History, Research, and Current Themes

"The world needed John Brown and John Brown came, and time will do him justice." Frederick Douglass (1886)

Search This Blog & Links


Monday, July 23, 2018

The Hinton and Randall Letters of Dec. 1, 1859: Two Theories

John Brown was sentenced to death in a Virginia court on November 1, 1859 and might have been rushed to the gallows that same week, although his attorneys found reasons to have his execution delayed until the beginning of December.  In the few weeks between Brown’s sentencing and execution, he reached the height of his celebrity in the North, while the South was grinding its teeth in outrage and anxiety over Brown’s invasion and the fear that more abolitionist assaults would soon follow.  Of course, nothing of the kind took place, although the South was—in a sense—struck by a second blow from Brown, in the great impact of his letter writing and correspondence from jail, much of which went quickly into the press.
It is an interesting point that Brown’s captors refused any photographic image of Brown being recorded during his incarceration, no doubt as an act of spite toward the North.  Yet his captors were strangely liberal toward Brown with regard to his correspondence.  Although the Prosecutor Andrew Hunter carefully examined Brown’s incoming and outgoing letters, the number of Brown’s letters that went out to the world is a little surprising, given Virginia’s posture of banning northern reporters unless they were explicitly proslavery or sympathetic to the South.  I have endeavored to engage these themes in my two books, Freedom’s Dawn: The Last Days of John Brown in Virginia and John Brown Speaks: Letters and Statements from Charlestown (both Rowman & Littlefield, 2015).

In the process of preparing these works, especially in gathering and editing Brown’s jailhouse letters, I noticed something interesting about two letters that were among the last Brown wrote before his execution.  The brief letters are apparently written on half-sheets and are virtually identical in wording and format, and both are dated as December 1, 1859—the day before Brown’s hanging.  To my knowledge, none of the Brown biographers have made note of these two letters being so similar and I became aware of them only because of my John Brown letter research.  As already noted in John Brown Speaks, the letters are written to Harriet Oviatt Randall, an old family friend from Ohio, and Richard J. Hinton, the English journalist that Brown got to know during his time in “Bleeding Kansas.”

Richard J. Hinton
The former was married to a clergyman and living in Ohio at the time of Brown’s raid at Harper’s Ferry.  Hinton traveled from the Kansas Territory in the fall of 1859, his movement eastward having been documented by a Virginia spy working in the service of Governor Henry Wise.  Hinton seems to have been drawn eastward by rumors of a plan to liberate Brown, although any such notion of jailbreaking the Old Man was actually quite useless before the end of October.  Charlestown was steadily loaded with militia, ostensibly to prepare for an invasion by abolitionists, but in actuality more because Virginians actually were apprehensive of a slave revolt.  At any rate, the talk of rescuing John Brown proved only talk and by the time Brown wrote to Hinton, the latter could only follow Brown’s last days and hours through the New York Tribune, the only antislavery paper that managed to smuggle reports out of Virginia through an undercover journalist.

When I read and compared the letters to Randall and Hinton, it never occurred to me that either of them could be a forgery.  My conclusion, then and now, is that both letters are (probably quite hurriedly) written in Brown’s hand with the exact heading, content, and nonspecific greeting (“My Very Dear friend”).   In John Brown Speaks, I suggest the reason these letters are virtually identical is because they were handwritten “form letters.”  In other words, I believe Brown wrote them in advance, intending to answer letters from particular people—like old friends and associates, and it is quite possible there were more of these “form letters” sent on December 1, although they may have not survived or have become inaccessible in a private collection.  The most obvious reason that Brown would have dashed off some nonspecific “form letters” is that he was running out of time and had a great deal of correspondence to examine, sort, and answer.

It is not exaggerating to say that Brown received hundreds of letters.  A good many of these letters were screened and withheld by Prosecutor Andrew Hunter.  The letters that Hunter withheld either were freaky, extremely hostile and mean-spirited, or letters written by associates or self-proclaimed allies claiming (in code or otherwise) that his rescue was underway.   Notwithstanding there were a good many letters withheld, Brown received many more from strangers, associates, friends, and family, and he naturally tended to answer the latter.  The Old Man naturally “edited” the collection that he kept and passed on to his wife when she visited him on his final day in Virginia.  Most of these letters were scattered and lost, but a good many were transcribed and published by James Redpath in Echoes of Harper's Ferry (1860).   Many more letters never left the jailhouse because Brown burned them in his cell.  Most of the letters he destroyed apparently were requests for his autograph, given the celebrity he had attained in his last days.

In this light, Brown probably felt overwhelmed by the amount of correspondence that came into his jail cell and was quite busy separating the several that he had time to answer before dying.  Anticipating that he would have to answer some late-coming letters, I believe he wrote out a template on some half-sheets and that these two letters, to Harriet Oviatt Randall and Richard J. Hinton, are examples.  The template reads:

Charle[s]town Prison, Jefferson Co., Va., 1st Dec. 1859.
My Very Dear friend
I can on[ly] say one word to Your most king letter of the            I trust
God is with me: “in very deed”.  May he ever be with you: & all yours.
Your Friend
John Brown
The originals of the letters to Randall and Hinton are held in notable Brown collections: the Randall letter is held in the Chicago History Museum and the Hinton letter is held in the Henry Huntington Library Collection, San Marino, Calif.

