The John Brown Archive

A daugerreotype of John 
Brown by the African-American photographer Augustus Washington"Now to be seen here," announced an American Museum ad in the December 7, 1859 New York Tribune, "a full-length Wax Figure of OSAWATOMIE BROWN; his Autograph Commission to a Lieutennancy; a KNIFE found on the body of his Son; TWO PIKES or Spears taken at Harper's Ferry." Barnum, as always, was eager to exploit controversy and any artifacts related to John Brown--who was executed for treason on December 2, 1859 for leading the raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, the previous October--were sure to draw crowds. While many Americans viewed Brown as a dangerous fanatic fanning the flames of sectional conflict, others were impressed by his willingness to use extreme measures to end slavery. With the start of the Civil War in 1861, Brown's northern admirers expanded in number and Barnum's American Museum moved beyond displaying the sensational remnants of the 1859 raid to celebrate him as a martyr to the cause of freedom.

There are 13 matching records. Displaying matches 1 through 13 .


Brown of Ossawatomie
John Greenleaf Whittier.
John Brown’s 1859 raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry and subsequent execution galvanized the nation; abolitionists celebrated him as a martyr to the anti-slavery cause while southern whites denounced him and his northern supporters and formed local militias to guard against slave uprisings of the kind Brown had hoped to foment. This poem by John Greenleaf Whittier was first published in the New York Independent three weeks after Brown’s execution. The poem valorizes both the abolitionist cause and Brown’s noble intentions and repeats a New York Herald Tribune account of Brown kissing a slave mother’s child on his way to the gallows. Whittier was not alone in valorizing Brown’s supposed last act: abolitionist Lydia Maria Child penned "The Hero’s Heart," a poem that referred to the apocryphal kiss, and Thomas S. Noble painted a version of the same scene in 1867, titled "John Brown’s Blessing" as did Thomas Hovenden in his 1884 "Last Moments of John Brown."
Exhibit: John Brown.
Museum Room: Waxworks Room.
Document Type: Text.


A Picture at Barnum's
This item appeared in Harper’s Weekly, a pro-Union magazine, praising a painting of John Brown going to his execution that was on display at the American Museum. The painting by Louis Ransom depicts Brown pausing on the steps of the Charlestown, Virginia, jail, surrounded by armed soldiers, and leaning down to kiss the small child proffered to him by an African-American woman. The legend of Brown kissing a slave child on the way to his execution originated with an account of the execution in the New York Tribune on December 6, 1859. This account was reprinted in other newspapers and in early Brown biographies. In fact, Brown encountered only soldiers and jail personnel on the way to his execution. Fearing that the painting would draw angry crowds during the July 1863 New York City draft riots, Barnum removed Ransom’s painting from the American Museum.
Harper’s Weekly, June 13, 1863.
Exhibit: John Brown.
Museum Room: Waxworks Room.
Document Type: Text.


Louis Ransom to the President of Oberlin College
In these letters, painter Louis Ransom attempts to sell his painting of "John Brown Meeting the Slave Mother and her Child on the Steps of Charleston Jail on His Way to Execution" to Oberlin College. Oberlin, founded in 1833, was the nation’s first co-educational college and one of the first to admit African-American students. Because Oberlin was known as an abolitionist stronghold, Ransom hoped that the college or residents of the town of Oberlin, Ohio, would be interested in buying his painting honoring the abolitionist martyr, first exhibited at the American Museum. Oberlin eventually did take possession of the seven by ten foot large painting, and later loaned it to Paul Laurence Dunbar high school in Washington, D.C. The painting is lost to history, but a Currier and Ives lithograph of the painting was widely distributed and helped to cement the myth that Brown had actually kissed a slave mother and her child en route to his execution.
Exhibit: John Brown.
Museum Room: Waxworks Room.
Document Type: Text.


