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


Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Morrow Lowry Visits John Brown in Jail, November 1859

Morrow Barr Lowry was born on March 6, 1813 in New York State but was a life-long political and community figure in Pennsylvania, particularly in the northwestern part of the state.  During and after the Civil War years, Mowry served as an eminent state senator and as a judge in Erie County.  In his youth, Lowry's family lived in Crawford County, Pa., around the time that John Brown and his family resided in the same section (1826-35).  Brown seems to have taken up for the Lowry family and other Pennsylvania settlers in a dispute over land claims with a large company based in Philadelphia early in his time in Crawford County.  This may be one reason that Lowry was kindly disposed toward Brown, although generally the latter had many friends and admirers based simply on his high conduct and reputation during and after his Pennsylvania residence.  It should be remembered too that Brown's second wife, Mary Ann Day was from the same area, so the bonds of community between the Browns and friends in northwestern Pennsylvania were deep-rooted.  When Morrow thus heard of Brown's actions at Harper's Ferry and his capture and sentencing in Virginia in 1859, it is no wonder that he was greatly concerned.

The article transcriptions that follow pertain to Lowry's visit to John Brown in Charlestown jail on November 19, 1859 and the episodes that came after that, some of which stretched into the Civil War years.  Lowry remained a strong voice for John Brown's legacy, and although he was heavily criticized for his high view of the abolitionist, he never recanted.

I.  Lowry Tells of His Visit to Brown

Upon his return to Pennsylvania from Virginia, Lowry composed a lengthy account of his visit for The Erie True American, a Republican newspaper.  Lowry personally shared a proof-sheet copy of his article with the editor of the Crawford Journal in Meadville, where Brown had many friends and associates.  The latter reproduced the article in its November 29th edition, the editor explaining his haste in publishing it since Brown was scheduled for execution the following Friday, December 2.  "As next Friday is fixed for the execution of the old man, and there seems to be no reasonable hope for him," the editor explained, "everything connected with this noble-hearted but infatuated individual is invested with thrilling interest.  We therefore give the letter, although received at a late hour, to the exclusion of other but less important matter.  It will be seen that [Brown] still retains a warm attachment and recollection of his old friends in Crawford county."

This is a lengthy piece but it will interest the reader to have it in its entirety.  As Morrow himself recognized, some of his details are erroneous.  I have made brief notes to correct them where possible.

