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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, February 03, 2019

Rich Smyths's Where Are They Now? "THE SECRET SIX"

As the years past them by, these men did not forget the contribution John Brown had made. They continued to do what they could for Brown’s widow and the children.

Thomas Wentworth Higginson would visit his new wife’s family who happened to live in Harpers Ferry. He would travel the 8-mile road from the scene of the raid to Charlestown where he viewed the jail in which the Raiders were held, the courthouse and the field where the hangings took place. A few years prior to his death, Higginson wrote to a friend “we did do right.”1

Higginson, Franklin Benjamin Sanborn and George Luther Stearns would travel individually to pay their respects at the grave site in North Elba. Theodore Parker had moved to Europe never to return. Inexplicably, Gerrit Smith and Samuel Gridley Howe stayed away from John Brown’s grave.

After the death of Parker, Sanborn would travel to Italy to pay his respects at the burial spot of his former co-conspirator.

In Concord, Massachusetts on the 50th anniversary of the raid, a reunion was held at the home of Franklin Sanborn. Attending were fellow Secret Six member Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Julia Ward Howe, the widow of Samuel. The small group had been brought together by a young reporter, Katherine Mayo. She asked questions and wrote down the answers as the three reminisced about the occurrence half a century before.2 

Katherine was there as a researcher for a biography of John Brown by Oswald Garrison Villard (1910).3

George Luther Stearns fled to Canada following the raid, not returning until after  John Brown was hung. Following the Civil War he fought for the Black right to vote, establishing the Freedmen’s Bureau designed to aid emancipated Blacks.4 

Stearns, who suffered from bronchial problems, died of pneumonia in New York on April 9th 1867. At his funeral, Ralph Waldo Emerson gave the eulogy. He was buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery – Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Gerrit Smith may best be known as the member of the Secret Six that most actively tried to disassociate himself from Brown’s actions. After Brown’s arrest, Smith destroyed all evidence linking him with the Raider trying to hide any connections. During this period he spent time in a lunatic asylum from November 7th till December 29th,  either suffering the effects of assumed persecution and possible prosecution or to attest that he was not of sane mind and thus not liable for any of his actions. Whether Smith was really suffering mentally or chose to hide in the asylum to escape the possibility of arrest is unknown. Smith would continue to deny for the rest of his life that he had any affiliation with Brown.5 

In an odd twist of fate, Smith contributed to the $100,000 bond to free ex-Confederate president Jefferson Davis from Fort Monroe. Davis was being held prisoner there while awaiting a conspiracy trial which never happened. Horace Greeley and Cornelius Vanderbilt also assisted monetarily with the bond.

Gerrit Smith died in 1874 while visiting relatives in New York City. The remains were returned to Peterboro, New York and buried in the Smith family plot, in the city cemetery which is surrounded by rolling farmland. The plot contains his first wife, Wealtha Ann Smith who died in Peterboro on August 15th 1819, at the age of 19 and his second wife Ann C. Fitzhugh Smith, who died March 6th 1875 at the age of 70, less than three months after Gerrit. 

Ironically, Ann C. Smith’s nephew was Claggett Dorsey Fitzhugh, a slave catcher who is credited with capturing Raider John E. Cook and returning him to Virginia where Cook was tried and hung.

Individual Marker for Gerrit Smith

To get to the cemetery take Peterboro Road north through town to the cemetery on the left a short walk from the Gerrit homestead.

Franklin Benjamin Sanborn was one of the “Six” that fled to Canada after the raid to avoid the possibility of arrest. Following Brown’s arrest and conviction but prior to his execution, Higginson wrote a letter to Sanborn mockingly asking whether Franklin would stay or flee once again across the border.6 

In April of 1860 there was an attempt to arrest Sanborn at his home. A group of men, apparently marshals, arrived after dark armed with a warrant. Witnessing the men trying to place Franklin into a waiting carriage, his wife Sarah alerted the townspeople who rallied to his aid. The citizens including students from the school Sanborn taught in prevented the arrest. Soon a judge appeared with a writ of habeas corpus and the marshals were forced to leave town without their objective.7

Sanborn ensured that Brown’s daughters received an education in Concord, and even after the turn of the twentieth century tried to assist the children and grandchildren.

Sanborn married Ariana Walker, who died eight days later of a rare neurological disease. He kept a lock of her hair for the rest of his life. Franklin’s friend, the noted poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, once had his own dead son exhumed so he could view his body one last time.  A few months after Ariana’s death, Sanborn obtained an estimate to exhume his dead wife so he could look at her face again. There is no evidence that he ever went through with the plan.8

Subsequently he married his cousin Louisa Augusta Leavitt with whom he had three children.  He died in 1917 and is buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, Massachusetts. Louisa died the following year and is buried with him.

