The Trial Of John Brown


When the news of Harpers Ferry reached Boston, abolitionist John W. Le Barnes hired George H. Hoyt, a fragile, pale, fledgling lawyer who was only twenty-one (and looked nineteen), to leave immediately for Charlestown. Hoyt’s instructions were:

… first, to watch and be able to report proceedings, to see and talk with Brown, and be able to communicate with his friends anything Brown might want to say; and, second, to send me an accurate and detailed account of the military situation at Charlestown, the number and distribution of troops, the location and defenses of the jail, and nature of the approaches to the town and jail, the opportunities for a sudden attack, and the means of retreat, with the location and situation of the room in which Brown is confined, and all other particulars that might enable friends to consult as to some plan of attempt at rescue.

Hoyt was still riding a southbound train when Brown resumed his cot for the second day of his trial, which began with the defense presenting a telegram received late the previous night from Akron, Ohio, testifying that insanity was hereditary in the Brown family. Before either of the prosecuting attorneys could say a word, Brown rose from his cot to denounce such a plea in blazing terms:

I look upon it as a miserable artifice and pretext of those who ought to take a different course in regard to me, if they took any at all, and I view it with contempt more than otherwise. As I remarked to Mr. Green, insane persons, so far as my experience goes, have but little ability to judge of their own sanity; and if I am insane, of course I should think I know more than all the rest of the world. But I do not think so. I am perfectly unconscious of insanity, and I reject, so far as I am capable, any attempt to interfere in my behalf on that score.

The defendant’s abashed lawyers dropped the plea. But they promptly presented the court with another document, a telegram from Judge Daniel Tilden, announcing he was en route from Ohio in response to Brown’s letter. Botts and Green requested a delay until Tilden arrived. The prosecution objected strongly; Hunter asked tartly if Tilden was a lawyer or a leader of a band of desperadoes. The prosecutor insisted that if additional lawyers were coming, more than enough time had elapsed for them to reach Charlestown. What was there to debate, really? Brown had admitted and even gloried in his crimes.

This brought Green lumbering to his feet. In a rush of angry sentences whose “whar” and “thar” made northern reporters smile, he sharply rebutted Hunter. Treason, Green pointed out, could be confessed only in open court. What Brown had said to one or even a hundred persons outside the court was irrelevant. Equally “idle,” Green said, were the prosecutor’s fears of a rescue attempt. Earnestly Green asked Judge Parker for only one day’s delay. Again the Judge insisted that time was of the essence and denied the motion.

Lawson Botts then rose to make the defense’s opening statement to the jury. Urging the chosen farmers to remember that the burden of proof rested upon the commonwealth, he pointed out that in order to convict Brown of premeditated murder, the state must present evidence of malice; and Brown had gone to great lengths to guarantee the safety of the prisoners he had taken. More important, Botts contended that the prosecution could not possibly prove the charge of treason against Brown. According to the common-law tradition in the United States, treason could be committed only by a resident against his own state. Surely no stretch of logic could make Brown a citizen of Virginia. Finally there was the question of the court’s jurisdiction over crimes committed on federal property such as an arsenal. With an eloquence that must have startled his fellow southerners, Botts argued that Virginia had no right whatsoever to try John Brown.

Hunter replied to Botts’s claims. With obvious pride he pointed out that the Virginia law on treason was “more full” than the federal statute. A person was found guilty of treason against Virginia not only if he levied war against the commonwealth or gave aid and comfort to its enemies but also if he established without the authority of the legislature “any governments within its limits separate from the existing government.” As for the jurisdiction, Hunter cited an 1830 case involving a murder committed on the arsenal grounds. The murderer had been tried, convicted, and executed under Virginia laws.

The prosecution now produced witnesses who narrated a blow-by-blow account of the assault on Harpers Ferry. Mr. Phelps, a Baltimore & Ohio conductor, told how, when his train had arrived at the bridge outside Harpers Ferry shortly after midnight Sunday, he was warned by the wounded bridge watchman that riflemen had seized the arsenal. For this reason, Phelps said, he refused to take his train into Harpers Ferry. When the baggagemaster of the station, a free Negro named Shephard Hayward, walked out on the railroad bridge to find out what was wrong, a gun barked and he staggered back to the station crying, “I am shot.” The ball had entered Hayward’s back and come out under his left nipple, Phelps reported. (Twelve hours later Hayward died in agony on the floor of the railroad station while the battle raged around the arsenal.)