Meeting in Detroit
While many whites believed that John Brown was a madman, African Americans recognized the slave system as madness and celebrated Brown’s willingness to die for the anti-slavery cause. Brown was rare among white abolitionists in his insistence on full equality between blacks and whites; throughout his adult life he interacted socially with African Americans on an egalitarian basis to a degree unprecedented in antebellum America. On December 2, 1859, the day of Brown’s execution, African Americans and abolitionists observed a "Day of Mourning" to honor his martyrdom. Gathering in churches and meeting halls that night, they used speeches, proclamations, and songs to both commemorate Brown and call for further action to advance the abolitionist cause. This report, published in an African-American newspaper, describes one such gathering.
Exhibit: John Brown.
Museum Room: Waxworks Room.
Document Type: Text.


Meeting in Pittsburgh
While many whites believed that John Brown was a madman, African Americans recognized the slave system as madness and celebrated Brown’s willingness to die for the anti-slavery cause. Brown was rare among white abolitionists in his insistence on full equality between blacks and whites; throughout his adult life he interacted socially with African Americans on an egalitarian basis to a degree unprecedented in antebellum America. This newspaper account describes a meeting held in an African-American church in Pittsburgh on November 29, 1859, a few days before Brown was scheduled to die. The assembled citizens proclaimed Brown "a hero, patriot, and Christian," called for black businesses and schools to close on December 2nd (the date of Brown’s execution), and collected money for Brown’s family.
Exhibit: John Brown.
Museum Room: Waxworks Room.
Document Type: Text.


Address by J. Sella Martin
While many whites believed that John Brown was a madman, African Americans recognized the slave system as madness and celebrated Brown’s willingness to die for the anti-slavery cause. Brown was rare among white abolitionists in his insistence on full equality between blacks and whites; throughout his adult life he interacted socially with African Americans on an egalitarian basis to a degree unprecedented in antebellum America. On December 2, 1859, the day of Brown’s execution, African Americans and abolitionists observed a "Day of Mourning" to honor his martyrdom. Gathering in churches and meeting halls that night, they used speeches, proclamations, and songs both to commemorate Brown and to call for further action to advance the abolitionist cause. In Boston, nearly four thousand abolitionist supporters, both black and white, gathered in and outside the Tremont Temple. J. Sella Martin, pastor of Joy Street Baptist Church and former pastor (and first African-American pastor) of Tremont Temple, addressed the crowd and defended both Brown’s methods and the caution of the Virginia slaves who refrained from joining his armed stand.
Exhibit: John Brown.
Museum Room: Waxworks Room.
Document Type: Text.


John Brown Meeting the Slave Mother and Her Child on the Steps of Charlestown Jail on His Way to Execution
This print, published by the New York lithography firm of Currier and Ives in 1863, was based on a painting by Louis Ransom depicting John Brown pausing on the steps of the Charlestown, Virginia, jail, surrounded by armed soldiers, and leaning down to kiss the small child proffered to him by an African-American woman. The legend of Brown kissing a slave child on the way to his execution originated with an account of the execution in the New York Tribune on December 6, 1859. This account was reprinted in other newspapers and in early Brown biographies. In fact, Brown encountered only soldiers and jail personnel on the way to his execution. Fearing that the painting would draw angry crowds during the July 1863 New York City draft riots, Barnum removed Ransom’s painting from the American Museum.

Louis Ransom subsequently tried to sell his painting to Oberlin College. Oberlin, founded in 1833, was the nation’s first co-educational college and one of the first to admit African-American students. Because Oberlin was known as an abolitionist stronghold, Ransom hoped that the college or residents of the town of Oberlin, Ohio, would be interested in buying his painting honoring the abolitionist martyr. Oberlin eventually did take possession of the seven by ten foot large painting, and later loaned it to Paul Laurence Dunbar high school in Washington, D.C. The painting is lost to history, but this Currier and Ives lithograph of the painting was widely distributed and helped to cement the myth that Brown had actually kissed a slave mother and her child en route to his execution.
Exhibit: John Brown.
Museum Room: Waxworks Room.
Document Type: Image.