The cemetery is located at 34 Bedford Street near the center of Concord, Massachusetts.

Thomas Wentworth Higginson remained firm in his support for the cause when some of the other “Six” sought to distance themselves from Brown and his failed actions at Harpers Ferry; responding "Is there no such thing as honor among confederates?"  

He even considered kidnapping the Governor of Virginia to exchange for Brown’s release, in the end saying "I should have realized the need to protect John Brown from himself."9

On the day John Brown received his death sentence, Higginson was at the Brown farm in North Elba. He was shown the spot near the house, next to the large boulder where several of Brown’s young boys had begun digging their father’s grave.10

Raiders, Aaron Stevens and Albert Hazlett had been sentenced to hang when Higginson secretly planned to rescue the two from the gallows. The preparation involved a large band of men that would attack the jail in Charlestown, Virginia and free the two. After reconnoitering the area, the plan was dropped as impractical.11

During the Civil War he continued to pursue the rights of minorities being commissioned colonel of the 1st South Carolina Volunteers, a black regiment. Irrespective of his Abolitionist feelings, Higginson felt that Blacks were mentally substandard to whites.12

Thomas Wentworth Higginson is buried
in Cambridge Cemetery, 76 Coolidge Ave,,
Cambridge, Massachusetts
Higginson’s first wife died in 1877 and two years later Thomas married a woman whom he had met in Boston. Ironically, Mary Thacher was from a prominent Harpers Ferry family.13

His later years were devoted to literature, women’s rights, socialism, American history and culture. Higginson died on May 9, 1911 and was buried in Cambridge Cemetery, Cambridge, Massachusetts, at the intersection of Riverview, Lawn, and Prospect paths within the cemetery.

Theodore Parker wrote a public letter after Brown’s arrest "John Brown's Expedition Reviewed," in which he advocated the slave’s right to violence:

"One held against his will as a slave has a natural right to kill everyone who seeks to prevent his enjoyment of liberty."14 

Parker had moved to Europe for his health and was living there when word was received of Brown’s raid and execution. Parker, on receiving news of John Brown’s execution mused "The road to heaven is as short from the gallows as from the throne."15

Theodore Parker died in Florence, Italy of tuberculosis. He is buried in the English Cemetery in Florence.

This cemetery holds others with beliefs similar to Parkers. Both Fanny Trollope (Domestic Manners of the Americans – 1832) and Richard Hildreth (The Slave: or Memoir of Archy Moore – 1836) wrote anti-slavery books that Harriet Beecher Stowe utilized when writing her novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Upon visiting Florence, Frederick Douglas went straight from the train depot to visit Parker’s grave.

The inscription on the stone reads:

AUGUST 24 1810
MAY 10 1860


Note: After Theodore Parker’s death in Florence, Italy, his brain was sent to Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe. The doctor kept the organ in a closet at the Perkins Institute.17

Theodore Parker’s autopsy was performed by his doctor, B. Appleton and Parker’s friend, Professor Pierre Jean Edouard Desor. During the procedure, they removed the brain and heart and then sealed the body in a lead casket packed with hemp and preservative spirits. Assuming the Reverend’s remains would be shipped to Massachusetts for burial the brain and heart were shipped back separately. Unbeknownst to the two, Parker’s wife wished her husband’s remains be buried locally in Florence.

A sailor arrived at the home of Doctor Samuel Howe with the brain…the accompanying letter being lost during the voyage. The doctor’s wife, Julia, placed the relic in a closet on the top floor of the Perkins school for the Blind.

The heart has been lost though there is speculation that it was sent to Parker’s Massachusetts physician and fellow abolitionist - Doctor Samuel Cabot.18 

The cemetery in disrepair with Parker's marker toppled and broken 19

Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe’s bravado quickly dissipated when Brown was arrested at Harpers Ferry. Howe published a disclaimer in the New York Tribune that he had any knowledge of Brown’s plans and fled the country with fellow “Secret Six” conspirator, George Luther Stearns not returning until after Brown’s execution. Associate “Six” member Thomas Wentworth Higginson, denounced their abandonment of Brown as dishonorable.20

Samuel Howe died of a brain tumor on January 9th 1876 and is buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery - Cambridge, Massachusetts. Fellow Secret Six member George Luther Stearns is buried in the same cemetery.

