- 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
“Judicial Circuit Court of Virginia, Jefferson County, to wit: The Jurors of the Commonwealth of Virginia, in find for the body of the County of Jefferson, duly impaneled, and attending upon the Circuit Court of said county, upon their oaths do present that John Brown, Aaron C. Stevens …, and Edwin Coppoc, white men, and Shields Green and John Copland, free negroes, together with divers other evil-minded and traitorous persons to the Jurors unknown, not having the fear of God before their eyes, but being moved and seduced by the false and malignant counsel of other evil and traitorous persons and the instigations of the devil, did, severally, on the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth day of October, in the year of our Lord eighteen hundred and fifty-nine, and on divers other days before that time, within the Commonwealth of Virginia and the County of Jefferson aforesaid, and within the jurisdiction of this Court, with other confederates to the Jurors unknown, feloniously and traitorously make rebellion and levy war against the said Commonwealth of Virginia …”
On droned the court clerk while the tall, bearded old man and his four confederates stood before the judge’s bench. Few men, according to one reporter, could look John Brown in the eye more than a moment. But Judge Richard Parker, third in a judicial family that reached back to the American Revolution, was equally stern of eye and strong of jaw. Grimly he asked Brown how he pleaded to the grand jury’s accusations of treason, servile insurrection, and murder. The gaunt old man replied, “Not guilty.” Whereupon John Brown lay down on a crude cot, drew a blanket up to his chin, and closed his eyes; the bailiffs led Stevens, with five bullets in his body, and the others back to jail. The trial that would inflame a nation had begun.
The setting was a country courtroom with whitewashed walls smeared with haphazard fingerprints, the floor littered with peanut and chestnut shells, two wood stoves with ugly black pipes crooking their way to the ceiling, and high, dirty, curtainless windows. The benches on three sides of the judicial arena were crammed with five to six hundred spectators. Outside in the streets of Charlestown, Virginia, were several thousand more people, held at bay by lines of militiamen before the pillared courthouse.
At the lawyers’ table sat portly Andrew Hunter, special counsel for the Commonwealth of Virginia, handsome, dignified, intelligent, the very model of a southern gentleman. Beside him sat the regular Jefferson County prosecutor, Charles Harding, his coat stained and dirty, his hair uncombed, a stubble of whiskers on his weak chin. Rarely was Harding sober two days in succession. At the defense tables sat lean, tense Lawson Botts, thirty-six, and hulking Thomas C. Green, thirty-nine, the mayor of Charlestown. But all eyes were on the bearded old man whose fanatic daring had created this epic drama.
An undeniable power could emanate from John Brown when he chose to unleash it. The spectators had gotten a glimpse of it the day before, when the sheriff brought Brown and his confederates into the courtroom to be arraigned before eight justices of the peace for the grand-jury hearing. That time Brown had walked from the nearby jail, head erect, stride steady. Prosecutor Harding was in charge of the arraignment, and he asked in a crude, peremptory tone if the defendants had counsel, or if they wished the court to assign them qualified lawyers. Brown transfixed the beak-nosed little alcoholic with a stare, then rose, and in a low, intense voice that reached every corner of the courtroom, proceeded to strike the first blow in his own defense:
Virginians, I did not ask for any quarter at the time I was taken. I did not ask to have my life spared. The Governor of the State of Virginia tendered me his assurance that I should have a fair trial: but, under no circumstances whatever will I be able to have a fair trial. If you seek my blood, you can have it at any moment, without this mockery of a trial. I have had no counsel: I have not been able to advise with any one. I know nothing about the feelings of my fellow prisoners, and am utterly unable to attend in any way to my own defense. My memory don’t serve me: my health is insufficient, although improving. There are mitigating circumstances that I would urge in our favor, if a fair trial is to be allowed us: but if we are to be forced with a mere form—a trial for execution—you might spare yourselves that trouble. I am ready for my fate. I do not ask a trial. I beg for no mockery of a trial—no insult—nothing but that which conscience gives, or cowardice would drive you to practice. I ask again to be excused from the mockery of a trial. I do not even know what the special design of this examination is. I do not know what is to be the benefit of it to the Commonwealth. I have now little further to ask, other than that I may not be foolishly insulted only as cowardly barbarians insult those who fall into their power.
