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Senate Select Committee Report on the Harper’s Ferry Invasion
Testimony of Charles Blair

Pp. 121-29


Charles Blair sworn and examined.

By the Chairman:

Question. Will you state where you reside, and what is your occupation?
Answer. I reside at Collinsville, Connecticut; I am a blacksmith by trade -- a forger.

Question. Did you know the late John Brown who was recently executed under the laws of Virginia?
Answer. I did.

Question. Will you state when you made his acquaintance, and under what circumstances?
Answer. I made his acquaintance in the early part of 1857, if I mistake not, in the latter part of February or fore part of March. He came to our place, Collinsville, as I supposed, to visit connections who lived in our town. He himself was born, as I have understood, in Torringford, ten miles from there, and some of his relatives lived in a town five miles from our village. He spoke in a public hall one evening -- perhaps by invitation of some of the community, but I do not know how that was -- and gave an account of some of his experience in Kansas, and at the close of the meeting made an appeal to the audience. After stating the wants of many of the free settlers in Kansas, their privations and need of clothing, &c., he made an appeal for aid for the purpose of furnishing them the necessaries of life, as he declared. I think there was no collection taken up for him at that time. I do not know that I spoke with him that night, but on the following morning, if I mistake not, he was exhibiting to a number of gentlemen who happened to be collected together in a druggist's store some weapons which he claimed to have taken from Captain Pate in Kansas. Among them was a two-edged dirk, with a blade about eight inches long, and he remarked that if he had a lot of those things to attach to poles about six feet long, they would be a capital weapon of defense for the settlers of Kansas to keep in their log cabins to defend themselves against any sudden attack that might be made on them. He turned to me, knowing, I suppose, that I was engaged in edge-tool making, and asked me what I would make them for; what it would cost to make five hundred or a thousand of those things, as he described them. I replied, without much consideration, that I would make him five hundred of them for a dollar and a quarter a piece; or if he wanted a thousand of them, I thought they might be made for a dollar a piece. I did not wish to commit myself then and there without further investigation, but it was my impression that they might be made for a dollar a piece. He simply remarked that he would want them made. I thought no more about it until a few days afterwards. I did not really suppose he meant it then. I will endeavor to state the circumstances as correctly as I can, though three years have transpired, and I may find it necessary to refer to some of his letters to quicken my memory in regard to the matter. I have several of his letters with me here. I think he went to Springfield, Massachusetts, before a bargain was made between us; at any rate, the result was that I made a contract with him. From the tenor of this letter, [producing a letter from John Brown to Charles Blair, dated Springfield, Massachusetts, 23d March, 1857,] I think, he ordered me to make a dozen as samples, and I had forwarded them to Springfield before receiving this letter.

Question. Will you be good enough to look at that weapon in the corner of the room [referring to the pike produced and identified by A.M. Kitzmiller] and see whether that is according to the sample that you furnished?
Answer. That is nearly like it. The first dozen that I made as samples had wrought-iron ferules, rivetted through and blacked. When he came to make the contract, he wrote it to have malleable ferules cast solid, and a guard to be of malleable iron. That was all the difference.

Question. Was your contract to furnish the handles as well as the weapons?
Answer. Yes, sir.

Question. Did you, in your samples, furnish handles as well as weapons?
Answer. Yes, sir. After seeing the sample he made a slight alteration. One was to have a screw put in, as the one here has, so that they could be unshipped in case of necessity. To go back a little when it became apparent to me that he was in earnest about having them made, I began to demur a little, doubting whether he was able to pay me, and I said to him, "Mr. Brown, I am a laboring man, and, if I engage in this contract with you, I shall want to know how I am going to get my pay." He said, "That is all right. It is just that you should, and I will make it perfectly secure to you; I will give you one half the money, that is $500, within ten days; I will pay you the balance within thirty days, and give you ninety days to complete the contract." That would carry it to somewhere near the 1st of July, 1857. Before making any move in the matter, I waited to receive the first installment.

Mr. Collamer. Was there a written contract?
Answer. Yes, sir; he drew up a contract in writing himself.