To the Old Friends of John Brown.
 Soon after the Harper’s Ferry Invasion, it was rumored among us that its leader, John Brown, was the same Mr. Brown who some twenty-five years ago resided in Crawford Co., Penna.  I soon became persuaded that the rumor was correct, and that instead of the stranger I had supposed, he was an old and respected friend.  As soon as I was convinced of this, I felt that it was due to the old man and to my old friendship for him to visit him in his prison, and bear to him the salutations of his old neighbors in North Western Pennsylvania.  I have just returned--having seen the misguided but honest old man and brought a message from him.  It is this--given to me as the door was closing between us—“Say to them without, I am cheerful.” 
With my promise thus fulfilled to Mr. Brown, I might stop, but as many are enquiring of me the circumstances of my visit; as it was itself, so full of unusual incident, and as everything in connection with what will go down to posterity as one of the most marked events in our country's history, is of interest to all intelligent people, I will narrate as accurately as possible what I saw in the old Commonwealth of Virginia. 
I obtained, before leaving, a letter from the Adjutant General of our State, and was well armed in addition with letters to Gov. Wise, Senator Mason, Andrew Hunter, Col. Washington and others, from friends in Philadelphia and Baltimore.  I was informed for the first time when I reached Philadelphia, that all northerners who had been identified as friends of Brown had been warned from the State and that the country about Charlestown was under martial law, and I was strongly warned not to venture any further on my journey.  On Friday evening last, when I reached Baltimore, the excitement was at fever heat.  I was warned not to go into Virginia that evening nor the next day, and I waited until Monday.  I was shown a private letter from Gov. Wise, by a gentleman in high position in Baltimore which satisfied me that the functionary was not altogether animated by ambitious motives in getting up the parade of troops and display of chivalry on the border of his State, but was really terrified, and with the whole population was fully persuaded that the North were advancing in large armies to rescue the prisoners and lay waste the land. 
Morrow B. Lowry
On Monday morning, I took the cars for Harper’s Ferry, and at the junction with the Washington road, I met large numbers of troops on their way to the prison of John Brown.  On enquiring for the Governor, I was told he was at Charlestown and on exhibiting my letter, I was promised protection, which I soon found meant that I should be well watched at the same time.  I was invited to go with the troops up to the Ferry, which I very gladly acceded to, as I considered myself less liable to insult from the troops than from unorganized militia who came rushing in from all quarters.  These Richmond companies were a fine looking body of men, and appeared very differently from the Yeomanry at Charlestown. 
By the time the train reached Harper’s Ferry, a number of gentlemen with whom I had conversed were satisfied that I was not an “Abolitionist spy” of which class they seem to have a decided horror.  From that place to Charlestown I was carried at the expense of the State of Virginia, no one in the cars being in citizen’s dress, but myself.  I was carefully watched and guarded on this part of my trip and for a time was at a loss to know why, but in a few minutes was told by a gentleman who, I believe is an Officer of the regiment, that they were satisfied that I was a clergyman of the Beecher School, and my letters might be forgeries, and if they were found to be so, I should swing on the same rope with Brown.  His fears were finally dispelled, however, by the sight of my unclerical [sic] vest and shirt boosom [sic], and by my assuring him that the faithful guardian of the Girard bequest in my own State had once fallen into the same error, only to be soon convinced of his mistake.  
On reaching Charlestown I resolved to keep near my new made friends, but in the swaying of the crowd lost sight of them, and as the Governor was standing at such a distance that it was impossible to reach him, and the crowd around me began to look with unpleasant glances on me as a stranger with a white cravat and in citizen’s dress, I stepped out and addressed a gentleman whom I had heard called Col. Davis,1 told him my name, and my desire to see the Governor.  He treated me very politely and kindly, and after another ineffectual effort to reach the Governor, consented to take me to the jail himself.  Other men entered the cell of Brown with me.  And here I will state a singular tribute to the noble presence and decided character of this unfortunate man, these Virginians when in the cells of the other prisoners cracked their jokes freely and carelessly, before him stood silent, as in the presence of some superior being. 
Mr. Brown did not, at first, recognize me, but on giving my name, greeted me cordially and gratefully.  He said there were many whom he had hoped to see, whom he had not seen, but he had not expected to see any of his old Crawford Co friends.  He alluded to Crawford as being very dear to him; as its soil was hallowed as the resting-place of his former wife and two beloved children, and the sight of anyone from that region was most cheering.  I cannot pretend to give his language--it was the natural expression of a deep and impassioned nature, and as eloquent as words could be uttered. 
“Say to them without, I am cheerful.” 
I remarked to Mr. Brown that there had been a different version given to his Kansas exploits by the Herald of Freedom from that which his friends gave and ventured the opinion that his reputation demanded an explanation.  He replied that he understood my allusion, but that I was mistaken in supposing that it needed any refutation from him.  “Time and the honest verdict of posterity,” said he, “will approve of every act of mine to prevent Slavery from being established in Kansas.  I never shed the blood of a fellow man except in self-defence [sic] or the promotion of a righteous cause.”  He spoke in indignant terms of the editor of the Herald of Freedom, characterizing him as “selfish, unjust, revengeful, mercenary, untruthful and corrupt.”  I remarked that I regretted to hear him speak of G. W. Brown in such terms, as he was an old acquaintance of mine and had been trusted and respected.2  His answer was: “Mr. Lowry you are mistaken if you suppose that anything that George Washington Brown could say can tarnish the character of John Brown.”  During our conversation, the martial music (where Gov. Wise was reviewing his army near the prison,) made a great noise, and thinking it must annoy him I asked him if it did not?  “No,” said the old man, “it is inspiring!”
