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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, December 06, 2020

John Brown, Philadelphia, & A Decoy Coffin



Conventional historical narratives have typically presented the Harper’s Ferry raid as a quixotic, ill-planned, and essentially hopeless endeavor driven by fanaticism and ignored by enslaved black people.  In fact, there is substantial evidence to show that Brown was fairly well received by locally enslaved blacks in Jefferson County, Virginia, when he invaded Harpers Ferry on the evening of Sunday, October 16, 1859.  

Similarly, his plan was reasonable and feasible: to move into this threshold southern county, begin to gather up enslaved people, arm them, and retreat to the nearby Allegheny Mountains.  In the mountains, Brown’s men would train enslaved people to move onto plantations and farms, similarly leading more enslaved people away, likewise training and arming them.  No actual insurrection was intended, which is to say that no political agenda for killing slave masters was devised, only fighting in self-defense when necessary.  For the most part, Brown hoped to minimize fighting and concentrate on leading away sufficient numbers to the point that his movement could spread, county by county, and then state by state, until the South was thrown into a panic. Brown had no intention of launching a south-wide massacre; he wanted to attack the slavery system itself by destabilizing it to the point of paralysis. 

His seizure of the government armory, although not part of his original plan, was likewise not as desperate as many have assumed.  The armory actually was under civilian operation and the town of Harpers Ferry and the armory were meagerly guarded and could be held for a reasonable amount of time as long as he moved quickly and deliberately. On the night of October 16, 1859, Brown took a small force of men, white and black, into Harper’s Ferry and began to take prisoners and collect slave masters.  He also began to attract local slaves to join him, although subsequently Virginia slave masters denied the support of their slaves in interviews with the northern press.  It was essential to the ideology and psychic stability of the South to believe that “their” slaves were loyal and faithful.  Of course, the existence of slave patrols throughout the South put the lie to such self-serving fiction.  Unfortunately, northern politicians and journalists—many of them moderates like Abraham Lincoln or conservatives with racist sympathies, preferred to believe that Brown had failed in attracting enslaved people to his side.  In late 1859 and early ‘60, many northerners were far more concerned about persuading the offended South that they had not supported Brown than they were to understand the realities of what Brown had accomplished on Virginia soil.  

Actually, John Brown failed at Harper’s Ferry because he did not follow his own plan.  By his own admission, he failed to move in and out of Harper’s Ferry with expedience and was still in town by mid-morning the next day, October 17.  Brown’s delay was based on too much concern on his part for parleying with captive slave holders and comforting his hostages.  He also let a passenger train pass through Harper’s Ferry, enabling the engineer to spread word of Brown’s invasion.  A terrorist would have left Harper’s Ferry strewn with dead slave holders, white southern corpses, and a derailed train.  As a result of his delay, Brown got bogged down in fighting and finally was forced to withdraw into the armory fire engine house with several of his men and his hostages, and after repelling assaults and ongoing gunfire  for the rest of the day, they were overtaken by U.S. marines the following morning, October 18. 

Only a handful of Brown’s men escaped.  Most were killed in battle, some of them being murdered by angry Virginians after capture or surrender. Lewis Leary, one of the two black men from Oberlin, Ohio, was wounded, captured, and murdered--his throat cut by an angry white man. Only one reporter on the ground recorded the murder and then it was covered by the Southern press so effectively that the murder was not known until I located it in the pages of the Baltimore Daily Exchange after reading the reminiscences of its young reporter, Simpson Donavan. 

The surviving raiders, including Brown, were tried, convicted, and sentenced to hang.  John Brown was found guilty of murder, insurrection, and treason against the State of Virginia.  His trial was rushed for political and strategic expedience, and after being sentenced on November 2, he had but one month to settle accounts with God, humanity, and history.   Despite being stabbed, cut, and bludgeoned to unconsciousness, Brown received no mortal wound and recovered.  

It did not take long for him to realize that he had another chance to strike at slavery.  As he put it, God had taken the sword of steel from his hands and given him instead the sword of the spirit. With Bible, pen, and paper, he devoted his last days to reading, prayer, and answering letters from friends and strangers as well as penning epistles of comfort and advice to his family. Despite his failure at Harper’s Ferry, he wrote to his wife Mary, he could make the most of his defeat “by only hanging a few moments by the neck.”             

