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Monday, November 20, 2017

Katherine Mayo and the 1909 Altstadt Interview

Katherine Mayo ca. 1918
(Philadelphia Inquirer)
Interestingly, Katherine Mayo (1868-1940) may be most famously remembered as a character in Cloudsplitter (1998), the Russell Banks historical fiction that put John Brown back into the spotlight for a new century of readers.  Banks modeled his fiction upon the role of the real Mayo, who served as the field researcher for Oswald Garrison Villard, author of a 1910 biography of the martyred abolitionist.  Apart from her role as Villard’s better biographical half, Mayo gained far more notoriety for her own controversial book, Mother India (1927), which still is considered an offensive work of pro-colonialist and racist sentiment. Gandhi himself described Mayo’s portrayal of India and Hindu society as “abominable and patently wrong.”  A graduate of Wellesley College, Mayo admittedly was a gifted author who wrote several books in her career.  However, it is Mother India that seems to have kept her memory alive in contemporary political discussions.  For instance, in the London Daily Mail of June 7, 2013, Sandipan Deb summed up Mayo’s legacy as an author, concluding that she was “something beyond a white supremacist” who believed nonwhites were inferior. “Hers was an Anglo-Saxon Protestant racism,” Deb concluded.   This is an unfortunate profile for the most formidable John Brown researcher prior to the rise of Boyd B.  Stutler in the 1920s.         

            Furthermore, without Mayo, it is doubtful that Villard could have produced such a weighty and substantially researched effort—an aspect of his privilege that allowed him to denigrate the good effort of the less privileged W.E.B. DuBois, who lacked the resources that Villard employed as an heir to wealth.  Yet Mayo’s research was almost an embarrassment of riches for Villard, who did not utilize all of the materials that Mayo gathered in 1908-09.  Indeed, Villard’s papers are still an important resource for historians and biographers, thanks to the rigor of Mayo’s efforts. It should be added that despite Villard’s resources, Mayo’s research, and his use of the press to downgrade others and uplift his own work, Villard (with Mayo’s assistance) bent the facts somewhat to suit his thesis, especially his problematic conclusion that Brown had murdered men without warrant at Pottawatomie in 1856.  Boyd Stutler would rightly say in retrospect that Villard “slipped at times, mostly, I think, in evaluation and conclusion.”[i]

Villard’s Assistant

 Notice of Katherine Mayo in Kansas as Villard's research assistant;
Villard is mistakenly referred to as "O.J." instead of "O.G."
(Lawrence Daily Journal, July 29, 1908)
            I am not clear how Mayo came to know Villard, or when he determined to offer her a position as his researcher.  Katherine Frick, writing for the Pennsylvania Center for the Book, writes that Mayo had lived in Dutch Guyana for eight years with her father, and afterward worked as a journalist, having some articles published under a pseudonym.[ii]  It may be that their association took place through some journalistic association with the New York Evening Post, which was owned by Villard.  Regardless, as Frick points out, Villard became Mayo’s mentor as well as employer—although she actually seems to have been his senior by a few years.  However, Villard’s influence upon her is undoubted, particularly in introducing her to activist-oriented writing. 

            On the other hand, Mayo seems to have brought a developed journalistic skill set to the John Brown effort, and according to Villard her contributions were invaluable.  Although he acknowledged her great work in the pages of his John Brown, Villard wrote to Mayo early on that she could very well have written the book herself.[iii]  Indeed, Villard was not exaggerating when he wrote in the preface of his John Brown biography, that Mayo’s efforts in search of material had taken more than two years and brought her along thousands of miles.  “But for her judgment, her tact and skill, and her enthusiasm for the work, it could hardly have approached its present comprehensiveness,” he concluded.[iv]