His plea was ignored, and shortly after noon the following day, October 26, 1859, Brown was summoned to hear his indictment. When he refused to rise from his jail bed, declaring he was too weak and disabled by his “wounds,” which consisted mainly of cuts about the head, he was carried into the courtroom on a cot, a position he obviously found congenial. He had already demonstrated his skill at debating on his back when, a few hours after his capture, he had been confronted by Governor Henry A. Wise of Virginia, Congressman C. L. Vallandigham of Ohio, and Virginia's Senator James M. Mason, among others. It was then that Brown had begun his performance. For this was what the spectators in the small Virginia courtroom were watching—a performance that fanaticism and sectional hatred magnified into a terrible kind of truth.
John Brown was acting out a myth—“Old Brown of Osawatomie,” the hero of the fight against slavery in Kansas. To play this part with a skill that combined desperation and grandeur, Brown was summoning every form and source of courage at his command. To win the only victory left for his fierce puritan soul, he was prepared to lie and dissemble again and again.
From boyhood Brown had dreamt grandiose dreams. Searching his Bible he had found quotation after quotation to support his conviction that God had destined his righteous servant for great things. But through a long and intricate life, in which he had sired twenty children by two wives, success had perpetually eluded him. Before 1855 his life was a series of bankruptcies and lawsuits. Only a kind of faith that transcended reality could have sustained a man in the face of such a series of defeats.
Although he did little or nothing about it in a practical sense, a hatred of slavery ran like a dark thread through much of Brown’s early life. In 1846, when he was working as a wool merchant, he was sufficiently well known as an abolitionist to receive a visit from Frederick Douglass, the ex-slave who had become a well-known lecturer in the North. As a believer in the peaceful abolition of slavery, Douglass was more than a little alarmed to hear Brown say: “No political action will ever abolish the system of slavery. It will have to go out in blood. Those men who hold slaves have even forfeited their right to live.”
When the wool business failed, Brown persuaded philanthropist Gerrit Smith to give him a portion of the 120,000 acres of Smith’s upstate New York patrimony which he had thrown open to refugee Negroes. There Brown lived as a farmer and stern paterfamilias to the handful of colored people who took advantage of Smith’s hospitality and braved the rigors of the cruel climate and the hostilities of the local whites.
But it was Kansas, whence five of his sons had gone in search of land and opportunity, that gave Brown his true mission. The doctrine of “squatter sovereignty” had made the fledgling state a cauldron of North-South animosity, and Brown had responded to his sons’ call for help by abandoning the New York farm and joining them as “Captain” Brown, a title chosen in memory of his ancestor John Brown, who had died of illness in 1776 while serving in that rank in the Revolutionary Army.
Brown swiftly revealed a talent for guerrilla warfare in its vilest form. On May 24-25, 1856, he led his sons and a few followers in a raid on a handful of pro-southern settlers living on Pottawatomie Creek; the raiders dragged five defenseless victims, including the father and two oldest sons of the Doyle family, out of their homes and brutally murdered them. The slaughter—several of the victims were hacked almost to pieces by sabers—caused such a general revulsion of feeling that Brown and his sons had to flee like common criminals. But it was here that Brown first learned the technique of the big lie. James Redpath, an ardently abolitionist reporter, found Brown hiding out in a Kansas creek bed and published an extensive interview with him in which Brown piously declared that he had had nothing whatsoever to do with the Pottawatomie murders, although he “approved of them” as reprisal for murders committed by the pro-slavers.
