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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