Oswald G. Villard 
            Anyone who has worked extensively in the Villard papers will have observed the extent to which Villard’s John Brown was all but co-authored by Katherine Mayo.   She was the first and only researcher to scour the continental United States (especially the regions associated with Brown and his circles of influence) fifty years after Brown’s death.  This not only meant that she tracked down documents of all kinds for her boss, but that she had access to Brown’s family and associates still living at the time.  Mayo brought her journalistic skills to bear in interviewing a wide range of people (including the Thomas Allstadt transcript featured below).  She also proved a formidable researcher with an expansive success in collecting documents, which was a monumental achievement in and of itself.  Another aspect of her research and documentation was in providing the book a chronology of events, covering Brown’s life from when he went to Kansas in 1855 until his death in Virginia in 1859.  As can be seen in the Villard papers, Mayo recycled a number of pocket calendar books, which she reconfigured as a chronological record of Brown’s last four years, adding dates and events as she inspected new sources and reconstructed Brown’s story. As unusual as it may be, I agree with Blake Gilpin’s conclusion that without Mayo’s “judgment. . .tact and skill, and her enthusiasm for the work,” Villard’s biography would have lacked comprehensiveness.[v]  Indeed, it is the comprehensive nature of the work has proven to be the greatest value of his contribution, since the book itself is not particularly well written. Ultimately, the Villard biography pales in comparison to his archived papers—a high tribute to Katherine Mayo.

And the Raid--the Rest is History?

               The rest, as they say, is history—although unfortunately much of what is considered history about the raid is open to question.   I have endeavored to remedy some of these ensconced errors in my book, Freedom’s Dawn, including the widespread notion that Brown raided the armory to seize the weapons—something which he expressly denied and for which there is not the slightest evidence.  The raid was a political demonstration, most likely aimed at the Democratic administration because of its failure to prosecute Southerners involved in raiding a federal arsenal in Missouri in 1856.  Unfortunately, Brown belabored and delayed in Harper’s Ferry and became hopelessly bogged down.  Allstadt’s reminiscence thus involves the last hours, when Brown, some of his men, some of the liberated black community, and his hostages were holed up in the engine house near the entrance of the armory works.   As I have pointed out, it is often overlooked that Brown was beaten and brutally stabbed with a bayonet (or bayonets) by marines after falling under the blunt attack of Israel Green, who could not seem to kill the Old Man despite his worst intentions.  Of course, Brown lived, stood trial, and lived another month after being found guilty and sentenced to death by a jury of slaveholders.  His wounds were barely healed when he was hanged on December 2, 1859.

Katherine Mayo, ca. 1920
(Muncie Evening Press)

The Altstadt Interview

            Among the many interviews that Mayo conducted for Villard was a 1909 meeting with Thomas Altstadt, the son of John Altstadt, one of the slaveholders; both father and son were taken by John Brown’s men as hostages during the Harper’s Ferry raid of 1859. Although Brown originally intended to keep his hostages outdoors, he had eventually retreated to the watchman’s office adjoining the fire engine house of the Harper’s Ferry armory works.  He later said that he did so because of the cold, and it was by these kinds of humanitarian concessions that Brown ultimately undermined himself and his men, tactically losing a strategic advantage by a number of kindly measures that added up to tactical loss.  When opposition from drunken townsmen mounted, Brown selected the Altstadts among a smaller number of hostages that were moved into the fire engine house. A local newspaper at the time listed the hostages in the engine house, omitting the younger Altstadt but mentioning Altstadt senior.  Also transferred into the engine house were Lewis Washington, Benjamin Mills, A. M. Ball, J. E. P. Dangerfield, Terrance Byrne, George Shope, Joseph Brua, Israel Russell, and John Donohoe.[vi]  Of the names listed, Washington held ten people in slavery, Alstadt held eleven people in slavery, Dangerfield held five people in slavery (including a teenage girl), and Russell held a young male "mulatto."  The rest either held no people in slavery or somehow are not listed as slaveholders in the 1860 Slave Schedule for Jefferson County, Virginia.  The younger Altstadt was the only surviving captive of John Brown's in 1909.

              Mayo conducted her interview of Thomas Altstadt on April 15, 1909 and an original transcription in her handwriting is found in the Villard Papers at Columbia University.  This original transcription includes some handwritten notes at the end by Altstadt Junior, and a sketch of the engine house interior showing the positioning of Brown, his men, and his captives at the time of the raid. Mayo afterward prepared an edited version, the transcription of which is also found in the Villard Papers.  This also became the basis of an article that appeared in Villard's New York Evening Post on October 16, 1909, which was part of a series by Mayo about John Brown that ran weekly from October to December, marking the fiftieth anniversary of the Harper's Ferry raid.[vii]  The transcription provided here is that raw, unedited version. 

