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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, April 22, 2018

Confabulation and Fabrication: Russell Conwell on John Brown

Russell H. Conwell (1843-1925) was a big deal.  Born to a pious Methodist farmer and reared "on a 350-acre hardscrabble subsistence farm in the Berkshires in western Massachusetts," Conwell grew up near South Worthington, about 15 miles from Westfield, Mass. He was a climber by all accounts.  He left home in 1861 and enrolled at Yale University to study law, but returned to Massachusetts when the Civil War began.  He enlisted in--and perhaps was responsible for recruiting the entire--Company F, 46th Massachusetts Volunteer Militia, where he served as captain.

Conwell as Soldier
Conwell and Company F were mustered out in July 1863.  Conwell was wounded and became sick, but after recovering, he reenlisted, becoming captain of Company D, 2nd Regiment, Massachusetts Heavy Artillery. In 1864, when he went on an errand with permission but without proper documentation in North Carolina, Conwell was courtmartialed and dismissed from the service on May 20, 1864.1

Afterward, Conwell worked as a reporter for the Boston Evening Traveller and the American Traveller, and enjoyed adventures overseas.  He also wrote a number of biographies of contemporary political figures like Presidents Grant, Hayes, and Garfield, and other works of contemporary historical interest, from an account of an 1872 fire in Boston to issues relating to Chines immigration and to the life of the famous English preacher, Charles Spurgeon.
Writer and Preacher
State Library of Mass.

By 1876, Conwell had changed tracks, finding his vocation in pastoral ministry and leading a feeble Baptist congregation in Lexington, Mass.  He is credited for reviving the church, and three years later was ordained at the Andover Newton Seminary.  His next pastoral charge in 1882 was a step up, when Conwell assumed the pulpit of the Grace Baptist Church, in Philadelphia, Pa.  As one author put it, "Conwell’s energy, organizational skills and gifted oratory attracted many new parishioners, and soon there was not enough room to accommodate all who wished to worship at the church and to listen to the brilliant, entertaining and motivating pastor."2  Conwell's fame preceded him because of his oratorical labors on the Chautauqua circuit, a popular effort in the 19th century that enabled authors and artists of all kinds to present and perform in a kind of big tent show throughout much of the heartland of the United States.  One source says Conwell gave one particular speech entitled, "Acres of Diamond," over six-thousand times.  Conwell also wrote books, including an adaptation of this popular tale, in which is considered a "morality tale" that could sound at times like a sermon, then a lecture, and then a dramatic story-telling.

Acres of Prestige
Wikimedia Commons
Conwell was no theologian, but rather an orator and preacher of the American practical religion, not unlike the contemporary preaching of Joel Osteen, dubbed quite unfortunately as "America's Pastor" by some.3  It was not that his work lacked orthodoxy, but whatever the content of his weekly sermons, he is remembered more for morality tales and themes that uplifted the Puritan ethic of family, community, and education.  His "Acres of Diamonds" told the story of Al Hafed a farmer in the east who enjoyed a contented life until he became obsessed to find diamonds.  After scouring much of the middle east, Al Hafed exhausted his resources and had to return to his home on the River Indus.  It was only then that he discovered that his own land was diamond rich.   Conwell's moral was that one should not think that wealth can be obtained only outside of his own place and context, but that wealth could be made in one's own circumstances.

A partial list of Conwell's books suggest this was the line of his inspirational ministry: Acres of Diamonds (1890, 1915); The Key to Success (1917); Increasing Personal Efficiency (1917); Every Man His Own University (1917); What You Can Do With Your Will Power (1917); Praying for Money (1921); Health, Healing and Faith (1921); Subconscious Religion (1921), and Unused Powers (1922).  [A longer list can be found on the website of Grace Baptist Church of Bluebell, Pa.] As one chronicler put it: "Conwell’s message had a larger purpose transcending contemporary wisdom. The pathway to personal success, he stressed, was largely education. Educated persons, in turn, were obligated to serve the less fortunate and to help them realize their full potential. Further, it was the duty of all to meet the needs of the community. “We must know what the world needs first,” said Conwell, “and then invest ourselves to supply that need, and success is almost certain.”4

