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Sunday, September 23, 2018

A Little Retro-Shaming: Found Guilty by Slaveholders

It is a matter of record that after his defeat at Harper's Ferry, John Brown and his men were rushed to trial by Virginia authorities.  The technical excuse given pertains to the closing of the trial period of that circuit of the Virginia courts.  But these institutional deadlines were hardly imperatives; Brown and his men might have been held over as prisoners until the opening of the next trial period had the Virginians been willing to give him a fair trial.  Certainly, had the federal government not handed Brown and his men over to Virginia, a trial in the federal court would have been a far more extended matter (recall that Brown attacked a federal facility at Harper's Ferry).  Nevertheless, as I have noted in Freedom's Dawn, the initial intention of Virginia probably was to hold Brown's trial immediately and hang him almost as quickly.  Brown's boy-faced defense attorney, George Hoyt, later recalled how his "judicial murder" was intentionally being rushed, and how he had to intervene by speaking with Judge Parker, which allowed Brown a month between sentencing and execution.1
John Brown during his trial, lying on his cot, an unflattering
sketch by Virginia artist David H. Strother, published
in Harper's Weekly, Nov. 12, 1859

In retrospect, the prosecuting attorney, Andrew Hunter--who was the driving force behind Brown's trial and execution--misrepresented these facts.  In 1887, Hunter wrote that Brown was "for hurrying the trial and having done with it," but this was a lie.  Actually, Brown had expressed disdain at the onset when he and his men were obligated to stand before an unusual Virginia examining court (which even Hunter called "a very anomalous system, peculiar to Virginia").2  Assuming the examining court was his trial, Brown understandably disdained the process as a "mere form" and a "mockery" of a trial. "I do not even know what the special design of the examination is," Brown declared.  "I do not know what is to be the benefit of it to the Commonwealth." As such, he told the magistrates, he preferred to forego pseudo-legalities and face the penalty.3  However, when he was apprised that he would have a conventional trial, Brown immediately asked for a delay so that his wounds could heal  and so he could send for attorneys from the North.  Hunter himself opposed any delay and pushed the trial forward with haste.  Thus, his narrative of the trial published in 1887, including his accusation that Brown was carrying out some kind of "ruse," was a self-justifying misrepresentation that reflected the hubris of an unrepentant Virginia slaveholder.

The Jury Selected

In his definitive work, John Brown's Trial, Brian McGinty describes the process by which jurors were selected for the trial.  McGinty notes that on October 25, 1859, about one week after his defeat at Harper's Ferry, Brown's jury candidates were summoned by the sheriff through writ issued by the court.  Twenty-four freeholders--all white males above the age of twenty-one, and not older than sixty years.  Another criterion for selection was that the prospective jurors were "remote" residents in regard to the location of Harper's Ferry.  McGinty concludes that this inevitably meant the jury would be comprised of middle-aged white males: "All would be more or less affluent, and all would be either committed to, or at least tolerant of, slavery." McGinty likewise points out also that a further necessity, according to Virginia law, was that jurors must be supportive of the death penalty.  "This ensured that the jurors who would judge John Brown would all approve of the death penalty, and it probably made it more likely that they would find him guilty."4

The twenty-four freeholders thus were summoned and examined in the voir dire phase (meaning they were to tell the truth when examined).  McGinty observes that the prospective jurors were questioned briskly, the primary question being whether they held any opinion that would prevent them from making an impartial decision in the trial.5  Of course, this was only social pretense; men of their station would invariably have had a decided opinion against Brown.  Otherwise, they were asked if they were directly involved with the Harper's Ferry raid by reason of presence, or if they held opinions presupposed as to guilt or innocence.   Prospective jurors who were present at the Ferry during the raid were dismissed; then Brown's (initial) Virginia attorneys followed the appointed procedure of moving to dismiss eight from the list of the called.  This left sixteen candidates, from which a jury of twelve men finally was chosen. McGinty notes that John Brown was present during this process, but that he quietly reclined on his cot with his sheet pulled up under his chin.6

A Jury of Slaveholders and the Artist Who Sketched Them

At the time of John Brown's incarceration in Virginia, Frank Leslie's Illustrated News, based in New York City, had two artists on the ground in Charlestown to capture images for its readers.  Initially, the German-born Albert Berghaus, the head of the paper's illustration department, contributed sketches, but returned to New York.  This left his associate William S. L. Jewett to provide appropriate images and episodes for Leslie's.  Unfortunately, Jewett found that he had enemies in Charlestown, but not through any fault of his own.  As it turned out, clandestine reports from Charlestown were being featured in the New York Daily Tribune--an antislavery newspaper.  Since only proslavery journalists were allowed in town, the town leaders became obsessed with discovering the "spy" who was embarrassing them before the country.  Jewett became suspected of secretly feeding stories to Horace Greeley, the despised editor of the Tribune.  In a short time, suspicion grew into accusation, and accusation became so hot that by mid-November, Jewett was forced to depart from Charlestown and return to New York.7

William S. L. Jewett sketched a three-panel series reflecting his dramatic--and forced--retreat from Charlestown in November 1859, due to suspicions that he was a journalistic spy for the New York Tribune.  This series appeared in his newspaper, Frank Leslie's Illustrated News on November 26, 1859.

