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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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Tuesday, May 14, 2019

John Brown in the News: A Letter Resurfaces, A House Restored, and a New Sculpture


In his last days as a prisoner in Virginia, John Brown wrote a good many letters to family, associates, and strangers.  Brown received hundreds of letters, perhaps more, many of them requesting autographs.  These letters went unanswered and were thrown into the pot belly stove in his jail cell.  Brown's reason for doing so was that because he could not answer all such requests, he preferred to answer none of them.  Yet he did write a good many letters to friends and associates, some of which were published in newspapers in the North.

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In 2015, Rowman and Littlefield published my collection of John Brown's jailhouse letters, John Brown Speaks: Letters and Statements from Charlestown. My goal in producing this collection was to be as comprehensive as possible, publishing and contextualizing every surviving John Brown letter.  To my knowledge, fifty-one of his jailhouse letters have survived, not counting other documents in his hand, such as written directions for his wife and other special writings.  Many of the surviving letters survive in their original manuscripts, although others have been lost, now existing only in published transcriptions from the newspaper or other sources.

One interesting letter, which heretofore has been available only in Franklin Sanborn's 1885 biography of Brown, recently surfaced on an auction website.  It was written by John Brown to Mary Gale, the sister of the Charles P. Tidd.  Tidd was one of the several of Brown’s men who were able to escape after the failure at Harper’s Ferry.  (In the aftermath of the Harper’s Ferry raid, Tidd joined the Union army at the start of the Civil War, enlisting as a private in 1861.  He died of illness during the Battle of Roanoke Island the following year.)  After the raid, a number of attempts by Tidd's family were made to request information about him from Virginia officials, but apparently these went unanswered.  However, Mary Tidd Gale was successful, writing to John Brown in Charlestown jail.  

Last month I was informed by Mick Konowal, a collector and documentary specialist in the John Brown study, that not only had Brown's original response to Gale surfaced, but that it was written on the verso side of her letter to him.  Several years ago, Konowal identified a similar jail letter from Brown to a Charlestown publisher, in which the abolitionist similarly wrote on the verso side of the inquiry.  Heretofore, I assumed that the Gale-Brown correspondence was lost; the only version of Brown's letter that had survived is in a "sanitized" transcription in F. B. Sanborn's Life and Letters of John Brown (1885, page 615).  To no surprise, Sanborn's transcription needs to be improved.  What follows, then, is a literal transcription based upon the original:

Charlestown, Jefferson County, Va., 30 Nov. 1859. Mrs. Mary Gale (or the writer of the writing). Dear Friend,
             I have only time to give you the names of those that I know were killed of my company at Harper's Ferry, or that are said to have been killed; namely, two Thompsons, two Browns, J. Anderson, J. H. Kagi, Stewart Taylor, A. Hazlett, W. H. Leman, and three colored men. Would most gladly give you further information had I the time and ability.                                                                                                                                                                                     Your friend,  

                                                                                                       John Brown
One may consult my John Brown Speaks for details about this letter. One point worth mentioning, however, is that while it was a common feature in a prevalently racist society to segregate blacks from whites even in reference, Brown is certainly not doing so here by referring to "Three colored men." Rather, it seems he's being intentionally vague and misleading.  Two of his black raiders were killed during the raid and two were captured.  The fifth black raider, Osborne Anderson, had escaped.  From Brown’s standpoint, then, if the public thought he was dead too, it would be better for his chances of escape.  Happily, Anderson did escape by means of the underground railroad and returned safely to Chatham, Ontario, whence he had joined Brown.  Thankfully, Anderson penned the only primary sketch of Brown and the raid as a participant and survivor in his book, A Voice from Harper's Ferry (1861).

Brown's original letter was apparently sold on April 22 for $95,000.  The price tag suggests that perhaps he has become of greater interest to manuscript collectors than in the past.  At the same time, however, this letter may have been purchased by collector who will hide it from scholars and students in a collection, perhaps for years to come as has often been the case.  At least, however, we have had this opportunity to glimpse the original. As Mick Konowal points out, hopefully the collector who purchased the document will invest in having the verso side restored, so that Gale's letter and Brown's response both will also be preserved for history. 