Philadelphia Pastor
Grace Baptist Church
To his credit, Conwell's pastorate involved ministries to the poor across ethnic lines, although his interests increasingly led toward education.  In the 1880s, his tutoring of young ministry students led to the formation of a school in the church basement, and then the formation of Temple College in 1887.  Of course, this was the first manifestation of today's Temple University.5  Conwell is also the namesake of one of the theological schools that combined to make the notable Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, in Gloucester, Mass.

Confabulation and Fabrication

While all of this is generally interesting for anyone with an appetite for 19th century U.S. history, what captured my interest in Conwell was coming upon the little book he wrote late in life, Why Lincoln Laughed (1922).6   In this work, Conwell included in chapter 8, entitled "Lincoln and John Brown, in which Conwell reflects upon his childhood reminiscences of John Brown the abolitionist.  The gist of the chapter was to contrast Brown was a devout, godly, and heroic man who was dour and humorless, with the warmth of President Lincoln, whom he claimed to have spoken with during the Civil War.  Referring to Brown, Conwell says he knew him "intimately in my boyhood days" as "high minded, probably as anyone who ever lived," and while regarded as a saint by many, "never captured the heart of the people as Abraham Lincoln did, and to-day is virtually forgotten."7

Conwell claimed to have had a "long interview" with Lincoln in the winter of 1864, where he informed Lincoln about his John Brown backstory. He says that he had gone to Washington to plead for a pardon for a friend, but Diane Brenner assures me that this is highly unlikely, and her familiarity with the topic is well studied.8  Equally problematic is Conwell's claim that his father had a wool business partnership with Brown for many years in Springfield, Mass., and "was a frequent and intimate caller at our house."  He writes that his father and Brown were closely associated in the underground railroad and discussed his plans for a slave uprising at their table "again and again for years before the Harper's Ferry raid finally took place." He says that John Brown kept a "summer place" in the Adirondacks, "and when he left there a man remained behind in the old cabin to help the slaves escape." Of course, this is quite incorrect.  According to Conwell, the underground railroad ran from Springfield to Bellows Falls on his father's branch and claimed it was common for his father's woodshed to be filled with fugitives.9

Conwell claimed that Lincoln was very much interested in what he could learn about John Brown.  He says that he told Lincoln that his mother thought Brown a monomaniac despite his father's devotion to him.  "Nobody could be more earnest or sincere than Lincoln, but he could laugh; John Brown could not." Conwell compares Brown, in his "earliest impression as a little boy," to "one of the old prophets" with his "long beard and [he] was always very, very serious."10

"The first great man
I ever saw"
Conwell says his father was a Methodist but he never heard that John Brown was a member of any church, although actually he was a Congregationalist.  He says that Brown was at his house nearly every month, and that his father and Brown would sit at the dining room table and talk late into the night, poring over maps and lists of memoranda.  He describes Brown's voice as "low, even-toned."  He also claims that William Lloyd Garrison had told Brown that his Virginia plan "was a very foolish enterprise."11  It is very doubtful that Brown divulged his Virginia plan to Garrison, whom he respected but would not have trusted.

He says the last time he saw John Brown, he had driven out to our house before leaving Springfield to go to Harper's Ferry, and that his father drove Brown to Huntington railroad station, then known as Chester Village.  He claimed that John Brown wrote to his father from jail in Virginia before being executed, but he does not paraphrase the letter, let alone quote from it.12

In what clearly was an authorized "great man" type of biography by Agnes Burr, Conwell tells his writer that John Brown was a frequent visitor to his childhood home.  He told Burr that Brown was "the first great man I ever saw."13