Nevertheless, prior to his northward flight, among his many sketches, Jewett had made portraits of all of John Brown's trial jurors.  These images were published in Leslie's on November 12, 1859, about the time that Jewett had hastily retreated from Charlestown.  Meanwhile, the real clandestine journalist, Ned House, was never discovered and slipped out of Charlestown only after Brown was hanged on December 2.

McGinty, a thorough researcher, provides a list of the same jury members sketched by Jewett for Leslie's.  He writes: "How many of them owned slaves is uncertain; the seven who were known to be slaveholders owned a total of fifty-four slaves."8  McGinty clearly consulted the so-called Slave Schedules from the Federal Census (presumably) of 1860.  However, after having consulted the same source, I believe that this record provides certainty that eleven of the twelve jurors were slaveholders.  What follows, then, are Jewett's sketches and the information culled from the 1860 Slave Schedules.

Note: the Slave Schedules distinguish between black and "mulatto" and I have preserved this distinction; often the presence of a "mulatto" was the sire of the so-called master or of another male member of his family.

Here, then, is a little Charlestown history, for the record. . .

Slaveholding Juror 1: John C. Wiltshire
Enslaved the following persons:

female age 65, male age 50
male age 40  female age 26
male age 24
male age 16, 
male 14
female ("mulatto") 5

Six (6) persons enslaved in 1860.

The schedules also list a George D. Wiltshire and Mary Wiltshire, both of which were slaveholders with similar numbers of enslaved people.  Some or all of their enslaved people might have been part of Wiltshire's household.

Slaveholding Juror 2: Thomas Watson
Enslaved the following persons:

female ("mulatto") age  24,
female ("mulatto") age 4
male age 1

Three (3) persons enslaved in 1860.


Slaveholding Juror 3: Jacob Miller
Enslaved the following person:

female age 12

The schedules also list Martha, Lydia, and Albert Miller as slaveholders.  Some or all of their enslaved people might have been part of Miller's household.

One (1) person enslaved in 1860.

Slaveholding Juror 4: Richard Timberlake
Enslaved the following persons:

female age 70
male age 15
male age 13
female age 11
female age 9
male age 5
female age 2

Seven (7) persons enslaved in 1860.

Slaveholding Juror 5: George Tabb [Tapp]
[According to Slave Schedule, but listed by McGinty and Leslie's as Tapp]
Enslaved the following persons:

female age 70
male age 45
female age 45
female ("mulatto") 26
male age 21
female age 20
male age 19
female age 17
male age 11
female ("mulatto") age 2
female ("mulatto") age 1

Eleven (11) persons enslaved in 1860.

Slaveholding Juror 6: Isaac Dust
Enslaved the following persons:

female age 30
female age 20
female age 9
male age 7
male ("mulatto") age 2
male age 1

Six (6) people enslaved in 1860.

Slaveholding Juror 7: John McClure 
[listed as M’Clure in Leslie's]
Enslaved the following persons:

female age 17
female ("mulatto") age 17
male ("mulatto") age 12
male ("mulatto") male age 12

Four (4) persons enslaved in 1860.

Slaveholding Juror 8: Thomas Osbourn 
[listed as Oborne in Leslie's]
Enslaved the following persons:

male age 60
male age 35
female age 30
female age 25
male age 12
male age 8
male age 7
female age 6
female age 4
female age 2

The schedules show other Osbourns in Jefferson County with a good many slaves, so some of these might also have been part of Thomas Osbourn's household.

Ten (10) persons enslaved in 1860.

Slaveholding Juror 9: Joseph Myers
Enslaved the following persons:

male age 60
female age 50
male age 32
female age 28
male age 21
male age 12
female age 10
female age 9
female age 8
female age 6
female age 2

Eleven (11) persons enslaved in 1860.

Slaveholding Juror 10: William Righstine 
[listed as Rightodale in Leslie's, as Rightstine by McGinty)
Enslaved the following persons:

male 84
female 65
female 15

Three (3) people enslaved in 1860.

