John Brown and His Friends

How a coterie of New Englanders—including the author—secretly funded John Brown's raid

Forbes's letters, as before, were addressed to Howe and Sanborn, neither of whom had yet seen him, but who both knew now, from Brown, what the relation had been between Forbes and himself. In these letters of April and May Forbes insisted that Brown's enterprise should stop, that Brown himself should be dismissed as the leader of the movement, and Forbes be put in his place; and these demands were accompanied by a threat of making public the whole transaction, so far as it had gone. To increase the difficulties of the situation, Forbes had evidently learned, from some quarter, of the countenance given to Brown, since the 1st of March, by his Boston committee. On the 2d of May these letters were submitted to this committee, Howe, Parker, Sanborn, and Stearns being present, and Higginson being informed of them by mail. Parker, Sanborn, and Stearns at once said that the blow must be deferred till another year, and in this opinion Howe partially coincided. Higginson thought otherwise, and so did Brown, who declared that he would go forward, in spite of Forbes and his threats, if the money promised him should be furnished. Here, however, another difficulty sprang up. Forbes, early in May, carried out his threat so far as to inform, Senators Hale, Seward, and Wilson and Dr. Bailey, in general terms, of Brown's purposes, and Wilson wrote to Dr. Howe, earnestly protesting against any such demonstration. As the rifles which had been purchased by the Massachusetts Kansas Committee and intrusted to Brown by them were still, so far as Senator Wilson and the public knew, the property of that committee (though really, as has been explained, the personal property of Mr. Stearns, the chairman), it would expose the Kansas Committee, who were ignorant of Brown's later plans, to suspicions of bad faith, if those arms were used by him in any expedition to Virginia. This awkward complication seems to have decided Dr. Howe in favor of postponing the attack, and both he and Mr. Stearns, as members of the Kansas Committee, wrote to Brown that the arms must not be used for the present, except for the defence of Kansas.(6) Brown saw that nothing further could then be done, and yielded, though with regret, to the postponement. About the 20th of May Mr. Stearns met Brown in New York, and arranged that hereafter the custody of the Kansas rifles should be Brown's, as the agent of Stearns, the real owner, and not of the nominal owners, the Kansas Committee. On the 24th of May a meeting of the Boston secret committee, with one of the principal friends of Brown's plan outside of New England, took place at the Revere House in Boston, -- Parker, Howe, Sanborn, and Stearns being present, as before; and it was agreed that the execution of the plan should be postponed till the spring of 1859. In the mean time a larger sum of money -- from two to three thousand dollars -- was to be raised, and Brown was to throw Forbes off his track by returning to Kansas and engaging in the defence of the Free-State men on the border; the alleged property of the Kansas Committee was to be so transferred as to relieve that committee of all responsibility, and the secret committee were, in future, to know nothing in detail of Brown's plans. Brown was not himself present at this Revere House meeting, but came to Boston the next week, and was at the American House May 31st. Here he met all the committee, Higginson included; and, in the two or three days that he stayed, the Revere House arrangement was completed. He received the sole custody of the arms which had belonged to the Kansas Committee, and five hundred dollars beside; was to go to Kansas at once, but after that to use his own discretion; and, though still believing the postponement unwise, he left New England in good spirits the first week in June. He reached Kansas June 26th, with about ten men, and in a week or two after was on the border, near the scene of the Marais des Cygnes murders of May 11th. Remaining in that vicinity, guarding the Free-State settlers for about two months, most of that time he was himself ill with ague. On the 10th of September he was at Osawatomie, whence he wrote, "I have often met the 'notorious' Montgomery,(7) and think very favorably of him." He was associated with Montgomery in the border warfare of the autumn and winter of 1858, and finally just before Christmas, made his famous incursion into Missouri, and brought away a party of slaves, with whom he travelled in January and February, 1859, from the border of Southern Kansas, through Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, and Michigan, to Detroit, where he arrived March 12th, and landed his fugitives safely in Canada. In the latter part of March, 1859, he was at Cleveland, where he sold publicly the horses he had brought from Missouri. In April he visited his family at North Elba, and in the early part of May was in Boston, where he remained for more than three weeks, visiting his friends in the city and its vicinity, and making final arrangements for his Virginia expedition. Before leaving Boston for the last time, Wednesday, June 1, 1859, the sum of $2,000, which had been promised him at the Revere House meeting a year before, was made up and placed to his credit. More than half this sum -- $1,200 -- was the gift of George L. Stearns, who must have furnished the old hero, first and last, at least $10,000 in money and arms. Of the other $800, half was raised in Massachusetts, by private subscription or at public meetings, of which he held several during this visit. He spoke in the Town Hall at Concord (where he spent a portion of his last birthday (8)) on Sunday evening, May 8th, to a large audience, hastily gathered; for he had arrived in town unexpectedly the night before, from North Elba. The fame of his last exploit in Kansas had preceded him everywhere, and there was much eagerness to hear what he would say about it. He described briefly his expedition into Missouri, and the way in which he had brought off the party of slaves; but when he went on to assert that it was right to repeat such incursions, and to take property, or even life, in forcibly setting slaves free, his audience winced under it. They applauded his successful deed, but were not ready to encourage its repetition. Some agreed with him, however, and a small contribution was raised at the meeting. He left Concord at noon the next day, -- his birthday, -- and never returned thither.

