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The Indianapolis Journal

September 11, 1882


One of Old John Brown's sons Identifies a Brother's Body.

A Complete History of the Body Now in the Possession of a Martinsville Physician.

Mr. Brown Makes a Statement Concerning the Harper's Ferry Insurrection.

Why the Fortifications Were Held So Long by the Abolitionists:An Interesting Bit of History.

John Brown, jr., whose presence in the city was duly mentioned in the Journal of Saturday, together with a detailed account of the discovery of the remains of his brother, who was killed with his father at Harper's Ferry in October, 1859, left Saturday morning for Martinsville to identify and claim the remains. The arrival of the namesake son created something of a sensation in the town. His coming was unannounced, but he article in the morning Journal heralded it all along the line, and the tidings soon spread, arousing a curiosity which was, perhaps, pardonable. Mr. Brown was accompanied on the trip down from Indianapolis by the Journal representative. Although there was nothing to indicate, by word or action, his personality, the train had not gone far before the passengers began to whisper that John Brown's son was on board, and curious glances were turned in the direction where he was sitting. Unconscious that he was an object of interest, he sat reading the morning paper, now and then looking over the landscape and asking some question regarding the country, in which he manifested considerable interest. The conversation turned on geology, and his remarks evinced a familiarity with that science. Upon his own theory that a geologist should be proficient in every science, his knowledge was evidently general, but he made no pretensions. His modesty is remarkable. In his manner he is as timid as a girl, but his words are stamped with a sincerity and honesty of expression which impresses the hearer with their full weight, and gives them a value immeasureably beyond the common mellifluous emptiness. In his disposition he seems the embodiment of kindness and patience. In brief, his character combines all the strength and courage of man with the softening nature of woman. Knowing the antipathy of the elder Brown to tobacco, the correspondent resorted to the proffer of a cigar for the purpose of learning the feelings of his son. It was graciously declined, with the remark that he smoked once, when a boy, and the experience had been sufficient for a lifetime. In the passing conversation he inquired about the political issues between the two parties in this State, and, when explained to him, he asked if the temperance sentiment was growing among the people. An affirmative reply being given, he tapped the correspondent on the shoulder and said, with much enthusiasm, "I am glad of it."


Upon arrival at Martinsville, it was found that Dr. Johnson, the physician who had in his possession the remains, was out of town, and could not return until Monday. Although it was something of a disappointment, nothing could be done but await his return. Mr. Brown was taken to the Republican office, which is located in the rear of the postoffice, and had not been there many minutes until people began to come in flocks to see the "son of old John Brown," and shake his hand. Saturday is a day of business and bustle in very court-house town, and the usual number had come in from the county to do their week's trading. John Brown's presence in the place was doubtless known to every one, and there were few who returned to their homes without taking a peep at him. The local celebrities, the merchant and the laborer, all did homage to him in their peculiar way. Old soldiers would grasp his heartily by the hand, and, with a face beaming with delight, would say: "It does me good to shake the hand of 'old John Brown's' son." Mr. Brown received all with the same indiscriminate kindness and had a pleasant word for each. The object of his visit, however, was uppermost in his mind, and he did not for a moment lose sight of it. Nearly all his visitors had some remembrance of having seen the remains of his brother or heard of them being in the possession of Dr. Johnson. These men he questioned closely, and took down their names. The stories of all were substantially the same, but they seemed of equal interest and importance to him.


The remains in the possession of Dr. Johnson, according to his statement, which is substantiated by the testimony of numerous citizens in and around Martinsville, were obtained during the spring of 1862, in the hospital at Winchester, Va., immediately after the evacuation of the place by the Confederates. At that time he was surgeon of the Twenty-seventh Regiment of Indiana Volunteers, which was in the advance of the Union troops entering the town, and he was therefore the first surgeon to enter the hospital, which had been used up to that time as a medical college. In the museum of the college was an admirably-prepared body, and he obtained permission from General Banks, in command of the brigade, to ship it home. When found, the body was in a standing posture, leaning against the wall of the building, with both arms extending upward from the elbows. Four of the finger joints on one hand and all the toes on one foot had been cut off by relic hunters. The body was pointed out to him as that of one of John Brown's sons, killed in the fight at Harper's Ferry, and the missing joints, it was said, had been carried off as mementos. The anatomical preparation of the body was perfect, and it was, for this reason, an exceedingly valuable piece of property for the physician and the physiologist. Dr. Johnson was moved by no desire to get possession of it because it was the body of one of John Brown's sons, but because it would be of practical value to him. His brother surgeons envied what they called his good luck, and efforts were made by some to get possession of the prize. The surgeon of the Second Massachusetts regiment proposed to buy it and send it to the relatives for burial, but Dr. Johnson regarded this as only pretended benevolence for the purpose of getting absolute control of the subject and keeping it himself. Therefore, the offer was declined, and at the first opportunity Dr. Johnson shipped the body to his home at Martinsville, where it has since remained, with the exception of a period of several months, when it was borrowed by Dr. Knight, living at paragon, Morgan county, besides the common talk among the citizens of Winchester at the time that the body was that of one of the Brown boys. Dr. Johnson claims that the man who prepared it substantiated the story in a statement to him, and that the college faculty gave him an account of how they obtained possession of it at Harper's Ferry.


Here arises the important question in tracing the history of the dead bodies, and if the plausible story told by the college faculty and citizens of Winchester can be accepted as true, there will be no difficulty in reaching a conclusive decision of the matter. The story of Dr. Johnson is corroborated by Captain Fletcher D. Rundell, who was at the time of the entrance of the troops into Winchester first lieutenant of company G, Twenty-seventh regiment Indiana volunteers. In a statement to Mr. Brown yesterday, in the presence of the Journal representative and Col. J. H. Jordan, which will be embodies in an affidavit, Captain Rundell said: "Dr. Johnson was surgeon of our company, and had charge of the hospital in the college. We entered Winchester on March 11, 1862, without any resistance, the Confederates having evacuated. I heard talk among the citizens of the skeleton of one of John Brown's boys being in the college, and Johnson told me that he has possession of it. I was told by several prominent and veracious people living in the place that there was no doubt about the truthfulness of the story." Thus far in the investigation the foregoing embraces the history of the body prior to its being shipped to Martinsville. Why the whereabouts of the remains have never been made known to the public, or communicated to the relatives of the deceased until now, it one of the mysterious features of the story which will be most likely to suggest itself and arouse skepticism. In view of the evidence which accumulated in the investigation yesterday, however, the question is how, instead of why, the public have never learned it before. As early as 1873 an article appeared in the Martinsville Republican giving an account of the matter and telling how the body came into the possession of Dr. Johnson, but it attracted no particular attention; and the people of Martinsville having long been familiar with the story, became indifferent, and the knowledge of the treasure's existence was nursed in that locality until it has appeared to make another bid for public attention, with more fortunate results.


The general apathy of feeling in Martinsville is rather surprising, if not shocking. Men who professed the profoundest admiration for the man of Ossawatomie and seemed proud to be able to tell his son as much, would unfeelingly remark, in answer to his anxious inquiries about his brother's body. "Why, yes, I have always heard that Dr. Johnson had it. He has been keeping it is a box in his office for years, and it has been used in illustrating the anatomical exercises at school nearly every year." Such remarks might have been spared, or expressed in less abrupt and more fitting terms. The body has received careless treatment during the last few years. It has been carted about from place to place, and has been doing duty in all the anatomical exhibitions about town. During the first few years it was in the possession of Dr. Johnson it was in a remarkably fine state of preservation, but ill usage has ruined it. For several years, it has been lying in the Knights of Pythias hall, and, it is whispered, was used in the mystic ceremonies of the order. The best of care had not been bestowed upon it, and it was infested with worms and insects. Knowledge of its ill-usage was sedulously kept from Mr. Brown. When he intimated that he would like to see the body, he was considerately kept in waiting until it could be removed from the lodge-hall to the residence by way of a back street, and there placed in better condition for the examination.


Shortly before noon a messenger brought word to Mr. Brown that the remains were prepared for him to view, and he at once proceeded to the resident of Dr. Johnson, accompanied by a party of a half dozen citizens. Passing up stairs and to the rear of the house, the young man who led the way opened the door of a bed-room too small to admit the party, and, pointing to a coffin-shaped box standing against the wall directly opposite, said, "There it is," and at once removing the cloth covering, exposed to view a bare and hideous skeleton. After viewing the body for a moment, Mr. Brown remarked, turning to those present. "Gentlemen, if it is either of my brothers, I am now inclined to think that it is Oliver." He was evidently confused, and the remark indicated that his first view been something of a disappointment. He had felt quite confident that he would be able to identify the remains by the shape of the skull, the proportions of the frame of the body being equal.

The two brothers killed at Harper's Ferry were Oliver, the youngest, twenty-two years of age, and Watson, twenty-four years. Both were about six feet in height, and of large muscular development. There was a marked difference, however, in the physiognomical and phrenological cast of the brothers. The features of Oliver were regular and the head was evenly developed, the organs most prominent, in phrenological idiom, being those of individuality and eventuality. The head of Watson was broader and more fully developed above and behind the ears, while the cheek bones were more prominent. Upon these characteristics Mr. Brown was depending mostly for the identity. His conclusion from the statements regarding the finding of the body and the general appearances had been that it was Watson. He had with his photographs of both brothers, which were taken a few months before their death, and with these before him he hoped to be able to confirm his conclusions. In the identification, however, he had determined to act deliberately, and satisfy himself beyond all doubt.


The skeleton was fully six feet in height, and the bones were clothed in the remnants of the muscular system, having the appearance of fibres of wood. The arteries, which, in the preparation of the body, had been injected with red chemicals, were visible. The left half of the skull had been sawed out for the removal of the brain, and had been lost in the handling of the body. The toes and fingers were missing. A large bullet hole in the muscles of the back, beside the spinal column, is visible in a front view, but the course of the ball was not directly through. This coincides with the wounding of Watson Brown, who was shot in the region of the lower part of the stomach. The wound is below this organ, but was evidently received while in a stooping posture, and the exit of the ball bears out this conclusion.

In continuing the inspection of the remains, Mr. Brown removed them from the box, holding them in his own hands and making the most minute examination. The absence of a part of the skull troubled him in forming his conclusions, and especially as he seemed in some doubt as to its width, search for the missing part was made there the body had been kept last, but without success. The more closely he examined the remains the better satisfied he seemed to become, and finally announced: "Gentlemen, it is Watson, I believe." Turning his attention lastly more particularly to an examination of the back part of the head, where the development was quite full, he said: "I am satisfied, gentlemen, that it is one of my brothers, and I am inclined to think that it is Watson." The remains were then replaced in the box and left. It is quite probable that the first confusion of Mr. brown in the disappointment in the breadth of the head, was due to a comparison of the naked skull with the head of his brother, as he remembered it in life, when the very thick covering of hair and peculiar style of its arrangement gave to it a much larger appearance. The features of the face, especially of the nose and cheek-bones, bear a striking similarity to those in the photograph of Watson. Upon leaving the house, Mr. Brown assured the reporter that he was satisfied with the result of his examination, and was quite confident that the remains were those of his brother Watson; but he added, "My object is not only to satisfy myself and the family of this matter, but also the public, and, to this end, I shall investigate everything in connection with it." He continued, during the afternoon, to receive the statements of citizens of Martinsville in substantiation of the claims of Dr. Johnson, and will, before leaving, put them in the form of affidavits. That Dr. Johnson will relinquish possession of of the body there seems to be little doubt, and such was his offer in the letter acquainting Mr. Brown with the facts. It is evident that there is no mercenary motive in their conduct, and this gives to it the stamp of sincerity. Dr. John Collett, the State Geologist, whose faculty for outlining character is remarkable, has been requested by those interested in establishing the identity of the body to make an examination, and he will go to Martinsville this morning for that purpose. When the remains are yielded to the possession of Mr. Brown, which will doubtless be done to-day upon the return home of Dr. Johnson, they will be sent to North Elba, N. Y., the former home of the Browns, and there interred in the family burying ground.


During the afterno[o]n Mr. Brown took advantage of the opportunity for a short stroll. In the rambling conversation the reporter succeeded in turning it upon the subject of the stirring scenes of anti-slavery days, the campaigns of the father and sons, and their raids among the slaves, whom they carried to Canada and freedom. The topic was one which the old man would himself not have chosen to mention or dwell upon, but he answered all questions without restraint.

"Can you explain the mystery, Mr. Brown, of your father remaining in Harper's Ferry, and braving inevitable danger, when he might have escaped?" was asked.

"He remained at the desire of the people whom he had taken into the fort as prisoners," was the reply. "They feared that if he evacu[a]ted the place there would be an uprising of the slaves, and a massacre of all the whites, so that it was only for their protection that he remained. He might have escaped into the mountains, it is true, but the people of Harper's Ferry would have been left at the mercy of an insurrection, which would probably have not occurred, but there was nothing to prevent it, and the people were in no frame of mind to be convinced that there was no danger. As the public already pretty well understands, it was not the original intention of my father to strike at Harper's Ferry, but at the plantations, and to carry off the best slave material into the mountain passes, there taking up the strongly fortified positions of nature. The defection of Forbes, however, and his betrayal of these plans brought on the attack, which was no part of the original intentions. I was in Canada at the time, and the news of the attack came to me like lightning from a clear sky."

"Do you think, Mr. Brown," asked the reporter, "that you father had any intimation that he would receive reinforcements?"

"He expected that there would be rallying to his support, but it was only a hope, and nothing more."

In the recital of other incidents that are now a part of the most important period in American history, which were none the less interesting in coming from the lips of one of the actors, he said, "It is a great satisfaction to know now that the old feeling of contention no longer exists as it did then. There are, perhaps, still taints of it, but it comes bubbling to the surface in little boils, and does not corrupt the great body. Some of the best friends I have to-day are Southerners."


In the course of the conversation some surprise was expressed that amore complete biography of the elder Brown had never been written, and he was asked what he regarded the most accurate sketch now extant.

"Well, for a hastily written sketch, that of Redpath is the most accurate," he replied.

"Will a complete and authoritative biography of his life, with the history of his campaigns, ever be given to the public by the family?"

"A volume purporting to be such is now in preparation, and will probably be published within a year. The editor is F. B. Sanborn, of the Springfield (Mass.) Republican. There is no disposition on the part of the family to hold father up as an immaculate character:we don't believe that everything he ever did was right:and in this volume everything in connection with his life, good with the bad, which the public is entitled to know in forming a true estimate of his character, will not be withheld. The connection between Gerrit Smith and my father was misrepresented. When they were gathering material for the writing of Smith's biography, they solicited from me such information as I might have bearing upon the relations existing between them. In searching through a lot of correspondence, I found a letter from my father giving a statement of the whole thing, which I forwarded to them. It convicted Gerrit Smith of infidelity, but at the direction of the family Frothingham omitted all mention of the essential part of the letter and published just enough of it to still leave the reader in doubt as to their true relations. The biography was so "botched" in its manufacture that it bore the stamp of being a fraud:it was simply a fiction. The result of the dogging of the truth was that Gerrit Smith's life never sold. The public is the judge in these matters, and it generally decides unerringly. 'Abide the truth and swerve not,' was always the advice of father to his sons."

A Nurse's Confirmation.

Letter to Chicago Tribune.

Seeing a communication in Wednesday's issue in regard to the body of one of John Brown's sons, I hasten to say that I have not the least doubt of the truth of the statement. I was a nurse at Union Hotel Hospital in Winchester, Va., in the spring of 1862, and was told by a nurse of Academy Hospital that they had the body of one of John Brown's sons "beautifully preserved." She invited me to come up and see it. I accordingly did so. It lay in the lower front hall on a stretcher or single bestead, covered with a sheet. The first thought on entering the hall was that it was a corpse laid out ready for burial, but on raising the cloth "a beautiful specimen" was brought to view, with muscles and blood vessels perfect, the latter filled with something red to make it look natural.

It seems that Mrs. Brown must have known that the body of one of her sons was taken to Winchester, Va., as there is a short account of the same in Redpath's "Life of John Brown." The writer says "the students of Winchester Medical College have skinned the body of one of Brown's sons, seperated [sic] the nervous and muscular and venous systems, dried and varnished it, and have the whole hung up as a nice anatomical illustration. Some of the students wished to stuff the skin, others to make it into game pouches." NURSE.

Note: Copy of article is in John Brown Scrapbook, Boyd Stutler, folder 7, Boyd B. Stutler Collection, West Virginia State Archives.

Chapter Twelve: Death and Burial

His Soul Goes Marching On

West Virginia Archives and History