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John Brown

Photo by Augustus Washington, circa 1846–1847

Born(1800-05-09)May 9, 1800
Torrington, Connecticut, U.S.
DiedDecember 2, 1859(1859-12-02) (aged 59)
Charles Town, Virginia, U.S.
(now West Virginia)
Cause of deathExecution by hanging
Resting placeJohn Brown Farm State Historic Site, Lake Placid, New York, U.S.
Known for
Children20 (11 survived to adulthood)

John Brown (May 9, 1800 – December 2, 1859) was an American abolitionist who believed in and advocated armed insurrection as the only way to overthrow the institution of slavery in the United States. Brown first gained attention when he led small groups of volunteers during the Bleeding Kansas crisis of 1856. Dissatisfied with the pacifism of the organized abolitionist movement, he said, "These men are all talk. What we need is action—action!" In May 1856, Brown and his supporters killed five supporters of slavery in the Pottawatomie massacre, which responded to the sacking of Lawrence by pro-slavery forces. Brown then commanded anti-slavery forces at the Battle of Black Jack (June 2) and the Battle of Osawatomie (August 30).

In 1859, Brown led a raid on the federal armory at Harpers Ferry to start a liberation movement among the slaves there. During the raid, he seized the armory; seven people were killed, and ten or more were injured. He intended to arm slaves with weapons from the arsenal, but the attack failed. Within 36 hours, Brown's men had fled or been killed or captured by local pro-slavery farmers, militiamen, and U.S. Marines led by Robert E. Lee. Tried for treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia, the murder of five men, and inciting a slave insurrection, Brown was found guilty on all counts and was hanged.

Historians agree that the Harpers Ferry raid escalated tensions that, a year later, led to the South's secession and Civil War. Brown's raid captured the nation's attention, as Southerners feared it was just the first of many Northern plots to cause a slave rebellion that might endanger their lives, while Republicans dismissed the notion and claimed they would not interfere with slavery in the South. "John Brown's Body" was a popular Union marching song during the Civil War and portrayed Brown as a martyr.

Brown's actions as an abolitionist, and the tactics he chose, still make him a controversial figure today. He is sometimes memorialized as a heroic martyr and a visionary, and sometimes vilified as a madman and a terrorist.[1] Historian James Loewen surveyed American History textbooks and noted that until about 1890, historians considered Brown perfectly sane, but from about 1890 until 1970, he was generally portrayed as insane.[2]

Early life

John Brown was born May 9, 1800, in Torrington, Connecticut. He was the fourth of the eight children of Owen Brown (1771–1856) and Ruth Mills (1772–1808) and grandson of Capt. John Brown (1728–1776).[3] Brown could trace his ancestry back to 17th-century English Puritans.[4]

In 1805, the family moved to Hudson, Ohio, where Owen Brown opened a tannery. Brown's father became a supporter of the Oberlin Institute in its early stage, although he was ultimately critical of the school's "Perfectionist" leanings, especially renowned in the preaching and teaching of Charles Finney and Asa Mahan. Brown withdrew his membership from the Congregational church in the 1840s and never officially joined another church, but both he and his father Owen were fairly conventional evangelicals for the period with its focus on the pursuit of personal righteousness. Brown's personal religion is fairly well documented in the papers of the Rev Clarence Gee, a Brown family expert, now held in the Hudson [Ohio] Library and Historical Society.[citation needed]

Brown's father had as an apprentice Jesse R. Grant, father of Ulysses S. Grant.[5] At 16, Brown left his family and went to Plainfield, Massachusetts, where he enrolled in a preparatory program. Shortly afterward, he transferred to the Morris Academy in Litchfield, Connecticut.[6] He hoped to become a Congregational minister, but money ran out and he suffered from eye inflammations, which forced him to give up the academy and return to Ohio. In Hudson, he worked briefly at his father's tannery before opening a successful tannery of his own outside of town with his adopted brother.[citation needed]

In 1820, Brown married Dianthe Lusk. Their first child, John Jr, was born 13 months later. In 1825, Brown and his family moved to New Richmond, Pennsylvania, where he bought 200 acres (81 hectares) of land. He cleared an eighth of it and built a cabin, a barn, and a tannery. The John Brown Tannery Site was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978.[7] Within a year, the tannery employed 15 men. Brown made money raising cattle and surveying. He helped to establish a post office and a school. During this period, Brown operated an interstate business involving cattle and leather production along with a kinsman, Seth Thompson, from eastern Ohio.[citation needed]

In 1831, one of his sons died. Brown fell ill, and his businesses began to suffer, leaving him in terrible debt. In the summer of 1832, shortly after the death of a newborn son, his wife Dianthe died. On June 14, 1833, Brown married 16-year-old Mary Ann Day (April 15, 1817 – May 1, 1884), originally from Washington County, New York.[8] They eventually had 13 children, in addition to the seven children from his previous marriage.

In 1836, Brown moved his family to Franklin Mills, Ohio (now known as Kent). There he borrowed money to buy land in the area, building and operating a tannery along the Cuyahoga River in partnership with Zenas Kent.[9] He suffered great financial losses in the economic crisis of 1839, which struck the western states more severely than had the Panic of 1837. Following the heavy borrowing trends of Ohio, many businessmen like Brown trusted too heavily in credit and state bonds and paid dearly for it. In one episode of property loss, Brown was even jailed when he attempted to retain ownership of a farm by occupying it against the claims of the new owner. Like other determined men of his time and background, he tried many different business efforts in an attempt to get out of debt. Along with tanning hides and cattle trading, he also undertook horse and sheep breeding, the last of which was to become a notable aspect of his pre-public vocation.[citation needed]

In 1837, in response to the murder of Elijah P. Lovejoy, Brown publicly vowed: "Here, before God, in the presence of these witnesses, from this time, I consecrate my life to the destruction of slavery!"[10] Brown was declared bankrupt by a federal court on September 28, 1842. In 1843, four of his children died of dysentery. As Louis DeCaro Jr shows in his biographical sketch (2007), from the mid-1840s Brown had built a reputation as an expert in fine sheep and wool, and entered into a partnership with Col. Simon Perkins of Akron, Ohio, whose flocks and farms were managed by Brown and sons. Brown eventually moved into a home with his family across the street from the Perkins Stone Mansion located on Perkins Hill. The John Brown House (Akron, Ohio) still stands and is owned and operated by The Summit County Historical Society of Akron, Ohio.

Transformative years in Springfield, Massachusetts

In 1846, Brown and his business partner Simon Perkins moved to the ideologically progressive city of Springfield, Massachusetts. There Brown found a community whose white leadership—from the community's most prominent churches, to its wealthiest businessmen, to its most popular politicians, to its local jurists, and even to the publisher of one of the nation's most influential newspapers—were deeply involved and emotionally invested in the anti-slavery movement.[12] Brown and Perkins' intent was to represent the interests of the Ohio's wool growers as opposed to those of New England's wool manufacturers—thus Brown and Perkins set up a wool commission operation. While in Springfield, Brown lived in a house at 51 Franklin Street.[13]

Two years before Brown's arrival in Springfield, in 1844, the city's African-American abolitionists had founded the Sanford Street Free Church—now known as St. John's Congregational Church—which went on to become one of the United States most prominent platforms for abolitionist speeches. From 1846 until he left Springfield in 1850, Brown was a parishioner at the Free Church, where he witnessed abolitionist lectures by the likes of Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth.[14] In 1847, after speaking at the Free Church, Douglass spent a night speaking with Brown, after which he wrote, "From this night spent with John Brown in Springfield, Mass. 1847 while I continued to write and speak against slavery, I became all the same less hopeful for its peaceful abolition. My utterances became more and more tinged by the color of this man's strong impressions."[12] During Brown's time in Springfield, he became deeply involved in transforming the city into a major center of abolitionism, and one of the safest and most significant stops on the Underground Railroad.[15]

Brown also learned much about Massachusetts' mercantile elite; while he initially considered this knowledge a curse, it would prove to be a boon to his later activities in Kansas and at Harper's Ferry. The business community had reacted with hesitation when Brown asked them to change their highly profitable practice of selling low-quality wool en masse at low prices. Initially, Brown naively trusted them, but soon realized that they were determined to maintain their control of price-setting. Also, on the outskirts of Springfield, the Connecticut River Valley's sheep farmers were largely unorganized and hesitant to change their methods of production to meet higher standards. In the Ohio Cultivator, Brown and other wool growers complained that the Connecticut River Valley's farmers' tendencies were lowering all U.S. wool prices abroad. In reaction, Brown made a last-ditch effort to overcome the wool mercantile elite by seeking an alliance with European manufacturers. Ultimately, Brown was disappointed to learn that Europe preferred to buy Western Massachusetts wools en masse at the cheap prices they had been getting from them. Brown then traveled to England to seek a higher price for Springfield's wool. The trip was a disaster, as the firm incurred a loss of $40,000, of which Perkins bore the brunt. With this misfortune, the Perkins and Brown wool commission operation closed in Springfield in late 1849. Subsequent lawsuits tied up the partners for several more years.[citation needed]