John Brown also spoke at one of the Boston Anniversary meetings in Tremont Temple, the last week in this same May, and was present on Saturday, May 28th, at the weekly dinner of the "Bird Club," which then met at the Parker House. The late Governor Andrew was a member of this club, as were Dr. Howe and Mr. Sanborn, and Mr. Stearns joined it on this particular day, having gone there to meet or escort his friend Brown. Governor Andrew was not present at this meeting of the club, but it was probably on the following Sunday evening that he met Brown for the first and last time, at a friend's house. In his testimony before Senator Mason's committee, in February, 1860, Mr. Andrew made this statement respecting his own contribution to Brown's fund: (9) --

"After having met Captain Brown one Sunday evening at a lady's house, where I made a social call with my wife, I sent him twenty-five dollars as a present. I did it because I felt ashamed, after I had seen the old man and talked with him, and come within the reach of the personal impression which I find he very generally made on people, that I had never contributed anything direct towards his assistance, as one who I thought had sacrificed and suffered so much for the cause of freedom and of good order and good government in the Territory of Kansas. He was, if I may be allowed to use that expression, a very magnetic person, and I felt very much impressed by him. I confess I did not know how to understand the old gentleman fully, because when I hear a man talk upon great themes, touching, which I think he must have deep feeling, in a tone perfectly level, without emphasis and without any exhibition of feeling, I am always ready to suspect that there is something wrong in the man's brain. I noticed that the old gentleman, in conversation, scarcely regarded other people, was entirely self-poised, self-possessed, sufficient to himself, and appeared to have no emotion of any sort, but to be entirely absorbed in an idea which preoccupied him and seemed to put him in a position transcending an ordinary emotion and ordinary reason. In parting with him, as I heard he was a poor man, I expressed my gratitude to him for having fought for a great cause with earnestness, fidelity, and conscientiousness, while I had been quietly at home, earning my money and supporting my family in Boston, under my own vine and fig-tree, with nobody to molest or make me afraid.... I am constitutionally peaceable, and by opinion very much of a peace man, and I have very little faith in deeds of violence, and very little sympathy with them, except as the extremest and direst necessity. My sympathy, so, far as I sympathized with Captain Brown, was on account of what I believed to be heroic and disinterested services in defence of a good and just cause, and in support of the rights of persons who were treated with unjust aggression."

This is a statement truly characteristic, not only of Governor Andrew, but of Brown as he was viewed by many people in Massachusetts; and such small sums as were given him in 1858 and 1859, by persons not acquainted with his plans, were mostly given under such impressions as are here so generously described. The whole amount of these contributions, however, did not exceed five hundred dollars in Massachusetts, and probably were less than half that sum. Out of a little more than four thousand dollars in money which passed through the hands of the secret committee, in aid of his Virginia enterprise, or was known to them as contributed, at least thirty-eight hundred dollars were given with a clear knowledge of the use to which it would be put. The gifts of arms made by Mr. Stearns amounted in value to twice as much perhaps, and these also were contributed with a full undstanding that they might be used as they were. (10)

Brown's hotel, during his last visit to Boston, was the United States House. He was attended, generally, in his movements about the city and its neighborhood, by a faithful henchman, Jerry Anderson, a youth from Indiana who was shot at Harper's Ferry. Both were in rustic dress, but Brown, from his marked aspect and his flowing gray beard (which he first began to wear in Kansas in the summer of 1858), attracted much attention in the streets. He has been described by Judge Hoar (who had seen him in Concord, and perhaps had contributed to his fund from the same motives as Governor Andrew), in one of these street rambles, as calmly walking up Court Street in the midst of the hurrying throng, with his jack-knife in one hand and an apple in the other, which he was peeling and eating, quite unconscious of observation, while his young henchman, less accustomed to cities, walked a little behind him, gazing up at the signs and windows. Another remembers him plodding his way to the Providence Railroad Station, burdened with a heavy carpet-bag, and still escorted by his body-guard. At this time he always went heavily armed, being proclaimed an outlaw by President Buchanan, who offered three thousand dollars for his arrest, and by the governor of Missouri, who offered two hundred and fifty dollars more. When this fact was mentioned to Brown, he sometimes said, in his dry way, that he would pay two dollars and fifty cents to anybody who would safely lodge James Buchanan in any jail in the free States. He moved about in Massachusetts entirely without fear or precaution, except his pistols and his henchman, and at this time always went by his own name. It is believed that no effort to arrest him was made outside of Kansas.

