Saturday, March 26, 2016

Mary Ann Day Brown, Widow of John Brown

john brownLast weekend, the Saratoga Historical Society in California celebrated the 200th birthday of Mary Ann Day Brown, wife of radical abolitionist John Brown. The milestone was observed a few weeks prior to her actual birthday (April 15) to coincide with the Blossom Festival…. but, wait. Doesn’t John Brown’s body lie a moldering in his grave in New York State? Yes, it does, in the Adirondacks near Lake Placid. The grave of his second wife Mary however, is at the other end of the country, in Saratoga, California’s Madronia Cemetery.

It is all rather ironic since the life of Mary Ann Day started 200 years ago on April 15, 1816, in Granville in Washington County. Mary was a quite ordinary woman of the 1800s: quiet, modest, godly, and usually poor. Scores of thousands such lives pass unnoticed; history tends to remember women of wealth, beauty or offbeat wackiness if it recalls their existence at all.

funeral sketchIn this case, the notoriety of her husband John Brown triggered her celebrity — attention unsought and unwelcomed by Mary. In October 1859, the simple, frugal household of the Brown family in North Elba, became headline news after John and his little army of men raided Harper’s Ferry. When the shooting ended, two of Mary’s sons were dead and John had been wounded and captured. A Virginia court found him guilty of murder, treason, and inciting a slave revolt; he was hanged on December 2, 1859.

It is Mary who deserves accolades for bringing the remains of John Brown to rest at the farm in the Adirondacks. First, she had to wrestle the body away from Virginia, who planned to turn John’s corpse over to surgeons, to use as they desired. The Richmond Examiner suggested that John Brown should be “chopped into small pieces, in the Chinese manner, and distributed in terrorem all over the land.”

Mary BrownWith the help of abolitionists, Mary wrote a letter to Virginia Governor Henry Wise asking, on behalf of herself and her children, for the “mortal remains” of John after his hanging. She requested that his body be delivered to her “for decent and tender interment” among his kindred. Wise sympathized with Mary’s situation and agreed to deliver the body to her.

“Let them have it,” stated a Virginia newspaper. They did not want the soil of Virginia defiled by filth such as Brown’s body. “Horse manure and guano would reject association with it; grass would refuse to sprout; …and that scavenger of our country, the noble buzzard, would be driven from our state by the pestiferous stench of the carcass.”

After John’s hanging, Mary took his remains from Virginia and headed north. Then, she had to fend off abolitionist friends who wanted John Brown buried in the prominent Mount Auburn cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts. They hoped to hold a funeral filled with fanfare and ballyhoo, and to erect an extravagant monument in his honor.

John knew that his corpse would be valuable; his friends had been discussing how to exploit it even before he was dead. Abolitionist Henry Wright tried to have Wendell Phillips persuade John to give his body to the Anti-Slavery Society so money could be raised for a funeral with pomp and grandeur. “[Brown’s] work is finished,” argued Wright. “He has gained his object. He triumphs by the gallows. Death is swallowed up in history.”

Another abolitionist suggested to get Brown’s body and then “put [it] into a metal coffin enclosed except the face in ice.” In this way, his body could be taken to cities and be of “great propaganda value.” On December 5, 1859, the Brooklyn Evening Star quoted Wendell Phillips saying the people of Boston insisted that the body go there and Mary Brown had given her consent. The next day, the Star changed the story; the body would go to North Elba.

mary gravestoneMary had never consented to a burial in Boston; she planned to abide by her husband’s dying request — to be buried beside the big boulder at his homestead in North Elba.

Yet Wendell Phillips maintained that Massachusetts would eventually “claim John Brown’s remains for interment within her own soil.” That never happened; Brown’s body stayed in the grave in the remote Adirondacks, wrecking the potential to rally support and raise money for the abolitionist cause. “We have lost it [the corpse]: a worse loss than the battle of Harper’s Ferry,” wrote abolitionist Thaddeus Hyatt to Phillips. “Another John Brown it seems was needed to take charge of John Brown’s mortal remains.”

Perhaps another John Brown had taken charge — Mary Brown. She refused to be persuaded by the abolitionists to exploit John’s corpse and burial. It was because of Mary that John Brown’s grave lies at the North Elba farm. It was also Mary who had lived at the farm for almost ten years while John was traveling to raise support. So why is Mary’s grave in California?

Abbie Hinckley Brown, wife of Mary’s son Salmon, explained the situation: “We lived six years in that cold, inhospitable climate. We were contented with our lot and probably would have spent many more years there, if not our whole lives, if an uncle of mine had not returned from California. He came to see us one day and told such glowing tales of that state… that we felt impelled to emigrate to that land of golden opportunity.”

Abbie and Salmon sold their little farm and planned to start west in the fall of 1863. To Iowa. Then perhaps on to California. Even though John had told Mary, “I hope you will always live in Essex County,” she decided it was best to sell her farm and go west, too. She thought the move would give her daughters Annie and Sarah a chance to do something for themselves in a new place. In the west, she hoped they might escape notoriety and have “larger fields for labor and usefulness.”

What would Mary do about John’s grave? She planned to carry her husband’s remains with her — “an undertaking few women but the widow of John Brown would dream of,” commented a friend. Upon realizing the impossible logistics of such as endeavor, Mary wrote to Boston abolitionists asking if they wished to remove his remains. They no longer had an interest in the body; it remained moldering in his grave.

After the Browns spent a tough winter in Iowa, they decided to continue to California, joining a wagon train along the way. When a group of Confederate sympathizers discovered they were the family of John Brown, trouble started. “Little Dick and the two best ewes, we have reason to believe, were poisoned by a rebel,” wrote Annie. Then the Browns discovered that the rebels were going to kill Salmon, and perhaps the rest of the family, too.

The New York Tribune of September 22, 1864, reported: “There is a painful rumor, not yet confirmed… that [the Brown family] were pursued by Missouri guerrillas, captured, robbed, and murdered.”

The press bungled their facts again. The Browns had slyly pulled their wagons ahead and safely reached the Union post at Soda Springs, Idaho — just three hours before their pursuers. Soldiers traveled with the Browns for the next 200 miles to Nevada. From there, the family followed the California trail to Humboldt City and entered northern California. The townspeople of Red Bluff received them warmly. “We were given a sack of flour and other groceries, and I was given a pair of shoes and cloth for a dress,” recalled Abbie. “Mr. Brown got a job at once grubbing out young oaks for forty dollars. He did the job in eight days and we felt rich. How I loved California.”

john browns gravestoneMary remained in California, making only one trip back east. In 1882, she visited Kansas, Chicago, Boston, and John’s grave in North Elba. After the trip, she was in ill health and felt death was imminent. She asked to be buried in North Elba beside her husband when she passed. But, always being one to endure sacrifice, Mary added that this should only be done if it would not cause too much hardship for the family. She left the final decision to her children, to be determined by their wishes and circumstances.

When Mary died on February 29, 1884, John Jr. wanted her remains placed in the family graveyard in New York. The siblings in California considered the undertaking, but it seemed too expensive and too difficult at that time of the year. Mary Brown was buried in Madronia Cemetery in Saratoga, California, thousands of miles from her husband.

After her death, some historians portrayed Mary as an impassive, slow-witted woman. “[S]he had been taught since childhood that a woman’s task was to bear children, tend her house, and obey her husband,” wrote Stephen B. Oates. “Thus she subordinated herself completely to Brown’s will…enduring his intractable ways.” Oates then tried to commend her as “a loyal, self-sacrificing wife.”

Mary did define her role as a wife and mother (bearing thirteen children and raising five stepchildren), but her letters and actions indicate that she was not impassive, senseless, or blindly following John’s will. In her own quiet, gentle manner, she demonstrated her strong-minded devotion to John Brown and the cause. As John Newton concluded in Captain John Brown (1902), Mary served as a “true helpmeet” and patiently bore “hardship, poverty, prolonged separation from her husband, yea, even the loss of her noble sons to further the sacred cause of freedom.”

She uttered no words of complaint or regret toward John or for any actions they had taken. Mary praised God that hers sons Watson and Oliver had ever lived and were counted worthy to die in a just cause. As for John Brown, she believed he was an instrument in the hands of Providence and wrote: “It is only those that are capable of appreciating his motives that can see any beauty in them.”

Photos, from above: John Brown, a funeral sketch, Mary Brown, Mary’s gravestone, and John Brown’s grave at the North Elba farm, near Lake Placid.

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Sandra Weber is a writer, storyteller and performer who portrays Kate Field’s “Among the Adirondacks” lecture. Weber has authored several Adirondack books about regional history and women including Breaking Trail (with Peggy Lynn), Mount Marcy, and Two in the Wilderness. She lives in a log cabin in Elizabethtown, NY.

4 Responses

  1. Ann Breen Metcalfe says:

    So interesting and informative. Many thanks.

  2. Pete Nelson says:


    Wonderful article! It shares details I never knew about Mary. What strength and dignity she must have possessed. She is at least as deserving of our homage and respect as her more famous husband. Thanks for contributing this.


  3. Pat says:

    Another worthy entry in your book about inspirational (and sometimes sadly overlooked) Adirondack women. Thanks, Sandra.