An Eyewitness Describes The Hanging Of John Brown

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John Brown of Osawatomie, the guerrilla captain of Bleeding Kansas and leader of the abortive raid on Harpers Ferry to free the slaves, was hanged on the bright balmy morning of December 2, 1859. The scene of the execution of the old abolition raider was at Charlestown, then in Virginia, but soon to become Charlestown, West Virginia, through the agency of a war which Brown’s Harpers Ferry foray hastened.Few men have filled as many pages of American history as this farmer-like old crusader, and none have been—or are today—more controversial. Down to this time, opinions as to his character vary almost as greatly as they did the day he was hanged. John Brown, as Edmund Clarence Stedman said, “troubled them more than ever when they nailed his coffin down.”

All this is introductory to an unpublished story of the execution by an eyewitness, which, lost for more than ninety years, has recently been recovered. The author was David Hunter Strother, who is better known under his nom de plume of Porte Crayon, and who was one of the literary lights of the middle period of the last century. Strother was present at the execution as the artist-writer representative of Harper’s Weekly , but because his publishers found the John Brown theme too hot to handle, his sketches and news story of the hanging were rejected. Some little background notes are needed to make this Strother (Porte Crayon) manuscript clear to modern readers.

Not only was the day notable for the execution of John Brown, but in retrospect it can be seen as a milestone in the development of American journalism. Modern field reporting for American newspapers may well be said to have come of age in the “John Brown war.” Never before had such an aggregation of professional writers and artists been sent from a distance by metropolitan newspapers to report an event.

Through fortuitous circumstance (he was calling on a young lady at Charlestown who later became his second wife) Strother was on the scene of the “John Brown war” from first to last. At Harpers Ferry on Monday morning, October 17, he saw the militia skirmishing with the John Brown army of liberation, and on Tuesday morning he witnessed the final assault on the engine house where Brown, his surviving men and his citizen hostages had taken refuge. He attended the trial a few days later, held in the old pillared courthouse at Charlestown (which is still a landmark) and was present when the sentence of death by hanging was pronounced.

Fresh from the scene, Strother’s sketches and reports of the raid and trial were grabbed by Harper’s Weekly and were given top position. Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper , then the only rival in the weekly pictorial field, had hurriedly dispatched Alfred Berghaus, one of its chief artists, to Harpers Ferry and was making a field day of the affair in full-page pictures and graphic stories. Strother’s reporting did well for a few weeks, and Harper’s was holding its own with Leslie’s . Then came the explosion.

Strother came of an old Virginia family and was closely related by blood or marriage to most of the ruling families in the Potomac-Shenandoah area, nearly all of whom were slaveholders. Though himself an intense Unionist, he was by no means friendly to the abolition cause or to the immediate emancipation of Negro slaves. He wanted to preserve the status quo . His treatment of the raid and raiders violently displeased the anti-slavery element in the North, and did not go far enough to please the pro-slavery advocates in the South. The Weekly soon came in for sharp criticism.

Thus caught between two fires, the Weekly dropped the John Brown story like a hot potato; it contented itself thereafter by publishing a news symposium, culled from the newspapers, inconspicuously placed in the “Domestic Intelligence” column.

Strother apparently was not advised of the change of policy. At least he was not recalled from duty. He continued to write and sketch down to the last act in the tragedy, but all this work went for naught.

The press was not tenderly treated at Charlestown. General William B. Taliaferro, commander of the Virginia troops, looked with suspicion on all strangers and had publicly announced that he wanted no “abolitionists or Republicans” in Charlestown on the day of the execution. Many newspapermen were turned back at Baltimore. Henry S. Olcott, New York Tribune man, went to Petersburg, Virginia, and through Masonic connections made his way to Charlestown with the Petersburg Grays. Edward H. House, another Tribune man, spent weeks in Charlestown very much incognito. He needled and castigated the exasperated Virginia officers almost daily in the Tribune .