Slaveholding Juror 11: George Bowyer
[listed as Doyer in Leslie's and as Boyer by McGinty)
Enslaved the following persons:

female age 11 
male age 10

Enslaved two (2) people in 1860.

William A. Martin
Not Listed as Slaveholder in 1860

McGinty concludes that although he is uncertain about the number of jurors who kept people enslaved, he counted fifty-four enslaved people in the households of seven of the jurors.  I am not certain how he arrived at this number.   I have found in the same schedules that eleven of the jurors in John Brown's trial were slaveholders, and the total number of people being held in bondage in their homes in 1860 totaling sixty-four.  Again, this does not count the possibility that additional enslaved persons may also have been the property of spouses and children living in the same household.

This should give us pause to remember that John Brown was not simply given a hasty trial, driven by state and local officials intent on getting him to the gallows.  He was tried by Virginians hostile to him on principle, eleven of the twelve jurors being slaveholders--the very group that John Brown had hoped to undermine. 

More importantly than the injustice that Brown faced is the fact that even in a humble, agrarian center like western Virginia, in the upper south, the enslavement of human beings--men, women, and children--was a normal part of life.  John Brown was a victim, but far more victimized were the human beings kept in bondage by the southern Christian slaveholders--the labor, lives, and bodies of these victims exploited and demeaned by the "institution" for generations.

Finally, we must remember that it took all the force of the federal government to pry these humans from the grip of this tyranny disguised as a Christian society.  Indeed, as Brown finally surmised, the enslaved population would have to be pried from their cold, dead hands.  Having failed to undermine the institution and thwart the regular operations of slavery throughout the South, John Brown knew that his accusers and judges would shortly have to face a judgment of their own.   There is some small comfort in knowing that even his jurors could not escape that hour.


      1 Louis A. DeCaro, Jr., Freedom's Dawn: The Last Days of John Brown in Virginia (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015), 97-98.
     2 Transcript, pp. 2 & 5, of Andrew Hunter, "John Brown's Raid; Recollections of Prosecuting Attorney Andrew Hunter," Times-Democrat [New Orleans, La.], 5 Sept. 1887, in Andrew Hunter folder, Box 10, Oswald G. Villard-John Brown Papers, Columbia University Collection.
     3 Brian McGinty, John Brown's Trial (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2009), p. 100.
     4 Ibid., 123. 
     5  Ibid., 123-24.
     6  Ibid., 124.
     7 DeCaro, Freedom's Dawn, 143-47.
     7 McGinty, John Brown's Trial, 126.

Wednesday, September 05, 2018

Swann Galleries Will Auction Wm H. Johnson's "On a John Brown Flight"

The New York-based Swann Auction Galleries, will be holding a sale of African American fine art on October 4, 2018.  (Browse a digital catalogue here.)  The sale features a wonderful offering of paintings, prints, and photographs for collectors with budgets for such things.
William H. Johnson
(Photo from Biography)
What caught your blogger's eye, however, was a particular work by William H. Johnson, who died in April 1970 at about sixty-nine years of age.  According to an article on the black art and culture website, Abri Art and Culture, Johnson was born in Florence, South Carolina in 1901 but moved to New York City at seventeen years of age.  He is marginally associated with the Harlem Renaissance, perhaps because with one exception, during that period he did not choose African Americans as subjects in his work, except for a portrait of his teenage brother done in 1930.  In "Remembering William H. Johnson: A Forgotten Harlem Renaissance Artist," it is stated:
Given that the [Harlem] Renaissance artists were wedded to W.E.B. DuBois’ idea of art as propaganda as well as Langston Hughes’ belief that Negro art ought not only be about Negro people but also should include the Negro working class in rural environments as subjects, it is no wonder that Johnson, like [Henry O.] Tanner, has escaped canonization as a Harlem Renaissance artist.
It was only after Johnson had traveled and studied abroad and returned to the United States, that apparently he began to portray black culture in the United States.  He was a multi-media artist, employing woodcuts, oil, water colors, pen and ink, and  serigraphy [silk screening]. The author states that Johnson’s work "beginning in 1938 and spanning the entire decade of the 40s" embodies the prevalent aesthetics of the earlier Harlem Renaissance--bolder primary colors, larger surfaces, and African American rural folk as well as historical figures like Marian Anderson, George Washington Carver, and including John Brown. 

"A John Brown Flight," which Johnson produced around 1945, is one of a small number of impressions that he prepared in screen prints.  The Smithsonian American Art Museum has another copy of this impression in its collection, as also does The Library of Congress collection and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art also has a copy but it is not currently displayed on their website.)  

