The Trial Of John Brown

“Judicial Circuit Court of Virginia, Jefferson County, to wit: The Jurors of the Commonwealth of Virginia, in find for the body of the County of Jefferson, duly impaneled, and attending upon the Circuit Court of said county, upon their oaths do present that John Brown, Aaron C. Stevens …, and Edwin Coppoc, white men, and Shields Green and John Copland, free negroes, together with divers other evil-minded and traitorous persons to the Jurors unknown, not having the fear of God before their eyes, but being moved and seduced by the false and malignant counsel of other evil and traitorous persons and the instigations of the devil, did, severally, on the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth day of October, in the year of our Lord eighteen hundred and fifty-nine, and on divers other days before that time, within the Commonwealth of Virginia and the County of Jefferson aforesaid, and within the jurisdiction of this Court, with other confederates to the Jurors unknown, feloniously and traitorously make rebellion and levy war against the said Commonwealth of Virginia …”

On droned the court clerk while the tall, bearded old man and his four confederates stood before the judge’s bench. Few men, according to one reporter, could look John Brown in the eye more than a moment. But Judge Richard Parker, third in a judicial family that reached back to the American Revolution, was equally stern of eye and strong of jaw. Grimly he asked Brown how he pleaded to the grand jury’s accusations of treason, servile insurrection, and murder. The gaunt old man replied, “Not guilty.” Whereupon John Brown lay down on a crude cot, drew a blanket up to his chin, and closed his eyes; the bailiffs led Stevens, with five bullets in his body, and the others back to jail. The trial that would inflame a nation had begun.

The setting was a country courtroom with whitewashed walls smeared with haphazard fingerprints, the floor littered with peanut and chestnut shells, two wood stoves with ugly black pipes crooking their way to the ceiling, and high, dirty, curtainless windows. The benches on three sides of the judicial arena were crammed with five to six hundred spectators. Outside in the streets of Charlestown, Virginia, were several thousand more people, held at bay by lines of militiamen before the pillared courthouse.

At the lawyers’ table sat portly Andrew Hunter, special counsel for the Commonwealth of Virginia, handsome, dignified, intelligent, the very model of a southern gentleman. Beside him sat the regular Jefferson County prosecutor, Charles Harding, his coat stained and dirty, his hair uncombed, a stubble of whiskers on his weak chin. Rarely was Harding sober two days in succession. At the defense tables sat lean, tense Lawson Botts, thirty-six, and hulking Thomas C. Green, thirty-nine, the mayor of Charlestown. But all eyes were on the bearded old man whose fanatic daring had created this epic drama.

An undeniable power could emanate from John Brown when he chose to unleash it. The spectators had gotten a glimpse of it the day before, when the sheriff brought Brown and his confederates into the courtroom to be arraigned before eight justices of the peace for the grand-jury hearing. That time Brown had walked from the nearby jail, head erect, stride steady. Prosecutor Harding was in charge of the arraignment, and he asked in a crude, peremptory tone if the defendants had counsel, or if they wished the court to assign them qualified lawyers. Brown transfixed the beak-nosed little alcoholic with a stare, then rose, and in a low, intense voice that reached every corner of the courtroom, proceeded to strike the first blow in his own defense:

Virginians, I did not ask for any quarter at the time I was taken. I did not ask to have my life spared. The Governor of the State of Virginia tendered me his assurance that I should have a fair trial: but, under no circumstances whatever will I be able to have a fair trial. If you seek my blood, you can have it at any moment, without this mockery of a trial. I have had no counsel: I have not been able to advise with any one. I know nothing about the feelings of my fellow prisoners, and am utterly unable to attend in any way to my own defense. My memory don’t serve me: my health is insufficient, although improving. There are mitigating circumstances that I would urge in our favor, if a fair trial is to be allowed us: but if we are to be forced with a mere form—a trial for execution—you might spare yourselves that trouble. I am ready for my fate. I do not ask a trial. I beg for no mockery of a trial—no insult—nothing but that which conscience gives, or cowardice would drive you to practice. I ask again to be excused from the mockery of a trial. I do not even know what the special design of this examination is. I do not know what is to be the benefit of it to the Commonwealth. I have now little further to ask, other than that I may not be foolishly insulted only as cowardly barbarians insult those who fall into their power.