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Chapter Eleven
The Commonwealth of Virginia v. John Brown and His Men


Jefferson County Courthouse
Jefferson County Courthouse

Unless otherwise noted, all images are from the Boyd B. Stutler Collection




Charles Town Jail
Charles Town jail
After being captured on October 18, John Brown was moved to the paymaster’s office, where he was interviewed by Senator James Mason (from nearby Winchester), Colonel Faulkner, and M. C. and Clement L. Vallandigham. On October 19, John Brown, John Copeland, Edwin Coppoc, Shields Green, and Aaron Stevens were taken to the jail in Charles Town. They appeared before the court and were arraigned on October 25. On the 26th, they were charged with treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia, inciting slaves to rebel, and the murders of George Turner, Fontaine Beckham, Thomas Boerly, Heyward Shepherd, and Luke Quinn. The Arraignment
"The Arraignment," sketch
by Porte Crayon, Harper's
Weekly
, November 12, 1859

Charlestown lawyers Lawson Botts and Thomas C. Green were appointed defense counsel for Brown, whose trial began on October 27. Andrew Hunter and Charles Harding prosecuted the case for the State, with Richard Parker sitting as judge. Information on insanity in the Brown family was soon introduced, but John Brown completely dismissed that as a defense tactic. The trial also brought the addition of a young lawyer, George Hoyt of Massachusetts, to the defense team; the withdrawal of Botts and Green at Brown’s request; and the arrival of lawyers Samuel Chilton of Washington, DC, and Hiram Griswold of Ohio. In three and one-half days, nearly two dozen witnesses were called. Defense counsel Samuel Chilton argued against the three counts of the indictment and most vigorously against the treason charge. Still, after less than an hour, on October 31, the jury found John Brown guilty on all counts, and, on November 2, Judge Parker sentenced Brown to death.

Richard Parker
Richard Parker
Trial of John Brown
Trial of John Brown,
sketch by Porte Crayon,
Harper's Weekly, November 12, 1859
Andrew Hunter
Andrew Hunter.
Source: Portrait Files

Brown’s defenders attempted to save his life by pursuing two courses of action. Affidavits regarding insanity in John Brown or members of his family were submitted to Governor Henry Wise of Virginia in hopes of saving his life. At the same time, counsel filed a petition with the Court of Appeals of Virginia seeking a writ of error in the Charlestown trial. A principal argument was that Brown could not be tried for treason against Virginia because he did not owe allegiance to that state. Neither of these efforts succeeded.

In the meantime, trials were conducted for John Copeland, Shields Green, Edwin Coppic, and John E. Cook, who was captured in Pennsylvania a week after the raid. All four men were found guilty of inciting slaves to rebellion and murder; Coppic was also convicted of treason. George Sennott, attorney for Copeland and Green, successfully argued that his clients, both of whom were black, could not be tried for treason because they were not citizens of the United States according to the Supreme Court decision in the Dred Scott case. Cook confessed to his role in the raid, but not to treason, and the eloquent oratory of his defense attorney Daniel W. Voorhees apparently moved the jury to find him not guilty on that count. Nevertheless, Cook was given the same sentence as Copeland, Coppic, and Green--death by hanging on December 16.

The two remaining prisoners, Aaron D. Stevens and Albert Hazlett, were not tried until 1860. Stevens’s trial had been suspended in November, as Gov. Wise considered turning him over to federal authorities for trial in the district court in Staunton. Hazlett, like Cook had been captured in Pennsylvania a week after the raid, but had given his name as William Harrison, a deception he and his fellow prisoners continued in hopes of saving him. Convicted of treason, murder, and inciting slaves to rebellion, Stevens and Hazlett, too, were given a death sentence, ordered to be carried out on March 16, 1860.

View of Charlestown
View of Charlestown. Source:
Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper,
November 19, 1859, Periodicals Collection

Sentence of Death

Cook, Coppic, Greene and copeland
Receiving Sentence of Death. Source:
Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper,
November 26, 1859, Periodicals Collection

Newspaper Sketches of the Trial

Primary Sources:

John Brown Papers held by the Jefferson County Circuit Clerk's Office
Excerpt from The Life, Trial and Execution of John Brown, 1859
New York Tribune articles on the Trial
New York Tribune articles on the Trial, Sanborn clippings
Letter, John Brown to Mary Ann Brown, October 31, 1859
Letter, Thomas Wentworth Higginson to John Brown's daughters, November 4, 1859
Letter, Cleon Moore to David Hunter Strother, November 4, 1859
Petition of John Brown by Counsel to the Court of Appeals of Virginia
Daniel W. Voorhees Argument in John E. Cook Trial
Extra, Virginia Free Press, November 11, 1859

Secondary Sources:

“Legal Phases of the Trial of John Brown,” by Daniel C. Draper (West Virginia History, Vol. 1)


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