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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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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.

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