In an interview with Burr, Conwell dated a visit by Brown to his home as taking place in 1852, when Conwell would have been nine years of age.  According to the account, Conwell had barged into the cold northwest bedroom of their house, thinking that a favorite uncle had come to stay.  Instead he discovered "a giant," who was so long in bed that his toes stood up at the footboard, with long hair "spread out over the pillow and his long gray whiskers."  He claims he was terrified by Brown's "huge size" of "that awful giant." Afterward, he and his brother grew to love JB, a man with a benign smile, "one of the loveliest men we ever knew."14  Indeed, in the account given to Burr, John Brown becomes "Uncle Brown" and had even taken young Conwell to school in his wagon.  He says the last time that he and his brother Charles saw Brown, he had told them to stay at home "with the old folks."15

The Conwell home in South Worthington,
where John Brown visited in the early 1840s
Although he misdates the day of Brown's hanging as Dec. 9, 1859, he repeats the claim that his father had received a letter from Brown in jail, adding that in the letter Brown "sent his love" to him and his brother, "asking them to think of him sometimes in after life as a man who had humbly tried to do his duty."   He says on the day Brown was hanged, his home was full of sorrow and his parents did not eat, and his father wept aloud when the clock struck noon on that "awful day."  Conwell concluded that losing Brown "filled us with extreme prejudices against the people of the South," and "our souls were filled with bitterness and hatred," and he uses this point to emphasize "how useless and fratricidal, after all, that war was.  How much better it would have been to have accepted President Lincoln's recommendation and purchased the slaves of the South at their normal valuation and set them free without revolution and without bloodshed."16

Conwell also told Burr that his family had Frederick Douglass in their home as a guest, and that young Conwell thought him too light-skinned to be a black man.17  He told Burr that his first lectures were given about John Brown, when he sold Redpath's biography, which would have been in 1860, when he was about seventeen-years-old.18

Interestingly, with but one exception, there is no significant mention of Brown in an earlier and more professional biographical work by Albert Hatcher Smith, The Life of Russell H. Conwell (1899).
Without any apparent reference to his boyhood, instead Smith includes the transcript of Conwell's "Acres of Diamonds" speech, in which Conwell identifies himself with lawyers, whom he lauds for serving humanity.  Among these admirable lawyers, Conwell alludes to--but does not name--George H. Hoyt, whom he had probably met on the lecture circuit.   In the speech, Conwell says that he had  met "one who defended poor John Brown, of Ossawatomie--the indiscreet but martyr-like lover of the slaves."  This lawyer "went from home and safety to meet foes and danger, that the accused might have all of the few privileges known to the slaveholder's law."19

Stutler: Conwell not
an authoritative source
on John Brown
Toward the Truth

After my initial reading of some Conwell sources, I was naturally provoked to interest as to establishing a base line of historicity (if possible) in Conwell's references to John Brown.  My first inclination, upon reading the obviously stylized material in Why Lincoln Laughed was to consult the Stutler Papers.  It is still hard to beat old Boyd B., and sure enough I found some evidence that Stutler was aware of Why Lincoln Laughed--and granted it no historical value.   In 1960, a professor of journalism from Temple University contacted Stutler about Conwell's references to Brown.  Stutler replied that he had Brown's wool business letter books and never saw his name in any of his correspondence.20  In all my studies over the years, neither have I.

In 1963, Stutler got a letter from a Philadelphia admirer of Conwell, recounting the latter's intimate connections with John Brown.   Stutler wrote back, telling the man that after investigation of Brown's papers, he had "found nothing," and did not consider Conwell "an authoritative source."   The man was outraged and wrote back to "deplore" Stutler's conclusions, and then lectured him on Conwell's reliability.21  Given Stutler's disregard for Conwell, I nearly closed the case and moved onto grading final papers (which is what I should be doing now.)   Certainly, Conwell's narratives, conveyed later in life to his admiring bio-stylist, Agnes Burr, and in his own self-flattering, Why Lincoln Laughed, are fraught with confabulations at best, and fabrications at worst.  It is also interesting that the more substantial biography by Albert Hatcher Smith in 1899 has almost no mention of Brown whatever.  It is thus necessary to start at a minimalist baseline.

