- Historic Sites
An Eyewitness Describes The Hanging Of John Brown
Harper’s Weekly refused to print the story “Porte Crayon” wrote at the scene. Brought to light 95 years later, it is presented here.
February 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 2
Strother had no difficulty in wangling an advantageous place. He was admitted to the staff of Andrew Hunter, his kinsman, special prosecutor at Brown’s trial and the personal representative of Governor Wise. Strother took his position at the foot of the thirteen steps that led to the scaffold platform.
Crosby S. Noyes, Washington Star man, said in his telegraphic dispatch: “Porte Crayon Strother, the artist, a thin, sickly-looking young man, with others visited the platform for a moment.” But Andrew Hunter was more explicit in an article in the New Orleans Times-Democrat , September 5, 1887: “While the body was hanging, Strother slipped up, raised the cap from his face and took a sketch of him hanging. He said that the celebrated Lydia Maria Child [a prominent abolitionist leader] had published that she wanted to have a portrait or likeness of Brown in every condition of life to hang in her room, and that he had taken this sketch to send her.”
Strother wrote his story and made careful drawings of the execution scene, but when submitted to the Messrs. Harper both the story and sketches were rejected and returned to the artist-writer.
Less than eighteen months later the Civil War broke, and Strother hastened to offer his services to the Union. He served well, through many campaigns and some thirty battles, and emerged a Brevet Brigadier General. When the War was over he resumed his connection with Harper’s .
When he died at his home at Charlestown on March 8, 1888, his papers and sketches were widely scattered. Only a few years ago his manuscript story of the execution of John Brown, signed D. H. S., was found in the papers of a Shenandoah Valley family. Though written 95 years ago it is here published for the first time, with Strother’s spelling and punctuation.
On Friday, December 2nd the notorious John Brown was executed at Charlestown, Virginia, according to the sentence of the law. It may be a matter of curiosity to the public, to know how a man, whose late acts have created so much disturbance, deported himself in his last hours. Although very guarded in his conversation on the subject, it was quite evident that up to a certain date, he indulged in the hope of a rescue or possibly a pardon. When, however, he ascertained that the Court of appeals had confirmed the sentence, and saw the formidable military preparations made to insure its execution, there was a marked change in his manner. The great gulf between the simple probability and the gorgon head of certainty was not passed without a visible struggle. He became more thoughtful & serious, less dogmatic in the expression of his opinions, and somewhat softened toward those who had treated him with civility & consideration (and this included all whose official duties had brought them in contact with him during his confinement).
He expressed a disinclination to receive visitors and sent for his wife whom he had heretofore refused to see. Their meeting, which took place in the afternoon of the 1st of December is represented to have been a most businesslike affair without visible emotion on either side.
On the morning of the 2nd, Brown sent for an eminent legal gentleman of Charlestown to write his will, or rather a codicil to a former will disposing of some property which had been overlooked. His manner then was cold & stony, his discourse altogether of business. After the completion of the writing, he enquired sharply and particularly about a dollar which had been mentioned in one of his letters but which had not come to hand. He was assured that all the money enclosed in letters had been delivered to him. This he insisted was an error, he had the letter mentioning the enclosure but the money was not there.
Unwilling to dispute, the gentleman said that the note might have been dropped accidentally and if found, the amount would be transmitted to his wife.
But Brown was by no means satisfied, and at length informed his visitor that in consideration of the service just rendered in writing his will, he might keep the dollar.
This the Lawyer politely but peremptorily declined, as he intended to accept no remuneration for what he had done, and again expressed a doubt as to whether the money had been sent.
The letter was produced. In the body of the writing the enclosure of the dollar was named, but on the margin, it was noted in pencil that it had been withdrawn & sent to his wife.