John Brown's Body

On the morning of December 2, 1859, radical abolitionist John 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.”

Brown was on his way to the gallows that same same day. 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, who borrowed a militia uniform to gain admission to the execution.

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 and preachers, were run out of town. He elected to receive no religious services in the jail or at the scaffold. He was hanged at 11:15 am and pronounced dead at 11:50 am. His body was placed in a wooden coffin with the noose still around his neck.

According to legends, Brown’s body was removed from the gallows and those present were said to be horrified by his eyes. They were said to shine brightly as though he was still alive. The doctor who was present examined him three times before certifying that he was truly dead. As his eyes continued to glow, candle wax was poured over them to hide their mad gleam. Brown’s ghost is still said to walk Harper’s Ferry today.

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 — a madman who believed that the only way to fight slavery was to arm the slaves of the south and set them to slaughtering their masters.

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