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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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Wednesday, December 30, 2015

"So We Go": A Decade of Blogging John Brown the Abolitionist

I find it somewhat hard to believe that it has been ten years since I launched this blog, yet as I revisit the first entries here, I find that I made the initial two or three at the end of December 2005.  Many of my readers will undoubtedly share the same experience in asking, "where did ten years go?" Personally, when I launched this blog, my wife Michele was expecting our son Louis Michael. Today he is approaching his tenth birthday.  Along with that, I'm ten years older, and am beginning to feel it. Such is life, or as Brown would put it, "so we go."

This closing decade has been eventful for our study, and a good many books were published between 2005 and 2015.  Most notably published were David Reynolds' acclaimed cultural biography, John Brown Abolitionist (2005) and Tony Horwitz's much reviewed account of the Harper's Ferry raid, Midnight Rising (2009). Doubtless, the Reynolds and Horwitz books represent different readings of the historical record, although both books on John Brown received a great deal of attention and brought the Old Man's story into popular and academic conversations beyond the other books that have been published.

Other vital books were published, too, most notably, Brian McGinty's John Brown's Trial, which for me as a student of Brown preparing an extensive study of Brown's last days over the past few years proved my greatest help.  One or two other books, along with an article here and there, on the trial aspect of Brown's last days have been written in the past, but McGinty's book brought a fair and insightful perspective to bear, along with legal expertise, on the trial episode at Charlestown.  Two other major contributions to our study are made by Steven Lubet, another legal scholar and historian, who has given us two biographies of Brown's brave raiders, John Cook and John Copeland.  John Brown's Spy (2012) and The "Colored" Hero of Harper's Ferry (2015) provide insights long unexplored by students of this study, and much needed, lest we forget that the men who followed John Brown to Virginia and--in most cases--to death, did so as patriots of human freedom with their own worthy stories.   Students of the raiders may correct me on this point, but I think there is only one other biography of a Harper's Ferry raider, that being John Wayland's John Kagi and John Brown (1961).   Further efforts are needed to bring the lives of Brown's men (and sons) to light with greater detail.

By way of reference, two other books published this decade are important: Robert McGlone's John Brown's War Against Slavery (2013) and John Stauffer and Zoe Trodd's The Tribunal (2012).   McGlone's expansive work is technically a biography, but it's greatest offerings are as a kind of thematic reference work; the Stauffer and Trodd book likewise offers an abundance of documentary material that enrich our study.  I will say nothing other than this decade has also been productive for my own work, including my two most recent books, narrating and documenting Brown's last days as a prisoner in Virginia.

By way of readership, this John Brown the Abolitionist, A Biographer's Blog cannot boast a great following or great notoriety as prominent blogs go, but to date there have been over 360,000 page views from around the world.  This blog has not only been regularly visited by readers in The United States, but also from The United Kingdom, Ukraine, Germany, Belgium, France, Russia, Canada, Poland, Netherlands, South Korea, Taiwan, Australia, Brazil, China, and Mexico.

By way of writers, over the years, I've been fortunate to include submissions by a few key contributors: Jean Libby, a veteran researcher and the John Brown photographic aficionado; Grady Atwater, the administrator of the John Brown State Historic Site in Osawatomie, Kansas, and H. Scott Wolfe, the Historical Librarian for the Galena Public Library District and “staff historian” of Galena’s DeSoto House Hotel (Illinois’ oldest operating hotel).  Certainly I am grateful for the information and input they have provided over the years.  Like most amateur blogs, this one has had its gaps and downtime, but nevertheless it has stayed afloat in no small part due to the encouragement of friends like these and others in the study.

L. DeCaro Jr.
So that's it.  A new year is upon us and a decade of blogging is behind us.  I hope to continue the good work on the Old Man, and may do so, as the old song goes, "with a little help from my friends." If you've been a regular or even infrequent reader, I'd like to thank you for your interest.  Perhaps, like me, you share something of a sense of attachment to Old Brown.  He has that way with people--at least some people, although I tend to think they are the most discerning type of people as history goes.  Brown's admirers are not myriad like Lincoln's worshipful masses, but they are zealous and devoted to his legacy, not the least of which because they understand that it is Brown, not Lincoln, whose life and legacy provide the fullest understanding of the meaning of slavery and its horrible impact upon the United States.

To friends and readers, I wish you a happy and most prosperous new year.  Whatever happens in 2016, remember:

John Brown's body lies a mouldering in the grave, but his soul goes marching on.

Yours in truth,
L. DeCaro Jr.

Sunday, December 27, 2015


Recalling a Brave Man: Lubet on John Anthony Copeland, "The 'Colored' Hero of Harper's Ferry"

On the 16th of this month our esteemed associate, Steven Lubet, published a remembrance of Harper's Ferry raider, John A. Copeland, who was executed with three other of John Brown's raiders in Charlestown, [West] Virginia in 1859.  Lubet is Williams Memorial Professor and the Director of the Bartlit Center for Trial Advocacy, at the Northwestern Pritzker School of Law.  Among his other fascinating books involving law and history, Lubet's recent works on Brown's men have been wonderful contributions to our study.  The first of these, John Brown's Spy, is the first biography of John E. Cook (Yale Univ. Press, 2012), and The "Colored" Hero of Harper's Ferry, is another first, being the biography of John Anthony Copeland (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2015).   I had hoped that Lubet's piece on Copeland would have been accepted for publication on December 16 in some notable national publication, and am annoyed (but not entirely surprised) that the good liberal editors of these publications did not value the memory of Mr. Copeland and his sacrifice sufficiently, nor appreciate the contribution of one of our most important contributors to the John Brown bookshelf.  Notwithstanding this disappointment, I'm happy to have the privilege of reprinting Lubet's piece from The Faculty Lounge.  