Before Brown left Springfield in 1850, the United States passed the Fugitive Slave Act, a law which mandated that authorities in free states aid in the return of escaped slaves and imposed penalties on those who aided in their escape. In response Brown founded a militant group to prevent slaves' capture—the League of Gileadites. In the Bible, Mount Gilead was the place where only the bravest of Israelites would gather together to face an invading enemy. Brown founded the League with these words, "Nothing so charmes the American people as personal bravery. [Blacks] would have ten times the number [of white friends than] they now have were they but half as much in earnest to secure their dearest rights as they are to ape the follies and extravagances of their white neighbors, and to indulge in idle show, in ease, and in luxury."[16] Upon leaving Springfield in 1850, Brown instructed the League to act "quickly, quietly, and efficiently" to protect slaves that escaped to Springfield—words that would foreshadow Brown's later actions preceding Harper's Ferry.[16] From Brown's founding of the League of Gileadites onward, not one person was ever taken back into slavery from Springfield. Brown gave his rocking chair to the mother of his beloved black porter, Thomas Thomas, as a gesture of affection.[12]

Some popular narrators have exaggerated the unfortunate demise of Brown and Perkins' wool commission in Springfield with Brown's later life choices. In actuality, Perkins absorbed much of the financial loss, and their partnership continued for several more years, with Brown nearly breaking even by 1854. Brown's time in Springfield sowed the seeds for the future financial support that he would receive from New England's great merchants, introduced him to nationally famous abolitionists like Douglass and Truth, and included the foundation of his first militant anti-slavery group, the League of Gileadites.[12][13] During this time, Brown also helped publicize David Walker's speech called Appeal.[17] Brown's personal attitudes evolved in Springfield, as he observed the success of the city's Underground Railroad and made his first venture into militant, anti-slavery community organizing. In speeches, he pointed to the martyrs Elijah Lovejoy and Charles Turner Torrey as whites "ready to help blacks challenge slave-catchers.".[18] In Springfield, Brown found a city that shared his own anti-slavery passions, and each seemed to educate the other. Certainly, with both successes and failures, Brown's Springfield years were a transformative period of his life, which catalyzed many of his later actions.[12]

Homestead in New York

In 1848, Brown heard of Gerrit Smith's Adirondack land grants to poor black men, and decided to move his family among the new settlers. He bought land near North Elba, New York (near Lake Placid), for $1 an acre ($2 /ha), and spent 2 years there.[19] After he was executed, his wife took his body there for burial. Since 1895, the farm has been owned by New York state.[20] The John Brown Farm and Gravesite is now a National Historic Landmark.

Actions in Kansas

In 1855, Brown learned from his adult sons in the Kansas territory that their families were completely unprepared to face attack, and that pro-slavery forces there were militant. Determined to protect his family and oppose the advances of slavery supporters, Brown left for Kansas, enlisting a son-in-law and making several stops just to collect funds and weapons. As reported by the New York Tribune, Brown stopped en route to participate in an anti-slavery convention that took place in June 1855 in Albany, New York. Despite the controversy that ensued on the convention floor regarding the support of violent efforts on behalf of the free state cause, several individuals provided Brown some solicited financial support. As he went westward, however, Brown found more militant support in his home state of Ohio, particularly in the strongly anti-slavery Western Reserve section where he had been reared.[citation needed]


Main articles: Pottawatomie massacre and Bleeding Kansas

Brown and the free settlers were optimistic that they could bring Kansas into the union as a slavery-free state.[21] After the winter snows thawed in 1856, the pro-slavery activists began a campaign to seize Kansas on their own terms. Brown was particularly affected by the sacking of Lawrence in May 1856, in which a sheriff-led posse destroyed newspaper offices and a hotel. Only one man, a Border Ruffian, was killed. Preston Brooks's caning of anti-slavery Senator Charles Sumner in the United States Senate also fueled Brown's anger. A pro-slavery writer, Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow, of the Squatter Sovereign, wrote that "[pro-slavery forces] are determined to repel this Northern invasion, and make Kansas a Slave State; though our rivers should be covered with the blood of their victims, and the carcasses of the Abolitionists should be so numerous in the territory as to breed disease and sickness, we will not be deterred from our purpose".[22] Brown was outraged by both the violence of the pro-slavery forces, and what he saw as a weak and cowardly response by the antislavery partisans and the Free State settlers, whom he described as "cowards, or worse".[23]

Brown's beloved father, Owen, died on May 8, 1856. Correspondence indicates that John Brown and his family received word of his death around the same time. Brown conducted surveillance on encamped "ruffians" in his vicinity and learned that his family was marked for attack, and furthermore was given supposedly reliable information as to pro-slavery neighbors who had aligned and supported these forces. Speaking of the threats that were supposedly the justification for the massacre, Free State leader Charles Robinson stated, "When it is known that such threats were as plenty as blue-berries in June, on both sides, all over the Territory, and were regarded as of no more importance than the idle wind, this indictment will hardly justify midnight assassination of all pro-slavery men, whether making threats or not... Had all men been killed in Kansas who indulged in such threats, there would have been none left to bury the dead."[24]

In the two years prior to the Pottawatomie Creek massacre, there had been eight killings in Kansas Territory attributable to slavery politics, but none in the vicinity of the massacre. The massacre was the match in the powder keg that precipitated the bloodiest period in "Bleeding Kansas" history, a three-month period of retaliatory raids and battles in which 29 people died.[25]

Palmyra and Osawatomie

A force of Missourians, led by Captain Henry Pate, captured John Jr. and Jason, and destroyed the Brown family homestead, and later participated in the Sack of Lawrence. On June 2, John Brown, nine of his followers, and twenty local men successfully defended a Free State settlement at Palmyra, Kansas against an attack by Pate (see Battle of Black Jack). Pate and twenty-two of his men were taken prisoner.[26] After capture, they were taken to Brown's camp, and received all the food that Brown could find. Brown forced Pate to sign a treaty, exchanging the freedom of Pate and his men for the promised release of Brown's two captured sons. Brown released Pate to Colonel Edwin Sumner, but was furious to discover that the release of his sons was delayed until September.[citation needed]

In August, a company of over three hundred Missourians under the command of Major General John W. Reid crossed into Kansas and headed towards Osawatomie, Kansas, intending to destroy the Free State settlements there, and then march on Topeka and Lawrence.[27]

On the morning of August 30, 1856, they shot and killed Brown's son Frederick and his neighbor David Garrison on the outskirts of Osawatomie. Brown, outnumbered more than seven to one, arranged his 38 men behind natural defenses along the road. Firing from cover, they managed to kill at least 20 of Reid's men and wounded 40 more.[28] Reid regrouped, ordering his men to dismount and charge into the woods. Brown's small group scattered and fled across the Marais des Cygnes River. One of Brown's men was killed during the retreat and four were captured. While Brown and his surviving men hid in the woods nearby, the Missourians plundered and burned Osawatomie. Despite being defeated, Brown's bravery and military shrewdness in the face of overwhelming odds brought him national attention and made him a hero to many Northern abolitionists.[29]

On September 7, Brown entered Lawrence to meet with Free State leaders and help fortify against a feared assault. At least 2,700 pro-slavery Missourians were once again invading Kansas. On September 14, they skirmished near Lawrence. Brown prepared for battle, but serious violence was averted when the new governor of Kansas, John W. Geary, ordered the warring parties to disarm and disband, and offered clemency to former fighters on both sides.[30] Brown, taking advantage of the fragile peace, left Kansas with three of his sons to raise money from supporters in the North.[citation needed]

Later years

Gathering forces

By November 1856, Brown had returned to the East, and spent the next two years in New England raising funds. Initially, Brown returned to Springfield, where he received contributions, and also a letter of recommendation from a prominent and wealthy merchant, Mr. George Walker. George Walker was the brother-in-law of Franklin Benjamin Sanborn, the secretary for the Massachusetts State Kansas Committee, who later introduced Brown to several influential abolitionists in the Boston area in January 1857.[13][31]Amos Adams Lawrence, a prominent Boston merchant, secretly gave a large amount of cash. William Lloyd Garrison, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Theodore Parker and George Luther Stearns, and Samuel Gridley Howe also supported Brown. A group of six wealthy abolitionists – Sanborn, Higginson, Parker, Stearns, Howe, and Gerrit Smith – agreed to offer Brown financial support for his antislavery activities; they would eventually provide most of the financial backing for the raid on Harpers Ferry, and would come to be known as the Secret Six[32] and the Committee of Six. Brown often requested help from them with "no questions asked" and it remains unclear of how much of Brown's scheme the Secret Six were aware.[citation needed]

On January 7, 1858, the Massachusetts Committee pledged to provide 200 Sharps Rifles and ammunition, which were being stored at Tabor, Iowa. In March, Brown contracted Charles Blair of Collinsville, Connecticut for 1,000 pikes.[citation needed]

In the following months, Brown continued to raise funds, visiting Worcester, Springfield, New Haven, Syracuse and Boston. In Boston, he met Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. He received many pledges but little cash. In March, while in New York City, he was introduced to Hugh Forbes, an English mercenary, who had experience as a military tactician that he gained while fighting with Giuseppe Garibaldi in Italy in 1848. Brown hired him to be the drillmaster for his men and to write their tactical handbook. They agreed to meet in Tabor that summer. Using the alias Nelson Hawkins, Brown traveled through the Northeast and then went to visit his family in Hudson, Ohio. On August 7, he arrived in Tabor. Forbes arrived two days later. Over several weeks, the two men put together a "Well-Matured Plan" for fighting slavery in the South. The men quarreled over many of the details. In November, their troops left for Kansas. Forbes had not received his salary and was still feuding with Brown, so he returned to the East instead of venturing into Kansas. He would soon threaten to expose the plot to the government.[citation needed]

