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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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Sunday, December 25, 2016

Lyman Eppes Jr.'s Christmas Memory of John Brown

If you have read my first biography of Brown, "Fire from the Midst of You" (NYU Press, 2002), you are acquainted with the background of the abolitionist's determined move to the Adirondacks in 1849, when he and his family joined a fledgling black colony in Essex County.   The colonists were not ex-slaves as many have supposed, but rather free black residents of New York State, all of which were recipients of land grants from the wealthy abolitionist, Gerrit Smith of Peterboro, N.Y.  After the folding of Perkins & Brown, the wool commission operation that Brown had supervised in Springfield from 1846, he eagerly moved his family to the Adirondack town of North Elba, near present day Lake Placid, N.Y.

Brown loved mountain life, but his greater motivation was to assist the black land grantees in settlement.   Brown and his family lived in North Elba, on a rented farm, from 1849 until 1851.  Probably against his will, he was constrained to relocate back to Akron, Ohio, to manage the flock and farm of his business partner, Simon Perkins Jr.  Notwithstanding their failed wool commission operation, their partnership continued for several more years, until Brown could get free from Perkins and return to North Elba.  When they returned in 1855, they moved into their newly built farm house, where his family resided at the time of the Harper's Ferry raid in 1859, and where Brown, his sons Oliver and Watson, and a number of his raiders are interred.

With the move to North Elba in 1849, the Browns immediately became quite close to the black settlers since they already had been sending support, and since Brown had already become quite familiar to them as one of the leading white proponents of the experiment.  However, the relationship that the Browns formed with a family named Eppes (often spelled as Epps) was particularly warm.  Lyman Eppes Sr. was about thirty-three years old when he met John Brown (he was born sometime between 1813 and 1816), and moved to the "Timbuctoo" colony with his wife, Amelia (maybe Anna) and their young family, which ultimately grew to six children by 1856.  Eppes Sr. was a musician and teacher, as the late Ed Cotter once told me, "of rare ability."  He was also of mixed black and Native American descent (I am skeptical about references to him having been "full-blooded Indian," but I'm open to correction if anyone has better information.)  It was Eppes and his family that sang at John Brown's funeral in 1859, leading family and friends in Brown's favorite song, an 18th century hymn entitled, "Blow Ye the Trumpet, Blow."

Lyman Eppes Jr. in later life
Of the six Eppes family members, the longest surviving sibling was Lyman Jr., who was born about 1848 (based upon the 1860 census), the year before the Browns' arrived in North Elba.1   Lyman Jr. lived well into the 20th century and perhaps was the last black settler in Essex County.  The black settlement itself was a failure, and most of the land grantees were already leaving the cold mountain settlement in Brown's time; only a small number remained in subsequent decades, and Lyman Jr. outlasted and outlived all of them.  In a letter written late in life, Lyman Jr. said that he never left North Elba because he could not bear to leave John Brown's grave.2

In December 1940, the Watertown [N.Y.] Times published a story based upon an interview with "'Lyme' Epps," on December 26 in Lake Placid.   In the interview a brief vignette is presented that I have seen nowhere else, pertaining to John Brown and Christmas.  "Among [the reminiscences], he relates how he sat on the knees of John Brown, the martyr of Harper's Ferry, and sang Christmas songs.  He was rewarded with candy for his efforts."3

Even assuming the reliability of his reminiscence, there is no certain way to determine the year of Lyman's Christmas memory of Brown.  My educated guess, however, is that this episode actually took place in between the first and second periods of the Browns' residence in North Elba.  Lyman Jr. would have been too young to sing Christmas carols on Brown's knee in 1849-51, so it is likely the story he recounts happened after 1851.  On the other hand, John Brown was not in North Elba for Christmas in 1855-58, when Lyman Jr. was older.  Of course, Brown was hanged before Christmas of 1859, so my assumption is that the incident took place during a visit to North Elba in the early 1850s, during the period when Brown had relocated to Akron, Ohio.
Detail of Joseph Pollia's statue of Brown and a black youth
 at the John Brown Farm in Lake Placid.  

