- Historic Sites
The Trial Of John Brown
Verdicts Of History: III -- Even his abolitionist friends thought his attack on Harpers Ferry insane, but the old Kansas raider sensed that his death would ignite the nation’s conscience.
August 1967 | Volume 18, Issue 5
Some of John Brown’s friends continued to foment desperate plans to free him. One involved a gathering of Kansas raiders and German immigrant volunteers who would storm the jail some propitious midnight. Another, even wilder scheme involved kidnapping Governor Wise and smuggling him aboard a seagoing tug, where he was to be held hostage until exchanged for Brown. None of these plots came close to fruition, in part because sensible men saw they were all but hopeless and declined to donate the thousands of dollars needed to set them in motion. But another, more powerful reason was the frank admission of the old man in the Charlestown prison cell that he did not want rescue, that he accepted and even gloried in “being worth infinitely more now to die than to live.”
With magnificent courage, the fifty-nine-year-old Brown nerved himself for his final ordeal. He refused to see his wife until the day before his execution. In a letter to a cousin, he consoled himself that he had “never since I can remember required a great amount of sleep: so that I conclude that I have already enjoyed full an average amount of waking hours with those who reach their ‘three scores and ten.’ ”
The best of Brown’s letters were reprinted in newspapers throughout the North. They reportedly brought tears to the eyes of his southern jailer as he read and sealed them. To the numerous visitors and correspondents who discussed aspects of his past life Brown frequently vowed that he had had nothing to do with the Pottawatomie murders. But one letter was never answered by John Brown nor published by his admirers:
Altho’ vengence is not mine I confess that I do feel gratified, to hear that you were stopped in your fiendish career at Harper’s Ferry, with the loss of your two sons, you can now appreciate my distress in Kansas, when you then & there entered my house at midnight and arrested my Husband and two boys, and took them out of the yard and in cold blood shot them dead in my hearing, you cant say you done it to free slaves, we had none and never expected to own one, but has only made me a poor disconsolate widow with helpless children, while I feel for your folly I do hope & trust that you will meet your just reward, O how it pained my heart to hear the dying groans of my Husband & children, if this scrawl gives you any consolation you are welcome to it.
Meanwhile, Brown’s lawyers carried the exception they had taken to Jefferson County’s jurisdiction to the Virginia court of appeals. They were turned down. Virginia’s highest court was as disinclined to yield to the prerogatives of federal power as the lower one.
On December 2, John Brown, wearing a black frock coat and pants, a black slouch hat, and red slippers, was led into the street by his guards and saw some 1,500 armed men deployed. “I had no idea that Governor Wise considered my execution so important,” Brown gasped. Wise had, in fact, yielded to hysteria. He told President Buchanan that “Devils … trained in all the Indian arts of predatory war” were massing in Kansas and Ohio to rescue Brown. He persuaded the President to send Colonel Lee and 264 artillerymen to guard Harpers Ferry, and during the first two days of December he clamped a security net around Charlestown which paralyzed the region. No person could travel on a train unless a station agent first issued him a certificate of good character. Numbers of people, including four congressmen, were jailed on suspicion the moment they reached Charlestown.
As he walked from the jail, John Brown handed to one of the guards a final, prophetic note, which probably revealed more of his real intentions at Harpers Ferry than anything else he said or wrote:
I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land: will never be purged away; but with Blood. I had as I now think: vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed it might be done.
The day was exceptionally clear and warm, and as John Brown rode to the place of his execution, seated on his coffin in a wagon drawn by two white horses, he looked out at the Blue Ridge Mountains and said, “This is a beautiful country. I never truly had the pleasure of seeing it before.” Around the gallows there were few civilians, for Governor Wise had issued a proclamation urging the citizens to stay home and guard their property.
Brown mounted the scaffold with unwavering steps, and throwing aside his slouch hat, permitted the sheriff to tie a white bag over his head. He was to stand waiting, the noose around his neck, for almost fifteen minutes while the untrained militia were marched to their prescribed positions. Colonel J.T.L. Preston of the Virginia Military Institute watched John Brown “narrowly” during this ordeal. “Once I thought I saw his knees tremble, but it was only the wind blowing his loose trousers,” Preston said.