John Brown was an ardent abolitionist whose raid on the federal arsenal in October 1859 intensified the sectional dispute over slavery in the United States and hastened the nation toward civil war.
John Brown was born on May 9, 1800, in Torrington, a small village in the northwest corner of Connecticut. He was the fourth of eight children in the family of Ruth (Mills) and Owen Brown. Brown’s father was a deeply religious man who opposed slavery.
In 1805, when Brown was five years old, his father moved the family to Hudson, Ohio, in the state’s staunchly anti-slavery Connecticut Western Reserve. There, Owen Brown opened a tannery. Tragedy struck the family three years later when Ruth Brown died during childbirth. Owen Brown remarried the following year.
Owen Brown’s tannery business proved successful, and he became a pillar of the community. He was instrumental in the founding of Western Reserve College and, later, Oberlin College. Interestingly, one of Owen Brown’s early apprentices at his Hudson tannery was Jesse Root Grant, the father of future Civil War general and U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant.
During the War of 1812, Owen Brown became a cattle contractor for the military. While on a cattle drive in Michigan, a twelve-year-old John witnessed the abuse of a young slave approximately his age. According to Brown, the youth’s owner beat him with a shovel and forced him to sleep outside in the cold, wearing only rags. The event left an indelible impression on Brown’s mind and fueled his hatred of slavery.
Despite his father’s interest in higher education, John Brown received only rudimentary schooling during his youth. He did, though, receive valuable vocational training, working in his father’s tannery. Brown, however, believed he had a higher calling. In 1816, he returned east and enrolled in a preparatory school with plans to become a minister. Notwithstanding his lofty aspirations, Brown did not fare well academically and was soon back working in his father’s tannery.
Marriage and Family
Before 1820, Brown and his adopted brother, Levi Blakeslee, opened a tannery outside of Hudson. Arduously engaged in running their new business, the pair hired the widow Mary Lusk as a housekeeper for the home that they shared. Brown soon became enamored with Lusk’s nineteen-year-old daughter, Dianthe, and married her on June 21, 1820. Dianthe gave birth to their first child, John Jr., one year later.
In 1825, Brown moved his family to Crawford County in northwestern Pennsylvania, where he opened his a tannery. Despite his lack of formal education, he also received an appointment as the local postmaster. As Brown’s business thrived, his family grew. Unfortunately, tragedy struck in August 1832, when Dianthe died soon after giving birth to their seventh child.
Less than one year later, on July 11, 1833, Brown wed sixteen-year-old Mary Ann Day. They remained married until Brown’s death in 1859. Together, they had thirteen children, six of whom survived childhood.
Brown’s two marriages produced twenty children, eleven of whom lived to adulthood. All of them became ardent abolitionists. Four of Brown’s sons took part in the infamous Pottawatomie raid in 1856. Two of his sons (Oliver and Watson) perished in 1859 during Brown’s ill-fated assault on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. A third (Owen) took part in the raid but escaped. Brown’s oldest son, John Brown, Jr., served as Captain of Company K of the Seventh Kansas Cavalry during the American Civil War.
In 1834, Brown’s previously prosperous business failed, so he moved back to Ohio. Settling in Franklin Mills (now Kent), he started another tannery. During the next few years, he engaged in several secondary enterprises, including land speculation, canal construction, and farming, all of which failed. Reportedly, Brown suffered at least fifteen business failures. When the financial Panic of 1837 touched off a nationwide recession, Brown lost nearly everything. Hounded by creditors, he finally declared bankruptcy in 1842, leaving him destitute. In 1846, Brown moved to Springfield, Massachusetts, and established Perkins & Brown, a wool brokerage firm that also failed.
As early as the 1820s, Brown’s loathing of slavery had motivated him to serve secretly as a conductor on the Underground Railroad. Later, as his financial failures escalated, Brown’s commitment to the abolition movement intensified, and his activities against slavery became more overt. In 1837, church officials expelled Brown from the congregation when he attempted to escort blacks to his pew in a section reserved for whites.
