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The Final Burial of the Followers of John Brown

By Thomas Featherstonhaugh

New England Magazine
April 1901

WILL people ever become weary of hearing the story of John Brown at Harper's Ferry? The tale has been told and retold, and popular interest seems only to increase with the passing years. The flight of another half century will remove the last vestiges of personal hostility to the central figure in this drama, and new generations will earnestly gather up every detail in the life and work of John Brown of Osawatomie. The purpose of this paper is to preserve the memory of an interesting occurrence in connection with some of his followers.

Early in July, 1859, John Brown appeared in Harper's Ferry to strike his long contemplated blow at slavery, "the sum of all villanies," as he called it. With him were two of his six sons, Owen and Oliver, and a devoted adherent, Jeremiah Anderson. They rented a small farmhouse five miles from the Ferry, at a secluded place in the hills of Maryland. To this place arms were gradually brought, and here the men of the conspiracy stealthily gathered, one by one. This house is still standing, somewhat modified externally. By October 16 the attack was determined upon. On the evening of that day, a dark, rainy Sunday night, John Brown and nineteen of his men started down the little farm lane and set their faces resolutely towards Harper's Ferry. Three men were left behind to guard the premises and to attend to other matters connected with the raid.

The details of the encounter between this handful of devoted men, the militia of Virginia, and the United States troops are well known and need not be repeated here. Of the twenty-two men engaged in forming the attack, seven were captured and hanged, five escaped, and ten were killed. The names of those killed were Watson and Oliver Brown, sons of the leader; William and Dauphin Thompson, two brothers; Stewart Taylor, John Henrie Kagi, Jeremiah G. Anderson, William H. Leeman, Dangerfield Newby and Lewis Sheridan Leary. Newby and Leary were colored men.

Watson Brown was born October 7, 1835. He was the only one of Captain Brown's seven sons who did not serve in the Kansas war. Watson was over six feet in height and a fine looking young man. In a letter written by Edwin Coppoc, one of the band who was captured unhurt and was afterwards hanged at Charlestown, he thus speaks of the death of Watson: "Watson Brown was wounded about ten o'clock on Monday, at the same time Stevens was, while passing along the street with a flag of truce, but was not so badly wounded but he got back to the engine house. During the fight in the afternoon he fought as brave as ever any man fought; but as soon as the fight was over, he got worse. When we were taken in the morning, he was just able to walk. He and Green and myself were put in the watchhouse. Watson kept getting worse from then until about three o'clock Wednesday morning, when he died."

In Sanborn's "Life and Letters of John Brown" (p. 611), a letter from C. W. Tayleure to John Brown, Jr., dated June 15, 1879, gives these further particulars of Watson's death, Mr. Tayleure being then active on the Southern side: "After the assault I assisted your father to rise, as he stumbled forward out of the historic engine house; and I was able to administer to your brother Watson, just before he died, some physical comfort, which won me his thanks. I gave him a cup of water to quench his thirst (about 7.30 A. M.) and improvised a couch for him out of a bench, with a pair of overalls for a pillow. I remember how he looked--singularly handsome, singularly calm, and of a tone and look very gentle. The look with which he searched my heart I can never forget. I asked him, 'What brought you here?' He replied, very patiently, 'Duty, sir.' 'Is it then your idea of duty to shoot men down upon their own hearthstones for defending their rights?' He answered, 'I am dying; I cannot discuss the question; I did my duty as I saw it.' This conversation was listened to by Edwin Coppoc with perfect equanimity."

Oliver Brown was born March 9, 1839, and was also a tall, handsome man. He was shot by citizens on Monday morning, near the engine house, and died in fifteen minutes after being wounded.

William and Dauphin Osgood Thompson were sons of Roswell Thompson, a neighbor of the Browns in Essex County, New York. They were born respectively in 1833 and 1838. Watson Brown had married their sister Isabella, and their brother Henry had married Ruth, the eldest daughter of John Brown. William Thompson had made a trip early on Monday morning from the Ferry back to the farm in Maryland to give orders concerning the removal of the arms stored there, and on attempting to return was captured by the militia who had arrivel [sic] from Charlestown, and was held a prisoner. Later in the day some citizens removed him from the hotel where he was held, and, leading him to the Potomac bridge, shot him to death in cold blood. Dauphin Thompson was killed by the United States marines in their charge upon the engine house, Tuesday morning, October 18.

