Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Last Days of John Brown: A Speedy Trial

Following the capture of John Brown and his associates at Harpers Ferry they were first held in the armory’s guardhouse. The next day, October 19th, 1859, they were taken to the County Jail in Charles Town, about eight miles away. On October 25th (after being questioned by Virginia Governor Henry A. Wise, Virginia Senator James M. Mason, and Representative Clement Vallandigham of Ohio) John Brown was led into court for arraignment. He was manacled to Edwin Coppoc and escorted by some 80 militiamen with bayonets fixed. Brown was still suffering from his wounds and needed to be supported at the bench.

By direction of Governor Wise, and despite the fact that he had launched the attack against a federal armory, Brown and his compatriots were to be prosecuted in Virgina. The presiding judge arraigned him on three counts: conspiracy to incite a slave insurrection, treason against the State of Virginia, and first degree murder. When asked how he would plead to the charges, Brown was defiant. Essentially, he argued that he would get no justice in a Virginia court, so they might as well go ahead and execute him without delay.

“I should have a fair trial; but, under no circumstances what­ever, will I be able to have a fair trial,” he said in part, “If you seek my blood, you can have it at any moment, without this mockery of a trial. I have had no counsel. I have not been able to advise with anyone… if we are to be forced with a mere form-a trial for execution-you might spare yourselves that trouble… I have now little further to ask, other than that I may not be foolishly insulted, only as cow­ardly barbarians insult those who fall into their power.”

Two Virgina attorneys were assigned to represent Brown and his trail date was set for the next day. That morning the prisoners were returned to the courthouse, now ringed by cannon and armed guards, for indictment by a Grand Jury. “The badly wounded Aaron Stevens was placed on a mattress before the bench,” historian David Reynolds writes describing the scene, “John Brown lay on a cot near him, with Coppoc, Copeland, and Shields Green standing behind. Brown and Stevens were forced to stand when the true bill was read, repeating the charges of treason, murder and inciting insurrection.” Brown was set to be tried first and so the others returned to the jail.

Now alone in front of the judge, Brown asked for a short time to prepare for his trial considering his wounds, a request that was summarily rejected. Brown plead not guilty to the charges and spent most of the trial (except when he directly addressed the court) on a cot in the courtroom.

Hundreds of people crowded into the courtroom, often shouting curses at Brown. The prosecutor, Charles B. Harding fell asleep at his table and got into a fistfight the first night of the trial with a man he called a “blind nigger.” After being obviously drunk on the second day he was dismissed and replaced by the more capable Andrew Hunter. Brown’s Virginian attorneys claimed he was insane, but Brown refused this argument saying he regarded it as “a miserable artifice and pretext of those who ought to take a different course in regard to me.” When a Boston attorney arrived to join the defense team on the night of October 27th, he turned out to be a abolitionist sent to see if Brown could be rescued. The next day Brown’s Virginia attorney withdrew from the case and on October 29th Washington D.C. lawyer Samuel Chilton, and Hiram Griswold, from Cleveland, Ohio took over.

It was Griswold that presented the futile closing arguments. Brown could not be tried for treason because he hadn’t attacked Virginia but the federal government, Griswold argued, and besides he was not a citizen of Virgina therefore had no allegiance whatsoever to the slave state. The fact that no slaves joined the raid (not exactly, as we have learned, the truth) proved that he was not interested in inciting a slave insurrection but only in freeing slaves. And finally, those killed in battle could not have been murdered, and beside John Brown had actually killed no one himself.

The trail lasted a week, the deliberations just 45 minutes. The court reconvened on November 2, 1859, 150 years ago this week, and Judge Andrew Parker asked Brown if there was any reason he should not be sentenced.

His short statement has been the subject of much admiration since; here are the basics:

I deny everything but what I have all along admitted — the design on my part to free the slaves. I intended certainly to have made a clean thing of that matter, as I did last winter when I went into Missouri and there took slaves without the snapping of a gun on either side, moved them through the country, and finally left them in Canada. I designed to have done the same thing again on a larger scale. That was all I intended. I never did intend murder, or treason, or the destruction of property, or to excite or incite slaves to rebellion, or to make insurrection…

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!

Brown was sentenced to be hanged in public on December 2nd.

During that November’s local and state elections Republicans, the villainous “Black Republicans” who had sent Brown to Virginia according to slave-holding southerners, were vilified for their connection to Harpers Ferry by their opponents – Northern Democrats.

This has been the tenth in a series of posts celebrating the life of John Brown on the 150th Anniversary of the raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia, his execution, and the return of his body to North Elba. You can read the rest of the series here.

Related Stories

John Warren

John Warren has been exploring the woods and waters of the Adirondacks for almost 50 years. After a career as a print journalist and documentary television producer he founded Adirondack Almanack in 2005 and co-founded the geolocation services company Adirondack Atlas in 2015.

John remains active in traditional media. His Adirondack Outdoors Conditions Report can be heard Friday mornings across the region on the stations of North Country Public Radio and on 93.3 / 102.1 The Mix. Since 2008, John has been a media specialist on the staff of the New York State Writers Institute.

John is also a professional researcher and historian with a M.A. in Public History. He edits The New York History Blog and is the author of two books of regional history. As a Grant Consultant for the William G. Pomeroy Foundation, he has reviewed hundreds of historic roadside marker grant applications from around New York State for historical accuracy.

2 Responses

Support the Adirondack Almanack and the Adirondack Explorer all year long with a monthly gift that fits your budget.

Support the Adirondack Almanack and the Adirondack Explorer all year long with a monthly gift that fits your budget.