The Arraignment
On October 16, 1859 John Brown, three of his sons, and 19 associates raided the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. Planning to seize arms stored at the arsenal and set up a base to encourage and assist further slave insurrections, Brown and his men were trapped by U.S. marines and captured. Tried for treason, Brown was convicted and hanged. Southerners saw in Brown’s raid the violent intentions of northerners, while many in the North mourned Brown’s death as a revolutionary martyr. A Harper's Weekly artist sketched Brown and his co-conspirators shortly after their capture as they were charged with treason and murder in a Charlestown, Virginia, courtroom.
Exhibit: John Brown.
Museum Room: Waxworks Room.
Document Type: Image.


John Brown Daguerreotype
This recently discovered daguerreotype portrait of John Brown was taken around 1847, before he grew his famous beard. The photograph was taken by the African-American abolitionist Augustus Washington, who operated a daguerrean studio in Hartford, Connecticut. Washington left the United States in 1853 to live in the West African nation of Liberia, founded by former African-American slaves.
Exhibit: John Brown.
Museum Room: Waxworks Room.
Document Type: Image.


"Execution of John Brown," Raleigh (NC) Register, December 3, 1859
"John Brown became an infamous martyr to the anti-slavery cause in 1859, when he led a small band of armed men in a raid against the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, intending to seize the weapons there and free all slaves in the vicinity. Brown and his associates were captured, and hanged for treason on December 2, 1859. Published the day after his execution, this editorial from the North Carolina Register newspaper ridicules northerners, especially in the abolitionist stronghold of New England, for their veneration of Brown. It further accuses "Yankees" of mixing commerce with even their deeply felt political beliefs and speculates that some enterprising person, such as P. T. Barnum, will make a profitable spectacle out of any artifacts that remain from Brown’s execution. From the Secession Era Editorials Project."
Exhibit: John Brown.
Museum Room: Waxworks Room.
Document Type: Text.


Editorial, Pittsburgh (PA) Gazette, December 3, 1859
When John Brown and a small band of armed men attacked the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in 1859, they intended to seize the weapons there and free all slaves in the vicinity. The plan failed, however, and Brown and his associates were captured, tried, and finally hanged on December 2, 1859. The day after Brown was executed in Charlestown, Virginia, newspapers around the country editorialized about the meaning of his act and his execution. Although it stops short of endorsing Brown’s raid, this editorial from the Pittsburgh Gazette portrays it as noble courageous. The editorial also points to Brown’s execution as evidence of the slave system’s corruption and predicts that Brown’s death will usher in the demise of slavery. From the Secession Era Editorials Project.
Exhibit: John Brown.
Museum Room: Waxworks Room.
Document Type: Text.


"The ‘Irrepressible Conflict’ – Fruits of the Lincoln-Seward Doctrine," Springfield (IL) State Register, October 20, 1859
The news of John Brown’s attempted raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, stirred passionate reactions throughout the country and across the political spectrum. This editorial, published four days after the abortive raid, links Brown’s violent act to the ideas and statements of more mainstream Republican party (President Abraham Lincoln and his Secretary of State William B. Seward) and abolitionist (William Lloyd Garrison, Theodore Parker) figures. This Democratic newspaper branded them all with the racially-charged epithet "black republicans," a reference to the newly-formed Republican party’s anti-slavery stance. Brown was known to some as "Osawatomie" or "Pottawatomie" Brown because in 1856 he led a deadly attack on a small proslavery settlement near Osawatomie Creek (alternately known as Pottwatomie Creek) in the Kansas territory, where the expansion of slavery was fiercely contested during the 1850s. From the Secession Era Editorials Project.
Exhibit: John Brown.
Museum Room: Waxworks Room.
Document Type: Text.


John Brown, Violence, and Social Change
John P. Spencer and Ellen Noonan.
The news of John Brown's attempted raid on a federal arsenal and subsequent execution in Charlestown, Virginia, stirred passionate reactions throughout the country and across the political spectrum. In this activity, students can examine a range of reactions to Brown and his methods and, in the process, explore more general questions about the role of violence in movements for social change. They will begin by analyzing a classic 1857 quotation from Frederick Douglass on the nature of social change. Then, in a persuasive essay, they will evaluate Douglass's statement in light of debates that occurred two years later over John Brown and his methods at Harpers Ferry.
Exhibit: John Brown.
Museum Room: Waxworks Room.
Document Type: Teaching Activity.