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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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Thursday, June 17, 2021

The John Brown Portrait by Selden Woodman

The Woodman Portrait
Sometime in early 1858, probably the week of February 28, John Brown was in New York City amidst a busy schedule of meetings, but took time to visit the Great Hall of the Cooper Union, which had opened a year in advance of the completion of this famous Manhattan structure (now the home of the Cooper Union Institute, near Astor Place in Greenwich Village's east side). Perhaps Brown was in attendance to hear an abolitionist or women's suffrage presentation. Regardless, his visit to the famous site would have been lost to history were it not for Selden J. Woodman, an artist who, as a young man, met Brown and enjoyed a "very animated conversation in the hallway" of the Cooper Union.

In the early 1880s, Woodman met A. G. Hawes, formerly a Kansas associate of Brown, who complained that none of the portraits he had seen were pleasing to his memory of the abolitionist. Afterward, Woodman stopped at the Kansas State Historical Society (KSHS), in Topeka, and examined a number of images of Brown in that collection, none of which impressed him until his eyes fell upon "an old photograph." This image had been sent to the KSHS from Boston. 

Winnie Tintype 
Kansas State Historical Society

According to Francis Adams, then Secretary of the KSHS, the image had been sent along with a collection of materials compiled by Thomas H. Webb of Boston, formerly Secretary of the Kansas Emigrant Aid Company. Woodman later recalled that it was this image, along with his own memory of Brown from 1858 from which he made his portrait. According to John Brown documentary expert Jean Libby, the KSHS image from which Woodman worked is a "copy tintype" (attributed to Winnie of Topeka, Kansas)--one of three images that Brown had made while in Boston in January 1857. Based on Libby's essential work on the John Brown images, we know that Brown's associate James Redpath remembered these images being made, and that Brown had given one of them to Webb in Boston. Libby finds that all three images are attributed to Hawes (or John A. Whipple) in that city. 

The Cole Engraving of
Woodman's Portrait
When Woodman's illustration appeared on the cover of The Century Magazine in July 1883, it was highly regarded—including by Brown's widow, Mary, who saw it in Kansas and afterward wrote that "the more I see it, the more I like it."  In more recent years, however, Alice Keesey Mecoy, a direct descendant of John Brown (through Anne Brown Adams), made an investigation, noting that what The Century Magazine actually featured was an engraving by Timothy Cole, a notable woodcut engraver at the time. As Alice has observed, we have mistakenly attributed the Century image of Brown to Woodman, but should distinguish the engraving in Century from the original portrait done by Woodman based on the tintype in KSHS.  You may read Alice's extensive article about her analysis and conclusions on her blog, John Brown Kin.  See "A Mystery About an Engraving of John Brown," Sept. 17, 2017.