After they hanged him, John Brown's body was cut down and dumped into a coffin.  The doctors who presided at the gallows were not satisfied that he was dead, even though he had hung, swaying in the December breeze, for half an hour after the trap door had swung out.  Adjourning for an afternoon repast, they made their final inspection later in the day, officially declaring that Brown was dead.  To underscore their contempt, they left the noose around his neck. 

Mary Brown, widow of the abolitionist, set out from the family home in North Elba, near present-day Lake Placid, N.Y., with the intention of seeing her husband in his Virginia jail cell.  She was warmly received in Boston on November 3, where she was given gifts and money by Brown’s supporters and admirers.  She proceeded  by rail to Philadelphia and was greeted by the city’s abolitionist leadership, especially James Miller McKim, president of the Philadelphia Anti-Slavery Society.  But when she reached Baltimore, Maryland, Mary Brown received a telegram from her husband’s lawyer, George Sennott, demanding on her husband’s behalf that she not come any farther into the South.

Frustrated and disappointed, she was obligated to turn around and go back.  But instead of going home, Mary went back as far as Philadelphia, where she shuttled back and forth between the homes of abolitionists William Still and Lucretia Mott, and Rebecca Buffum Spring in Perth Amboy, New Jersey while awaiting the day of her husband’s execution on December 2.  

 Brown’s hesitance about having his wife come down to Virginia seems to have been a blend of practical apprehensions and painful emotions, not the least of which was that he was thinking of the expense of her travel given the long winter ahead after his death.  Before learning that she had begun to make her way southward, he had written on November 8 appealing that she not come to Virginia at all.  Afterward he wrote to a close associate, asking him to persuade Mary to remain at home for a time, at least until he directed her otherwise–which probably meant that he was hoping to receive monetary support for the family’s expenses.  Perhaps too, Brown was being a bit selfish, writing that Mary’s presence would only “deepen my affliction a thousand fold,” worried as he was that she would lose her composure and go “wild” on his account, as he put it.

Whatever the case, he changed his mind by November 16, when he wrote to Mary, allowing her to visit under the condition that she could “endure the trials and the shock” she might encounter in Virginia.   Meanwhile, from Philadelphia, she wrote a letter to Governor Wise of Virginia requesting the mortal remains of her husband and their two sons, Watson and Oliver, both of whom died from wounds sustained in the battle at Harper’s Ferry.  With the approval of her husband and the governor, Mary set out for Virginia in the company of James Miller McKim and his wife, Sarah Speakman McKim, and Hector Tyndale, another abolitionist. 

On December 1, the day before the execution, John and Mary Brown were permitted a few fleeting hours together, being allowed to enjoy a final meal and discuss family plans and concerns.  After being denied permission to spend their last night together, Mary was escorted back to her hotel in Harper’s Ferry.  The next day, she remained there with the McKims and Tyndale, who held hands and prayed with her at the hour of execution.  After the hanging, Tyndale received Brown’s coffin at Harper’s Ferry, causing something of a stir when he demanded that it be opened for inspection.  A rumor was going about that the southerners were going to steal Brown’s body and replace it with another corpse, perhaps that of a dead black man.  Observing the hatred and contempt that Virginians expressed toward Brown, Tyndale later said the incident brought him the nearest to personal violence of any part of the experience. 

The widow and her brave friends thus escorted the coffin by rail from Harper’s Ferry to Philadelphia with the intention of being met by an undertaker, who would duly prepare John Brown’s body for its final interment outside the family home in North Elba, New York.  But Philadelphia was already bubbling with protest, and it would have been impossible for the Old Man’s body to have rested peacefully over the weekend in the city without significant demonstrations taking place.   


On the day of the execution, the Reverend William H. Furness, pastor of the First Congregational Unitarian Church in Philadelphia, along with other members of the Philadelphia Anti-Slavery Society, held a vigil in support of Brown at National Hall on Market Street.  Mayor Alexander Henry, fearing an explosive conflict between pro-South hecklers and enthusiastic pro-Brown African Americans, called out 120 policemen to oversee the event.  According to the Philadelphia Press, a crowd of whites and blacks had begun to assemble outside of the Hall an hour before the doors opened and a definite “turbulence” was in the air.  Recognizing that an element of whites were present with the intention of disturbing and contradicting the program, the Philadelphia Press reporter also estimated that about a fourth of the attendees were black.   

