The arrest, trial, and execution of John Brown in the fall of 1859 came at a critical moment in United State history. According to historian David S. Reynolds in his recent biography, John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights (2005), Brown's actions and statements following his failed attempt to begin a slave insurrection near Harper's Ferry, Virginia so polarized northern and southern opinion on the slavery issue as to ensure Abraham Lincoln's election and cause the Civil War to occur perhaps two decades earlier than it might have otherwise. Reynolds is quick to point out that not only was Brown "right" on slavery and other racial issues of his day, but that his conduct--in causing the Civil War to begin in 1861 rather than, say, 1881--potentially saved hundreds of thousands of lives that could have been lost in a war fought in a time of much greater population and more deadly weaponry and, at the same time, might well have spared an entire generation of African-Americans the humiliating experience of human bondage.
John Brown was born into a family of slavery-hating devout Calvinists on May 9, 1800 in Torrington, Connecticut. At age five, Brown moved with his parents and three siblings to a log house in a frontier township in Ohio's Western Reserve, a region where native Americans vastly outnumbered the small population of whites. Unlike most other settlers, the Browns showed no indication of feelings of racial superiority, and young John Brown soon had native friends and took to wearing buckskin, a material generally worn only by the Indians.
While on a long cattle drive into Michigan in 1812, Brown became friends with a slave boy at house where he lodged. There Brown witnessed his friend suffer beatings with household tools and being made to sleep, wearing only rags, in the cold. Brown later described this experience as transforming him into "a most determined Abolitionist."
By age sixteen, the second driving force in Brown's life would be in place: He announced his acceptance of Christ in a small schoolhouse and declared his goal of committing the Bible's "entire contents" to memory. The next year, Brown would offer his first direct aid to a fugitive slave, hiding him in the family cabin. Soon Brown and his father, Owen Brown, became active participants in the Underground Railroad.
Brown became the patriarch of a family that was large, familiar with tragedy, committed to abolitionism, and almost unique in its willingness to "live with black people and to die for them." Over two decades, Brown fathered twenty children with two wives. His first wife died while giving birth to one of the twenty in 1832. Nine of the children succumbed to childhood diseases or accidents. Three sons died in Brown's private fight against slavery. Only eight (four by his first wife, and four by the steady and stoical Mary Day, who he married in 1833) outlived their father. Brown's parenting included tough discipline (his ledger, for example, specified eight lashes with a beech switch "for telling a lie"--but Brown sometimes asked his sons to administer most of the punishment on himself), and promotion of self-reliance and Christian values including, especially, compassion for the elderly, the unfortunate, and animals.
The Radicalization of John Brown
Brown's efforts to secure racial justice were numerous and diverse. He promoted a school for blacks. He insisted that his two hired black employees be allowed to sit in his pew at his Congregational Church--an unprecedented demand that led to his expulsion from the church. He became a stationmaster in the Underground Railroad, constructing a hiding place in his barn and taking fugitive slaves on nocturnal rides north to the next station.
While he endured a series of financial failures in Ohio and Massachusetts, and dealt with his family tragedies, Brown's thoughts increasingly turned to developing new strategies to combat slavery. He took inspiration from two African-Americans who played key roles in the fight for racial justice. He admired Nat Turner, the Virginia slave who, in 1831, led a bloody armed rebellion against plantation owners that left 55 white southerners dead. He also held in high esteem Cinque, the leader of a successful 1837 revolt on the Spanish slave schooner The Amistad--a ship that eventually found its way to the United States and became the focus of an intense legal battle that culminated in a Supreme Court decision granting the would-be slaves their freedom. Most abolitionists tended to be pacifists, but Brown accepted--and later, embraced--violence as necessary.
In November 1837 a proslavery mob destroyed the presses of an antislavery newspaper near St. Louis and murdered its editor, Elijah P. Lovejoy. Brown expressed outrage. At an antislavery meeting in Ohio called to protest the murder, Brown suddenly stood up, raised his right hand, and announced, "Here, before God, in the presence of these witnesses, from this time, I consecrate my life to the destruction of slavery!"