As the October elections saw a free-state victory, Kansas was quiet. Brown made his men return to Iowa, where he fed them tidbits of his Virginia scheme.[33] In January 1858, Brown left his men in Springdale, Iowa, and set off to visit Frederick Douglass in Rochester, New York. There he discussed his plans with Douglass, and reconsidered Forbes' criticisms.[34] Brown wrote a Provisional Constitution that would create a government for a new state in the region of his invasion. Brown then traveled to Peterboro, New York, and Boston to discuss matters with the Secret Six. In letters to them, he indicated that, along with recruits, he would go into the South equipped with weapons to do "Kansas work".[citation needed]

Brown and twelve of his followers, including his son Owen, traveled to Chatham, Ontario, where he convened on May 10 a Constitutional Convention.[35] The convention, with several dozen delegates including his friend James Madison Bell, was put together with the help of Dr. Martin Delany.[36] One-third of Chatham's 6,000 residents were fugitive slaves, and it was here that Brown was introduced to Harriet Tubman. The convention assembled 34 blacks and 12 whites to adopt Brown's Provisional Constitution. According to Delany, during the convention, Brown illuminated his plans to make Kansas rather than Canada the end of the Underground Railroad. This would be the Subterranean Pass Way.[citation needed] Delany's reflections are not entirely trustworthy. Brown was no longer looking toward Kansas and was entirely focused on Virginia. Other testimony from the Chatham meeting suggests Brown did speak of going South. Brown had long used the terminology of the Subterranean Pass Way from the late 1840s, so it is possible that Delany conflated Brown's statements over the years. Regardless, Brown was elected commander-in-chief and he named John Henrie Kagi as his "Secretary of War". Richard Realf was named "Secretary of State". Elder Monroe, a black minister, was to act as president until another was chosen. A.M. Chapman was the acting vice president; Delany, the corresponding secretary. In 1859, "A Declaration of Liberty by the Representatives of the Slave Population of the United States of America" was written.[citation needed]

Although nearly all of the delegates signed the constitution, very few delegates volunteered to join Brown's forces, although it will never be clear how many Canadian expatriates actually intended to join Brown because of a subsequent "security leak" that threw off plans for the raid, creating a hiatus in which Brown lost contact with many of the Canadian leaders. This crisis occurred when Hugh Forbes, Brown's mercenary, tried to expose the plans to Massachusetts Senator Henry Wilson and others. The Secret Six feared their names would be made public. Howe and Higginson wanted no delays in Brown's progress, while Parker, Stearns, Smith and Sanborn insisted on postponement. Stearns and Smith were the major sources of funds, and their words carried more weight. To throw Forbes off the trail and to invalidate his assertions, Brown returned to Kansas in June, and he remained in that vicinity for six months. There he joined forces with James Montgomery, who was leading raids into Missouri.

On December 20, Brown led his own raid, in which he liberated eleven slaves, took captive two white men, and looted horses and wagons. On January 20, 1859, he embarked on a lengthy journey to take the eleven liberated slaves to Detroit and then on a ferry to Canada. While passing through Chicago, Brown met with abolitionists Allan Pinkerton, John Jones, and Henry O. Wagoner who arranged and raised the fare for the passage to Detroit[37] and purchase clothes and supplies for Brown. Jones' wife, Mary, guessed that the supplies included the suit Brown was later hanged in.[38] On March 12, 1859, Brown met with Frederick Douglass and Detroit abolitionists George DeBaptiste, William Lambert, and others at William Webb's house in Detroit to discuss emancipation.[39] DeBaptiste proposed that conspirators blow up some of the South's largest churches. The suggestion was opposed by Brown, who felt humanity precluded such unnecessary bloodshed.[40]

Over the course of the next few months, he traveled again through Ohio, New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts to draw up more support for the cause. On May 9, he delivered a lecture in Concord, Massachusetts. In attendance were Amos Bronson Alcott, Emerson, and Thoreau. Brown reconnoitered with the Secret Six. In June he paid his last visit to his family in North Elba, before he departed for Harpers Ferry. He stayed one night en route in Hagerstown, Maryland at the Washington House, on West Washington Street. On June 30, 1859 the hotel had at least 25 guests, including I. Smith and Sons, Oliver Smith and Owen Smith and Jeremiah Anderson, all from New York. From papers found in the Kennedy Farmhouse after the raid, it is known that Brown wrote to Kagi that he would sign into a hotel as I. Smith and Sons.[41]


Main article: John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry

As he began recruiting supporters for an attack on slaveholders, Brown was joined by Harriet Tubman, "General Tubman," as he called her.[42] Her knowledge of support networks and resources in the border states of Pennsylvania, Maryland and Delaware was invaluable to Brown and his planners. Although other abolitionists like Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison did not endorse his tactics, Brown dreamed of fighting to create a new state for freed slaves, and made preparations for military action. After he began the first battle, he believed, slaves would rise up and carry out a rebellion across the south.[43]

He asked Tubman to gather former slaves then living in present-day Southern Ontario who might be willing to join his fighting force, which she did.[44] Brown arrived in Harpers Ferry on July 3, 1859. A few days later, under the name Isaac Smith, he rented a farmhouse in nearby Maryland. He awaited the arrival of his recruits. They never materialized in the numbers he expected. In late August he met with Douglass in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, where he revealed the Harpers Ferry plan. Douglass expressed severe reservations, rebuffing Brown's pleas to join the mission. Douglass had actually known about Brown's plans from early in 1859 and had made a number of efforts to discourage blacks from enlisting.

In late September, the 950 pikes arrived from Charles Blair. Kagi's draft plan called for a brigade of 4,500 men, but Brown had only 21 men (16 white and 5 black: three free blacks, one freed slave, and a fugitive slave). They ranged in age from 21 to 49. Twelve had been with Brown in Kansas raids. On October 16, 1859, Brown (leaving three men behind as a rear guard) led 18 men in an attack on the Harpers Ferry Armory. He had received 200 Beecher's Bibles—breechloading .52 (13.2 mm) caliber Sharps rifles—and pikes from northern abolitionist societies in preparation for the raid. The armory was a large complex of buildings that contained 100,000 muskets and rifles, which Brown planned to seize and use to arm local slaves. They would then head south, drawing off more and more slaves from plantations, and fighting only in self-defense. As Frederick Douglass and Brown's family testified, his strategy was essentially to deplete Virginia of its slaves, causing the institution to collapse in one county after another, until the movement spread into the South, essentially wreaking havoc on the economic viability of the pro-slavery states.[citation needed]

Initially, the raid went well, and they met no resistance entering the town. They cut the telegraph wires and easily captured the armory, which was being defended by a single watchman. They next rounded up hostages from nearby farms, including Colonel Lewis Washington, great-grandnephew of George Washington. They also spread the news to the local slaves that their liberation was at hand. Things started to go wrong when an eastbound Baltimore & Ohio train approached the town. The train's baggage master tried to warn the passengers. Brown's men yelled for him to halt and then opened fire. The baggage master, Hayward Shepherd, became the first casualty of Brown's war against slavery. Ironically, Shepherd was a free black man. Two of the hostages' slaves also died in the raid.[45] For some reason, after the shooting of Shepherd, Brown allowed the train to continue on its way.[citation needed]

A.J. Phelps, the Through Express passenger train conductor, sent a telegram to W.P. Smith, Master of Transportation of the B. & O. R. R., Baltimore:

Monocacy, 7.05 A. M., October 17, 1859.
Express train bound east, under my charge, was stopped this morning at Harper's Ferry by armed abolitionists. They have possession of the bridge and the arms and armory of the United States. Myself and Baggage Master have been fired at, and Hayward, the colored porter, is wounded very severely, being shot through the body, the ball entering the body below the left shoulder blade and coming out under the left side.[46]

News of the raid reached Baltimore early that morning and then on to Washington by late morning. In the meantime, local farmers, shopkeepers, and militia pinned down the raiders in the armory by firing from the heights behind the town. Some of the local men were shot by Brown's men. At noon, a company of militia seized the bridge, blocking the only escape route. Brown then moved his prisoners and remaining raiders into the engine house, a small brick building at the entrance to the armory. He had the doors and windows barred and loopholes were cut through the brick walls. The surrounding forces barraged the engine house, and the men inside fired back with occasional fury. Brown sent his son Watson and another supporter out under a white flag, but the angry crowd shot them. Intermittent shooting then broke out, and Brown's son Oliver was wounded. His son begged his father to kill him and end his suffering, but Brown said "If you must die, die like a man." A few minutes later, Oliver was dead. The exchanges lasted throughout the day.[citation needed]

By the morning of October 18 the engine house, later known as John Brown's Fort, was surrounded by a company of U.S. Marines under the command of First Lieutenant Israel Greene, USMC, with Colonel Robert E. Lee of the United States Army in overall command.[47] Army First Lieutenant J.E.B. Stuart approached under a white flag and told the raiders that their lives would be spared if they surrendered. Brown refused, saying, "No, I prefer to die here." Stuart then gave a signal. The Marines used sledge hammers and a makeshift battering-ram to break down the engine room door. Lieutenant Israel Greene cornered Brown and struck him several times, wounding his head. In three minutes Brown and the survivors were captives.[citation needed]

Altogether Brown's men killed four people, and wounded nine. Ten of Brown's men were killed (including his sons Watson and Oliver). Five of Brown's men escaped (including his son Owen), and seven were captured along with Brown. Among the raiders killed were John Henry Kagi; Lewis Sheridan Leary and Dangerfield Newby; those hanged besides Brown included John Anthony Copeland, Jr. and Shields Green.[48]

Imprisonment and trial

See also: Virginia v. John Brown

Brown and the others captured were held in the office of the armory. On October 18, 1859, Virginia Governor Henry A. Wise, Virginia Senator James M. Mason, and Representative Clement Vallandigham of Ohio arrived in Harpers Ferry. Mason led the three-hour questioning session of Brown.

