Searching for the Spirit

Nature and Civil War history converge in this town known best as the site of John Brown's uprising.
By Sydney Trent
Sunday, April 26, 2009

The John Brown Wax Museum in Harpers Ferry, W.Va., has the dimly lit, eerie quality of many wax museums. But soon after I guide my two young daughters through the entrance, I realize that this one is made all the spookier by its subject matter.

In the first exhibit, a young John Brown watches as a white man thrashes a slave boy whom Brown had befriended, an experience that helped strengthen Brown's conviction that slavery was evil. Another exhibit portrays the famous abolitionist wielding a thick, wooden paddle near the stoop of a log cabin in Pottawatomie Creek, Kan., in 1856. Two men lie dead and bleeding on the ground asa mother and child look on in terror. From my recent reading, I know that the brutality of Brown's massacre of five proslavery settlers, part of a larger conflict between pro- and antislavery forces in Kansas, cemented the belief of some historians that he was a fringe fanatic and a criminal.

My 5-year-old, Olivia, gasps at the gruesome sight and squeezes my hand. Her 10-year-old sister, Alexandra, quietly shields her eyes.

"This place is creeping me out," Olivia whispers as we mount a narrow and winding flight of stairs to the next exhibit.

There we find a wax model of Shephard Hayward, a free black man and railroad baggage master, lying wounded in front of a train station. Hayward was an unintended victim and the first of seven to die during Brown's failed attempt in October 1859 to capture the federal arsenal in Harpers Ferry, with the aim of arming local slaves and inciting rebellions throughout the South. The exhibits end with a haggard Brown walking up wooden scaffolding to the gallows, his coffin waiting on a wagon below. By now, Alex and Olivia are speechless, and I am wishing there had been a warning to parents like me who didn't anticipate that this museum would be so gorily realistic.

As we exit onto a brightly sunny street, Alex breaks the silence.

"History is scary," she says.


I'd been hankering for this first family camping trip to Harpers Ferry ever since I read about "nature-deficit disorder," a term coined a few years back to describe how children's lack of contact with nature is leading to higher rates of obesity, anxiety and attention problems. When I was a child in Reston, I got a full dose of the outdoors, splashing barefoot in creeks and scooping salamanders into Tupperware with my best friend. But I can't say that about Alex and Olivia, who are growing up with a tiny back yard in a dense little corner of downtown Silver Spring. Even when we take the girls to a nearby park to ride bikes and throw rocks in the creek, we can hear the rush of cars nearby.

Camping seemed like the perfect solution. We decided on Harpers Ferry partly because it was close enough -- barely 60 miles from our house -- to reach before Alex or Olivia would ask, "Are we there yet?"

But I also had a more personal motivation. As an adult, I'd become fascinated with the family history I had taken for granted as a child. In particular, I want to understand my maternal grandfather, who died when I was 2, through more than just the larger-than-life portrayals by family members and the even more remote descriptions by historians and writers who, in recent years, have shaped perceptions of him as a civil rights pioneer. Vernon Johns was a radical Baptist preacher and a Virginia farmer, with a fiery temper and the courage to speak out against racial injustice at a time when few black men dared to. And he revered Brown, another deeply religious Christian and farmer, whose bloody tactics for ending slavery stunned the nation and are still the subject of controversy 150 years later. "My father thought that John Brown was the greatest man to walk the Earth," my mother told me recently, and not for the first time.

I might have wondered whether she weren't exaggerating a bit if I hadn't come across an out-of print collection of my grandfather's sermons and other writings, "Human Possibilities," published 12 years after his death, in 1977. In an essay about the Civil War, he writes:

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