The Trial Of John Brown


Botts spent the night giving Hoyt a crash course in Virginia criminal law, only to discover in the morning that it was unnecessary. Two experienced lawyers had at last arrived in response to Brown’s call for counsel. One was Hiram Griswold of Cleveland, sent as a substitute by Judge Tilden. The other was Samuel Chilton of Washington, D. C., a Virginian by birth and widely respected by fellow members of the bar. He had been hired (for a fee of one thousand dollars) by John A. Andrew, a leading Boston abolitionist. Chilton told Judge Parker he was totally unprepared and asked for a short delay of a few hours to make some preparation. But the Judge was weary of pleas for delay. He declared that Brown had no one to blame but himself for dismissing his previous counsel.

Hoyt then summoned more of the hostages John Brown had collected in the enginehouse. They repeated much of what had already been made clear before, adding only grim details to the over-all picture, such as seeing two of Brown’s sons fatally wounded during the first day’s fighting. Hunter replied that he could only regard this course as calculated to waste time. Hoyt replied that he was trying to “prove the absence of malicious intention,” and was besides acting in accordance “with the express commands” of his client. Hunter gave up and allowed the parade of witnesses to continue, but he did not even bother to cross-examine them.

By the time the court adjourned for a one-hour recess, the defense had run out of witnesses. It was Saturday, and Judge Parker was determined to end the trial before nightfall. But Brown was equally determined to prolong it until Monday. When the bailiffs summoned him to reappear in court, Brown again said he was too sick to rise from his jail bed. The Judge demanded a report from the doctor, who said Brown was malingering. Parker therefore ordered him carried into court once more. But by the time Brown arrived, another hour had been consumed.

Chilton then asked the court to compel the prosecution to elect one count of the indictment and abandon the others, arguing that it was unfair to force the prisoner to defend himself against three accusations simultaneously. After vigorous support for the indictment from prosecutor Hunter, Judge Parker ruled that the jury had been charged and sworn to try the prisoners on the indictment as drawn. The trial must go on, but Chilton could at its close ask for “an arrest of judgment.”

Only the closing arguments from the prosecution and the defense now remained. It was after five o’clock and growing dark. Griswold rose to ask for an adjournment after the prosecution had completed its statements so that he and Chilton could make a more respectable defense on Monday morning. Once more there was a wrangle over this request for delay. Hunter blamed Brown for “dismissing his faithful, skillful, able and zealous counsel yesterday afternoon,” and could see no reason why the jurors should be kept away from their families for the weekend, adding, somewhat irrelevantly, that there was not a “female in this county who was not trembling with anxiety and apprehension.” Chilton replied that he hoped the court would not require a man on trial for his life to submit his case without an adequate argument.

With obvious reluctance, Judge Parker agreed to adjourn after hearing Harding’s summation. Pulling himself out of his alcoholic fog, the county attorney declaimed for about forty minutes, while Hunter squirmed in his chair. “When Harding began to speak,” recalled one of the spectators years later, “if you shut your eyes and listened, for the first few minutes you would think Patrick Henry had returned to earth; after that he dwindled away into ineptitudes.” After enduring Harding’s harangue, Judge Parker adjourned the court until 9:00 A.M. Monday.

The Judge and prosecutor Hunter could only glare in chagrin as John Brown, the moment the adjourning gavel fell, rose from his bed and without the least difficulty walked serenely back to his cell.

On Monday the contending attorneys met for the final round. Griswold and Chilton made vigorous orations in Brown’s defense, but Botts had already made the best available arguments, and in essence the northern lawyers did little more than paraphrase him. They maintained that Brown was not a Virginia citizen, that the court did not have jurisdiction over the federal arsenal, and that Brown’s consideration to his hostages proved his lack of malice and therefore his innocence of first-degree murder. They tried to use the slaves’ failure to revolt as proof that Brown was equally innocent of insurrection, and did their best to dismiss Brown’s provisional constitution as a “mere debating society … a wild chimerical production.”

In reply, prosecutor Hunter underscored the irrelevance of the lack-of-malice argument by explaining to the jury that anyone who killed while committing a felony was de facto guilty of murder in the first degree. As for Brown’s citizenship, Hunter argued that the Virginia code defined as citizens all those white persons born in any other state of this union who become residents. Brown, he maintained, was attempting to become a resident, albeit a most unwelcome one, when he seized the arsenal. He had come to stay “for the nefarious purpose of rallying forces into this Commonwealth and establishing himself at Harpers Ferry as a starting point for a new Government.”