If this is the case, then most likely it was during December 1852, when we can document that Brown was visiting North Elba from mid-to-late December.  It was during this visit that Brown spent Christmas with his married daughter, Ruth Brown Thompson and son-in-law, Henry Thompson in North Elba.  The couple had been married since the previous year, and Brown arrived in North Elba on December 14, 1852, on a mild Adirondack winter day.  In a letter to his son John Jr. in Ohio, the father thus wrote that "things appear to be progressing among our old neighbors," which is a direct reference to the black settlers, undoubtedly including the Eppes family.4 

When the statue of John Brown by Joseph Pollia was installed at the John Brown Farm on May 9, 1935, Lyman Eppes Jr. was still alive, and was even able to unveil the statue before an audience of 1500 people. It must have been quite a dramatic moment for the elderly man--to have remembered Brown in life, and now to finish his days under the shadow of a great bronze statue of the abolitionist. Perhaps the figure of the black youth standing next to Brown is, in part, an idealization of Lyman Eppes' life long devotion to John Brown.  Whether or not his story was a direct inspiration to Pollia as a sculptor is not clear.  But it is not hard to imagine what it must have meant to Lyman, especially in his final years.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all!--LD


1 The birth year of Lyman Eppes Jr. is not clear.  The 1860 census for Essex County lists him as twelve years old, which would mean he was born sometime between 1848-49.  But according to the Lake Placid News (14 Jun. 1940), his hundredth birthday was celebrated in 1940.  However, this is quite unlikely, and would have made him about nineteen at the time of Brown's death.  It is far more reasonable that he was actually in his early nineties when his hundredth birthday celebration took place.  Likwise, I am not certain of his death date, which seems to have been in the 1940s.

2 Lyman Eppes (Jr.) to O. G. Libby, 4 Aug. 1938 [TLS], courtesy of H. Scott Wolfe.

3 "Old Time Adirondack Christmas Recalled."  Watertown Times, 26 Dec. 1940.

4 John Brown to John Brown Jr., 15 Dec. 1852, in Sanborn, Life and Letters of John Brown, 105-06.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

About John Brown: Remembrances by Frederick Douglass and Richard Hinton

"It must be admitted that Brown assumed tremendous responsibility in making war upon the peaceful people of Harper's Ferry, but it must be remembered also that in his eye a slave-holding. community could not be peaceable, but was, in the nature of the case, in one incessant state of war. To him such a community- was not more sacred than a band of robbers : it was the right of anyone to assault it by day or night. He saw no hope that slavery would ever be abolished by moral or political means: he knew,  he said, 'the proud and hard hearts of the slave-holders, and that they never would consent to give up their slaves, till they felt a big stick about their heads.'"  

Frederick Douglass, Storer College Address (1881)

“The purpose [of the Harper’s Ferry raid] was not that of insurrection, technically speaking, but to make slavery unsafe, by showing how it could be uptorn and disturbed through the efforts of a few resolute men.”

Richard Hinton, “About John Brown,” Hyde Park Herald, 18 April 1885.

Friday, December 09, 2016

From the Files--Covering John Brown's Burial

From the Files--
Covering John Brown's Burial

Two New York daily newspapers figure preeminently in covering the last days of John Brown, Horace Greeley's antislavery New York Tribune and James Bennett's New York Herald.  It is not exaggerating to say that to a great degree, the rest of the newspaper reportage on John Brown's last days--at least in the North--was dependent upon what was published in these two papers.  While a good many newspapers dispatched journalists to cover the final reel at Harper's Ferry in October 1859, and then again for Brown's execution in December, the main flow of information from Virginia to the North about Brown throughout his final ordeal was provided by the Herald and the Tribune.

James G. Bennett

As I have observed in Freedom's Dawn: The Last Days of John Brown in Virginia, the New York Herald was privileged by Virginia authorities because of Bennett's ultra-conservative and proslavery position.  However, Bennett did not consistently have his New York journalists in Virginia, but rather depended upon local reporters to feed reports to the Herald.  Indeed, some of the most problematic reportage in the Herald seems to have come from a local newspaperman named Gallaher (sometimes written Gallager) who misrepresented facts in order to protect the image of slaveholders and to belittle Brown's impact in Virginia.  The Herald, however, is still quite useful in many respects because Bennett generally emphasized thorough gathering of details and so published a great deal of primary material, letters, and statements that are valuable to the historians.  For instance, Bennett could publish an entire article by abolitionist Frederick Douglass without interpolation, except for a demeaning title.

Horace Greeley

Quite in contrast, Horace Greeley's New York Tribune, was no less thorough, and equally ambitious in covering a wide range of topics.  Greeley's paper covered every aspect of contemporary life, from theater reviews to agricultural items and religious intelligence.  When it came to the Brown episode, Greeley accomplished what seemed impossible at the time, by placing one of his correspondents in Virginia incognito, since the Tribune was hated and banned by Virginia authorities.  While Greeley was not pro-Brown, he was at least sympathetic toward the abolitionist, and used his editorials to invoke sympathy for him, and to criticize the hasty and determined manner that Virginia had gone about in rushing the Old Man to trial and execution.

