
Oh! That Beautiful World 
Oh! That Beautiful World 9


     1 Oswald G. Villard, John Brown: A Biography 1800-1859 (Doubleday, Doran and; Company, 1929), 572-80.
     2  "The Question of Jurisdiction," New York Tribune, 19 Oct. 1859, p. 5. 
     3 "The Virginia Insurrection," New York Tribune, 20 Oct. 1859, p. 4.
     4 See Steven Lubet, John Brown's Spy: The Adventurous Life and Tragic Confession of John E. Cook (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012), ch. 8.
     5 Alfred M. Barbour to Wise, 7 Nov. 1859, in Henry Alexander Wise Family Papers (#16,888), Library of Congress, Wash. D.C.
     6 Andrew Hunter to Henry Wise, 15 Dec. 1859; Wise to Hunter, 18 Dec. 1859, both in Henry Alexander Wise Family Papers.
     7 Anne Brown Adams to Garibaldi Ross, 15 Dec. 1887, GLC 3007.03, in Gilder Lehrman Collection, New York Historical Society.
     8 Aaron Stevens to Anne Brown (trans.), Clarence Gee Collection, Hudson Library and Historical Society, Hudson, Ohio.
     9 Unsigned poem, probably by Aaron D. Stevens, GLC 7230.02, accompanying note given by John Brown to Stevens [GLC 7230.01], Gilder Lehrman Collection.