John Brown in 1846
Brown first revealed his plans to incite a slave insurrection in the South to Frederick Douglass when the famous African-American abolitionist visited his Springfield, Massachusetts home in November 1847. Pointing to the Appalachian Mountains in Virginia on a large map on his table, Brown told Douglass that God placed them there "to aid in the emancipation of your race" and they were "full of good hiding places, where a large number of men could be concealed and baffle and elude pursuit for a long time." He confided that he hoped to invade with "twenty-five picked men" who would sneak on to plantations, liberate slaves, and then retreat with them to the protection of the mountains, eventually forming a black colony there. These invasions, he said, would also have the effect of energizing additional abolitionist activity in the North.
A few years later, after Brown moved to a farm in North Elba, New York (near Lake Placid) to live in the largely black community established at that scenic location, he began to focus his thoughts on the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry. His daughter, Sarah, recalled Brown drawing sketches of forts that he hoped to build for protection in hills surrounding the Virginia town. By 1854, Brown was actively recruiting men to participate in his planned attack on Harper's Ferry.
It would be five more years, however, before Brown could put his plan into action. In the meantime, he became drawn into the drama that was unfolding in the Kansas Territory. In 1854, the infamous Kansas-Nebraska Act opened the western territories to slavery. The next year, Brown followed three of his sons to Kansas, hoping to do whatever he could to prevent the state from falling into the slavery column. Both sides dug in for a titanic struggle on the slavery question. Southerners, including many slave owners in neighboring Missouri, believed that if Kansas went for slavery, other western territories--in a sort of domino effect--would do likewise. They pledged to drive antislavery settlers out of Kansas. Northerners saw the battle as equally important. Antislavery activists headed west and began establishing camps in the territory.
They found anarchic conditions. Violence, primarily directed at antislavery settlers by border ruffians from Missouri, meant more than law--and the law was hard to determine, what with two competing territorial legislatures enacting contradictory legislation. Vote fraud was rampant. Missourian General B. F. Stringfellow urged his fellow proslavery supporters, "To those who have qualms about violating laws, I say the time has come when such impositions must be disregarded...I advise you, one and all, to enter every election district in Kansas...and vote at the point of the bowie-knife and revolver." The ruffians, having organized a bogus legislature, pushed through legislation imposing years in prison for publishing or even possessing an abolitionist publication and promising the death penalty for anyone urging slaves to revolt. Killings occurred with distressing frequency. A visiting woman from Boston wrote from Kansas that to the proslavery men "to shoot a man is not much more than to shoot a buck."
Events of the first half of 1856 radicalized Brown and pointed him toward the incident that changed the terms of the national debate over slavery and remains controversial to this day: the slaughter of proslavery settlers near Pottawatomie, Kansas on May 24, 1856. The first disturbing news of the year came from Washington, when President Franklin Pierce announced his support for the corrupt proslavery legislature in Kansas and proclaimed opposition to it treasonable. (Pierce's action led to the formation of the antislavery Republican Party the following month.) In April, Brown's outspoken attacks on the proslavery legislature led a proslavery judge to issue warrants for the arrest of him and his sons. On May 21, 751 border ruffians and southerners, waving banners proclaiming the supremacy of the white race, swept down on the antislavery town of Lawrence, ransacking the presses of two antislavery presses and burning and looting homes and businesses. Following news of the fall of Lawrence, a friend described Brown as "wild and frenzied." The next day, May 22, South Carolina Senator Preston Brooks took his gold-topped cane and, on the floor of the U. S. Senate, clubbed senseless Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner after he delivered an abolitionist speech, "The Crime Against Kansas." When Brown received word of the caning in Washington, according to his son Jason, "it seemed to be the finishing, decisive touch." Brown told his supporters, "I am entirely tired of hearing that word 'caution.' It is nothing but the word of cowardice."