After Brown was executed on December 2, 1859, the Herald and the Tribune continued to cover details about his hanging, the removal of his body from Virginia and certain stops made en route to its final resting place in the Adirondacks.  When Brown's remains reached his farm in North Elba, Essex County, reporters from both papers were present to document the burial in their respective dailies.  I have not yet been able to document the names of these journalists, although it is very unlikely that they had previously covered Brown's last days in Virginia.

Five Sketches by Thomas Nast

Interestingly, when Brown was buried on Thursday, December 8, 1859, only one sketch artist from New York City was present on the ground in North Elba, having been sent upstate for J. Warner Campbell's New York Illustrated News.  Campbell's paper was a brand new publication, as it were, cutting its teeth on the John Brown episode.  Campbell had sent another artist, DeWitt Hitchcock to cover Brown's last days in Virginia, competing with two established illustrated publications, Harper's Weekly and Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper.  Nor was the competition friendly, with Campbell and Leslie feuding in the pages of the Tribune about the authenticity of their respective illustrations.  Interestingly, however, Leslie seems to have failed for some reason to extend the competition to sending an artist upstate to cover Brown's burial.  It appears that when the short, pudgy German artist, Thomas Nast, arrived at the Brown farm, the young artist had the entire episode to himself.

In Th. Nast: His Period and His Pictures (1904), biographer Albert Paine recalled the young artist's first job with Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, where he worked under the auspices of the high-minded German illustrator, Albert Berghaus.  In later years, Nast made cartoon of himself, the small, chubby newcomer, with Leslie towering over him. Interestingly, however, by 1859, Nast had left Leslie and gone over to Campbell's New York Illustrated News.  As the rising star of newspaper illustration, it was under assignment from Campbell that the young artist managed to capture the return and interment of Brown's remains for history.  In remembering the 157th anniversary of Brown's death and burial, then, what follows are scanned images of both the Tribune and Herald coverage, along with Nast's brilliant sketches in The New York Illustrated Newspaper.

*  *  *

"The Burial of John Brown."  New York Daily Tribune, 12 December 1859, p. 6, col. 1-3


Thomas Nast, "our artist on the spot," captured the arrival of the carriage carrying Mary 
Brown, Wendell Phillips, and abolitionist James Miller McKim on Wednesday evening, 
December 7.  Note the great rock to the left, where Brown was buried the following day 
following a brief viewing of the body.  New York Illustrated News, 24 Dec. 1859, p. 85.

Rev. Joshua Young, a Unitarian minister, had already alienated some of his congregation in Burlington, Vt.,  after preaching a Thanksgiving Day sermon that included admiring references to John Brown.  When Brown was hanged, Young took it upon himself to make the arduous trek from Vermont to North Elba, N.Y. in order to attend Brown's funeral.  Little did he know that he would be the only clergyman present, and that he would end up eulogizing Brown.  Young's ministry was adversely impacted, since there were many conservatives in Vermont, and eventually he was forced to resign his pulpit in Burlington as a result of intense resentment among his neighbors and congregants.  As an old man, Young returned to preside over the interment of the remains of Brown's raiders after they were recovered from Virginia in 1899.  New York Illustrated News, 24 Dec. 1859, p. 92.  See this blog, H. Scott Wolfe, "The Second Harper's Ferry Raid: The Fate of John Brown's Men" (Part 3 in a series), 13 Sept. 2015 

Nast made perhaps the most important of the funeral set of sketches in capturing Brown's 
partially opened coffin being viewed by family and admirers.  I suggest the following 
identification from left: Jane and Roswell Thompson, parents of two of Brown's fallen 
raiders; orator Wendell Phillips; Lyman Epps, a black colonist and friend of the Brown 
family; Salmon Brown (son); Ellen Brown (young daughter); James Miller McKim, holding 
the arm of the widow, Mary Brown; daughter Ruth Brown Thompson and husband Henry Thompson.  
Perhaps the man at the foot of the coffin is Phineas Norton of Keene, N.Y., a 
friend of Brown.  This sketch appeared in The New York Illustrated News, 24 Dec. 1859, 
p. 93.  The figure on the far upper right seems to be Nast with his sketch book, the artist 
having included himself in the picture.

"The 'Impending Crisis; The Burial of John Brown."  New York Herald, 12 December 1859, p. 1, col. 1-3

Nast captured the lowering of the coffin into the ground, near the great rock, with the empty viewing table in the background near the Brown house.  New York Illustrated News, 24 Dec. 1859, p. 81.