And here, as I parted with him, telling him I would see him again if possible, he repeated to me: “Tell those without that I am cheerful.”  My time was up and I was invited to leave.  I went to a hotel, where, with great difficulty, I obtained some refreshment.  Seeing that I was the object of many little attentions, I did not relish, I asked the landlord to accompany me to the house of a Mr. Brown, to whom I had letters.  He introduced me to a gentleman through whose assistance I found the son of Mr. Brown on guard at the Court House, and through him I was introduced to Mr. Geo. B. Monroe, where I obtained quarters for the night, after having with some difficulty, quieted the fears of his good wife, who declared that “no abolitionist” should sleep in her home.  When satisfied, however, that I was really quite harmless, she received and entertained me with true hospitality.  I was told that I must not be alarmed if I was arrested during the night, as I might be, for I would be perfectly safe in the hands of the soldiers, while I might not be alone in the crowd. 
I wished much to see Brown again and expressed a wish to stay in his cell all night, but they assured me that if my wish, even, was known, I might not be safe--and in accordance with the advice of these friends, I left in the morning train for Harper’s Ferry.  On the train I met Gov. Wise.  In a previous conversation with me the evening before, he had asked me whether John Brown was considered an insane man when he resided in Pennsylvania.  I said that he was thought to be sane and honest.  In the cars I asked the Gov. if he would commute the sentence of Mr. Brown.  He said: “I dare commute the sentence of Brown--and the citizens of Virginia would acquiesce, but I will not do it.” “Why,” said he, “John Brown never asked to be pardoned.”  And I doubt whether he would ask it--if he knew the asking would obtain it.  He said that he would rather pardon Brown than pardon Cook, and he would pardon neither.  I asked the Gov. if Brown’s friends could have his body after his death.  He answered: “The Surgeons will claim his body.”  I said to the Governor that in my opinion Brown was a monomaniac and as crazy, on the subject of slavery as Gerrit Smith.  He said “men of that kind of insanity ought to be hung.” 
A very intelligent Virginia gentleman, a Mr. Brown, asked me “what I wished to do with Brown’s body.”  I told him it would belong to his wife--but if his friends would not claim it, I would, if they gave it to me, and bury it in my own burying ground.  He remarked that it would be used for a different purpose if the north should get it; that Massachusetts would take the head, and other northern States other parts of the body, and each would erect over its portion a monument higher than Bunker Hill. 
I would say that I saw all the other prisoners except Stevens who was in Brown’s cell, but I was so much occupied with Brown that I did not even observe him.  Cook is quite young and prepossessing in his appearance. 
Mr. Brown is a member of the old school Presbyterian church3 and a decidedly religious man, though he strictly and sternly refuses to be aided in his prayers and sternly refuses to be aided in his prayers by the pro-slavery divines of Virginia.  One of these gentlemen in conversation with me, said that he had called on Brown to pray with him.  He said Brown asked if he was ready to fight, if necessity required it, for the freedom of the slave.  On his answering in the negative, Brown said that he would thank him to retire from his cell, that his prayers would be an abomination to his God.  To another clergyman he said that he would not insult his God by bowing down with any one who had the blood of the slave upon his skirts. 
I omitted above to say that Gov. Wise told me there was one condition on which he would surrender Gen. Brown--which was that I should deliver up to him General Sympathy for execution in his stead.  The Governor and the citizens are evidently more afraid of the latter than of the former. 
I also asked Gov. Wise why the wife of John Brown, who came all the way from her Northern home as far as Baltimore, returned, nevertheless, without seeing her husband.  He replied that in this Brown acted heroically, sending a message to her to implore her not to come.  There are traits in Brown’s character that wring the admiration from the heart of the Governor, even in spite of himself.  Yet Virginia will have the blood of its victims, for public opinion there demands the luxury, expensive though it be. 
My memory as to names and dates is not retentive.  With this caution to Brown’s historian, I give the age of Mr. Brown as between fifty-nine and sixty, or as he said, “if I live until the __ day of May next, which is not at all likely, I will be sixty years of age.”  He married for his first wife the daughter of Christopher Clow, (I think) who has friends yet living in Sewickly, Beaver county, Pa.,4 and the maiden name of his present wife, whom he married in Crawford county, was Day.  He came to Pennsylvania early in 1829 and left in the fall of 1835.5  At that time he carried on the business of a country tanner, and much of his life since has been spent as a Surveyor.  In my haste at the time of my interview with Mr. Brown, I took no memorandum, and [in] that flurry of a rapid journey, may have made some mistakes as to names and dates. 
This is a plain statement of the circumstances connected with my visit to this mistaken and deluded but sincere and noble old man.  His effort in a military point of view seems at first sight a weak and foolish one.  But while Mr. Brown did not at all underrate the bravery of Virginia [i]n a fair, open field, he understood very well how strong a few men may become in a strong position--and one can easily believe on looking at the character of the ground about Harper’s Ferry, that a body of a few thousand men, as Brown expected would be there, could make a serious inroad into the integrity of the body politic of Virginia.  And the present panic among these Virginians demonstrated the correctness of Brown’s estimate of them when he thought that a small body of slaves with those unearthly weapons in their hands, could rush down from the mountains, victors over a panic-stricken Commonwealth. 
M. B. Lowry
Erie, Pa., Nov. 25, 1859

