A Hero in the Midst of Cowards
The righteous rage of John Brown
On December 1, 1859 in a Charles Town, Virginia jail cell, John Brown shared his final meal with his wife Mary.
"Cheer up," he told her after a silent embrace that lasted for minutes. "Tell [our children] their father died without a single regret for the course he has pursued — that he is satisfied he is right in the eyes of God and of all just men."
After an hour, the two said goodbye, and Mary went back to her accommodations to await the arrival of her husband's body the next day.
In the morning, Brown woke and read from the Bible. He wrote one last letter to his wife and then scratched another short note, the latter of which he slipped to a jailer.
Brown had accepted his fate. If he were to die as a martyr for the cause of destroying chattel slavery, it was an end that he had accepted long before. His actions were, it seemed to some, divinely inspired, much like the enslaved preacher Nat Turner decades earlier, a time when John Brown was simply a young family man living in Pennsylvania.
During Brown's trial, poet and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson had even written that the execution of John Brown would "make the gallows glorious like the cross."
While many viewed Brown as a cold-blooded killer, treasonous, and perhaps even insane, some of his contemporaries came to his defense.
"A hero in the midst of us cowards is always so dreaded," the transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau wrote. "He shows himself superior to nature. He has a spark of divinity in him."
Victor Hugo, the French author of Les Misérables and The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, offered international support for Brown, arguing that his execution would be an "uncorrectable sin" for the United States. John Brown's rage against the institution of slavery, while mercilessly violent at times, was righteous and therefore, his actions justified, his supporters believed.
"[I]f insurrection is ever a sacred duty, it must be when it is directed against slavery," argued Hugo. "The universal conscience of humanity is an ever-watchful eye ... You preserve your infamy, but you sacrifice your glory."
Brown was led from his cell to a horse-drawn wagon. He thanked the sheriff for his kindness and complimented the jailer. He then ascended the wagon and was seated upon his own coffin with the sheriff and jailer sitting near. There was no minister as Brown had rejected one. The wagon started towards the gallows. Spectators were kept at a distance over fear of plans to break Brown free — but it is more likely that the thousands of soldiers deterred any such plans.
Among the soldiers was John Wilkes Booth, the future assassin of Abraham Lincoln. "I looked at the traitor and terrorizer with unlimited, undeniable contempt," he later wrote.
Brown sat mostly still, only calmly patting his knees with his hands. "This is a beautiful country," he said.
When they arrived at the foot of the gallows, he calmly arose from his coffin and dismounted the wagon without assistance. "His demeanor was intrepid without being braggart," one colonel who witnessed the execution wrote that day. "The sheriff asked the prisoner if he should give him a private signal before the fatal moment. He replied, in a voice that sounded to me unnaturally natural ... that it did not matter to him, if only they would not keep him too long waiting."
The future Confederate General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson was so close to the gallows that he could hear every word spoken. "He behaved with unflinching firmness," he wrote to his wife afterwards, noting how Brown shook the hands of those standing upon the scaffold.
After about 10 minutes of preparation, the executioner placed a hood over Brown's head and secured the noose around his neck. The trapdoor opened.
"There was profound stillness during the time his struggles continued, growing feebler and feebler at each abortive attempt to breathe," recounted the colonel. "At last, straight and lank, he dangled, swayed slightly to and fro by the wind ... There was not, I suppose, one throb of sympathy for the offender. All felt in the depths of their hearts it was right. On the other hand, there was not one single word or gesture of exultation or insult."
John Brown was dead.
Harriet Tubman, who Brown had often referred to as General Tubman, later wrote that Brown had "done more in dying, than one-hundred men would in living."
His actions at Harpers Ferry that led to his execution are well-documented, as is his violent participation in the Bleeding Kansas conflicts. Yet, his path to such radical violence was gradual and it certainly was never inevitable.
"Few successful people in history have failed so miserably in so many different pursuits as John Brown," biographer David S. Reynolds wrote of Brown's earlier years.
In tracing these early failures (as well as frequent personal losses), one begins to understand the progression of John Brown as a community-minded and religious family man who detested slavery to a person willing to kill and even die to dismantle the institution.
It was many years earlier in 1825 that Brown moved with his first wife, Dianthe, and their three young sons (John, Jr., Jason, and Owen) from Ohio to New Richmond in Crawford County, Pennsylvania. Brown was then in his mid-20s, deeply religious, and a pacifist. His sons described him as an "Abrahamic patriarch" and a "stern puritan."
After clearing land, they built a log cabin, tannery, and barn. In the barn, Brown included a small secret room accessible only by a concealed trapdoor as he hoped to establish a new route along Pennsylvania's Underground Railroad, inspired by his previous antislavery activities in Ohio with his brother.
New Richmond was thinly populated with slightly over 20 families at the time. Other than a state road connecting them to Meadville 12 miles away, much of the land was wilderness. Giant ancient oaks and hemlocks shaded his property. The streams were filled with fish and the forests were populated with deer, turkeys, quail, bears, wolves, and wildcats. Many indigenous peoples also still populated the area.