Before departing, Nast sketched the grave of John Brown near the great rock.  New York Illustrated News, 24 Dec. 1859, p. 92

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

John Brown, Philadelphia, and an Empty Coffin

John Brown, Philadelphia, and an Empty Coffin

I.  A Wife's Mournful Sojourn

After they hanged him in Virginia on December 2, 1859, John Brown's body was cut down and dumped into a crude pine coffin. The doctors who presided at the gallows were not satisfied that he was dead, even though he had hung, swaying in the December breeze, for half an hour after the trap door had swung out. Adjourning for an afternoon repast, the doctors made their final inspection later in the day, officially declaring that the hated abolitionist was dead. To underscore their contempt, they left the noose around his neck.
DeWitt Hitchcock made this sketch of
Mary Brown at Harper's Ferry for The
New York Illustrated News (17 Dec. 1859)

Mary Brown, widow of the abolitionist, set out from the family home in North Elba, near present-day Lake Placid, N.Y., with the intention of seeing her husband in his Virginia jail cell. She was warmly received in Boston on November 3, where she was given gifts and money by Brown’s supporters and admirers. She proceeded by rail to Philadelphia and was greeted by the city’s abolitionist leadership, especially James Miller McKim, president of the Philadelphia Anti-Slavery Society. But when she reached Baltimore, Maryland, Mary Brown received a telegram from her husband’s lawyer, George Sennott, demanding on her husband’s behalf that she not come any farther into the South. Frustrated and disappointed, she was obligated to turn around and go back. But instead of going home, Mary went back as far as Philadelphia, where she shuttled back and forth between the homes of abolitionists William Still and Lucretia Mott, and Rebecca Buffum Spring in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, while awaiting the day of her husband’s execution, set for December 2.

Brown’s hesitance about having his wife come down to Virginia seems to have been a blend of practical apprehensions and painful emotions, not the least of which was that he was thinking of the expense of her travel given the long winter ahead after his death. Before learning that she had begun to make her way southward, he had written on November 8 appealing that she not come to Virginia at all. Afterward he wrote to a close associate, asking him to persuade Mary to remain at home for a time, at least until he directed her otherwise–which probably meant that he was hoping to receive monetary support for the family’s expenses.  Perhaps too, Brown was being a bit selfish, writing that Mary’s presence would only “deepen my affliction a thousand fold,” worried as he was that she would lose her composure and go “wild” on his account, as he put it.

John and Mary together for the last time,
Dec. 1, 1859.  Published in Frank Leslie's
Illustrated Newspaper
on Dec. 17th
Whatever the case, he changed his mind by November 16, when he wrote to Mary, allowing her to visit under the condition that she could “endure the trials and the shock” she might encounter in Virginia. Meanwhile, from Philadelphia, she wrote a letter to Governor Wise of Virginia requesting the mortal remains of her husband and their two sons, Watson and Oliver, both of whom died from wounds sustained in the battle at Harper’s Ferry. With the approval of her husband and the governor, Mary set out for Virginia in the company of James Miller McKim and his wife, Sarah Speakman McKim, and Hector Tyndale, another abolitionist.

On December 1, the day before the execution, John and Mary Brown were permitted a few fleeting hours together, being allowed to enjoy a final meal and discuss family plans and concerns. After being denied permission to spend their last night together, Mary was escorted back to her hotel in Harper’s Ferry. The next day, she remained there with the McKims and Tyndale, who held hands and prayed with her at the hour of execution. After the hanging, Tyndale received Brown’s coffin at Harper’s Ferry, causing something of a stir when he demanded that it be opened for inspection. A rumor was going about that the southerners were going to steal Brown’s body and replace it with another corpse, perhaps that of a dead black man. Observing the hatred and contempt that Virginians expressed toward Brown, Tyndale later said the incident brought him the nearest to personal violence of any part of the experience.

The widow and her brave friends thus escorted the coffin by rail from Harper’s Ferry to Philadelphia with the intention of being met by an undertaker, who would duly prepare John Brown’s body for its final interment outside the family home in North Elba,New York. But Philadelphia was already bubbling with protest, and it would have been impossible for the Old Man’s body to have rested peacefully over the weekend in the city without significant demonstrations taking place.

II. Philadelphia

On the day of the execution, the Reverend William H. Furness (pronounced like "furnace"), pastor of the First Congregational Unitarian Church in Philadelphia, along with other members of the Philadelphia Anti-Slavery Society, held a vigil in support of Brown at National Hall on Market Street. Mayor Alexander Henry, fearing an explosive conflict between pro-South hecklers and enthusiastic pro-Brown African Americans, called out 120 policemen to oversee the event. According to the Philadelphia Press, a crowd of whites and blacks had begun to assemble outside of the Hall an hour before the doors opened and a definite “turbulence” was in the air. Recognizing that an element of whites were present with the intention of disturbing and contradicting the program, the Philadelphia Press reporter also estimated that about a fourth of the attendees were African American, men and women.