II.  A Rejoinder by Gov. Henry Wise

Evidently, Lowry's article was sent to Wise later in December after Brown's execution, apparently by the editor of the Democratic paper in Erie, The Observer.   To the editor of this paper, Wise wrote the following, published on December 25, 1859:

Gov. Henry A. Wise
That the printed statement of M.B. Lowry which you send me is incorrect--When at Charlesto[w]n, the 20th Nov. last, I retired late in the evening to the house of a friend (Mr. Hawkes) where I saw this person, Mr. M. B. Lowry, who presented a letter purporting to be addressed to me by the Ajutant General of Pennsylvania.  The professed purpose of Mr. Lowry was to visit John Brown, to identify him as he said: "to see whether he was the same John Brown whom he had known, at some time, in Pennsylvania."  I understood, indeed, then or afterwards, that his object was to decide a wager as to the identity of Brown.  Supposing when presented to him that he had not visited Brown I tendered to him my permission to see him, but he informed me that he had already been allowed to see him and that he had identified him as the person whom he knew in Pennsylvania.  I saw him but a few minutes that evening, and supposed him to be a clergyman.  
The next morning (of Tuesday, I think) I went to Harper's Ferry, and he was in the cars.  He stood up near me and in the noise of the train, down to the Ferry from Charlestown (only 8 or 9 miles) obtruded several inquiries which roused my suspicions of his motives, and I, therefore answered him very curtly, but not in either the sense or spirit which he pretends to describe.  I can't attempt to give the words, for my purpose at the time was rather to rebuke his inquiries by a slighting repulse.  He had, perhaps, just foundation enough to make his statement "colorable."  For example, he says, "on the train I met Gov. Wise, &c."  This would seem to imply that he had not met me before yet he says, "In a previous conversation with me the evening before, &c.," without having stated that he had seen me the evening before or that he had been at Mr. Hawkes' house at all.  
Again: what he says I said about the Surgeons' claiming the body of Brown is already contradicted by the orders which I gave to protect Mrs Brown and to hand over the body to her under a military guard.  When I got to Harper's Ferry I learned from the superintendent of the arsenal there, that Mr. Lowry was anything else but a clergyman.  To me, certainly, he professed to be a conservative and anything else but a sympathizer with Brown and his associates.6  But what he really is, is now very apparent, and I can only add in brief that in its general scope his statement is obviously mischievous in meaning and untrue as to the facts pertaining to me.  
Yours Respectfully, Henry A. Wise