"Tragic Prelude" by John Steuart Curry
The details of the murders by Brown's band at Pottawatomie are well known. Brown and six others set out from Ottawa Creek on May 23 with rifles, revolvers, and swords heading toward proslavery territory. Around ten o'clock the following night Brown's men, announcing they were from the Northern Army, broke into the home of proslavery activist James Doyle. Doyle and his two older sons were led into the woods near the cabin and hacked to death. The group then headed to the cabin of Allen Wilkinson, a proslavery district attorney. Wilkinson met the same end as the Doyles. A short time later, the fifth and final victim, William Sherman, was taken and killed. Brown directed the killings; he did not, it seems, participate in them. Afterward, he remained unapologetic. "God is my judge," he said. "It was absolutely necessary as a measure of self-defense, and for the defense of others." Pottawatomie changed the way southerners viewed northern abolitionists. No longer did they see them all as toothless pushovers--they began to see them as radical and potentially dangerous.
Over the next two years, Brown--now a nationally known figure--would divide his time between the efforts to secure free state status for Kansas and planning for his invasion at Harper's Ferry. Part of that period was spent in the Northeast, meeting abolitionists to raise money for his antislavery ventures. His most important financial backers, including a group of men who would become known as "The Secret Six," were connected in varying degrees to the Transcendentalist Movement (centered in Concord, Massachusetts and often associated with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau) that viewed slavery as an unmixed evil and placed duty to conscience above obedience to the positive law. For another part of those two years, Brown was back near the frontier engaging in a frontal attack on slavery and seeking recruits for his future attack on Harper's Ferry. By the end of 1857, ten key members of the group that would mount the attack had joined Brown.
Together with his supporters, Brown drafted his utopian "Provisional Constitution and Ordinances for the People of the United States," a document intended to reform the existing flawed proslavery Constitution in what Brown hoped would be a better society built on the concept of racial equality. Brown presented his constitution to an antislavery convention of African-Americans in Chatham, Ontario in May 1858. The convention approved the constitution and elected several blacks to official positions in the provisional government. The convention itself was extraordinary. As historian David Reynolds noted, "It was organized by a white man, attended largely by blacks, and designed to raise a black army to trigger an African American revolution that would wipe out slavery."
In June 1858, with rumors swirling of his plans to raise an army to end slavery (based primarily on leaks by Hugh Forbes, a British native that Brown had tried to recruit), Brown again headed west. He found the situation in Kansas much improved, with antislavery settlers now vastly outnumbering the proslavery settlers, and the territory (despite the best efforts of the federal government, which offered fast-track statehood and more territory if settlers approved a proslavery constitution) headed in the direction of free state status. The national political climate was also changing, as that month Abraham Lincoln declared in a speech in Illinois, "A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free."
On the night of December 20, 1858, Brown engaged in a memorable raid that panicked slave owners and transformed him, in the minds of many influential northern supporters, into the practical man of action needed to bring a swift end to the evil institution of slavery. Brown rode with twenty of his men into Verona County, Missouri, where they forcibly liberated twelve slaves from two farms and begin leading them on a successful 82-day, one-thousand-mile winter journey to freedom in Canada. The slave liberation prompted Gerrit Smith, one member of the Secret Six, to say, "I was once doubtful in my own mind as to Captain Brown's course. I now approve of it heartily."
The Attack at Harper's Ferry
Brown began focusing on final preparations for the Harper's Ferry assault, raising additional men and money, and securing necessary weapons. Brown was getting anxious. "Talk! talk! talk!" he complained at a meeting in Boston. "That will never free the slaves. What is needed is action-action."
John Brown finally put his grand plan into action on July 3, 1859, when he and three other men scouted the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry, a town nestled on a peninsula amid the high banks that surrounded the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers. The town manufactured more weapons than any other place in the South, and almost 200,000 weapons were stored in the United States Armory located there. Brown's plan was to take the arsenal, arm freed slaves in the vicinity, and then retreat to the mountains where they could mount additional raids to free more slaves.
The next day, Brown headed across the Potomac to Maryland, where he began looking for an off-the-beaten-track place to house and train his soldiers for the raid on Harper's Ferry. He eventually found a farm ("the Kennedy Farm") five miles from Harper's Ferry, set well back from any road, which he rented for $35. Over the next two months Brown's additional recruits, both whites and blacks, arrived at the Kennedy Farm. The men at the farm prepared rifles, studied military strategies, and relaxed in song or games of checkers and cards.
