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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, August 26, 2015


by H. Scott Wolfe

This whole matter is more a question of sentiment than one of science.”  Dr. Thomas Featherstonhaugh, August 1, 1899

The vocation of Dr. Thomas Featherstonhaugh was that of civil servant -- an employee of the Federal Pension Office. But his consuming passion was the intellectual pursuit of John Brown and his men. Over the years, the Doctor had assembled a premier private collection of relics and memorabilia relating to the abolitionist martyr. As a diligent scholar, he had mastered the confused and conflicting literature -- the honesty and the hyperbole -- and fully intended to compose the definitive account of the Harpers Ferry invasion.

But while the aura of John Brown burned brightly, the members of his Provisional Army, like their secluded resting place beside the Shenandoah, had flickered from the public consciousness. An idea had crystallized in the mind of Thomas Featherstonhaugh. He dreamed of finding a long neglected grave -- and providing those anonymous victims of war, a final peace.


After making local inquiries, Featherstonhaugh and fellow Brown-enthusiast L.A. Brandebury found themselves at the humble abode of James Foreman. The elderly, white-mustachioed Foreman had resided on that craggy mountainside his entire life. And yes, he informed the dapper pair from Washington, he had witnessed the mass burial of John Brown’s men. Grabbing a set of shovels, and with his strapping son Lewis in tow, the old man led the party to the spongy bank of the Shenandoah. “Two sunken places in the ground” marked the spot, and the Foremans were soon at their sweaty work. It was September 16th, 1895.

At a depth of three feet, the rotted lid of a box was exposed. Wrote Featherstonhaugh: “We finally uncovered the whole top of the box and I raised the cover, to which the whole backbone of a man was adherent. This incident shows how closely the bodies had been packed in the box. The box was some six feet in length, four feet wide and three feet in depth...and was remarkably well preserved....This coffin contained the remains of four of the invaders. Portions of the clothing were still to be distinguished...There were great masses of woolen tissue surrounding each one of the dead men. These blankets or shawls were worn by the men as overcoats when they started out on the raid...One of the skulls that I picked out from the ooze was all in pieces as if it had been shattered...After becoming fully satisfied that we had the remains of the raiders before us, we replaced the cover of the box.” (20)
Brandebury and the Foremans pose at the grave
(Stutler Collection, Charleston, WV)

The refilled grave (Stutler Collection,
Charleston, WV
The second burial box was unmolested. The Foremans and Brandebury posed stiffly for the Doctor’s camera, before the grave was refilled and marked with crude headstones plucked from the river’s edge.  

The victims of Harpers Ferry had been found. One objective remained -- a goal echoed in the words of Ruth Brown Thompson, eldest daughter of the Commander. “Dr. Featherstonhaugh . . . If those long neglected and almost forgotten bodies which have so long slept in Virginia soil could be placed beside their loving leader, would it not be the crowning act of devotion to them? I do hope and pray it may be done.” (21)


They met by chance, that summer of 1899. Orin G. Libby was visiting acquaintances in the national capital, when he was informed of Dr. Featherstonhaugh’s purpose to compile a history of the Harpers Ferry raid. His curiosity aroused, the touring professor sought out the learned Doctor. And during their succeeding conversations, he discovered unanticipated designs for another, more stirring, adventure.

Recalled Libby: “While in Washington I ran across a man who is making a study of the raid and who had discovered the burying place of the 7 or 8 men shot at Harpers Ferry. One of the graves he opened...years ago, and always planned to take all the remains up to North Elba and bury them properly near John Brown’s grave. I persuaded him to let me have a share in the matter.” (22)

Featherstonhaugh admired the energy and intelligence of the youthful scholar -- and was pleasantly surprised to learn of Libby’s familial relationship to Charles Plummer Tidd, a member of Brown’s Provisional Army. With full confidence in his visitor, the Doctor revealed his scheme to exhume the remnants of the fallen raiders from that lone forsaken grave, and to convey them to the distant Adirondacks for final rest beside their martyred Commander. Following a spirited discussion, Professor Orin Grant Libby was formally invited to assist.

The watchword for this ambitious effort was to be secrecy, for only a select few were to be made aware of Dr. Featherstonhaugh’s intentions. Should any of the particulars of the plan appear in the public press, the eventual success of the operation would be jeopardized. Undue publicity would attract unwelcome curiosity seekers and relic hunters. And even though the era of intense fraternal strife had receded into the past, it was feared that these actions would rekindle latent sectional animosities -- both in the local populace and in the nation at large. Finally, Featherstonhaugh was apprehensive that, without prior notification, State health authorities might attempt to hinder the transportation of the remains. “I want to keep the matter quiet until I get the bodies off,” wrote the Doctor, “and then the public can have the news, which will make quite a stir.” (23)

It was for the conveyance of those bodies that Orin Libby had been selected. The visiting professor was perfectly suited for the plot, for he possessed the invaluable commodity of anonymity. His public links to John Brown scholarship, or to the prior activities of Dr. Featherstonhaugh, were non-existent. He would therefore not arouse suspicion as he personally conducted the exhumed material northward.
Featherstonhaugh had already obtained encouragement from members of the Brown family, along with permission to utilize their burial plot at North Elba. He was also certain of gaining the consent of the owners of the Harpers Ferry pulp mill, upon whose property the gravesite was situated. When successfully completed, the scheme was to appear as an act of public altruism -- not private vandalism.