While the black representation at National Hall was by no means scant, black Philadelphia held other vigils for John Brown on the day of his hanging, most notably at the Shiloh Baptist Church, located at South and Clifton Streets, where Jeremiah Asher was pastor.  One of the several speakers in this program was the eloquent Jonathan Gibbs, the Dartmouth graduate and pastor of the First African Presbyterian Church, whose eloquence so impressed the racist reporter from the Philadelphia Press that he declared Gibbs’ oratory “almost entirely free from the ordinary peculiarities of Negro speech.” Expressing the deepest sympathy for John Brown  “that brave man,” Gibbs decried the doctrine that the black man had no rights that the white man was bound to respect, and in a booming voice lifted a prayer of such anointed proportions that the Press reporter found the scene at the church had become almost excitingly frightening, with shrieks and cries, “Lord hear us!  Hear our prayer!  Remember old John Brown!  If he must die, remember his soul!”  Another speaker was Jabez Campbell, pastor of the Wesley Church, also known as Little Wesley, on Hurst Street below Lombard.  Campbell, who would later become a renowned bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, explained that he did not himself open his church to a John Brown vigil because his congregation was already under suspicion of authorities for “being engaged in a treasonable work,” probably referring to underground railroad activities.  “Now,” he declared, “if praying to God to enable Brown to pass out of this world leaning on the arm of Jesus be treason, then we are engaged in treason, and I am proud to be numbered with you in hearing this approach!”  After an equally powerful prayer, Campbell looked to a clock in the church and finding it close to the noon hour declared, “John Brown is now, just near about launching into eternity.”  Invoking a legion of angels to carry Brown’s soul to heaven, he prayed aloud: “Lord grant that he may have a quick passage, yes Lord, so quick that he may not know anything from the time the prop drops until his soul is safe with Jesus at the right hand of the Eternal!  And when the prop falls today, it will be like an earthquake, and slaveholders will tremble.”  With such words, the congregation exploded into responsive shouts, noted the Press reporter, “long, loud, and more boisterous than ever.”  Campbell was actually  late in pronouncing Brown dead since he had already swung out on the gallows at half-past 11 o’clock A.M.  But he was absolutely right that a kind of John Brown earthquake was only beginning. 

Over at the National Hall, the police kept the meeting from violent outbursts from white hecklers and other racists, although there was little ability to prevent the clash of competing remarks and  sentiments.  Throughout the program, sympathetic tears and cheers were contradicted by jeering, hissing, and loud cursing.  The Reverend Furness, a seasoned anti-slavery warrior, spoke first, boldly declaring that “out of the grim cloud that hangs over the South, a bolt has darted, and blood has flowed, and the place where the lightning struck”—speaking of Virginia—“is wild with fear.”  William Still later recalled these fiery words, admitting that he and other abolitionists feared that Philadelphia, the foremost black center in the United States in that era, “would be selected as the spot where Slavery would make its first mortal onslaught, and the abolitionists there the first victims.”  As noted by a reporter for The Republican Compiler, when Furness concluded his speech by declaring that “Today, [John Brown] has bequeathed his blood in which to write the great act of emancipation  for four millions of slaves,” his words were greeted with blended applause and hisses.  Then, two competing waves arose, the first of hisses, then one of applause.  Lucretia Mott of Philadelphia and Theodore Tilton of Brooklyn likewise spoke with similar responses from the mixed audience.  But when the black abolitionist Robert Purvis arose to speak, the sound of hisses and moans nearly drowned out the applause.   Racists in the audience reacted more strongly to his words than to the other speakers by making loud hisses, groans, and cries which added to the confusion of the competing spirits in the Hall. Undaunted, Purvis concluded by predicting, “the time shall come when John Brown shall be looked upon as the Jesus Christ of the nineteenth century!”  This final remark nearly caused an uprising of such confusion that the journalist from the Compiler could not record the rest of his speech for the noise filling the Hall. 