The Kennedy farmhouse near Harper's Ferry
On October 15, Brown announced to his twenty-one recruits that the revolution would begin the next night. In the morning, following a religious service, Brown read his proposed provisional constitution and assigned tasks for his men. Eighteen men would directly participate in the raid on the arsenal, including the cutting of telegraph wires, securing of bridges, and taking of hostages. Three other men would serve as sentinels and carry stolen weapons to a schoolhouse near Harper's Ferry for distribution to the freed slaves. Brown told his men to use violence only as a last resort: "Consider that the lives of others are as dear to them as yours are to you." At eight o'clock, Brown told his forces, "Men, get your arms; we will proceed to the Ferry."
The early stages of Brown's plan went well. Wires were cut and bridges taken without bloodshed. Brown, announcing his intention "to free all the negroes in this state," seized the night watchman at the federal armory. Brown's men took the arsenal and captured hostages. Brown began waiting for news of his raid to reach local slaves, who he expected would then rebel against their white masters. Six men sent to the countryside by Brown to get the liberation process going and to give each freed slave a pike, either for defensive purposes or to guard white slave owners so as to prevent their escape.
Unfortunately for Brown, the freed slaves did not respond as he had hoped. The surprising events left some confused, thinking they were about to be sold South rather than expected to become troops in a liberating army. Others refused to take pikes and hid. Most seemed unable to comprehend the notion that a white man would come to aid them in a fight against their own white masters.
Brown ignored warnings from his other officers to escape while the escaping was still good. He still held out hope that "the bees would begin to swarm" and his revolution succeed. Meanwhile, local townspeople had begun taking up arms to fight the invaders. Worse yet, an eastbound train, temporarily halted by Brown's men (after the unfortunate shooting of a black baggage handler), was allowed to proceed. The conductor stopped the train at the next station to the east and wired the master of transportation in Baltimore that "150 Abolitionists" had taken Harper's Ferry intent on freeing slaves. A short time later, the president of the Baltimore & Ohio Rail Road telegraphed President Buchanan and Governor Wise of Virginia to inform them of the crisis at the Ferry.
John Brown at Harper's Ferry
After noon or so on October 17, escape from Harper's Ferry became impossible. Citizen soldiers and two militia companies from nearby Charles Town moved toward the federal arsenal. They retook bridges and swept into town. The first of Brown's men to die was Dangerfield Newby, a black recruit guarding a bridge who had hoped to free his enslaved wife thirty miles south of the Ferry. After Newby fell to gunfire, angry citizens desecrated his body and shoved it into a gutter, where it was eaten by roving hogs. Other deaths soon followed as Brown remained holed up with his more than thirty hostages in the armory.
As the situation continued to deteriorate, Brown and his men moved with eleven of their key hostages to the fire engine house, a brick building that became known as John Brown's Fort, the site of his last stand. Hundreds of hostile townspeople--enraged over the killing of their mayor and another prominent citizen--and twelve militia companies soon surrounded the engine house. Brown's men fired out through lashed-open double doors, but kept taking bullets. One fatally wounded Brown's son, Oliver, as he aimed his rifle out the cracked doors. At 11 p.m., a company of marines commanded by Colonel Robert E. Lee arrived at Harper's Ferry.
At dawn on October 18, a lieutenant chosen by Lee approached the engine house and delivered to Brown Lee's formal demand for surrender. When Brown rejected the offer, marines stormed the engine house, battering it with sledge hammers. In the battle that ensued, Brown was stabbed, but not fatally. Many of his men, however, died by either gunfire or bayonets. The eleven hostages were liberated, and Brown and four of his surviving men taken prisoner. Brown was carried to the armory, where a group of reporters and politicians, including Virginia's Governor Henry Wise and two U. S. senators, questioned him. He told his interviewers that he came to Virginia at the prompting of "my Maker" and his only objective was "to free the slaves." Asked how he felt about the failure of freed slaves to enthusiastically embrace his liberation, Brown said, "Yes. I have been disappointed." After the interview, Governor Wise, while abhorring Brown's views, pronounced him "the gamest man I ever saw."