A decade later, Brown met with Frederick Douglass and revealed his plans to lead a slave revolt in the South. Although Douglass was not on board with Brown’s militancy, he later reflected that:
Had some men made such display of rigid virtue, I should have rejected it, as affected, false, or hypocritical, but in John Brown, I felt it to be as real as iron or granite.
In 1849, Brown moved his family to North Elba, New York, a freedmen’s community created on land provided by philanthropist Gerrit Smith. Following the enactment of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, he helped organize the Springfield Chapter of the League of Gileadites, an African-American group that assisted escaped slaves elude slave catchers.
At the same time that Brown was searching for methods to fulfill his abolitionist ideals, the extension of slavery in the West was becoming increasingly contentious. Settlers and entrepreneurs were clamoring to occupy the rest of the Louisiana Purchase. “Kansas Fever” was rampant. Before whites could settle the area, however, they needed to organize a territorial government to deal with the native population, survey the region, and implement regulations for land ownership.
On May 30, 1854, President Franklin Pierce signed “An Act to Organize the Territories of Nebraska and Kansas.” Commonly known as the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the legislation invoked the concept of popular sovereignty—allowing the residents of the territories to decide for themselves the status of slavery in the area where they lived. The bill’s supporters believed that implementing popular sovereignty would bring the sectional dispute over the extension of slavery to a halt. Instead, the Kansas-Nebraska Act kindled the opposite reaction. Political bickering turned into bloodshed in Kansas, as ruffians on both sides of the issue hastened to the new territory to influence the vote over slavery.
The events playing out in Kansas presented Brown an ideal opportunity to act on his increasingly militant views on abolishing slavery. On October 7, 1855, Brown joined five of his sons (Owen, Frederick, Salmon, Jason, and John, Jr.,) who had settled along the Osawatomie River in Kansas during the previous year.
When a group of pro-slavery marauders sacked and looted the staunchly anti-slavery town of Lawrence on May 21, 1856, Brown sprang into action. Appointing himself captain of anti-slavery forces, Brown led his four sons and two accomplices on a mission of revenge. On the night of May 24, Brown and his followers raided the homes of three families living near Pottawatomie Creek. They dragged five unarmed men and boys, believed to be slavery supporters, from their homes and brutally hacked them to death.
It is probable that Brown did not directly engage in the murders. Still, slavery supporters condemned his role in the bloody incident, while abolitionists applauded his conviction and leadership. On a broader scale, many Southerners mistook the approval of Brown’s brutality as reflective of the beliefs of Northerners, further escalating sectional discord in the United States.
Buoyed by his “success” in Kansas, Brown spent the next year and one-half planning bigger achievements in his personal crusade against slavery. In January 1857, he traveled east, where militant abolitionists received him as a celebrity. In Massachusetts, Brown met with financiers to support what were still ambiguous plans to capture the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, and then to lead an armed slave insurrection in Virginia. By March, Brown had raised enough funds to bankroll the production of 1,000 pikes to arm mutinous slaves during the impending rebellion. Brown spent the late summer and early autumn of 1857 in Iowa and Kansas trying to recruit volunteers for his grand assault on slavery.
In January 1858, Brown visited Frederick Douglass at his home in Rochester, New York. He stayed with Douglass for several weeks, unsuccessfully trying to convince Douglass to support his mission, which Douglass described as suicidal. Unable to secure Douglass’s endorsement, Brown returned to Massachusetts, where he shared his plans with the Reverend Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Samuel Gridley Howe, Theodore Parker, Franklin Sanborn, and George Stearns. Those five men, plus Gerrit Smith, known as the Secret Six, formed Brown’s primary financial backers.
