Facial Hair Friday: John Brown

Today is Facial Hair Friday, and we’re looking back at abolitionist John Brown. Today’s post comes from Vincent Bartholomew in the National Archives History Office.

John Brown, ca. 1858. (National Archives Identifier 23855306)

Abolitionist John Brown, who was previously clean shaven, grew a robust beard during his preparations for the raid on Harpers Ferry as a way to disguise himself to keep it secret. The two years before the raid is the only time Brown had a beard.

After the raid and his arrest, Brown delivered his final address in a courtroom in Charleston, Virginia (now West Virginia), on November 2, 1859. His words echo through time: “I believe, that to have interfered as I have done in behalf of His despised poor, is no wrong, but right. 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 say ‘let it be done.’”

While antislavery advocates saw him as a pioneer, his willingness to die for his cause evoked fear in white Southerners. Even though Brown’s use of violence was seen as radical, abolitionists and antislavery activists enshrined Brown as a hero, martyr, and catalyst for the end of slavery. 

Brown was born on May 9, 1800, in Torrington, Connecticut, to a deeply religious Congregationalist and overtly antislavery family. At age five, his family moved west to Hudson, Ohio, where his father, Owen Brown, owned a successful tannery and supported the founding of Oberlin College, a racially inclusive co-ed high learning institution with an antislavery curriculum.

In 1825 Brown moved to western Pennsylvania. He opened his own tannery and started the Franklin Land Company with 700 acres for suburban development. The tannery was a major stop on the underground railroad. However, the panic of 1837, a financial crisis that caused plunging profits, prices, and wages and increasing unemployment, bankrupted Brown.

John Brown (before acquisition of the beard that typifies him as the stormy prophet of emancipation). Copy of daguerreotype, ca. 1850. (National Archives Identifier 532587)

After the crisis, Brown emerged as an unyielding abolitionist. In 1851 he helped found the League of Gileadites, an organization of whites, free blacks, and runaway slaves dedicated to protecting fugitive slaves from slave catchers. By the end of 1856, Brown was one of the most renowned figures in “bleeding Kansas,” the violent confrontations over the legality of slavery in the Kansas territory. 

As early as 1854 Brown began planning an organized war against slavery in Virginia. By 1857, Brown contacted a Connecticut forge master to make a thousand pikes to arm slaves who he thought would flock to his guerrilla army when he invaded the South. In March 1858, Brown met in Boston with Rev. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Theodore Parker, George Sterns, Samuel Gridley Howe, Franklin Sanborn, and Gerrit Smith, Brown’s primary financial backers who were known as the “Secret Six.”

On Sunday, October 16, 1859, Brown and his men began their raid on Harpers Ferry. Brown considered Harpers Ferry an ideal location to attack because it was close to a relatively high population of slaves; its proximity to the Blue Ridge mountain range offered an escape route; and the Federal armory and arsenal contained weapons Brown could use to defend himself.

A view of Harpers Ferry, ca. 1861-1865. (National Archives Identifier 23855306)

Brown’s small army included veterans from “bleeding Kansas,” fugitive slaves, free blacks, Oberlin College men, and youthful abolitionists. Brown’s men arrived in Harpers Ferry at night and secured the Federal armory and arsenal, cut the telegraph wires, and captured Hall’s Rifle Works, the armory that manufactured weapons for the Federal Government. 

After completing their mission, instead of running for the hills, Brown and his men remained in the armory in Harpers Ferry awaiting the army of slaves that Brown thought would rise up to join them. They never came. Brown and his men were surrounded by civilian militia in the fire engine and guard house. By the morning of October 18, President James Buchanan dispatched U.S. Marines to Harpers Ferry under the command of Brevet Colonel Robert E. Lee. Brown was in custody before midday on October 18. 

Brown’s trial and sentence were carried out swiftly, and on December 2, 1859, he was hanged for treason, murder, and conspiring with slaves to rebel. Brown welcomed his end, declaring: “I am worth inconceivably more to hang than for any other purpose,” echoing his words in the Charleston Courthouse a month earlier.

Read more about John Brown in the 2011 Prologue magazine article, “A Look Back at John Brown.”

4 thoughts on “Facial Hair Friday: John Brown

    1. Ah yes, thank you for linking to the page which points out that the racist “Lost Cause of the Confederacy” ideology has often tried to smear abolitionists for being the first willing to fight to end human slavery. It’s easy to see how some people could fail to recognize that John Brown’s attack against pro-slavery agents in Kansas was in many ways a predecessor to the civil war battles won by the Union that led to the elimination of slavery in the United States – something that we’re all thankful for, right Richard?

  1. Born in Torrington, Connecticut, John Brown belongs to a devout family with a final anti-slavery attitude. He was married twice and had twenty children. The family traveled to London during her travels with Brown, a resident of Ohio, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and New York.

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