Stewart Taylor was born at Uxbridge, Canada, in 1836. He was an enthusiast in the cause, and so much a fatalist that he frequently announced his coming early death at Harper's Ferry. This foreknowledge of his fate did not cause the slightest shrinking on his part from doing what he considered his duty. As he predicted, he was shot, near the engine house, and lived about three hours after receiving his wound. He suffered greatly and begged his companions to kill him.

John Henrie Kagi (perhaps the most earnest man of the party, with the exception of John Brown, and certainly the most intellectual of them all) was a native of Ohio, having been born in Bristol, March 15, 1835. He was a teacher, phonographer, lawyer and newspaper correspondent. He was the right-hand man of John Brown, who deferred to his keen, logical mind in all important issues. To Kagi was intrusted the capture of the so-called Rifle Works at Harper's Ferry, which were about half a mile from the engine house and upon the banks of the Shenandoah. This mission was successfully accomplished, but on Monday afternoon the militia drove him from his position, and, while attempting to retreat across the Shenandoah River, he was shot down.

Jeremiah G. Anderson was born in Putnam County, Wisconsin, April 13, 1833. He received a good education, and it was his intention to become a preacher. He afterwards gave up this plan, and in 1857 went to Kansas, where he purchased a claim. Here he met John Brown and became his most ardent disciple. He was with Captain Brown upon his arrival at Harper's Ferry, and remained close by his side until death claimed him. When the United States marines made their final charge upon the engine house, Anderson was bayoneted and was dragged out of the building vomiting gore. He was laid upon the stone flagging and subjected to every indignity that the maddened populace could devise. He was, however, happily unconscious of these insults, and soon died.

William H. Leeman was a native of Hallowell, Maine, and born there, March 20, 1839. In 1856 he started for Kansas, proposing to take up a land claim and become a settler. There he found congenial spirits in the members of John Brown's party, and soon became one of them. During the fight at the Ferry, about one o'clock in the afternoon, on Monday, Leeman was hard pressed by some citizens who had cut off his retreat, and he attempted to escape by crossing the Potomac. When part way over, he found he could get no further, and, gaining a rock, he threw up his hands as a signal of surrender. One of the citizens waded out to receive the surrender, as was supposed, but when he came up with Leeman, he deliberately put his revolver to the defenceless man's head and killed him at once. The rock on which this murder was done stands there basking in the sunlight, and played with by the ripples of the Potomac.

Dangerfield Newby, born in 1825, was a powerfully built mulatto, Virginian by birth, and a slave. His father, a Scotchman, had, however, before 1859, taken his family to Ohio and there freed them. Newby had a wife and six children in slavery in Warrenton, Virginia. He was shot by a citizen from the window of a building overlooking the scene of operations at the Ferry, and almost instantly killed.

Lewis Sheridan Leary, a free mulatto, born in Fayetteville, North Carolina, March 17, 1835, was a harnessmaker by occupation. He drifted to Oberlin, Ohio, where he came into contact with the abolition movement, and he met John Brown in Cleveland. Leary was one of those detailed to operate at the Rifle Works under the leadership of Kagi, and during the retreat across the Shenandoah was badly wounded. He was carried into a carpenter's shop, where he died after several hours of great agony.

When the battle smoke had cleared away and the prisoners had been removed to the county seat, Charlestown, for trial and execution, the bodies of the ten slain men were gathered together from the rivers and streets; and some disposition had to be made of them. The bodies of Watson Brown and Jeremiah Anderson, being fine physical specimens, were given to some physicians from the medical school at Winchester, Virginia. They were packed into barrels and were afterwards utilized for anatomical purposes. The prepared body of Watson was recovered in 1881 by John Brown, Jr., and was buried by the side of his father's body at North Elba, New York. It is not known what ultimate disposition was made of the remains of Anderson.

Burial of the other bodies in one of the village cemeteries was, in view of the popular excitement, out of the question. James Mansfield, who still lives at Harper's Ferry, was therefore given five dollars in county orders to bury these eight bodies. He procured two large "store boxes," and into these receptacles thrust the remains of the eight men, and buried them about half a mile from the Ferry upon the banks of the Shenandoah River, almost at the water's edge. Here they remained, unmarked and almost unknown, until July 29, 1899, when the writer, accompanied by Captain E. P. Hall of Washington and Professor O. G. Libby of the University o'f Wisconsin, exhumed the remains, which were at once carried to North Elba by Dr. Libby. The two great boxes were found some three feet below the surface of the ground. They were, of course, much decayed, but from being constantly wet, by proximity to the river, were remarkably preserved. Most of the smaller bones had crumbled away, but the long bones of eight men were recovered.

A few weeks before the raid, some friends of the cause in Philadelphia had sent a lot of great blanket shawls to the Kennedy farm as a gift. On the night of the raid each man had taken one of these shawls and used it instead of an overcoat. Many witnesses speak of these blankets, and how the short Sharpe's carbines were kept from the rain beneath these protectors. The men had evidently been buried in these shawls, for great masses of woollen texture were found enveloping each body. A great deal of the clothing had been marvellously preserved. There were portions of coats and vests with the buttons still in position upon them, and from one of the vest pockets dropped two short lead pencils, all sharpened for use.

There is no question as to the identification of the remains. The unusual locality of the graves, the peculiar method of burial (all being packed in two great boxes), the memory of a number of the older citizens who witnessed the burial, and the affidavit of the man who buried the bodies place the matter beyond controversy.

Miss Katharine E. McClellan of Saranac Lake, who has published a charming sketch of John Brown in the Adirondacks, was kind enough to assume the labor of making all the arrangements for the funeral at the John Brown farm, in North Elba. At her solicitation that town presented a handsome casket with silver handles and a silver plate bearing the names of all the men, with the date of interment. The remains were all placed together in this one casket, and a grave was dug by the side of those of Captain John Brown and his son, Watson, under the shadow of the huge bowlder that Captain Brown wished to stand sentinel over his last resting-place. August 30, being the forty-third anniversary of the battle of Osawatomie, was selected as the day for the funeral ceremonies.

During the preparations for the funeral, Mr. E. P. Stevens of Brookline, Massachusetts, a nephew of Aaron D. Stevens, one of the raiders who was hanged at Charlestown, accomplished the work of having his uncle and a companion, Albert Hazlett, who was also hanged, disinterred from their graves at Perth Amboy, New Jersey, and sent on to be buried with their old comrades and leader. Thus ten bodies in all of the original party were recovered. Counting John Brown and his son Watson, there are now twelve of the Harper's Ferry raiders buried in this little plot.

Rev. Joshua Young, who performed the last rites over the. grave of John Brown, December 8, 1859, and who was bitterly reviled at his own home in Vermont for the Christian act, was present and took charge of the religious ceremonies. Colonel Richard J. Hinton made an address, which included a biographical sketch of each of the men, many of whom he had personally known. Bishop H. C. Potter of New York made a short address, as did also Mr. Whitelaw Reid.

Four members of a colored family living in the neighborhood, who had gone there to assist in forming a negro colony in northern New York in the days of Gerrit Smith and John Brown, and who had sung hymns at Brown's funeral, very fittingly sang at the interment of these men, who laid down their lives for the freedom of the slave.

A detachment of the Twenty-sixth United States Infantry, which had gone up from Plattsburg to act as escort, fired a volley over the open grave; the benediction was pronounced; and the fifteen hundred visitors and neighbors who had attended the funeral turned away and left old John Brown, no longer solitary, to sleep on amid the mountains and trees that he loved so well.

Source: Copy in John Brown Pamphlets, Vol. 3, Boyd B. Stutler Collection, West Virginia State Archives

Chapter Twelve: Death and Burial

His Soul Goes Marching On

West Virginia Archives and History