The propaganda, plus his courage in several Kansas skirmishes, particularly his heroic battle at Osawatomie against proslavery forces, made John Brown a hero among a small circle of Boston abolitionists who advocated violence to overthrow slavery. From them and Smith, Brown raised several thousand dollars to finance a subsequent slave-and-horse-stealing expedition into Missouri and eventually to launch what was covertly referred to as “the well-matured plan.”
This was the attack on Harpers Ferry, which Brown made on Sunday night, October 16, 1859. With twenty-one armed followers he seized the federal arsenal just across the Potomac River from Maryland and converted it into a fortress to which, Brown was confident, every Negro in the area would flee. Aroused Virginians the next day drove Brown and his band out of the arsenal and into the adjacent fire-engine house; a furious fire fight raged for the next day and a half, until all but seven of the raiders were killed, captured, or dispersed.
Brown tried to use ten local white hostages to guarantee a safe passage into the Maryland hills, but Colonel Robert E. Lee of the U. S. Cavalry, ordered to the scene by President Buchanan, declined to bargain. When Brown refused a final demand to surrender, Lee sent a dozen Marines, led by Lieutenant Israel Green, to crash through the engine-room door with fixed bayonets. Green, according to his own account, caught Brown as he was reloading his gun and beat him to the ground with repeated blows on the head from his light dress sword. Such was the beginning and the end of “the well-matured plan.”
On the same afternoon, as Brown lay on the floor of the office of the armory paymaster, he was confronted by Governor Wise and his party of distinguished interrogators. For more than three hours Brown sparred with them, laying the groundwork for his defense. His plan had failed, he insisted, because he had neglected tactics out of humane consideration for the hostages his men had rounded up after seizing the arsenal Sunday night. He went on to lament that his wounds were inflicted upon him “some minutes after I had ceased fighting and had consented to a surrender for the benefit of others, not for my own.”
Brown blatantly maintained that he could have killed Lieutenant Green, “but I supposed he came in only to receive our surrender.” When someone impatiently pointed out that the Lieutenant had scrambled headfirst through an opening battered in the door, with bullets whistling all around him, and that the first man to follow him had been killed and the second seriously wounded, Brown solemnly explained that the Marines had fired first. This was another lie. The Marines had been given strict orders to use only their bayonets lest they kill the hostages.
Meanwhile, the nation reverberated with the shock of John Brown’s deed. The initial reports, based on rumors, trumpeted news of a military invasion and an uprising involving thousands of slaves. When the true dimensions of Brown’s futile foray became visible, the first reaction was bewilderment. The Cleveland Leader thought the whole affair was “positively ridiculous.” The New York Tribune called it “the work of a madman,” and so did the Hartford Evening Press and the St. Louis Evening News. Even the Liberator, Boston’s abolitionist organ, called Brown’s raid a “misguided, wild and apparently insane, though disinterested and well-intended effort by insurrection to emancipate the slaves.” Southern papers, of course, took a different point of view. The Richmond Inquirer echoed most of the South when it declared, “The Harpers Ferry invasion has advanced the cause of Disunion more than any other event that has happened since the formation of the Government. …”
The reference in the indictment to “divers other evil-minded and traitorous persons to the Jurors unknown” echoed the southern conviction that Brown had not acted alone. On a Maryland farm a few miles from Harpers Ferry, where Brown had spent the summer planning the raid, searchers had found a carpetbag full of correspondence between Brown and his backers. As for these gentlemen, the news of Harpers Ferry turned their blood to ice water. Smith had a mental collapse, which may have been real, and was confined to an asylum. Douglass and several others left for Canada, beyond the reach of federal warrants.
Within a week of his capture, Brown was on trial. The speed was in accordance with the Virginia statute which required, “when an indictment is found against a person for felony, in a court wherein he may be tried, the accused, if in custody, shall, unless good cause be shown for a continuance, be arraigned and tried in the same term.” Governor Wise had already rejected the advice of some Virginians to declare martial law, convict Brown in a drumhead court, and hang him on the spot. He insisted that the honor and reputation of the South made it imperative to give Brown every benefit the law allowed. But Wise apparently could not bring himself to do more than yield the law’s strict letter. Neither he nor his prosecutor could see that they were duelling John Brown for the minds and hearts of millions of neutral northerners.