In the May 2 online edition of the Akron Beacon Journal, Mark Price reported that the house that John and Mary Brown lived in during their Akron years is having its exterior restored thanks to a $375,000 plan.  Price reported that about two-thirds of the cost is covered by a grant from the State of Ohio.  The structure, which is nearly 190-years-old, will keep it "warm, safe and dry.  According to Price, "the original old-growth tulip poplar had deteriorated beyond repair, so it has been carefully replaced to the precise dimensions with quarter-sawn cedar from Oregon."  The roof, foundations, chimneys, gutters and spouts were all modernized.  The structure will also be made wheelchair accessible and its restrooms improved so that house will be accessible to everyone. Interior work will also be done that will feature a new exhibit, Family, Farm, Freedom" that is being installed "in the original two-room section of the 1830 house and will debut Thursday during a 219th birthday celebration for Brown." The John Brown House is located at Copley and Diagonal roads, across from Perkins Stone Mansion in Akron.As Prince points out, Brown rented the home for $30 a year between 1844 and 1854 from Col. Simon Perkins (Jr.), who lived in nearby Perkins Stone Mansion and was the son of Akron’s co-founder, Gen. Simon Perkins. The men were business partners in the wool industry, and Brown raised sheep on the Perkins property." 

John Brown's Akron Residence
(Karen Schiely, Beacon Journal photo)
The ten-year association of Brown and Perkins put the lie to the notion that Brown was entirely a business failure.  What failed for Brown and Perkins was their wool commission operation in Springfield, Massachusetts; but even this operation did not decline so much because of Brown's failures as it did because of the intense, systematic opposition the firm received from the manufacturing powers of New England, who did not want the woolgrowers to gain an upper hand. In his correspondence, Brown complained about how the manufacturers united to undermine the operation by not purchasing U.S. wools in favor of foreign wools.  At one point, according to the great Boyd Stutler, it appears they even infiltrated the commission house by planting an agent provocateur named Flint.   Yet even after the firm failed in 1849, Perkins strongly appealed to Brown to continue managing his agricultural interests, and Brown accepted, remaining with Perkins from 1849-1855, when he finally removed to North Elba, New York.   In the  1840s, John Brown was one of the most renowned and respects specialists in fine sheep and wool in the North.

The article says that the Perkins Stone Mansion is open for tours from 1 to 4 p.m. Wednesday to Saturday through December. The John Brown House will have identical hours following its opening this month.



Sculptor Woodrow Nash
(Phil Masturzo, Akron Beacon Journal)
According to a May 8 report by Craig Webb in the Akron Beacon-Journal, the artist Woodrow Nash of Akron is preparing busts of John Brown and his black Harper's Ferry raiders, Osborne Anderson, Dangerfield Newby, John Copeland, Lewis Leary, and Shields Green.  Webb reports that Nash, a veteran artist, has crated "everything from commissioned paintings to jazz album covers and fashion art."  A native of Akron, Nash lived in New York City and found his passion for sculpture before returning to his hometown.  He serves as a board member of the Summit County Historical Society and has sold sculptured pieces in a variety of sizes in galleries, commissions (including one of a well-known rapper) and museums.  Webb says that Nash has made about forty life-size depictions of  enslaved children for the historic Whitney Plantation museum and grounds in Louisiana.

The idea of larger-than-life sculptures of Brown and his men is a recent idea that Nash promoted to enhance the experience of visitors to John Brown's house.  His intention is to have the John Brown bust installed by next month, and the remaining busts of the raiders installed in the months following.

He hopes to have the John Brown bust finished and installed sometime in late June, and the ones of the men who fought beside him installed every subsequent month or so.

This particular project holds a special place in his heart since it involves a historical figure who called Summit County home.

Nash "fears there are kids who live not far from the historic home, and a nearby monument that lies hidden by trees and brush, who have no idea who John Brown was or the role he and the others played in sparking the Civil War and the end of slavery."

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