" [...] had I so interfered in behalf of the rich, the powerful, the intelligent, the so-called great, or in behalf of any of their friends, either father, mother, brother, sister, wife, or children, or any of that class, and suffered and sacrificed what I have in this interference, it would have been all right; and every man in this court would have deemed it an act worthy of reward rather than punishment. This court acknowledges, as I suppose, the validity of the law of God. I see a book kissed here which I suppose to be the Bible, or at least the New Testament. That teaches me that all things whatsoever I would that men should do to me, I should do even so to them. It teaches me, further, to "remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them." I endeavored to act up to that instruction. I say, I am yet too young to understand that God is any respecter of persons. I believe that to have interfered as I have done as I have always freely admitted I have done in behalf of His despised poor, was not wrong, but right. Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments, I submit; so let it be done!"

--John Brown, in his speech following the conviction [49]

Although the attack had taken place on Federal property, Wise ordered that Brown and his men should be tried in Virginia in Charles Town, the nearby county seat capital of Jefferson County just seven miles west of Harpers Ferry (perhaps to avert Northern political pressure on the Federal government, or in the unlikely event of a presidential pardon). The trial began October 27, after a doctor pronounced the still-wounded Brown fit for trial. Brown was charged with murdering four whites and a black, with conspiring with slaves to rebel, and with treason against Virginia. A series of lawyers were assigned to Brown, who included Lawson Botts, Thomas C. Green, Samuel Chilton, a lawyer from Washington D.C., and George Hoyt, but it was Hiram Griswold, a lawyer from Cleveland, Ohio, who concluded the defense on October 31. In his closing statement, Griswold argued that Brown could not be found guilty of treason against a state to which he owed no loyalty and of which he was not a resident, and that Brown had not personally killed anyone himself, and also that the failure of the raid indicated that Brown had not conspired with slaves. Andrew Hunter, the local district attorney, presented the closing arguments for the prosecution.

On November 2, after a week-long trial and 45 minutes of deliberation, the Charles Town jury found Brown guilty on all three counts. Brown was sentenced to be hanged in public on December 2. In response to the sentence, Ralph Waldo Emerson remarked that "[John Brown] will make the gallows glorious like the Cross." Cadets from the Virginia Military Institute under the leadership of General Francis H. Smith and Major Thomas J. Jackson (who would earn the nickname "Stonewall" less than two years later) were called into service as a security detail in the event Brown's supporters attempted a rescue.

During his month in jail, Brown was allowed to send and receive correspondence. One of the letters was from Mahala Doyle, wife and mother of three of Brown's Kansas victims. She wrote "Altho' vengeance is not mine, I confess that I do feel gratified to hear that you were stopped in your fiendish career at Harper's Ferry ..." In a postscript she added "My son John Doyle whose life I beg[g]ed of you is now grown up and is very desirous to be in Charlestown on the day of your execution."[50]

Brown refused to be rescued by Silas Soule, a friend from Kansas who had somehow infiltrated the Jefferson County Jail offering to break him out during the night and flee northward. Brown supposedly told Silas that, aged 59, he was too old to live a life on the run from the federal authorities and was ready to die as a martyr. Silas left him behind to be executed. More importantly, many of Brown's letters exuded high tones of spirituality and conviction and, when picked up by the northern press, won increasing numbers of supporters in the North as they simultaneously infuriated many white people in the South. On December 1, his wife arrived by train in Charles Town where she joined him at the county jail for his last meal. She was denied permission to stay for the night, prompting Brown to lose his composure for the only time through the ordeal.

Victor Hugo's reaction

Victor Hugo, from exile on Guernsey, tried to obtain pardon for John Brown: he sent an open letter that was published by the press on both sides of the Atlantic (cf. Actes et paroles). This text, written at Hauteville-House on December 2, 1859, warned of a possible civil war:

[...] Politically speaking, the murder of John Brown would be an uncorrectable sin. It would create in the Union a latent fissure that would in the long run dislocate it. Brown's agony might perhaps consolidate slavery in Virginia, but it would certainly shake the whole American democracy. You save your shame, but you kill your glory. Morally speaking, it seems a part of the human light would put itself out, that the very notion of justice and injustice would hide itself in darkness, on that day where one would see the assassination of Emancipation by Liberty itself. [...]

Let America know and ponder on this: there is something more frightening than Cain killing Abel, and that is Washington killing Spartacus.

This letter was initially published in the London News and was widely reprinted. Following Brown's execution, Hugo wrote a number of additional letters about Brown and the abolitionist cause.[51]

Abolitionists in the United States saw Hugo's writings as evidence of international support for the anti-slavery cause. The most widely publicized commentary on John Brown to reach American from Europe was an 1861 pamphlet entitled John Brown par Victor Hugo which included a brief biography and reprinted two letters written by Hugo, including that of December 9, 1859. The frontispiece of the pamphlet was an engraving of a hanged man by Hugo, which became famously associated with the execution.[52]

Death and aftermath

On the morning of December 2, 1859, Brown wrote:

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.[53]

He read his Bible and wrote a final letter to his wife, which included his will. At 11:00 a.m. he was escorted from the county jail through a crowd of 2,000 soldiers a few blocks away to a small field where the gallows were. Among the soldiers in the crowd were future Confederate general Stonewall Jackson and John Wilkes Booth (the latter borrowing a militia uniform to gain admission to the execution).[54] The poet Walt Whitman, in Year of Meteors, described viewing the execution.[55]

Brown was accompanied by the sheriff and his assistants, but no minister since he had consistently rejected the ministrations of pro-slavery clergy. Since the region was in the grips of virtual hysteria, most northerners, including journalists, were run out of town, and it is unlikely any anti-slavery clergyman would have been safe, even if one were to have sought to visit Brown. He elected to receive no religious services in the jail or at the scaffold. He was hanged at 11:15 a.m. and pronounced dead at 11:50 a.m. His body was placed in a wooden coffin with the noose still around his neck. His coffin was then put on a train to take it away from Virginia to his family homestead in New York for burial. In the North, large memorial meetings took place, church bells rang, minute guns were fired, and famous writers such as Emerson and Thoreau joined many Northerners in praising Brown.[56]

Senate investigation

On December 14, 1859, the U.S. Senate appointed a bipartisan committee to investigate the Harpers Ferry raid and to determine whether any citizens contributed arms, ammunition or money to John Brown's men. The Democrats attempted to implicate the Republicans in the raid; the Republicans tried to disassociate themselves from Brown and his acts.

The Senate committee heard testimony from 32 witnesses, including Liam Dodson, one of the surviving abolitionists. The report, authored by chairman James Murray Mason, a pro-slavery Democrat from Virginia, was published in June 1860. It found no direct evidence of a conspiracy, but implied that the raid was a result of Republican doctrines.[57] The two committee Republicans published a minority report, but were apparently more concerned about denying Northern culpability than clarifying the nature of Brown's efforts. Republicans such as Abraham Lincoln rejected any connection with the raid, calling Brown "insane".[58]

The investigation was performed in a tense environment in both houses of Congress. One senator wrote to his wife that "The members on both sides are mostly armed with deadly weapons and it is said that the friends of each are armed in the galleries." After a heated exchange of insults, a Mississippian attacked Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania with a Bowie knife in the House of Representatives. Stevens' friends prevented a fight.[59]

The Senate committee was very cautious in its questions of two of Brown's backers, Samuel Howe and George Stearns, out of fear of stoking violence. Howe and Stearns later said that the questions were asked in a manner that permitted them to give honest answers without implicating themselves.[60] Civil War historian James M. McPherson stated that "A historian reading their testimony, however, will be convinced that they told several falsehoods."[61]

Aftermath of the raid

The raid on Harpers Ferry is generally thought to have done much to set the nation on a course toward civil war.[62] Southern slaveowners, hearing initial reports that hundreds of abolitionists were involved, were relieved the effort was so small. Yet they feared other abolitionists would emulate Brown and attempt to lead slave rebellions.[63] Therefore, the South reorganized the decrepit militia system. These militias, well-established by 1861, became a ready-made Confederate army, making the South better prepared for war.[64]

Southern Democrats charged that Brown's raid was an inevitable consequence of the Republican Party's political platform, which they associated with abolitionism. In light of the upcoming elections in November 1860, the Republicans tried to distance themselves as much as possible from Brown, condemning the raid and dismissing its leader as an insane fanatic. As one historian explains, Brown was successful in polarizing politics, "Brown's raid succeeded brilliantly. It drove a wedge through the already tentative and fragile Opposition-Republican coalition and helped to intensify the sectional polarization that soon tore the Democratic party and the Union apart."[64]