In course of his stay in Boston he spent an evening at the house of a gentleman where William Hunt, the painter, was also a guest, and an appointment was made with Brown that he should give Hunt a sitting for his portrait. It is unfortunate that this sitting never took place, for his portrait by Hunt would now be the best representation of him in his last year. Brackett the sculptor, whose fine bust of him has already been mentioned, also met him at this time; but the studies and measurements for his bust were made in a brief visit to Brown in his cell at Charlestown in the following November. Brown sat for his photograph to a Boston artist named Heywood, and it is from this picture, a half-length standing figure, with the hands behind the back, and the face turned a little aside from a front view, that all the common portraits of him are taken. It was used by Brackett in modelling his bust, in which, however, the features are somewhat idealized. The suit in which this picture was taken is the same that he wore in Boston two years before, and he was wearing a portion of it when captured at Harper's Ferry. The attitude chosen was a common one with him, and some of our readers may remember him pacing a ball, a prairie, or a hotel corridor with his hands thus clasped behind him.

Leaving Boston on the first day of June, 1859, Brown went to Collinsville in Connecticut, where he arrived June 3d, and renewed his old contract for a thousand pikes, which were made by Charles Blair of that town, and forwarded in August and September, to Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, whence they were taken to the neighborhood of Harper's Ferry. In the interval between June and September Brown had moved his men and arms from Canada and Ohio to Chambersburg, and thence to the Kennedy Farm, on the Maryland side of the Potomac, about five miles from Harper's Ferry. This farm was rented by Brown early in July, and its two farm-houses were occupied by him and his men for the three months preceding his attack, October 16th. During this time Brown was frequently absent, often in Chambersburg, to which place all his letters were sent. About a month after he took possession of the Kennedy Farm his supply of money gave out, and he wrote earnestly to his Boston committee for three hundred dollars, with which he could begin his campaign. He made no further communication of his plans, nor was it known to any of his Massachusetts friends exactly where he was or what he was doing. The money asked for was raised by Howe, Stearns, Sanborn, and Higginson, and sent to Chambersburg in small drafts, as requested, the last of it reaching Brown about the 20th of September. In the mean time he had been visited at Chambersburg by Frederick DougIass, who was previously acquainted with the general plan of action, but does not seem to have been wholly satisfied with what Brown communicated to him at their last interview. The time for striking the blow was still delayed, more from want of money than for any other reason; and it might have been postponed till the spring of 1860, perhaps, but for another remittance from Massachusetts under circumstances so singular as to be regarded by Brown's friends as providential.

There was then in Boston a young man, who afterwards died as a soldier in the Union Army, a grandson of Francis Jackson, the famous antislavery leader. He was named for his grandfather, Francis Jackson Merriam. His father was dead, and he had inherited a small property, which he was eager to devote to some practical enterprise for freeing the slaves. He was at this time twenty-two years old, enthusiastic and resolute, but with little judgment, and in feeble health; altogether, one would say, a very unfit person to take part actively in Brown's enterprise. He had heard something of this from James Redpath, with whom he had travelled in Hayti, and was fully determined to join Brown's party. Early in October, having learned in some way that Brown was to be seen at Chambersburg, young Merriam called upon Sanborn, who had never seen him before, though acquainted with his family, and declared his purpose of visiting Brown, offering himself and his little fortune for his cause. Sanborn tried in vain to dissuade him from going, and suggested that he should first invest a portion of his money, and be guided by circumstances as to the future. This good advice Merriam declined, and insisted that he should start at once to find Brown, which he did, leaving Boston on the 7th of October. By Sanborn's advice, he called to see Colonel Higginson at Worcester, on his way, and was still more unfavorably received by that gentleman, who strongly opposed his wild scheme. He went on, however, met Brown at Chambersburg about a week before the attack was made, gave him six hundred dollars in gold, and joined the little band at Kennedy's. His money reached Brown but a day or two before the attack, and was probably nearly all that the military chest of the invaders of Virginia contained when they crossed the Potomac on Sunday evening October 16, 1859, to capture the town of Harper's Ferry. Merriam himself was not in the attacking party, but remained to guard the arms, with Cook, Tidd, Owen Brown, Barclay Coppoc, and O. P. Anderson, at the school-house on the Maryland side. He escaped with his companions, all of whom, except Cook, got safely away.

