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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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Tuesday, May 24, 2016

The Terrible Parable of Mrs. Huffmaster

In the summer of 1859, John Brown, using the pseudonym Isaac Smith, moved into a rented farmhouse in Maryland as the first step in his invasion of the South, culminating a few months later with the seizure of the nearby federal armory at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia [today West Virginia].  The Kennedy farmhouse thus became John Brown’s headquarters, where likewise he gathered and sequestered his raiders, black and white, over the difficult weeks before the raid.
"Isaac Smith" seated in front of his rented Maryland home where

he lived in the summer and fall of 1859 before the Harper's Ferry Raid
For understandable reasons, Mary Brown had refused to join her husband in Maryland, choosing to remain at their New York farm in NorthElba, Essex County, with their younger children.  Mary was not pleased with daughter Annie’s decision to support her father in the South, but the teenager went anyway being joined also by twenty-year-old Martha Brewster Brown, the wife of Oliver Brown, one of the two Brown boys who became casualties of their father’s tactical errors at Harper’s Ferry.  The two young women provided an appearance of domesticity to the household, which ostensibly was headed by the northern farmer and speculator known as Isaac Smith (as I've suggested elsewhere, Brown did not typically invent names, but rather borrowed them from contemporaries.  There was a prominent umbrella manufacturer in Boston and New York named Isaac Smith, and Brown likely appropriated his name for the field).  Martha, who was a fairly good baker, assumed control of the kitchen, aided by Annie, whose real job, however, was to act as a lookout.  “I was there to keep the outside world from discovering that John Brown and his men were in their neighborhood,” Annie recalled in later years.

“Blast that Woman!”

Although unexpected visitors from outside the neighborhood were relatively rare, Brown and company were beset by the constant intrusions of a nearby neighbor, Elizabeth Huffmaster, the thirty-three-year-old wife of a Maryland laborer whose home inconveniently faced the Kennedy farmhouse from an angle that made Brown's plan vulnerable to discovery.  Apparently, since the Kennedy farm lacked an inside stairway to the second floor, the Huffmasters had a good view of the outside stairway that had to be used to get to the second floor of the Kennedy farm.  According to Annie, they also kept a ladder outside the house so that the hidden raiders could ascend to the attic in the event of a sudden visitor.  Furthermore, Annie was under constant pressure to conceal the presence of the raiders, white and black, and if need be, even create diversions or distractions that bought enough time for the men to hide on the upper floors when strangers appeared.

In this regard, the only challenge to Annie’s task of “constant watchfulness” was Mrs. Huffmaster, with her “brood of little ones.”  The Huffmasters had a small troupe of four children, mostly girls, between the ages of eight and three years.  Huffmaster’s sudden and unwelcome visits proved a “pestering torment” to Annie and the rest, since she might appear, children in tow, at almost any time, and did so quite frequently.  Martha called them “the little hen and chickens,” but Annie more frankly considered Huffmaster a “haunting” “plague and torment.”  The hiding raiders shared Annie’s apprehensions, as did the agitated raider Charles P. Tidd, who exclaimed in disgust, “Blast that woman, what a torment she is!”

Spy or Pest?

According to Annie’s reminiscences, in the later weeks of the raiders’ sequestered existence in the Maryland farmhouse, Huffmaster inadvertently got the better of her—appearing suddenly at a number of times and catching glimpses of curious sites that inevitably raised questions, including seeing some of the raiders in the house with her.  The most problematic episode prompted by Huffmaster’s intrusion was when she came uninvited into the farmhouse, only to see raider Shields Green—the valiant black fugitive from slavery who had chosen to follow Brown back into the South against the apparent wishes of abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass. 

According to Annie, Huffmaster believed Green was a runaway, evidently concluding that "Isaac Smith" and family were antislavery people giving aid to fugitives.   When John Brown heard about the episode, he told Annie to somehow fix the problem.  Not being a terrorist, Brown had no intention of silencing his nosey neighbor by violence, but rather hoped that the favors of friendship could be won by placating her with kind gestures since he was short on cash.  Following the incident, Annie made some effort to explain that the men that Huffmaster had seen in the house were only friends passing through, and then offered her milk, salted meats, and other things needed by the humble mother of four.

Notwithstanding these efforts and Huffmaster’s apparent willingness to be bribed, Brown and company lived under the shadow of the threat posed by this prying neighbor for the rest of the time leading up to the raid.  Brown had to consider the possibility that Huffmaster was a spy, although in reality the woman seems to have been far more interested in taking advantage of the situation.  Annie recalled: “She used her power over me every time she thought of anything she wanted that we had, she made free to ask for things, and of course I gave them to her.”  Indeed, there is no evidence that Huffmaster was any worse than a troublesome snoop, and perhaps had even taken a liking to her new neighbors, who were by all accounts kind to her.  Even if she did have suspicions about “Isaac Smith” and his family aiding fugitives from slavery, it is also possible that Huffmaster was sympathetic.  Although the wife of a Maryland man, actually she was Pennsylvania born and it is possible she had no great desire either to help or hinder black people--a common attitude among northern whites in the antebellum era.

The Tumor

Another reason that Huffmaster ultimately proved more of a pest than a threat was that Brown had been genuinely kind to her from the start.  Undoubtedly, her awareness of the curious goings on at the Kennedy farmhouse had amped up the neighborly kindnesses of Brown.  However, he had established himself already in the vicinity as a kind, Christian man willing to share with his neighbors—something he had always done wherever he had lived.  More importantly, however, is that John Brown had taken an interest in Elizabeth’s health. According to Annie’s reminiscences, Huffmaster had an obvious condition that undoubtedly afflicted and embarrassed her.  Evidently, the woman had an unsightly growth or tumor on her neck, something which she apparently was living with for some time, either being without the means to retain a surgeon or the concern of her own husband to do so.

Anne Brown as a teenager
John Brown Kin blog
When Brown saw the woman’s unsightly affliction, he offered his services in cutting out the tumor, something that goes far beyond our contemporary sense of neighborliness.  But the Old Man was seasoned by life on the farm and the field, and this was likely not the first time he had laid a knife to flesh in order to help friend or family, or certainly to remedy a problem with his livestock.  Brown was not a queasy, delicate sort, either, and one can almost imagine the confidence and gentleness that accompanied this procedure: with tools carefully prepared and the woman biting down on leather to fend off the pain, the Old Man, assisted by Annie and Martha, cut out the tumor from the flesh of Mrs. Huffmaster, then sewed up the bloody wound as she cried and groaned—the hidden raiders listening the whole time from upstairs.

The Parable

I like to think of the episode of this procedure on Mrs. Huffmaster as a kind of parable of John Brown’s whole purpose for entering the South.  Slavery was, in his thinking, a deep and abiding affliction upon the body politic of the United States.  Slavery—in Brown’s mind—was not synonymous with the United States, even though one might argue with him in retrospect that his view of the motivations and intentions of the Founding Fathers was too generous.  After all, the Constitution of the United States sanctioned and supported slavery, and the Declaration of Independence that he so revered was written by a liberal slaveholder.  Still, to John Brown, slavery was not essential to the identity of the United States, even though its presence in antebellum society had grown upon the republic like some horrid tumor—its roots going deeper and deeper into the flesh of the nation.  Like the intrusive and annoying Mrs. Huffmaster, it was not the South itself that Brown despised, nor did he wish to do her harm.  It was only her slavery—the tumor that had infested her national flesh—that he so wished to excise.

One of the main problems that I constantly face as a biographer of the man is this stubborn notion that John Brown was an insurrectionist.  Yet there is nothing in the record of his words or deeds that proves him an insurrectionist.  Not only did Brown explicitly wish to avoid rampant violence against slaveholders and their families, but also he consistently denied insurrectionary intentions in his letters and statements as a prisoner in Virginia in 1859.  Of course, the South did not believe him, especially since slaveholding society perceived any attempt to trifle with their human property as “insurrection.”  Many historians still do not believe Brown, in large part because they have not studied the evidence or the man closely, but rather have picked over the same tired opinions of unstudied authors or superimposed their own presuppositions upon him.

After a full twenty years of investigating and observing John Brown, if I have come to any firm conclusion about his intentions for invading Virginia, it is that he was no insurrectionist.  Indeed, he seems to have been seeking an alternative to either insurrection or doing nothing at all to end slavery, the latter being the path that even so-called antislavery moderates were taking in the months leading up to the 1860 presidential election.  Like a surgeon willing to draw some blood for the well-being of his patient, it was John Brown’s intention to destroy slavery—to root it out of the neck of the nation, since it was the neck that turned the head of state and society.  Had he been successful in getting out of Harper’s Ferry and launching a south wide movement in October 1859, it was his intention to destabilize and destroy slavery’s operation, not to ignite a servile war or massacre proslavery people.  It was no more his intention to massacre Southerners and slaveholders en masse than it was to cut the throat of Elizabeth Huffmaster. 