Many abolitionists in the North viewed Brown as a martyr, sacrificed for the sins of the nation. Immediately after the raid, William Lloyd Garrison published a column in The Liberator, judging Brown's raid as "well-intended but sadly misguided" and "an enterprise so wild and futile as this".[65] However, he defended Brown's character from detractors in the Northern and Southern press, and argued that those who supported the principles of the American Revolution could not consistently oppose Brown's raid. On the day Brown was hanged, Garrison reiterated the point in Boston: "whenever commenced, I cannot but wish success to all slave insurrections".[66][67]

After the Civil War, Frederick Douglass wrote, "His zeal in the cause of my race was far greater than mine—it was as the burning sun to my taper light—mine was bounded by time, his stretched away to the boundless shores of eternity. I could live for the slave, but he could die for him."[68]


Many black leaders of the time--Martin Delany, Henry Highland Garnet, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman—knew and respected Brown, and black businesses across the North closed on the day of his execution.[69]

The John Brown Tannery Site, a historic archaeological site which includes the remains of Brown's tannery in Pennsylvania
An 1851 poster warning the "colored people of Boston" about policemen acting as slave catchers
William Maxon's house, near Springdale, Iowa, where John Brown's associates lived and trained, 1857–1859. Brown himself lived at the home of John Hunt Painter, which was less than a mile away.
Illustration of the interior of the Fort immediately before the door is broken down
The old Court House at Charles Town, Jefferson County, Virginia, where John Brown was tried; it stands diagonally across the street from the jail (ca. 1906)
Jail at Charles Town, Jefferson County, Virginia, where John Brown was imprisoned
John Brown on the way to be executed – two and one-half blocks from the Jefferson county jail to his scaffold

How Franklin’s Grave Became A Monument And Philadelphians Were Persuaded To Like It


A mother and her sons view stop by for a visit with Ben Franklin, circa 1890. | Source: Archives.org

Early press on the new Museum of the American Revolution suggests a business trying very hard to be popular. The museum, which opens April 19, will use all the tools of modern retail: high-tech video that puts visitors face-to-face with charging Redcoats, a judicious use of old stuff (artifacts) to balance the glitz and a new social justice-driven emphasis on women and minorities that makes it all seem fresh.

But the imperative to be popular (read: sales) has always meant that such institutions can offer only a version of the truth, not infrequently facilitated with hokum and misdirection.

One example of repackaging Colonial history to accommodate public appeal is the tomb of Benjamin Franklin, adored like a saint’s relic through a hole in the wall at Christ Church Burial Ground at 5th and Arch Streets. It is a view that has existed since 1858, when officials at Christ Church announced that they would “yield” to public demand and a direct request from the Franklin family, allowing metal bars to be substituted for a section of the wall.

The hole in the wall created a public monument that has been a hot spot on the Philadelphia tourist circuit ever since. During the Centennial of 1876, it was included in publications listing must-see sites for visitors. Today, 250,000 people who annually visit Christ Church at least walk past the site with 60,000 visitors paying to enter the burial ground. 

But who, exactly, requested the opening in the wall, and who paid for it? And why, almost 70 years after Franklin’s death, were Philadelphians suddenly so interested in his grave?

The project didn’t originate with Franklin’s family at all, and whatever public clamor did exist was ginned up by cunning design. It is a familiar Philadelphia story of influential people working behind the scenes and spending other people’s money to sell the public a version of the truth to satisfy the goals of all involved.

The Fight Over Franklin

Robert C. Winthrop, year unknown. | Source: Wikimedia Commons

The long, untold story starts in Boston, Massachusetts where, in November 1853, Robert C. Winthrop, descendant of a founder of the uptight Puritan colony that Franklin fled in 1723, publicly trashed Philadelphia for neglecting Franklin’s grave.

Why this bothered Winthrop, a former Whig congressman, is anyone’s guess. Franklin had been buried precisely as he had instructed, “by the side of my wife, if it may be, and that a marble stone, to be made by Chambers, 6 feet long, 4 feet wide, plain, with only a small moulding around the upper edge and this inscription: Benjamin and Deborah Franklin.”

But Boston had been attempting to posthumously repossess Franklin for years. Most notably, in 1827, prominent Bostonians had replaced the weathered tombstones of Franklin’s parents in the Granary Burying Ground with a tall granite obelisk labeled “FRANKLIN” in large bronze letters. The monument also included a small plaque to inform readers that it was Josiah and Abiah Franklin laying there, not their son, Ben. As the Boston Post conceded in 1840, however, the citizens who erected the monument had done so because of “their most profound veneration for the memory of the illustrious Benjamin Franklin, and desirous of reminding succeeding generations that he was born in Boston.”

Speaking to the Massachusetts Charitable Mechanic Association, the group which successfully completed the Bunker Hill Monument after a 20-year effort, Winthrop quoted an anonymous newspaper article which, given his subsequent devotion to the subject, he may very well have written himself.

“A dilapidated dark slab of stone, at the southwest (sic) corner of 5th and Arch streets, Philadelphia, marks (or did mark a few years ago) the spot where rest the remains of Benjamin and Deborah Franklin,” read Winthrop. “So well hidden is this grave, and so little frequented, that we have known many native Philadelphians…who could not direct one to the locality where it may be found.”

First published the New York Evangelist, the article was reprinted nationally. In Maine, the editor of the Bangor Daily Mercury added his own experience during an 1844 visit. Unable to enter the locked burial ground, wrote Charles Phelps Roberts, he borrowed a stool from a nearby shop “and leaning over a high wall–in violation of the law–beheld the slab under which the remains of Franklin repose.”

Winthrop compared the obscurity of Franklin’s grave to that of Greek mathematician Archimedes. A century after Archimedes’ death in 212 B.C., the Roman philosopher Cicero went looking for his tomb on the island of Syracuse. Informed that it didn’t exist, Cicero nevertheless persisted and, armed with a memory of its inscription, eventually found it lost in undergrowth. The story became a classic example of how the world undervalues knowledge.

Winthrop’s point: It took the ancient pagans 137 years to forget Archimedes, but the Christians of Philadelphia had lost track of Benjamin Franklin in only 63.

For Victorians, this was a double whammy intended to prod both a desire to honor Franklin and a more generalized inferiority complex about America’s relative lack of public monuments and sculpture, which represented high culture to Winthrop’s social class. Such people generally believed that a Christian society should put up monuments to its great men, and that those monuments would instruct citizens, particularly children, in morality and patriotism.

Without Franklin’s grave to honor, Bostonians soon leaped on a proposal for a statue. Prominent citizens–Josiah Quincy, former mayor of Boston, Edward Everett, former governor and U.S. senator, Jared Sparks, the just-retired president of Harvard, and textile manufacturer Abbott Lawrence, among others–formed a committee and Winthrop was named chair. Donations quickly raised the $18,500 cost.

Meanwhile, in Philadelphia, a similar effort turned out very differently. Soon after Winthrop’s speech, Philadelphia publisher George Rex Graham called a meeting of the city’s editors, writers, publishers, and printers to devise a plan to raise funds for a Franklin monument. But, unlike the diverse group of social leaders who came together in Boston, the Philadelphia effort was a project entirely led by its publishing community.

Portrait of George Rex Graham, editor of Graham’s Magazine, circa 1850. | Source: Wikimedia Commons

Graham was a publishing entrepreneur on his way down. Twelve years earlier, he had founded Graham’s Magazine, which became popular for sentimental poetry, fiction by famous authors like Edgar Allen Poe (who also served as editor), fashion plates, book reviews, and illustrations. Graham’s fortune was estimated at $100,000 in 1845, but he lost it and the magazine due to bad investments in copper. In late 1853, he was editing magazines for another publisher, but had just been demoted. Down on his luck, Graham needed a comeback plan. Philadelphia printers, however, would have none of it.

Franklin was the printers’ patron saint. As a 10-year-old in Boston, Franklin had been a printer’s apprentice for his domineering older brother and it was that position from which he fled to Philadelphia. In 1786, he stayed true to his roots and supported Philadelphia printers in their strike against employers attempting to cut printers’ wages. The printers won that strike–the first successful labor action in the United States–and, subsequently, drank toasts to Franklin on his 81st birthday. Franklin also participated in the 1788 founding of an organization intended to support printers with credit and insurance.

Ever since, Franklin had been the face of the printers who, thanks to advances in literacy and printing technology, were skilled, numerous, and powerful. Printers unions formed chapters in major cities and celebrated his birthday with elaborate annual dinners.

Participation of the printers was important to any effort to erect a monument to Franklin. Winthrop and the Bostonians understood this and particularly requested the help of the Franklin Typographical Society and Boston Printers Union to enlist support from printers in other cities. But, rather than offer local printers a leading role, the Philadelphia committee–laden with men who, during the day, were the printers’ bosses–simply issued a public challenge demanding their support. The pressmen do not appear to have appreciated this. In February 1854, representatives of the Philadelphia Typographical Union assigned to investigate the project returned with a prediction that the project would fall through. The union refused to participate, dismissing the effort as self seeking and disingenuous.

