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John Brown: 1859 Trial and Hanging

Shanet Clark

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John Brown’s Trial

In October of 1859, John Brown, the notoriously violent abolitionist, led eighteen armed men, both black and white, on a raid of the little railroad town of Harpers Ferry, Virginia.

His goal was to seize the Federal arsenal there and then lead a slave insurrection across the south.

After a two-day standoff with local militia and Federal troops, in which ten of his men were shot or killed, John Brown was captured and put on trial in Virginia state court.

He was found guilty and hanged.

John Brown’s activities in Harpers Ferry, Virginia in October of 1859 caused an unprecedented uproar in the United States and generated an immense volume of editorial analysis, comment and interpretation. The original Court Records of the case have been lost or scattered. They were partially restored in the 1930’s. The most complete records can be found in the Jefferson County (W.Va.) County Records Manuscripts Common Law Order Books #6 and #12 and Will Book #16. My analysis of the trial is based on a contemporary work that reports the entire trial in objective terms, and I will refer to this source as the “consensus” account. This corresponds to the Senate Report and Testimony in many particulars and presents no particular agenda.

The insurrection and trial of John Brown spawned a complex historiography. Many of the works are strongly Pro-Brown, bordering on hagiography. Two examples show the extent of the apologia commonly expressed by militant abolitionists concerning John Brown. James Redpath entitled his chapters on the trial and execution “Among the Philistines” and “Victory over Death.” In addition, F.B. Sanborn dedicated his book to John Brown’s family. It is useful in understanding the period to compare these militant abolitionists’ editorial content to the public record of the Senate and the “consensus” account.

John Brown’s trial is filled with unusual circumstances. After seizing hostages and a Federal Armory on October the 16th and 17th John Brown was tried in Virginia State Circuit Court for treason, multiple first-degree murders and inciting an insurrection among Virginia slaves. The defense counsels were appointed by the court and expressed strong misgivings. The trial was definitely rushed, due to the recent insurrection and hysteria in the community. Brown attended the trial prone upon a cot, since he had suffered multiple saber wounds when captured. The appointed defense counsel admitted the fact of the crimes, shared in the outrage of the community, and apologized for defending Brown. The pace, presentation and mood of the court was unusual. Many legitimate objections were over-ruled in haste. The judgment would almost certainly be thrown out on appeal in today’s judicial system.

The trial took place in Charlestown, the county seat of Jefferson County, Virginia, the county where Harpers Ferry was located. Charlestown is located in the extreme eastern panhandle of West Virginia, and is not to be confused with Charleston, W.Va., the State Capitol in central Kanawha County.

Charlestown was named after Charles Washington, a relative of the President, and the trial courthouse is still standing.

James Redpath’s pro-Brown account includes an inflammatory charge to the jurors by the judge, and this is not included in the “consensus” account. Since the direct quotes in Redpath usually correspond with quotations in the “consensus” and Senate accounts, we can reasonably credit Judge Richard Parker with these words:

""I will not permit myself to give expression to any of those feelings which at once spring up in every breast when reflecting on the enormity of the guilt in which those are involved who invade by force a peaceful, unsuspecting portion of our common country, raise the standard of insurrection amongst us, and shoot down without mercy Virginia citizens defending Virginia soil against their invasion.""

The trial took just over a week, starting on Tuesday, the 25th of October, 1859 and concluding on Wednesday, the 2nd of November, 1859.

The jury took only forty-five minutes in finding John Brown guilty.

Brown was executed within a month of conviction.

The central witness in the trial was Colonel Lewis Washington, of the President George Washington family, who had been kidnapped out of his home and held hostage near the Federal Armory. His slaves were militarily “impressed” by Brown, but they took no active part in the insurrection. Other local witnesses testified to the seizure of the Federal Armory, the appearance of Virginia militia groups, and shootings on the railroad bridge. Other evidence described the U.S. Marines’ raid on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad engine house occupied by Brown and his men. U.S. Army Colonel Robert E. Lee and cavalry officer J.E.B Stuart led the Marine raid, and it freed the hostages and ended the standoff.