Interestingly, Lubet's book was reviewed this month in another blog, Civil War News, by Wayne L. Wolf, Professor Emeritus at South Suburban College (South Holland, Ill.), and past president of the Lincoln-Davis Civil War Roundtable.  Wolf provided a fairly positive review of The "Colored" Hero, calling it "well written and historically sound."  However, Wolf concluded that "it displays an obvious bias toward Northern abolitionist thinking. It is recommended for those contending that slavery was the cause of the Civil War and that this militancy undid decades of compromise"! Obviously, Professor Wolf is among that mystified cadre of scholars who actually believe that the Civil War might have been evaded had the mythic wisdom of level-headed compromise prevailed.  In turn, Lubet makes an appreciative response on The Faculty Lounge (Dec. 22) which I've taken the liberty of reposting as well.  Lubet's kind rejoinder is quite well stated, and certainly shows the folly of the "failed compromise" school of thought.--LD

Steven Lubet (Dec. 16, 2015)
On this day in 1859, the Commonwealth of Virginia executed Shields Green and John Anthony Copeland, two black men who had joined John Brown’s fateful attempt to free the slaves of the southern states.  Although little noted in most history books, their sacrifice should be long remembered, even as our nation continues to struggle with slavery’s legacy of racism.
Shields Green was an escaped slave from South Carolina who had been introduced to Brown by Frederick Douglass.  During the Harper’s Ferry raid – which began on Sunday, October 16 and lasted for three days – Green had been assigned to guard Brown’s white hostages, which drew the special ire of slave masters.  One plantation owner railed at Green’s “impudence” in pointing a rifle at white men, and Virginia’s governor called Green a “coward,” although in fact he had declined an opportunity to escape and had instead remained bravely at Brown’s side until they were both captured by troops under the command of Col. Robert E. Lee.
John Anthony Copeland had been born free in North Carolina, but had moved with his family Oberlin, Ohio, when he was a child.  Oberlin was the most abolitionist-minded community in the United States during the antebellum era, and Copeland had grown up in the anti-slavery movement.  He had been a leader of the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue of 1858, in which he had literally wrested a runaway from the clutches of slave catchers, and he had afterward escorted the fugitive to freedom in Canada.
Copeland had been recruited to the abolitionist army by John Brown, Jr., who had traveled to Oberlin the previous summer on his father’s behalf.  Arriving at Brown’s headquarters on Thursday, October 13, he scarcely had time to meet his new comrades – who numbered only 21, including Brown and three of his sons – before the historic attack on slavery began late on Sunday night.
Brown’s march into unsuspecting Harper’s Ferry was initially successful, as his men were quickly able to take control of the federal arsenal and armory.  Copeland and two others were sent to capture a nearby rifle factory, which they accomplished with ease.  Soon, however, the town awakened, as church bells rang the alarm.  Brown and his men were surrounded by the local militia, who rained fire down upon the abolitionist positions.  Ten of Brown’s men were killed in the fighting, but Brown and Green were taken alive.
Meanwhile, Copeland and his comrades staved off repeated militia attacks on their redoubt in the rifle factory.  After the seventh assault, they realized that their position was hopeless and fled through the rear entrance.  The other two men were shot and killed while attempting to cross the Shenandoah River.  Copeland, too, waded into the river, but he was cornered by the militia and surrendered when his dampened pistol would not fire.
The prisoners were brought to nearby Charlestown, to await trial before a Virginia court.  Brown was tried first and quickly convicted and condemned to death, although his inspiring speech at sentencing succeeding in stirring abolitionist sentiment across the North.  Green and Copeland were tried shortly afterward.  Their attorney, a Boston abolitionist named George Sennott, raised a remarkable defense that condemned the institution of slavery – but to no avail.  Both black men were convicted and sentenced to hang.
Brown was executed on December 2, leaving behind a prophetic note in which he predicted that “the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood.”
Green and Copeland faced hanging two weeks later.  Interviewed by reporters on execution day, Copeland sent word to his friends and family in the North.  “If I am dying for freedom,” he said, “I could not die in a better cause – I would rather die than be a slave.”
The two African-Americans were taken to the gallows in an open wagon.  Once on the scaffold, Copeland attempted to address the crowd.  The privilege of a final statement was routinely granted to condemned men in the nineteenth century, but the Virginians would not let Copeland deliver another denunciation of slavery.  The hangman choked off his speech, pulling a hood over his head and tightening the noose.  The trap was sprung and the two  "colored heroes" of Harper's Ferry were hurled into eternity.
Copeland’s family had gathered together for prayer on hanging day.  Following a Bible reading, Copeland’s mother turned toward her husband and children.  “If it could be the means of destroying slavery,” she said, “I would willingly give up all my men-folks.”
Slavery was indeed destroyed by the coming Civil War, sparked in no small part by the actions of Brown, Green, and Copeland.  It is altogether fitting and proper that we should recall the brave men who, to paraphrase Lincoln, gave the last full measure of devotion in the battle for freedom.-Steven Lubet

My Abolitionist Bias

Steven Lubet (Dec. 22, 2015)

In an otherwise very favorable review of my book, The "Colored" Hero of Harper's Ferry, Wayne Wolf concludes that it “displays an obvious bias toward Northern abolitionist thinking.”  Well, yes, I suppose that it does, in the sense that John Anthony Copeland was an African-American abolitionist who sacrificed his life in an attempt to free slaves in Virginia.
Wolf, whose review appeared in Civil War News, evidently belongs to the “failed compromise” school of antebellum history, which holds that the Civil War was not brought about by an “irrepressible conflict,” as Lincoln put it, but was instead  a tragic blunder that could and should have been avoided.  As he writes in the review, “Support for forceful abolition of slavery quashed any hope that moderation or compromise could avert war.”
“Compromise,” however, would have meant the perpetuation of slavery for another decade or longer – meaning that 4 million Americans would have been subjected to a further lifetime of forced labor, torture, and family separation.  The Constitution itself had been a compromise with slavery.  The next compromise came in 1820, with the admission of Missouri as a slave state, after which the southerners kept pressing to strengthen and expand the institution into territories where it had been prohibited (including plots to annex Cuba, and perhaps even Nicaragua).  Then came the “Compromise of 1850,” which required northern complicity in the Fugitive Slave Act.  And then came the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which extended slavery across the Missouri River.  From 1790 to 1860, the number of  enslaved persons in the United States quintupled.
Wolf writes that “The South viewed war as its only option, and abolitionists agreed,” but of course there was another option.  The southerners could have freed their slaves – which is something they refused to do even in early 1865, when Lincoln met with Confederate officials at Hampton Roads and offered them compensated emancipation in lieu of the certainty of military defeat.
Despite our differences in outlook, Wolf was very generous in his review, fully summarizing the details of Copeland’s life and praising Colored Hero as “well written and historically sound.”  His concluding sentence is also quite accurate, though perhaps not in the way that he intended.  Colored Hero, he writes, “is recommended for those contending that slavery was the cause of the Civil War and that this militancy undid decades of compromise.”
[Note to those who think I am too partisan:  The heroes in my three Civil War books were mostly Republicans, and many of them were Evangelicals.]--Steven Lubet