Graham’s proposal also received a kiss of death from Philadelphia journalist George Lippard, editor of the weekly Quaker City newspaper. Lippard was an admirer of Franklin who publicly identified with his rise from printer’s apprentice to publisher, He was also a populist and a student of the Revolution. Franklin, Adams, Washington, and their ilk had received enough attention, he believed. Better to recognize lesser-known men, especially the common soldiers, who had worked harder for independence and suffered more.

“There are many kinds of heroes in this world,” wrote Lippard, “but neither the general who is made glorious by the accident of his position, nor the statesman who makes a trade of special legislation are heroes to my way of thinking.”

Boston Lays Its Claim

Benjamin Franklin statue at City Hall in Boston. | Photo: Mark Dixon

In September 1856, the year in which Franklin would have been 150 years old, Boston’s bronze statue was unveiled in a day-long celebration for which all businesses and schools were closed, and even workers in neighboring towns took the day off.

“The streets of the old city were never before so thronged and decorated,” reported the Boston Liberator, “and her citizens were never before so unanimous and emulous in doing honor to a man.”

The parade, “the largest and, in many respects, the most interesting display of the kind ever witnessed in Boston,” according to the paper, was led by city and state officials and by delegations from other cities. There were military units, marching Free Masons, and bands.

A highlight was a pair of floats staffed by Boston printers–one demonstrating modern printing methods, the other those of Franklin’s day. On the latter, which carried a press once used by Franklin, printers in period costume turned out copies of a 1723 issue of the Boston Courant as the float rolled along. These were tossed into the crowd.

The parade was estimated at five miles in length and took two and a half hours to pass. The day ended with fireworks and was documented in detail in a 434-page volume published by the Boston City Council. Winthrop delivered a lengthy oration.

Franklin’s eight-foot statue was sculpted in bronze by Boston-born Richard Saltonstall Greenough. Placed on its base–two blocks of Quincy granite and a marble pedestal with bronze bas reliefs on each of its four sides–the monument measured nearly 20 feet tall overall. It was erected in front of Boston City Hall and faced the original site of the Boston Latin School, which Franklin once attended. The statue still stands today.

Philadelphia Mayor Richards Vaux declined an invitation to the ceremony. His message of congratulations pleaded with Boston to remember that “Philadelphia claims a share in the renown of him who was identified with American liberty, learning, and lightning.”

Leading Philadelphians were embarrassed. “(Vaux’s) sentiment was a just and honorable one, but we wish we had something more tangible to substantiate the claim,” observed the Philadelphia Bulletin. “Boston, where Franklin was born, has erected her statue to him. But Philadelphia, where he resided and with whom he is completely identified, has no public memorial of him erected by her citizens. Who will move early in an effort to take away from us this reproach?”

The call had already been heard. In January 1855, a year after the Philadelphia printers predicted the collapse of Graham’s effort, the board of managers of the Franklin Institute had authorized a small committee to initiate plans with the Franklin Institute to alter the wall along 5th and Arch Streets at Christ Church to allow passersby a view of Franklin’s grave.

It was a transitional time for the Franklin Institute. Founded in 1824, ostensibly to educate young Franklins, it soon became an advocate for the interests of the business community. Early in its history, the Institute adopted plans for an experimental workshop and laboratory, and for the investigation of new inventions.

Early on, the Franklin Institute was the nation’s de facto scientific think tank. In 1829, it conducted a series of experiments to determine the merits of various designs of water wheels. In the 1830s, its investigation of steam boiler explosions attracted a grant from the U.S. Treasury Department, the first federal grant for scientific research.

The Franklin Institute at 15 N. 7th Street in 1895. | Source: Philadelphia City Archives

By the 1840s, however, the Institute’s role in scientific research was nearly spent. Increasingly, the federal government had established its own permanent boards and bureaus to manage ongoing scientific issues. As its model of privately conducted scientific research became outmoded, the Institute’s sense of its audience changed. Rather than reaching out primarily to leaders in business and government, it was reaching out to the public at large.

In 1847, the Franklin Institute scrapped its career-oriented lectures in physics, chemistry, and technology in favor of lighter fare. There were 10 lectures on the history of the Continental Congress, five on the internal improvements of Pennsylvania, and another five on Native American artifacts. Lectures were now scheduled for evening hours to attract the after-work crowd.

“Public expressions about the institute’s lectures always held out the prospect of a budding new Franklin who might be inspired by a popular talk on science,” observed Franklin Institute historian Bruce Sinclair in his book, Philadelphia’s Philosopher Mechanics: A History of the Franklin Institute 1824–1865. “But by the 1850s, the educational program was more significant as one of the cultural opportunities of a large city.”

Given the new focus on popular programming, did the Institute’s leaders conclude that burnishing Franklin’s fame would be good publicity for his namesake organization? The meeting minutes don’t say. But if that thought had crossed their minds, they subsequently changed course, even taking elaborate measures to conceal their role. 

Nor do the minutes indicate how the Institute came to focus on Franklin’s grave as Philadelphia’s riposte to Boston’s statue. The grave did, however, offer several advantages.

First, it was the only Philadelphia site that offered a personal connection to Franklin himself. Hard as it might be to imagine in a city that now boasts a bridge, a parkway, a football field, and myriad other tokens to Franklin’s memory, Philadelphia in the 1850s offered very little. His house had been demolished in 1812, and Franklin’s various contributions–the Library Company and Pennsylvania Hospital, for instance–had been created with the help of others. The same goes for the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution.

Second, in the absence of leaders skilled in building community support for a monument, and willing to put out the effort, the grave offered the benefit of being ready-made. All that was required was knocking some bricks from the wall.

Third… well, it was a kick-ass way to say to Boston, “A statue? Nice. But we have Ben.”

The Institute’s committee included John Chapman Cresson and John Fries Frazer–both establishment Philadelphians to whom the organization turned again and again to get things done.

Cresson was superintendent and engineer of the Philadelphia Gas Works from 1836 to 1864, and, simultaneously, president of the Mine Hill and Schuylkill Haven Railroad. He was also the chief engineer responsible for laying out Fairmount Park. At the Franklin Institute, he had taught mechanics and physics for nearly 20 years and, in 1855, was the organization’s newly elected president.

Frazer, however, likely led the mission. As treasurer, he was responsible for daily operations, and the Institute’s only paid employee. Frazer had taught at Central High School and, since 1844, had been professor of natural philosophy and chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania. He belonged to the First City Troop, a privately organized cavalry regiment organized during the Revolution and has since evolved into a private club for the city’s elite.

Frazer “was a confirmed Philadelphian,” observed Sinclair, “devoted to Philadelphia’s social life and its institutions. In a city celebrated for status distinctions, family wealth and position gave Frazer an assured place.”

Philadelphia Strikes Back For Ben

Wood engraving of Benjamin Franklin’s unkept grave at Christ Church Burial Ground, date unknown. | Source: Wikimedia Commons

For the Christ Church vestry, the state of Franklin’s grave was not a top concern. Recent repairs to the church building had run over budget; the vestry had sold investments and raised pew rents to fund expenses. Things would get worse during the next few years, when the Panic of 1857 reduced church income, forcing staff to cut the music budget and raise pew rents.

Christ Church had purchased the two-acre burial ground for purely utilitarian reasons in 1719. The site had been open to the street until about 1740, when a wooden fence was added to contain grazing animals used to control overgrowth. That fence was replaced with a seven-foot brick wall in 1772.

The burial ground was a church amenity, but probably not a pleasant one. Americans in the 18th century were widely indifferent to burial places.

“In Philadelphia until the 1820s,” wrote historian David E. Stannard in his book, Death in America, “sites for graveyards were simply temporarily vacant lots to serve the needs of the day which were soon obliterated by the expanding city as if they had never existed.”

In small towns and rural areas, such neglect wasn’t a major public concern. But in rapidly growing cities, wrote Stannard, “old graveyards became so crowded that they were frequently little more than stinking quagmires–chronically offensive and occasionally serious public health hazards.”

By the mid-19th century, Christ Church Burial Ground was passé. In 1840, the remains of Hugh Mercer, an American brigadier general killed at the 1777 Battle of Princeton, had been moved and reinterred at the new and more popular Laurel Hill. Expressing regret over the removal, the vestry offered the Mercer family any place of its choosing on the immediate church ground, a more prestigious location, to no avail.

By December 1855, the Franklin Institute was free to proceed altering the wall at Christ Church, but the committee would have to pay for the project itself. Six months later, the Institute’s board of managers gave its representatives power to act but, again, no money.

Acquiring the means was relatively easy. Someone on or close to the committee simply asked a favor of someone else who had a reason to provide it. Call it bribery, if you will, but persuading Philadelphians to welcome a public monument, something then almost unknown, required a bit more effort and pull.

The favor came in the course of trying to solve Franklin Institute’s space problems. By the mid-1850s, the Institute’s 7th Street headquarters was bursting at the seams. The organization was only 30 years old, but had an expanding library and a growing collection of machine models and specimens and was forced to rent space elsewhere for exhibitions.

More urgently, the wooden roof had several times caught fire. Those fires had been put out before irreversible damage was done, but left managers with a sense that the existing structure was not safe. In 1857, Cresson and Frazer formed the core of another committee, this one assigned to draft a plan to finance a new building.

