John Brown rode from the jail to the gallows on top of his own coffin, which was hauled in a “criminal’s wagon” drawn by two white horses.
It was just before 11 a.m. on Dec. 2, 1859, in Charles Town, Va., now part of West Virginia. Brown, the fierce abolitionist who had led an armed insurrection against slavery, was ready to die.
He had written a note in his cell before leaving for the gallows: “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood.”
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More than 1,000 troops lined the field to protect the gallows. There was fear that rebels might rush in at the last minute and try to rescue Brown before his execution. Virginia Gov. Henry Alexander Wise had ordered extra security. Fearing a spectacle, the public had been prohibited from viewing the hanging. Journalists from the North were turned back at Baltimore.
“By ten o’clock all was arranged,” wrote John T.L. Preston, one of the founders of the Virginia Military Institute, which sent hundreds of cadets to provide security at the hanging. “The general effect was most imposing, and, at the same time, picturesque.”
Brown had been found guilty of conspiracy, inciting servile insurrection and treason against the state, after leading at least 18 men in the raid of an armory at Harpers Ferry.
Brown was accused of planning to seize the weapons stored in the armory, give them to enslaved black men and spark an antislavery rebellion, according to accounts. But after a 36-hour standoff, according to the Library of Virginia, Brown and his men were killed or captured by militia members and U.S. Marines led by Robert E. Lee.
On Nov. 2, Brown was convicted of all charges. The jury deliberated only 45 minutes before sentencing him to death by hanging.
VMI Superintendent Frances H. Smith was commander of the execution, according to VMI archival documents.
“Fearing the possibility of another uprising by Brown’s supporters, the Governor of Virginia accepted the offer of VMI’s Superintendent, Francis H. Smith, to send a part of the Corps of Cadets to provide an additional military presence at the execution,” according to VMI records. Accompanying Smith to the execution were Preston and a professor of natural philosophy named Thomas Jackson, who would later become famous as Confederate Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson.
Preston and Jackson were standing so close to the gallows, they could hear everything that John Brown said, according to Col. Keith Gibson, executive director of the VMI Museum and Archives in Lexington, Va. They became eyewitnesses to an execution that would change the course of the country’s history and help fuel the Civil War.
“Both John Preston and Jackson sat down that evening after the hanging and wrote letters home to their respective wives,” Gibson said. “They never expected those letters they were writing to their wives might someday be published in histories of the events as they have been.”
Jackson opened his letter to his wife, Mary Anna Jackson, with a description of Brown’s last moments alive:
“He behaved with unflinching firmness,” Jackson wrote. “The arrangements were well made under the direction of Col. Smith. Brown’s wife visited him last evening. The body is to be delivered to her.”
Brown, who had led antislavery attacks in Kansas, was dressed in “carpet slippers of predominating red, white socks, black pants, black frock coat, black vest & black slouch hat. Nothing around his neck beside his shirt collar,” Jackson wrote.
“Brown had his arms tied behind him, & ascended the scaffold with apparent cheerfulness,” Jackson continued. “After reaching the top of the platform, he shook hands with several who were standing around him. The sheriff placed the rope around his neck, then threw a white cap over his head & asked him if he wished a signal when all should be ready — to which he replied that it made no difference, provided he was not kept waiting too long.”
Brown, who was born on May 9, 1800, in Torrington, Conn., was the son of an abolitionist tanner, according to the Kansas Historical Society. He stood more than 6 feet tall. Brown, who had a habit of stooping when he walked, had a sharp nose, dark gray eyes, and a long beard.
He had seven children with his first wife, Dianthe, who died in 1832, and 13 children with his second wife, Mary Ann, according to the Kansas Historical Society.
Brown was a fervently religious man who believed that “sin abounded,” according to the Kansas Historical Society, and needed to be eliminated. He was convinced that slavery was the country’s “greatest sin” and dedicated himself to eradicating it by any means necessary.
In 1837, after a white pro-slavery mob murdered abolitionist and journalist Elijah P. Lovejoy in the free state of Illinois, John Brown declared publicly: “Here, before God, in the presence of these witnesses, from this time, I consecrate my life to the destruction of slavery.”
Brown moved to Springfield, Mass., where he often listened to lectures by Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth, then to North Elba, N. Y., where land grants were offered to African Americans.
As the political issue of whether new territories would become slave states or free states divided the country, Brown headed to Kansas, where his sons had settled and where violence had erupted between pro-slavery and anti-slavery forces.
In May 1856, after settlers opposed to slavery in Lawrence, Kan., were attacked by pro-slavery fighters, Brown and his sons retaliated. They were accused of killing five men in the pro-slavery settlement of Pottawattomie Creek in Franklin County, Kan., according to the Kansas Historical Society. The incident was later called the “Pottawatomie Massacre.”
In 1857, Brown began planning the raid on the armory at Harpers Ferry, according to the Library of Virginia, hoping to set off a slave rebellion and create a new free state governed by a constitution he would write.
In Northern cities, he met with abolitionists, including Underground Railroad hero Harriet Tubman, and recruited followers.
In the weeks before the Harpers Ferry raid, Brown met Frederick Douglass, requesting that Douglass join the raid. “Come with me, Douglass,” Brown said, according to the book, “John Brown: We Came to Free the Slaves,” by Anne E. Schraff. “I will defend you with my life. … When I strike, the bees will begin to swarm, and I shall want you to help hive them.”
Douglass declined, advising that an attack against the federal government would turn public opinion against abolitionists.
The raid began on Oct. 16, 1859, as Brown led 18 men — 13 whites and five blacks — into Harpers Ferry, where they captured federal government buildings and cut telegraph wires. They killed four people and wounded nine.
“Expecting local slaves to join them, Brown and his men waited in the armory while the townspeople surrounded the building. The raiders and the civilians exchanged gunfire, and eight of Brown’s men were killed or captured,” according to the Library of Virginia. “Five of the conspirators, including Brown’s son Owen, escaped to safety in Canada and the North.”
Brown was wounded in the attack and taken to the jail at Charles Town.
Brown, who was 59, was not allowed to make a final statement as he stood on the gallows.
“His manner was without trepidation,” Preston wrote, “but his countenance was not free from concern, and it seemed to me to have a little cast of wildness. He stood upon the scaffold but a short time, giving brief adieus to those about him, when he was properly pinioned, the white cap drawn over his face, the noose adjusted and attached to the hook above, and he was moved blindfolded a few steps forward.”
In his letter to his wife, Stonewall Jackson described a delay in the order to hang Brown. He stood on the trap door a full 10 minutes, waiting.
Finally, the order was given, and the rope holding the trap door closed was sliced.
“Brown fell through about 25 inches, so as to bring his knees on a level with the position occupied by his feet before the rope was cut,” Jackson wrote. “With the fall his arms below the elbow flew up, hands clenched, & his arms gradually fell by spasmodic motions — there was very little motion of his person for several minutes, after which the wind blew his lifeless body to & fro.”
Brown’s body was placed in a coffin made of black walnut. Less than two years after Brown was buried in front of his New York farmhouse, the Civil War began, fulfilling his final prophesy that bloodshed would be required to settle the sin of slavery.
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