Monday, December 14, 2015

Seasons Greetings--
It’s In the Cards: The Fruits of Cleanliness

H. Scott Wolfe

I was lounging about the house the other day, eagerly anticipating the arrival of the folks from Publisher’s Clearing House, with their clusters of gaily-colored balloons and the giant cashier’s check which would financially allow me to lounge about somewhere else. When they (for some reason) did not arrive, I was compelled to invent some other means of occupying my precious time. So I decided, in order to beat the seasonal rush, to do some “spring cleaning” in December.

After renting a steam shovel and two dump trucks, I vigorously attacked one of my desk drawers. While the sundry arachnids scattered to other unseen places, I began to excavate the various strata with pick and gad. At approximately the seven-inch level, I unearthed a yellow envelope, which I had deposited there during some remote geological period. Printed upon it were the words: “Nichols Drug Store, Next to Post Offices, Charles Town, West Va. - Harpers Ferry, West Va.,” along with a promise to “give the Sick the best possible service.”

Within the envelope I discovered seven colorized postcards, all relating to John Brown and Harpers Ferry, one of them hand-dated to February of 1911. It suddenly dawned upon me that this collection had been presented to me by that very Virginia friend and devoted Brownophobe whom I mentioned in my prior posting. Apparently terrified that his next-door neighbors would accuse him of being an abolitionist, he quickly removed the postcards from his premises by giving them to a resident of the Free States (i.e. yours truly). 

I spoke to my friend just the other day...(He is presently sampling every barbeque joint in the State of North Carolina.)...and I am sure that he would not oppose sharing these images with the readers of this blog. As a frequent visitor at Harpers Ferry, I personally find them of great interest as “period pieces” of the days before the creation of the present-day National Historic Site.

The images therefore follow:

One: “John Brown’s Fort, Harpers Ferry, W. Va.”

Two: “Shenandoah Street, Harpers Ferry, W. Va.”

Three: “Looking Toward the Gap from Jefferson Rock, Harpers Ferry, W. Va.”  With the additional inscription on the verso: “The view shown commands one of the most awe-inspiring scenes one ever beheld. Thomas Jefferson, standing on Jefferson Rock, said: ‘This view is worth a trip across the Atlantic.’”

Four: “John Brown’s Monument and War Tablet, Harpers Ferry, W. Va.” With the additional inscription on the verso: “The John Brown Monument, erected by the B. & O. R.R., marks the spot where the fort stood during the Brown Raid. The war tablets give a complete history of the Civil War as was fought around Harpers Ferry.”

Five: “John Brown’s Fort, Harpers Ferry, W. Va.” With the additional inscription on the verso: “John Brown’s Fort, now located on the Storer College Campus, is used as a library and museum. It was in this building that Brown and his followers took refuge after his attack on Harpers Ferry, October 16, 1859, and remained there until compelled to surrender to the U.S. Marines under the command of Lt. Robert E. Lee.”

Six: “St. Peter’s Catholic Church, Harpers Ferry, W. Va.”

Seven: “Jefferson Rock, Harpers Ferry, W. Va.” With the additional inscription on the verso: “Jefferson Rock is named in honor of Thomas Jefferson. It was on this rock that Jefferson wrote and completed his ‘Notes on Virginia,’ and an extract from the same says: ‘A view from this point is worth a trip across the Atlantic.’”

Now there may be some stretchers in those captions, e.g. Tom Jefferson writing his book on the rock. But what would a John Brown article be without a few stretchers? That’s what keeps our beloved blogmaster meaningfully employed!

Happy Holidays!--HSW

Tuesday, December 08, 2015

Book Excerpt--
Burying John Brown, December 8, 1859

Although Mary Brown had reached her home state, the trek back to North Elba was yet a journey of several days and many miles, including the difficult mountain roads that would bring the old man’s body back to his humble farm in North Elba. Escorted by McKim and Phillips, she traveled northward by rail to Troy, New York, then Rutland and Vergennes, Vermont. Throughout the journey, she met well-wishers, white and black, all wanting to shake the hand of John Brown’s widow. Near Vergennes, the coffin was escorted onto an old sail ferry that took them across Lake Champlain to Westport, New York. Before crossing the lake, Mary sent a message ahead to North Elba, “to apprise the family of the approach of the remains.”
John Brown in his coffin before burial, NY Illustrated News, Dec. 17, 1859

From Westport, Mary and the humble funeral cortege traveled to Elizabethtown, the county seat, where they remained overnight. Under the direction of the Essex county sheriff, Brown’s coffin was placed in the courthouse under guard, where people from the community also gathered to hear reports from McKim and Phillips.

Brown's funeral cortege arrives home, Dec. 7
NY Illustrated News, Dec. 24, 1859
From Elizabethtown, the party faced the most difficult traveling of the journey, following a winding mountain road, with its eerie dark canopy of Adirondack forest. To make matters worse, heavy rains had caused the snow to melt, forcing travelers to use carriages instead of sleighs. Weary and frustrated, they were now beset by deep mud and an increasingly steep and challenging road. “The roads were so bad as to be almost impassable,” wrote the New York Tribune correspondent.

