Saturday, December 2, 2017

Abolitionist John Brown was hanged in Charles Town, West Virginia, on December 2, 1859.  Brown, who had previously led anti-slavery attacks in Kansas, organized twenty-two whites and blacks in attacking nearby Harper’s Ferry less than two months earlier.  Their goal was to raid the well-stocked government arsenal in anticipation of a large-scale uprising.  The incident ended when a military contingent under the leadership of Colonel Robert E. Lee, then of the U.S. army, captured the leader and his surviving raiders after a brief skirmish.

Brown was swiftly tried and executed but not before he sent shock waves throughout the increasingly polarized country.  The bearded, fifty-nine-year-old firebrand was praised by some in the North and widely reviled in the South.  Before he died, he wrote these prophetic words: “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land can never be purged away but with blood.”  Brown and the Harper’s Ferry raid probably hastened the war that would begin in April 1861.

As a historian who at once specialized in the Civil War era, I have been fascinated by the life of John Brown.  I’ve visited his one-time home and burial site at Lake Placid, New York.  I’ve been to Harper’s Ferry countless times, studying the various buildings, including the engine house, where he was cornered.  And I’ve been to site of his hanging at Charles Town, which is the seat of Jefferson County.

More than thirty years ago I purchased some strands of rope which purportedly was part of the noose that hanged Brown.  It has what might be considered a statement of authenticity.  I don’t know whether A. L. Schmit’s assertion here is definitive, but I am riveted by the artifact and it resides on my library bookshelf in front of a row of books on antebellum America.


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