The scene it portrays is familiar to John Brown students, his famous liberation trek that began when he liberated eleven enslaved people from two different slaveholders in Missouri in December 1858, sequestered the fugitives for a number of weeks in a hideout in the Kansas territory, and then escorted them through Nebraska and across the country through Iowa then by rail to Chicago, Illinois.  There, with the assistance of the proto-secret serviceman, Allen Pinkerton, Brown put the fugitives secretly on the railroad bound for Detroit.  At Detroit the fugitives were placed on the ferry that crossed the Detroit River to Canadian freedom.  It was this successful overland trek that affirmed John Brown in his resolve that similar bold, armed-but-defensive measures could be carried out within the belly of slavery itself.

Jacob Lawrence, No. 16 from "The Legend of John Brown"
The trek was captured quite differently by Johnson's contemporary, Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000) as part of his twenty-two part series, "The Legend of John Brown."  The particular image is No. 16., subtitled: "In spite of a price on his head, John Brown in 1859 liberated twelve negroes from a Missouri plantation."  This originals of this series are described as having been done in gouache on white wove paper.  Obviously, rather than portraying the liberated people, Lawrence chose to insinuate them in the picture by showing many footprints in the snow, some traces of blood (suggesting either their suffering as enslaved people or the rigors of this hard winter trek, which included pursuit by marshals--remembering that Brown undertook this effort in defiance of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law).  

The only other artistic portrayal of this episode  in John Brown's story that I am aware of is found in a mural series in the Torrington, Connecticut, post office.  Torrington, of course, was the site of Brown's birth in 1800.  The murals, made by Arthur Covey in the New Deal era, were displayed in the old Torrington Post Office, but are now displayed in the new post office in town.  Apparently, Covey, like Johnson, were financed in their work by the Work Projects Administration of the New Deal.

Arthur Covey, "Episodes in the Life of John Brown"
(The Living New Deal)

Of the three, Covey's work is the most idealistic and stylized--pleasant pastels make the picture warm, with heavenly light bursting through the clouds, and John Brown marching ahead of his liberated friends, with his rifle on his shoulder--he looks back as if to encourage the party, but his left hand moves forward toward freedom.  This is quite in contrast with Lawrence's image of Brown bringing up the rear, stooped forward to accent the motion, while the entire picture is absent of a human face.  Of the two, Lawrence's image is the most dramatic and evocative of the harsh circumstances of that trek.  

On the other hand, Johnson's and Covey's images share similarities.  Johnson's version of Brown also bears a rifle on his shoulder, but looks forward as he points toward freedom.  In both images, there are armed black men, a wagon, and a woman with a young baby.  The latter is part of the historical incident, because an infant actually was born during the sojourn, so twelve entered freedom in Canada in March 1859 under Brown's solemn escort.  Johnson's portrayal of the liberated blacks is done in the style of folk art/primitivism, but most of them stare outward, as if to communicate with the viewer.  In contrast, while Covey's portrayal of the liberated people seems more lifelike, they are entirely part of the story, focused upon Brown almost sacred image.--LD

Below is the profile of Johnson's "On a John Brown Flight" from Swann's website:

Sale 2487 Lot 28
WILLIAM H. JOHNSON (1901 -1970) 
On a John Brown Flight

Color screenprint and pochoir on tan wove paper, circa 1945. Approximately 406x610 mm; 15 3/4x24 inches. Signed in ink, lower right. 

Provenance: Annie Davis, New York and Savannah, GA; gifted to a private collection, Savannah, GA. Inscribed with the artist's name, title, and a Harmon Foundation inventory number in ink, upper right verso. 

On a John Brown Flight is a very scarce example of an important print. While living in New York in the early 1940s, William H. Johnson printed a handful of proof impressions from his screenprints, depicting colorful images of both the rural South and of Harlem. Out of the 17 known screenprint images Johnson made in a short period of the early 1940s, On a John Brown Flight is the only image of an American historical figure, and is the largest of any of his prints. Johnson also painted a gouache and pencil version of this subject, and a heroic image of the Abolitionist leader in the 1945 oil John Brown Legend; both are in the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. 

This is the only the second impression of this print to come to auction - an unsigned impression was sold at Swann Galleries on February 13, 2014. We have located only four impressions of On a John Brown Flight in the following public collections: the Library of Congress, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Smithsonian Institution. These were experimental and painterly prints, using both screens and pochoir (hand-colored stencils) - each impression has a slightly different registration.

Estimate $50,000 - 75,000