John Brown: The Abolitionist Executed for Inciting a Slave Rebellion in West Virginia in 1859

John Brown was a prominent leader in the American abolitionist movement during the decades leading up to the Civil War. He became known as the leading advocate for using violence to end American slavery after years of peaceful efforts had failed.

John Brown: The Abolitionist Executed for Trying to Incite a Slave Rebellion in West Virginia in 1859

Born on May 9, 1800, in Torrington, Connecticut, John Brown was the son of Owen Brown, a wealthy citizen of Hudson, Ohio, who ran a tannery.

At the young age of twelve, Brown experienced an event that would profoundly change him. He witnessed a man brutally beat a slave boy nearly to death with an iron shovel. When he asked why, the man simply replied that the boy was a slave. According to Brown’s son-in-law, Henry Thompson, this moment solidified Brown’s resolve to dedicate his life to ending slavery. His commitment grew stronger as he encountered more racial injustices.

In 1825, Brown moved from Hudson, Ohio, where he had a successful tannery, to Richmond Township in Crawford County, Pennsylvania, to run an effective Underground Railroad station. He purchased 200 acres, built a cabin, a tannery, and a barn with a secret room to hide escaping slaves. Brown transported refugees across the state border into New York and to a significant Underground Railroad connection in Jamestown. The escapees were hidden in the wagon he used to move the hides for his tannery.

For ten years, his farm was a crucial stop on the Underground Railroad, reportedly aiding around 2,500 enslaved Africans on their journey to Canada, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development.

In 1836, after losing two of his sons and his beloved wife, Brown relocated his family from Pennsylvania to Franklin Mills, Ohio, where he taught Sunday school. However, he was expelled from the church for opposing the segregation of Black congregants.

Brown’s militant abolitionist activities began in the early 1850s, during the conflict in Kansas, known as Bleeding Kansas. This period saw violent clashes between pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions fighting for control of the territory. Brown, a devoutly religious man who saw slavery as a sin, viewed the conflict as a chance to strike against the institution he despised.

John Brown: The Abolitionist Executed for Trying to Incite a Slave Rebellion in West Virginia in 1859

Inspired by his religious convictions and driven by a strong sense of justice, Brown organized and led groups of anti-slavery settlers in Kansas. They engaged in guerrilla warfare against pro-slavery forces, carrying out raids and retaliatory attacks. In May 1856, Brown and his sons killed five pro-slavery supporters in the Pottawatomie massacre, a response to the sacking of Lawrence by pro-slavery forces. Brown then commanded anti-slavery forces at the Battle of Black Jack and the Battle of Osawatomie.

In 1859, Brown devised a bold plan to seize the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia), with the intention of arming enslaved Africans and sparking a widespread rebellion against slaveholders. He believed that his actions would inspire a mass uprising of slaves, and ultimately lead to the dismantling of the institution of slavery itself.

On the night of October 16, 1859, Brown and a small group of followers attacked Harpers Ferry. They seized the armory, resulting in seven deaths and multiple injuries. Brown intended to arm slaves with weapons from the armory, but only a few joined his revolt. Their initial success was short-lived, as federal troops quickly surrounded the arsenal and quelled the rebellion. Those of Brown’s men who didn’t flee were killed or captured by local militia and U.S. Marines. Brown was tried for treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia, the murder of five men, and inciting a slave insurrection. He was found guilty on all charges and sentenced to be hanged.

John Brown: The Abolitionist Executed for Trying to Incite a Slave Rebellion in West Virginia in 1859

Brown, who declined the presence of a minister, walked fearlessly to the gallows on December 2, 1859. As he approached, he passed his final words to his jailer:

John Brown: The Abolitionist Executed for Trying to Incite a Slave Rebellion in West Virginia in 1859

“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 hanged at 11:15 a.m. and pronounced dead 35 minutes later, becoming the first person executed for treason against a U.S. state in the history of the United States.

Mr Madu
Mr Madu
Mr Madu is a freelance writer, a lover of Africa and a frequent hiker who loves long, vigorous walks, usually on hills or mountains.


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