Wednesday, December 02, 2009

December 2, 1859: John Brown Is Executed

On Friday, December 2, 1859, the "fiendish career" (as Mahala Doyle put it) of John Brown came to an end.  Brown began the day by reading his Bible, writing a few quick notes and letters, and adding a codicil to his will, which he had drafted the day before.  He handed one of the notes to a guard...
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.

While in the jail and at the gallows, Brown refused the ministrations of all Virginia clergymen because of their pro-slavery convictions.  He told one that he "would not insult God by bowing down in prayer with anyone who had the blood of the slave on his skirts" and told another, "I will thank you to leave me alone; your prayers would be an abomination to my God."

At 11 a.m., Brown was led from his cell.  He said a quick goodbye to some of his fellow raiders who were in the other cells, urging them to "stand up like men" and accusing a couple of making false statements.  He was escorted through a crowd of 2000, mostly V.M.I. cadets, among them Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, J.E.B. Stuart, and John Wilkes Booth, who had borrowed a militia uniform to gain admittance.  Brown embraced the role of the martyr -- he had written to his wife, "I have been whipped as the saying is, but am sure I can recover all the lost capital occasioned by that disaster; by only hanging a few moments by the neck; and I feel quite determined to make the utmost possible out of a defeat."  At the gallows, there was a delay of about ten minutes while the soldiers struggled to find their assigned spots.  Brown was hung at 11:15 and pronounced dead at 11:50.  He was placed in a black walnut coffin with the noose still around his neck.

John Brown hanging scaffold grounds...515 S. S...
A plaque marks the site of his hanging at 515 S. Samuel St. in Charles Town, West Virginia.

In the North, church bells toiled, guns fired salutes, ministers preached sermons of commemoration and thousands prayed.  Southern whites were enraged by the Yankees who were canonizing the murderer who had tried to stir up a slave revolt.

Brown didn't want to be buried in Virginia because he didn't want to be buried in a coffin made by slaves, so after his execution his wife shipped his body north.  In New York City, a Brooklyn undertaker prepared the body for burial.  Then his body was shipped further north, to the Adirondack Mountains, to the family farm in North Elba.  He was buried in the front yard of his home on December 8.  The remains of his followers who fought and died at Harpers Ferry, including two of his sons, were moved to this small graveyard in 1899.  The farm is now the John Brown Farm (NY) State Historic Site.

On December 14, 1859, the U.S. Senate appointed a bipartisan committee to investigate the Harpers Ferry raid and to determine the extent of the conspiracy.  After hearing testimony from 32 witness, the committee found no evidence of a conspiracy, but implied that the raid was the result of Republican doctrines.

From Battle Cry of Freedom by James M. McPherson...
John Brown's ghost stalked the South as the election year of 1860 opened.  Several historians have compared the region's mood to the "Great Fear" that seized the French countryside in the summer of 1789 when peasants believed that the "King's brigands are coming" to slaughter them.  Keyed up to the highest pitch of tension, many slaveholders and yeomen alike were ready for war to defend hearth and home against those Black Republican brigands.  Thousands joined military companies; state legislatures appropriated funds for the purchase of arms.  Every barn or cotton gin that burned down sparked new rumors of slave insurrections and abolitionist invaders.  Every Yankee in the South became persona non grata.  Some of them received a coat of tar and feathers and a ride out of town on a rail.  A few were lynched.  The citizens of Boggy Swamp, North Carolina, ran two northern tutors out of the district.  "Nothing definite is known of their abolitionist or insurrectionary sentiments," commented a local newspaper, "but being from the North, and, therefore, necessarily imbued with doctrines hostile to our institutions, their presence in this section has been obnoxious."  The northern-born president of an Alabama college had to flee for his life.  In Kentucky a mob drove thirty-nine people associated with an antislavery church and school at Berea out of the state.  Thirty-two representatives in the South of New York and Boston firms arrived in Washington reporting "indignation so great against Northerners that they were compelled to return and abandon their business."  In this climate of fear and hostility, Democrats prepared for their national convention at Charleston in April 1860.

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