The explosive event at National Hall on the day that Brown was hanged is instructive in reminding us that white Philadelphia , like the majority population of New York City, was largely sympathetic to the South and the interests of the Union over the concerns of enslaved blacks.  No wonder, as Russell Weigley tells us, the “storm center” of Philadelphia for decades was the black community, which in the 1850s had grown to about 12 percent of the total population.  Although the white population was significantly larger, African Americans lived “immediately adjacent to the business, commercial, and upper-class residential heart of the consolidated city,” thus being quite visible and capable of bringing disquiet to the city.  Blacks were disdained by Philadelphia’s elite families, which were closely knit to the South in social and economic interests, just as they were despised by lower class whites as well as the Irish immigrant community.  In fact, not long after the pro-Brown event at National Hall, a counter-event was held in Philadelphia which drew 6000 whites, all of them declaring disgust over the Harper’s Ferry raid and their full support of the constitutional rights of southern slave holders.   Similar so-called “Union Meetings” were held in New York and other major and secondary cities by conservative whites in the northeast, attended by both businessmen and blue collar workers.


John Brown’s brief, posthumous visit to Philadelphia was not the first trip he ever made to the city. Among those appropriate to our story, the first took place between March 9-16, 1858, when the Old Man was canvassing for African American support for his intended raid into the South.  While in the city, Brown was a guest in the home of Stephen Smith, who lived on Lombard Street in Philadelphia.  In John Brown’s era, the black population was especially concentrated around Lombard Street, going east and west through the fifth and seventh wards of the city.  Not only would Brown have considered this a prime area for recruiting support, but it was logical for him to have sought out a successful black entrepreneur like Smith, who along with his partner, William Whipper, had built a lumber and real estate empire with other notable business holdings and an interest in underground railroad work as well.  Smith, joined by William Still, hosted Brown, John Brown Jr., and New Yorkers Frederick Douglass and Henry Highland Garnet, along with other black Philadelphians in this strategic meeting, although Brown seems to have conducted other meetings with black leaders during his unusually lengthy stay in black Philadelphia.  No record exists of the discussion on Lombard Street that day in 1858, but undoubtedly it involved the Old Man’s efforts at enlisting black soldiers to accompany him into Virginia.  Interestingly, Frederick Douglass, though not from Philadelphia, is key to the unfolding story of Brown’s involvement in this city. 

In his third and final autobiography published in 1881, Frederick Douglass wrote that he learned of Brown’s intention of attacking Harper’s Ferry during a secret meeting that took place within three weeks of the raid on October 16, 1859.   In fact, the meeting took place nearly two months before, when Douglass met with Brown in a quarry near Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, in late August 1859.  As Douglass fashioned the story, it was during this meeting that he first learned of Brown’s determination to make an attack on Harper’s Ferry as a preliminary move in his mountain-based campaign.  Despite Brown’s urging, Douglass wrote,  he had refused to join the venture and warned the Old Man that he would be caught in a “perfect steel-trap.”  Douglass did acknowledge that Brown had previously spoken of raiding Harper’s Ferry but had “never announced his intention of doing so” until the Chambersburg meeting, a claim that has never been questioned by scholars.  However, Douglass seems to have conflated the developments of 1859 in his memoir, entirely overlooking a clash with Brown that took place during a meeting in Detroit in March 1859.  Indeed, there is good reason that Douglass’ dissent from Brown’s plan originated at this point, and not seven months later as the former recorded in his autobiography.   

Given that their association dated back to the 1840s, it seems that Douglass had supported Brown’s plans as long as he had kept to the original strategy of initiating raids on plantations and establishing a mountain-based campaign in the South.  When Brown adjusted his plan to include the seizure of Harper’s Ferry, Douglass began to back off.  Brown’s ally and biographer, Franklin Sanborn, would agree, suggesting that Douglass knew of the Harper’s Ferry plan earlier than he portrayed in his autobiography.  This is significant because it explains a number of things about the John Brown story, most notably that despite their ongoing friendship, Douglass was steadily opposing Brown’s plan throughout 1859, and to some degree dampened his ability to gain black recruits.  Douglass’s friendly dissent was certainly no secret to other black leaders, and this dissent evidently took its toll in Philadelphia.  