All seemed ready. But before arrangements were finalized, Libby was obligated to continue his academic tour. The men parted with a firm agreement to maintain communication. An excited Orin Libby, his personal research now secondary, eagerly awaited definitive instructions for what he would later call an “act of delayed historic justice” -- the “second raid of Harpers Ferry.” (24)

Final word reached Libby in Baltimore. Wrote Featherstonhaugh: “I think the best plan is to go up there boldly and accomplish our work...I now propose to go from here on Friday night and we will do our work early on Saturday morning and you can get off by some early train. I think two hours work will accomplish what we wish...Go to the Summit House, about half a mile from the depot, which will be our headquarters...If you should not be able to arrive until after we are at work, cross the Shenandoah bridge and keep up stream right by the rivers brink and you will run upon us...Let this arrangement be definite, unless you hear to the contrary from me.” The Doctor enclosed a crudely penciled map of Harpers Ferry, noting the river bridges, the gravesite and the Summit House rendezvous point. He also included a list of the slain raiders, for delivery to those at North Elba in charge of receiving the remains. (25)
Featherstonhaugh's map (Libby Collection,
Univ. of North Dakota
On the evening of Friday, July 28th, 1899, Orin Grant Libby stepped from a coach at the Harpers Ferry railroad station. Porters lifted a large trunk from the baggage car -- a trunk that would soon bear the members of the Provisional Army of the United States.


The Saturday sun had yet to appear, when an impatient Orin Libby crossed the Shenandoah bridge. He wandered aimlessly two miles upstream, before returning to Harpers Ferry for breakfast. There he met Featherstonhaugh, this time accompanied by Captain E.P. Hall. The Doctor had tarried to enlist three local men to perform the excavation. Shortly thereafter, the entire party arrived at the riverside grave.

The two burial boxes were soon exposed. They lay end to end, in an East/West orientation. Featherstonhaugh later described the scene: “The...great boxes...from being constantly wet, were remarkably preserved. Most of the smaller bones had crumbled away, but the long bones...were recovered...There were portions of coats and vests with the buttons still in position upon them, and from one of the vest pockets dropped two short lead pencils, all sharpened for use.”

Observed Libby: “There was little remaining intact of the bodies, but not a little of the clothing was still recognizable. The rusted brass buttons (and) buckles...told the story plainly. On account of the peculiar coat worn by John Brown’s son, Oliver, we were able to identify his resting place...in the easternmost of the two graves. From the account of those who saw the burial, they were thrown in carelessly...And the arrangement of the bones when they were disinterred confirms this report fully.” (26)

The work was completed by midday. One of the laborers conducted the exhumed bones and fragments of clothing to Camp Hill, above Harpers Ferry, delivering them to a summer cottage near the Summit House. And it was there that the remains, secured with cotton and excelsior, were packed into Libby’s trunk.

Word of the exhumations sped quickly through the town. A relieved Thomas Featherstonhaugh, from his secure haven on the hilltop, could easily view the gravesite across the Shenandoah. He wrote: “In the late afternoon at Harpers Ferry we could see from Lightner’s porch the whole neighborhood at the site of the two graves. The river bank fairly swarmed with people...I do not know of anything of small moment that seems to have caused so much sensation as this thing.” (27) But Orin Grant Libby, with his precious cargo, was safely on a northbound train.
Railroad station at Harpers Ferry (National Park Service)

The secret proved difficult to keep. From Harrisburg, a gloating Libby wrote Eva Cory: “Much has happened since I left Baltimore. You could never guess & I mean to tell  you but you must keep very still about it...Just outside in the hall is a trunk containing the remains of the Harpers Ferry victims killed at the famous raid 40 years ago...I fancy the newspaper men will be wild over it when they hear how we dodged them.”

In order to fully impress his lady, he purposely embellished the perils of the adventure: “If it had been known in advance a lot of the old Charleston fire eaters who hate Brown and the north would have been on hand with their Winchesters and driven us off. It is a wild land there still and not a few Washington people were prevented from being present by fear of hearing the bullets whistle.” And finally, fearing that he may have betrayed his commitment to secrecy, Libby warned: “You are the first one outside of the secret circle to know of it!...Now please don’t tell on me till you see by the papers that it is safe.” (28)

While still in Harrisburg, Libby closely examined the disinterred material and carefully repacked the trunk. He also initiated an attempt to ascertain the actual number of persons exhumed from the double grave. Local tradition and previously published reports -- some by Dr. Featherstonhaugh himself -- had claimed that the corpse of John Kagi had also been conveyed to the dissectors of Winchester.
So were seven -- or eight -- men to be reburied at North Elba? Because the skulls and smaller bones had undergone extensive decomposition, the only means of properly determining the sum of individuals was through analysis of the long bones. In short, Libby needed someone to count femurs. He dispatched a note to a New York insurance agent, seeking advice on an anatomical expert who might perform the task. And he informed Featherstonhaugh of his intention to continue his journey by way of that city. Then he was off to New Jersey. (29)

Dr. Thomas Featherstonhaugh was a worried man. His role in the exhumations had quickly become public knowledge. Swarms of persistent newspapermen harried him incessantly. Orin Libby remained anonymous, but his apparent leisurely progress invited discovery by a press pursuing the scent of a dramatic story. A Featherstonhaugh letter overtook him in Trenton: “Of course you know by this time that the whole civilized world knows of the removal of the bodies from Harpers Ferry. The papers are full of it...Your name has not been mentioned in any account that I have seen. Reporters are after me all day and I have no recourse except to say that the bones have gone to N. Elba.”
A Featherstonhaugh postscript
(Libby Collection, Univ. of North Dakota)
The Doctor implored Libby to expedite his journey: “Don’t you see that...delay will spoil the whole matter?...I have heard nothing but hearty endorsement of our work from every quarter, and I do not want it spoiled by needless procrastination.” He also doubted the necessity of researching the remains while enroute northward. “This whole matter is more a question of sentiment than one of science,” Featherstonhaugh exclaimed, while urging Libby to critically count the femurs only after he reached his ultimate destination. And it was with extreme vexation that the Doctor learned of the New York plan: “The health authorities of New York will make it very uncomfortable for you if they get track of your movements. I advise you very earnestly to keep away from N.Y...(and) on every account deprecate delay.”

The urgency of Featherstonhaugh’s letter was recognized by Libby. New York City was bypassed in favor of Albany. From that place he wrote Eva Cory: “I got a letter from Dr. Featherstonhaugh . . . saying that the papers were full of our new Harpers Ferry raid and that I was expected to go on at once. I am here waiting for the train which will land me in Lake Placid...An episode of this kind is a rare one in my life and I intend to make full use of it.” (30)
Signature of Orin Grant Libby 
(Libby Collection, Univ. of North Dakota)

To Be Continued
H. SCOTT WOLFE A native of Waukesha, Wisconsin, H. Scott Wolfe is a 1971 graduate of the University of Montana, where he received a degree in botany. He conducted graduate work at both Montana and the University of Oregon. He conducted research for the U.S. Forest Service as a plant taxonomist, assisted in the preparation of several works on algal taxonomy, and conducted independent research on snow and ice algae in the western United States and Canada. In 1975, Wolfe returned to the Midwest—settling in Galena, illinois, the home of his maternal ancestors, and a Union General named Grant A Civil War enthusiast since childhood, Wolfe has utilized this historic environment to devote himself to researching the antebellum era. His specialty soon became the militant abolitionist John Brown—and the members of Brown’s Provisional Army of the United States. For over two decades he has been assembling biographical materials dealing with over twenty-five of Brown’s “soldiers’—interviewing their descendants, visiting their birthplaces, locating their clandestine hideouts, and unraveling the scenes of their final tragedy at Harpers Ferry. Presently the Historical Librarian for the Galena Public Library District—and “staff historian” of Galena’s DeSoto House Hotel (Illinois’ oldest operating hotel), Wolfe is actively involved in both writing and speaking upon both Civil War and African-American historical topics. Wolfe and his wife Nancy, an author and expert on vintage clothing, carry on a continuing war for storage space.

Notes for Part 2

20. Featherstonhaugh, “John Brown’s Men: The Lives of Those Killed at Harper’s Ferry,” Publications of the Southern History Association, Volume III, Washington, D.C., (1899), pp. 300-301. 

21. Ruth Brown Thompson to Thomas Featherstonhaugh, October 6, 1896, Libby Collection. 

22. Orin G. Libby to Eva Cory, July 31, 1899, Libby Collection. 

23. Thomas Featherstonhaugh to Katherine McClellan, July 19, 1899, Adirondack Collection, Saranac Lake Free Library, Saranac Lake, New York. 

24. “Second Raid,” University of Wisconsin Daily Cardinal, November 13, 1899. 

25. Thomas Featherstonhaugh to Orin G. Libby, July 25, 1899 and July 26, 1899, Libby Collection. 

26. Thomas Featherstonhaugh, “The Final Burial of the Followers of John Brown,” New England Magazine, Volume XXIV, April 1901, p. 133; Orin G. Libby to the Editor of the Milwaukee Sentinel, August 31, 1899, Libby Collection. 

27. Thomas Featherstonhaugh to Orin 0. Libby, August 1, 1899, Libby Collection. 

28. Orin G. Libby to Eva Cory, July 31, 1899, Libby Collection. 

29. William Dutcher to Orin G. Libby, August 1, 1899, Libby Collection. 

30. Thomas Featherstonhaugh to Orin G. Libby, August 1, 1899, and Orin G. Libby to Eva Cory, August 3, 1899, Libby Collection. 

1 comment:

Rich said...

Great research! This story reads like a Sherlock Holmes mystery. Even though I know how it will end, I cannot wait for the next chapter. These are the details that make great history better. I have always wondered what became of the doctor. Thanks Scott!