An Eyewitness Describes The Hanging Of John Brown

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He was accordingly led forward to the drop the halter hooked to the beam and the officers supposing that the execution was to follow immediately took leave of him. In doing so, the Sheriff enquired if he did not want a handker-cheif to throw as a signal to cut the drop. Brown replied, “no I dont care; I dont want you to keep me waiting unnecessarily.”

These were his last words, spoken with that sharp nasal twang peculiar to him, but spoken quietly & civilly, without impatience or the slightest apparent emotion. In this position he stood for five minutes or more, while the troops that composed the escort were wheeling into the positions assigned them. I stood within a few paces of him and watched narrowly during these trying moments to see if there was any indication of his giving way. I detected nothing of the sort. He had stiffened himself for the drop and waited motionless ’till it came.

During all these movements no sound was heard but the quick stern words of military command, & when these ceased a dead silence reigned. Colonel Smith said to the Sheriff in a low voice—“we are ready”. The civil officers descended from the scaffold. One who stood near me whispered earnestly—“He trembles, his knees are shaking”. “You are mistaken,” I replied, “It is the scaffold that shakes under the footsteps of the officers.” The Sheriff struck the rope a sharp blow with a hatchet, the platform fell with a crash—a few convulsive struggles & a human soul had gone to judgement.

Thus died John Brown, the strange, stern old man; hard and uncouth in character as he was in personal appearance, undemonstrative and emotionless as an indian. In the manner of his death there was nothing dramatic or sympathetic. There was displayed neither the martial dignity of a chieftain nor the reckless bravado of a highwayman—neither the exalted enthusiasm of a martyr nor the sublime resignation of a christian. His voice and manner were precisely the same as if he had been bargaining for a sixpence worth of powder slightly anxious to get through the job but not uncivilly impatient. A stony stoicism, an easy indifference, so perfectly simulated that one could hardly perceive it was acting.

As with John Brown, so it seemed with the spectators around him. Of Sympathy there was none—of triumph no word nor sign. The fifteen hundred soldiers stood mute and motionless at their posts—The thousand civic spectators looked on in silence. At the end of half an hour the body was taken down & placed in the coffin—the people went home, the troops wheeled into columns & marched to their quarters, and the day concluded with the calm & quiet of a New England sabbath.

 

No man capable of reflection could have witnessed that scene without being deeply impressed with the truth that then & there was exhibited, not the vengeance of an outraged people, but the awful majesty of the law.

D.H.S.

So ends Strother’s story, which had all of the essential facts in it but which failed somehow to hint that the Harpers Ferry raid and the Charlestown hanging had, together, been something like a lighted match tossed into a powder magazine. Within eighteen months the men who hanged John Brown, the men who thought him a martyr, and the huge number of people who paid no more attention to the whole business than they had to, were making war on each other, and a snatch of verse sung to the tune of a camp-meeting hymn became a marching song for the armies in blue that would destroy slavery forever—a song known as “John Brown’s Body.”

It is recorded that throughout the Civil War, any Union regiment marching through Charlestown would take pains to sing the song as the ranks passed the building where Brown had been tried and condemned. Probably the little courthouse town of Charlestown heard that song sung more times than any other place in the United States. Hanging John Brown, somehow, wasn’t the end of him. The execution was a beginning rather than an end.

And Strother himself wound up as a Brigadier General in the Union army.