- 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
Later in the night Brown had come to Phelps to guarantee personally the safety of the train, which then proceeded to Monocacy, Maryland, where Phelps telegraphed the first alarm. Phelps returned to Harpers Ferry on Tuesday and went with Governor Wise and others to interview Brown shortly after he was taken. The best way to ascertain his real purpose, Brown had told them, was to read the books in his trunk at his Maryland farm headquarters.
Colonel Lee had handed Wise one of these books, and Brown had explained that it was the constitution of a “provisional government” in which he was president and commander-in-chief. Brown said there was also a secretary of state, a secretary of war, and all the other officers for a general government, including a house of representatives which included “an intelligent colored man.”
Green interrupted this sensational testimony to ask the court once more for a delay. He had received a message that counsel was arriving from Cleveland and would almost certainly be there by nightfall. Hunter had selected “only scraps” of the prisoner’s long conversation with Governor Wise, Green explained, and the new counsel should have an opportunity to cross-question the witness. Hunter replied that there would be several other witnesses called the next day who would go over the same ground, and the new counsel could question them at that time—if he arrived. The court ordered the questioning of the witness to proceed, and the defense got Phelps to admit that Brown had said on Sunday night that “it was not his intention to harm anybody or anything. He was sorry men had been killed. It was not by his orders or with his approbation.”
Colonel Lewis Washington now took the stand. The most distinguished of Brown’s hostages, he bore a striking resemblance to his famous great granduncle. Washington told how four of Brown’s lieutenants had aroused him between one and two o’clock in the morning and, levelling rifles and a revolver at him, ordered him and his slaves to come with them to Harpers Ferry. On Brown’s express orders, they forced the Colonel to hand over an old dress sword allegedly presented by Frederick the Great to George Washington. When the Colonel arrived at the arsenal, he was astonished to find the relic in Brown’s hands. “I will take especial care of it and I shall endeavor to return it to you alter you are released,” Brown told him. Brown carried the sword throughout the battle on Monday and put it aside only when the Marines began to batter down the door.
Washington said Brown had advised each of the hostages that he could ransom himself by summoning a “stout Negro” to take his place. This Washington and the others steadfastly declined to do. The Colonel echoed the death knell of Brown’s dream when he proudly testified, “No Negro from this neighborhood appeared to take arms voluntarily.”
Not long after the court adjourned for the day, George Hoyt finally arrived from Boston. Hunter took one look at him and wrote to Governor Wise, “A beardless boy came in last night as Brown’s counsel. I think he is a spy.” The next morning when Hoyt appeared in court, Hunter demanded proof that he was a member of the Boston bar. Northern newspapers, unaware of Hoyt’s real mission, were enraged. The embarrassed Hoyt could only murmur that he had brought no credentials. But Judge Parker, so unyielding when it came to granting delays, said he would be willing to accept “any citizen’s evidence” that Hoyt was indeed a qualified attorney. Green said he had read letters from Hoyt’s fellow students alluding to him as a member of the bar, and the Judge permitted the young man to take the oath and assume a seat beside Bolts and Green.
After some further cross-examination of conductor Phelps and Colonel Washington by the defense, Hunter laid before the jury the printed constitution and ordinance of Brown’s provisional government. He also produced some fifty papers and letters captured in Brown’s carpetbag at the Maryland farm linking Brown to Smith and his other abolitionist backers. Each document was handed to Brown, who identified it in a loud voice: “Yes, that is mine.”
For the rest of the day Hunter paraded more witnesses to the stand. Armsted Ball, the master machinist of the Harpers Ferry armory, told how he had been seized by Brown’s men when he went to the arsenal to investigate the disturbance. Ball had prevented one of Brown’s men from firing at an old man named Guess, who was passing by; but he had been unable to stop him from killing Fontaine Beckham, the popular mayor of Harpers Ferry, who had ventured onto the railroad trestle to get a better look at the excitement in the arsenal below.
John Allstadt, who like Colonel Washington had been awakened and marched to the armory at rifle point with his seven slaves, said Brown’s rifle was “cocked all the time.” As for the Negroes, “they did nothing.” The courtroom burst into laughter when Allstadt added, “Some of them were asleep nearly all the time.” Not long after the afternoon session began, Hunter decided he had more than proved Brown guilty of treason, insurrection, and murder, and announced that the prosecution rested.