After a brief reception by Phineas Norton in nearby Keene, they slowly climbed the mountain pass, ascending until they reached the Brown farm at sunset, being quietly received amidst glowing lanterns. Mary was greeted by weeping daughters and daughters-in-law, along with the rest of her grieving family. The outpouring of grief deeply moved the Tribune correspondent, who wrote that it was “a scene entirely beyond description.” However, emotion shortly “was put under restraint” so that McKim could provide them with a full report of all the events that had transpired since their mother’s departure for the South. The old man’s remains were carried into the house and brought upstairs, the coffin being set in the open second floor for the night.
Rev. Joshua Young
NY Illustrated News
Dec. 24, 1859

The following day, Thursday, December 8, the funeral began at one o’clock in the afternoon, beginning with the singing of Brown’s favorite hymn, “Blow ye the Trumpet,” an 18th century Methodist invocation of the theme of the Year of Jubilee from the Hebrew scriptures. Next the eulogy was given by the Reverend Joshua Young of Burlington, Vermont, which the Tribune correspondent called “a spontaneous offering.” Religiously speaking, Brown’s first choice would not have entailed having a Unitarian minister perform his funeral service. However, the family had no evangelical clergyman in the immediate vicinity—at least, not one willing to comfort the Browns and face the inevitable conservative backlash. In fact, Young had traveled all night with an associate just to be present at the burial, and had no expectation of being pressed into service. . . .

Wendell Phillips
NY Illustrated News,
Dec. 24, 1859
After Young’s prayer, McKim spoke, acknowledging that although he had never looked upon John Brown’s face “till it was cold in death,” he had come to know the old man through the developments of the recent weeks and now felt honored to stand under his roof. Speaking to Brown’s grieving children, he declared that their fallen father and brothers “not only died bravely, but they died usefully; they were all benefactors; they were all martyrs in a holy cause.” The old man had made a great impact, McKim declared, so that even one of the staunchest proslavery officers at Charlestown had come to him secretly, begging that he might somehow obtain some memento of Brown, which he would “greatly value.”

Wendell Phillips stood to speak, declaring that John Brown had abolished slavery in Virginia. “You may say this is too much,” Phillips continued. But the old man had “loosened the roots of the Slave system,” the way a tempest might uproot a great tree. The fallen tree might remain green for months or even years, just as the slave may yet remain on the plantation. However, slavery would now struggle in dying breath, for John Brown had proved that “a Slave State is only Fear in the mask of Despotism.” Now, the old man could sleep “in the blessings of the crushed and the poor, and men believe more firmly in virtue, now that such a man has lived.” Another hymn was sung, during which the coffin was brought outside and placed on a table near the door, the top part of the casket opened for viewing. The face seemed still “almost as natural as life—far more so than an ordinary corpse,” wrote the Tribune correspondent. Like the fallen tree of slavery, the sign of life still appeared on the fallen old man too. Slowly, friends, and then family, came to bid farewell to John Brown.

Brown's coffin is lowered into the grave, NY Illustrated News, Dec. 24, 1859
As the coffin was lowered into the grave, the family’s grief poured forth, and the young minister stood up, raising “his deep and mellow voice” in the words of Saint Paul, “I have fought the good fight; I have kept the faith; henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me; and not to me only, but unto all that love his appearing.”
Brown's grave, lying a short distance
from the great rock that he loved
NY Illustrated News
Dec. 24, 1859

. . . . The funeral was over by three o’clock in the afternoon, and the guests were eager to depart for home, hoping to go as far as possible before dark, although McKim and Phillips only reached Keene by nightfall. The following day, they made their way down to Westport, crossing back over the lake, but remained one more night in Vermont before returning home.

. . . . John Brown’s family was now left alone to invent a new life without him. Outside the small farmhouse, about fifty feet from the door there stood a large boulder, some ten or twelve feet high, of granite formation. Brown loved this great rock and left instructions that he should be buried next to it, thus pairing his grandfather’s memorial stone with the Almighty’s granite monument to the ages. Two years after the Civil War, a journalist for the New York Times would stand between John Brown’s gravestone and the great boulder, pondering the relationship of one to the other. “Was this rock placed here purposely as a monument for the one who alone and silently lies at its base?”

This excerpt is taken from Louis DeCaro Jr., Freedom's Dawn: The Last Days of John Brown in Virginia (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers), Chapter 18.

Monday, December 07, 2015

For Sale--
1859 Broadside: "He Being Dead Yet Speaketh" On Sale Tomorrow (12/8)

Lot 615: Broadside, John Brown, "He being dead yet speaketh", Boston (1859), single sheet broadside issued by S O Thayer.
Auction House
Auction Title
Auction Date
December 8, 2015, 11:00 AM EST
One Hillman Drive

Chadds Ford, PA, 19317 USA

Phone: 610.558.1800
Fax: 610-558-0885
Email: info@williambunchauctions.com

Tuesday, December 01, 2015


"Tomorrow I Shall See God": John Brown's Last Day, 156 Years Ago Today

In 1859, December 1--John Brown's last day of life--fell on a Thursday. By all accounts, his last day was extremely busy as he labored strenuously to complete letters that had come to him in jail in the last few days of his life. Many people wrote to Brown--admirers, haters, old friends and family, former business associates, cranks, nut jobs, clergy, Quakers, Spiritualists, children, and many more autograph seekers whose letters he ultimately chose to burn because he could not answer all of them. While a good many letters to Brown have been preserved or published, the bulk of them did not survive. Yet we know that letters poured in, testifying to the impact that Brown had had upon the nation.

In the first part of the day, Brown busied himself writing, as he now anticipated spending as much time as possible when his wife Mary arrived in the afternoon. One letter was interestingly written to a woman named Harriet Randall, whom he had known since his boyhood in Hudson, Ohio. Brown received her letter and responded with the heading, "Charlestown, Prison, Jefferson Co. Va. 1,st Dec. 1859."