Lee filed an affadavit to the court with his account of the Marine’s raid.

The manuscript evidence was of particular interest to the judge and jury.

Voluminous documents were found on the Maryland farm rented by John Brown under the alias Isaac Smith. These documents included a provisional constitution, which Brown and his officers had signed.

These documents clinched the treason and pre-meditation charges against John Brown.

Lawson Botts, a prominent Virginia attorney, was appointed to be the lead defense counsel, and George H. Hoyt, who arrived a few days later from Massachusetts, took a hesitant role in the closing days of the trial. Hoyt was hired to defend Brown by John W. Le Barnes, one of the so-called “Secret Six”--abolitionists who had given money to Brown in the past.

Charles J. Faulkner and Charlestown mayor Thomas C. Green were also appointed to be defense counsels by Judge Parker, but they stepped down after John Brown expressed “no confidence” in them in open court.

The defense had a difficult task, since Brown and his men had planned and carried out an insurrection, signed the provisional government charters, fired upon local, state and federal forces and caused five deaths. The defense’s stronger points are quite amplified in the apologia of Redpath, but are clear enough even in the “consensus” account. The defense first attacked the multiple count indictment and called for severance of the separate counts within this ‘all or nothing’ indictment.

The defense repeatedly asked for more time to prepare a defense. Brown himself asked for a few days to recover from his wounds. Time was requested again when George Hoyt arrived. All these motions were denied. Unable to slow the trial on (appropriate) procedural grounds, and unable to get the unusual indictment thrown out, the defense stressed jurisdictional ambiguities and extenuating circumstances.

The defense claimed that the Harpers Ferry Federal Armory was not on Virginia property, but since the murdered townspeople had died in the streets outside the perimeter of the Federal facility, this carried little weight with the jury. John Brown’s lack of official citizenship in Virginia was presented as a defense against treason against the State of Virginia. The judge dispatched this claim by reference to “rights and responsibilities” and the overlapping citizenship requirements between the Federal union and the various States. John Brown, as a U.S. citizen, could be found guilty of treason against Virginia on the basis of his temporary residence there during the days of the insurrection.

Three other substantive defense tactics failed. One claimed that since the insurrection was aimed at the U.S. government it could not be proved treason against Virginia. Since Brown and his men had fired upon Virginia troops, this point was mooted. Another defense claim must have pained John Brown upon his cot. His lawyers explained that since no slaves had joined the insurrection, the charge of leading a slave insurrection should be thrown out. The jury apparently did not favor this claim, either.

Extenuating circumstances were claimed by the defense when they stressed that Colonel Washington and the other hostages were not harmed and were in fact protected by Brown during the siege. This claim was not persuasive as Colonel Washington had seen men die of gunshot wounds and had been confined for days. The final plea by the defense team for mercy concerned the circumstances surrounding the death of two of John Brown’s men, who were apparently fired upon and killed by the Virginia militia while under a flag of truce. The armed community surrounding the Arsenal did not hold their fire when Brown’s men emerged to parley. This incident is given great weight in Redpath, the militant abolitionist hagiography. It is not highlighted in the “consensus” account, but the incident is noticeable upon a close reading of the published testimony. If rebels under a flag of truce were fired upon, it was not a major issue to the judge and jury.

Redpath, in his pro-abolitionist account of the trial, emphasizes one other event, which sheds light on the insurrection and the mob mentality of the beleaguered Harpers Ferry citizens’ militia. It seems that the Mayor of Harpers Ferry, Mr. Fontaine Beckham, had stood unarmed within sight of both the Arsenal’s rebels and the local militia. Brown or Brown’s men shot the Mayor in cold blood, and the crowd responded in a singular way. The citizen militia had captured William Thompson, one of Brown’s “privates,” earlier in the day, and upon Mayor Beckham’s murder this William Thompson was in turn murdered by Henry Hunter and thrown off of the Potomac River railroad bridge. Hunter admits this in the “consensus” account, and it is conveyed in considerably more detail in the Redpath account.