 Just prior to meeting Brown at Chambersburg on August 20-21, 1859, Douglass stopped in Philadelphia and, according to historian William McFeely, Douglass held a secret meeting in a local church and found the attenders fearful of bearing retaliation for what Brown might do.  Unfortunately, McFeeley misses the full meaning of the incident, which is born out in a memoir of black leader William H. Johnson.  According to Johnson, Douglass’ secret meeting would have followed immediately the events that had taken place in Philadelphia on August 15-16.  Johnson writes that a newly formed “colored military company” had scheduled a parade in Philadelphia which involved men who were already enlisted by Brown.  Johnson recalled that Brown was disturbed by news of this public display of “armed and disciplined” blacks, fearing that their demonstration would draw undue attention from authorities.  Johnson says further that Brown came up to Philadelphia on August 15, in the hopes of discouraging the parade.  But he felt further undermined that evening during a public meeting at the Lombard Street Central Presbyterian Church (or possibly the Shiloh Baptist Church–Johnson’s account seems to confuse the two churches).  The guest speaker was another one of Brown’s black collaborators, J. J. Simons of New York City.  According to Johnson, Simons “made a speech in which he commended the Negroes of Philadelphia for organizing a military company and stated there was a grand project on foot to invade the South with an army of armed northern Negroes.” He then called for recruits from Philadelphia’s black community who would “march through the South with a gun in one hand and a bible in the other.”  Johnson says that Brown was present at this meeting and was appalled by Simons’s lack of discretion.  Later that night Douglass and Brown called an emergency meeting at the home of Thomas J. Dorsey, a famous caterer and another leading figure in Philadelphia’s black community.  Johnson was in attendance at this meeting and remembered Brown as having a “very kindly face” although shaded with “deep sorrow” because of Simons’s indiscrete remarks at the church.   Despite efforts at damage control, Johnson says that the incident created irreversible problems for Brown.  Always reticent about his plans, Brown believed the whole affair had jeopardized his operations and might possibly bring the authorities down upon black leaders in the city. 

When these realities hit home for Philadelphia’s black leadership it is understandable that some began to worry over the possible repercussions of their association with the Old Man.  Yet, incredibly, there remained sufficient interest in Brown’s plans among some black Philadelphians.  According to Franklin Sanborn, in late September 1859, “certain colored citizens” wrote a letter to Douglass urging him to support their efforts to join Brown.  “We think you are the man of all others to represent us,” they wrote, even pledging to support Douglass’s family if he himself would join Brown’s efforts.  “We have now quite a number of good but not very intelligent representatives collected,” they concluded in their appeal.  These events not only demonstrate the extent to which Brown looked to Philadelphia’s prominent black population for support, but also cast light on Douglass’s autobiographical stylizations.   Evidently, he had no intention of joining the dangerous effort despite the appeals of Brown and his Philadelphia supporters.  Regardless of our sympathy for Douglass and our personal gratitude that he chose to live rather than die with John Brown in Virginia, there is little doubt that his dissent was far more extensive and disappointing to Brown than he was understandably willing to admit in later years.  According to the Johnson memoir, Brown and Douglass were together in Philadelphia once more, just prior to the raid, on Thursday, October 13, which seems tenable from what we know of the Old Man’s whereabouts.  According to Johnson, Brown referred to the small number of raiders he had enlisted as “the forlorn hope of what might have been a grand expedition.”  Perhaps Douglass was trying to mend fences with his old friend; or he was going along grudgingly with Brown out of a sense of personal obligation.  He had hesitatingly introduced but one man to Brown, a fugitive South Carolinian named Shields Green, but seems to have been displeased when Green decided to join John Brown’s raiders.  

In the last Philadelphia meeting, Johnson says Douglass held a list of young black Philadelphians, but apparently none of them finally chose to join Brown in Virginia.  To what extent Douglass negatively impacted black enlistment in Philadelphia we will never know.  Interestingly, John Brown’s family thereafter had no friendly words for Frederick Douglass--the prominent sentiment among them being that he had broken his long-standing promise to support their father when the trumpet was blown.  Perhaps this drama is concealed in his famous words written in tribute to Brown years later, to the effect that while he could live for the slave, John Brown could die for the slave.  Frederick Douglass clearly preferred to live for the slave as an orator, activist, and politically respected leader.  We should be grateful that he chose to do so.   Leaving for you to read between the lines of history, I would only add that I’ve yet to find a single personal letter written between Douglass and the Brown family after 1859.  Such historical silence may be very significant indeed. 


 When the train carrying John Brown’s body pulled into the Wilmington and Baltimore Station at Broad and Prime Streets, it was no secret that the Old Man was coming for his last visit to Philadelphia.  Transport of the body through the city had been wired ahead and had generated a great deal of excitement.  According to the Philadelphia Press , a large, “motley” crowd had gathered, comprised of blacks and whites of both sexes, young and old.   The crowd was eager and tense, a prime target for the city’s pickpockets, especially the  notorious Bill Oliver (who was arrested by police)  and one known only as “Mysterious Jim” (who got away).  The train rumbled into the station at 12:45 P.M. on Saturday, December 3, the day after the execution.  Disembarking from the train was one described as a “stout,” “elderly,” and plain woman wearing a plaid shawl, who was undetected by the crowd as being Mary Brown the widow of the martyr.  Actually she was only about 43-years-old, but the Press reporter was perhaps correct in saying there was “nothing very remarkable in her appearance.”  The widow evidently was not interviewed by the press and stayed overnight at the home of anti-slavery man Edward Hopper on Arch Street.  Leaving the depot she was visibly leaning upon the arm of abolitionist Hector Tyndale, who was seething with disgust over Brown’s hanging and their experience in Harper’s Ferry afterward.  Greeted at the station by an abolitionist committee headed by the Reverend William Furness, Tyndale finally vented his rage, talking loudly and waving his arms in disgust.  “A miracle has happened, Dr. Furness,” Tyndale exclaimed.  “A miracle has happened!  The earth never opened to swallow up those fiends!”  The old abolitionist tried to calm him down, gently patting Tyndale on the shoulder.  But he would not easily forget his resentments toward Harper’s Ferry and its belligerent citizens.  A few years later, as Major Hector Tyndale, he probably took a measure of satisfaction when he returned to Harper’s Ferry and burned down a number of buildings in the town in the course of fighting Confederate snipers.  Afterward, he would  set up his office in the same hotel where he, the McKims, and the new widow of John Brown had waited to receive his body. 

With the arrival of the body in Philadelphia, Mayor Alexander once more had to deal with possible explosions of protest and riot.  He rightly anticipated that large numbers of the city’s black population would turn out, being both curious to see the coffin and tense with their own feelings of resentment.  Likewise would come the white hecklers, many of them southern medical students and other pro-slavery sympathizers.  With Brown’s body in the station, the scene could easily explode into a kind of urban civil war.  Alexander was intent on avoiding any such outcome and so dispatched a strong force of officers who made no exception in blocking all entrances into the depot.  Not content to merely shield the coffin from the crowd, Alexander then refused to allow the body to be delivered to the waiting Philadelphia undertaker, instead ordering that the coffin should be moved out of the city without delay.   

The mayor’s final measure, afterward called a “deception” by the Philadelphia Press , was to create a decoy coffin–actually a large industrial toolbox covered with blankets–which was carried by six police officers into the depot yard and placed on a wagon driven by other policemen.  Of course, the ploy was designed to draw the crowd away from the depot and it was quite successful.  As the wagon carrying the decoy coffin pulled out, it was immediately followed by what one writer called an “almost frenzied throng.”  The Press reporter described the movement of the crowd as “one of ludicrous description.  It seemed,” he wrote, “as if all the boys and Negroes in town were in full speed,” and a number of women pursued the wagon too, likewise joining in “the hue and cry.” One reminiscence of the event says the decoy coffin was taken in the direction of the headquarters of the Anti-Slavery Society, but the Philadelphia Press report published on December 5th says that it was brought directly to the Walnut Street wharf to create the impression that it was being shipped on to New York.  In the mean time, the real coffin was quietly and quickly placed in a furniture wagon and driven to the Camden depot, where it was temporarily locked in a baggage crate and promptly shipped out after the crowd had subsided.  John Brown’s body would thus be prepared for burial by an anti-slavery undertaker in downtown Manhattan, finally being carried northward by railroad toward its final destination in the Adirondacks. 


At the time of the Harper’s Ferry raid, Frederick Douglass had returned to Philadelphia for a speaking engagement at National Hall, the same site where the uproarious John Brown meeting would take place in December after the execution.  As it happened, however, on October 18, the day that Brown was defeated at Harper’s Ferry, Douglass gave what would become one of his most well-known lectures, entitled “Self-Made Men.:  Perhaps he had thought of his old friend Brown when he had prepared that lecture, perhaps not. But as history would have it, news of the Harper’s Ferry raid broke the day of his speech, and telegraphs carried the news that Brown’s invasion of Virginia had failed and his effort to launch a liberation movement had been halted. Defeated and captured, the blood-crusted Old Man was now a prisoner of the State of Virginia.  