          How reliable is this interview?  One must remember that not only was Altstadt recalling the 1859 incident fifty years later, but even at the time he could not have had a comprehensive view of what happened that day.  For instance, Altstadt was clearly incorrect that the marines did not use their bayonets.  It is generally believed by historians that two of Brown's men were killed by bayonet; Brown was also wounded by bayonet.  At the same time, much of the reminiscences of this interview are still highly valuable, both for what occurred when Brown's men seized the Alstadts and liberated their enslaved men, and also the details from the engine house.  What is most interesting, again, is Altstadt's strong contention that no one was killed by bayonet, and his self-assurance that he would have known it had such killing taken place.  It may be that he simply did not see these killings with the rush of the final moments of the marine breakthrough.  But it may also mean that, like Brown's beating and stabbing on the engine house floor, Altstadt did not see the bayonet violence because it did not happen until afterward--after he and the prisoners were removed.  If this interview is substantive, then it is possible that Brown's two men allegedly killed at the breakthrough were actually murdered after being taken prisoner.   One must wonder why the younger Altstadt did not at least remember the wounded and dying raiders in the wake of the marine assault.


Katherine Mayo’s Transcription and Notes of the interview with Thomas Altstadt, April 15, 1909

“I had gone to the ‘protracted meeting’ that night, and had been not more than an hour at home and abed when the raiders reached our house.  This was, I think, between 1 and 2 o’clock.  I slept upstairs, my father and mother below.  The crash of the fence rail against the door awoke me with a jump.  My sister, Ludie Allstadt, and my second cousin (whom we always called aunt,) Miss Hannah Hall, both of whom also slept above, sprang to their windows and leaned out crying ‘Murder.’ ‘Take in your heads or I’ll blow out your brains!’ shouted a colored man below, levelling his gun at them as he spoke.

 I—I was a lad of eighteen at the time—having hustled on my clothes, seized my old country gun and ran for the stairs.  Aunt Hannah, clinging to me, stooped and peered down the stairway, under my arm.  “The men all have guns.  Leave that behind or they will surely kill you!” she begged—so I dropped the gun and ran down unarmed.  My mother lay in her bed.  The room was full of armed men.  “What are you going to do?” I asked.  “To carry you and your father to Harper’s Ferry.  John Brown has taken possession of the Government works.”  “Taken possession of the Government works!  That isn’t much!” said I.  “Only one watchman there!”  “You shut your damned mouth or I’ll blow your brains out!” Stevens exclaimed, and ordered a negro to keep me quiet with a revolver at my breast.  The negro, collaring me, obeyed.

Presently they led my father and me outside.  There we saw Colonel Washington, sitting in his own team.  They put us, my father and me, on the seat of Col. Washington’s four horse wagon.  In the body, behind us, our six negroes and Col. Washington’s quota stood close packed.  As we drove inside the Armory yard, there stood an old man.  “This,” said Stevens, by way of introduction, “is John Brown.” “Osawatomie Brown of Kansas,” added Brown.  Then he handed out pikes to our negroes, telling them to guard us carefully, to prevent our escape.  “Keep these white men inside,” said he.  “There were no other local negroes within the enclosure, save Colonel Washington’s and ours.”

“We arrived at the Armory just about daybreak.  We were not taken inside the building until several men had fallen.  In the interval we were permitted to walk up and down before the engine house, east and west, but not on the East side, on which were the gates.  The citizens began shooting—and first at the Hall Rifle works—about nine or ten o’clock.   Prisoners who were brought into the yard conveyed the news of the death of Boerley and of Turner.  Turner was sitting on his horse when shot.  I was told that Dangerfield Newby and Shields Green were out in the street firing, when Turner fell, and that one or the other shot him.  But that, of course, I did not see myself.  Later these two negroes went into the arsenal, across the road from the armory yard.

When the fire of the citizens was directed upon that point, they [Newby and Green] grew frightened.  But they very much feared to cross the street.  At last they ran for it.  One succeeded in making the armory enclosure.  The other was killed in the road, and that man it was who at Stevens’s command, had held the pistol to my breast.  Then, the fire having become hot, Brown’s men began to gather into the yard.  Coppoc and one of Brown’s sons coming in, among the numbers.  And now, for protection, the prisoners were herded into the watch-house, which was the western division of the engine-house building (see plan).  The watch-house door stood open and Coppoc sat down in the door-way.  About the door and overhead was much glass.