The raid on Harpers Ferry and the subsequent trial of John Brown was a watershed event in American history. Brown was unrepentant, he gloried in his martyrdom and he was supported in his zeal by many abolitionists. The record shows a hurried, somewhat callous approach to the niceties and technicalities of jurisprudence. The judge repeatedly excuses the speed and severity of the trial, on the grounds that the Circuit session would soon end. No real attempt was made to put forth an insanity plea, although a letter to that effect was read in open court on the second day, and many people believed that congenital insanity was claimed as a defense.

John Brown did not co-operate in this effort to claim an insanity defense, he said,

“I look upon it as a miserable artifice and pretext . . . I view it with contempt . . . I reject, so far as possible, any attempt to interfere in my behalf on that score.”

John Brown was hanged on the 2nd of December, 1859, at high noon. In his desire to be both a martyr and a prophet he predicted civil war in this final hand-written note that he passed to a supporter on his way out to the heavily protected field gallows:

""Charlestown, Va. 2nd December, 1859. 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 raid on Harpers Ferry foreshadows the Civil War in some counter-intuitive ways, and there is grim irony in the subsequent events that took place in the region.

In 1861, the South would present the provisional constitution, not the abolitionists of the North. The patriarchal, feudal militarism of Brown’s family and his “Army” was illustrative of the Southern slaveholders’ attitudes. The North was afraid of people like Brown, men of zeal who would entertain secession and rebellion for a political cause.

Harpers Ferry and the larger nearby towns of Martinsburg and Winchester would change hands many, many times between the Confederacy and the Union. West Virginia would secede from the Confederacy, and take Jefferson County out of Virginia’s jurisdiction forever. Battles at Harpers Ferry would seriously obstruct R.E. Lee’s attempts to invade the North in both the Antietam and the Gettysburg campaigns. The area along the Shenandoah Valley would become the staging grounds for another religious and steely-eyed commander, Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson.

Spies and treachery would rock the area throughout the war -- and Belle Boyd would become famous as a provocative double agent in the region, as the Civil War Matahari. Both Robert E. Lee and J.E.B. Stuart would resign their commissions in the U.S. Army in order to fight for a secessionist government of Virginia.

Virginia Governor Henry A. Wise embodies these ironies and strange reversals. One of Brown’s most vocal and visible accusers during the trial and immediate aftermath, Wise had described Brown’s provisional force as “murderers, traitors, robbers, insurrectionists . . . wandering, malicious, unprovoked, felons,” and he pushed for the rapid trial and sentencing of Brown and his accomplices.

Eighteen months later, on the 17th of April, 1861, Henry Wise reported to the Virginia Secession Convention, “(Virginian) armed forces are now moving upon Harpers Ferry to capture the arms there in the Arsenal for the public defense, and there will be a fight or a foot-race between volunteers of Virginia and Federal troops before the sun sets.” On 1 June 1861 Wise would tell people in Richmond “Get a spear, a lance. Take a lesson from John Brown, manufacture your blades from old iron,” as he led Virginia to accept secession.

The raid on Harpers Ferry and the trial of John Brown is a fascinating series of events. The high emotions, the gore, the righteousness claimed by both sides, all these are highly compelling. By sacrificing his own (and other innocent people’s) lives to the cause of slave emancipation in the pivotal year of 1859, John Brown would align himself in segments of the public mind with Presidents Lincoln and Grant.

By leading an irregular rebellion and forming a provisional government he foreshadows the Confederate American experience as well. The trial of John Brown in Virginia’s state court system in 1859 shows us a man who perceived himself to be above the law being hastily prosecuted by a community inflamed by ideological, racial and territorial conflicts.

David Shanet Clark

Woodruff Fellow GSU Atlanta 2005

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