While the black representation at National Hall was by no means scant, black Philadelphia held other vigils for John Brown on the day of his hanging, most notably at the Shiloh Baptist Church, located at South and Clifton Streets, where Jeremiah Asher was pastor. One of the several speakers in this program was the eloquent Jonathan Gibbs, the Dartmouth graduate and pastor of the First African Presbyterian Church, whose eloquence so impressed the racist reporter from the Philadelphia Press that he declared Gibbs’ oratory “almost entirely free from the ordinary peculiarities of Negro speech.” Expressing the deepest sympathy for John Brown “that brave man,” Gibbs decried the doctrine that the black man had no rights that the white man was bound to respect, and in a booming voice lifted a prayer of such anointed proportions that the Press reporter found the scene at the church had become almost excitingly frightening, with shrieks and cries, “Lord hear us! Hear our prayer! Remember old John Brown! If he must die, remember his soul!”

William Furness
Another speaker was Jabez Campbell, pastor of the Wesley Church, also known as "Little Wesley," on Hurst Street below Lombard Street.  Campbell, who would later become a renowned bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, explained that he did not himself open his church to a John Brown vigil because his congregation was already under suspicion of authorities for “being engaged in a treasonable work,” probably referring to underground railroad activities. “Now,” he declared, “if praying to God to enable Brown to pass out of this world leaning on the arm of Jesus be treason, then we are engaged in treason, and I am proud to be numbered with you in hearing this approach!” After an equally powerful prayer, Campbell looked to a clock in the church and finding it close to the noon hour declared, “John Brown is now, just near about launching into eternity.” Invoking a legion of angels to carry Brown’s soul to heaven, he prayed aloud: “Lord grant that he may have a quick passage, yes Lord, so quick that he may not know anything from the time the prop drops until his soul is safe with Jesus at the right hand of the Eternal! And when the prop falls today, it will be like an earthquake, and slaveholders will tremble.”

With such words, the congregation exploded into responsive shouts, noted the Press reporter,“long, loud, and more boisterous than ever.” Campbell was actually late in pronouncing Brown dead since he had already swung out on the gallows at half-past 11 o’clock A.M. But he was absolutely right that a kind of John Brown earthquake was only beginning.

Over at the National Hall, the police kept the meeting from violent outbursts from white hecklers and other racists, although there was little ability to prevent the clash of competing remarks and sentiments. Throughout the program, sympathetic tears and cheers were contradicted by jeering, hissing, and loud cursing. The Reverend Furness, a seasoned anti-slavery warrior, spoke first, boldly declaring that “out of the grim cloud that hangs over the South, a bolt has darted, and blood has flowed, and the place where the lightning struck”–speaking of Virginia–“is wild with fear.” William Still later recalled these fiery words, admitting that he and other abolitionists feared that Philadelphia, the foremost black center in the United States in that era, “would be selected as the spot where Slavery would make its first mortal onslaught, and the abolitionists there the first victims.”

As noted by a reporter for The Republican Compiler, when Furness concluded his speech by declaring that “Today, [John Brown] has bequeathed his blood in which to write the great act of emancipation for four millions of slaves,” his words were greeted both with applause and hisses. Then, two competing waves arose, the first of hisses, then one of applause. Lucretia Mott of Philadelphia and Theodore Tilton of Brooklyn likewise spoke with similar responses from the mixed audience. But when the African American abolitionist Robert Purvis arose to speak, the sound of hisses and moans nearly drowned out the applause.
Robert Purvis

Racists in the audience reacted more strongly to his words than to the other speakers by making loud hisses, groans, and cries which added to the confusion of the competing spirits in the Hall. Undaunted, Purvis concluded by predicting, “the time shall come when John Brown shall be looked upon as the Jesus Christ of the nineteenth century!” This final remark nearly caused an uprising of such confusion that the journalist from the Compiler could not record the rest of his speech for the noise filling the Hall.

The explosive event at National Hall on the day that Brown was hanged is instructive in reminding us that white Philadelphia, like the majority population of New York City, was largely sympathetic to the South and the interests of the Union over the concerns of enslaved blacks. No wonder, as Russell Weighley tells us, the “storm center” of Philadelphia for decades was the black community, which in the 1850s had grown to about 12 percent of the total population. Although the white population was significantly larger, African Americans lived “immediately adjacent to the business, commercial, and upper-class residential heart of the consolidated city,” thus being quite visible and capable of bringing disquiet to the city. Blacks were disdained to Philadelphia’s elite families, which were closely knit to the South in social and economic interests, just as they were despised by lower class whites as well as the Irish immigrant community. In fact, not long after the pro- Brown event at National Hall, a counter-event was held in Philadelphia which drew 6000 whites, all of them declaring disgust over the Harper’s Ferry raid and their full support of the constitutional rights of southern slave holders.