In May 1858, Brown was in Chatham, Ontario, a settlement for freed slaves escaping the United States via the Underground Railroad. On May 8, twelve whites and thirty-four blacks approved a constitution for the republic Brown planned to establish after the successful conclusion of his planned slave rebellion. The delegates to the Chatham Convention also elected Brown as commander-in-chief of the republic’s armed forces.
By December 1858, Brown was back in Kansas recruiting volunteers. On December 20, Brown again made headlines when he led a group of twenty men across the border into Missouri on a raid that liberated eleven slaves and resulted in the death of one slaveholder. Upon returning to Kansas, Brown led the rescued slaves on a grueling winter trek across Nebraska and Iowa before boarding a train that eventually led them to freedom in Canada.
Although authorities wanted Brown for his actions in Missouri, he brazenly returned to the United States in early 1859, delivering anti-slavery speeches and recruiting for his army. In June, Brown visited his home in North Elba for the last time. On July 3, 1859, Brown traveled to Harpers Ferry with two of his sons (Oliver and Owen) to begin reconnaissance of the federal arsenal. Using the pseudonym Isaac Smith, Brown rented a farm in Maryland near the facility large enough to quarter the projected army as it trained for the impending assault. By mid-October, Brown’s army comprised just twenty-one recruits—three free blacks, one freed slave, one fugitive slave, and sixteen whites, including his sons Oliver, Owen, and Watson.
Raid on Harpers Ferry
Early on Sunday, October 16, 1859, Brown assembled his army for prayers and to deliver marching orders. That evening, Brown launched his grandiose plan to capture the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry and, subsequently, to incite a slave insurrection in Virginia.
Leaving behind three men (including his son Owen) to guard supplies and ammunition, Brown began his short trek toward Harpers Ferry with his remaining eighteen recruits at 8 p.m. Meeting little resistance, they easily occupied the U.S. Armory and Arsenal and the U.S. Rifle Works on Hall’s Island by 10:30.
At 1:25 the next morning, Brown’s men stopped a Baltimore & Ohio passenger train at the bridge leading into town. During an encounter on the tracks, Heyward Shepherd, a free black railroad employee who was investigating the delay, became the first victim of the invasion, when Brown’s men shot and killed him.
When the arsenal’s employees began reporting to work in the morning, the raiders began taking hostages. Now aware that their town was under siege, residents began exchanging gunfire with Brown’s men. Alerted by the gunfire, the local militia mobilized and surrounded the town by 10 a.m., cutting off any escape routes. At about that time, a militiaman shot and killed Dangerfield Newby, making him the first raider to die during the attack.
Brown had expected that, when word of his raid reached neighboring plantations, local slaves would abandon their masters and flock to his aid. When the hoped-for reinforcements did not materialize, Brown realized the gravity of his situation. He spent the rest of the day holed up in the armory trying to negotiate a truce while exchanging gunfire with the locals. At approximately 3 p.m., the militiamen stormed the armory, freeing most of the hostages and forcing Brown’s men to withdraw to the fire engine house.
News of the raid reached Washington, DC, when the B&O train that Brown had detained earlier reached the capital. Federal officials responded quickly, deploying approximately ninety marines, commanded by Colonel Robert E. Lee, to diffuse the situation. Lee arrived at Harpers Ferry at approximately 11 p.m. that night and positioned his troops. When the raiders refused to surrender to Lieutenant J. E. B. Stuart the next morning, the marines stormed the engine house at approximately 7 a.m. on October 18, 1859. During the ensuing melee, the marines killed two more raiders and captured five others, including Brown. No hostages were harmed, but one marine was killed, and another was injured.
Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry lasted less than two days. In retrospect, Frederick Douglass was correct—it was a suicidal mission. Of the twenty-two men involved in the conspiracy, ten perished, including Brown’s sons Watson and Oliver. The marines captured Brown and four participants at the arsenal. Seven others escaped, but Lee’s forces later apprehended and returned two of them to Virginia to stand trial. The remaining five, including Brown’s son Owen, eluded capture. Of the seven men captured, all stood trial in Virginia and received death sentences.