In the end, it never happened. The Franklin Institute would remain on 7th Street until 1934, when it moved to its current home on Logan Square. The plans of 70 years earlier were dashed by the financial Panic of 1857. Only a few months after beginning active planning for a new building, the Institute would cancel that year’s exhibition, raise fees and cut expenses to stay afloat.

Expansion talk sputtered on until the Civil War, however. In 1859, the managers briefly considered a scheme proposed by board member Joseph Harrison Jr., an engineer who had acquired a fortune building Russia’s first railroad.

Harrison proposed that the Institute adopt the expansion strategy of the Maryland Institute for the Promotion of the Mechanic Arts at Baltimore. Founded at about the same time as the Franklin Institute and with similar goals, the organization in 1851 had moved into a new three-story building. The Maryland Institute occupied the upper floors while the ground floor, “the largest clear floor in America,” according to Scientific American, was occupied by food vendors. In 1854, vendor rents accounted for approximately 20 percent of the organization’s revenue.

The Maryland Institute’s Great Hall could accommodate 6,000 people. In 1852, the national conventions of both the Democratic and Whig parties met there. A similar arrangement in Philadelphia might house the Franklin Institute and provide space for its exhibitions and generate revenue.

Harrison began speaking with contractor John Rice in 1858. In January 1859, he asked Cresson to appoint a committee to consider such a proposal. Rice attended a series of committee meetings to explain how his planned structure on Chestnut near 10th Street might be adapted for the Institute’s purposes.

Advertisement for Wood & Perrot’s iron railing factory at 12th Street and Ridge Avenue. The company manufactured the railing that filled in the opening of the brick wall at Franklin’s grave. | Source: Library Company of Philadelphia

Markets were a specialty for Rice, who had built others at Broad and Race, 19th and Market, 5th and Chestnut, and on 12th Street.

Born in Northern Liberties, Rice apprenticed as a carpenter, then made a name for himself building many of Philadelphia’s ubiquitous brick row homes. From that base, he expanded into public buildings. On Chestnut Street, he was responsible for the 1854 Farmers & Mechanics Bank, now part of the American Philosophical Society, the 1857 Philadelphia Bank, now offices and condominiums, and the 1865 First National Bank, now home to the Chemical Heritage Foundation.

In 1852, Rice won a contract to supply marble for the expansion of the U.S. Capitol. After the Civil War, his projects included financier Jay Cooke’s 53-room mansion “Ogontz” and Horticultural Hall, an immense confection of glass and iron intended for botanical displays at the 1876 Centennial.

As a successful builder, Rice surely understood the value of client relations. So, when he began talks with Harrison about the Chestnut Street project, offering to handle the work at Christ Church Burial Ground likely seemed an easy goodwill gesture. Cresson, like Rice, was a member of the Fairmount Park Commission and could easily have mentioned that his assistance would be well received. According to the Philadelphia Bulletin, the granite base used to dress the wall opening at Franklin’s grave was “furnished by Mr. John Rice at his own expense.” Given Rice’s connections and sources, it couldn’t have cost much.

Unfortunately for Rice, goodwill never turned into a contract. The soured economy made everyone skittish, and Harrison’s proposal for a mixed-use development didn’t appeal to Franklin Institute leaders unaccustomed to sharing space for purposes as mundane as food vending. In 1860, Harrison left town on a long European tour.

The metal railing at Franklin’s grave came from Wood & Perot, a manufacturer of decorative ironwork whose factory then occupied most of the block bounded by Ridge Avenue, 12th, Spring Garden, and Buttonwood Streets. The mid-1850s were the heyday of decorative cast iron, and Wood & Perot was a leader among the 22 manufacturers of iron fencing and railing listed in McElroy’s Philadelphia City Directory.

In 1857, the foundry became Wood & Perot when founder Robert Wood took on a partner, Elliston Perot. The son of a brewer, Perot was described in city directories as a “merchant” with a shop on Church Alley as early as 1847. If Wood was the firm’s artistic master, Perot seems to have been its marketing strategist. During the partnership, Wood & Perot opened branch stores, including one in New Orleans where an inspection of that city’s “iron lace” today would reveal much that was made in Philadelphia.

How the firm became involved at Christ Church Burial Ground is unknown. Perhaps Rice invited its participation as one of his regular suppliers. Certainly participation would have been good publicity for Wood & Perot’s thriving business in cemetery fencing.

Last to be involved in the work was English-born architect John Skirving. Never an architect of the first rank, Skirving usually assisted other architects with details of their own projects. In that context, he built a reputation as a heating and ventilation expert. In Philadelphia, he worked with John Haviland on the Franklin Institute’s 7th Street building, Thomas U. Walter on Moyamensing Prison, and William Strickland on the Merchants Exchange building.

In 1839, when a recession dried up commercial projects, Skirving moved to Washington to work on the patent and post office buildings and the U.S. Treasury. In 1846, he was contracted to install furnaces in the U.S. Capitol.

Skirving is best known for the Gothic Revival cottage he designed in 1842 for banker George W. Riggs Jr. Standing on property later absorbed by the Soldiers Home in Washington, D.C., the “Lincoln Cottage” was Abraham Lincoln’s favored retreat during the Civil War.

Skirving’s work in Washington was curtailed by an extended illness that began in 1853. He traveled widely seeking relief, then returned to Philadelphia. The burial ground wall was a small project, but would have required an architect to confirm the wall’s stability and determine how it would be finished after the bricks were removed. As an old friend of the Institute, this public favor would have been an excellent way to notify past and future clients of his renewed availability.

Cooking Up Public Opinion

Onlookers gather at Benjamin Franklin’s grave in this souvenir postcard from the late 1800. | Source: Library Company Of Philadelphia

The committee decided that the role of the Franklin Institute, and all those supporting it in the burial ground project, would remain secret. Unlike the eminent men of Boston who had unveiled Franklin’s statue there two years earlier, the leaders of Philadelphia did not enjoy a similar level of respect. Instead, the city’s leadership class would be used as a foil in a slick public relations campaign that directed credit to the “real” hero: Philadelphia’s common man, who would shortly be persuaded to demand that Franklin be rescued from the insult of being hidden by a wall.

The stunt was the work of Joseph Reed Ingersoll, later identified by the Philadelphia Bulletin as leader of a group of “public-spirited gentlemen (who) agitated a measure which they designed to result in throwing down the wall.”

Ingersoll, a lawyer with a wide-ranging practice and former congressman, came from a family with experience influencing public opinion. His father, Jared Ingersoll, had been a delegate to the Continental Congress and Constitutional Convention and to the state’s 1787 constitutional convention. His brother, Charles Jared Ingersoll, had served in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, on the state constitutional convention and for four terms in the U.S. House. Ingersoll himself had served four terms in the U.S. House in the 1830s and ‘40s, and as ambassador to Great Britain.

As an Ingersoll and a Whig, the party of the aristocracy, Ingersoll was instinctively supportive of social order and whatever he thought might foster the growth of a still-young nation. In 1842, he vigorously supported a tariff increase of almost 40 percent, arguing that it would strengthen the manufacturing sector, and indirectly benefit rural areas whose products were used by industry. (The South and West did not see it that way.)

Ingersoll was critical of abolitionists who exacerbated North-South tensions. In Congress, he opposed the Wilmot Proviso, which would have banned slavery in any territory gained in the Mexican War. In 1859, five days after the hanging of John Brown, Ingersoll chaired a public meeting to rebuke Brown’s sympathizers and reassure southerners that Philadelphia would defend their rights.

On the other hand, Ingersoll also opposed secession and, in 1861, wrote a small book, Secession Resisted, which described Confederate leaders as self-interested criminals and traitors.

Ingersoll was a dependable supporter of Philadelphia charities. Many had begun operations with remarks by Ingersoll at opening ceremonies. In the 1850s, he supported the Institute’s ill-fated School of Design for Women and chaired the building fund for the Philadelphia Academy of Music. In 1858, he was also leading yet another attempt to resurrect a moribund, 1830s effort to erect an equestrian statue of George Washington in Washington Square. Opening the wall at Christ Church Burial Ground was the sort of project Ingersoll would have joined without hesitation.

In 1857, a media buzz began that could only have been orchestrated. In February, Philadelphia-based Godey’s Lady’s Book, the most widely read periodical of its day, printed a 14-line sonnet about Franklin’s grave. Author William Alexander loved “pathetic” subjects– suffering and fallen soldiers, murdered missionaries, and great men. His sonnet to Franklin,  which began “Aneath the sod, in yonder graveyard,” combined these themes. Alexander praised, but also seemed to lament, the simplicity of Franklin’s burial slab.

How Alexander came to the subject is not known. However, Godey’s editor, Sarah Josepha Hale, was a friend to monuments. In the 1840s, she had used her magazine to raise funds for Boston’s Bunker Hill Monument. She also campaigned to preserve Mount Vernon and was a leading advocate of making Thanksgiving a national holiday.

During a warm spell in January 1858, the Philadelphia Press reported that work crews had taken advantage of the weather to prune trees in the burial ground, and that a crowd had taken advantage of the open gates to visit Franklin’s grave.