The Trial of John Brown
The greatest effects of John Brown's life come from how he acted and what he said after his arrest. A person who might have been a footnote in history became, for many northerners, a saintly martyr who helped persuade millions that eradication of slavery throughout the land was the only answer to the divisions in America.
Brown and his fellow prisoners were transported eight miles to Charles Town, were they arraigned on three state charges: treason against Virginia, inciting slaves to rebellion, and murder. After hearing the charges, Brown rose to say, "If you want my blood, you can have it any moment, without this mockery of a trial." The presiding judge, unmoved, set October 26 as the day for the trial to open--with Brown to be tried before his compatriots.
John Brown at his arraignment
In the North, only--at first--did the Transcendalists rally to Brown's defense. Henry David Thoreau delivered to a Concord audience his "one of the most memorable courtroom speeches" in which he praised Brown as "a man of ideas and principles." Thoreau boldy described Brown and Christ as "two ends of a chain which I rejoice to know is without links."
On the morning of October 26, as armed guards and cannons surrounded the courthouse in Charles Town, Brown's trial began with the return of the Grand Jury's indictment. The injured Brown, except when forced to rise, lay on a cot. He asked for a delay in his trial. His motion was denied. To the charges against him, he pled "not guilty."
Northern reporters covering Brown's trial noted its farcical aspects. The nearly 600 spectators who crowded the courtroom continuously opened peanuts and chestnuts, then tossed the shells on the floor so that crunched noisily when anyone walked on them. Other onlookers spat tobacco juice, smoked cigars, or hurled occasional insults in the direction of the defendant. A long-haired militiaman assigned to security marched around shouting at unruly spectators. Charles Harding, the prosecutor, relaxed with his feet on a table. He would doze off from time to time, awakening in one instance to call out for tobacco. When he showed up the second day of trial with a bruised face, he told curious reporters that the injuries resulted from a fight the night before with a "blind nigger." Eventually, Harding's obvious alcohol impairment convinced Judge Andrew Parker to replace him with a new prosecutor, the more dignified Andrew Hunter. Brown,meanwhile, spent most of the trial lying on his back.
There was considerable speculation that Brown would plead insanity. His defense attorneys had begun marshalling evidence to support such a theory. Ohio abolitionists pushed the idea, hoping that evidence of insanity would lighten his sentence, even if it failed to gain an outright acquittal. Brown, however, would have no part of it. He called the insanity plea a "pretext" and said, "If I am insane, of course, I should I know more than all the rest of the world. But I do not think so." He rejected "any attempt to interfere in my behalf on that score." (In fact, the best evidence is that Brown did not suffer from insanity, as he showed none of its classic symptoms--swings of mood, delusions, disengagement, inability to sleep or concentrate.)
Testimony began with the prosecution presenting witnesses that laid out for the jurors the events of October 16 to 18. Conductor Phelps, for example, described how Brown's men stopped his train and, with rifles pointing at him, ordered to back the train away from the bridge. He also told the jurors how his black baggage handler came running to him yelling, "Captain, I am shot" as blood flowed from under his left nipple. He recalled being approached by Brown (described by his men as "Captain Smith") who assured him his life was not in danger: "My head for it, you will not be hurt." Phelps, who later returned to Harper's Ferry for the interview with Brown that included Governor Wise and others, also described Brown's planned slave revolution, as Brown had outlined them immediately after his capture in the engine house.
Prosecution witness--and hostage--Colonel Lewis W. Washington, who also recounted Brown's post-arrest interview, told jurors in his cross-examination by defense attorney Lawson Botts that Brown had treated hostages respectfully. Washington testified that prisoners "were allowed to go out and assure their families of their safety" and that Brown told him that he would be treated well. He also stated that Brown "gave frequent orders not to fire on unarmed citizens." Washington said that Brown complained of the "bad faith" shown to his men who had walked with a flag of truce, but that he had not "uttered any vindictiveness against the people." Bott's cross revealed the basic defense strategy: faced with obvious criminality, prove that Brown's intentions through it all were never malicious--and hope that the sentence would not be the ultimate punishment that everyone in Virginia seemed to predict that it would be.
