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
The first defense witness was Joseph A. Brewer, one of the hostages, who described in vivid terms the strange mixture of murder and mercy that had characterized the bloodshed at Harpers Ferry. Brown had sent Stevens and hostage A. M. Kitzmiller out with a flag of truce to parley, and the maddened citizens of Harpers Ferry riddled Stevens. When Brewer realized that Stevens was still alive, he risked his life to venture out through the gunfire to carry the wounded man into a nearby building. Then, according to the pledge he had given to Brown, he returned to the enginehouse. Both he and Kitzmiller, who testified next, told how Brown had urged them to use their influence with the citizens to prevent unnecessary bloodshed.
Next the defense asked the court if it could introduce testimony about the death of Thompson, one of Brown’s men who had been seized by the citizens when he left the enginehouse to parley under a flag of truce. Hunter objected; all this testimony about Brown’s forbearance, he insisted, had no more to do with the legal realities of the case than the “dead languages.” He could, moreover, see no point in introducing any testimony about how Thompson died after he was captured, unless the defense could show that John Brown knew about it and still exerted forbearance toward his prisoners. But Judge Parker ruled the evidence admissible, and Hunter had to sit stolidly while his own son, Harry, recited a grisly tale:
After Mr. Beckham, who was my granduncle, was shot, I was much exasperated and started with Mr. Chambers to the room where … Thompson was confined, with the purpose of shooting him. We found several persons in the room and had levelled our guns at him when Mrs. Foulke’s sister threw herself before him and begged us to leave him to the laws. We then caught hold of him, and dragged him out by the throat, he saying, “though you may take my life, eighty thousand will rise up to avenge me and carry out my purpose of giving liberty to the slaves.” We carried him out to the bridge and the two of us, levelling our guns in this moment of wild exasperation fired, and before he fell, a dozen or more balls were buried in him; we then threw his body off the trestlework … I had just seen my loved uncle and best friend I ever had, shot down by those villainous Abolitionists, and felt justified in shooting any that I could find; I felt it my duty, and I have no regrets.
There was not a sound in the courtroom when this terrible story ended. But from the old man on the cot there came a long, low groan.
The defense now summoned several more witnesses. One name after another drew no response from the packed courtroom. Once more, without warning, Brown suddenly rose from his cot and electrified the court and the nation with a bitter protest:
May it please the Court: I discover that notwithstanding all the assurances I have received of a fair trial, nothing like a fair trial is to be given me, as it would seem. I gave the names, as soon as I could get them, of the persons I wished to have called as witnesses, and was assured that they would be subpoenaed. I wrote down a memorandum to that effect, saying where those parties were; but it appears they have not been subpoenaed as far as I can learn; and I now ask, if I am to have anything at all deserving the name and shadow of a fair trial, that this proceeding be deferred until tomorrow morning; for I have no counsel, as I before stated, in whom I feel that I can rely, but I am in hopes counsel may arrive who will attend to seeing that I get the witnesses who are necessary for my defense. I am myself unable to attend to it. I have given all the attention I possibly could to it, but am unable to see or know about them, and can’t even find out their names; and I have nobody to do any errands, for my money was all taken when I was sacked and stabbed, and I have not a dime. I had two hundred and fifty or sixty dollars in gold and silver taken from my pocket, and now I have no possible means of getting anybody to go my errands for me, and I have not had all the witnesses subpoenaed. They are not within reach, and are not here. I ask at least until tomorrow morning to have something done, if anything is designed; if not, I am ready for anything that may come up.
Reporting this outburst, the New York Herald’s correspondent said that “the indignation of the citizens scarcely knew bounds. He [Brown] was stigmatized as an ungrateful villain, and some declared he deserved hanging for that act alone.” The sheriff assured Judge Parker that all Brown’s subpoenas had been served, and the courtroom seethed. John Brown lay down again, drew his blanket over him, and closing his eyes, “appeared to sink in tranquil slumber.”
Young Hoyt now rose to make a new plea for delay. He knew that Brown’s explosive repudiation of his court-appointed counsel meant that he was about to be left with the full responsibility for the defense. Hoyt told Judge Parker that he had not even read the indictment nor “got any idea of the line of the defense proposed and have no knowledge of the criminal code of Virginia and no time to read it.” Botts offered Hoyt the full resources of his law office and declared he would “sit up with him all night to put him in possession of all the law and facts in relation to this case.” Reluctantly, Judge Parker agreed to a limited postponement and adjourned at six o’clock.