Brown made a name for himself early on in New Richmond. Community was important to him and he treated his neighbors as extended family. He founded New Richmond's first school and church. He started a reading club, often hand-delivering books to his neighbors. He organized (and participated in) wrestling matches on his property for exercise and entertainment. He helped build roads. He was even the area's first postmaster, delivering mail between Riceville and Meadville, while maintaining his tannery which employed over a dozen workers. He also fulfilled his hopes of using his property as a part of the Underground Railroad, although exactly how many he assisted in their escape from enslavement is difficult to determine. Some estimates are in the thousands.
Other times, he could be a thorn, particularly to those with power. When an Erie land agent claimed that nearby settlers were on company-owned land, for instance, Brown urged them to organize and resist eviction. On another occasion, he clashed with local Freemasons. After the disappearance of a writer critical of Freemasonry, Brown (once a Mason himself) strongly and vocally disparaged the organization. His son recalled how Brown was once in Meadville and angry Masons surrounded the building he was in, apparently looking to lynch Brown. He managed to escape, but afterward, he bought his first gun.
It seemed that John Brown was living an ideal life despite only minor hardships. He had his family, his tannery, and the respect of his community. He and Dianthe had welcomed three more children during this time as well.
Brown wrote a letter to his brother during these years explaining how he wished to raise funds to buy the freedom of an enslaved child. He thought New Richmond had no "vicious persons of any kind" and would be the "most favorable location" for free black children.
"There would be no powerful opposition influence against such a thing," he added.
Then the first of many tragedies befell the Browns. In 1831, their four-year-old son Frederick died. A little over a year later, their seventh child was born, but after three days, both the newborn and Dianthe died. They were buried next to the grave of Frederick (all of which remain on the property today).
Grief changed John Brown. "I find I am getting more and more unfit for everything," he wrote to a friend. "I have been growing numb for a good while."
Brown remarried in the summer of 1833 to a young girl named Mary Ann Day. In 1834, she had the first of their 13 children. They named her Sarah and she would be the last of his children born in Pennsylvania. Poor money management and increased debts led to him losing the farm, a source of constant guilt afterwards.
They moved to Ohio and their family continued to expand. It was here that Brown's antislavery views began to escalate. First, there was the murder of abolitionist newspaperman Elijah Lovejoy in 1837. He told one friend during this time that he planned to escalate his antislavery activism to which his friend replied that he would hang for it.
"Well then, I will hang," replied Brown.
Then in 1839, a black preacher named Fayette visited Brown. According to W.E.B. DuBois in his 1909 biography of Brown, it was Fayette's explanation of persecution and injustice that inspired Brown to finally dedicate his life to the destruction of slavery.
"Solemnly, John Brown arose," wrote DuBois. "[He] told them of his purpose to make active war on slavery and bound his family in solemn and secret compact to labor for emancipation."
Soon though, his newfound purpose was followed by more financial peril, more failed business ventures, and more personal tragedy. A month of unfathomable sorrow began in 1843 when five-year-old Charles came down with a fever. He stopped eating. His screams from excruciating stomach pains soon filled their home. The dysentery ripped through the family: nine-year-old Sarah, two-year-old Peter, and newborn Austin were soon stricken. Night after night, Brown held his suffering children, grief overwhelming him as each died in his arms.
John Brown was never the same.
"The dark mysterious tragedy of life gripped him with awful intensity — the iron entered his soul," wrote DuBois. "He became sterner and more silent. He brooded and listened for the voice of the avenging God."
"I felt for a number of years," Brown later wrote, "a steady, strong desire to die."
The rest of John Brown's story has been told often and told well. His older sons became involved in the Bleeding Kansas conflicts between pro-slavery Border Ruffians and antislavery free-staters and in 1855, John Brown arrived to assist. His arrival culminated in extreme violence and, eventually, the failed raid at Harpers Ferry in 1859 that led to the death of two more sons, his capture, and his execution.
"With his sword and his voice, John Brown had demonstrated the unutterable villainy of slavery," journalist James Redpath wrote not long after Brown's execution.
In his 1903 collection of essays titled The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. DuBois wrote: "Herein lies the tragedy of the age: not that men are poor, — all men know something of poverty; not that men are wicked, — who is good? not that men are ignorant, — what is Truth? Nay, but that men know so little of men."
Men know so little of men. In John Brown's final note, which he had slipped to the jailer before his execution, he seemed keenly aware of that fact.
"I, John Brown," the note read, "am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood."
The remains of John Brown's New Richmond tannery can be seen still today and are located off Rt. 77 outside of Cambridge Springs, between Townville and Guys Mills, PA on the appropriately named John Brown Road.
Jonathan Burdick runs the historical blog Rust & Dirt. Follow them on Twitter @RustDirt, and on Instagram @RustandDirt.