III.  Back Story: John Brown and Frederick Douglass in Philadelphia

John Brown’s brief, posthumous visit to Philadelphia was not the first trip he ever made to the city. As an anti-slavery activist, actually he made several visits during 1857-59. Among those appropriate to our story, the first took place between March 9-16, 1858, when the Old Man was canvassing for African American support for his intended raid into the South.

Stephen Smith
While in the city, Brown was a guest in the home of Stephen Smith, who lived at 921 Lombard Street between 9th and 10th Avenues. In John Brown’s era, the black population was especially concentrated around Lombard Street, going east and west through the fifth and seventh wards of the city. Not only would Brown have considered this a prime area for recruiting support, but it was logical for him to have sought out a successful black entrepreneur like Smith, who along with his partner, William Whipper, had built a lumber and real estate empire with other notable business holdings and an interest in underground railroad work as well. Smith, joined by William Still, hosted Brown, John Brown Jr., and New Yorkers Frederick Douglass and Henry Highland Garnet, along with other black Philadelphians in this strategic meeting, although Brown seems to have conducted other meetings with black leaders during his unusually lengthy stay in black Philadelphia. No record exists of the discussion on Lombard Street that day in 1858, but undoubtedly it involved the Old Man’s efforts at enlisting black soldiers to accompany him into Virginia. Interestingly, Frederick Douglass, though not from Philadelphia, is key to the unfolding story of Brown’s involvement in this city.

In his third and final autobiography published in 1881, Frederick Douglass wrote that he learned of Brown’s intention of attacking Harper’s Ferry during a secret meeting that took place within three weeks of the raid on October 16, 1859. In fact, the meeting took place nearly two months before, when Douglass met with Brown in a quarry near Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, in late August 1859. As Douglass fashioned the story, it was during this meeting that he first learned of Brown’s determination to make an attack on Harper’s Ferry as a preliminary move in his mountain-based campaign. Despite Brown’s urging, Douglass wrote, he had refused to join the venture and warned the Old Man that he would be caught in a “perfect steel-trap.” Douglass did acknowledge that Brown had previously spoken of raiding Harper’s Ferry but had “never announced his intention of doing so” until the Chambersburg meeting, a claim that has never been questioned by scholars. However, Douglass seems to have conflated the developments of 1859 in his memoir, entirely overlooking a clash with Brown that took place during a meeting in Detroit in March 1859. Indeed there is good reason that Douglass’ dissent from Brown’s plan originated at this point, and not seven months later as the former recorded in his autobiography.
Brown and Douglass in Chambersburg, Aug. 1859

Given that their association dated back to the late 1840s, it seems that Douglass had supported his blue-eyed amigo’s plans as long as Brown kept to the basic strategy of initiating raids on plantations and establishing a mountain-based campaign in the South. When Brown decided to seize Harper’s Ferry, probably early in 1859, Douglass began to back off. Brown’s ally and biographer, Franklin Sanborn, would agree, suggesting that Douglass knew of the Harper’s Ferry plan earlier than he portrayed in his autobiography. This is significant because it explains a number of things about the John Brown story, most notably that despite their ongoing friendship, Douglass was steadily opposing Brown’s plan throughout 1859, and to some degree dampened his ability to gain black recruits. Douglass’s friendly dissent was certainly no secret to other black leaders, and this dissent evidently took its toll in Philadelphia.

Just prior to meeting Brown at Chambersburg on August 20-21, 1859, Douglass stopped in Philadelphia.   According to historian William McFeeley, he participated in a secret meeting in a local church and found the attenders fearful of bearing retaliation for what Brown might do. Unfortunately, McFeeley missed the full meaning of the incident, which is born out in a memoir of black leader William Henry Johnson published in 1900.

According to Johnson, Douglass’ secret meeting would have followed immediately the events that had taken place in Philadelphia on August 15-16.  Johnson writes that a newly formed “colored military company” had scheduled a parade in Philadelphia which involved men who were already enlisted by Brown. Johnson recalled that Brown was disturbed by news of this public display of “armed and disciplined” blacks, fearing that their demonstration would draw undue attention from authorities. Johnson says further that Brown came up to Philadelphia on August 15, in the hopes of discouraging the parade. But he felt further undermined that evening during a public meeting at the Shiloh Baptist Church. The guest speaker was another one of Brown’s black collaborators, J. J. Simons of New York City. According to Johnson, Simons “made a speech in which he commended the Negroes of Philadelphia for organizing a military company and stated there was a grand project on foot to invade the South with an army of armed northern Negroes” in order to liberate the enslaved. He then called for recruits from Philadelphia’s black community who would “march through the South with a gun in one hand and a bible in the other.”