It is feasible that John Brown was an associate of Conwell's pious Methodist parents, Martin and Meranda Conwell.  The Conwells were abolitionists by reputation and there is no reason to doubt that John Brown probably met them in his early sheep-and-wool surveys throughout the northeast.  I have surveyed this period elsewhere, and I am quite certain that Brown traversed western Massachusetts in the early-mid 1840s when he was honing his specialization as a wool guru.  His travels really kicked into high gear after he partnered with Simon Perkins of Akron, Ohio, when he visited many farms as northward as Vermont and Maine and as southward as Virginia.  His study of flocks and breeds undoubtedly gave the Perkins flock its great reputation, which can be found in contemporary agricultural journals from the mid-1840s.   Often, too, Brown blended antislavery interests in meeting farmers and wool growers, and so the idea that Brown knew and stayed with the Conwells is entirely feasible.

Happily, a local historian named Diane Brenner, from South Worthington, Mass., has been greatly helpful by confirming the following details: Martin Conwell (1812-1874) was a strident abolitionist.  He and his wife Meranda left the Methodist Episcopal Church and joined an antislavery Wesleyan-Methodist church because the latter was pronounced in its view of slavery.  Brenner believes that Russell Conwell's narrative was greatly exaggerated, although she has evidence that Martin and Meranda donated $10 to John Brown's cause.  "It is likely that as sheep farmers and abolitionists they met John Brown during the time he first came to the area to sell wool," Brenner writes.22 This is helpful, although Brown did not so much sell wool as he did examine flocks and breeds.  After 1846, however, he would have been interested in getting Conwell to sell his wool through the Perkins and Brown operation in Springfield.  But since there is no reference to Conwell in Brown's business letters, I doubt this was the case.   I believe it is more likely that Brown and the Conwells knew each other from the earlier 1840s, perhaps from about 1844 or 1845.

Graves of Martin, Meranda, and son Charles Conwell
in South Worthington, Mass. (Find a Grave)  Russell is buried
on the grounds of Temple University in Philadelphia
As to Brown's antislavery interests, he was in touch with the right people.  Brenner says the Conwells "were also likely part of a wider network stretching north through Worthington, into Cummington and Plainfield."  She correctly recalls that Plainfield was where the school run by the Reverend Moses Hallock was located, and where Brown attended briefly as a youth.  Hallock continued there into the 1840s, so this would have been another reason for Brown's visits to the area.  Brenner says some locals in this area were participants in the Underground Railroad along this route.23

What of Russell Conwell's memories of John Brown?   Personally, I doubt any of them are substantial and most of what he has written must range from confabulation to fabrication.  I do not believe the "Uncle Brown" reminiscences are true at all, and certainly his descriptions of Brown are physically incorrect and inappropriate to chronology.  Most obvious, Brown was not a "giant" man.  In 1852, when he describes a visit by Brown in his home, the abolitionist did not have long hair and a long beard, and he was not so tall that his feet would have been propped up on the bed.  This either is fiction or he has confused another visitor in memory.  Since Conwell was born in 1843, he might have had some vague memory of Brown's visits in the later 1840s, but it is doubtful Brown was so frequently in their home, and certainly there was no wool business operation in Springfield that involved the elder Conwell.  For whatever reason, Martin Conwell seems to have had no wool business dealings with Brown in Springfield in the later 1840s.  Still, it is possible that Brown visited them occasionally and that he did talk to Martin Conwell about slavery, although how much Brown revealed at that date is unclear.   Perhaps if Brown assisted fugitives from slavery while in Springfield, he may have looked to the Conwells for some assistance.  But again I doubt there was much frequency, and Brenner doubts very much that the Conwells were that busily engaged in underground railroad activity the way Russell Conwell later recounted the story.
Brown as he looked
in the 1840s