My Very Dear friend 
I can only say one word to
Your most kind letter of the 28th Nov.  I trust God is
 With me: “in very deed”. May he ever be with you: &
 all yours.  
Your Friend

John Brown

Another letter that he answered was to an old friend in Pennsylvania named James Foreman, his former employee and protege dating back to the late 1820s and 30s. Foreman remembered Brown as a young husband and father, helped him and his children when he was widowed, and credited Brown with teaching him everything he had learned. Brown responded:

I have only time to say I got your kind letter of the 26th Nov this evening. Am very grateful for all the good feeling expressed by yourself and wife. May God abundantly bless and save you all. I am very cheerful, in hopes of entering on a better state of existence in a few hours, through infinite grace in “Christ Jesus my Lord.” Remember “the poor that cry,” and “them that are in bonds as bound with them.”  

Your friend as ever,
John Brown
Mary Brown, escorted in her carriage by the Montgomery Guard, arrives 
in Charlestown on Thur., Dec. 1, 1859.  Frank Leslie’s Illustrated News, Dec. 17, 1859.
Brown wrote other things, before and after Mary's visit, including another letter to his brother Jeremiah, including something of a property will, delegating personal items to his sons. "I would write to all my friends," Brown closed, "but cannot. Am quite cheerful, & composed."

In the afternoon, Mary arrived by stage from Harper's Ferry, where she was staying in a hotel under heavy surveillance, along with some northern associates that were banned from coming to Charlestown. The humble wife was strip-searched, apparently because authorities were afraid she would smuggle poison to her husband to commit suicide--depriving them of their moment of revenge.
When she was finally admitted to his cell, she fell upon him with a long embrace, weeping on his shoulder.
John and Mary Brown at first meeting in
his jail cell. Frank Leslie's Illustrated
, Dec. 17, 1859.
She had married him, a 32-year-old widower, when she was little more than 17-years of age, and had traveled the sharp ups and downs of marriage for twenty-six years, bearing many of his children and suffering his losses and disappointments faithfully and quietly. She didn't even like living in the Adirondacks, but she had agreed to live there because she too believed in her husband's vision for the fledgling black colony that had arisen there. She would spend several more years in Essex County, then make a struggled sojourn to the west coast in 1864, where she would live out her days, the wife of the most controversial and misunderstood man of the 19th century.

The jailer allowed John and Mary to retreat to his parlor, where they were served dinner without utensils--once more because authorities believed he would take a knife or fork for some desperate purpose. But this was not John Brown's way. He spent the several hours permitted them by discussing the future of their children's education, his burial and other details. Then, when the presiding officer would permit no more time, Mary restrained her tears long enough to exit the jail. He had not seen his wife since June 1859. It was now December 1. He would never see her again, in this life.

A last meal together in the jailer’s residence 
on the evening of December 1, 1859.  
New York Illustrated News, Dec. 17, 1859. 

Back in his cell, Brown wrote a letter that has survived only in fragmentary form. It is not clear that he wrote before or after he saw Mary, but it was written on December 1, and part of it was reported in a west coast newspaper many years later, after a journalist saw it among the papers of one of Brown's daughters:
Today is my last day upon Earth. Tomorrow I shall see God. I have no fear, I am not afraid to die. And I can say the words of our blessed Saviour: "Father, forgive them: they know not what they do. . . ."

Monday, November 23, 2015

Holy Days--
Thanksgiving, 1859

"[In 1859, while John Brown was still a prisoner in Virginia awaiting his hanging,] November 24 marked Thanksgiving Day in twenty-seven states of the union, including Brown’s birth state of Connecticut and his adopted home state of New York.  Neither Ohio, the place of his formative years, nor Virginia, his captor, observed the holiday on this date--although apparently some towns like Fredericksburg and Norfolk chose to join in the observance."

Excerpted from Freedom's Dawn: The Last Days of John Brown in Virginia  

Saturday, November 14, 2015

 On this Date in 1859--
An Advertisement for Mr. Redpath's Biography in the New York Tribune, Nov. 1859

Although the The Public Life of Capt. John Brown by James Redpath was published in 1860, after the abolitionist's death, it was a work already in progress while the Old Man was awaiting execution in Virginia, in November 1859.  At the time, Redpath was not the only one interested in doing a John Brown biography, since abolitionist author, Lydia Maria Child also had designs on the same project. While both Child and Redpath intended to use the opportunity as a means of supporting Brown's family, the Brown family preferred Redpath, whose book was published by the Boston firm of Thayer and Eldridge to great acclaim.1

This ad, headed by "Wait and Get the Best," appeared on November 14, 1859 (p. 1) in Horace Greeley's New York Tribune, promising a "full account" of Brown's life and a "splendid" engraving of the "Brave Old Man."  The ad seems mainly to have been intended to diminish one or two newspaper compilation efforts, neither of which were intended to aid the Brown family.

Most prominent in this regard was the booklet produced by New York publisher, Robert M. DeWitt, entitled, The Life, Trial, and Execution of Captain John Brown, which actually was published in late 1859, before the release of Redpath's book.  The other effort was produced by Boston publisher, Robert Campbell, entitled, The John Brown Invasion: An Authentic History of the Harper's Ferry Tragedy, published in 1860. Redpath's ad in the Tribune in November 1859 was evidently intended to undermine DeWitt, but he probably had his eye on both rivals.  "Therefore," goes the ad, "do not waste your money on a "pamphlet compilation from the newspapers, but wait and get a genuine Life of Brown, which will do justice to the subject."

As the last days of John Brown passed, Redpath busily engaged himself in collecting letters and information for his book.  On November 30, the Tribune reported Redpath's work continued, and that he "urgently requested that a copy of all communications received from [Brown], as well as of the letters to which they were an answer, should be printed or sent to the undersigned, who has the matter in charge."2  On the day of Brown's hanging, Redpath wrote from Malden, Massachusetts, once more to the Tribune.  It seems that Mary Brown had complained that the New York Herald had published a letter from Brown to his family which they had never received, and believed the letter had been stolen from the mails.  Redpath asked the thieves to forward it to the widow on pain of being traced and exposed.3  Whether or not the letter was stolen, or if stolen it was recovered, is not clear.