The Chairman. Have you got that contract?
Answer. I have not. It was a short contract, written on half a page of paper, perhaps; simply stating what the terms of it were.

Question. How many was the contract for?
Answer. A thousand.

Question. At what price?
Answer. One dollar each; pretty good, stiff pay; and hence, when I made the offer to make them for a dollar, it occurred to me as a matter of course that he would demur to the price, and it would fall through. He paid me $350 within ten days. This advancement was made in the latter part of March, 1857. I then went and purchased my materials. I went to a handle-maker in Massachusetts and engaged him to make a thousand handles. I purchased the steel for the blades and set a man forging them out, and he forged out perhaps five hundred of them. In the beginning of April I received another letter from him, stating that he was then unable to pay the balance of the money; that he had not the funds, but hoped to have them soon. [Letter produced, dated Springfield, Massachusetts, April 2, 1857, addressed by John Brown to Charles Blair.] Soon afterwards I received another letter sending me a draft for $200, making altogether $550, fifty dollars more than he promised to give me as the first instalment. [Letter produced, dated Springfield, Massachusetts, April 25, 1857, addressed by John Brown to Charles Blair.]

Question. This letter says, "If you do not hurry out but 500 of those articles it may, perhaps, be as well, until you hear again;" did you construe that as a revocation of the order for the remaining 500?
Answer. I did not. The thirty days, I think, must have expired at the time that letter was written; and it alludes to the fact that $200 did not come until after the expiration of the first ten days. He explained to me in a letter, which I have lost, why the $200 of the $550 had not been paid me until after the expiration of the ten days. The last time I saw him before that, he inquired of me whether he could get two or three heavy wagons built in that vicinity, to be done in a short time, and I remarked to him that I had a friend who was engaged in the manufacture of heavy wagons, who lived at Colebrook, and that if he chose I would write to him and see if he could furnish any. I had done so, but this man, whose name was Parsons, wrote me that he could not furnish them in the time required, and of course nothing further was done about it. That explains the allusion in the letter to my Colebrook friend. Shortly afterwards, in May, I received a letter from Brown, saying that I need not hurry out the first 500 until the handles were properly seasoned, nor the remainder till I heard from him. [Letter produced, dated Cannistota, New York, May 14, 1857, addressed by John Brown to Charles Blair.] I at that time contemplated a journey into Iowa. About the time he left our place he said to me that he was going back to Kansas. I told him I had never made a journey west, and that I contemplated going into Iowa, and should be happy of his company. That explains part of his letter. In regard to the rest of it, the handles were in a green state, and I wrote him that unless they were seasoned, when the blades came to be put in, they would shrink away and all become lose; and if he was not in any particular hurry he had better let them remain and become seasoned. I worked on perhaps until several days after the expiration of the thirty days in which the second installment was to come, but, receiving no further funds from Mr. Brown, I stopped the thing right where it was, determining that I would not run any risk in the matter. I just laid it aside, and there it lay, the work in an unfinished state, the handles stored away in the store-house, the steel which I had purchased stored away in boxes, the few blades which I had forged were laid away. Thus it was until last June; nothing more was done.

Question. Did you hear anything more from Brown?
Answer. I will read to you all the letters I received from him during the time; that is, all I have preserved, and I think they embrace all I received.

Mr. Fitch. Had you in the mean time sent him the five hundred?
Answer. Not one; I never finished any of them. It is possible that I have lost two or three of the letters; but, if I mistake not, the next letter I received from him was dated at Rochester, in February, 1858, nearly a year after the contract I made with him. [Letter produced, dated Rochester, New York, February 10, 1858, addressed by John Brown to Charles Blair.] What he meant by saying in this letter that he was again in the United States I did not know, for I did not know that he had been out; but, since the Harper's Ferry affair, I have learned what that means. In answer to that, I wrote to him -- I have no copy of that letter, and I must give you my best impression of it -- that immediately after the expiration of the thirty days I dropped the thing; that I had never finished any of the articles, and, of course, had none to forward; that I considered the contract at an end, and had other business to attend to. That was the substance of my letter. After that, I received another letter from him, dated at Philadelphia. [Letter produced, signed John Brown, and addressed to Charles Blair, dated Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, March 11, 1858.] Nothing more was heard from Mr. Brown at all, in any way or shape, until on the 3d day of June, 1859, the old man appeared at my door, unexpectedly of course, and said to me, "I have been unable, sir, to fulfill my contract with you up to this time; I have met with various disappointments; now I am able to do so." I say it was the 3d day of June, because the receipt that I gave him, which I presume you have, bears date June 4. That is the only thing I have to remind me of the date.

The Chairman exhibits to the witness (from among the papers proved by Andrew Hunter as having been produced at John Brown's trial) a paper in these words: "Received, Collinsville, June 4, 1859, of John Brown, on contract of 1857, $150. Charles Blair." And asks: Is that the paper to which you refer?
Answer. Yes, sir. The evening before, he came in by the train, made his appearance about six o'clock, and stated to me that he was now able to fulfill his contract with me. I remarked, "Mr. Brown, the contract I consider forfeited, and I am differently situated from what I was then; it will be exceedingly inconvenient for me to do any more with it; I have business now of a different kind; my men are fully employed on other work; and I do not see how I can do it." "Well," said he, "I want to make you perfectly good in this matter, I do not want you to lose a cent." I said "I shall not lose anything; I was careful in the first place not to exceed the amount of money I had in my hands, and I shall lose nothing if I drop it right here." I said to him, however, that he might take the steel and the handles just as they were, and I would pass receipts with him. "No," said he, "I do not want to do that; they are not good for anything as they are." At that point I remarked, "What good can they be if they are finished; Kansas matters are all settled, and of what earthly use can they be to you now? "Well," he replied, "that they might be of some use if they were finished up, that he could dispose of them in some way, but as they were, they were good for nothing." I then said to him, "I will receive of you the remaining $450, if you have it and wish to pay it to me, and if I can find a man anywhere in the vicinity that is accustomed to doing such work who will finish up the work, I will do so, provided I can do it and come within the means, and it will not be much trouble to me, because I am very busy and have not time to attend to it; but in case I do not succeed in finding a man to do it, I will refund you this $450." Said he, "That is all right, and I will agree to it." A short conversation passed on that day, and he left me with that understanding, but paid me no money then. He went to the hotel and stayed over night, and in the morning, about seven o'clock, he came again and told me that he was about to start for New York, and that he would pay me $150 then, and would send me from New York on the following day, or from Troy, within a day or two from that time, $300 more. I said "very well." He took out his pocket book and paid me fifty dollars in bills and a one hundred dollar check, and I gave him the receipt which has been shown; I scratched it off in a hurry. He hurried to the cars and went off, as I supposed, for New York. A few days after that, four or five perhaps, I received a letter inclosing a draft for $300. [Letter produced, dated Troy, New York, 7th June, 1859, addressed to Charles Blair by John Brown.] The letter that I wrote in answer to that, has appeared in the public prints, and I presume you have it.

The Chairman exhibits to the witness a letter dated Collinsville, Connecticut, June 10, 1859, addressed to "Friend Brown," and signed Charles Blair, being one of the papers proved by Andrew Hunter, as having been produced at John Brown's trial, and asks: Is that it?
Answer. That is the reply I made to that letter. In regard to the time, I think he spoke to me something about liking to have them finished up as soon as possible, and that was the reason of my saying that man could not finish them up any sooner. In the month of July, I was absent on a business tour at the West, and during my absence a letter was received from John Brown, requesting me, when those goods were finished up -- if I remember aright, the term "goods" was used, as in all his writing -- to forward them to Chambersburg, in Pennsylvania, to J. Smith & Sons, at the same time requesting me to give him the price of axes, hatchets, broadaxes, and picks. That letter my son received, and I have not got it with me. My son replied to it, in my absence, telling him where he could find the price of those articles, which we were making; that I was absent, and probably, when I got home, I would write him. It is that letter, I presume, which caused the subpena [sic] for me to be directed to "Charles H. Blair, alias Charles Blair." Charles H. Blair is my son. Soon after I arrived home, I received a letter, in an entirely different handwriting, from Chambersburg. [Letter produced, signed J. Smith & Sons, addressed to Charles Blair, and dated Chambersburg, Franklin county, Pennsylvania, August 24, 1859.] A few days subsequent to that, I received another letter from J. Smith & Sons, requesting me to forward the "freight," when ready. In my reply, which I have also seen in the papers, I made use of the term "freight" because they had used the term, and said it had not been forwarded, but would be in a few days.