Since Brown knew the Conwells from the 1840s, it is possible that the younger Conwell did see Brown occasionally afterward.  For instance, Brown was in Springfield in February 1852 on business; did he venture out to South Worthington to visit the Conwells?  It is possible.  He traveled through western Massachusetts in late 1852, and then again in February 1853.  Any one of these visits might have entailed stopping by to see the Conwells.  Interestingly, too, Brown visited Springfield after returning from Kansas, in February 1857, when it is even more likely that he would have sought out the aid of the Conwells (this may be when he received $10 from Martin Conwell, but I'd have to confirm that with Diane Brenner).   More likely, he seems to have been in Springfield for an extended visit in March-April 1857, and one might wager that this visit included a meeting with the Conwells.  There is no evidence in Brown's letters that he returned to western Massachusetts after 1857, although it is possible that he made a flying visit there sometime in late May-early June 1859.  But without any evidence of a stop, the idea that a bearded John Brown ever visited the Conwell household seems quite unlikely.

Temple UniversityLibraries
John Brown as a Reinvention

Russell Conwell was by all accounts a notable figure in 19th century U.S. history, a man of high profile, considerable gifts and talents, and of no small success.  Unlike other confabulators and fabricators of the John Brown myth, Conwell at least was not using the abolitionist to attain popularity, as was the case with the Canadian fraud, Alexander Milton Ross.  Ross spun an ornate web of lies and went to the point of inventing letters from John Brown so he could wile his way into the hearts of Brown's children. 

Conwell was already a success and it is more likely that he was just spinning yarns from the slight fabric of memory and family history.   I would like to believe that in Russell Conwell's early childhood memory, he could recall John Brown--at least, the figure of a kind man that he later was told had been John Brown the abolitionist.  The fact is that when John Brown was most present in his home, he was too young to know him or recall him in any significant manner.  It is clear that in some cases Conwell is familiar with Brown's narrative from other authors.  His description of Brown from his "earliest impression, as a little boy" as  looking like "one of the old prophets" with his "long beard" reminded me immediately of the description of Brown in 1858 by the wife of Martin Delany, preserved in Rollin's sketch of Martin Delany (1883): "She described him as having a long, white beard, very gray hair, a sad but placid countenance; in speech he was peculiarly solemn; she added, 'He looked like one of the old prophets.'"24
He wasn't "Uncle Brown"

Many of the descriptions provided of Brown by Conwell are clearly fictional, from physical descriptions to the description of his voice.  Brown was wiry and muscular, but he was not tall or big-boned.  His voice has never been described as low or deep.  More likely he spoke with a nasal tone and an Ohio twang (example saying "boosh" for "bush.")   Conwell, if he saw Brown in the later 1850s, never saw him with a beard.  He wasn't "Uncle Brown" and I doubt very much that Brown ever took him to school. 

John Brown as a Device

Assuming that only a small percent of Conwell's description of Brown is reliable, the question is why a successful man felt it necessary to spin so much confabulation and fabrication about him.  I suppose that no matter how successful a man becomes, he always wants to be more successful.   By1922, Conwell was an old man and in decline.  It is not unusual for elderly people to specialize in tall tales, either to enhance their profiles or extend the viability of their public profile.  I would assume the latter with Conwell--that by 1922, he needed to connect with a larger-than-life Lincoln in order to recapture the fame and popularity he had enjoyed in earlier decades.

If there is another device in Conwell's "memory" of Brown it is to convey his political sensibilities, and these are a mirror of the times.  By 1922, Abraham Lincoln had been fully deified in American memory as the redeemer of the Republic.  The historical wind had shifted from the late 19th century heroism of John Brown and yielded to the new century of white nation-building-and-expansion.  Reconstruction was long dead, Jim Crow and de jure segregation was now in power, and the plight of African Americans was put to the side as immigrants and industrialization defined the nation's modern comeuppance.  In such a context, John Brown declined in national memory, particularly in white national memory.  Oswald Villard had already written his blaming biography of Brown twelve years before (1910), and from this point until about 1970, the 20th century would steadily become more hostile to the memory of the abolitionist, even as it became more adoring and worshipful of Lincoln.