Already Brown’s tactics were having their effect beyond the borders of Virginia. The Lawrence, Kansas, Republican fulminated, “We defy an instance to be shown in a civilized community where a prisoner has been forced to trial for his life, when so disabled by sickness or ghastly wounds as to be unable even to sit up during the proceedings, and compelled to be carried to the judgment hall upon a litter.…” But Brown did not convince everyone. The reporter for the New York Tribune wrote, “The prisoner lay most of the time [during the reading of the indictment] with his eyes closed and the counterpane drawn close up to his chin. He is evidently not much injured, but is determined to resist the pushing of his trial by all the means in his power.”
Brown’s delaying tactics rose in part from his instinctive skill at putting his accusers on the defensive. But he also had more practical reasons. He had sent letters north to three prominent lawyers; as yet, none had responded. Moreover, if he managed to stall long enough, his supporters might have time to mount a rescue operation; freeing prisoners from well-guarded jails had been done more than once in Kansas.
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.)
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.
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.
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.”
Whether one called it tragical or farcical or ridiculous, Hunter added, Brown’s conduct showed clearly that his raid was not intended to carry off slaves. His provisional government was “a real thing and no debating society.” It clearly showed that the property of slaveholders all over the South was to be confiscated and that any man found in arms was to be shot down.
Of course Brown had treated his prisoners well, Hunter pointed out. Why should he kill them and incite the country? He wanted to lull the citizens of Virginia into letting him “usurp the government, manumit our slaves, confiscate the property of slave holders and without drawing a trigger or shedding blood permit him to take possession of the Commonwealth. …” Brown’s plan was “almost too abhorrent” to contemplate. Hunter asked that Brown be convicted in order that “the majesty of the laws” might be vindicated.
Throughout these orations Brown lay on his back with his eyes closed. Chilton now asked Judge Parker to instruct the jury that they could not convict Brown of treason, but Parker denied the motion. Chilton then asked the Judge to rule on the question of jurisdiction. Parker affirmed the court’s jurisdiction, and the jury retired. For three-quarters of an hour the court was in recess. Then the spectators swarmed back to hear the foreman of the jury announce that John Brown had been found guilty on all counts.
Reporters had expected whoops of elation, a storm of jeers, or at least wild applause, but there was not a sound in the hushed courtroom. Virginia was trying to prove with decorum the justice of John Brown’s fate. No one, from the Governor to the lowliest groundling, seemed to understand that dignity was no match for John Brown’s histrionics.
Chilton now moved for an arrest of judgment, citing the well-debated errors in the indictment. Judge Parker promised to hear arguments on it the following day, and the court adjourned after impanelling a jury to try Edwin Coppoc.
On Wednesday, November 2, everyone expected an early ruling by Judge Parker. But when Parker arrived in court he found the jury for the trial of Coppoc already in their seats. He therefore refrained from reading his opinion until Coppoc’s guilt was confirmed by the jury that afternoon. Brown was summoned to the courtroom, and Parker ruled against the motion for an arrest of judgment. Then the clerk asked Brown, still prone on his cot, whether he wished to say anything before the sentence was pronounced.
Brown arose, flustered. He had not expected sentencing so soon. He was under the impression that he and his confederates would be sentenced in a body. “I have, may it please the court,” he said hesitantly, “a few words to say.” Then he braced himself and seemed to realize, fully and totally, that he was a dead man. The law had condemned him, and he no longer needed to worry about arguments that satisfied judge and jury. In a voice that was to echo down bitter decades, John Brown spoke to America:
In the first place, I deny everything but what I have all along admitted: the design on my part to free slaves. I intended certainly to have made a clean thing of that matter, as I did last winter, when I went into Missouri and there took slaves without the snapping of a gun on either side, moved them through the country and finally left them in Canada. I designed to have done the same thing again, on a larger scale. That was all I intended. I never did intend murder, or treason, or the destruction of property, or to excite or incite slaves to rebellion, or to make insurrection.
I have another objection; and that is, it is unjust that I should suffer such a penalty. Had I interfered in the manner which I admit, and which I admit has been fairly proved—for I admire the truthfulness and candor of the greater portion of the witnesses who have testified in this case—had I so interfered in behalf of the rich, the powerful, the intelligent, the so-called great, or in behalf of any of their friends, either father, mother, brother, sister, wife, or children, or any of that class, and suffered and sacrificed what I have in this interference, it would have been all right; and every man in this court would have deemed it an act worthy of reward rather than punishment.
This court acknowledges, as I suppose, the validity of the law of God. I see a book kissed here, which I suppose to be the Bible, or at least the New Testament, that teaches me that all things whatsoever I would that men should do to me, I should do even so to them. It teaches me, further, to “remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them.” I endeavor to act up to that instruction. I say, I am yet too young to understand that God is any respecter of persons. I believe that to have interfered as I have done, as I have always freely admitted I have done, in behalf of His despised poor, was not wrong, but right. Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments, I submit; so let it be done!
Let me say one word further.
I feel entirely satisfied with the treatment I have received on my trial. Considering all the circumstances, it has been more generous than I expected. But I feel no consciousness of guilt. I have stated from the first what was my intention, and what was not. I never had any design against the life of any person, nor any disposition to commit treason, or excite slaves to rebel, or make any general insurrection. I never encouraged any man to do so, but always discouraged any idea of that kind.
Let me say, also, a word in regard to the statements made by some of those connected with me. I hear it has been stated by some of them that I have induced them to join me. But the contrary is true. I do not say this to injure them, but as regretting their weakness. There is not one of them but joined me of his own accord, and the greater part of them at their own expense. A number of them I never saw, and never had a word of conversation with, till the day they came to me; and that was for the purpose I have stated.
Now, I have done.
Subtract the paragraphs on religion, and this speech, which Emerson was to compare to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, was one long lie. Even the minor detail of his Missouri raid Brown distorted in the name of propaganda. His lieutenant, Stevens, had killed a slaveowner on that foray. But the larger lie concerned the intentions of his Harpers Ferry raid. A study of the correspondence of other members of the band and of the memoirs of those who knew Brown makes it clear that he never intended to repeat his Missouri raid “on a larger scale.” His provisional constitution meant what it said.
Not for nothing had he insisted on confiscating George Washington’s old sword; it was obviously intended for symbolic use. Two weeks before the attack, one of the younger raiders, William H. Leeman, wrote home: “I am now in a Southern Slave State and before I leave it, it will be a free state, Mother. …” Only a few days before the raid, another member of the band, Edward Kagi, wrote John Brown, Jr., in Ohio to send no more recruits “until we open the way clear up to the line (M. & D.’s) from the South.” Douglass later recalled watching John Brown run his finger down a map of the Alleghenies from the border of New York into the southern states. “These mountains,” Brown had said, “are the basis of my plan. God has given the strength of these hills to freedom; they were placed here to aid the emancipation of your race.”
“With twenty-five picked men,” Brown told Douglass, he would create an armed force in “the very heart of the South.” These men were to gather recruits from the slave population, arm them and keep “the most restless and daring” in their ranks and send the others north. As his numbers grew, he planned to extend his operations to “more than one locality.” Thus Brown’s Harpers Ferry plan was the very opposite of his Missouri raid. His destination was south, not north. As for not inducing his followers to join him, he had, from the available evidence, cajoled all but one with promises of plunder far beyond anything they had seen in Kansas.
But few, north or south, were capable of analyzing or investigating John Brown’s story. Even before he made his historic oration, newspapers were reporting the trial from a more and more partisan point of view. Virginia’s conduct of the trial had lost the sympathy even of the conservative New York Times, which had deplored Brown’s raid and castigated all those who supported him. The Times lamented Parker’s refusal to grant delays and found particular fault with Hunter’s Saturday night remarks about the jurors wanting to go home, and about Virginia’s “trembling females.”
It was on November 2 that Judge Parker sentenced John Brown to death by hanging. The sentence was to be carried out on December 2, a month from the day. Now a new kind of contest began. From all over the nation men wrote to Governor Wise threatening, exhorting, and pleading with him not to hang John Brown. From Massachusetts, Amos Lawrence, who had given Brown money, warned the Governor, “From his blood would spring an army of martyrs.” Fernando Wood, the pro-southern mayor of New York, thought the same way. “Dare you do a bold thing and temper ‘justice with Mercy'?” he wrote Wise. “Have you nerve enough to send Brown to the State Prison instead of hanging him?”
On the other hand, bellicose types in the South were eager to see Brown die no matter what the consequences. “Though it convert the whole Northern people, without an exception, into furious armed abolition invaders,” the Richmond Whig declared, “yet old Brown will be hung!”
The headstrong Wise did not need advice from any direction. Two days after Brown’s sentence he wrote to Fernando Wood: “My mind is inflexibly made up.” He rejected the argument that the hanging would make Brown a martyr. He could see no difference, so far as martyrdom was concerned, between the noose and a life sentence in a Virginia prison.
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.
In the ranks of a Richmond militia company stood an unknown young private named John Wilkes Booth. Commanding a red-and-gray-clad unit of cadets from the Virginia Military Institute was Major Thomas Jackson, soon to be renamed Stonewall. In a letter to his wife that night he told how the sheriff, after the cruel delay, finally severed the rope that held the tray door and “Brown fell through about five inches, his knees falling on a level with the position occupied by his feet before the rope was cut. With the fall his arms, below the elbows, flew up horizontally, his hands clinched; and his arms gradually fell, but by spasmodic motions. … Soon the wind blew his lifeless body to and fro. … I sent up a petition that he might be saved.” Colonel Preston advanced to the scaffold and thundered: “So perish all such enemies of Virginia! All such enemies of the Union! All such foes of the human race!”
Speaking in Kansas the same day, Abraham Lincoln said: “Old John Brown has been executed for treason against a State. We cannot object, even though he agreed with us in thinking slavery wrong. That cannot excuse violence, bloodshed and treason. It could avail him nothing that he might think himself right.” But the voices of moderation were lost in the shouts of extremists south and north. Senator J.M. Mason of Virginia, author of the Fugitive Slave Act, fulminated: “John Brown’s invasion was condemned [in the North] only because it failed.” The Joint Committee of the General Assembly of Virginia declared, “The crimes of John Brown were neither more nor less than practical illustrations of the doctrines of the leaders of the Republican party. …”
A year and a half later, Governor Wise, out of office, inspired a detachment of Virginians to seize the same Harpers Ferry arsenal, an act of reckless violence which did much to help the secessionists carry the day in the Virginia Convention. Lawson Botts, who had defended John Brown so ably, died a Confederate colonel in the Second Battle of Bull Run. His fellow attorney, Thomas Green, served as a private in Botts’ regiment. Prosecutor Andrew Hunter emerged from the war a ruined man, his fine house burned by northern troops. Charles Harding, dissipated as he was, volunteered to serve his native state with a musket on his shoulder and early in the war died of pneumonia after a freezing night on picket duty.
On July 18, 1861, the 12th Massachusetts Regiment marched through the streets of Boston singing an improvised song about John Brown’s body. Men from Ohio sang other versions of it as the nation plunged into four mad years of war. In his poem in praise of Harriet Beecher Stowe, wry Oliver Wendell Holmes unintentionally best assayed John Brown’s role in the holocaust when he wrote: