History, Research, and Current Themes

"The world needed John Brown and John Brown came, and time will do him justice." Frederick Douglass (1886)

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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.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Milestones and Landmarks--
A Decade of John Brown Abolitionist

It is worth noting the ten-year anniversary of the publication of David Reynolds’ John Brown Abolitionist (Knopf, 2005), which was reviewed in the New York Times Book Review by Barbara Ehrenreich on April 17, 2005.  As a scholar and biographer of the controversial abolitionist, I believe that Reynolds’ treatment of Brown has proven a landmark biography, not only for its thoughtful and studied treatment of the abolitionist, but also for its clarity and fairness, something often lacking in discussions on Brown.  Indeed, I would suggest that Reynolds has given the 21st century a far more fitting paradigm for understanding John Brown than what was given to the 20th century.

W.E.B. DuBois
The first and perhaps most thoughtful biography of Brown in the 20th century was written by W.E.B. DuBois (1909), whose lyrical style and political perception of Brown’s significance was immediately dashed by his wealthy white liberal associate, Oswald Garrison Villard. Villard was the grandson of abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison and one of the founders of the NAACP, and also owned The New York Evening Post and The Nation at the time DuBois’s biography was published.  

Oswald G. Villard
Unfortunately for DuBois, Villard was preparing his own Brown biography, and did not rise above using his publications to attack his work.  Likewise, when Villard’s biography was published in 1910, he similarly used his influence to elevate his own biography as objective and definitive.  In fact, despite being better researched (Villard could afford to pay someone to research for him), his biography was stiff and dense, a book for today's researchers, not readers.  Worse, its friendly fire on Brown, based on ideology (Villard was a pacifist) and family interest (Brown got more credit that Garrison in historical memory), left the abolitionist’s reputation vulnerable to less appreciative writers, especially those looking to redeem the South and render the abolitionist a problematic figure in history.  This was especially true of his one-sided reading of the so-called "Pottawatomie massacre," which gave ammunition to hostile writers and journalists for the rest of the century and beyond.

A number of biographers of Brown in the 20th century endeavored to present a more balanced portrayal of the abolitionist.   Most notable is Stephen B. Oates, To Purge This Land With Blood, which often was greeted as the most objective treatment of Brown, and likewise considered the definitive biography.  However,  in retrospect, despite its academic sufficiency (Brown aficionado Boyd Stutler supported and approved it), Oates' work is somewhat sterile and certainly fails to assess key aspects of Brown’s story properly, from religion to the Pottawatomie killings.  Nevertheless, Oates’ biography reigned supreme for the rest of the 20th century, perhaps because little other attention was paid to John Brown by biographers.   In fact, a better book than Oates' was interestingly written by the playwright and researcher, Barrie Stavis, called John Brown: The Sword and the Word.  In fact, Boyd Stutler seems to have preferred Stavis' little book, commending it as having far less to correct or criticize than any other book he had seen--ostensibly including Oates' book, which came out the same year (1970). Unfortunately, the Stavis book seems to have been largely overlooked by Brown scholars and students.
More promising was The Legend of John Brown by Richard O. Boyer, the first installment of a proposed two-volume project, which came out a few years after the books by Oates and Stavis.  As a profile writer for The New Yorker, Boyer’s leftist politics and journalistic skills provided a hopeful opportunity to view Brown with both fairness and feeling, especially within the context of a nation dominated by proslavery interests and racism.  Unfortunately, Boyer died after the first volume was published by Alfred Knopf  (1973).  His half-told story, perhaps is too heavily laden with colorful profiles of Brown’s contemporaries; but it is better written and conveys fact and feeling beyond Oates’ succinct biography. Still, the story was both big and unfinished, and could not provide a counterpoint to the popular 20th century narrative of Brown as a killer and national trouble-maker. (Also see "The Stutler-Boyer Disconnection")

David Reynolds,
Springfield, MA, 2009
While David Reynolds was not the first biographer of Brown in the 21st century, his work proved to be everything that could have been hoped for in Boyer’s second volume and then some.  Whether or not one agrees with all of Reynolds’ narrative, his John Brown Abolitionist proved to be both watershed and landmark in the study.  It was more than fitting that the Reynolds biography would be published by Knopf, which not only closed the loop left by Boyer’s incomplete project, but provided a substantial, studied, and beautifully written work by a skilled researcher and writer.  A deft and insightful scholar of 19th century society, Reynolds folds literary, political, social, and religious themes into his book in a manner that none of his predecessors have done, especially after Villard had so boasted of his work and so belittled that of DuBois.
David Reynolds
(DeCaro photo, 2011)

Reynolds’ biography is a watershed work because he was able to read Brown with a clarity that was lacking in the 20th century, when the abolitionist was consistently skewed and maligned by professional historians with little or no basis. Whether positive or negative, no prior biography has so impacted readers as to turn the flow of the historical narrative more correctly in a direction suited to Brown’s worthy profile as a religious progressive and forerunner of civil rights.  

Reynolds not only debunked baseless and unfair characterizations of Brown, but he replaced them with a reasoned argument for an appreciative understanding of the abolitionist.  Differences notwithstanding, it is clear that even a decade after the publication of John Brown Abolitionist, David Reynolds single-handedly has reset the historical narrative of Brown for the future.  His understanding of Brown as the man who “killed slavery, sparked the Civil War, and seeded Civil Rights” has provided us with a sound, studied, and eloquent reading of a man who, in a real sense, is still ahead of our nation’s quest for racial justice.

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Take Note!

Steven Lubet on John Anthony Copeland: An Author's Reading in Evanston

If you live in the area of Evanston, Illinois, you have a great opportunity to hear Steven Lubet read from his book,  The “Colored Hero” of Harper’s Ferry: John Anthony Copeland and the War Against Slavery, just published last month by Cambridge University Press.   Steve will be reading at Evanston's Bookends and Beginnings, on Thursday, October 22, from 7-8:30 P.M.  Bookends and Beginnings is located in the alley on the west side of the 1700 block of Sherman Avenue, in the former location of Bookman’s Alley.   If you are able to attend, don't miss hearing this notable legal historian and ethicist read from one of the most exciting and well greeted contributions to the field of antebellum African American history and John Brown studies, an in depth study of one of Brown's unsung black raiders.

Steven Lubet is the Edna B. and Denyfed H. Williams Memorial Professor of Law at Northwestern University, and is a leading authority on African American resistance to slavery and notable trials in U.S. history.  He has written notable works like Murder in Tombstone: The Forgotten Trial of Wyatt Earp,  Fugitive Justice: Runaways, Rescuers, and Slavery on Trial, and more recently, an unprecedented study of Harper's Ferry raider, John Cook entitled, John Brown's Spy: The Adventurous Life and Tragic Confession of John E. Cook (Yale Univ. Press, 2012).

Lubet's work on Brown's raiders, Cook and (now) Copeland, are tremendous contributions to the study, offering needful focus on the men who followed the Old Man to Harper's Ferry.  This book on Copeland provides a treasure of information and insight into his life and background, and I highly recommend it.  Here are some reviews furnished by the publisher:

"In this vivid account of John Anthony Copeland and his times, Steven Lubet has recovered from unjust obscurity the story of a young man of deep passion and moral commitment. With both narrative verve and a telling eye for the dramatic, he has also given us an intimate portrait of the competing worlds of slavery and abolitionist activism on the cusp of the Civil War. The 'Colored Hero' of Harpers Ferry is a significant addition to our understanding of the brave but tragic saga of John Brown and his men." 
Fergus M. Bordewich, author of America's Great Debate: Henry Clay, Stephen A. Douglas, and the Compromise that Preserved the Union

"The 'Colored Hero' of Harpers Ferry is a well-researched and highly readable work of scholarship. Steven Lubet chronicles in fine detail the life and tragic death of a 'colored' participant in John Brown's ill-fated raid on the arsenal at Harpers Ferry. The author brings the raid, its characters, and its aftermath to life in vivid detail, never abandoning the thread that ties the idealistic young John Anthony Copeland to the antebellum movement to abolish slavery." 
Ron Soodalter, author of Hanging Captain Gordon: The Life and Trial of an American Slave Trader, and The Slave Next Door: Human Trafficking and Slavery in America Today

"In this well-researched and well-written book, Steven Lubet tells the tale of John Anthony Copeland, one of only five black men to join John Brown in his attack on Harpers Ferry. By focusing on one of the men, and on a black man, Lubet has given us a fresh and fascinating perspective on the months just before the Civil War." 
Walter Stahr, Presidential Fellow, Chapman University

"Steven Lubet is a master storyteller. In this book, he tells the story of a little-known well-educated black man, John Anthony Copeland, who joined John Brown at Harpers Ferry. The insurrection is told from the perspective of Copeland, a pious abolitionist who thought he was there to rescue enslaved people and escort them to freedom as he had helped runaways to Canada before … Copeland was one of only five black men who were recruited to John Brown's cause, though he only knew of Brown's true purpose shortly before the shooting began. From Lubet's careful reading of original material, he is able to piece together a thoroughly engrossing tale. A story to be read and remembered." 
Lea VanderVelde, Josephine Witte Professor of Law, University of Iowa College of Law

Best wishes to you Steve!