Johnson says that Brown was present at this meeting and was appalled by Simons’s lack of discretion. Later that night Douglass and Brown called an emergency meeting at the home of Thomas J. Dorsey, a famous caterer and another leading figure in Philadelphia’s black community. Johnson was in attendance at this meeting and remembered Brown as having a “very kindly face” although shaded with “deep sorrow” because of Simons’s indiscrete remarks at the church. Despite efforts at damage control, Johnson says that the incident created irreversible problems for Brown. Always reticent about his plans, Brown believed the whole affair had jeopardized his operations and might possibly bring the authorities down upon black leaders in the city.

When these realities hit home for Philadelphia’s black leadership, it is understandable that some began to worry over the possible repercussions of their association with the Old Man. Yet, incredibly, there remained sufficient interest in Brown’s plans among some black Philadelphians. According to Franklin Sanborn, in late September 1859, “certain colored citizens” wrote a letter to Douglass urging him to support their efforts to join Brown. “We think you are the man of all others to represent us,” they wrote, even pledging to support Douglass’s family if he himself would join Brown’s efforts. “We have now quite a number of good but not very intelligent representatives collected,” they concluded in their appeal.

Frederick Douglass
These events not only demonstrate the extent to which Brown looked to Philadelphia’s prominent black population for support, but also cast light on Douglass’s autobiographical stylizations. Evidently, he had no intention of joining the dangerous effort despite the appeals of Brown and his Philadelphia supporters. Regardless of our sympathy for Douglass and our personal gratitude that he chose to live rather than die with John Brown in Virginia, there is little doubt that his dissent was far more extensive and disappointing to Brown than he was understandably willing to admit in later years. According to the Johnson memoir, Brown and Douglass were together in Philadelphia once more, just prior to the raid, on Thursday, October 13, which seems tenable from what we know of the Old Man’s whereabouts. According to Johnson, Brown referred to the small number of raiders he had enlisted as “the forlorn hope of what might have been a grand expedition.” Perhaps Douglass was trying to mend fences with his old friend; or he was going along grudgingly with Brown out of a sense of personal obligation. He had hesitatingly introduced but one man to Brown, a former slave known as Shields Green, and seems to have been unhappy when Green actually decided to join Brown’s raiders.

In the last Philadelphia meeting, Johnson says Douglass held a list of young black Philadelphians, but apparently none of them finally chose to join Brown in Virginia. To what extent Douglass actively went to discourage black enlistment in Philadelphia will never be known, but Douglass later said that he had done all that he could to that effect, and there is no reason to doubt the adverse impact he made with all good intentions.  Certainly, John Brown’s family thereafter had no friendly words for Douglass--the prominent sentiment among them being that he had broken his long-standing promise to support their father when the trumpet was blown.  For his part, Douglass was a kind of celebrity in 1859, and it is understandable that he would prefer not to risk his life in Brown’s southern campaign. Perhaps this drama is concealed in his famous words written in tribute to Brown years later, to the effect that while he could live for the slave, John Brown could die for the slave. Frederick Douglass clearly preferred to live for the slave as an orator, activist, and politically respected leader. We should be grateful that he chose to do so.  Leaving it for you to read between the lines of history, I would only add that I have yet to find a single personal letter written between Douglass and the Browns after 1859.  Such historical silence may be very significant indeed.

IV.  An Empty Coffin

When the train carrying John Brown’s body pulled into the Wilmington and Baltimore Station at Broad and Prime Streets, it was no secret that the Old Man was coming for his last visit to Philadelphia. Transport of the body through the city had been wired ahead and had generated a great deal of excitement. According to the Philadelphia Press, a large, “motley” crowd had gathered, comprised of blacks and whites of both sexes, young and old. The crowd was eager and tense, a prime target for the city’s pickpockets, especially the notorious Bill Oliver (who was arrested by police) and one known only as “Mysterious Jim” (who got away). The train rumbled into the station at 12:45 P.M. on Saturday, December 3, the day after the execution.

Mary Brown by Albert Berghaus
Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper
Dec. 10, 1859
Disembarking from the train was one described as a “stout,” “elderly,” and plain woman wearing a plaid shawl, who was undetected by the crowd as being Mary Brown the widow of the martyr. Actually she was only about 43-years-old, but the Press reporter was perhaps correct in saying there was “nothing very remarkable in her appearance.” The widow evidently was not interviewed by the press and stayed overnight at the home of anti- slavery man Edward Hopper on Arch Street. Leaving the depot she was visibly leaning upon the arm of abolitionist Hector Tyndale, who was seething with disgust over Brown’s hanging and their experience in Harper’s Ferry afterward.

