Skip Navigation


Chapter Twelve
Death and Burial

Proclamation for John Brown Execution
Proclamation for John Brown Execution
“I do not feel myself in the least degraded by my imprisonment, my chains, or the near prospect of the gallows. Men cannot imprison, or chain, or hang the soul. I go joyfully in behalf of millions that 'have no rights' that this great and glorious, this Christian Republic 'is bound to respect'."
John Brown to T. B. Musgrave, November 17, 1859, Sanborn, Life and Letters
John Brown Riding on Coffin
John Brown Riding on His Coffin to the
Place of Execution. Source: Frank Leslie's
Illustrated Newspaper
, December 17, 1859,
Periodicals Collection

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



In the month between his sentencing and his execution, John Brown refused to join escape plans that were being devised by his New England friends. In fact, he expressed “joy” at his present circumstances. Authorities allowed him to write freely and receive visitors, and newspapers like the New York Tribune provided detailed accounts of his remaining weeks. For these reasons and, most important, because he assumed the mantle of a martyr, conducting himself with serene courage in the face of his impending death, John Brown impressed even those who disagreed with his actions.

“As each company arrived it took its alloted position. On the easterly side were the cadets, with their right wing flanked by a detachment of men with howitzers; on the northeast, the Richmond Grays; on the south, Company F of Richmond; on the north, the Winchester Continentals, and, to preserve order in the crowd, the Alexandria Rifleman and Capt. Gibson’s Rockingham Company were stationed at the entrance gate, and on the outskirts. At 11 o’clock the procession came in sight, and at once all conversation and noise ceased. A dead stillness reigned over the field, and the tramp of the approaching troops alone broke the silence. The escort of the prisoner was composed of Capt. Scott’s company of cavalry, one company of Major Loring’s battalion of defencibles, Capt. Williams’s Montpelier Guard, Capt. Scott’s Petersburg Grays, Company D, Capt. Miller, of the Virginia Volunteers, and Young Guard, Capt. Rady, the whole number the command of Col. T. P. August, assisted by Major Loring–the cavalry at the head and rear of the column."
- New York Semi-Weekly Tribune, December 6, 1859
On December 2, 1859, John Brown was transported by military escort to the gallows, which had been erected on the Hunter Farm, on the outskirts of Charlestown. Since Brown's arrest, local residents and Virginia authorities feared that an attempt would be made to rescue him, and that fear had grown as the date of his execution approached, fueled by rumors that conspirators in surrounding states were planning such a mission. Charles Town was under martial law for weeks, and the governor increased the number of militia in town by December 2. Virginia authorities also had banned the public from the field of execution. “He was swung off at fifteen minutes after eleven o'clock. There was a slight grasping of the hands and twitching of the muscles, and then all was quiet. The body was several times examined, and the pulse did not cease beating until thirty-five minutes. It was then cut down and placed in the coffin, and conveyed under the military escort to the depot, put in a car to be carried to the Ferry by special train at four o'clock. The whole arrangements were carried out with precision and military strictness."
- United States Police Gazette, December 10, 1859

After his hanging, Brown’s body was placed in a coffin and taken to Harpers Ferry, where his widow was waiting, and the funeral party left for New York. On December 8, John Brown was buried at his North Elba farm following services that included speeches by abolitionists J. Miller McKim and Wendell Phillips.

Execution of John Brown
Execution of John Brown. Source: New York
Illustrated News
, December 10, 1859,
Periodicals Collection
Undertaker's bill
Bill of J. M. Hopper, undertaker,
for preparation of John Brown's body.
Burial of John Brown
Burial of John Brown. Source: New York
Illustrated News
, December 24, 1859,
Periodicals Collection

Two weeks after Brown’s execution, the four other convicted prisoners were hanged on the same field. African Americans John Copeland and Shields Green were executed in the morning, while their white cohorts Edwin Coppic and John Cook were hanged in the afternoon. Coppic’s body was sent to Ohio; Cook’s body was shipped to his brother-in-law for burial in New York. Although a group of African Americans in Philadelphia requested the bodies of Copeland and Green, their remains, like those of Jeremiah Anderson and Watson Brown (they died during the raid) before them, were taken to the Winchester Medical College for dissection by students. A month after their convictions, Albert Hazlett and Aaron Stevens were executed by hanging on March 16, 1860. Their bodies were sent to New Jersey for burial. Execution of Hazlett and Stevens
The Hanging of Hazlett and Stevens

During the Civil War, the cadaver of Watson Brown was removed from Winchester Medical College by a Union doctor and taken to Indiana, where it remained until 1882. That year, John Brown Jr. retrieved Watson’s remains and had them sent to North Elba for burial beside his father.

Burial of John Brown's Men
Burial of John Brown's Men at North Elba in 1899.
In July 1899, Dr. Thomas Featherstonhaugh (a John Brown collector), Captain E. P. Hall, and Professor Orin G. Libby had the bodies of the eight raiders killed and buried at Harpers Ferry (Oliver Brown, John Kagi, Lewis Leary, William Leeman, Dangerfield Newby, Stewart Taylor, and William and Dauphin Thompson) exhumed and sent to North Elba. The remains of Albert Hazlett and Aaron Stevens were exhumed from their New Jersey graves and sent to North Elba, too. On August 30, 1899, the ten men were interred next to John Brown. The whereabouts of the bodies of Anderson, Copeland, and Green remain unknown.

Newspaper Sketches of the Execution and Burial

Primary Sources:

Letter, John Brown to L. Maria Child, November 4, 1859
Letter, John Brown to Mary Ann Brown, November 8, 1859
Letter, George Sennott to George L. Stearns, November 26, 1859
Letter, John Brown to Mrs. George L. Stearns, November 29, 1859
New York Tribune articles on the Executions
New York Tribune articles on the Executions, Sanborn clippings
Shepherdstown Register articles on the Executions
Article, "The Execution of John Brown," The Southern Bivouac, 1886
Article, "His Body's A'Mouldering," Indianapolis Journal, September 11, 1882
Article, "The Final Burial of the Followers of John Brown," New England Magazine, 1901

Secondary Sources:

“The Martydom of John Brown,” by Charles A. Jellison (West Virginia History, Vol. 18)


Table of Contents | Previous Chapter | Next Chapter

His Soul Goes Marching On

West Virginia Archives and History