“The humble slab that marks this hallowed spot…seemed to excite surprise in the minds of many; and well it might,” wrote the editor, John Weiss Forney, a former clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives. “With how much…propriety may the American blush with self-condemnation at the thought of allowing 68 years to roll over the tomb of one of our countrymen who, even while living, wrote his epitaph on the clouds of heaven with a pen of lightning, and yet whose grave is not marked with a tributary monument?”

Stereoscopic photograph depicts the renewed (albeit manufactured) public interest in preserving Franklin’s grave, late 1800s. | Source: Wikimedia Commons

That Franklin was buried precisely as he had requested, added Forney, “forms but a feeble palliation for our neglect.” It was a theme that would be often repeated as the year progressed: Franklin was being insulted, and what would we do about it?

In February 1858, a new proposal came to the Christ Church vestry. “The family of the late Benjamin Franklin,” reported church warden Moses Kempton, had asked “permission to place an iron railing in the wall opposite his tomb.” The identity of these relatives was not stated, nor any reference made to the three years of talks between the Franklin Institute and Christ Church. The vestry, of course, had no objection.

In August, the Philadelphia Inquirer excitedly reported the discovery of a 1771 letter in which Franklin commented on the effect of manufacturing on economic growth that “the colonies that produce provisions grow very fast. But of the countries that take off those provisions, some do not increase at all.” Thus was Franklin portrayed as a proponent of protective tariffs, a founder that both Philadelphia workers and factory owners could love.

“Assuming its genuineness,” wrote an Inquirer editor, “we may remark that the frugal and independent notions of the great philosopher, his strong common sense and his practical views, all make it quite natural that he should favor the encouragement and protection of home industry.”

Also in 1858, the musical team of E.E. Hulfish and J.C. Beckel published a three-page piece of sheet music, “The Grave of Franklin,” for piano and voice. Its first stanza began, “Peaceful he lies in Death’s holy slumber, patriot and scholar whose name will ne’er die” and ended “Let youth deck the spot with fairest of roses, “which, of course, “youth” could not easily do with the grave locked behind a brick wall.

It was the heyday of parlor music. By the mid-19th century, the United States had a growing middle class with sufficient spare cash for musical instruments, in particular, pianos, with which to provide entertainment at home. This, in turn, created a steady appetite for new melodies which were sold as sheet music. Many were written locally.

In 1857, Philadelphia had 42 musical specialty stores, selling instruments, accessories, and sheet music. Patriotic and religious music was popular, but many songs were based on current events. In 1851, at the height of the “bloomers” craze of short dresses for women, Lee & Walker, Hulfish and Beckel’s publisher, produced “The New Costume Polka.” This sheet music was dedicated to Amelia Bloomer, for whom the costume’s was named and illustrated with a color lithograph of a Bloomer Girl standing in front of Lee & Walker’s Chestnut Street shop.

Hulfish and Beckel were both known for patriotic tunes. Beckel’s legacy includes Civil War compositions, including one about the Battle of Gettysburg published July 1863, the same month in which the battle ended.

Sheet music for Hulfish and Beckel’s parlor song, “The Grave of Franklin.” | Source: Archives.org

Hulfish and Beckel might have produced “The Grave of Franklin” independently. Given the confluence of events, however, it seems likely that they were solicited to do so by someone in Ingersoll’s network. As such, it represented a savvy recognition that music was a proven promotional technique. By providing a new tune for Philadelphians to sing in their parlors, they could be made receptive and sympathetic to what was about to happen at 5th and Arch Streets.

In late August 1858, the nation celebrated the successful completion of a transatlantic cable, which had transmitted its first message on August 16. There were celebrations in New York, Boston, Baltimore, and San Francisco. On September 1, Philadelphia saw a military parade, fireworks, a ringing of bells, and a party in Independence Square. There, determined speakers used the event to make a direct tie to Franklin and his kite experiments.

Ellis Lewis, chief justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, contrasted Franklin with Prometheus who, in Greek mythology, was condemned to eternal punishment for having given fire to man. “But our God, the God of the true religion, blesses every effort of his creatures to advance in knowledge and prosperity,” Lewis told the crowd. “When the American Prometheus brought the lightning from Heaven and made it subservient to the uses of man, instead of punishment he was rewarded with the blessing of God.”

William D. Kelley, a former judge, reviewed historic scientists whose work had contributed to the cable, but his conclusion was entirely parochial. Allessandro Volta, the Italian inventor of the battery, was barely born, he noted, when “Franklin drew from the clouds the electric spark…in the provincial town of Philadelphia.” E.W. Hutter, a Lutheran minister, hailed Franklin as first to answer God’s challenge, “Canst thou send lightnings, that they may go, and say unto thee, Here we are?,” quoting Job 38:35. 

The evening concluded with a torchlight parade at which, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer, it seemed that “the entire humanity of the city, old and young, rich and poor, gentle and simple, handsome and ugly, had turned out.” And if those who attended didn’t go home with warm thoughts of Franklin, it wasn’t for lack of trying by the organizers, among them Cresson and another Franklin Institute board member, Mathias Baldwin, manufacturer of locomotives.

Days later, the Christ Church vestry passed another resolution. The church would yield, it stated, to “public sentiment and a just and generous desire from every portion of the American people…to put an end to the misapprehensions that have continued to prevail with respect to the place of interment of Dr. Franklin, and at the same time to relieve the tombstone of the illustrious philosopher and patriot from the concealment which has not ceased to obscure it for nearly 70 years.” The resolution made no reference to the Franklin Institute, nor even to the authorization of the Franklin family in February. In this version of events, the “people” had won.

The story was embraced by the popular press. The vestry “have at last yielded,” trumpeted the Public Ledger. When the wall fell, observed the Philadelphia Bulletin, “not only our citizens, but the thousands of strangers who visit Philadelphia from time to time, will be able to gratify a laudable curiosity.” The New York Times praised the vestry for finally sparing visitors the trouble of searching for the grave.

Donations for the project, added the Bulletin, could be made at the Library Company of Philadelphia. The cost, however, was borne by Rice, Wood & Perot, and Skirving. The announcement seems to have been for show, to strengthen the impression that opening the burial ground wall was a response to popular demand. There is no record that the Library Company collected donations, nor do vestry or Franklin Institute minutes mention a request for them.

A mother and her sons view stop by for a visit with Ben Franklin, circa 1890. | Source: Historical Images of Philadelphia collection, Free Library of Philadelphia

But why all the subterfuge? Five terms in Congress had made Ingersoll cautious. A member of the old aristocracy and a Whig, he had experienced first hand the waning influence of both. The tariff the Whigs and he had fought for in 1842 had been repealed in 1846, and the Mexican War they opposed proceeded nevertheless.

As a party, Whigs supported banks, business, economic growth, and an activist government that would support education, scientific progress, and humanitarian reform. But Democrats dismissed the Whigs as a rich man’s party whose projects would benefit only a few, and the Democrats were ascendant.

Ingersoll had served one House term in the 1830s, then declined to run again. But after his replacement resigned and the Whigs begged, Ingersoll agreed to go back. He served four more terms but, by 1848, had had enough and again retired.

Perhaps Sidney George Fisher, husband of Ingersoll’s niece, with whom the widowed congressman was close, expressed his thoughts. “It has ceased to be an honor to be sent to Congress,” wrote Fisher when Ingersoll bowed out in 1841. “The body itself has become so low and coarse that a man of education and refinement finds himself out of place in it.”

If Ingersoll disliked the trend in politics, he could only have been wary of what happened in the streets. Philadelphia’s working class was famous for violent attacks on those it perceived as threats, namely recent immigrants, African Americans, and even those of the higher income brackets who took the wrong side. In 1844, an anti-Catholic riot had destroyed two Catholic churches, including St. Augustine at 4th & Race Streets, a block north of Christ Church Burial Ground. One block to the west, a pro-slavery mob had burned Pennsylvania Hall, an abolitionist meeting place, three days after it opened in 1838.

In that context, perhaps it just seemed safer to have the public think that this collective act of patriotism was their idea. If Franklin’s grave became identified with some organization or group, who knew what event might rouse another mob of ruffians, any one of whom might reach through the new railing at 5th and Arch and slam a rock on Franklin’s marble slab?

On September 21, 1858 the Inquirer reported that workmen had begun the business of demolishing the wall. Four days later, the Bulletin published a woodcut of the finished opening. Not everyone liked what had been done. At an October meeting of the Philadelphia Common Council, member George F. Gordon, discussing a belated proposal to contribute city funds to the project, offered his vision of an appropriate monument: white, polished marble with an ornate sarcophagus containing Franklin’s remains, topped by a life-sized statue.

“But such a plan and such thoughts,” he raged sarcastically, “sink into utter night before the blazing splendor and architectural beauty of the hole in the wall!”

Despite such criticism, Franklin’s grave has remained popular and profitable feature of the region’s 1776 tourism industry, thanks to a crafty marketing ploy and manipulating public perception. Whether Philadelphia’s new Museum of the American Revolution will fare as well remains to be seen.

About the author

Mark E. Dixon is a former newspaper reporter, trade magazine editor and public relations professional. A freelance writer since 2000, he writes Main Line Today magazine’s monthly Retrospect column, which focuses on the history of the western suburbs. His interest in the grave of Benjamin Franklin stems from a decade-ago visit to the site with a daughter, when he observed that a viewing window for 18th century graveyard, created in an era in which cemeteries were not thought beautiful, just looked odd.

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