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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, 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

Monday, November 21, 2016


From the Field:

H. Scott Wolfe

My best buddy from below the Mason and Dixon Line recently paid me a welcome visit. I always relish the opportunity to converse with him upon topics historical, for our respective chromosomes contain a recessive gene which allows us to discuss 19th century characters and events that would compel a normal person to assume a slack-jawed expression of boredom, wonderment, or perhaps even alarm.
This friend is a native of the Sucker State of Illinois, but long residence within the confines of what I call the Virginia Whine Country has allowed him to absorb a healthy dose of the Lost Cause theology. He is steeped in legends of “The Gray Ghost,” the Confederate partisan John Singleton Mosby…who still rides amidst the swirling vapors of his imagination.
John Brown
So the expected soon transpired. We had just settled upon the couch…an ice cold Gandy Dancer (an admirable malted nectar from Potosi, Wisconsin) in hand…when my comrade introduced the subject of the “terrorist” John Brown. I was gently chided for “wasting my considerable talents” in researching and writing upon such a questionable topic. For as everyone knows, he declared, the Old Man was certainly responsible for a wealth of our national maladies and disasters.

And the litany thus began:
“You know that Brown’s legacy created the Johnstown Flood.”
“Now that’s ridiculous, he was not even….”

“And disciples of Brown were responsible for the sinkings of both the Titanic and the Lusitania.”
“That’s absurd, those events occurred…”

“And also behind the destruction of the German dirigible Hindenburg.”
“Whoa there!,” I blurted, “before you continue with the extended list, I would appreciate hearing your defense of both human slavery and the destruction of the Federal Union.”

John Singleton Mosby
“Irrelevant,” he shouted…and he continued:

“You don’t deny that John Brown was the brother-in-law of John Wilkes Booth?”
“You’re crazy, Booth was not a…”

“And that John Brown invented the cotton gin, and is therefore directly responsible for a dramatic extension of slavery?”
“I have never heard such a ridic…”

“Or that he had a romantic affair with Susan B. Anthony?”
“Enough!, I yelled, “these exaggerations of yours can and will not stand!” 
But a satanic glow had come to his eyes, and I perceived that Longstreet’s infantry was once more gathering in the woods of Seminary Ridge…and it was again the afternoon of July 3, 1863 at Gettysburg. I needed a diversion, so I turned to my wife. She was asleep in her chair…her lower lip gently fluttering, her margarita half consumed. So accustomed to our periodic historical debates, she had taken the opportunity to enjoy a brief nap before dinner.
And then an extraordinary thing happened. My friend’s lovely consort…an angelic resident of the border State of Maryland…suddenly assumed the role and appearance of Henry Clay: “The Great Pacificator.” The tension of the moment was broken, as she cheerily declared:

“I have a present for you.”
“And what might that be?,” I replied, hoping for at least a bayonet with which to defend myself.
Excavating her stylish purse, she extracted a shiny coin and placed it into my still quivering hand. It was two bits…a quarter…and I gazed into the eyes of George Washington, the Virginia slaveholder.
“I don’t quite understand…”
“Turn it over,” she chirped.
My buddy emitted a audible groan, as I joyously proclaimed: “It’s John Brown’s Fort!!”


Commemorating the Lost Cause's Biggest Losers
Now, as an impressionable youth, I collected postage stamps. Through commemorative issues, I learned American history. To this very day, I can recite the presidents in sequential order, thusly: 1 cent Washington, 2 cent Adams, 3 cent Jefferson, 4 cent Madison, etc. 
One thing I never saw (and no doubt never will) is a stamp featuring John Brown. Why, as my buddy would say, he was a “traitor”…and hanged as such. Now, of course, there is a 1937 commemorative stamp picturing two Virginians…the aristocratic Robert E. Lee and the plebeian Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson. Apparently they eluded the “traitor” test. Both received a government funded education at West Point, but later took up arms against that very government. Talk about biting the hand that feeds you!
Thus my joy and surprise to see the name John Brown pressed into the reverse  of my shiny two bits! So how did this come about?
In 2010, the United States Mint inaugurated its “America the Beautiful Quarters Program.” Through this twelve year initiative, a total of fifty-six quarters will be issued…commemorating some of America’s most beautiful and historically significant sites. Among the five coins of 2016…the centennial of the National Park Service…is one honoring Harpers Ferry National Historic Park.
The “iconic” image of John Brown’s Fort was chosen for the obverse side of the coin. The artist, Thomas Hipschen, a “regular visitor to Harpers Ferry for the past 40 years,” stated: “It’s the only part of the original arsenal (sic) that still exists. It’s a major point in history; it was almost a trigger point for the Civil War. Later on, it became a meeting place for black groups that turned into the NAACP organization. It just has so many different points in history that make it important.”
On June 8, 2016, hundreds of people gathered at Harpers Ferry to attend the ceremony formally releasing the commemorative coin. John Brown could be in your pocket!


The Harper's Ferry Quarter in the author's hand
A coin in hand, I found myself mellowing…and anxious for a night out at a restaurant in my metropolis of 3500 people. My buddy, too, gazed benevolently in my direction. So I removed the blue kepi…he the gray. I unloaded my Springfield musket…he his Enfield. And the sectional crisis eased. 