In 1860, Redpath's biography was published to great acclaim and controversy, respectively, from Brown's admirers and detractors.  But as John McKivigan observes, it was a best seller that defined biographical writing on Brown for decades to come.4  It was followed the same year by Redpath's tribute volume,  Echoes of Harper's Ferry, which contains letters to Brown, as well as other writings in tribute to the martyred abolitionist, likewise published by Thayer and Eldridge of Boston.  Redpath is remembered as Brown's first and most influential propagandist.  Detractors, then and in subsequent years, have charged the "Roving Editor" with producing a panegyric and legend.  However, Redpath preserved primary sources and wrote from a personal perspective that would otherwise have been lost had he not produced these works.  In the long run, too, Brown's detractors have largely failed to present him fairly, instead erring on the side of misrepresentation.  In my opinion, today's students of Brown are better off having Redpath's work than much of what was written about him in the 20th century.

1 On December 1, 1859, Redpath wrote to the Tribune: “[Child] had been advised to write it, but does not now at least propose to do so, and has kindly yielded to me her claim to the use of ‘the facts and incidents of John Brown’s earlier history."  James Redpath, "John Brown and G. W. Brown," New York Tribune, 7 Dec. 1859, p. 3.  For more on the Lydia Maria Child episode, see Bonnie Laughlin-Schultz, The Tie That Bound Us: The Women of John Brown's Family and the Legacy of Radical Abolitionism (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 2013), 79-80.  Also see my books, Freedom's Dawn: The Last Days of John Brown in Virginia, pp. 134-35, and John Brown Speaks: Letters and Statements from Charlestown Jail, pp. 10-12 (both Rowman & Littlefield, 2015).

2 “John Brown’s Correspondence,” New York Tribune, 30 Nov. 1859, p. 6.

“Various Items.  To the Editor of The N.Y. Tribune,” New York Tribune, 27 Dec. 1859, p. 7.

4 John R. McKivigan, Forgotten Firebrand: James Redpath and the Making of Nineteenth-Century America (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 2008), p. 54.

Saturday, November 07, 2015

Serenading a Historical Double Standard

Award winning author and
musician, James McBride
According to Brian McElhiney of the Bend Bulletin, Bend Oregon, the talented and award winning musician and author, James McBride, will bring his band to that city for a performance tomorrow (Nov. 8)— a performance that interestingly blends readings from his John Brown novel, The Good Lord Bird, with music by a kind of concept band, The Good Lord Gospel Band. As McBride describes it, this band plays neither jazz nor R&B, but rather an eclectic offering of gospel and spirituals in order to highlight readings from The Good Lord Bird, which won the National Book Award in 2013.  “[W]hen I bring the band with me,” McBride said, “I use the music to contrast the words, to color the words, to highlight the dramatic points in the story. So I would expect that’s what people can expect. Sometimes I go off-book, so to speak, and do impromptu remarks regarding this, that, usually the writing experience or something like that. Generally I try to contain my remarks to what’s pertinent with the music, the music sort of element of 'The Good Lord Bird' story and whatever we can learn from it, if that makes any sense.”

Laughing at History

McBride describes his motivation for The Good Lord Bird as essentially to have fun with—and make fun of—history.  The story is centered on a young enslaved black boy named Henry Shackleford, who ends up following John Brown—except that he does so most of the time wearing a dress, leading the abolitionist to mistake him for a girl. Although McBride’s intentions clearly are not malicious, it does seem he makes the whole story of Brown and other leading figures in the antislavery movement into something of a historical burlesque.  I’ve not read the book myself—I don’t generally read fiction about Brown, but my impression is that the figure who gets the worst of the deal in The Good Lord Bird is the abolitionist Frederick Douglass.

McBride told his interviewer that “some people didn’t like” his treatment of Douglass, which I’m told involves portraying the brilliant orator as a lecher. Douglass certainly was something of a lady’s man in his prime, but it does seem gratuitously abusive to portray him as attempting to seduce a young slave girl, especially one who actually is a boy.  Still, the whole point for McBride is fun.  “I’m a funny guy. I enjoy humor,” he told McElhiney. “I enjoy laughing, I enjoy making people laugh. And also, I think people who have suffered tremendously who have the ability to laugh at it, it makes them stronger and makes them live longer, and it helps to absorb difficult truths.”
Douglass--The Brunt of the
joke in The Good Lord Bird

History and Fiction

Obviously, McBride has a point.  Historical figures are not deities, and there is plenty of room in history for satire and fun—if one does it correctly, I suppose.  However, it seems to me that the best approach to historical fiction is to construct fictive characters that move around and interact within a reasonably sound historical narrative.  It certainly demands more of the novelist to do this because it means grounding one's self in evidence and research, and then constructing a fictional narrative.  In so doing,  the characters service the novel while still respecting a defensible reading of historical times and people.  With such a commitment to history the writer will be more inclined to respect the lives and stories of real persons without distortion.

In this so-called “postmodern” era, however, it seems more likely that novelists will disregard facts, going far beyond the idea of creating fictional characters that are interwoven into the facts of history. Since at least radical postmoderns seem to claim there is no fixed meaning in either history or text, it is more likely that writers will feel comfortable rewriting real stories to suit their imaginations and prejudices.   While McBride has done this somewhat,  I doubt any scholar of Brown or Douglass would consider his work the worst case.

Quite in contrast, Bruce Olds produced an atrocious work of postmodern historical slander in his John Brown novel, Raising Holy Hell (1996).  If I recall from hearing Olds defend his magnum odious shortly after its publication, he appealed to postmodernity for his license to do what he did to Brown--which was to skew and malign him.  Fortunately, Olds’ malignant fiction was quite overshadowed by the success of Russell Banks' novel, Cloudsplitter (1998).  While I’m hardly a big fan of Cloudsplitter, at least Banks is far more appreciative of the historical record (although he too misrepresents real historical figures for the sake of his fictional mandate, especially Brown’s son Owen).

A Religious Man

Of course, there’s no reason to think that McBride had any ill intent. Certainly, with regard to Brown, he clearly appreciates the Old Man’s religiosity, something needed in many sections of this so called “secular” culture. McBride thus told his interviewer that John Brown
was a very reflective, Judeo-Christian person, and it seemed to me that a lot of what he represented or tried to represent was, in addition to being very religious in nature, it was also very deep in that he was driven by this deep sense of religious purpose that really was probably too deep. But I understand that having grown up in the church. I want people to understand the power of religion when they hear John Brown’s story, because otherwise, he comes off as a kind of a fanatic, and he’s been treated that way historically as well. I think if people understand a little bit the power of religion — and a lot of that is communicated in the music — it helps to explain his religious zealotry.
This is a very thoughtful observation on McBride’s part, and it is something that he further connects to issues of race.  In recounting Brown’s story, he says, one is really talking about race.  In turn, ”when you boil it down, it’s really about humanity. But it’s hard to get people to accept that and look beyond their boundaries, but if you can make them laugh, it’s a little easier to push past the boundaries when laughter’s involved, and irony, which is laughter’s cousin.”

So What?

McBride evidently thinks that because there are many books about John Brown, Frederick Douglass, and racism, the use of humor serves as a better means of addressing the issue, and doesn’t care if The Good Lord Bird offends some readers.  “Look, so what?” he told his interviewer. “If you’re gonna be offended by it, it’s not the book for you to read. I’ve kind of had my fill of these ‘you better take your medicine’ type books. I don’t think they really push the discourse in the direction that it needs to go on a wider level.”  As far as books on Brown goes, McBride concludes that there are already a lot of books on Brown, and even the inaccurate ones “are very well written.”
Should Distortions of Brown
Be Taken So Lightly?

Even taking for granted that artists sometimes take their work too seriously, this is not where lies my biggest gripe with McBride, if I can said to have one.  To me, it is not merely that he wrote a novel about Brown, or  even that he made sport of the Old Man, going beyond the record of history.  Certainly if someone is going to play with Brown’s image in history, I would rather have someone like McBride doing so.

What bothers me is what comes out toward the end of the interview.  McBride knows enough to acknowledge that despite the various historical readings of Brown (including the bad ones that are well written), “still few people really understand who [Brown] was or even who he was.”   These are his words.  He knows that John Brown widely misunderstood in our culture, and that many others know nothing about him. But if this is true, why then does he take the art of representing the abolitionist so lightly?  Should anyone who ostensibly cares about the struggle for justice take distortions of John Brown so lightly?

A Tale of Two Browns

This becomes more pointed at the end of the same interview, when McBride reveals that he is putting finishing touches on a non-fiction work about R&B giant James Brown, which is due out in April 2016.  “It’s not like the John Brown book,” McBride stated.  “The James Brown book just dropped into my lap, and it came at a time when I was available and thought that I could help straighten out some of the history in his life in terms of how he’s perceived publicly. And in many ways, his life is a metaphor for where we are today in terms of how we see each other.”

When it comes to writing about a soul singer, has McBride now become the historian with a burden for truth and clarity?

When I read these words, I said to myself, “Wow.”  In McBride's first book about a man named Brown, he poked fun and used humor supposedly in order to get people to think differently about the much misrepresented abolitionist.    Yet when it comes to writing about a soul singer, has McBride now become the historian with a burden for truth and clarity?   Apparently, for McBride, it is James--not John--Brown who merits the “straightening out” of the record, and the balancing of public perception.  It is James Brown who is McBride’s “metaphor for where we are today in terms of how we see each other.”

I wonder why McBride did not just write a novel about James Brown too.  Would this not make the legendary soul singer more understandable?  By creating a humorous, fictional narrative of James Brown, would this not also make his “metaphor” come alive for the reader?  As one who has labored for years to “straighten out some of the history” in John Brown’s life “in terms of how he’s perceived publicly,” I would have preferred that McBride would have had the same regard for him as he now apparently does for James Brown.—LD

Source: Brian McElhiney, “James McBride: Joking About John Brown, Serious About James Brown.” The Bend Bulletin [Bend, Or.] online, 7 Nov. 2015

Friday, October 30, 2015


John Brown's Birthplace in China!!

by H. Scott Wolfe

I have a good buddy who, though born and reared in the Midwest, resides within the confines of the Commonwealth of Virginia. A truly gifted historical investigator, he has, however, absorbed a Southern mindset in regard to John Brown...which impels him to continually tease yours truly for my passionate devotion to researching “The Old Man.” To this friend, the “terrorist” Brown is fully responsible for nearly all societal ills, ranging from global warming...to Congressional dysfunction...to market fluctuations within the Bolivian economy. And he is sure that, should I continue upon this misguided course, my ultimate destination will be The Everlasting Tropics. It is therefore truly ironic that it was while my friend and I were strolling together at an antique show, that I purchased my first piece of John Brown souvenir china. 

It was deep within the enemy’s country, in Chantilly, Virginia, that I spotted a creamy-white porcelain dessert plate...decorated with the familiar image (based upon a photograph) of Brown’s birthplace in Torrington, Connecticut. In addition to this rendering of that classic New England saltbox farmhouse, surrounded by a stone wall, the periphery of the plate featured cutwork and was embellished with gilded oak leaves. The reverse revealed the plate’s origins...”Made in Germany”...and carried the name “P. O’Meara, Torrington, Conn.”
The John Brown Birthplace Plate (Wolfe photo)

Thousands of such items were produced in Germany and Austria...particularly in the two decades prior to World War I...and marketed as take-home souvenirs in this country.  They were often marked with the name of the domestic distributor...in this case, “P. O’Meara” is probably one Patrick O’Meara, a native Irishman shown in the Torrington censuses of the early 20th century as a “tea merchant.”

I am certain that readers of this blog are familiar with such souvenirs, many of which were no doubt sold in your own hometowns. Whether they were decorated with images of the local high school or courthouse...or the mansion of some regional luminary...these bits of tactile history were seemingly ubiquitous. In my own place of residence...Galena, Illinois...a local jeweler by the name of Coatsworth sold hundreds of pieces of glassware and china picturing either the pre-war or post-war homes of our famous citizen, General Ulysses S. Grant.

Since my initial find in Virginia, I have obtained several other examples of this “birthplace china,” including a small cream pitcher and a matching cup and saucer. I append images of these items, and I’m sure there are more varieties of “John Brown china” out there. So remain vigilant!

Birthplace Creamer (Wolfe photo)

Birthplace Cup and Saucer (Wolfe photo)


While on the subject of the site of John Brown’s birth, I must admit that it was only quite recently that I finally paid a personal visit.  I had passed through Torrington any number of times in years past...and was aware that a commemorative stone marked the historic spot...but I had never made the effort to find it. For some oddball reason, I always assumed that it sat in some urban neighborhood...perhaps in some guy’s yard, strategically placed between the Weber grill and the house of an exceedingly vicious dog.

In reality, the site of the birth of John Brown remains rather bucolic. It sits upon the northern edge of...you guessed it...John Brown Road, immediately northwest of the City of Torrington. It consists of, literally, a grassy clearing in the forest, surrounded by rubble stone walls...in the midst of which reigns a lichen-encrusted granitic boulder, inscribed with the words: “IN A HOUSE ON THIS SITE JOHN BROWN WAS BORN MAY 9, 1800.”

Torrington, Conn., marks the cite of Brown's birth home
(Wolfe photo)

My visit occurred in early spring, so with the trees flowering and birds beginning to become territorial, one could almost imagine old Owen Brown’s oxen lowing in the nearby pasture (or perhaps this was simply an unintended side effect of the beer hall the prior evening). Anyway, I remember being impressed by the seeming isolation and tranquillity of the place. 

Although a detailed history is not my intention, there are some significant dates within the chronology of the birthplace of John Brown. His father Owen took possession of the property and some adjacent acreage in 1799 - 1803. Following the family’s emigration to the Ohio Western Reserve in 1805, an impressive number of owners and tenants “used and abused” the house (some of whom were African-Americans). Souvenir hunters became a problem...producing artwork from shingles and canes from wooden beams. (Much like what occurred at the Maxson farmhouse in Iowa, as noted  in an earlier contribution.)

Finally, in 1901, the property was purchased by a philanthropist and transferred to a nascent organization of prominent businessmen and politicians called the John Brown Association. It was at this point that the first attempts of restoring and managing a formal historic site was commenced, including the appointment of a live-in caretaker. This Association, underfunded and lacking a solid organizational structure, was beset for years with numerous lawsuits and a host of leasing and ownership controversies.

Close up view of the Torrington home on the birthplace
plat (above) and photograph of the actual structure
(Wolfe images)

Of course, one of the most significant dates in the history of the property was June 19, 1918, when the farmhouse in which John Brown had been born burned to the ground. An overheated chimney was the probable culprit. The commemorative boulder has marked the spot since 1933.

Today, the property is administered by the Torrington Historical Society, which merged with the John Brown Association in June of 2000. In 2002, an archaeological investigation of the site was conducted, the parcel then receiving the designation as a State Archaeological Preserve.

For those interested in further information in regard to John Brown’s birthplace, I strongly recommend a publication available from the Torrington Society: The John Brown Birthplace by David Ross Bennett (2002). 

H. Scott Wolfe

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Osawatomie Notebook--
Popular Culture Has Misrepresented John Brown!

by Grady Atwater

Of the twelve bonafide
images we have of John
Brown, only one shows
him wearing a beard
There are many misconceptions about John Brown. John Brown’s popular image is of him sporting a long flowing beard, but he only grew the famous beard in 1858 as a disguise due to multiple Missouri and federal arrest warrants out for him. Before 1858, Brown was clean shaven.

Raymond Massey as Brown in
"Santa Fe Trail" (1940)--
one of the worst and most
influential cultural
Indeed, it is ironic that Brown’s attempt at disguise became the image he is primarily known for, so much so that Brown was forced to cut his beard down to an inch long when he raided Harpers Ferry, Va., in 1859. Movies and television programs always portray Brown as having the long, flowing beard in Kansas and at Harpers Ferry, but this, like many other realities about John Brown, are often erroneously portrayed in movies and television.

John Brown is also often thought to have been over 6 feet tall, when in reality he was 5-foot, 9-inches tall. The reason for this conclusion was that John Brown was much taller than most people in the 1850s, and he was commonly described as being very tall by his contemporaries. In the modern mind, “very tall” means over 6 feet tall. He was tall by mid-19th century standards but was of average height by modern standards.

This 20th century postcard reflects the image
 of Brown as an angry, violent man
Movies and television often portray John Brown as in a constant state of emotional upheaval, constantly making speeches and devoid of any level-headed thought. The reality is that John Brown was very cool and calm under pressure and was more apt to offer concrete solutions to problems than making long, rambling, dramatic speeches in a crisis situation. Brown’s cool-headed nature in a battle was one reason that Free State advocates followed him, and he was much different than the manic leader that movies and television portray him as.

Brown did not force his family's
support--to the contrary, they were
"all in" on his antislavery purposes,
and paid dearly for it.
John Brown also was not as prone to violence as he is often portrayed. Brown was violent only when he deemed it to be necessary and effective, and most of the time, he relied on sarcasm and debate to address the slavery issue with pro-slavery advocates. The reason that this reality is often glossed over in books, movies and television is that it does not make for good drama nor action scenes, and it does not feed into the popular image of John Brown.

John Brown’s family is often thought to have followed him due to Brown’s domineering personality and actions, but in reality, Brown’s wife and children stood beside him and his abolitionist crusade by choice and voluntary loyalty.

Brown did not force his wife and children to make the sacrifices they did for him out of fear of incurring Brown’s wrath, but because they shared his abolitionist beliefs, and they were willing to stand up beside Brown of their own free wills.
Grady Atwater is the site administrator
of the John Brown Museum and
State Historic Site in
Osawatomie, Kan.

John Brown is often misrepresented in movies and television, which commonly pander to commonly held misconceptions about a man who changed the course of American history, and it is vital to know the real John Brown, not the movie and television version.

Source: Grady Atwater, "Popular culture often misrepresents the real John Brown Story."  Osawatomie Graphic [Osawatomie, Kan.], 21 Oct. 2015.