Perhaps the most damaging prosecution witness was slave owner and hostage John Allstadt, who described being awakened in his Virginia farmhouse by armed men telling him, "Get up quick, or we will burn you up." The men told Allstadt that they intended to "free the country of slavery" and, to help get that process going, would take him and his seven slaves (who had been armed with pikes) to Harper's Ferry. Allstadt told jurors that the antislavery men drove him in a wagon to the federal Armory, where he met John Brown. He described Brown's activities in the engine house after he was surrounded by Lee's marines. Brown, Allstadt said, carried a cocked rifle and squatted near the front door, firing at the marines. "My opinion is," he said of the fatal wounding of one soldier, "that he killed that marine." On cross-examination, however, Allstadt conceded that he could not say for certain whose shot it was that killed the marine and that there was much confusion and excitement at the time. He also admitted that Brown expressed deep regret upon hearing the news that one of his men had shot the unarmed and popular mayor of Harper's Ferry.
The defense chose to open its case with another of Brown's hostages, Joseph A. Brewer. Brewer painted Brown as a principled and considerate captor. He testified that Brown allowed hostages to "shelter themselves as they could." Remarkably, Brewer, after being allowed by Brown to leave so that he might carry a wounded citizen into the town hotel for treatment, returned--as he promised--to his hostage status in the engine house. Brewer confirmed earlier testimony concerning Brown's displeasure at the wounding of one of his men carrying the flag of truce. The shooting prompted Brown to warn that he had the power to destroy the place "in half an hour"--but then he quickly reassured his hostages that he had no intention of doing so.
Lead prosecutor Andrew Hunter, a dominating presence in the Charles Town courtroom, interrupted defense attorney Thomas Green's examination of yet another witness describing Brown's pleas not to shoot citizens unless in self-defense. Hunter objected that testimony had "no more to do with this case than the dead languages." Judge Parker, probably sensing that the defense would prove unavailing anyway, allowed the defense to continue to present evidence of Brown's forbearance.
The most dramatic moment in the trial came during the testimony of militiaman Henry Hunter, who led the capture, shooting, and desecration of William Thompson, one of Brown's closest friends. Hunter told jurors that as they cornered Thompson in a hotel, the hotelkeeper's daughter pleaded with him to spare his life and let justice take its course. Hunter replied, "Mr. Beckham's life is worth ten thousand of these vile abolitionists." Thompson answered, "You may take my life, but 80,000 will arise up to avenge me, and carry out my purpose of giving liberty to the slaves." Unmoved, Hunter dragged Thompson to a railroad bridge to serve as a rifle target. Hunter insisted "I have no regrets" about the brutal killing, having just witnessed his uncle and "the best friend I ever had" shot by one of Brown's men.
Angered by the callousness of Hunter, Brown rose to his feet. "May it please the Court," he said, "I discover that, notwithstanding all the assurances I have received of a fair trial, nothing like a fair trial is given me." Brown complained that subpoenas had not been delivered to persons he had hoped would testify on his behalf. He demanded that the trial be deferred until the arrival of counsel "in whom I feel I can rely." The sixty gold dollars in his pocket at the time of his arrest had been stolen, he said, and "I have not a dime" to fund the defense. After registering his objections, Brown laid down "drew a blanket over him and closed his eyes."
Following Brown's interruption and the immediate withdrawl from the case of defense attorneys Botts and Green, twenty-one- year-old George Hoyt, a young Boston lawyer actually sent to scout out escape possibilities (he concluded that escape was hopeless) rather than materially aid in the defense, stood to announce it would be "ridiculous" for him to carry on the defense of Brown without a continuation of the case, as he had not read the indictment, had not discussed defense strategy with his client or other lawyers, and had "no knowledge of the criminal code of Virginia." Parker granted a one-day adjournment, allowing time for two more defense attorneys, Samuel Chilton and Hiram Griswold, to arrive in Charles Town.