Conwell: Lincoln "captured the
heart of the people"
This is exactly the trajectory implied by Conwell's assessment in Why Lincoln Laughed: John Brown may have been "high minded, probably as anyone who ever lived," he writes.  But while regarded as a saint by many, Brown "never captured the heart of the people as Abraham Lincoln did, and to-day is virtually forgotten."25   This reading of the past is part-and-parcel of the great revision revealed in David Blight's Race and Reunion--the retro reading of the 19th century struggle over slavery from the presumptions of racial revisionism and privilege.

This is likewise apparent when Conwell tells Agnes Burr that losing Brown "filled us with extreme prejudices against the people of the South," and that "our souls were filled with bitterness and hatred." But rather than a mere description of the past, Conwell's point is to  emphasize "how useless and fratricidal, after all, that war was.  How much better it would have been to have accepted President Lincoln's recommendation and purchased the slaves of the South at their normal valuation and set them free without revolution and without bloodshed."26
Conwell: John Brown is
"virtually forgotten"

This is the voice of historical regret--not merely that many lives were lost, but that so many white lives were lost to liberate the enslaved blacks of the United States.  John Brown was now bound up with the regrets of white society--regrets that it had shed so much blood so "uselessly," and that "bitterness and hatred" had clouded the vision of North and South, when the bond of family (and race) lay between them.  After all, Conwell is saying, that war to end slavery simply cost too much.  Better to have made the South richer by buying their slaves--even though he apparently forgot that in the 1860s the South was not in the market for selling off her slaves.  Rather, the South wished to multiply them and expand the territory of slavery farther west and southwest.   John Brown had seen this and had taken action.  He had planned "revolution," Conwell suggests, and the nation would have been better without him and his plans, just as it would have been better without the Civil War. 

This is really what Conwell meant when he portrayed Lincoln as a man of laughter, beloved of the people.  Quite in contrast, the time for a humorless John Brown was past.  For Russell Conwell in 1922, John Brown was ill-suited to the new century--"virtually forgotten."

Perhaps this is why Conwell's Lincoln laughs.

      1 In some sources I've read online, the military court martial and discharge of Russell Conwell is treated as a controversy emanating from his critics.  However, Diane Brenner of the South Worthington (Mass.) Historical Society has kindly provided me with copies of his court martial guilty verdict and officers' casualty sheet showing his dismissal.
      2 "Russell H. Conwell."  Excerpted from James Hilty, Temple University: 125 Years of Service to Philadelphia, the Nation, and the World. (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2010).  Retrieved from the website of Temple University (https://goo.gl/e8uJyb).
      3  For example, "Mr. Conwell [as a mature preacher presented] the great truths relative to the Third Person of the Trinity from a practical rather than a doctrinal standpoint." Albert H. Smith, The Life of Russell H. Conwell (New York: Silver, Burdett Co., 1899), p. 161.   
      4  "Russell H. Conwell," Temple University website.
      5  I am not particularly interested in providing an extensively researched sketch of Conwell's life, but there are abundant sources on the internet by and about Russell H. Conwell for those who are interested, beginning with the Internet Archives.  My sketch is based largely on the Temple University website sketch by James Hilty, and also some use of the Wikipedia article about him. 
      6 Russell H. Conwell, Why Lincoln Laughed (New York: Harper Brothers, 1922).
      7 Ibid., pp. 136-37.
      8 Ibid., p. 143; Electronic communication from Diane Brenner to Louis DeCaro Jr., Apr. 22, 2018.
      9 Conwell, Why Lincoln Laughed, pp. 137-38.
    10 Ibid., pp. 138-39.
    11 Ibid., pp. 140-41.
    12 Ibid., p. 142.
    13 Agnes Rush Burr, Russell H. Conwell and His Work: One Man's Interpretation of Life (Phil: John C. Winston Co., 1917), p. 48.
    14 Ibid., p. 49.
    15 Ibid., pp. 50-51.
    16 Ibid., pp. 52-53.
    17 Ibid., p. 53.
    18 Ibid., p. 327.
    19 Smith, The Life of Russell H. Conwell, p. 331.
    20 Boyd B. Stutler to Joseph C. Carter, Nov. 12, 1960, RP01-0076B, Stutler Papers, West Virginia Memory Project.
    21  See Stutler's Feb.-Mar. 1963 correspondence with David Keiser, Stutler Papers.
    22  Electronic mail from Diane Brenner to Louis DeCaro Jr.,  Apr. 18, 2018.  Diane has kindly provided me the source for the elder Conwell's gift to Brown.  "Martin Conwell gave ten dollars to John Brown of the Harper's Ferry raid."    Rev. George Reed Moody, The South Worthington Parish (South Worthington, Mass., 1905), p. 79.
    23  Ibid.
    24  [Frances] A. Rollin, Life and Public Services of Martin R. Delany (Boston: Lee and Shepard, 1883), p. 85.
    25   Conwell, Why Lincoln Laughed, pp. 136-137.
    26   Burr, Russell Conwell and His Work, p. 53.  Emphasis added.

