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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, February 13, 2015

The Unsung Correspondent Who Covered John Brown's Last Days in Virginia

Over the last couple of years I have paid close attention to the reportage on John Brown's last days for my forthcoming book, Freedom's Dawn (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers).  In examining press reports and narratives, I was happy to discover a young journalist named Edward H. House, who was the sole antislavery journalist to cover Brown's trial, incarceration, and last hours as an undercover correspondent of Horace Greeley's New York Tribune.  House, known as "Ned," was one of the memorable "Bohemians" of the antebellum era, who came to New York City from Boston about 1854 to assume the position of drama and music critic for Greeley's paper.  A talented, self-taught writer and artist, Ned House was a strong antislavery man although he had been affiliated with the Democratic party while in Boston, and even held interests in a Democratic paper back in Beantown.  This proved extremely fortuitous in serving the Republican Tribune, since no antislavery journalist was admitted to Charlestown after the Harper's Ferry raid and throughout Brown's final days.
"Ned" House

House's fascinating story already has been wonderfully documented by the fine scholar, James Huffman, in A Yankee in Meiji Japan: The Crusading Journalist Edward H. House (Rowman & Littlefield, 2003). However, Professor Huffman's focus is largely upon House's his later years as a journalist living in Asia, and thus his treatment of Ned House during the antebellum era is relatively brief.  Huffman has been most supportive and encouraging of my work, which has been singularly concerned with House's role as the unknown Tribune correspondent.  This is a story in itself, since the leadership and people of Charlestown and Virginia in general were disgusted by House's regular correspondence, which he smuggled to New York using various methods.  No wonder: House's coverage presents an honest and detailed account, not only of Brown in jail, but also of Brown's impact upon Virginians and their enslaved victims.  In one case, a Virginia officer was so enraged that he tore the Tribune with his teeth, not knowing that House was happily observing his outrage.  Of course, House promptly reported the episode, providing a virtual laugh track for Brown's antislavery friends in the North.

Indeed, House's writing is fun--witty and stinging in his observations.  But it is also insightful: House alone observes and understands the behavior of local blacks, noting their intense interest in the imprisoned Brown, as well as the subterfuge of local blacks in setting fires.  Rather than underestimate them as simple, childlike creatures, House knows they are organized, communicative, and capable of "mischief"--something that slaveholders were intent upon overlooking or denying.

During the weeks of his challenging assignment, Ned House sent page after page of detailed and sometimes revelatory reportage to the Tribune, providing information that never would have made it into the pages of history had historians had only the right-wing and proslavery New York Herald  and other proslavery reportage.  Sad to say, most writing about the raid and its aftermath has used newspaper reportage uncritically, which explains why so many fallacies have persisted in the popular narrative.

Most notable is the failure of historians to discern the long-term damage caused by depending upon the Herald, whose racist editor, James G. Bennett almost exclusively depended upon local proslavery Virginia affiliates to provide his reportage.  While it is true that the Herald is in many respects is a kind of almanac of stories and details regarding the Harper's Ferry episode, the slant of its reportage prohibited fair coverage of Brown's last days.  For instance, one of the greatest frauds that came via the Herald's Virginia reports was the unfounded claim that Brown was disappointed by the lack of response from enslaved blacks.  This is particularly true of the single, fraudulent report about Brown's final interrogation of raider John Cook on the morning of December 2.  According to this untrustworthy report, the old man complained that Cook had misinformed him about black support.   I found this dubious account in one single report, undoubtedly written by a local affiliate, with no other attesting reportage.  Indeed, this report contains a number of baseless and fraudulent details which I believe were planted in the Herald by the Virginia affiliate.
The Charlestown Jail, where Brown
spent his final days, is no longer standing

In this light, Ned House was the perfect antidote to the predominant proslavery and ultra-conservative reportage that was largely fed to the North (and to history) as a result.  Ned House, protected by an aura of Democratic and friendly profile, went almost perfectly undetected from Brown's trial in October until his hasty departure from Charlestown after Brown's execution on December 2.  Greeley had other journalists "undercover" in Virginia, including Henry Steele Olcott, but to my knowledge, Olcott only arrived in Charlestown but a couple of days prior to Brown's hanging.  House was the single source of information coming, as it were, from the very belly of the beast.  His detailed observations thus inform the narrative of Freedom's Dawn.  Taken as a whole, House's reportage has proven invaluable toward discerning the drama of Brown's actual record in Virginia.  While Freedom's Dawn is about John Brown, it is also a story about the journalists--the good, the bad, and the ugly, who figure into the story of the old man's "forty days in chains."  One of the lessons that emerge is the necessity of journalistic freedom being respected and protected, if nothing else, for the sake of history.

It has been observed that the occasion of Brown's defeat in Virginia gave birth to the first modern journalistic interview, particularly the Herald's interview with the abolitionist Gerrit Smith of Peterboro, N.Y.  This may be true, although it is also the case that John Brown himself is probably the first "modern" figure to be covered so thoroughly by the press.   On the other hand, Brown's story, skewed and dominated by proslavery journalism and censored by proslavery authorities, makes Ned House the other hero of Freedom's Dawn.  One young man, risking literal life and wellbeing, interposed himself as a source of truthful reporting, and left the free record of John Brown's last days for history, for us.

Freedom's Dawn: The Last Days of John Brown in Virginia will be published by Rowman & Littlefield Publishers this spring.  It will shortly be followed by its companion volume, John Brown Speaks: Letters and Statements from Charlestown, also published by Rowman & Littlefield.

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