Boyd Stutler: "Rank Forgery"

At the time I made my own examination and drew these conclusions, I was not aware that Boyd B. Stutler, the “godfather of John Brown scholars,” had observed the similarity between the two letters and had drawn his own conclusions.  Of course, no John Brown scholars should ever be surprised to find Stutler’s fingerprints on even the most obscure topic in our study of the Old Man.   Over the years I have rarely found an issue that Stutler had not already addressed to some degree, and Stutler certainly had a theory about these letters—although quite different from mine.
Boyd B. Stutler

Stutler’s take on the letters was simply that Hinton’s letter is a forgery based upon the Randall letter.  In 1949, he wrote to James Goodwin of Toronto, discussing the fraudulent work of Canadian abolitionist, Alexander M. Ross.  Ross published (in two versions) a book about his association with John Brown, although Stutler exposed Ross posthumously as a complete fake and fraud.  There is no doubt that Stutler was correct since it is clear (and I’ve furthered his thesis with my own research) that Ross lied and defrauded the Brown family, and published supposed correspondence from Brown to him that actually did not exist.  Ross apparently did the same thing with Abraham Lincoln, and Stutler was the first to point this out to Canadian historians.

In his 1949 letter, after discussing Ross as one who “liked to shine in the light of reflected glory,” Stutler added that Richard Hinton was of the same stripe.  While admitting that Hinton indeed corresponded with Brown earlier, Stutler insisted that Brown’s letter of December 1, 1859 was “easily spotted as a rank forgery” based upon Brown’s letter to Harriet Oviatt Randall.  He insinuates that Hinton must have copied the letter to Randall because her letter was extant and, I suppose, was accessible to Hinton in perpetrating his alleged forgery (see Boyd B. Stutler to James C. Goodwin, May 15, 1949, RP11-0038D, Stutler Papers online).

I do not believe Stutler was correct in this conclusion although I understand why he made it.

First, Stutler believed that Hinton was not to be taken at face value as a historian.  To a different correspondent, Stutler wrote that Hinton “was unreliable, unstable and inconstant and his regard for the truth extended only to the ends that it would serve his own purpose” (Boyd B. Stutler to James C. Malin, July 26, 1940, RP10-0089H, Stutler Papers).   In other correspondence, Stutler referred to Hinton as a “special pleader” on behalf of Brown, and that he was unreliable and “generally inaccurate as to names, places and dates.”  His rule of thumb for reading Hinton was simply, “do not follow him except in cases where other evidence supports his statements” (Stutler to Norma Cuthbert, Apr. 15, 1948, RP05-0174E and Stutler to Victor Lauriston, Sept. 22, 1948, RP02-0202A).

Stutler knew his stuff, so his reading of Hinton should be taken seriously, and certainly he was correct.  Hinton (and James Redpath) were both associates of Brown in Kansas and both had a vested interest in defending him, even if it meant beautifying the sources with slight fabrication.  Stutler was correct in stating that Hinton should be used with caution as a source, although I think he has been too easily dismissed by contemporary historians precisely because he was a John Brown “pleader.” In other words, a good many 20th century writing found it convenient to dismiss John Brown's first biographers precisely because they were cynical toward Brown and wanted to diminish him. Even Stutler knew the value of Hinton’s writing, and that he could not be dismissed wholesale because he was an eyewitness, knew Brown, and was a participant in the stormy days of antebellum history.  I find Stutler’s suspicion of Hinton was tinged with contempt, some of it worthy and professional, and some perhaps due to Stutler’s own need to demonstrate his objectivity in the study in an era when the base line among many historians regarding Brown was quite negative.

Stutler’s rule of thumb, that one should not rely upon Hinton without supporting evidence, is just good historical sense.   There are moments when Hinton, Redpath, and Sanborn might be suspected of writing with an agenda to protect and lionize Brown (Hinton and Redpath both denied that the Old Man was present at the Pottawatomie killings).  But I still believe Stutler jumped to the wrong conclusion when it came to his charging Hinton with rank forgery in regard to the December 1 letter.

Contra Stutler

First, I believe Stutler’s own cynicism toward Hinton backfired in this case because Stutler himself did not follow his own rule.  Where is the evidence that Hinton somehow had procured the letter  to Randall and then made a meticulous forgery from it?   I am not aware that Brown’s short letter to Randall was ever published, and even if it were, Hinton would have needed more than a mere transcription to create the “forgery” that Stutler alleges.  Without evidence (some record of Hinton’s correspondence with Randall, etc.), Stutler offers only that Brown’s letter to Randall was extant during Hinton’s lifetime.  It is true that Katherine Mayo surveyed Brown’s letter to Randall in 1908-09, and made a transcription for Oswald G. Villard’s biographical work.  I do not know how Mayo learned of Randall’s letter; but until or unless evidence emerges that Hinton also knew of this letter and somehow obtained it, and then forged a copy of it, Stutler’s claim is thinly circumstantial at best.