Thursday, April 05, 2018

In the News: From Kansas City to "Mutton Hill"

Two Martyrs Remembered

Attendees leave garlands of hearts in
commemoration of King and Brown
(Mary Rupert, Wyandotte Daily)

Yesterday a memorial program marking the 50th anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King Jr. was held at the Quindaro John Brown statue in Kansas City, Kan.  Mary Rupert of the Wyandotte Daily online has an excellent report with photos that was posted in the April 5th edition (https://goo.gl/a5Sgp3).

As Rupert observed, the memorial program "was an answer to the vandalism with hate slurs discovered March 18 at the John Brown statue."  Rupert also points out that the erection of the Brown statue by the black community in 1910 was prompted by the election of a racist mayor in Kansas City, Kan. 

The memorial was attended by students, educators, community leaders, and by John Brown scholar and local historian, Fred Whitehead.  One of the featured speakers, Commissioner Harold Johnson, commented:
   “Let us not fool ourselves, my brothers and sisters, there are still forces, even within our community, who allow evil to dictate their motivations,” Johnson said. “Those who would stoop so low as to deface this monument of hope, such as this John Brown memorial, we can look to history as our guide, because we can see even 50 years ago there were those who sought to silence Dr. King. They stood against his position of nonviolent civil discord. Even during this season of Easter, we are reminded of those who defamed the personhood of Christ. So while those moments in time served as a stain on the consciousness of our community, our beloved community, those heinous moments did not and must not cause the efforts of righteousness and equity to cease and desist.”

Wool Days in Akron Revisited

 The Summit County Historical Society (SCHS) in Akron, Ohio, has found some creative ways to revisit the days of John Brown and his wealthy partner, Simon Perkins Jr.   The Perkins mansion was reopened yesterday (Apr. 4) with a self-guided tour ($8 for adults and $2 for students), available from Wednesday through Saturday from 1-4 p.m. (The cost for guided tours is $12. Guided tours are now by appointment only.)  

More interesting perhaps is the news from SCHS that sheep have been restored as a presence on the grounds of the Perkins property for the first time since the mid-19th century, when John Brown resided in Akron, acting as the supervisor of the Perkins flocks and farm (1850-54).  In those days, the Perkins residence was nicknamed "Mutton Hill" by Akronites.  Here is the notice from the SCHS website:
Sheep Graze Again At Perkins Mansion 
The Society's board of directors in May approved a proposal to return a flock of Dorset sheep to the grounds of the Perkins mansion this summer. "It will be the first time in a century that the home of Akron's founding family will see the return of the animal that first made Simon Perkins and John Brown famous," says Society chairman Dave Lieberth. The proposal calls for the demonstration project to be underway by the Society's annual Family Fun Day, Saturday, July 16, and continue through August or later, depending on weather and grazing conditions. 

"Mutton Hill" is the name that residents of 19th century Akron gave to Perkins' 150-acre farm, known for its 1,500 sheep that were reputed to produce some of the finest wool in the world. The Society is collaborating with The Spicy Lamb Farm of Peninsula to bring the sheep to the mansion grounds. Owner Laura DeYoung Minnig, who is also the Executive Director of Urban Shepherds, says "I'm excited to promote urban sheep grazing as a cost-saving and environmental alternative to mowing, while educating youth and recruiting future shepherds." 

In 1844, Col. Simon Perkins employed abolitionist John Brown to tend the flock of Merino sheep. Brown lived with his family in the 2-room house at Diagonal and Copley Roads, and traveled to Europe to promote the Perkins-Brown partnership. "We want to interpret the importance of agriculture in Summit County's growth and development before it became a manufacturing center," says Society CEO Leianne Neff Heppner. For generations of the Perkins family lived at the Stone Mansion estate. Ohio was a major producer of mutton and wool in the 19th century. All of the soldiers in the Civil War wore wool uniforms. Lieberth says sheep dog herding demonstrations, craft activities for children, fiber art, and wool spinning will also engage visitors to the properties this summer.


On January 11, 1844, John Brown wrote to his namesake, informing him of his new partnership with Simon Perkins Jr.:
I have lately entered into a partnership with Simon Perkins Jr of Akron with a view to carry on the Sheep business extensively.  He is to furnish all the feed, & shelters for wintering as a set off against our takeing all the care of the flock.  All other expences we are to share equally, & to divide the proffits equally.  This arangement will reduce our cash rents at least $250 yearly & save our hireing help in Haying. [John Brown Jr. Papers, Ohio Historical Society] 
The Practical Shepherd
ca. 1857
(Kan. State Hist. Soc.)
As a side note, Brown was rejoicing that the partnership would be profitable, particularly as he would save $250 annually on rental and hiring help for haying.  In 2018 dollars, Brown was talking about saving as much as $8,000 a year.  Keep in mind that Brown was already under the employ of another prosperous Ohio figure, Heman Oviatt of Richfield, Ohio.  Brown was doing similar work with Oviatt and had begun to build quite a profile as an expert in fine sheep and wool by 1844, when he was hired by Perkins to come to Akron. Part of Brown's genius as a sheep "guru" was extensive traveling and surveying of flocks throughout the east, as far north as Vermont and as far south as Virginia.  His skill and expertise in breeding made him both a recognized expert in the field and a prospective leader among the wool growers.  This led to his (and Perkins') failed foray into the wool commission business between 1846-49, in Springfield, Mass.  However, after the closing of the wool commission house, Brown returned to Akron and remained in partnership with Perkins for four more years.  So much for the hackneyed claim that he was an utter failure in business.
Simon Perkins Jr.
in later life (ca. 1870)

While most historians make quick work of this period of Brown's life in order to rush to "Bleeding Kansas," I find the period of the Perkins-Brown collaboration most interesting and inspiring.  In some sense, one will never learn more about the man John Brown than one will by observing him in the years of this partnership.   When one is reminded that Brown and Perkins were partners for a full decade (1844-54), then it is important to note that the narrative of this period contradicts the hackneyed notion of Brown as an utter failure who turned to abolition as a kind of last effort to redeem himself.  The John Brown of the Perkins and Brown period was a maturing, active, and self-restrained figure--managing farm, flocks, and wool business concerns while intensely observing the slavery issue, engaging in conversations with abolitionists, and planning his own antislavery effort. The idea that he did not become the John Brown we know until he went to Kansas is utterly false.  Personally, though, I treasure the vignette of the "practical shepherd," the man who took great pains to care for the sheep and who believed that each sheep had a distinct face, just as do people.