He’s coming back in March.--H. Scott Wolfe

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Reflection: John Brown's Insight

John Brown's Insight

"That kind of news which we most like to hear of others affords the best possible index to the true character of our own hearts.    John Brown"

Source: John Brown's memorandum book I, Boston Public Library

Wednesday, November 02, 2016

Big Find: Original Bust of Brown by Edwin Brackett Recovered and Repaired

Big Find: 
Original Bust of Brown by Edwin Brackett Recovered and Repaired

Geoff Edgers of the Washington Post has an exciting piece currently accessible on TuftsNow, the website of Tuft's University, called "Finding John Brown: Solving the Mystery of a Lost Masterpiece in the Tufts Art Collection."   The article describes how Laura McDonald, the Collection Registrar at Tufts, made careful investigation into the famous but misplaced bust sculpture of Brown made by Edwin Brackett while the abolitionist was in jail awaiting his death sentence in November 1859.  I have written about this episode in Freedom's Dawn, but this article presents excellent background both historically, as well as regarding the fate of the bust and its recent recovery.   McDonald became curious about the bust when she read old correspondence discussing a bust with a broken nose; when she located the Brown bust, its nose was indeed broken.  Thanks to contemporary technology, a precise repair of the nose has been made.  Edgers writes that the bust was actually taken to Haiti, where it was displayed in a state funeral in Port Au Prince in 1860.

The Brackett Bust: Found Damaged
(Alonso Nichols, TuftsNow)
The bust was the brainchild of Brackett but was financed by George L. Stearns of Medford, Mass., who was perhaps the most crucial of Brown's wealthy supporters, since it was through him that Brown eventually came to possess Sharps rifles originally purchased for Kansas free state settlers. According to Brackett, when he first conceived of the idea to do a bust of Brown, his idea received a cold shoulder from Wendell Phillips, whereas the Stearns were quite willing to pay his way to Virginia and make Brackett's work possible.  Interestingly, as Edgers reveals, Mary Stearns eventually had a plaster copy of the bust made for Phillips at the time of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Edgers says that the original bust was displayed for a couple of years at the Stearns' residence, the Evergreens, and also shared with the Boston Atheneum, but received its formal unveiling on New Year's Day in 1863, to celebrate the Emancipation Proclamation.
Edger writes of that scene:
 "There were readings by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Julia Ward Howe, the poet best known for writing 'The Battle Hymn of the Republic,' and then Phillips lifted a blue cloth decorated with silver stars, revealing the sculpture.  
Laura McDonald (Alonso Nichols, TuftsNow)
The work was met with wide acclaim. Harriet Tubman admired it, as did the abolitionist and women’s rights activist Lydia Maria Child. “In this bust of Brown, the character of the man looks through the features wonderfully,” Child wrote. “Any good judge, that might examine it without knowing whom it was intended to portray, would say, ‘That is a man of strong will and lofty courage; kindly of heart, and religious to the very core of his being.’”
After her husband died, Mary Stearns commissioned a bust of her husband in 1879. Stearns continued to support the struggle for justice and during the Civil War, he supported recruitment for the famous Massachusetts Fifty-Fourth Volunteer Infantry Regiment—the first all-black regiment in the U.S. army.   The busts of Stearns and Brown, along with the Stearns estate, were left to Tufts, and the busts were displayed in the school's old Eaton Library before they disappeared into its holdings.

After McDonald recovered the Brown bust, she also learned that the Boston Atheneum held a plaster copy, perhaps the one given to Wendell Phillips.  Based upon the plaster copy, a plastic nose and eyebrow were printed on a high-resolution 3D printer, and these were used to produce plastic replicas to repair the bust.    However, Laura McDonald is still hoping and looking that the original nose can be found and replaced on the bust.   In the meantime, both the bust of Brown and Stearns are on display at the Tufts Art Gallery until December 4, after which they will be permanently displayed at the Tisch Library.

The Brackett Bust Repaired
(Alonso Nichols, TuftsNow)
This is a great find for history, perhaps since many of us simply assumed that the bust at the Boston Atheneum was the original Brackett production.  The community of scholars and supporters of John Brown owe Laura McDonald our thanks for her hard work and commitment to the restoration of this historical treasure and important image of John Brown.  In his own way, Brown has also made an impact on McDonald.  She told Edger:  “I guess I get wrapped up in the emotional intrigue of whatever the piece is”—but there was something particularly rewarding about this project. “John Brown,” she said, “is my new boyfriend.”+


I have included here a photo of the Brackett bust credited to a photographer named Warren, featured in a publication entitled The Pageant of America, Vol. 8.  Apparently the photograph was made by permission of Mary Stearns, who still held the bust at the time (Dec. 1882).

Below there is also a scan of  Lydia Maria Child's submission to the New York Tribune, 11 Feb. 1860 (p. 9, col. 6), entitled, "Brackett's Bust of John Brown."  Child's article chronicles the special unveiling mentioned in Edger's article.

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