Greeted at the station by an abolitionist committee headed by the Reverend Furness, Tyndale finally vented his rage, talking loudly and waving his arms in disgust. “A miracle has happened, Dr. Furness,” Tyndale exclaimed. “A miracle has happened! The earth never opened to swallow up those fiends!” The old abolitionist tried to calm him down, gently patting Tyndale on the shoulder. But he would not easily forget his resentments toward Harper’s Ferry and its belligerent citizens. A few years later, as Major Hector Tyndale, he probably took a measure of satisfaction when he returned to Harper’s Ferry and burned down a number of buildings in the town in the course of fighting Confederate snipers. Afterward, he would set up his office in the same hotel where he, the McKims, and the new widow of John Brown had waited to receive his body.

With the arrival of the body in Philadelphia, Mayor Alexander once more had to deal with possible explosions of protest and riot. He rightly anticipated that large numbers of the city’s black population would turn out, being both curious to see the coffin and tense with their own feelings of resentment. Likewise would come the white hecklers, many of them southern medical students and other pro-slavery sympathizers. With Brown’s body in the station, the scene could easily explode into a kind of urban civil war. Alexander was intent on avoiding any such outcome and so dispatched a strong force of officers who made no exception in blocking all entrances into the depot. Not content to merely shield the coffin from the crowd, Alexander then refused to allow the body to be delivered to the waiting Philadelphia undertaker, instead ordering that the coffin should be moved out of the city without delay.
Hector Tyndale

The mayor’s final measure, afterward called a “deception” by the Philadelphia Press, was to create a decoy coffin–actually a large industrial tool box covered with blankets–which was carried by six police officers into the depot yard and placed on a wagon driven by other policemen. Of course the ploy was designed to draw the crowd away from the depot and it was quite successful. As the wagon carrying the decoy coffin pulled out, it was immediately followed by what one writer called an “almost frenzied throng.” The Press reporter described the movement of the crowd as “one of ludicrous description. It seemed,” he wrote, “as if all the boys and Negroes in town were in full speed,” and a number of women pursued the wagon too, likewise joining in “the hue and cry.” One reminiscence of the event says the decoy coffin was taken in the direction of the headquarters of the Anti-Slavery Society, but the Philadelphia Press report published on December 5th says that it was brought directly to the Walnut Street wharf to create the impression that it was being shipped on to New York. In the meantime the real coffin was quietly and quickly placed in a furniture wagon and driven to the Camden depot, where it was temporarily locked in a baggage crate and promptly shipped out after the crowd had subsided. John Brown’s body would thus be prepared for burial by an anti-slavery undertaker in downtown Manhattan, finally being carried northward by railroad toward its final destination in the Adirondacks.

Epilogue.  Self-Made Men

Brown in his coffin
New York Illustrated News, 17 Dec. 1859
Frederick Douglass had once more returned to Philadelphia, just prior to the Harper's Ferry Raid, on October 18, where he lectured on the topic, “Self-Made Men” at National Hall. Perhaps he thought of his friend Brown in preparing his lecture, but as history would have it, news of the Harper’s Ferry raid broke, and telegraphs carried the news that Brown’s invasion of Virginia had failed and his effort to launch a liberation movement had been halted. Defeated and captured, the blood- crusted Old Man was now a prisoner of the State of Virginia.

Although Douglass should have expected to be implicated in Brown’s raid and fled immediately, he strangely lingered in Philadelphia long enough to enjoy a reunion with Amanda Auld Sears, the grown daughter of the white man who once held him as a slave. When further news prompted the warnings of friends in Philadelphia, Douglass was jolted back to reality. Now in flight mode and overwhelmed with fear, he nervously boarded the ferry at Philadelphia’s Walnut Street wharf, crossing the Delaware River to Camden, New Jersey. Typically, travelers would prefer to take the railroad from Camden north toward New York City, but Douglass, so fearful of being apprehended, took a painfully slow ride by steamboat into Manhattan so that he could arrive in the city late at night. From there he fled back to Rochester, New York, and then out of the country to avoid being arrested.
Racist sketch of Douglass in
flight after news of the Harper's Ferry Raid
Frank Leslie's Illustrated News,
12 Nov. 1859

By not going to Virginia with Brown, Douglass had seemingly dodged a bullet, although he was still reduced to fear and flight. Two months after his hasty exit from Philadelphia, John Brown’s body left the city following along the same route.  Departing from Philadelphia by ferry for Camden, New Jersey, the coffin was then placed on a steamship bound for New York.  It was as if his dead friend had followed his trail. Indeed, judging from Frederick Douglass’ many retrospective speeches and written reflections about John Brown, the Old Man never stopped following him.*

Louis A. DeCaro Jr.

* This is an edited excerpt from my presentation at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, on December 2, 2009.--LD