Brown and his men leaving the Kennedy Farm on
Sunday evening, Oct. 16, 1859, for Harper's Ferry
The story of Mrs. Huffmaster adds to the drama of the Harper’s Ferry narrative, but the parable of Mrs. Huffmaster may yet serve as a lesson for historians and biographers still mired in the muck of misreading John Brown.  It was not his desire either to destroy the federal government or the union of its states; rather it was his hope that he could send the nation on its way, bloodied and trembling perhaps, but bandaged, live, and whole, just as he had sent home his pesky neighbor and her brood of hungry, sniffling children.  “I had as I now think,” Brown wrote on the day of his hanging, “vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed, it might be done.” 

Even though some historians still deny it, with slavery so deeply rooted in the greed and racism of white society, it was quite impossible for it to be ended without bloodshed.  This is what Brown understood, and why he tried to use a moderate but radical approach that avoided full scale war and bloodletting.  The argument that gradualism and patient waiting for the eventual decline of the “peculiar institution” may sound reasonable to some today, but the idea is as morally insensitive and ruthless as it is strategically nonsensical.  Long before the Harper's Ferry raid, many leaders in the South were designing secession and the establishment of an unhindered slave holders' democracy.  While they found an excuse to secede in Brown's invasion, it is shallow thinking to suggest this was not already a process underway.  The prominent argument in 1859 between whites in the North and South was not the moral question of slavery’s existence, nor even immediate emancipation, but whether or not the tumor would be allowed to spread into other parts of the nation (and even into other parts of the Americas) for the enrichment of slaveholders and the corporate interests collaborating with them in the North.  Even Lincoln did not at first wish to dig out the malignancy, as long as the South remained loyal and did not attempt to expand slavery.  It would take the stench of a horrible bloodletting and the nudging and chiding of liberal Republicans to awaken Lincoln, late in his presidential career, to the necessity of destroying chattel slavery—something that John Brown had understood all along.

From Jacob Lawrence's series, "The Legend of John Brown"
Had Brown succeeded in his south wide plan undoubtedly there would have been skirmishes, battles, and conflicts along the landscape of a collapsing slave society and a panicked southern economy.  There is no guarantee that he would have succeeded, but his plan has been belittled although slave holders in Virginia, for instance Congressman Boteler, believed that Brown's movement would have taken off nicely had he made it into the mountains.   There was no large, sophisticated federal military in 1859, and Brown's intention of conducting his men as slave recruiters working in small cadres deep into the South would not have been a movement easily defeated, especially as it was a mountain-based campaign.  Numerous examples of similar military ventures exist in history, all of them proving difficult if not impossible to defeat.  

Where Brown failed was at the point of initiation, and his lapse at Harper's Ferry says nothing about the viability of his larger plan.   He would die a martyr in Virginia before the end of the year, and without his plan, it would now fall upon the federal government to deal with the reality of an aggressive, malignant, and putrid disease that would either spread or be destroyed.   It is unfortunate that still so many commentators insist that John Brown was simply an agency of civil war, when in reality he was perhaps this nation’s last hope against its terrible dawning.  With Brown failed and hanged, all that now was left was the spread of the inflamed malignancy--and in response the far less sympathetic hands of federal might, intent upon putting down rebellion with the very same violence and widespread bloodletting that Brown had hoped to avoid.  Lincoln sought to rein in this violence at his second inaugural, appealing to charity and the end of malice between whites.  But it had been left to Lincoln to deal with the fullest extent of slavery's intentions, whereas Brown had sought to make a preemptive strike.  It was a great risk, and failure unfortunately has left Brown more a figure to blame than to appreciate for the hopes and intentions of his effort.

