See “John Brown in Massachusetts,” in The Atlantic Monthly for April, 1872.
At the beginning of the year 1858, nobody in Massachusetts, except here and there a fugitive slave perhaps, had heard of John Brown’s plan for the invasion of Virginia though he had made much progress toward its execution. He had enlisted men and engaged the English Garibaldian, Hugh Forbes, to drill them; but this engagement was quite unknown to Brown’s Massachusetts friends, who had never seen Forbes, and only heard of him casually and incidentally. They had never been consulted by Brown in regard to paying Forbes, nor, of course, had Brown given Forbes any assurances that they would pay him the salary stipulated, between Forbes and Brown; of which in fact, they knew nothing whatever. It was therefore with much surprise and mystification that, about Christmas-time, 1857, Dr. S. G. Howe and Mr. Sanborn began to receive passionate and denunciatory letters, written by Forbes, complaining of ill-treatment at their hands, and assuming to hold them responsible for the termination of his engagement with Brown, by which, he said, he had been reduced to poverty, and his family in Paris, deprived of pecuniary aid from him, had suffered great hardship. Two of these letters were addressed to Senator Sumner, and were forwarded by him to Dr. Howe and Mr. Sanborn, who in great ignorance as to what such abusive epistles meant, answered them with some curtness and severity. This correspondence temporarily closed in January, 1858, and the substance of it was communicated to Brown, then in Kansas, with the request that he would explain the meaning of Forbes’s anger, and state what their real relations with each other were. Before replying to this request, which probably was not received till weeks afterward, Brown suddenly left Kansas without the knowledge of his friends there, and appeared, in the beginning of February, 1858, at the house of Frederick Douglass in Rochester, New York. From there he wrote, February 2, to Theodore Parker, George L. Stearns, F. B. Sanborn, and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, asking them to aid him in raising a small sum of money to carry out “an important measure in which the world has a deep interest.” This, he tells Mr. Parker, is his only errand at the East, and he goes on: “I have written some of our mutual friends in regard to it, but none of them understand my views so well as you do, and I cannot explain without their committing themselves more than I know of their doing. I have heard that Parker Pillsbury, and some others, in your quarter, hold out ideas similar to those on which I act, but I have no personal acquaintance with them, and know nothing of their influence or means. Do you think any of our Garrisonian friends, either at Boston, Worcester, or in any other place, can be induced to supply a little ‘straw,’ if I will absolutely make ‘bricks’? I must beg of you to consider this communication strictly confidential, unless you know of parties who will feel and act and hold their peace.”
Brown’s letters of the same date and for a few weeks after, to Colonel Higginson and Mr. Sanborn, were of a similar tenor, though rather more explicit, but they conveyed no distinct intimation of his plans. He wrote to Higginson, February 2, from Rochester: “I am here, concealing my whereabouts for good reasons (as I think), not, however, from any anxiety about my personal safety. I have been told that you are both a true man and a true abolitionist, and I partly believe the whole story. Last fall I undertook to raise from five hundred to one thousand dollars for secret service, and succeeded in getting five hundred dollars. I now want to get, for the perfecting of by far the most important undertaking of my whole life, from five hundred to eight hundred dollars within the next sixty days. I have written Rev. Theodore Parker, George L. Stearns, and F. B. Sanborn, Esquires, on the subject, but do not know as either Mr. Stearns or Mr. Sanborn are abolitionists. I suppose they are.” On the 12th of February he wrote again in response to a remark in Higginson’s reply about the Underground Railroad in Kansas: “Railroad business on a somewhat extended scale is the identical object for which I am trying to get means. I have been connected with that business, as commonly conducted, from my boyhood, and never let an opportunity slip. I have been operating to some purpose the past season, but I now have a measure on foot that I feel sure would awaken in you something more than a common interest, if you could understand it. I have just written my friends G. L. Stearns and F. B. Sanborn, asking them to meet me for consultation at ——. I am very anxious to have you come along, certain as I feel that you will never regret having been one of the council.” It was inconvenient for any of the persons addressed to take the long journey proposed, and on the 13th Mr. Sanborn wrote for himself and Mr. Stearns, inviting Brown to visit Boston, and offering to pay his travelling expenses. To this request Brown replied, February 17th: “It would be almost impossible for me to pass through Albany, Springfield, or any of those parts, on my way to Boston, and not have it known; and my reasons for keeping quiet are such that, when I left Kansas, I kept it from every friend there; and I suppose it is still understood that I am hiding somewhere in the Territory; and such will be the idea until it comes to be generally known that I am in these parts. I want to continue that impression as long as I can, or for the present. I want very much to see Mr. Stearns, and also Mr. Parker, and it may be that I can before long; but I must decline accepting your kind offer at present, and, sorry as I am to do so, ask you both to meet me by the middle of next week at the furthest. I wrote Mr. Higginson of Worcester to meet me also. It may be he would come on with you. My reasons for keeping still are sufficient to keep me from seeing my wife and children, much as I long to do so. I will endeavor to explain when I see you.” This letter was written from Rochester.