The Chairman exhibits to the witness a letter, dated Collinsville, Connecticut, August 27, 1859, addressed to Messrs. J. Smith & Sons, and signed Charles Blair, being one of the papers proved by Andrew Hunter as having been produced at John Brown's trial, and asks: Is that your reply, of which you now speak, to the letter signed J. Smith & Sons?
Answer. Yes, sir; that is my reply to that letter. I do not know that I said, if I did not I will here say, that I went out of town and got a man by the name of Hart to finish up this work for me. Mr. Hart was an acquaintance of mine, whom I had formerly known, and I knew him to be engaged in edge-tool manufacturing, a competent man to do it, and I submitted the whole thing to him. I received one other letter, which I cannot find, before a letter dated September 15, which I shall presently produce, simply saying to me that when I sent the goods to Mr. Brown, I should send them to the care of Oakes & Cauffman. I presume that, when I marked the goods, I left that letter at the manufactory of the man who finished them. When they were done, I saw that the blades were tied up in boxes, and the handles in bundles. I simply marked them according to the directions. Then the next letter I received was dated September 15, acknowledging the receipt of the goods. [Letter produced, dated Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, Thursday, September 15, 1859, addressed to Charles H. Blair, and signed J. Smith & Sons.] That is the whole story, I believe.

Question. Will you state of what wood those handles were made?
Answer. Ash timber.

Question. Was that Brown's selection or yours?
Answer. My impression is that it was his selection, It is a common timber that we use for fork handles. In the course of the conversation I had with him, he spoke of the handle being made like a fork handle, about the size of a hay-fork handle, and of the same material.

Question. Did he prescribe the length?
Answer. The contract, I believe, was that they were to be six feet or six feet and a half long. I am not positive which.

Question. And the form of the weapon he showed from a weapon that he alleged he had taken from Pate, but to be accommodated to that fashioned pike?
Answer. Yes, sir; and I will show you the difference. The dirk had a ridge in the middle and was beveled each way, and was not as wide as this by about one fourth. His direction was to have it made two inches wide, if I mistake not, and a trifle longer than the blade he showed me. That had a guard shorter than this, and had a neat handle. It was an expensive weapon.

Question. Can you get a copy of that contract or the contract itself?
Answer. No, sir; I could not lay my hands on it when I came away; it has been lost.

Question. Did the contract prescribe minutely the mode and fashion and material of which the weapon was to be made?
Answer. It did not describe the blade, but simply that the ferules and guard were to be made of solid malleable iron and a screw through the shank and the ferules; that, I believe, was the description; it described the length of the handle.

Question. What is the blade there made of?
Answer. Of cast steel.

Question. You said they were put in boxes -- by whose direction were they put up separately from the handles when they were sent on?
Answer. By Brown's direction, in one of the letters I read to you; they were tied up in bundles of about twenty or twenty-five in a bundle.

Question. Do you recollect in the address that you gave them to J. Smith & Sons to the care of Oakes & Cauffman, whether they were described as fork-handles?
Answer. They were marked fork-handles; I do not think that was Brown's direction; it was my own; I did not know what else to call them. They were properly fork-handles, and I so marked them.

Question. How could you say they were properly fork-handles when they were intended for a weapon?
Answer. Because they were just about the length and size; that is all.

By Mr. Collamer:

Question. Did you go to a fork-handle maker to get them?
Answer. Yes, sir; I ought to say, perhaps, that they are rather smaller than he ordered. They are much smaller than they were when they were green. They have been made three years and they have shrunk some.

By the Chairman:

Question. Was the whole affair furnished by that man or yourself, including the screw which connects the handle and the blade?
Answer. We furnished them all, although the ferules and the screw were made at New Haven. The malleable iron was made by a firm in New Haven.

Question. But the whole thing was furnished, so that nothing was required but to put them together?
Answer. Yes, sir; that was in accordance with the contract.

Question. What was the whole number furnished, did you say?
Answer. The contract was for a thousand, but I think there were nine hundred and fifty-four sent.

Question. Were they all sent at one shipment?
Answer. Yes, sir; all at once.

Question. I think you said it was in June, 1859, that he came back to your place of business?
Answer. Yes, sir.

Question. Did he tell you nothing in reference to what use he proposed then to make of them, except what you have already spoken of?
Answer. Not another syllable; I have stated precisely the language that he used: "I think that they might be useful if finished up, but they were good for nothing as they were." That, I think, is all he said about them. The idea I got, when he first spoke of them, was that he was going to sell them to the people in Kansas, and I think he made use of this expression, that he wanted them for the poor settlers in Kansas who were not able to purchase fire-arms; that they needed some weapon of defense to keep in their cabins, and such a thing would be useful to them.

Question. When you were required afterwards to send them to Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, did any conversation arise as to the reason of their change of destiny?
Answer. Not at all; I got the impression that they were on their way to Ohio or to the West; I never know where Chambersburg was at all, and having always had in my mind the idea that they were first originally destined for the West, I did not know but that he might send them, and that Oakes & Cauffman, as I supposed, were forwarding merchants, and J. Smith & Sons, I supposed, were a bona fide firm. Since further developments have come out, it appears who J. Smith & Sons were, but I certainly knew nothing about it at that time.

By Mr. Collamer:

Question. You say Mr. Brown made you these payments? Did he make them in money?
Answer. Part was in money and part was in a draft or check.

Question. In 1857, it would seem, he sent you a check on New York?
Answer. A draft on New York for $200.

Question. Was that of his own drawing? Did he sign it?
Answer. I think not; I think it was a draft drawn by one of the banks in Springfield on a bank in New York, payable to bearer, or it might have been payable to Brown, I cannot remember that; that draft came to me through a man by the name of Rust, living in the same town where I am. In writing to him Brown inclosed this draft, and requested him to hand it to me.

Question. Now, when you come to 1859, and what he sent you from Troy, what did he send you?
Answer. A draft, according to my statement, for $300. If I remember right, I cannot say positively, but it is my impression, it was a draft drawn by the cashier of one of the banks of Troy, payable to me.

Question. Did you receive from him any other checks or drafts of any kind towards these payments?
Answer. When I received the $150, for which I gave him that receipt, dated the 4th of June, 1859, he gave me, as part of that, one check drawn by Gerritt Smith for $100. The rest was in bank bills of the Springfield or Boston banks. I cannot say which.

Question. Where was that check of Gerritt Smith upon?
Answer. Upon one of the Albany banks, if I remember aright. I think it was a check made payable to John Brown, or bearer, or perhaps Brown's name was not contained in it; but I remember it distinctly, because it occurred to me at once that Gerritt Smith was a prominent man, here was his check for $100, and I supposed him to be good for it. I was inclined to be more particular about the check than I was about the drafts. I knew the drafts must be good, having been drawn by the cashier of a bank.

By the Chairman:

Question. The money was all received on them; they were all paid?
Answer. Yes, sir; as far as I know. I never heard anything from them. They were checked for me by Mr. Norton, who is treasurer of our saving's bank.

Charles Blair.

Source: Report of the Select Committee of the Senate Appointed to Inquire into the Late Invasion and Seizure of the Public Property at Harper’s Ferry , Report No. 278, Senate, 36th Cong., 1st Sess., 1860 (commonly known as the Mason Report).


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