Second, in light of other work he was doing at the time, Stutler’s feelings about Hinton may reflect cynicism toward other frauds, especially Alexander M. Ross.  Stutler knew and acknowledged that Hinton knew Brown and had correspondence with him, which was quite in contrast to Ross, the Canadian faker, who had built a reputation on the fraudulent claim of having been John Brown's intimate correspondent.  So I would suggest Stutler's conclusions about Hinton were partially spillover from the Ross affair.

In contrast, we know that Hinton did make an effort to come eastward from Kansas in late 1859 in response to Brown's capture and incarceration.   As I have documented, one of Governor Wise’s informants even met Hinton in St. Louis and spoke to him, reporting that Hinton “gloried” in being one of Brown’s men.  He even had Hinton’s personal card, which he passed on to Wise (John Brown Speaks, 92).  In light of this, it seems quite reasonable that Brown would have written to Hinton, particularly after when Hinton wrote to him using the pseudonym, Harrison.   This was typical Kansas practice among free state people (Brown himself used a number of pseudonyms), and it is likely that “Harrison” wrote to Brown and that Brown felt constrained to answer him on his last day of life.  This is what Hinton himself wrote on the verso side of Brown's letter to him, where he says that the letter was received by him in Boston on December 2, the day of Brown's execution.  I simply see no reason to doubt that he was telling the truth.

Verso side of Brown's letter to Hinton
(Henry Huntington Library Collection)
Thirdly, an examination of the two letters really makes it hard to understand why Stutler considered Hinton’s letter from Brown to be a “rank forgery.”  Indeed, were I to look at both letters without knowing which was written to Hinton, I would have concluded that the letter to Randall might be a forgery, because it is a more loosely scrawled version of Brown’s handwriting.  Between the two letters, the one to Hinton is slightly more typical of Brown’s usually pinched handwriting.  Nevertheless, I believe both are written by Brown and the handwriting of both looks to me as coming from the same writer.  Even the slight variations between the letters are “Brownian” (for example, compare the “9” in “1859,” in the headings of both letters, which are slightly varied but appears to be from the same writer).

Of course, one might yet raise questions about the letters.  Most notably, both letters have the same misspellings of “Charletown” (Charlestown) and “on” for “only.”  Wouldn’t these duplications of errors suggest one is a forgery of the other?   Possibly but not necessarily.  I have seen Brown use “on” for “only” in other letters too.  When one has become familiar with Brown’s letters, one begins to see certain patterns and tendencies in his writing overall.  For instance, one characteristic of Brown was to use the ampersand instead of “and”; “and” appears only rarely in Brown’s letters.  Another characteristic is that Brown’s vocabulary and spelling were uneven; he was a reader and had a decent vocabulary as a literate 19th century agrarian, typical of his time and place.   But his spelling and punctuation are peculiar in repetition.  Furthermore, it is not unreasonable to think that Brown deliberately wrote “on” for “only” as shorthand.   If one remembers that he was writing under duress given his fleeting hours of life, it is not surprising that he just dashed off “Charletown” without realizing it.

Finally, I believe the structure of these letters contains evidence that they were pre-written in anticipation of late-coming letters to be answered on his last day of life.  If one examines both letters, it is apparent that they were composed with a gap as such: “. . .your most kind letter of the __________”.   If Brown expected to answer some last-minute letters and had no time to write, it stands to reason that he may have made a number of handwritten copies with a gap where he could plug in the date of the letter he had received.   This is apparent in that both letters have Brown’s marker where the date was inserted (^).  In the case of his letter to Hinton, Brown even seems to have written the date over the text of his "form letter."

If we may discern anything else about these letters, I would suggest they show that both Randall and Hinton fell into a category of late-coming correspondents whom he felt deserved a personal response from him--but only a cordial line of farewell and signature.   Certainly, he made no answer to letters from strangers that may have come into his hands at the last minute.  Quite in contrast, Brown wrote a short but more personal letter on the same date to Edward Harris, an old wool associate from Rhode Island.  The letter to Harris is brief but personalized, no doubt because Harris had sent $100 in his “kind and comforting letter” of November 20, 1859 (see John Brown Speaks, 89-91).  Not only did Brown receive Harris’ letter sooner than those from Randall and Hinton, but the Old Man was overwhelmingly mindful of his family’s welfare just prior to his death, and so he was more likely to write a more personalized note to Harris.   The letters to Randall and Hinton show that Brown did not want to pass from this life without acknowledging them; yet he could not provide them with anymore than his little "form letter" offered.

As in many other things, there may be evidence to suggest otherwise.  I never take Boyd Stutler’s conclusions lightly and it is possible that we may yet find reason to strengthen Stutler's notion that that Hinton’s letter is a “rank forgery.”  But I do not believe so.   The images are provided for the reader to consider below (click on the image for complete view).  What do you think?—LD

Brown's letter to Richard Hinton, Dec. 1, 1859
(Henry Huntington Library Collection)
Brown's letter to Harriet Oviatt Randall, Dec. 1, 1859
(Chicago History Museum Collection)


Unknown said...

Fascinating! Thank you, again, for all your work.

Rich said...

Great research!