It was at this time that Stevens fell.  One of my father’s colored boys, peering out, spied the men who were aiming at him and called my attention.  I saw Captain George Chambers and Mr. Percival standing in an upper window of the Galt House, watching Stevens until he should come well within range.  As the moment arrived, they broke the glass in order to fire true.  Stevens fell.  “Stevens is shot!” cried one of Brown’s men.  “I am sorry for that,” said Brown, “is he dead?”  “No, he is moving.”  Stevens pulled himself up upon one knee.  “Look” exclaimed our boy,” Look, Marse Tom, they’re going to fire again!”  At the second volley Stevens dropped.  He lay for perhaps half an hour, there in the road.  Then he was carried to the Wager House.

Our open watch-house door commanded a view of the trestle.  Fontaine Beckham walked back and forth on the trestle twice, or several times, but as he was unarmed no one fired upon him.  Now he went behind the water tank and began peering around its corner, as it might be to take aim.  “If he keeps on peaking I’m going to shoot,” said Coppoc, from his seat in the doorway.  I stood close by him.  Mr. Beckham peeked again and Coppoc fired, but missed.  “Don’t fire,’ man, for God’s sake!  They’ll shoot in here and kill us all,” shrieked the prisoners behind.  Some were laughing, others overwhelmed with fear.  But Coppoc was already firing again, this time six inches or so within the corner, calculating on the position of Beckham’s heart in that altitude and also of the cornerpost.  This shot killed Beckham.  Undoubtedly he would not have been fired upon but for his equivocal appearance.  Coppoc fired no more from the watch-house; in fact, no one remained in sight.  But Brown’s son, Oliver, sitting in the partly open engine house door, spied someone peeping over the stone wall of the trestle in the act of sighting a gun.  Young Brown instantly took aim; but even as he was in the act of firing the other’s shot struck him—a mortal wound that gave horrible pain.

A very few moments after this they selected fifteen of twenty of us from the prisoners in the watch-house and brought us into the engine-house—and an uneasy little trip we thought it, in the open between door and door.  John Brown now ordered one of my father’s old negroes, Phil Lucker, to pick some openings in the engine house walls, to use as port holes.  But no sooner was it done than the fact became evident that the citizens outside only awaited the fall of the bricks, to fire in.  So the port holes were after all but little used.

Shortly after our transference it began to grow dark, too dark to see to shoot accurately; but the citizens’ fire continued very heavy.  Darkness fell; and then they shut fast the engine-house door.  We had no light.  Everything grew still, except that the citizens outside shouted and whooped all night long.  Captain Rowan’s company, it was said, lay at the gate.  In the quiet of the night young Brown died.  He had begged again and again to be shot, in the agony of his wound, but his father had replied to him, “O you will get over it,” and “If you must die, die like a man.”  Now John Brown talked, from time to time, with my father and with Col. Washington, but I did not hear what was said.  Young Brown lay quietly over in a corner.  His father called to him, after a time.  No answer.  “I guess he is dead,” said Brown.

In the morning, after the colloquy of surrender and the refusal, came the breaking of the door by the marines.  It is absolutely untrue that Brown had at any time proposed to put his prisoners to the fore in case of attack.  At this moment most of us were back in the East (left as you enter) corner, crouched down.  The single engine in the room was pushed up toward the front, not quite square before the door.  It afforded but little protection to us.  Brown himself, at the moment of the breaking of the door, was just back of the engine.  I could not tell who shot Quinn, but I did see that Coppoc fired.  As Green rushed upon him, Brown lifted his gun to shoot.  Green knocked the gun up and it went off in the air.  Green instantly slashed at Brown, at his head—with his sword, and the same sweeping stroke that cut Brown’s head, in its finish knicked my father’s hat-band.  I well remember Green’s apology to my father, as we got outside, and his asking to be allowed to get my father a new hat.  Brown fell as Green struck him and did not rise again.

The Marines had bayonets but did not use them.  Of course, in such an excitement, in such an excitement, no one person was likely to see all that happened.  I did not see any man pinned to the wall with a bayonet as is said to have happened to Anderson, nor can I believe that it did occur; for I think I should have seen or known of it otherwise.
As the Marines swarmed in, and the call for surrender came, Coppoc and the rest threw down their guns.  But while the parley for surrender had been going on earlier at the door, no one of Brown’s men spoke of surrender.  After we were taken outside they asked me to go over to the Wager House to see if I could identify the prisoner.  It was Stevens.  A heavy guard stood at his door; to prevent a repeateing of the Thompson affair, which was disapproved.  Mrs. Foulk had come out, with her servants and carried Stevens into the Wager House, from the Street.  She was the most kind hearted woman alive.

Reproduction of Mayo's sketched layout of the Harper's Ferry engine house at the time of Brown's defeat

[Miscellaneous information added based upon post-interview questions and comments]

The dog in the engine house, who belonged to Brown’s party, was a big, back, mongrel fellow with white feet, and a white stripe down his face.  He was not cross.

The men of Brown’s party did not fire from the hip, but dropped to one knee, aimed and shot.

Shields Green, during the confinement of the prisoners was very insolent and rough to them.  Toward the end he shot no more at all, but dodged and hid about, and at least tried to pass himself off for a captured slave.

When the breakfast came in from the Wager House, my father and Col. Washington remarked to each other that it might be poisoned, and refused it.  But I and a good many others ate.

Fontaine Beckham had no slaves.

I heard nothing of the Baylor matter.  But it is indisputably true that the militia were afraid to storm the engine house.

A very few minutes after we chosen prisoners were removed from the watch-house, the Martinsburg Company came and kicked open the window and let the other prisoners out.  “Are there any of Brown’s men in here?” they called. (I heard them).  “No they are all in the other part,” the prisoners called back.  When we were taken away, no guard was left over the remaineder, and there was no door between engine-house and watch-house.  They could therefore have walked out or climbed out themselves.  But they did not know what might be outside.  And Rowan’s men did not come around in front, where there was any chance for the engine-house garrison to get a shot at them.

Be careful not to mix the terms “Arsenal” and “Armory.”  The engine-house was in the Armory enclosure.  The Arsenal was across the street.

They did not close the engine house door until dark.

The window of the watch-house was on the West side.

[In Altstadt’s handwriting]

This is all correct.  Some things I left of[f].  The first marine was killed in entering the engine house and [also] Cook and Brown sun [sic] and one of our Colerd [sic] man with them got acros [sic] in to the mar[y]land mountain our man got awy [sic] from them the way he got away they laid down to sleep and they let him watch a while and he slip of[f].  Cook was captured at the locks where the Arsenels [sic] boats pass through.  There was a store he was geting [sic] some thin to eate [sic] Brown son [Owen] never was heard of


            [i] Boyd B. Stutler to Louis Filler, Nov. 21, 1957, RP04-0198B, John Brown – Boyd B. Stutler Papers, West Virginia State Archives.
            [ii] Katherine Frick, “Katherine Mayo,” Pennsylvania Center for the Book (University Park, Pa.: Penn State University).  Retrieved from https://goo.gl/oLgNhr.
            [iii]Oswald G. Villard to Katherine Mayo, 31 Aug. 1908, Box 9, Oswald G. Villard – John Brown Papers, Columbia University Collection.  
            [iv] Oswald G. Villard, John Brown 1800-1859: A Biography Fifty Years After (New York: Houghton & Mifflin Co., 1910), p. ix.   
            [v] R. Blakeslee Gilpin, John Brown Still Lives! America’s Long Reckoning with Violence, Equality, and Change (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011), p. 96.
            [vi] See “A Matter for Reflection,” Virginia Free Press, 27 Oct. 1859, p. 2.
            [vii] Evidently, Villard either encouraged or permitted Mayo to publish this series based upon her extensive field research done in preparation for his biography, published the following year.  The series ran in a supplementary section of the New York Evening Post as follows: “John Brown’s Raid 50 Years Ago,” Oct. 16, 1909, p. 1; “Brown in Hiding and in Jail,” Oct. 23, 1909; “In An Angry City to Visit Brown,” Oct. 30, 2009, p. 2; “Sturdy Children of John Brown,” Nov. 6, 1909, p. 3; “Sculptor’s Visit to John Brown,” Nov. 13, 1909, p. 2; “A Lieutenant of John Brown,” Nov. 20, 1909, p. 3; “Author of John Brown Song,” Nov. 27, 1909, p. 1; and “Execution of Old John Brown,” Dec. 4, 2009, p. 3.