III.  Lowry Looking Back: The Impact of His Last Visit with John Brown

Writing in 1863, Morrow Lowry recalled that his sudden conversion to abolitionism was  owed to Governor Wise.  He stated that while he was visiting John Brown in jail, Wise had made a speech "on the outside" in which he said that if Fremont were president, "they would have marched into the capital; they would have hung the Black Republicans, and have controlled the Government."  Since the commencement of the rebellion, Lowry continued, he had been in earnest in the case he had undertaken.  He added that during the previous eighty years "this Government has had the reputation of being a Republican one, and has told the oppressed of every land that, in this country, there was a refuge for all the oppressed and down-trodden.  For the last eighty years we have been a nation of hypocrites."

Lowry attributed the failure of the Union to win the war to the fact that up to that point, the nation was still not primarily focused on slavery.  "The sooner we declare to the world that this war is for freedom the sooner will we reach the hearts of the people everywhere.  Gentlemen in the North who desire to perpetuate slavery will remember that it is already doomed, and that it is our duty to favor the going to the war of colored men.  . . .  This war is for the African and his race."7


       1 Col. Lucius Davis was appointed by Gov. Henry Wise to oversee the state troops stationed in Charlestown during Brown's last days.  Davis was a peculiar sight, with long whiskers braided and tied on the top of his head.  He was increasingly stressed and embarrassed in his leadership as rumors of abolitionist invasions increased to the point of distraction.  Eventually, he was replaced by another military officer and embarrassingly set aside.  The undercover reporter for the New York Tribune, Ned House, was quite successful in lampooning Davis and providing delightful details of his rise and fall in Charlestown. 

     2 George Washington [G.W.] Brown was another native of northwestern Pennsylvania and was known to both Lowry and John Brown.  G.W. Brown and John Brown were not relatives.  G.W. Brown relocated to the Kansas Territory and was greatly disliked by many free state settlers for his duplicity and willingness to collaborate with the proslavery faction.  According to one source, G.W. Brown published two different versions of his paper, The Herald of Freedom, in order to play both sides of the slavery controversy in Kansas territory.  He was infamously mercenary and malign in his character and he took a special interest in slandering John Brown during and after his death in expose-fashion.  John Brown was always careful with his words and rarely spoke in any direct fashion to condemn any man, so his reported words about G.W. Brown here should be taken as quite an extreme condemnation.

     3  Lowry is incorrect here.  Brown was a Calvinist and was schooled on the Westminister Catechism of the Reformed Presbyterians, but he was throughout his life a Congregationalist.

        4   Lowry is incorrect here.  Brown's first wife was Dianthe Lusk of Hudson, Ohio.  The Clow family knew the Browns and one of the Clow men married an adopted daughter of Jeremiah R. Brown of Hudson, Ohio, a half-brother of John Brown.  My knowledge of the Clow connection with the Brown is slight and I would refer the interested reader to the Hudson Library and Historical Society to pursue this further.

          5 Lowry is mistaken. John Brown moved to Crawford County in 1826 and returned to Ohio in 1835.

      6 There is no reason to believe that Wise was misrepresenting matters regarding Lowry's presentation at Charlestown.  A number of Brown's associates made efforts to reach Brown in jail and were unsuccessful or turned away.  Lowry had a letter but it is no surprise that he was savvy enough to alternatively pretend to be a conservative Pennsylvanian (i.e., that he was not opposed to slavery), a clergyman, and someone operating according to a wager over Brown's identity.  Whatever tales he told were intended to get him into John Brown's jail cell and he was quite successful.  However, it may be true that Lowry was not yet a convinced antislavery man when he went to see Brown.  See Part III above.

           7 Source: "Another Blast from Mr. Lowry's Bugle," Erie Observer, 27 June 1863, p. 3.

--> -->

No comments: