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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, December 26, 2014

John Brown’s Writing Case: Lost, Found, then Lost to History

Students of the Old Man are acquainted with his famous liberation effort that began in December 1858, when he and his men rescued eleven enslaved people from Missouri.  After evading marshals for weeks, Brown left the Kansas Territory with the liberated people, passing through Nebraska, Iowa, and finally reaching Chicago by March 11, 1859.  Brown escorted the liberated people to Detroit the following day by rail, and saw them off to Canadian freedom.  He remained in Detroit for a couple of days, and then spent a week in Cleveland and the Western Reserve in northeast Ohio, which was his home area.  

Brown returned to Cleveland at the end of the month (Mar. 28), and spent a couple of more weeks moving about Ohio before heading farther east, finally reaching New York State by mid-April.  At some point during this itinerary, Brown lost his writing case—a point of no small concern, since it was not only a valuable piece of property, but because it may also have contained correspondence he did not wish to have exposed.

Writing Cases, or Boxes

John Brown traveled with a "writing
case" similar to this one
Before chasing down this rabbit hole any farther, we might pause to inquire of the term, “writing case.”  This is how Brown referred to the item, which would have been a familiar thing in his time.  I did not make any extensive effort to research “writing cases,” but it is apparent that they were prominent among literate people in Europe and North America in the 18th and 19th centuries.   One English website I located online refers to them as “writing boxes,” and I’ve also seen them referred to as “writing slopes,” which speaks of the fold-out writing plane that was part of the typical writing case.  Evidently, they varied in size and quality, but were all essentially an extension of the home writing desk—perhaps in way parallel to how the desktop computer relates to the development of so-called laptop and then notebook computers, not to mention tablets and iPads.  Like our computers, the writing case could be used to store correspondence while the writer was traveling, and and they also had compartments for storing pen and ink.   I have no idea what kind of writing case that Brown owned, as it seems not to have survived.  Given that it accompanied him on a fairly rigorous and even daring trek, perhaps it was truly more of a case than a box.  It is significant, though, that Brown carried a writing case, as he undoubtedly needed a facility for drafting and storing communiqu├ęs in this most critical period leading up to the Harper’s Ferry raid in the fall of 1859.

From John Brown's Memorandum Book, noting he had written to
his sons to inquire of his lost writing case
On April 5, 1859, writing in the environs of northeast Ohio, Brown dashed off a letter to his son Owen, whom he had left behind in Akron with his other son, Jason.  The Old Man’s letter to Owen is not extant, although it is referenced in Brown’s 1859 memorandum book in which Brown listed his correspondence.   In this brief memorandum entry, Brown jots: “about writing case.”1   His letter must have had an urgent tone, although it seems to have taken Owen a frustratingly long time to get back to his father.    Evidently, Brown was generally annoyed with Owen for being so slack in his correspondence, so it must have galled him a bit more that his son took so long to get back to him about his writing case.

On May 2, nearly a month after Brown had written, Owen finally answered: “Dear Father Yours dated April 5th was recd several weeks since. . . .  We have not seen your writing case, which you say was lost, either at Chicago, or somewhere this side.”  Owen’s belated response at least reveals that Brown initially was unsure about where he had lost his writing case, thinking that he might have left it behind during his last stopover in Chicago (Mar. 11), or as Owen put it, “somewhere this side”—meaning between Chicago and Ohio.   Evidence of the Old Man’s annoyance is preserved perhaps in the brief notation dashed on the corner of the verso side, which contains an accompanying letter from son Jason.  Brown thus wrote curtly: “ Jason & Owen Brown Requires no reply.”2

Excerpt from Brown's letter to John H. Kagi, 16 April 1859,
with directions about the return of his writing case
            Not having heard from Owen, Brown wrote to his more reliable lieutenant, John H. Kagi, on April 16, from Westport, New York.  Westport was the landing for those crossing Lake Champlain from Vergennes, Vermont--suggesting that Brown probably returned to his family in North Elba, New York, by way of Boston, then proceeded northward to Vermont.  Writing from Westport, Brown wrote to Kagi, stating that he was awaiting his “conveyance,” a wagon or carriage, to bring him up the mountain to his family in North Elba.  In his letter to Kagi, he writes: “If you have found my writing case, & papers; please forward them without delay, by Express, to Henry Thompson, North Elba, Essex Co, care of Jas A Allen, Westport New York.”4
Another entry from John Brown's Memorandum Book,
noting his letter to John H. Kagi on 16 April 1859
            By the time that Owen’s belated letter reached Brown in New York State, the Old Man had likely gone back down to Boston, where he remained for a couple of weeks.  In the meantime, we know that Kagi had located and recovered Brown’s writing case and a “package of papers” in Cleveland, Ohio.  As it turns out, the Old Man had left them at the City Hotel.  Following his directives, Kagi sent the writing case and papers by express to the attention of Brown’s faithful son-in-law, Henry Thompson, at North Elba on April 21, to the attention of James Allen, agent of the U.S. Express Company, in Westport.  On the same day, Kagi wrote a letter to Thompson, informing him that the writing case and papers were en route, and included the shipping receipt.5
            It took John Brown about one month to acknowledge Kagi’s good work in the recovery of the case, mainly because the Old Man was moving among Boston friends, where he had remained for a number of weeks in preparing for the Harper’s Ferry raid.  Furthermore, Brown was not well, having relapsed with another bout of “the Ague.”   He had suffered periodically over the years with this prairie infirmity, but I suspect he had other ailments—the theme of which merits a study in itself.  Brown had ongoing difficulties with inflammation in his eyes, as well as problems in his ears.  It is hard to determine whether these issues were simply the result of the malarial “Ague,” or if other health issues were nagging him at the time.  But on May 16, he wrote back to Kagi stating that he had been “badly down with the ague” to the point that he could get nothing accomplished, and was still quite weak.  He was pleased, however, to learn from Henry Thompson that the writing case and papers were “all safe, so far as I now see.”6
            Thus the history of John Brown’s lost and found writing case.  Unfortunately, it appears that it was finally lost again—since he probably brought it with him to Maryland, and may even have had it with him when he rode into Harper’s Ferry in October 1859.  Whether he carried it with him in anticipation of starting his grand expedition of freedom in the South or left it behind in his Maryland farmhouse is not known.  Either way, it would have fallen into the hands of some groping Virginian, this time lost to history forever.--LD


     1 Second memorandum book, approx. page 53.  Brown’s memorandum books are held in the collection of the Boston Public Library.
     2  Owen Brown, Akron, Ohio, to John Brown, 2 May 1859, and undated letter from Jason Brown, verso side with John Brown's note.  This document was sold by Heritage Auctions (Dallas, TX) in the 2009 March Grand Format Rare Manuscripts Auction #6019.  Document was sold under “Autograph Docket 1859,” Lot 35061.  A somewhat unreliable transcript of Owen’s letter is No. 11, in Documents relative to the Harpers Ferry Invasion appended to Governor Wise's Message (Richmond: William F. Ritchie, 1859).  The same letter is transcribed in the so-called Mason Report, the Senate Select Committee on the Harper’s Ferry Raid (Washington, D.C.: June 1859), 70-71.
      3 John Brown, 16 April 1859, to John H. Kagi, in Dreer Collection, Historical Society of Pennsylvania.  See transcription in Sanborn, Life and Letters of John Brown, 522.
      4 John H. Kagi to Henry Thompson, 21 April 1859, GLC 7235, Gilder Lehrman Collection.

      5 John Brown, Boston, to John H. Kagi, 16 May 1859, in Dreer Collection, Historical Society of Pennsylvania.  See transcription in Sanborn, Life and Letters of John Brown, 522-23.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014


Artist Kyle Hackett's Moving Homage to the Augustus Washington Daguerreotype

Kyle Hackett is a young artist (born in 1989), but evidently gifted beyond his years.  This past June, the Washington Post reported that he won the ten thousand dollar "Best in Show" prize in the Bethesda Painting Awards, outdoing seven other finalists.  Hackett is a 2013 graduate in the Masters of Fine Arts from the Hoffberger School of Painting, Maryland Institute of Art.  According to the school's alumni page, "Hackett sees art as a ‘powerful instrument of social transformation.’ By understanding its history, he says, he can inspire others to understand differences in social, racial, and economic identities through his work."  Readers can and should visit the Kyle Hackett Studio here, and also the artist's facebook page.

I learned about Hackett because of his painting, After John Brown, an oil on aluminum portrait that presents an homage to John Brown's familiar 1840s "vow" daguerreotype, made by African American photographer, Augustus Washington.  In a recent article by John Seed in the Huffington Post arts and culture section (22 Dec.), Hackett's After John Brown is featured as one of the ten most memorable paintings from 2014.  The article quotes Hackett's own commentary on his work:
"This is a self-referential portrait. I recall the image of insurgent abolitionist, John Brown and his declaration of war on slavery. I made After Brown when my brother faced trial in court and was labeled as a young black male, despite being of mixed race. He was incarcerated. 
The pressed hand represents hope or a passage back into time that would allow me to participate and give a testimony. Out of desperation to be authentically heard, I broke the illusion of painting/underpainting with my handprint. I satirically indicate a touch of criminal identity (fingerprints) prosecution, inner-rage and the doubt of overcoming or defending race when marked brown on trial."
Journalist Seed nicely concludes: "The mark of the artist's hand serves as a signature and an accusation, giving this work both tremendous immediacy and a lingering sense of moral challenge."    

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Auction note--

A John Brown Pike on Auction

Historical Auctions (Dallas, Tex.), on 12 Dec. 2014, Civil War & Militaria Signature Auction #6131, Lot 47690 

John Brown Pike with Haft Cut to 3 1/2", ...

2014 December 12 Civil War & Militaria Signature Auction - Dallas #6131