Merriam, after many adventures, reached Canada safely; but the scenes he had witnessed, and the fate of his leader and comrades, unsettled his mind completely. He planned another raid into the slave States, and at the risk of his life, if captured, he returned to Boston early in December to urge Brown's friends there to aid him in the mad enterprise. It so happened that he reached Boston at the very time of Brown's execution. He took refuge with his physician, Dr. David Thayer, and sent for his uncle, James Jackson, Mr. Wendell Phillips, and Mr. Sanborn to call and see him. They found him full of his new scheme, and very unwilling to obey their earnest injunctions to return at once to Canada. He finally consented to do so, and went to the Fitchburg Railroad station to take the night express train for Montreal. But, in his distracted state of mind, he took the wrong train and was left at Concord early in the evening, where he must pass the night. He had presence of mind enough to go to Sanborn's house, where he was sheltered and provided for; but his host, out of regard for the young man's safety, refused to see him, or to recognize him by any name but that of Lockwood, which he had assumed. He passed the night in Concord, and early in the morning was driven in a friend's carriage by Henry Thoreau to the neighboring railroad station of South Acton, where he took the first train for Montreal, and safely arrived there. Mr. Thoreau only knew his companion as " Lockwood," and, though suspecting him to be one of the Harper's Ferry fugitives, was cautious not to inquire his true name of any person, until shortly before his own death in 1862, when the story was told him.

It is unnecessary to speak here of the events at Harper's Ferry, or the subsequent history of the affair. Our purpose has been simply to put on record a few facts which have come to our knowledge concerning the origin and progress of the plan of attack there made, and the relation which a few persons, living or dead, bore to John Brown and his great enterprise. We have shown it to be exclusively his own, carried out by him with the help of a few men and women whom his strong purpose and magnetic personality attracted to his assistance. It is not known that any of these friends regret or blush for the aid they were able to render to a hero as undaunted, as patient, and as completely under Divine guidance as any whom history or romance describes. Those who are dead did not; those who are still living need not. But if an imagined regard for the reputation of the living or the dead should tempt kinsmen or friends to forget or disown the share of any man in this mysterious affair, let them remember what Sir Kenelon Digby says of his father's connection with the Gunpowder plot of Guy Fawkes. "All men know," pleads the fair Stelliana, in Sir Kenelon's Private Memoirs, "that it was no malitious intent or ambitious desires that brought Sir Everard Digby into that conspiracy, but his too inviolable faith to his friend that had trusted him with so dangerous a secret, and his zeal to his country's ancient liberties."

*&nbsp *&nbsp *&nbsp *&nbsp *


(1) See "John Brown in Massachusetts," in The Atlantic Monthly for April, 1872.

(2) Weiss's Life of Theodore Parker, Vol. II. pp. 163,164.

(3) Morton and Sanborn had been classmates at Harvard College, where they graduated in 1855, and have ever since been intimate friends and correspondents. Much of the subsequent correspondence with Brown and his friends passed through their hands, and it is probable they may have the key to anything that is still unexplained in the movements of Captain Brown, during the twenty months that followed the February conference about to be described. Both were young men, Sanborn being twenty-six and Morton a year younger; and both had been abolitionists from boyhood. Both also were of unmixed New England descent, as John Brown was; Morton being descended from a kinsman of Nathaniel Morton, the first secretary of Plymouth Colony, and his friend from the founder and first minister of the old New Hampshire plantation of Hampton. The other Massachusetts members of Brown's secret committee, Parker, Higginson, Stearns, and Howe were of the same Puritan ancestry; and it may be worth, mentioning that while Higginson's earliest American ancestor was the first minister of Salem, Sanborn's ancestor, Rev. Stephen Bachiler, was the first minister of Lynn, and probably had among his parishioners there, in 1635-36, Thomas Parker, the first American ancestor of Theodore Parker.

(4) The original of this letter is now in the possession of Mrs. Mary E. Stearns of Medford, the wife of George L. Stearns, who, not less than her lamented husband, was a generous and true friend of Brown. To her we are indebted for Brackett's noble bust of Brown, which stands in her house.

(5) Vol. II p. 164. The "address you saw last season," mentioned in this letter, is the same spoken of in the letter of September 11, 1857, on page 162.

(6) The letters on this subject are printed in Senator Mason's Report (36th Cong. Senate Rep. Com No. 278), pp. 176, 177.

(7) This was James Montgomery of Kansas, a brave partisan, afterwards colonel of a colored regiment in South Carolina. He has lately died in Kansas.

(8) Brown was born May 9, 1800, and was in his sixtieth year at his death.

(9) Senate Rep. Com., No. 278, 36th Congress, page 192.

(10) The biographer of George Stearns, when his Life shall be written, should not omit the list of his contributions to Brown and his cause.

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