- 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
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All this is introductory to an unpublished story of the execution by an eyewitness, which, lost for more than ninety years, has recently been recovered.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 .
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.
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.
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.
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.