- 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
Thus was the mystery cleared up, to the very great apparent satisfaction of the old man and thus was concluded the last business transaction of his life. An hour after he was called on by the officers who were to convey him to the place of execution. His farewell scene with his late followers and fellow prisoners was peculiar and characteristic. To Coppock and the two negroes he gave a scolding and a quarter each, remarking that he had now no further use for money. To Stephens who had occupied the same room with him he also gave a quarter, and charged them all to die like men and not to betray their friends. To Cook he gave nothing but sharp & scathing words charging him with falsehood & cowardice. Cook denied the charges and attempted to dispute the points with his former commander but was authoritatively silenced. As to the question of veracity between them, circumstances seem decidedly to favour the truth of Cook’s statement, and he may be readily excused for not caring to prolong a dispute with a man on his road to the gallows. Governor Wise and others, who were imposed upon by Brown’s apparent frankness during his first examination at Harpers Ferry, have long since had occasion to change their opinions in regard to his honesty & veracity.
However, of all these matters I was not an eye nor ear witness, but had them from those who were.
As early as nine o clock on Friday morning, the field (adjoining the town of Charlestown), which had been selected for the place of execution, was occupied by a considerable body of soldiers, horse, foot, & artillery. A line of sentinels encircled the enclosure preventing access by the fences and a gaurd of infantry and artillery was posted at the gate by which spectators were required to enter.
I repaired to the field some time before the appointed hour that I might choose a convenient position to witness the final ceremony. The gibbet was erected on a gentle swell that commanded a view of the country for many miles around. From the scaffold which I ascended the view was of surpassing beauty. On every side stretching away into the blue distance were broad & fertile fields dotted with corn shocks and white farm houses glimmering through the leafless trees—emblems of prosperity and peace. Hard by was the pleasant village with its elegant suburban residences and bordering the picture east & west were the blue mountains thirty miles apart. In the Blue Ridge which lay to the eastward appeared the deep gap through which the Potomac and Shenandoah pour their united streams at Harpers ferry, eight miles distant.
Near at Hand stood long lines of soldiers resting on their arms while all the neighboring hills in sight were crowded with squadrons of cavalry. The balmy south wind was blowing which covered the landscape with a warm & dreamy haze reminding one rather of May than December. From hence thought I, the old man may see the spot where his enormous crime first took the form of action—he may see the beautiful land his dark plots had devoted to bloody ruin, he may see in the gleaming of a thousand swords and these serried lines of bayonets—what might be well calculated to make wiser men than he, thoughtful.
At eleven o clock escorted by a strong column of soldiers the Prisoner entered the field. He was seated in a furniture waggon on his coffin with his arms tied down above the elbows, leaving the forearms free. The driver with two others occupied the front seat while the jailer sat in the after part of the waggon. I stood with a group of half a dozen gentlemen near the steps of the scaffold when the Prisoner was driven up. He wore the same seedy and dilapidated dress that he had at Harpers ferry and during his trial, but his rough boots had given place to a pair of particoloured slippers and he wore a low crowned broad brimmed hat (the first time I had ever seen him with a hat). He had entirely recovered from his wounds and looked decidedly better & stronger than when I last saw him. As he neared the gibbet his face wore a grim & greisly smirk which, but for the solemnity of the occasion might have suggested ideas of the ludicrous. He stepped from the waggon with surprising agility and walked hastily toward the scaffold pausing a moment as he passed our group to wave his pinioned arm & bid us good morning. I thought I could observe in this a trace of bravado—but perhaps I was mistaken, as his natural manner was short, ungainly and hurried. He mounted the steps of the scaffold with the same alicrity and there as if by previous arrangement, he immediately took off his hat and offered his neck for the halter which was as promptly adjusted by Mr. Avis the jailor. A white muslin cap or hood was then drawn over his face and the Sheriff not remembering that his eyes were covered requested him to advance to the platform. The Prisoner replied in his usual tone, “you will have to guide me there.”
The breeze disturbing the arrangement of the hood the Sheriff asked his assistant for a pin. Brown raised his hand and directed him to the collar of his coat where several old pins were quilted in. The Sheriff took the pin & completed his work.