The defense continued to draw its witnesses from unlikely sources, such as a Maryland volunteer company commanded by Captain Simms. Simms joined the parade of defense witnesses who described Brown's generous treatment of prisoners even in the face of provocation. Like many witnesses, Simms was quick to insist he had no sympathy to Brown's goals, even while he admired his bravery and integrity. Simms claimed he appeared as a defense witness "with pleasure" because he did not want it said by "northern men" that "southern men were unwilling to appear as witnessses in behalf of one whose principles they abhorred."
Closing arguments began on Monday, October 30 in a packed courtroom. Hiram Griswold spoke for the defense. Griswold argued that "no man is guilty of treason unless he be a citizen of the state against which the treason so alleged has been committed"--and that Brown, a citizen of New York, could not therefore commit treason against Virginia. As for the charge of inciting a slave revolt, Griswold insisted "there is a manifest distinction" between trying to free slaves, which Brown admittedly did, and inciting them "to rebellion and insurrection," which includes "riot, robbery, murder, and arson." Brown's goal, Griswold told the jury, was to liberate slaves, not kill slaveowners or inflict mayhem. Finally, Griswold conceded, as he must, that citizens were shot during the Harper's Ferry incident. To call these shootings "murders," however, as the state sought to do, was to confuse common criminal conduct with the unfortunate but sometime necessary consequences of a military battle. The deaths, Griswold contended, were not "murders" within the meaning of Virginia law.
Andrew Hunter, in his closing argument for the prosecution, said that Brown had "come into the bosom of the Commonwealth with the deadly purpose of applying the torch to our buildings and shedding the blood of our citizens." Hunter argued that no matter whether Brown's conduct was seen as "tragical or farcical," it was "not alone for the purpose of carrying off slaves." Brown's "Provisional Constitution" showed that he had grander plans--and that his plans made him "clearly guilty of treason." There was, Hunter argued, "too much method in Brown's madness" for him to avoid the full legal consequences of his actions. "When you put pikes in the hands of slaves and have their masters captive," you cannot then claim to be merely liberating negroes and not inciting a slave rebellion. Finally, Hunter told the jury, it is irrelevant under the law whether Brown himself intended to take life. When one perpetrates a felony and deaths result, that is murder under the law whether the defendant wished those deaths to occur or not. If Brown had his way, Hunter contended, Virginia would have become another Haiti (the site of a bloody slave insurrection). "You have nothing to do" with the question of mercy, Hunter told the jury in closing. "If justice requires you by your verdict to take his life,...send him before the Maker who will settle the question for ever and ever." Brown listened to Hunter's crescendoing voice lying on his back with his eyes closed.
Just forty-five minutes after being sent out to deliberate, the jury returned with their verdict. Spectators, filling nearly every square foot of the courtroom, silently and anxiously craned their necks to observe the closing scene. According to a reporter, "the only calm and unruffled countenance" was "Old John Brown." The Clerk of Court asked, "Gentlemen of the jury, what say you, is the prisoner at the bar, John Brown, guilty or not guilty?" The foreman replied with a single word: "Guilty."
Sentencing took place on November 2, 1859. After overruling defense objections to the verdict, Judge Parker asked Brown if he had anything he wished to say before being sentenced. Brown immediately rose and in a clear, distinct voice delivered one of the most memorable courtroom speeches ever by a defendant in a criminal case. Ralph Waldo Emerson would later call it, along with the Gettysburg Address, one of the two greatest American speeches. Brown said:
[T]he New Testament teaches me that all things whatsoever I would that men should do to me, I should do even so to them....I have endeavored to act on that instruction. I am yet too young to understand that God is any respecter of persons. I believe that to have interfered, as I have done,...in behalf of His despised poor, is no wrong, but right. Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood farther with the blood of my children and the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments, I say let it be done."
Judge Parker listened silently to Brown's speech. Then he sentenced him to be publicly hanged on December 2. When Parker pronounced his sentence, one man in the crowd clapped.