In our parable, then, we must not think that the tumor was finally excised by John Brown, but rather that the malignancy undergirding it was only destroyed at the expense of Mrs. Huffmaster’s life.  Here Mrs. Huffmaster writhes in agony like the nation in civil war, wallowing in a crimson pool—her throat cut and her children grieving at her side, bloodied and weeping for their mother.--LD  

Sources: Oswald G. Villard, John Brown (1910, 1929) and materials in the Annie Brown Adams folder, Box 1, John Brown-Oswald G. Villard Papers, Columbia University’s Rare Book and Manuscript Collection.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

John Brown Lives! Facebook Image
John Brown Day 2016 

This year, the birthday of John Brown was marked by a special program in Lake Placid, N.Y. sponsored by our friends at John Brown Lives!  For the first time, the John Brown Spirit of Freedom Award was introduced.  The ceremony was held at the John Brown Farm, a New York State historic site, where Brown is interred with his sons and raiders. 

John Brown Lives! Facebook Page Image
The recipients of the award were actor Danny Glover, who is also a notable activist dedicated to human rights, economic and social justice, and environmental concern. Glover is currently serving as an ambassador for UNICEF.  Another recipient was Alice Green, executive director of the Center for Law Justice, Albany, N.Y.   Green founded the Center in 1985 in order to provide community education in civil and criminal justice, legal matters, community affairs, and issues of civil rights and liberties.   The third recipient was the late Brother Yusuf Abdul-Wasi Burgess, an activist in the Albany area known for introducing Albany-area youth to the Adirondacks, natural sciences, nature trips, and archaeology digs, and environmental issues.  Bro. Abdul was a board member of John Brown Lives! at the time of his death in 2014.

According to a report by Pat Bradley published on WAMC Northeast Public Radio's website (May 9), Glover said he first learned about John Brown when he was ten years old when he saw the film, Santa Fe Trail.  Despite the deep historical flaws of that film, the moral force of the abolitionist reached young Glover, who became fascinated by John Brown and wanted to learn more about him as a result.   "I remember crying at the end of the movie with his hanging," Glover said.  "The memory of that moment began to resonate and began to shape so many things that happened about me. . . . John Brown lives inside of me. And I want to be part of [Martin Luther] King's last book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?  I move toward community. Because if we’re moving towards community, then we’re moving toward love. If we’re moving toward community we’re moving toward justice. That's what I'm saying.”

Tuesday, May 03, 2016

Take Note--
Remembering John Brown at the 2016 Left Forum

John Brown: Debunking Myths and Liberating Truths--Reflections on His Last Days as a Prisoner in Virginia

Panel featuring: Louis DeCaro Jr., Larry Lawrence, and Norman Marshall

Saturday, May 21, 2016

John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York

524 West 59th Street, New York, NY 10019
Session 2, Room 8.72
12:00-1:50 p.m.


The story of John Brown is always close to the surface of political and social discussions relating to race and society. Recently, Brown's story has been revitalized, although often writing on Brown is hackneyed and misrepresentative of the man and his intentions. "Drive by scholarship" and novelists have had their way with Brown, but in depth and politically-informed readings are necessary to properly understand his significance as a fighter for justice in the USA. Biographer Louis DeCaro Jr., whose recent books provide an unprecedented study of Brown as a prisoner in Virginia, argues that much of the conventional understanding of his actions in Kansas and Virginia have been misrepresented, even in the most recent works of acclaimed authors. Brown as prisoner provides a perspective by which we may correct historical errors, challenge bias, and set his story straight over against this nation's commitment to chattel slavery, racism, and white supremacy. As Brown's most prolific biographer, DeCaro invites Larry Lawrence, the chairman of the John Brown Society (NYC) and the actor Norman Marshall, a portrayer of Brown on the stage and activist in preserving Brown's legacy, to participate in a panel discussion with an eye toward the implications of Brown's political and social significance in an era when "Black Lives Matter" and the struggle for economic justice are so relevant to the political discussion in 2016.


Louis A. DeCaro Jr.--biographer of Brown, author of four books, including his most recent works, FREEDOM'S DAWN: THE LAST DAYS OF JOHN BROWN IN VIRGINIA, and JOHN BROWN SPEAKS: LETTERS AND STATEMENTS FROM CHARLESTOWN (both published by Rowman & Littlefield, 2015)

Larry Lawrence--founder and chairman of The John Brown Society (NYC), a long time activist, scholar, and advocate for the Left, and an authority on Brown scholarship.

Norman Marshall--veteran actor, activist, and author who has specialized for years in bringing the John Brown story to the stage in the one-man play, JOHN BROWN, TRUMPET OF FREEDOM.

Click here for information on the 2016 Left Forum Program and registration.