Trial and Sentencing
Following Brown’s capture, Virginia authorities took him to nearby Charles Town to stand trial. On October 25, 1859, a grand jury began considering the charges against Brown. The next day, jailers brought Brown to the courthouse on a cot because he could not walk due to injuries he sustained during his capture.
Lying on a mattress on the courtroom floor, Brown listened as the grand jury indicted him and his fellow conspirators on three counts: conspiring with “Negroes” to produce an insurrection, treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia, and murder. Upon hearing the charges against him, Brown protested that “If you seek my blood, you can have it any moment, without this mockery of a trial.” Ignoring Brown’s objections, Circuit Judge Richard Parker announced that the trial would begin that afternoon.
Nearly six hundred spectators crowded the courtroom when the trial started at 2 p.m. on October 26, 1859. For the next three-and-one-half days, the court heard testimony from prosecution and defense witnesses. On Monday, October 30, the state’s prosecutor Andrew Hunter and Brown’s lead defense attorney, Hiram Griswold, presented closing arguments. The jury deliberated only forty-five minutes before delivering verdicts of guilty on all counts. Judge Parker ordered a recess of one day before sentencing.
On Wednesday, November 2, 1859, officials brought Brown before Judge Parker for sentencing. When asked whether he had anything to say before the judge pronounced his sentence, Brown delivered a brief statement to the court. During his remarks, Brown stated:
if it is deemed necessary that I should give up 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.
Unmoved by Brown’s commentary, Judge Parker sentenced Brown to be publicly hanged on December 2, 1859.
On December 1, Brown’s wife visited her husband, and the couple said their final farewells. At approximately 11 a.m. the next day, guards led Brown from his prison cell, placed him in a wagon, and escorted him through a throng of nearly 2,000 people to the gallows. Fearing that abolitionists might make a last-minute attempt to rescue Brown, Virginia officials surrounded the gallows with cadets from the Virginia Military Academy. Officials allowed very few members of the public to get close enough to the gallows to witness the execution.
One person who did see the hanging was VMI professor Thomas J. Jackson, who later earned the name “Stonewall” at the First Battle of Bull Run. According to Jackson’s eyewitness account, Brown ascended the gallows with his hands tied and bravely offered his neck to the executioner. After about a ten-minute delay, the trapdoor sprung and Brown fell roughly twenty-five inches, with the fall snapping his neck. Jackson noted:
With the fall his arms below the elbow flew up, hands clenched, & his arms gradually fell by spasmodic motions—there was very little motion of his person for several minutes, after which the wind blew his lifeless body to & fro.
Brown died at approximately 11:30 a.m. on December 2, 1859. According to a New York Times reporter, his body swung for nearly half an hour before being removed from the gallows.
Following his execution, Virginia authorities shipped Brown’s body to Harpers Ferry, where they turned it over to his wife. Mrs. Brown returned to the family home at North Elba with her husband’s remains. Following a funeral on December 8, family members laid Brown’s body to rest on the family farm.
Immediately prior to his hanging, while standing on the gallows, Brown handed one of his jailers a prophetic note. It read:
I John Brown am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away, but with Blood. I had…vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed, it might be done.
Brown was correct. Within two years, the nation was engaged in a civil war that rendered over 750,000 casualties.
John Brown and his raid on Harpers Ferry played a major role in the onset of the American Civil War. His trial and execution blazed a spotlight on slavery that polarized the nation. In the North, Brown became a martyr, when luminaries such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau extolled his sacrifices for the abolitionist cause. Meanwhile, many Southerners demonized Brown and rejoiced in his execution.
Brown became the face of the growing discord that divided two distinctly different cultures and economies. His actions and their subsequent consequences intensified the dispute over slavery and hastened the nation toward the carnage that Brown envisioned as he stood on the gallows.