Brown's remarkable performance in prison and in the courtroom changed perceptions of Harper's Ferry in both the North and the South. Abolitionists came to see Brown as an heroic--but, for most, still flawed--figure. Southerners, on the other hand, while recognizing Brown's bravery, increasingly saw him as a dangerous and black-hearted villain. Many in the South began to link Brown to what they called the "Black Republican" Party of the North--and for these proslavery voices, the consequences of a possible Republican victory the next year became so unimaginably bad that talk of secession began to be heard. On the floor of the U. S. Senate, Senator Jefferson Davis, later President of the Confederacy, said that William Seward, one of the leading contenders for the 1860 Republican presidential nomination, should have been hanged along with John Brown: "We have been invaded, and that invasion, and the facts connected with it, show Mr. Seward to be a traitor, and deserving of the gallows."
Efforts by Southerners to tar William Seward to Harper's Ferry made him, too, a casualty of Brown's attempted insurrection. As Seward's political fortunes sank, those of another Republican would rise. John Brown's actions in 1859 secured for Abraham Lincoln the party's nomination for President in 1860.
"Last Moments of John Brown" (painting by Thomas Hovenden)
Brown might have ended up as but a footnote in history but for the efforts of Transcendalists, especially Ralph Waldo Emerson, to turn him into a larger-than-life figure. In 1859, few people in America had as much cultural clout as the eloquent abolitionist lecturer of Boston. Emerson's lecture, "Courage," delivered in the Music Hall in Boston on November 8, six days after Brown's sentence of death, began to turn the tide of northern public opinion in Brown's favor. Emerson said of Brown: "That new saint, than whom none purer or more brave was ever led by love of men into conflict and death,--the new saint awaiting his martyrdom, and who, if he shall suffer, will make the gallows glorious like the cross." Emerson's "glorious gallows" speech polarized opinion, inspiring Brown's admirers and outraging his opponents.
As interest in his fate continued to swell, John Brown awaited execution in a Charles Town jail. He discouraged rescue efforts, and focused instead on furthering his abolitionist crusade through interviews with reporters and writing letters. As a Calvinist, Brown calmly accepted his fate as predetermined by God.
On December 1, the day before his scheduled execution, Brown met with his wife, Mary Day Brown, who had made the long and risky trek south from the family farm in North Elba, New York. They hugged for several minutes without saying a word. When words came, he told Mary, "We must all bear it in the best manner we can. I believe it is for the best."
The next day dawned fair and mild. Charles Town readied itself for Brown's execution. Workers finished a six-foot-high, twelve by sixteen-foot scaffold, with a trapdoor on hinges to open as the rope was cut, on a field at the southeast edge of town. Thomas (later "Stonewall") Jackson, from VMI, was in town to command cadets to guard the site. Major General Robert E. Lee posted soldiers at bridges and along area rivers. Cannons were aimed at the prison and soldiers lined up to surround the scaffold. Outsiders, except for a small number of reporters, were denied entry to the town.
Around 11 o'clock Brown, with his arms tied behind his back with rope and wearing a black coat and trousers, white socks, and red slippers, was led from his prison cell to a furniture wagon. As two white horses pulled the wagon to the execution site, Brown observed to the jailer who guarded him, "This is beautiful country." Once on the scaffold, a white hood was pulled over his head. Brown told the captain heading the execution team, "Do not keep me needlessly waiting." It would be, however, ten minutes more before the sheriff finally cut the rope holding the trapdoor with his hatchet and Brown fell, snapping his spinal column. For five minutes his "body jerked and quivered," according to a reporter at the scene. Colonel John Preston of the Virginia Military Institute announced, as the body at last hung relaxed, "So perish all such enemies of Virginia!" A young volunteer in the Virginia Greys watched the scene with what he later said was "unlimited, undeniable contempt" for the "traitor and terrorizer." The young volunteer's name was John Wilkes Booth.
John Brown's grave in North Elba, New York
The coffin carrying Brown arrived back in North Elba five days later. The following day, December 8, 1859, as family friend Lyman Epps (part African American, part Native American) sang "Blow Ye Trumpet, Blow!," John Brown's body was lowered into a grave about fifty feet from his family house. It still lies mouldering there today. His soul marched on, however, inspiring Union troops in the Civil War that finally would bring an end to the evil he fought to his death.