Although Douglass should have expected to be implicated in Brown’s raid and fled immediately, he strangely lingered in Philadelphia long enough to enjoy a reunion with  Amanda Auld Sears, the grown daughter of the white man who once held him as a slave.  When further news prompted the warnings of friends in Philadelphia, Douglass was jolted back to reality.  Now, in flight mode and overwhelmed with fear, he nervously boarded the ferry at Philadelphia’s Walnut Street wharf, crossing the Delaware River to Camden, New Jersey.  Typically, travelers would have preferred the railroad from Camden northward  to New York City, but Douglass, so fearful of being apprehended, took a painfully slow ride by steamboat into Manhattan so that he could arrive in the city late at night.  From there he was finally able to return to his home in Rochester, New York, and then fled into Canada to avoid being arrested.12   

By not going to Virginia with Brown, Douglass had seemingly dodged a bullet, although he was still reduced to flight.  Two months later, John Brown’s body traveled northward following along the same route Douglass had taken, exiting Philadelphia by ferry to Camden, then by steamship to New York.  It was as if his dead friend had followed his trail.  Indeed, judging from Frederick Douglass’ many retrospective speeches and written reflections about John Brown, the Old Man never stopped following him.—LD

This episode is based on a presentation that Lou made at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania on Dec. 2, 2009 in commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Harper's Raid and John Brown's execution.


1 See Louis A. DeCaro, Jr., Freedom’s Dawn: The Last Days of John Brown in Virginia (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015), 35-36.

2 John Brown to Mary Brown, Nov. 10, 1859, in Dreer Collection, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.

3 “I have heard Gen. Tyndale say that his insistence on seeing the body brought him the nearest to personal violence of any part of the affair.” Justice James T. Mitchell to Oswald G. Villard, Nov. 27, 1907, in J.B. Funeral & Burial Folder, Box 3, John Brown-Oswald G. Villard Papers, Columbia University Library, New York.

4 See my narrative of John Brown’s execution and aftermath in Freedom’s Dawn

5 Sources for this section: William Still, The Underground Railroad (Philadelphia: Porter & Coates, 1872), 763; “Execution of John Brown; The Feeling in Philadelphia; Intense Meeting at National Hall,” Philadelphia Press, Dec. 3, 1859, 2; “John Brown’s Execution,” Republican Compiler [Gettysburg], Dec. 12, 1859, 1. Also see “Grand Union Mass Meeting at Jayne’s Hall,” Philadelphia Press, Dec. 8, 1859, 2.

6 See Russell F. Weigly, “‘A Peaceful City’: Public Order in Philadelphia from Consolidation Through the Civil War,” in Allen F. Davis and Mark H. Haller, Eds., The Peoples of Philadelphia: A History of Ethnic Groups and Lower Class Life 1790-1940 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998), 158-60.

7 On the so-called “Union Meetings” in opposition to John Brown, see Freedom’s Dawn, 341-49.

8 Still, The Underground Railroad, 735; W.E.B. DuBois, John Brown (1909; New York: Modern Library, 2001), 147; Oswald G. Villard, John Brown: A Biography 1800-1859 (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1910, 1929), 323. 

9 Freedom’s Dawn, 25-30.

10 Sources for this section: William S. McFeely, Frederick Douglass (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1991), 1996; Franklin B. Sanborn, Recollections of Seventy Years, Vol. 1 (Boston: The Gorham Press, 1909), 153-54; Autobiography of Dr. William Henry Johnson (Albany, N.Y.: The Argus Company, 1900), 194-96.

11 Sources for this section: “The Arrival of John Brown’s Remains” and “The Doings of Pickpockets,”  Philadelphia Press, Dec. 5, 1859, 2; Russell F. Weigly, “The Border City in Civil War, 1854-1865,” in Philadelphia: A 300-Year History (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1982), 389-90; Henry J. Kilbourn, “When John Brown’s Body Came Home: Events That Hastened the Civil War,” The Congregational World (ca. 1905), in J.B. Funeral & Burial folder, Box 3, Villard Papers, Columbia University Library; Weigly, “The Border City in Civil War, 1854-1865”; Rebecca Hemphill to Oswald G. Villard, Feb. 26, 1908, in J.B. Funeral & Burial folder, Box 3, Villard Papers; John McLaughlin, A Memoir of Hector Tyndale (Philadelphia: Private Printing, 1881), 7-9, 118; Villard, John Brown, 561; Still, The Underground Railroad, 763. 

12 David W. Blight, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018), 305-06.

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