In his will, Howe left nothing to his wife but $2,000 for the care of student Laura Bridgman who resided in the Perkins School for the Blind where Howe was the institute’s first director. Howe taught the deaf-blind Bridgman to communicate using his own system that was later used for Helen Keller.21

Samuel G. Howe buried next to his wife, Julia Ward Howe,
Mount Auburn Cemetery, 76 Coolidge Avenue, Cambridge, Mass.
Howe family plot

Dr. Howe & Laura Bridgman 22
Laura Dewey Bridgman

 Laura Dewey Bridgman was a normal two year old when scarlet fever struck the family. Two sisters, Mary (age 6) and her sister Collina (age 4) died from the disease while Laura was left deaf-blind and without a sense of smell or taste.

After learning to read and write at the Perkins School for the Blind, Laura was returned to her rural farming family who struggled to take care of her. She was placed back with the institute and lived in a cottage on the grounds where she assisted in teaching other handicapped students.

Laura died in 1889 at the age of 59 of Erysipelas (skin infection), at the school. She is buried in Dana Cemetery – Hanover, New Hampshire near her families’ farm.23

Though they were Abolitionists in their actions and would work anonymously, behind the scenes to aid John Brown in his struggle to end slavery, the majority of the “Six” believed as most white American’s of the time did, that Negro slaves were inferior intellectually, lazy, would require white overseers to make them productive and should remain as non-citizens living separately from whites.

These beliefs contradicted greatly from those of John Brown who saw no color differences, befriended Blacks, treated them as equals and was willing to sacrifice his own life and that of his family to free them.

Somehow, Brown and the “Six” found common ground in their fight towards a common goal. John Brown and the “Secret Six” had been called traitors, insurrectionists and murderers but in the end, their efforts, financial aid, weapons and blood started the rebellion that led to the end of the “peculiar institution.”

Perhaps Higginson summed it up best when he wrote a letter to a friend a few years prior to his own passing“…we did do right. The result of the attack at Harpers Ferry, the hastening of inevitable disunion and civil war, was good, healthy, positive.”

Katherine Mayo was the Brown family researcher and historian, helping Oswald Garrison Villard of the New York Evening Post prepare his John Brown biography in 1910. 

Katherine Mayo

Mayo was opposed to non-white and catholic immigration to the United States. She also voiced opposition to the recently emancipated Black laborers. She was polarizing in her rebuke of both India and the Philippines writing that neither country was ready for independence. Ironically, Villard’s associate who helped him compile the biography on the man who gave his life to end slavery, was a racist.

Mayo never married and had no children. In 1910 Mayo met Majorie Moyca Newell, a rich Dutch heiress and the two began a lifelong relationship. Mayo would go on to reside at Newell’s Bedford, New York estate which reportedly had been built specifically for the two of them until her death in 1940. The exact nature of Mayo’s relationship with Newell is unknown. They have been described as “romantic friends,” “travelling partners,” “life-long friends,” and have even been referred to as “a writing team.”24

Mayo died in Newell’s home October 9, 1940 after a long disease. She was buried in Saint Matthew's Episcopal Churchyard – Bedford, New York.

Newell died on February 23, 1968. She is buried in the same plot as Mayo.


      1 Letter from Higginson to Richard Watson Gilder, July 7, 1906, m, Letter in the collection of the Huntington Library.

      2 Edward J. Renehen Jr., The Secret Six (University of South Caroline Press, 1997), pp. 1-8.

      3 The book was titled John Brown 1800–1859: A Biography Fifty Years After.

      4 Image courtesy of Adirondack Daily Enterprise, May 14, 1941.

       5 David S. Reynolds, John Brown Abolitionist.

       6 Ibid.

       7 Ibid.

       8 Ibid.

       9 Renehen, The Secret Six

       10 Ibid.

       11 Ibid.


       13 Ibid.

       14 Reynolds, John Brown Abolitionist

       15 Ibid.

       16 Theodore Parker’s grave picture is in the public domain - permission granted, no license required per GNU Free Documentation License.

        17 “Stack of the Artist of Kouroo” by Austin Meredith. http://www.kouroo.info/Thoreau/ProfessorDesor.pdf

       18  Renehen, The Secret Six

       19 Image courtesy of https://uncomelyandbroken.wordpress.com/2015/07/30/theodore-parkers-grave-2015

       20 Ibid.

       21 Perkins School for the Blind - www.perkins.org

      22 This image courtesy of the Perkins School for the Blind Archives.

      23 Obituary, The New York Times, May 25, 1889.

      24 Amanda Lee Albaniel Solomon, Managing the (Post) Colonial: race, gender and sexuality in literary texts of the Phillipine Commonwealth.  Dissertation,  University of California, 2011. http://escholarship.org/uc/item/6px6j526#page-5

     25 Courtesy of Find A Grave contributor Anonymous.

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